Care as Self-care: Healing Practices in a Brazilian Candomblé House

When starting my PhD research on healing in the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé, I set out to study practices of ‘magic’ and ‘spirit possession’. But during my fieldwork – which I conducted in a Candomblé house (terreiro) in South Bahia (2013-2014) – these concepts proved less than useful. Instead, my informants stressed the importance of cuidado, which is generally translated in English as ‘care’. As one of my informants explained:

[…] for me Candomblé is a religion of care. I care and I feel cared for, and every time I care for myself I feel stronger to care for others. I think that this is Candomblé. The healing of Candomblé is in this care.

In academic literature and common English language, ‘care’ is a morally charged term that often comes with an air of altruism and self-sacrifice – as if caring for others implied not caring for oneself. Arthur Kleinman, for example, describes ‘care’ as a fundamentally “moral experience” (2012: title) and, together with Sjaak van der Geest, as “devotion to the other” (2009:160). As such, the moral weight of caring relies on a clear distinction between the care-giver, who provides for ‘the other’, and the care-receiver, who benefits from the provision of care. My ethnographic work in a Brazilian Candomblé house challenges this view and presents a situation where the distinction between care-giving and care-receiving was not clear-cut, and where caring for the other was at the same time caring for oneself.

Marcel Mauss famously argues that the gift displays a “voluntary character, apparently free and disinterested but nevertheless constrained and self-interested” (2002:4). Here, I make a similar point about care. Care-givers get something out of caring, be it closer relationships with loved ones, a role in a social network, feelings of worthiness, status, or power. In Brazilian terreiros, caring for the gods (orixás) was necessary for creating axé, the mysterious vital force in Candomblé that facilitates healing. Care-giving and care-receiving between humans and orixás were immediately bi-directional actions, thereby sustaining the circulation of axé and well-being.

The members of the Candomblé house where I conducted my fieldwork were constantly engaged in acts of care for the orixás They made presents for the orixás, like the doll and flowers (see Figure 1) for Oxum, deity of rivers, lakes and beauty. They prepared food for the orixás, like the plate of corn and coconut (see Figure 2) for Oxossi, the hunter god. And they decorated the hall with flowers and leaves for festas, ceremonies with drumming and singing where the orixás appear and dance in the bodies of humans. Interchangeably, the people of the Candomblé house described such practices as caring for the orixás, as well as caring for themselves (se cuidar). But how can care and self-care become that conflated?


Figure 1: Flowers, mirrors, and a doll at Oxum’s font. (Photo: Lesshafft 2013)


Figure 2: A plate with Oxossi’s food to nourish his axé. (Photo: Lesshafft 2013)

Care for the orixas in the terreiro was a form of self-care because the orixás were not completely separate entities from the humans. In fact, I learned that humans carried (carregar) the orixás inside them; and to lead a fulfilled life, one first needed to recognize one’s orixás and build a strong relationship with them. This relationship was framed in kinship terms, as every person was seen as the child of a specific orixá; and by participating in the religious group, they contributed and developed their orixá’s ‘energy’, or axé. At the same time, terreiro members also related to each other in relation to the orixás they were carrying. Caring for another person then also meant caring for their orixá.

When I first arrived at the Candomblé house, the mãe-de-santo (Candomblé priestess) introduced the group members present to me. I noted that in each case, she immediately mentioned their orixá, too. There were Maria, daughter of Omolu, the orixá of suffering; Cristiano, son of Xangô, orixá of justice; and Gildemar, son of the hunter orixá Oxossi. Only I was simply and profanely Hannah, the researcher. Soon I associated each individual with their orixá, and I recognized the correspondingly coloured bead necklaces each person wore. When referring to their orixás, the terreiro members usually addressed them as parents – “my father Xangô” or “my mother Oxum” – and they took great pride in their kinship with the orixás. One afternoon, as I was sitting in the Candomblé house, Elisa strode through the room with big steps and her chin high in the air saying to Cristiano: “Ha! You think I am small, but I am the daughter of the king! The master of fire!” Immediately Cristiano took on the same posture and walked around proudly: “Aha! Son of the king Xangô, I am, too!” By giving presents, food, and flowers to the orixás, they not only strengthened the orixás; they also strengthened their sense of self as children of the orixás and their position in the group.

Healing in this context was seen as an active process of self-transformation, in which terreiro members sought to become closer to what they called “one’s true self”, their divine essence that manifested in the kinship relations with their orixás. The first step in this healing process was a consultation of the cowry shell oracle to determine one’s father or mother orixá. This orixá was located in the head of a person, in the ori. “Your head is the altar of the orixá, you have to take care of it,” the mãe-de-santo said. As the ori was sacred, people took care to protect it, for example by not touching each other’s heads, and by covering them during certain rituals.

When I discussed identification with the orixás with Vicente, son of the fire orixá Xangô, he came up with the image of “the double mirror” (o espelho duplo). When we see ourselves in the orixás (the first mirror image), the orixá also sees him or herself in us (the second image), he explained. These images were being thrown back and forth onto each other infinitely and created a situation in which it becomes more and more difficult to distinguish the human from the divine reflection and vice-versa.

The mãe-de-santo also explained that although humans did not become orixás, they grew closer (ficar mais proximo) with the deities over time. Notably, behaving like one’s orixá was considered to be liberating and effortless, as it concorded with one’s individual nature. “You don’t teach this, the person will arrive there,” she said. She noted that there were no children of Ogum (the warrior orixá) who were not courageous, who did not like to work on a farm or in the forest. And there were no children of Xangô who were not just and honest at heart. But orixás did not pass on only their positive character traits to their children; they were also seen as the cause of inner conflicts and problems. For example, children of the wind orixá Iansã had a tendency to be nervous and impatient. Her children would have to take care of their orixá and calm her to deal with Iansã’s restless ‘energy’. Recognizing one’s own difficulties as a part of one’s divine essence fostered self-acceptance and cultivated the capacity to avoid the excesses of one’s troublesome character traits. And humans shared not only personality traits with their orixás, but also physical characteristics. For example, as the hunter orixá Oxossi did not tolerate honey, it was seen as detrimental for his children to eat honey, too. By avoiding honey in daily life, a child of Oxossi acknowledged his or her strong bond with the orixá, and took care of Oxossi as well as of him/herself.

In conclusion, in the Candomblé terreiro, the process of caring and being cared for goes beyond a one-way dynamic of giving and receiving. Care here builds relationships that create obligations and, importantly, identity. When humans identify with the orixás, they find themselves on both ends of the care relationship, and care for the orixá effectively becomes self-care. To use Vicente’s image of the double mirror: seeing oneself care for the orixá means seeing the orixá in the mirror care for oneself, too. In this way, the identity formation as children of orixás triggers circles of care that are key to healing and the creation of axé in the Candomblé community.


Works Cited

Kleinman, A. (2012). “Caregiving as moral experience.” The Lancet 380(9853): 1550-1551.

Kleinman, A. and S. Van der Geest (2009). “‘Care’ in health care: remaking the moral world of medicine.” Medische Antropologie 21(1): 159-168.

Mauss, M. (2002). The gift: the form and reason for exchange in archaic societies. London, Routledge.