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Matter & Beauty
Mythopoetry Scholar Ezine

Alchemical Axé
Hieros Gamos in Brazilian Candomblé Rites
-Kris Katsuko Oster  


Brazil is a land of mystical rhythms emerging from thunderous drums in the deepest part of night. Reminiscing about the three months I lived and breathed ritual and popular music in Salvador da Bahia brings back some of the most magical and mysterious moments I have ever experienced.

Building and transferring axé, the energy or life force that courses through all of creation,  are the central intentions of Candomblé rituals. Although axé is invisible and cannot be viewed with ordinary “seeing” or the eyes, it exists in the dancer’s movement, the drums’ rhythms, the colors of the ritual garments, and the herbs scattered on the floor of the terreiro Subtle and intangible, a can be sensed in the natural world through intense heat or gentle, cool breezes blowing across your brow.

Orixás rule over the elements, and through trance-possession become doorways to both experiencing and observing axé in artful motion. All of nature—including flora, fauna, rocks, mountains, rivers—is sacred and alive with axé. Art and musical instruments, such as drums, sculpture and ritual garments pulsate with the sacred energy of axé.

Candomblé devotees strive to be in alignment with universal forces. The harmony of nature, culture, family and a person’s psychological and physical health depend on a cosmological balance of feminine and masculine attributes.

Candomblé initiation rites are comparable to oppositional elements found in the Jungian alchemical process of individuation. For example, the opposition between “hot” and “cool” is eloquently laid out by Paul Christopher Johnson in Secrets, Gossip and Gods: The Transformation of Brazilian Candomblé, who claims that the coolness of women and the heat of men are cosmological truths in the Candomblé worldview. Besides gender, “hot” and “cool” are descriptions given to orixás, food, animals, the elements (earth, air, fire and water) and colors:

female: earth and water: white: “coolness”: primordial mass::

male: sky and fire: red/black: “heat”: individual creation.
(Johnson 40)

While female orixás are considered “cool” and male orixás are considered “hot,” there is no finite categorical system that everything fits neatly into. For example, Iansã is considered a “hot” orixá, in spite of being female, and Oxalá, the father of the orixás, is “cool” (Johnson 40).

Marie Louise von Franz confirmed Jung’s theory of alchemy as the symbolic representation of the individuation process par excellence, in her book Alchemy: An Introduction to the Symbolism and the Psychology. On the book’s cover, Franz featured the ouroboros, a snake swallowing its tail. Its circular shape symbolizes the wholeness of individuation––“symbol of the alchemical work as circular, self-contained process” (von Franz 41). According to Franz, to imagine the process of individuation is not enough; the nature of individuation is “twofold.” Individuation incorporates “active participation in outer reality and relationships, together with the process of inner reflection” (von Franz 83). When I went into the field and immersed myself in the Brazilian world, the psyche and myth of its people heated me up, then cooled me … over and over again.

I spent countless hours participating in public rituals, and was even invited by an influencial pai-de-santo, the term for high priest which translates as “father of the saints,” to observe an initiation for a filha, “daughter,” of Iemanja one month after I arrived. It is rare for any new anthropologist, or mythologist as I am, to have that sort of access to one of Candomblé’s most important rites.

Food served to all ritual participants is no tasteless wafer and sour wine. A communion meal includes spicy acarajé (fried bean cakes with dried shrimp and hot pepper sauce), sweet corncakes and passion fruit juice. Silence is not golden in Candomblé ceremonies and Brazilian culture; even some Catholic masses have incorporated Yoruba phrases, dances and music. And, of course the drumming in Candomblé rites is sublime.

One does not have to undergo “official” initiation to be transformed. I made offerings to my first orixa, Iemanjá, with guidance from Mãe Marinalva of the Candomblé house Bote Folha, and was given my elekes, the consecrated beaded necklaces sacred to my two orixas, Iemanjá and Iansã-Water and Fire respectively. This is not the most symbiotic pairing, and even considered an impossible combination according to one santera(a female practitioner of Santeria). My dominant orixás’ conflict aside, I can close my eyes and remember how sweetly the beads smelled of erva doce, “sweet herb” (anise), one of the herbs used in the banho, “bath,” in which the necklaces were cleansed.

Sight, sound, smell, taste and touch–every sense is engaged in the rites of Candomblé. These aesthetics permeated my soul.

I invite you to savor a mélange of my alchemical making through narratives about transformative moments in my field work, along with a dash of theory and mythology.



Part I. Nigredo - Sangue Preto

The blackening stage of alchemy is referred to as the nigredo (von Franz 208). This first stage represents the beginning of the alchemical process and is associated with chaos, or the prima materia. In alchemical texts, the nigredo symbolizes both the black-colored, fertile earth from whence came Adam, God’s first creation, and the moist waters of chaos symbolizing the void.

In Jungian psychology, the nigredo is parallel to the undifferentiated state of the unconscious, including the Mother archetype. Hillman comments on the Jungian conceptualization of equating “The Mothers” with the realm of the unconscious: “Through this one archetypal hermeneutic, female figures and receptive passive objects were indiscriminately made into mother symbols” (Blue Fire 223). The Mother is not just a passive receptacle; she is a dynamic and transformational figure.

In Candomblé practice, a nigredo stage exists that is represented by sangue preto (“black blood”), which comes from a story told at the Casa Branca Candomblé house. Sangue preto is considered stagnant and unable to “circulate axé into creative action” (Johnson 144). The story refers to the axé of secrecy that is found in an African myth concerning the orixá Osanyin’s hidden sacred leaves and functions as a warning against the overcontainment of axé (Johnson 198 n.6).

Osanyin, orixá of leaves and the deep forest, guarded his leaves in a gourd and would not share them with anyone. The other orixás, when they wanted leaves, always had to ask him for them. So Oxóssi, orixá of the hunt, complained to Oya (Iansã), orixá of wind [...] Oya pitied him [...] She began to wave her skirts, generating a fierce current. The wind knocked over Osanyin’s gourd, scattering the leaves all over (Johnson 144).

Each orixá picks up one of the scattered leaves and adopts its power. The gourd is likened to the womb; these powerful, yet dormant leaves must exit this dark womb and be birthed in order for the axé to reach its fullest potential.

The terreiro (a Candomblé temple) is a transformational womb, or vessel, where Candomblé initiates are sequestered before they are rebirthed into their new life as fully initiated members of the community. The containment of opposite and complementary forces, such as mother and father, king and queen, heat and cool, makes the process of inititation akin to the symbolic alchemical processes in depth psychology, also known as “soul-making” by Hillman: “The alchemist projected his materials, and while working upon them he was working also upon his soul” (Re-Visioning 90).

I had intentions of “working on my research,” the typical heroic perspective espoused when one embarks on a frightening journey into the unknown, however the research mostly worked on me. While there were numerous embarrassing moments when I behaved like an over zealous, budding ethnographer––in Brazil I had the opportunity to see and experience what I had previously only been able to read about in books.

During the first Candomblé ceremony I attended at Pilau de Prata (meaning “Silver Pillar” and a reference to its patron orixá, Iemanjá), the emotions I experienced went beyond excitement to say the least! I sat in the balcony, observing the drums, the movements of the xire1 and the actions of the house leaders. I was taking notes furiously until I felt someone staring at me. Looking to my left I noticed a woman sitting in the row a few seats down glaring at me. In my excitement and desire to not miss a single detail of this momentous event, I realized I had acted disrespectfully by taking notes during a sacred ceremony. I closed my notepad and nodded to her in understanding. She nodded back and gave me a small smile of approval. I never took notes again while in the sanctuary––instead I would escape to the outside of the building during breaks in the rituals to write down my observations.

I went into the field to interpret the myths and practices of Brazilians; but like the ouroborus, they were interpreting me interpreting them.


Part II. Albedo - Sangue Branco

A subsequent stage in alchemy is called the albedo. In this part of the process the object is bathed in water and becomes white. White, the presence of all colors, signifies to some alchemists the highest level of attainment. The moon is the planet connected to the albedo, which is cool and moist in quality and represents the element water.

Water in Candomblé ritual is referred to as sangue branco (“white blood”) (Johnson 197 n.3). Sangue branco is associated with Iemanjá, who is the ocean and the moon, which controls the ebb and flow of the tides, and her husband Oxalá. The color of Iemanjá’s beads are light blue, white and transparent representing the clear waters of the ocean and her cooling axé. In Candomblé initiation ritual the albedo process is parallel to bori, a ritual to “cool” the head.

Iemanjá, the mother who loves and nurtures unconditionally, is the second wife of Oxalá, the father of the Candomblé deities. Iemanjá and Oxalá are both present at the initiation as the mother and father of a newborn neophyte.

Prevalent in Candomblé initiation rites are mythemes of birth and rebirth. After an initiation, people in the terreiro congratulate the new initiate on a successful parto or birth (Omari-Tunkara, “Candomblé”123).

Before participating in any ritual, initiates bathe in cooling herbs “to change modes” (Johnson 41) and remove the heat of the street. The ritual bath prepares the devotee for facing the physical, emotional and spiritual demands of the ceremony. This meditative time instills the singular focus that is metaphoric of floating in Iemanjá’s womb in readiness for rebirth.

Iemanjá, along with her daughter Oxum, is the powerful element of water; cooling and healing. She gives life, nurtures life and has the power to take life. Franz points out that water is the “great healing factor, or poisonous and destructive” (von Franz 101). In the scheme of alchemy, the most fluid and cool element is mercury, also called quicksilver. Mercury––in the personified version of Mercurius, “spirit of the unconscious” (von Franz 100)––is connected to the feminine, the moon and water, and of course, the Trickster.

A week before I left Brazil I made an offering to Iemanjá with the help of Mãe Marinalva. Marinalva asked me to bring seven white roses and seven Brazilian coins to place in Iemanjá’s favorite dish, white corn with honey.

When I arrived at Marinalva’s home she got to business right away, without her usual break for small talk. It appeared we had to be at the ocean in time for the outgoing tide to help deliver our offering to the Rainha do Mar, “Queen of the Sea,” as Iemanjá is often called in Brazil.

Since Marinalva is a mãe-de-santo (“mother of the saints,” or high priestess) of Bote Folha which practices a branch of Candomblé from Angola, she said a prayer in Bantu and placed the seven white roses throughout the dish of white corn, then asked me to put three of the coins in my right hand and the rest in my left. She instructed me to close my fists clasping the coins, run my hands from the front of my face to the back of my head and then down and across the front of my body, down to my feet. She then put the coins directly into the food offering and handed me the white porcelain dish. My husband, Shaun, came with me to make an offering to Oxum. He performed similar gestures with his five coins before placing them in a dish of omolocum2, Oxum’s favored food offering.
Oxum is a fresh water orixá; her devotees go to waterfalls, rivers and streams to leave her offerings and sing praises. Since Oxum is believed to be the daughter of Iemanjá in Brazil, she is often celebrated at the ocean’s edge at the same time offerings are made to her mother.  

Marinalva’s friend, a cab driver, waited in front of the house to drive Marinalva, Shaun, and me quickly down to the water’s edge. It was approaching sunset, and the bright sky was beginning to darken with clouds.

When we arrived at the seashore, Marinalva asked me to walk knee deep into the water holding my offering. She repeated Bantu prayers, spoke Iemanjá’s name and asked me to tap the dish on the surface three times before releasing it into the tide. Shaun followed with his clay bowl filled with beans, honey, and five hard-boiled eggs for Oxum. As we walked back towards the car, I saw a small piece of blue-green sea glass on the sand. I picked it up and excitedly showed it to Marinalva. “Always keep this close so you remember this day,” she told me. She spotted another circular smooth rock and told me to keep that as well because these objects hold Iemanjá’s axé.


Part III. Rubedo - Quente

One of the final stages in the alchemical process is the rubedo (reddening), which occurs when the whitened object is heated. The King is the color red and the sun, considered dry and hot, and the Queen is white, and the moon, who is cool and moist (CW 14: 167). “The red and white are King and Queen, who may also celebrate their “chymical wedding” at this stage” (CW 12: 334).

Iansã’s elements are fire and air. Fire melts solid structures that are too rigid, breaking them down to create something new. In alchemy, the element fire is associated with sulphur: “Sulphur is the active part of the psyche, the part which has a definite goal” (von Franz 126). The alchemist “dwells upon the affliction or dwells with it” (Hillman, Re-Visioning 93) and burns it down into gold, which in alchemy represents the soul. Through multiple processes of heating and cooking, the alchemist returns to refine the work, which begins as base lead and melts down into pure gold. Like a transforming fire, and Iansã herself, the psyche refines itself into the work it is destined to become: “[…] one returns to the transformative fire many times to go through the process [of healing] on another level” (Woodman, Addiction to 146).
Iansã’s counterpart, her second husband Xangô, is associated with royalty, drummers and swift justice. Some of my sources in Brazil referred to Iansã and Xangô as one being-- one cannot exist without the other and their mythology supports this view:

At the beginning of time Xangô sent Iansã, mistress of winds and storms, his most important wife, to bring him a potion that would let him breathe fire from his nose and mouth.

Iansã disobeyed him and tasted the potion on her way back, so that she could breathe fire too.

This made Xangô furious because he had wanted to keep that power all to himself.

Without Iansã, Xangô cannot make fire.

Xangô is inseparable from Iansã (Faria, “Orixás” 13:50-14:28).
At Terreiro do Cobre I attended one final ceremony before my return home. It was a festa3 given for Oxum, the freshwater orixá who guards women in childbirth. During this ceremony I observed a small, elderly woman, who appeared to be in her eighties, being mounted by her orixá, Iemanjá. I was amazed when she danced near me because her body gave off a supernatural heat, even though she stood at least five feet away. The young woman standing next to me as a participant, looked over wide-eyed and said, “Quente,” which means “hot” in Portuguese. I knew that I was not merely imagining the sensation of heat, but was experiencing a physical manifestation of an inexplicable phenomenon.


Part IV. Hieros Gamos - Iao

The road to wholeness, or individuation, in Candomblé are complementary oppositions; remember my comment earlier about my archetypal combination of Water and Fire as not being particularly advantageous? The traditional male-female pairings of orixás are cool to cool and hot to hot:

Iemanjá to Oxalá = female to male = Water to Water
Iansã to Xangô = female to male = Fire to Fire

The possession trance, sometimes referred to in sexual terms as the mounting of the orixá onto its horse, the devotee, is akin to the merging of King and Queen in alchemy. The term iao, which denotes a possession initiate, means “bride of the orixá(Johnson 203). The orixá is considered hot and the “closed body” (Johnson 45), the devotee’s body that has been prepared for ritual and is protected from any invading forces other than its orixá, is cool.
United, the King and Queen represent the coniunctio, the merging of feminine and masculine which gives birth to the third principle, the philosopher’s stone. The philosopher’s stone is Mercurius: the figure of mediation, Mercurius is the literal medium in which the King and Queen can unite. Additionally, Mercurius is both the prima materia and the final, ultimate goal (CW 14: 714). After Candomblé initiation, the closed body is comparable to the alchemists’ philosopher’s stone because the body’s axé is contained and in a powerful, latent state.

Witnessing another’s story is an alchemical, transformational process: “We are different at the end of the story because the soul has gone through a process during the telling, independent of its syntax and full understanding of its words” (Hillman, Re-Visioning 143). Listening, noticing and holding the space for the narrative draws us out of ourselves even as we are reflecting on each passing phrase.
During three months of living and breathing the stories of my friends and mentors in Brazil, my psyche simmered in a delicious spicy stew, fortified by savory beans and rice  and cooled by sweet coconut water.


1The xire is a “lively and gala affair that completes a long day of internal preparatory rituals” (Omari-Tunkara, Manipulating 144), and it is also a beginning part of a ceremony where the initiates move counterclockwise in a circle singing and dancing for each of the orixás in a specified sequence.

2 Omolocum contains black-eyed beans, onions and shrimp cooked in oil.

3 Festa is a Portuguese term meaning “party.”

Works Cited

Faria, Lazaro. “Orixás da Bahia.” DVD. Bahia, Brazil: Casa de Cinema da Bahia, 2005.

Hillman, James. A Blue Fire: Selected Writings by James Hillman. Ed. thomas Moore. New York: Harper Collins, 1991.

---. Re-Visioning Psychology. New York: Harper, 1992.

Johnson, Paul Christopher. Secrets, Gossip, and Gods: The Transformation of Brazilian Candomblé. New York: Oxford U P, 2002.

Jung, C.G.The Collected Works of C. G. Jung. Ed. and trans. Gerhard Adler and R. F. C. Hull. Vol. 12. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1968.

---. The Collected Works of C. G. Jung. Ed. and trans. Gerhard Adler and R. F. C. Hull. Vol. 14. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1970.

Omari-Tunkara, Mikelle Smith. "Candomblé: African Religion and Art in Brazil." Religion in Africa: Experience & Expression. Monograph Series of the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies at Brigham Young University. Ed. Walter E. A. van Beek, Thomas D. Blakely, and Dennis L. Thomson. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1994. 135-159.

---. Manipulating the Sacred: Yoruba Art, Ritual, and Resistance in Brazilian Candomblé. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2005.

von Franz, Marie-Louise. Alchemy: An Introduction to the Symbolism and the         Psychology. Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books.

Woodman, Marion. Addiction to Perfection: The Still Unravished Bride. Toronto,   Canada: Inner City Books, 1982.

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Kris Katsuko Oster PhDAuthor Bio
Kris Katsuko Oster PhD
did post graduate work in aspects of Candomblé drumming. She is a percussionist fluent in African,Brazilian and Cuban rhythms on percussion instruments, a writer, a web developer and the organizer of Gaia Festival, 2010.

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