Candomblé, a popular Afro-Brazilian religious cult, permeates Salvador. Its followers often dress in white and worship together in ecstatic dance rituals accompanied by lots of drumming and singing, or otherwise communicate with and make offerings to the Orixás spirits – personal protectors, guides and go-betweens for people and their creator-god Olorum.

A candomblé cult house, or terreiro, is headed by a mãe do santo (woman) or pai do santo (man), who directs the operations of dozens of novices and initiates. The usual object is to persuade the spirits to descend into the bodies of worshippers, which is achieved by sacrifices (animals are killed outside public view and usually during the day), offerings of food and drink, and above all by drumming, dancing and the invocations of the mãe or pai do santo. In a central dance area, devotees dance for hours to induce the trance that allows the spirits to enter them. Witnessing a possession can be quite frightening: sometimes people whoop and shudder, their eyes roll up, and they whirl around the floor, bouncing off the walls while other cult members try to make sure they come to no harm. The mãe or pai do santo then calms them, blows tobacco smoke over them, identifies the spirit, gives them the insignia of the deity – a pipe or a candle, for example – and lets them dance on. Each deity has its own songs, animals, colours, qualities, powers and holy day; there are different types of candomblé, as well as other related Afro-Brazilian religions like umbanda.

Many travel agencies offer tours of the city that include a visit to a terreiro, but no self-respecting cult house would allow itself to be used in this way – those which do are to be avoided. The best alternative is to go to the main Bahiatursa office, which has a list of less commercialized terreiros, all fairly far out in the suburbs and best reached by taxi. Make sure the terreiro is open first; they only have ceremonies on certain days sacred to one of the pantheon of gods and goddesses, and you just have to hope you’re lucky – though fortunately there’s no shortage of deities.

If you go to a terreiro, there are certain rules you must observe. A terreiro should be respected and treated for the church it is. Clothes should be smart and modest: long trousers and a clean shirt for men, non-revealing blouse and trousers or long skirt for women. The dancing area is a sacred space and no matter how infectious you find the rhythms you should do no more than stand or sit around its edges. Don’t take photographs without asking permission from the mãe or pai do santo first, or you will give offence. You may find people coming round offering drinks from jars, or items of food: it’s impolite to refuse, but watch what everyone else does first – sometimes food is not for eating but for throwing over dancers, and the story of the gringos who ate the popcorn intended as a sacred offering to the spirits is guaranteed to bring a smile to any Brazilian face.

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