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 Sisterhood of the Good Death

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Silver Wind
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PostSubject: Sisterhood of the Good Death   Tue Jan 29, 2008 11:27 pm

The history of the Irmandade da Boa Morte (Sisterhood of the Good Death), a religious confraternity devoted to the Assumption of the Virgin, is part of the history of mass importation of blacks from the African coast to the cane-growing Recôncavo region of Bahia. Iberian adventurers built beautiful towns in this area, one of them being Cachoeira, which was the second most important economic center in Bahia for three centuries. In a patriarchal society marked by racial and ethnic differences, the confraternity is made up exclusively of black women, which gives this Afro-Catholic manifestation - as some consider it - a certain fame. It is known both as an expression of Brazilian baroque Catholicism, with its distinctive street processions, and for its tendency to include in religious festivals profane rituals punctuated by a lot of samba and banqueting.

Besides the gender and race of the confraternity’s members, their status as former slaves and descendents of slaves is an important social characteristic without which it would be difficult to understand many aspects of the confraternity’s religious commitments. The former slaves have demonstrated enormous adroitness in worshipping in the religion of those in power without letting go of their ancestral beliefs, as well as in the ways they defend the interests of their followers and represent them socially and politically.

Remote Origins and an Ancient Struggle

During colonial times and after, when the country was independent but still lived under the regime of slavery, confraternities proliferated. For each profession, race and nation - because the African slaves and their descendents came from different places with different cultures - there was a separate irmandade. There were confraternities for the rich, poor, musicians, blacks, whites, etc. There were almost none for women and, in the male confraternities, women entered as dependents to ensure they would receive benefits from the corporation after the death of their husbands.

For the confraternity to operate, says historian João José Reis, a church had to welcome it and its statutes had to be approved by an ecclesiastical authority. Many confraternities built their own churches. This was the case of the Church of Rosário in Barroquinha, in Salvador. The Irmandade da Boa Morte maintained close contact with this church and its confraternity. Joint religious and social events became known to the followers of the candomblé Afro-Brazilian religion. Luiz Cláudio Nascimento, an historian from Cachoeira, says that the first liturgies of the black Irmandade da Boa Morte were held in the Church of the Third Order of Carmo, traditionally used by the local elites. Later the sisters moved to the Church of Santa Bárbara in the Santa Casa de Misericórdia hospital, where there are images of Our Lady of Glory and Our Lady of the Good Death. From there, they moved to the Church of Amparo, which was, unfortunately, demolished in 1946; middle class housing of doubtful taste has been built on the spot. They left that church for the Igreja Matriz, or parish church, and then went to the Church of Ajuda. No one really knows in what year the confraternity was founded. Odorico speculates that the organized devotion began in 1820 in the church inBarroquinha and that Gêges who moved from there to Cachoeira were responsible for organizing it. Others speak of that period too, but disagree about the nation of the pioneers, saying they were freed Ketus. It seems that the membership of the confraternity had a variety of ethnic origins and that they numbered more than a hundred in the first years.

Historically, the year 1820 makes sense. Since early in the nineteenth century, progress had been afoot in the Recôncavo and new agricultural and industrial techniques were introduced there. While the sugar economy was experiencing difficulties, tobacco gained new strength when it attracted the interest of German capital following the political independence of Brazil. The opening of motorized shipping lines strengthened the breeze of economic renewal, stimulating the integration of the Recôncavo with the provincial capital and increasing trade. This in turn encouraged the formation of strong links between black slaves in many cities, especially Salvador and Cachoeira.

Jeferson Bacelar notes that the 1820s, especially the first three years of the decade, were marked by a process of agitation and excitement among the people of Bahia, many of whom - regardless of social class - were involved in a struggle for Independence that was marked, here, by astrong anti-Portuguese spirit and armed skirmishes. The easing of tension between masters and slaves elicited by this momentary “unity” contributed to the permanent removal of blacks to the cities of the Recôncavo, where slaveowners were very interested in solving the conflict and, to defend their interests, armed the slaves and used them against the Portuguese. This exceptional state of affairs resulted in a large number of religious and civil initiatives by the slaves, among them, perhaps, the Irmandade da Boa Morte. Antônio Moraes Ribeiro’s research associates the confraternity’s emergence from the slave quarters with the abolitionist atmosphere after the brutally crushed revolt of Muslim slaves in Bahia in 1835. Perhaps that is the origin of the clearly Islamic touch to theconfraternity’s very beautiful traditional clothes. As Raul Lody notes,the costume’s impressiveness is heightened by the use of a turban. Antônio Moraes believes that one of the probable leaders of the Islamic Revolt, Luiza Mahim, was personally involved in the founding of the confraternity after her flight from Salvador to the Recôncavo.

Conjecture aside, these religious confraternities - like the secular ones such as the Society for the Protection of the Handicapped, a case studied by the anthropologist Julio Braga - did more than revere Catholic saints and the orixás, or Afro-Brazilian divinities, of their members. While they outwardly met ecclesiastical and legal requirements, they become exclusive guilds that worked behind the scenes for the interests of their members. As respected organizations of solidarity, they were at the same time living expressions of interethnicexchange and an ambiguous instrument of social control, whose participants were creative “managers”.

The confraternity always made its members contribute. One-off membership and annual fees, alms collected and other forms of income were used for a variety of purposes: purchases of freedom from slavery, festivals, religious obligations, payments for masses, charity, clothing. In the case of Boa Morte, whose members were relatively poor and almost all elderly - from 50 to 70 years old - the funds raised during members’ lifetimes were always meant to pay for a decent funeral, whose preparations, given the dual religious activities of its members, required both rigor and understanding, besides being a nest-egg for the burial.

Corporate Obligations and the August Commemoration

The historiography of these notable women from Cachoeira continues tochallenge the minds of young researchers. The secret rites linked to the worship of the orixás have still not been the object of an ethnographic interpretation that, of course, would have to respect the need to keep secrets that are so important to this religion. What has been studied is the appearance of the worship, which uses almost entirely Catholic symbols, appropriated by Afro-Brazilian religion. At the beginning of August, a long schedule of public events brings people from everywhere to Cachoeira, to what Moraes Ribeiro considers the most representative living document of Brazilian, baroque, Ibero-African religiosity. Suppers, parades, masses, processions, samba-de-roda (a traditional form of playing and dancing the samba in a circle) put the remaining thirty members of a confraternity that was once 200 strong in the center of events in this provincial city and, ultimately, in the main newspapers and news networks of the capital.

The festival’s calendar includes the confession of members in the parish church; a cortege representing the death of Our Lady; a vigil followed by a supper of bread, wines and seafood in obedience to religious customs forbidding the consumption of palm oil and meat on the day of Oxalá, the creator of the universe; and the burial procession of Our Lady of the Good Death, during which the sisters wear their cerimonial clothing.

The celebration of the Assumption of Our Lady of Glory by a mass in the mother church, followed by a procession, gives way to the contagious fun of the people of Cachoeira, which breaks out in full color, food, music and dancing over as many days as the donations and annual reserves allow.

Hierarchy and Worship

Like all Bahian confraternities,the Boa Morte has an internal hierarchy that administers the everyday devotions of its members. The leadership is made up of four sisters, responsible for organizing the public festival in August. They are replaced each year. At the top, in the most prominent position of the Irmandade da Boa Morte, is the Perpetual Judge, who is the eldest member. There follow the posts of Attorney General, Provider, Treasurer and Scribe; the first is at the head of religious and profane activities.

Novices must be attached to a candomblé center in the area - usually Gêge, Ketu or Nagô-Batá - and must profess religious syncretism. They go through an initiation that has a preparatory phase of three years, during which they are known as “sisters of the purse” and their vocation is tested. Once they are accepted, they can take positions of leadership and rise in the confraternity’s hierarchy every three years.

They all share the tasks of cooking, collecting funds, organizing cerimonial suppers, processions and the funerals of members according to religious precepts and unwritten statutory regulations. Elections are held each year. Votes are cast with grains of corn and beans; the former indicates a nay and the latter a favorable vote. As application of hierarchical differences and the rules regarding each position, all the sisters are on the same footing as servants of Our Lady. Besides being sisters in their devotion to her, they are sometimes sisters in candomblé and are almost always “relatives” - Africans and their descendents in Brazil broadened the concept of kinship to include all those who are of the same nation.

African ancestry is reworked within Bahian religious institutions an the lay confraternities end up serving this process of cultura intercourse. It is admirable how, as they celebrate death, these black women from Cachoeira have survived with such majesty and distinction. And most remarkable of all is how the belief system has absorbed the values of the dominant culture in a functional and creative way so that, in the name of life, complex processes of cultural appropriation take place. One example is the descent of Our Lady herself to the confraternity every seven years to direct the celebrations in person through the Attorney-General and celebrate among the living the relativity of death. Other examples are found in the symbols of clothing and food, where there is constant reference to the links between this world (Aiyê) and the other (Orun).

Devotion to the Good Death was just as common in colonial and imperial Brazil as the confraternities. It has always been a popular cult. In the Church of Our Lady of Rosário in Barroquinha it became stronger and more consistent. There was considerable Gêge-Nagô presence there and the celebrations described by writers like Silva Campos were similar to contemporary practices in Cachoeira. One of the most respected candomblé centers in Bahia originated there; founded in the 18th century, the Casa Branca center in Engenho Velho da Federação in Salvador has been the object of a brilliant study by Renato da Silveira.

This is a popular devotion with racial features, as the Irmandade gathered mainly black and mixed-race women. The roots of the devotion are in the Eastern Church, it was adopted by Rome in the 7th century and two centuries later the festival of the Assumption of Our Lady had spread throughout the Catholic world. Brought from Portugal to Brazil - where it was known as the festival of Our Lady of August - it acquired a unique interpretation with its own characteristics. For that reason, the cult has always caused conflict with church authorities. Its spread throughout the Bahian community is due, among other things, to the fact that the tradition of spiritual mediums in African religions has always relativized the problem of death, as disciples of candomblé believe in successive reincarnations. Candomblé lent elements of its belief system to a practice that was originally Catholic, as well as socio-historical components of the hard reality of slavery, of a captivity that made martyrs of those in the diaspora.

Veneration of Our Lady of the Good Death came to have social significance, as it allowed slaves to gather, maintain their religiosity in a hostile environment and shape a corporate instrument for defending and valuing of individuals. It became, for all of these reasons, an unrivalled means of celebrating life.


Professor at the Federal University of Bahia, researcher attached to the Center for Afro-Oriental Studies (CEAO)

Professor at the Federal University of Bahia


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