Harding to speak on Candomblé in modern, historical context



In spite of being enslaved and marginalized, Afro-Brazilians found ways to hold onto their humanity and celebrate their heritage.

Rachel Elizabeth Harding, assistant professor of indigenous spiritual traditions in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado Denver, will explore one such way — through the religion Candomblé — in a lecture at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy.

Harding’s lecture is titled “A Refuge in Thunder: Candomblé in Historical and Contemporary Context.” Week Six’s Interfaith Lecture theme is “Brazil: The Interplay of Religion and Culture.”

Candomblé, which was first recognized in archival literature in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, cultivates the natural elements of the universe, such as bodies of water, mountains, wind and land, Harding said.

These natural elements that existed on Earth before human beings are understood as the ancestors of humans and manifestations of God and God’s energy.

“I think what many people find interesting in it is actually similar to many indigenous religions, in the sense that it’s a holistic religion,” she said. “Like many indigenous traditions around the world … there is this understanding that human beings are part of much larger universal life force.”

A large part of day-to-day Candomblé life concerns bringing balance where there is imbalance,” Harding said — this includes the recognition that the human body is part of the universe and a life force that ebbs and flows, and consuming herbal teas, taking baths and performing rituals that have to do with balancing individuals’ energies to maintain mental and physical stability.

This quest for balance often extends further than just personal balance, she said, to include attempting to mitigate larger injustices.

“I think [Candomblé] has some things in common with the other Afro-Atlantic religions in terms of understanding things like racism and poverty as illnesses, as imbalances,” Harding said.

Candomblé is, in many ways, also a danced religion, Harding said; music and movement are at the center of life, which can be traced back to the religion’s African roots. These dances and rituals are often performed to call energies such as Xangô and Oxum, manifesting in the bodies of Candomblé practicers, similar to “possession” or receiving the Holy Spirit in other religions.

Despite attempts to suppress African expression, Candomblé was able to find a home in Brazil partly because of the country’s Catholic heritage, Harding said. Catholicism has hundreds of saints, which became ways in which African deities were maintained by Afro-Brazilian practitioners; they could associate Xangô with Santa Barbara, for example.

“When these West Africans were introduced forcibly to Catholicism, they found some of these connections and used them to help continue to cultivate the African energy, the African deities, who were similar in some ways to the Catholic saint tradition,” Harding said.

Additionally, Harding said, the fact that dance is central to the religion has helped Candomblé prosper. While practicers of Candomblé use dance to help them connect to spirit and move beyond the limitations of their social positions, to others their dancing can look like a party after work.

Candomblé, a growing religion, attracts many people who are looking for ways to celebrate the parts of themselves that had previously been diminished by the racism of society; it also represents a touchstone for people, the roots of the country and the roots of people who have been marginalized.

“It represents kind of another meaning of what the country might be, and kind of inherently includes a more multicultural space for practicing a sense of connection to something beyond themselves,” Harding said.