Photos courtesy Gabriel Padilha
Five years ago I participated in my first festival day of the goddess Iemanja in Montevideo, Uruguay. A statue of the Umbanda goddess of rivers and oceans sets across the street from the beach in Parque Rodo; rising out of a sea shell, her hands are outstretched toward the Rio de la Plata. On any given day there are offerings to Iemanja (blue and white flowers, strings of blue or white beads, candles, candies, sweet cakes, and sometimes a sacrificed chicken or two) left near the statue or hanging from the iron fence that surrounds and protects her. But each February 2, her feast day, thousands of devotees and onlookers crowd the beach known as Playa Ramirez to sing and dance and praise Iemanja.
Weeks before my first trip to Uruguay, in 2009, I was told about Iemanja and her followers, told I should not miss the gathering made in her honor, and that I should prepare to leave a gift for her if I wanted to participate. As a mixed blood Native American raised in a Presbyterian household, I consider myself a kind of Christian pagan, and I am prone to interest in rituals from the pantheon of nature-based religions. And once a year, I try to attend or participate in some kind of organized communal way of giving thanks, to the Universe and all the Helpers, whether that ritual is a church service, a sweat lodge, a stomp dance, or going into the water on the day of Iemanja.
I began preparing a gift to leave her, melting white candles over amethyst and quartz crystals inside a hollowed out gourd made for drinking mate. I placed loose beads inside it. I wound a braid of sweetgrass into the gourd and lined the top with dried white mountain sage I’d picked in Colorado.
On January 31, 2009, I arrived in Montevideo. On the evening of February 1, I sat with a Uruguayan friend on the Rambla, the paved walkway that extends the length of Montevideo’s coast between the isthmus beaches and the avenue also known as the Rambla. As the darkening hours neared midnight, small fires began appearing on the beach below us.
“They’re getting ready for Iemanja,” my friend said. “Some of them, who are really serious about it, start at midnight.”
“What are they going to do tonight?” I asked.
“They’re probably going to cook some steaks on the fire and eat a late dinner together, sit and talk until the sun comes up. They’ll probably walk to the water from time to time, leave an offering of flowers or watermelon on the shore, then go back to their group of friends, or family, and talk and eat some more.”
“It’s going to be beautiful,” he said. “Many people will make little boats to float their candles and gifts on the water. There’s going to be dancing and drumming. The ones who are really serious are going to dance themselves into a trance, throw themselves to the sand and lie still until they come out of it.”
“Do they take drugs,” I asked, “something to make them hallucinate like Ayahuasca?”
“No,” he assured me. “Some people are going to be drinking beer but not the ones who are really serious about it. That will just be the people partying who are there to witness the spectacle.”
He told me Umbanda was a religion from Africa, and the Afro-Uruguayans – descendents of African slaves in the country – had brought the religion with them to Uruguay. The Afro-Uruguayans were not only responsible for the city celebrating Iemanja; they contributed many rich cultural elements to what modern Uruguay is known for – Carnival, candombé, drumming and dancing, murgas, and so much more, including Umbanda. My friend wasn’t a member of the religion, but he said I would see the devoted the next day; they would be wearing white and they would float their offerings out to wherever the goddess receives them. He said there would be holes dug all over the beach lit with candles. “I’ll bring you a candle,” he said.
I told him I had prepared a gift. I had brought a candle. But I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t be intruding on their sacred religion.”
He shook his head. “Iemanja is the goddess of the ocean and the ocean belongs to everybody. And, you know, you can ask her to give you something.”
He caught my quizzical turn of the head in the moonlight and added, “Yeah. Yeah. You can ask for anything you want. Money. A car. Healing for yourself or somebody in your family if they’re sick. A job. You can ask her for anything except love.”
“Why can’t you ask for love?” I said.
“Because Iemanja’s love is so powerful we humans can’t handle it,” he told me, relating one of her legends, how the first man who asked for love had been granted the wish. “But he fell in love with Iemanja and drowned in his attempt to embrace her.”
My friend told me Iemanja had also been enraptured in this love for the human, and it broke her heart so completely when he died that she proclaimed she would never grant that wish again – and worse, she would curse and condemn any course soul who wished it.
February 2 is a feriado laboral in Uruguay, a recognized state holiday but one on which workers still have to go to work, and for that reason the celebration doesn’t get started in earnest until nearly eight or nine at night, when the summer sun begins to set. My friend worked until seven, went home and showered, then met me at my hotel, the Cala de Volpi, which sets across from the Rambla in Punta Carretas, just to the east of Playa Ramirez. We walked west to the beach joining throngs of others going in the same direction.
“All these people are going to the celebration?” I asked, definitely not expecting such a gigantic turnout.
“Just wait until we get to Playa Ramirez,” he told me.
The beach was packed tight with participants. And though the mass of bodies danced and swayed with excitement, as we entered the crowd I felt safe and a comfort indescribable.
I feel to try and capture the celebration in words is something I can’t do in English or Spanish. I can’t mimic the rhythm of the drums or sing the Brazilian lyrics of the anthems praising Iemanja. I can’t show you the beach lined with idols of the goddess, similar to the Catholic icons of the Virgin Mary, a maiden in a white dress and blue draped shawl.
I can’t walk you among the lines of devotees waiting to be seen by one of the Umbanda priests or priestesses, those worshippers waiting to be blessed with a snapping of the fingers or the touches of palm fronds fanned around the body. I can’t show you the fervent devotion of those danced into trances, the women and men of all ages face down on the sand, their heads in the direction of the water, or the people in the river itself, leaving their floats piled with fruits and candles and flowers. I don’t think I can put you readers elbow to elbow with the spiritual beauty and power I felt surround me.
But I can tell you this. When you walk into the river or ocean in Uruguay on February 2, you retreat from the water backwards. You never turn your back on Iemanja.
I can tell you this: that I walked waist deep into the Rio de la Plata, with thousands of other people, and let my offering float as I too walked backwards to the shore. You have to be careful walking backwards in a crowd that, at the same time, is moving forward as more and more devotees enter the river; I can tell you that.
I left my gift to float or sink and thanked the goddess for allowing me to participate in such a moving experience. My only request of Iemanja was that I be given the opportunity to honor her four times, because that is a sacred number to me as an American Indian, and I’ve been taught that to make any ritual complete it must be done four times. I vowed to Iemanja that if I could come back three more years in a row, I would be there on that evening on the beach in Montevideo.
I returned to Playa Ramirez on February 2, 2010, and again in 2011, as a tourist, and my fourth Iemanja celebration, in 2012, was as a resident of Uruguay. I not only fulfilled my side of the agreement made with Iemanja, my annual visits to the country confirmed my resolution to move here. Last year on the beach, I dug a hole in the sand where I lit my candle. I thanked Iemanja for holding up her part of the bargain. It was the fourth time for me, and the ritual I set for myself was complete.
February 2, 2013, was her lagniappe and my bonus too. I offered my willingness to return again and again and pay tribute. I brought her flowers, a braid of sweetgrass, some shiny new coins and a prayer feather I’ve had for more than twenty years. And while I am no convert to Umbanda, or any organized religion, I’ve started wearing white to the celebration. I get my gifts to Iemanja cleansed and blessed by a priestess. I wade into the water and I retreat walking backwards.
I give Iemanja praise for the chance once again to address her. I give thanks for the successes of the previous year and I ask for blessings for the new one. I ask for health for myself and my loved ones. I ask that everyone on the planet know a moment of peace, a moment without fear or anger. I don’t ask for love.
Today we wear white, carve gourds
to carry our candles and fruits
on the river to the sea. The goddess
hears the waves, the drums
are blessed, and every one of us
is new. Take this silver chain,
this Colorado sage. Bless this
land and all land touched by rain.
Bless women who travel in boats,
men who fish with their hearts, bless
our children. Take this sweet sandía
and divide our coins among the thirsty.
May all hungry men eat. May all
men sleep and wake in peace.
May all land be touched with rain.
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