Salvador de Bahia: from the goddess of the sea to the Senhor Do Bonfim

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Itinerary to discover the religious and folkloristic traditions of the city of Salvador de Bahia: from the Casa de Iemanja to the church of Nosso Senhor Do Bonfim.

Living Salvador de Bahia means learning about its lively, kind people, united in a mixture of ethnicities, religions and folklore that can be admired everywhere. Salvador, in fact, is known for being the capital of religious syncretism born from the fusion of cults and currents of thought of Africans, Christians and Indians. It is therefore inevitable to move from the rigor of the Jesuit churches of Pelourinho to the temples dedicated to the orishas, divinities who personify the forces of nature. During the colonial period, in fact, slaves were prohibited from professing their religion and practicing their rituals. To get around this censure, which was severely punished, Africans began to worship their gods, however, referring to Catholic saints. In this way they circumvented the prohibitions by continuing to worship their divinities.

Casa de Iemanja. Photo Sara TripOrTrek

The goddess of the sea

Walking on the waterfront of Rio Vermelho, a residential district famous in the last century as a meeting place for intellectuals and today the center of Salvador de Bahia‘s nightlife, I discovered the Casa de Iemanja, the goddess of the sea. The cult of Iemanjá is linked to the Yoruba, slaves deported to Bahia from West Africa at the time of colonization and its name is syncretized as the creator of water and the origin of life. Iemanja is considered the mother of all gods and men, like the Virgin Mary, but the meaning of her name is “mother whose children are fish” for this reason she is the protector of the fishermen who also manage the temple on the sea, the “Casa do peso”, located next to the church of Sant’Anna. The temple is small, surrounded by the scent of flowers that the inhabitants deposit to pay homage to the divinity, its walls are decorated with mosaics inspired by the ocean and its creatures, while the votive altar is full of shells and statues of the goddess, depicted with the blue robes of the Virgin Mary and as a siren. Iemanja is loved so much that on February 2, in her honor, great celebrations are held in Praia da Paciencia to renew the vote of fishermen to the goddess considered one of the main orishas of Candomblé. This festival began in 1923 when the fishermen of Rio Vermelho turned to Iemanja to invoke protection and food. Since then, the rite is renewed every year, involving the whole population among offerings and drum rolls that mark the party.

Fitas do Bonfim. Photo Sara TripOrTrek


After leaving Rio Vermelho aboard an Uber, in half an hour I reached the hill of Itapagipe which houses one of the 365 churches in the city of Salvador. The one dedicated to the cult of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim. Legend has it that the church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim was built by the Portuguese navy captain Theodózio Rodrigues de Faria who, during a strong storm at sea, promised God that if he were saved he would leave a sign of his devotion on the Salvador hills . So it was: since 1772 this place has become a symbol of religious syncretism and Brazilian culture. Nosso Senhor Do Bonfim, in fact, is a democratic and popular saint who turns into a black, Christian or Indian deity. Numerous miracles have been attributed to him celebrated in a curious ex-voto room, located inside the church, on whose ceiling are prostheses of arms, legs, heads, symbols of the numerous requests for grace met by Bonfim’s goodness. It is a strange museum, at times it may seem macabre, but it is the mirror of Salvador de Bahia’s culture. Seen from the outside, the church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim dominates the city with its austere air, but to make it less severe, the colors of thousands of bracelets, symbols of the cult, are knotted around its gates. Tradition has it that before leaving the sacred place, Bahians and tourists purchase the colored bracelets, the “fitas do Bonfim”, to be tied on the wrist and at the entrance of the church by making three knots and expressing as many wishes to invoke the help of the saint. Legend has it that at least one of these will achieve. I made three knots and expressed my wishes, now I wait for Bonfim to keep his promise.

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