A little while ago, I promised myself and my readers to have a look at fantasy art outside the—largely—European tradition. One danger of doing this is that I don’t know an awful lot about some of the traditions I hope to look at. Another danger is that unlike the unicorns and elves, the dragons, mermaids and witches which populate European fairy tales and fantasy literature, some of the entities I will be looking at are being venerated in a religious context to this day. The borders between fantasy art and religious art are very fluid, and it is quite possible that some of what I show and write—or the fact that I do it in this context—may offend some of my readers.
I ask pardon in advance: my aim is to broaden the spectrum of the art I look at in this blog, not to provoke or patronize. Anything that might offend you, please put it down to ignorance, rather than disrespect. And please feel free to enlighten me in the comments!
This is the third installment of my look at art inspired by the various Afro-American religions—Santería and Voodoo, as practiced in the Caribbean and the Bayou—and South American Candomblé and Umbanda, which I remember well from my teenage years spent in southern Brazil.
All these syncretic religions originate from African religious practices. African people were not only uprooted and forcefully resettled, they were also forcefully converted to Christianity — in most cases, Catholicism — and so they grafted their own deities on to Catholic saints.
The resulting religions and spiritual practices are alive and healthy to this day, and present a fascinating mixture of European and African influences. Although they are independent religious practices, they do share some of their main deities. The legacy of the Yoruba people is particularly prominent—a number of the main deities can be traced back to what is now Nigeria.
The father god of Candomblé, Umbanda and Santería is Oxalá, also known as Obatala or Orixalá. In Brazil, he is venerated as Jesus, in particular as “Nosso Senhor do Bonfim” – the Northern Brazilian city Salvador de Bahia, where the African influence is particularly strong, celebrates a major festival in his honor.
I have often wondered to what extent Tolkien might have drawn on the African pantheon: he was, after all, himself born in Africa, even if he only spent the first years of his childhood there. It is hard not to think of the White Wizard, when looking at the traditional representation of Oxalá as an older man, clad in white robes and carrying a staff of a very particular shape. His colour is white, or white mixed with light blue.
In Yoruba religion, Oxalá is the the son of Olorun, the lord of the sky, who is particularly associated with the sun. He is Olorun’s representative on Earth, and the creator of human bodies – which are then brought to life by Olorun’s breath.
Like Jesus, Oxalá is also a god who died and rose from the dead – the association therefore must have seemed particularly apt. He is associated with clarity, wisdom, responsibility and peace. He continues to be venerated as one of the main deities both in Africa, and in Brazil and the Caribbean.
All images are copyright the respective artists, and may not be reproduced without permission.