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Filha de Santo (Saint-Daughters)

In Candomblé, the Filha de Santo [Saint-Daughter] represents a true priest serving as an instrument, body, horse or medium for the Orisha who is incorporated into her at certain times of worship.

Filha de Santo (Saint-Daughters)

Article available in: PT-BR

Last update: 06/01/2017

By: Semira Adler Vainsencher - N/I

Candomblé is one of the Afro-Brazilian religions practiced in Brazil. It arrived with the West African slave trade, more precisely through enslaved African priests, between 1549 and 1888, who continued to respect their Gods and spread their cultures in this land. Of totemic and familiar origin, the religion has been called ‘animistic’ because it is based on the anima (soul) of nature.

Candomblé (or worship of the Orishas) should not be confused with certain Afro-derived religions, such as Haitian voodoo, Cuban santeria and obeah, that have been worshiped independently and are unknown in this country. Although confined to the slave population, repressed by the Portuguese colonisers, banned by the Catholic Church (the religion of the Portuguese) and criminalised by Governments (which considered it as a kind of sorcery), Candomblé not only resisted but has expanded considerably since the end of slavery.

To survive the persecutions, Candomblé adherents began to associate the Orishas with Catholic saints, in a process of religious syncretism. Thus, the Queen of the seas and oceans – Iemanjá – was associated with Our Lady of the Conception; Iansã – Goddess of the winds and storms – to Santa Barbara; Oxalá – the father of all Orishas – to Senhor do Bonfim; and so on.

Some sixteen of the more than two hundred Orishas in West Africa are worshiped in Brazil, such as Oxumaré (the God of the rainbow), Exu (the messenger between men and Gods); Iroco (the God of the poor); Logunedé (the God of the navigators); Nanã (the Goddess of fertility); Obá (the Goddess of the rivers); Ogum (the God of war); Omolu (the God of sickness and healing); Ossaim (the God of leaves and medicinal herbs); Oxalá (the God of creation); Oxóssi (the God of hunting); Oxum (the Goddess of sweet waters and wealth); and Xangó (the God of fire, of thunder and justice). In turn, each Orisha has a very rich history, which encompasses their tastes, temperament, colours, food, songs, prayers, taboos and connection with nature.

Presently, Candomblé has followers from all walks of life. About three million people (1.5% of the country’s total population) have declared it to be their religion. As for the temples, in the city of Salvador alone there are two thousand two hundred and thirty terreiros [yards] registered in the Bahia Federation of Afro-Brazilian Cults (FENATRAB). According to this Federation, the number of faithful must be much higher than the data collected, since a significant portion of the population that frequents the terreiros still prefers to declare themselves Catholic, in view of discrimination.

In Candomblé, the Filha de Santo [Saint-Daughter] represents a true priest serving as an instrument, body, horse or medium for the Orisha who is incorporated into her at certain times of worship. In these moments, she has the same gestures, voice, dances and songs that the Saint. These choices generally take place within the cults themselves, and during the revelation of the Orishas, the future Saint-Daughter is overcome by spasms and jolts.

In order to take on such a role, however, she needs to take a course at the terreiro in order to learn the rituals, ceremonies, the preparation of special delicacies, the songs, the dances and making her Saint’s costume. The initiation of the Saint-Daughter is rather slow, requiring extreme dedication. In this sense, as long as she has life, she will belong to her Orisha, will work for them, and with the income from her work, will help to maintain the Candomblé where she was ‘made’.

There are several levels of Saint-Daughters (Cascudo, 1998). The Abiã, for example, fulfils only certain partial rites. The official novice – who has little initiation time and has only undergone some ceremonies – is called Yauô. The servant of the Saint-Daughter is called Ékédi. Since she has no powers to incorporate the Saints, she is employed in some subaltern functions, dedicating herself to taking care of the clothes and adornments of the Saint-Daughter.

There is even a hierarchy, which runs every seven years, in which a Yauô becomes Vodum – a stage where the Saint-Daughter uses a special necklace made of pieces of coral and red beads called Rungéfe. An Ébomin – a Saint-Daughter who has completed her initiation, i.e. more than seven years since being ‘made’ – can function in the fullness of ritualistic knowledge, because she is already capable of doing so.

Regarding the leaders of rituals, the Saint-Father (Babalorixá) and the Saint-Mother (Alourixá or Ialorixá) receive the faithful onto the terreiros in individual sessions, revealing the Orisha of each one, by tradition, through the casting of shells. The identification of the Orisha, or of the Saint, will help the faithful to understand their own personality, as well as to balance their energies (axés) with those of their Orisha.

How does an Orisha choose their instrument, their medium?

Usually, this is done in two ways. In the first place, the Orisha can act directly, acting so that the Saint-Daughter enters a certain state of possession, in which she begins to cry, to shout, to climb trees and to speak a foreign language. Secondly, they can act indirectly, causing her to find certain stones, shells or pieces of iron. In this phase, it is necessary to give such objects to their Saint-Mother or Father, who will immediately identify their Orisha.

After the future Saint-Daughter delivers the objects found, she must raise money to pay for her initiation ceremony, which will take place in a reserved, outdoor setting. According to the ritual, she will begin by taking a bath with aromatic leaves and then change clothes. When she returns to the terreiro, she will have to retire to a certain room and wait for the preparation of the fetiche for whom she will serve (the sacrifice of certain animals).

Next, she will have her head shaved, washed with an infusion of plants and scrubbed hard. By also ingesting these infusions, the Saint-Daughter will experience the phenomenon of the entrance of the Saint, which many researchers believe to be a special psychopathological state. After this stage, it is the turn of a ceremony called Efun, in which the head and faces of the novice are painted with certain traces of colour, and with the dispositions characteristic of ethnic origins, in reference to the scars used in the past by many Tribes and nations. It is worth mentioning that these scars are today replaced by marks made with ink.

After this process, the Saint-Daughter must stay at home for about a year, being forbidden to leave, have sexual relations and eat certain foods. Then there will be a new ceremony called the Dia de dar o nome or Naming Day, in which the blood of the sacrificed animals will be spilled on the head of the initiate. After this stage, the Saint-Daughter is finally considered made.

An important fact deserves recording: the shorter the initiation time, the more impure and misrepresented the religious meaning of Candomblé. It all happens as if it loses what it possesses most sacred, its religious purity. It is also important to point out that celebrations, invocations and songs in the terreiros are done in African dialects to the sound of atabaques [hand drums], varying according to the honoured Orisha.

Amidst this ritualistic process, the Saint-Daughter – or priestess of the Orishas – represents a religious servant in the service of the Gods of the nature: those same Gods who arrived in the country on slave ships, embedded in the shackles of the slaves, along with their food, vestments, languages, music, dances, festivals, beliefs and rituals.



Recife, 27 June 2007.
Translated by Peter Leamy, October 2016.

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how to quote this text

Source: VAINSENCHER, Semira Adler. Filha-de-santo. Pesquisa Escolar Online, Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, Recife. Disponível em: <>. Acesso em: dia  mês ano. Ex: 6 ago. 2009.