Different realities, family patterns and relationships, and salient cultural oppositions are some of the issues Jim Wafer tried to tackle in his award- winning ethnographic book The Taste of Blood: Spirit Possession in Brazilian Candomble. The project is a product of his extensive research and personal account while living with the people of the Candomble community in Jaraci, Salvador de Bahia in Brazil.
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Using the experiences and information he gained from the place, Wafer has able to put up a book aiming to take its readers to the mysterious process of spiritual possessions in Jaraci. In this place, Wafer found out that spiritual possessions are actually part of the community’s culture, making them appear as normal, everyday phenomena. From this initial situation, he started to blend with the Candomble people, aiming to find out the answers regarding issues on spiritual possessions.
One of the remarkable things one could find in the book is the author’s way of narrating the events. Wafer’s approach differs with the traditional and usual style of opening the first part of the story. Instead of using the chronological order of events, he started by narrating first his experiences during his last day’s with the Candomble people.
The book was pided into three parts: Exu, Caboclo, and Orixa, the three spirit classes dominant in the culture. Wafer discussed spiritual possessions in terms of these three sprits. The first part is a narration of how the Wafer selected the research site, what are his research objectives, what are exus and his observations on them. It also includes the story of a male medium possessed by a female spirit who asked Wafer if he wanted to kiss her—a question answered by Wafer positively.
The second part, however, presents an outline of the exisiting relationship between two marginal ethnic groups in Brazil: the Candomble people and the American Indians. Using the caboclo festival and its songs, Wafer was able to enter and delve into the topic of trance that is very central during possessions.
The third section relates the author’s interaction with the orixa spirits, known for being pure and aloof among all spirits, and with the erts or the child spirits of the orixas.
The book also contains chapters for presentation of the participants, pre-text, and postface.
As mentioned earlier, the opening of the text done by Wafer was unusual. He chose to invert the sequence of events by telling first the ones that happened during his last days in Jaraci, specifically the second to the last night of his stay in the community. Most ethnographers opted to start by telling how they were welcomed by the ethnics on their first days in the community. This approach done by Wafer even became more powerful when he started his account with The Lips of Pomba- Gira in the first chapter. This is where he encountered a female spirit possessing a male medium, asking him if he desires to kiss her. This, I think, signifies Wafer’s way of presenting the problems of Condomble to the readers: the complexity of the interactions between two realities and entities, people and spirits. At this point, he already presented the things he wanted to address.
Aside from the format followed by Wafer in the opening of his book, another thing quite noticeable in the text is the author’s way of ending it in the postface chapter. This part gives an amusing yet powerful image of how Wafer evaluated the ethnographic process. Here he narrated that while he was in Brazil, the people gave him a nickname after a spirit ancestor. With this, Wafer gained the idea of portraying the spirits as a metaphor ethnography. Since spirits masquerade wearing large costumes and nets on their faces, he compared them to the people who had participated in his fieldwork.
For him, these people are like the dancing masqueraders. However, instead of the nets that will cover their faces, the people have awesome dancing spirits which also possess masquerading faces. Therefore, ethnography is presented as an infinite representation of symbols and differences.
The book is also a rich reservoir of cultural and ethnographic themes and issues. The nature of spiritual possessions among the Candomble people is simply a compelling one. The ethnography is appealing first, because it is original in terms of approaching the mysterious aspects of Candomble culture, and second and most importantly, because it utilizes the participants’ insights in order to portray the contradictions between cultures, particularly that of the writer’s with that of the participants’. It was also helpful in seeing the discrepancies in human condition as well.
One of the themes salient in the book was the construction and interaction of different kinds of reality. As mentioned earlier, spiritual possessions in Jaraci appear as ordinary, day-to-day phenomenon. Human and spiritual interactions, although commonly- seen scenes in the place, are still alarming and intriguing. These occurrences were actually experienced by Wafer. Several times he was confronted into situations of spiritual possessions.
However, aside form the uniqueness of the community’s situation, another interesting topic to tackle is the people’s social and cultural construction of their realities. One of the questions that Wafer might trying to ask while doing the fieldwork concerns with the way people construct their realities amidst such setting. It is actually an attempt to address the problem, if there are problems, regarding people’s way of perceiving their reality. How do they respond to such kind of environment, or perhaps more correct to say, culture? With spirits constantly having interactions with them, how do they distinguish their own reality from theirs? Are there blurring in one’s perception that may hardly affect one’s social and cultural constructs?
Based from the book, I think that most people in the community are affected by their unique environment. Tais, for example, the man being possessed by female spirits of one named Corquisa and other with Sete Saia, find a hard time dealing with the two who are enemies, greatly affecting his life. But still, his perception of reality is not blurred since this ‘unique’ reality is the one he accustomed and got used to.
Family relations and patterns are other themes observed as well in the text. Since inpiduals are being influenced by the interactions and overlapping of spiritual and human realities, Candomble families experience the same sentiments as well. Support to this claim can be seen through examples showing incidences regarding marriage, family vows, and relationship between mother and children. Just like other cultures, the Candomble families also possess different family beliefs and practices. For example, one story tells about the vow of Padilha to his brother, making her chose to abandon and kill his husband just to complete a family drama or a cultural game.
Padilha, by drinking the blood of his brother (in real life blood of a sacrificed animal), she renewed her membership at the axé or ethos in Candomble, where family members are remained close. This example clearly shows how sprits are being valued in the culture, which in return gives an impact in the lives of non- spirits people.
The example given above might answer the curiosity of people regarding the title of the book—The Taste of Blood: Spirit Possession in Brazilian Candomble. It simply tries to emphasize and make readers to realize the huge gap between cultural beliefs, practices, and lifestyle through the use of a single ethnography.
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