New CRESIDA doctoral dissertation on animal sacrifice and ritual offerings in Afro-Brazilian Candomblé

Giovanna Capponi, a CRESIDA student, has successfully completed her PhD Viva based on her study of human-environmental relations and sacrificial offerings in Candomblé – an Afro-Brazilian religion.  Giovanna, originally from Italy and with Master’s degrees from SOAS and the University of Bologna, is one of several PhD students who have been working on the multi-disciplinary AHRC-funded research project “Cultural and Scientific Perceptions of Human-Chicken Interaction”. Her thesis, titled “A Dialogue with Nature:
a Study of Human-Environment Relations and Sacrificial Offerings in Candomblé Religion” explores the relationships Candomblé followers interweave with the environment and with animals through ritual offerings and sacrificial practices.

As a self-defined “religion of nature”, Afro-Brazilian Candomblé can be described as the cult of the orixás, deities whose origins can be traced to West Africa and who are connected with the natural elements in the landscape. The complex use of food items, other elements and animals in the rituals makes it necessary to investigate the role of these elements in Candomblé cosmology and to take into account emic perceptions of human-environment relations. Ritual practices develop around culturally determined ways of relating and perceiving the environment but they are also subjected to modifications and innovations.

By presenting detailed ethnographic accounts of Candomblé rituals in Brazil but also in Italy – where a Candomblé house has been active for two decades – Giovanna’s thesis demonstrates how the ritual structure can be understood as a pattern that follows variations based on the needs of humans, but also on the tastes of the invisible entities and the agency of animals. The renegotiation of these elements takes the form of a dialogic process between the different parts. Ritual offerings and sacrifices can be understood not only as a form of feeding and exchanging favours with the orixás but also as a form of communication between the visible and the invisible world. Moreover, the constant correspondences and deferrals between humans, animals and orixás in the chants, in the mythology and the ritual proceedings allow the possibility of understanding animal sacrifice as being performed not only for the benefit, but also as a substitute, of a human life. Lastly, her dissertation shows how ritual change is also expressed by the incorporation of contemporary notions of environmental ethics and pollution, allowing for new understandings of natural landscapes as a social and historical construct.

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