Orixá Spirits


As a result of this lesson, students will be able to:

  • Describe the orixá spirits found in the Umbanda and Candomblé religions after looking at the pictures of the orixás and reading the activity sheet “Orixás Spirits.”
  • Identify African, Portuguese, and Brazilian elements in the pictures of the orixá spirit pictures.

Discussion Question(s)
  • What are orixás?
  • What can we tell about the spirits by looking at their pictures?

Materials Needed


Related material also on this website

Set Up and Introduction

  • View a short You Tube clip of the Festa de Yemanjá at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gGt65bq1suA (3:09 minutes).
  • Discuss the idea of syncretism. (Candomblé and Umbanda developed when the Portuguese forcibly converted the slaves to Catholicism.  In a successful attempt to preserve their own religious traditions, the slaves related the Catholic saints them to their own African spirits, called orixá. This process, called syncretism, relates African spirits to the Catholic saints.  This was necessary because Candomblé was outlawed, and slaves were punished for practicing it. So applying syncretism, Yemanjá the Amerindian spirit of the sea, is the same as the Virgin Mary.   Oxalá, the Lord of the Sky, is related to Jesus according to syncretism and the two are seen as one and the same deity.)

  1. Show the Power Point presentation and/or distribute copies of the slides.  Students examine the pictures of the orixa for several minutes without speaking to drink in the images. Ask them to note as many details as they can keep in their mind’s eye.
  2. Distribute the information sheet, “Orixa Spirits.”
  3. After a few minutes, ask the students the following open-ended questions.  These may be written on the board or poster paper for reference during the discussion.
  • How many different orixás are pictured? (16)
  • What is the purpose of each deity (based on what is visible in the picture)? (Answers vary as these are guesses at this point.)
  • What do the different colors of the deities clothing and props tell us? (The answers to this question are on the activity sheet.)
  • What does their posture tell us? (The answers to this question are on the activity sheet.)
  • Which elements of the pictures look African?  Which elements look Portuguese?  Which elements look Brazilian?  (Notice the cloth has African patterns and some of the shells and instruments look African.  The white dresses draw their inspiration from Portuguese clothing.)
  • Do the figures look more like humans or gods?  (Like the Greek gods and goddesses, many of the orixás have human and superhuman qualities and special powers.  They are human in that they possess many human feelings and desires.)
  • Are there elements in the picture that are familiar to you?  Elements you have never seen before? (Answers vary.)
  1. Explain to the students that during Candomblé ceremonies the people who experienced possession by the gods and goddesses looked and dressed in ways very similar to these pictures showing peoples dressed up as the gods and goddesses. 
  2. Lead a discussion based on the questions above and these additional questions.
  • What elements present in the Candomblé and Umbanda ceremonies are similar to those of Catholicism?  Similar to other religion?  (Flowers, water, candles, food, symmetry, order, beauty)
  • Ruth Landes, in her book The City of Women reports that women were the leaders in the Candomblé houses.  Why do you think this is?  (Because of the roles imposed by slavery, many households were matriarchal.  It was natural for religious practices to be led by women as well.)
  • Can you think of other cultures where the women are in charge, and are the leaders?  (The Navajo Nation’s leaders are traditionally women and the women hold the wealth in a traditional family, e.g., the horses and sheep.)

Extending the lesson:  

  • How do the orixá deities compare and contrast to the Greek gods and goddesses? 
  • How do they compare to the gods and goddesses found in the Hindu pantheon?
  • How do our pop culture super heroes like Superman and Wonder Woman compare and contrast to the orixá?

Assessment and Wrap Up
  • Each student selects one orixá picture and writes a description of its appearance and probable characteristics.