Atlantic Archive: African Religion on the Olympic Stage


Black and Afro-Indigenous athletes continue to put Northeast Brazil on the map at the Tokyo Olympics.

The region, called Nordeste (Northeast) is one of the five official regions of Brazil where nine of the country’s 26 states are located. Salvador, in the State of Bahia, represents the center of Blackness in the African diaspora. The Northeast region also has the largest Indigenous and Afro-Indigenous populations in the Western Hemisphere. 

The hashtag #NordesteNaoTeste (don’t test the Northeast) and #nordesteéouro (the Northeast is Gold) began circulating after several athletes from this region brought home Olympic medals.

Within Brazilian society, these communities face systematic discrimination and well as everyday racism and classism struggles. Brazilian culture is filled with stereotypes labeling Nordestinos (Black and Indigenous folks from the Northeast) as poor, uneducated and lower class.

This bigotry is strategic and dates back to the founding of the country. 

Brazil was unrivaled in the trafficking of enslaved Africans and the Northeast was the central region of import and plantation economics. What served as the backdrop of this populating of Africans, was the genocide and depopulation of the Indigenous people who greeted the first Portuguese settlers in 1500.

This continues today as the vast Amazon interior region is exploited and sold to corporations and governments. 

The intersecting struggle between Black and Indigenous populations in Brazil can be seen in the religious and cultural practices. The most popular holidays in the Northeast include veneration for the symbolic figure of the indigenous Caboclo. They are figures portraying an Indigenous warrior slaying a large serpent. 

The serpents are representative of imperial powers. The colorful sculptures are surrounded by flowers and fruit on a large chariot which paraders follow, touch and kiss for good luck and blessings.

The Caboclo represents the spirit of the original inhabitants of the land which Nordestinos believe bestowed upon the enslaved Africans the will to fight against the Portuguese crown.  

As the spirit of the natural land and forests, Caboclo correlates intimately with Oxossi (Oh-Show-See), in the Afro-Brazilan spiritual practice, Candomble. Candomble was brought to Brazil during the slave trade. The rituals and Orixa (deities) are a blend of traditions from Yoruba, Fon and Bantu peoples. 

The pantheon of Orixas represents devotees, guidance through the world. Each devotee is aligned with specific deities who represent ideals, principles, and even natural forces. 

Oxossi is the hunter deity associated with the forest, animals, and wealth. He carries a bow and arrow and is known as a master huntsman who never misses his target. His skill is a reflection of his extreme levels of contemplation and craftiness. 

Afro Brazilian soccer player Paulinho (José Paulo Bezerra Maciel Júnior) represented Oxossi on the global stage as the Brazilian team surged its way to the Gold medal.

During a semifinals match against Germany, Paulinho scored a goal and celebrated by mimicking the hunter, drawing his bow and releasing an arrow through the stadium. This gesture is immediately understood by Brazilians as a dedication to Oxossi, the African deity which guides his spirit.

During the medal ceremony, Paulinho intensified the tribute on the podium by wearing his “contas” across his jersey. Contas are beaded necklaces, created and blessed by Candomble Priestesses. They vary in color and shape combinations representing different Orixa and spiritual levels. As Oxossi is one of the more rare deities, his bright turquoise beads are instantly recognizable. 

Despite the International Olympic Committee banning most forms of political protest, many athletes have found ways to make their point to the world. Paulinho’s dedication to his African spirits was both religious and political.

After the match, he posted on Instagram. This time it was a tribute to the deity Exu, who is the messenger to all the Orixa and represents destiny at the crossroads.

In the post, Paulinho writes, “It was not luck, It is always Exu!”

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