Every New Year’s Eve millions of Brazilians flock to Copacabana beach to worship the Afro-Brazilian Goddess Iemanjá, Queen of the Sea, Great Mother of all living things. Dressed in white, the Goddess Iemanjá’s millions of worshipers come bearing roses which they throw into the sea in such quantities that the last time I went to this celebration and stood at the water’s edge, I could see nothing but huge waves of red roses rising up in front of me. Behind me for miles along the beach were tens of thousands of small altars scooped out the sand, each containing a candle and various offerings. The Goddess Iemanjá is usually offered things that have spirit, things that can explode, rise up, disappear, or intoxicate: cachaça (a kind of rum), matches, firecrackers, carbonated drinks, and popcorn, as well as jewelry, combs, lipstick, and mirrors (the Goddess Iemanjá likes to admire herself).
Iemanjá, who is the patron saint of fishermen and sailors, is a goddess of mercy and salvation, so she’s often associated with the Virgin Mary. This combination of Catholicism and Afro-Brazilian beliefs is common in Brazil because the Africans who were brought to the country as slaves were forced to worship their own gods in secret. In my forthcoming collection of poetry Travelers With No Ticket Home (to be published by Marsh Hawk Press in Spring 2014), I have a poem to the Goddess Iemanjá whom I describe as a mother who “dissolves all your pain in her salty kisses.”