A version of this article originally appeared on VICE Brazil.
A warm and calming lavender scent filled the House of Iemanjá in Rio Vermelho, a neighborhood in the northern Brazilian city of Salvador. I arrived at the location, which was covered in photos of the Iemanjá, the queen of the sea, the day before the festival hosted in her honor. The orisha (a deity in Yoruba faith) is one of the most popular figures in Brazil. She's frequently characterized as "the mother whose children are fish" and is often depicted in the form of a beautiful, plus-size black woman.
Iemanjá Day is the biggest Afro-Brazilian celebration in Brazil. It is traditionally celebrated on February 2 in Rio Vermelho. The feast unites Catholics, tourists, and members of Candomblé and Umbanda, two Afro-Brazilian religions. It occurs simultaneously with the holy day of Our Lady of Navigators, a devotional title for the Virgin Mary, to whom Portuguese seafarers would pray for a safe return home. As such, Iémanja Day is a syncretism that unites Christianity with African religions. Participants honor the queen of the sea with offerings of flowers, costume jewelry, food, and vials of perfume, all of which are displayed along the neighborhood's beaches. Onlookers also throw wishful coins, representing offerings and gratitude towards the protective but severe deity.
By 6:00 AM on February 2, the beach in Rio Vermelho was already full of people bearing flowers and baskets full of offerings. The line of faithful believers waiting for a blessing curved through the streets. Images of Iemanjá and Catholic depictions of her were everywhere to be seen, along with rue branches, assorted grains, and other items used by the Afro-Brazilian religious leaders as they said "Axé" to passersby, a greeting that conveys positive energy to faithful believers. On the shore, worshippers gathered in circles to sing and dance, and a seemingly endless crowd threw offerings into the sea. I watched two women say goodbye to a little boat that floated away, bearing a picture of Iemanjá. They clapped their hands and sang respectfully, gratefully, and devoutly.
You can see more photos of the Iemanjá Day celebration below: