Salvador Bonfim Wish Ribbons
Salvador da Bahia, Brazil
I was visiting Colombia about a half a year ago when I first saw them—worn, colored ribbons on the wrists of a few Israeli guys preparing to fly home. They said they were for luck—wishes, another corrected—obtained in the Brazilian city of Salvador. Now, many months later, I'm in the city of origin, researching the history behind what it is that I've tied to my body.
To understand the ribbon I must explain the church—the 18th-century Igreja Nosso Senhor do Bonfim—and the convergence of two systems of faith within it.
Senhor do Bonfim
Built in 1745, the holy structure sits on a peninsula outside of the city center, now famous for its power to effect miraculous healing cures—transforming it from a rather ordinary church into a popular shrine.
Like most of the churches in Salvador, Bonfim has a catholic base, but allowances were made for dual meaning with catholic saints also taking on the attributes of African gods.
Salvadorians dressed head to toe in white are boldly displaying their devotion to Oxalá, the most powerful Yoruban deity of the Orixá. The Orixá are worshipped by practitioners of Candomblé, the African-Brazilian religion of Bahia.
Long ago the Portuguese settlers brought to Brazil Counter-Reformation Catholicism, which in its efforts to hold back the Protestant sweep of Europe, revitalized saint worship and its mysticism. At the same time, the slaves brought their deities from Angola, the Congo, Ghana, and Nigeria.
The Catholic Church, the official religion of Brazil, does not officially accept Candomblé, but with the country's expansive area it became difficult for the clergy to exert its control over New World Catholics. As a result, the Orixá and the saints were honored side by side, each gradually taking on the identity of the other.
The official laws forbade the practice of Candomblé, and in an act of resistance that forever affected Brazilian culture, the faithful "hid" their Orixá in the identity of the saints, and continued practicing their African religion at will. For example, Oxalá is often portrayed wearing white garments and a silver crown. Oxalá's reputation for his beauty, purity and as the creator of man syncretize him to Jesus Christ.
Today, worshippers don't necessary choose between Christ and Oxalá, on the contrary, the two deities are often worshipped together, their divine forces combined.
Bonfom's Room of Miracles
Bonfim's Sala dos Milagres (Room of Miracles) is a unique (if not bizarre) collection of prayers and praise.
The walls of the small room are covered with photos and testimonials on slips of paper, thanking Senhor do Bonfim for His miracles. The photos displayed heartache fearlessly: pictures of torsos taped by adhesive, car crashes, and burned skin (peeled and raw). Some have prayed for assistance in being elected to office, or obtaining a promotion at work—several military hats hang on the walls.
On the ceiling hang the ex-votos offered by faithful parishioners—wax or plastic replicas of body parts (arms, feet, heads, hearts, spines, and breasts), representing those that were cured or need curing.
As further thanks, people had given away their most prized possessions to the collection in the Bonfim miracle room: bullets extracted from just-near-the-heart, watches, sports jerseys, and keys to cars and houses.
One of the first things noticed when approaching the church (aside from all the vendors) were hundreds of colorful ribbons tied to the wrought-iron railings enclosing the structure, blowing in the wind.
Senhor do Bonfim wrist ribbons, known as fitas, are an institution in the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia. Senhor do Bonfim means Our Lord of a Good End, which is one way that Bahianas refer to Jesus.
The ribbons found on the streets of Salvador have "Lembrança do Senhor do Bonfim da Bahia" printed on them. Translated from Portuguese, the phrase roughly means In Remembrance of the Savior of Bahia or Souvenir from the God of Bahia—or something along those lines.
Salvador Fita Origins
An enormous number of fitas are distributed in the historic Pelourinho district of this city, where African slaves were once sold at auction. Countless more are sold at fairs and bazaars throughout the country. But the celebrated souvenir bears little resemblance to the original. Created in 1809, fitas had all but disappeared by the middle of the century. Now they've reemerged, albeit in a different guise.
The original fita was known as "the measure of Bonfim", a name it acquired because, at 47 centimeters, its size corresponded to the length of the right arm on a statue of Christ on the high-alter of Bahia's most famous church (Senhor do Bonfim).
19th-Century fitas were fashioned from a piece of silk and finished with permanent ink or silver. Their design included the name of a saint in lettering that was embroidered by hand. These first fitas were worn on the neck as a collar, upon which were hung medallions and holy images.
In contrast to the modern day fita the "measure" was used as much to reflect change as to (hopefully) facilitate it. The faithful adorned them with small images and/or little wax sculptures of body parts believed to have been cured with the help of a saint. These opportunities to be remembered were purchases that supported, as well as symbolized, the Catholic Church.
The common fita of today is not made of silk, comes in many colors and is tied around the (left usually) wrist rather than around the neck. Its primary function is to petition for future miracles—large or small—rather than to remind anyone of previous such interventions.
The modern-day fita is also worn to promote Brazilian pride and/or simply as a souvenir. It can be made of nylon, as is the case with fitas produced in São Paulo, or of cotton, as with fitas made in Salvador by a cooperative of artisans.
Fitas come in a variety of colors, each color representing a particular Orixá. Yellow, for example, is Oxum, daughter of Yemanjá, and is the Orixá of wealth and of freshwater, as delicate as the bubbling streams and as forceful as the raging waterfalls.
It isn't known exactly when the transition from original to present-day traditions began, but the wrist fita has been sold in the streets for decades. The transition may have begun when fitas were adopted by hippies as a part of a cultural uniform that included sandals and leather tote bags.
Multiple chances for a miracle, or chances for multiple miracles, are obtained as the wearer makes a wish each time one of three knots are tied to secure the fita around the wrist.
No wish will be granted unless the cloth is permitted to wear until it disintegrates naturally, and falls from the wrist of its accord. If you remove or cut the ribbon yourself the wishes will not—never?—come true and invites bad luck and misfortune upon you.
If you plan to stay the course and leave the ribbon on, it's a serious commitment. The typical fita is rumored to fall off after a handful of months, but I've read stories of ribbons staying intact for anywhere from six months to two years after they were tied!
There was one Internet source found that said you must never purchase your own ribbons, but only accept them as gifts. Additionally, some sites mention a third party should tie the knots for you, as you make your wishes.
Explanations for the gift/helper stipulations could have originated from the hordes of locals on the streets trying offering the fitas as "free" gifts, or children attempting to run up and tie one on your wrist. The ribbon is free, but they often guilt the recipient into buying some little trinket of junk in return.
My Ribbons & Mistakes
I ended up affixing three ribbons to my person, but because of the permanency and visibility involved I opted against the wrist, and went for the ankle instead (next to the little anklet I made).
I've already forgotten the specifics of the wishes, but grouped them so I could remember the generalities easily: The white ribbon had wishes for health; the blue for business; and the orange for happiness.
As they did not give away the ribbons at Bonfim for free (as I was told), I ended up having to buy my own fitas and tie them myself. Two strikes against me? Perhaps, but these are sure to be a fun conversation piece outside of the continent. Until then, the owner of my hostel is probably right in that fita wearers might as well hold up a big sign saying "I'm a tourist, rip me off."
Update: One Year Later
It's hard to believe these ribbons have been on my ankle for a year already, but they have, and they're holding their own quite well:
Update: 18 April, 2008
I recently lost the blue ribbon out of the trio I tied on my ankle, and my Peruvian girlfriend (who is quite knowledgeable on Brazilian culture) remarked that I wasn't to touch the broken ribbon after it had come off. It was meant to be found by another.
This was the first time I'd heard such a thing, and thought I'd add it to the general info about the fitas.
Update: 31 May, 2008
Wish ribbon number two, the orange ribbon, has fallen off after 474 days. It will be missed.
Update: 2 August, 2008
Sadly, my third and final fita (the white one) is no more, 537 days after putting in on in Salvador.