Sweet saints: devotions to Cosmas and Damian in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Receipt: February 15, 2023

Acceptance: April 20, 2023


The essay reproduces an abridged version of the virtual exhibition "Doces santosThe devotions to Cosme e Damião in Rio de Janeiro"originally posted on the Instagram of our anthropology lab, Ludens. It is one of the results of a long-term collective anthropological research on the devotion to the twin saints Cosme and Damian, which in Rio de Janeiro is characterized by the distribution of bags full of sweets and candies to children every September 27 or thereabouts. This paper seeks to understand the reciprocity relations, interreligious relations and urban flows articulated by the celebration of the saints from the perspective of the people who make it possible.

sweet saints: devotions to cosme and damian in rio de janeiro, brazil

The essay reproduces a synthetic version of the virtual exhibition "Doces santos: as devoções a Cosme e Damião no Rio de Janeiro", originally exposed on the Instagram of our anthropology laboratory, Ludens. It is one of the results of a long-term collective anthropological research on the devotion to the twin saints Cosmas and Damian, which in Rio de Janeiro is characterized by the distribution of bags full of sweets and candies to children every September 27 or on upcoming dates. This work seeks to understand the relations of reciprocity, interreligious relations and urban flows articulated by the celebration of saints from the perspective of the people who make it possible.

Keywords: devotion, reciprocities, Cosmas and Damian, sociability, Rio de Janeiro.

Click here to access to the photo essay

In September 2020, during the Spring of Museums,1 the Laboratory of Anthropology of the Playful and the Sacred of the National Museum, belonging to the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (Ludens/mn/ufrj) exhibited on Instagram the virtual exhibition "Doces santosThe devotions to Cosme e Damião in Rio de Janeiro"("Sweet saints: devotions to Cosmas and Damian in Rio de Janeiro"), which we reproduce here in a summarized version.2 The virtual exhibition was an experiment in scientific dissemination in a non-conventional medium, presenting part of the results of a long-term collective anthropological research on the devotion to the twin saints (Menezes, 2013; Menezes, Freitas and Bártolo, 2020). This work sought to understand the reciprocity relations, interreligious relations and urban flows articulated by the celebration of the saints from the perspective of the people who make it possible.

In Rio de Janeiro, the celebration of the twin saints is characterized by the distribution of candies to children every September 27th or nearby. This festivity is able to rearticulate the dynamics of the social life of the city. The festivity is very broad and involves the home and the street, the maintenance of family traditions, the belonging to different religions, the passage from childhood to adolescence and from adolescence to adult life.

The distribution of the bags of Cosme and Damián is a great street celebration in which not only the twin saints are honored, but also the childhood of those who receive the sweets, as well as the past childhood of those who give them as gifts. It is a celebration that tries to transmit, within the family and to those who receive the bags, values such as generosity and care for children. It celebrates and weaves the continuity of the family and gives thanks for the well-being of loved ones. The celebration involves the "know-how to make the party" of several generations dedicated to its production and reproduction, and represents a tradition that can be considered intangible heritage of Rio de Janeiro (Menezes, 2016).

Saints, orishas and children

Saints, Catholic martyrs, doctors, twins, African orishas, protectors of children or themselves child-entities, Cosme and Damien reveal themselves as multiform characters, present in many pantheons and in many latitudes. They take on details in each of these contexts and in each of these persons, sometimes in surprising combinations and rearrangements, they receive different forms of worship and celebration.

According to Catholic hagiography, St. Cosmas and St. Damian were twin brothers, physicians from the region of present-day Syria, who were martyred by Emperor Diocletian in the iii for performing free miraculous cures in the name of the Christian faith. Associated with the healing arts and charitable generosity, their cult spread throughout Christendom (Cascudo, n/d: 316). Along the way, the saints adopted varied forms and biographies and became present in diverse religious traditions.

In American lands, his devotion -introduced by European colonizers- became generalized in the context of slavery in the sugar plantations, being associated with African traditions of twin worship, being highlighted by the literature the hybridization with the orisha Ibeji -the orisha of the twins (Rodrigues, 2010 [1932]; Ramos, 2001 [1934]). It is from the approach of Cosme and Damian to Ibeji or from Ibeji to Cosme and Damian, if we take up their trajectory at the starting point of the African diaspora, that their functions are redefined. If in Europe they are protectors of doctors and pharmacists (Nicaise, 1893; Falci, 2002: 138), in America, from the influence of Africa, they emerge strongly linked to childhood: to the protection of children, the care of double births and the health of twins (Lima, 2005; Montes, 2011).

In Brazil, the association between Cosmas and Damian and children becomes so intense that in Brazilian sacred statuary their images are rejuvenated and infantilized, appearing themselves as if they corresponded to two children. In addition, they assume a version with three characters: Cosme, Damien and Doum, their younger brother, miniaturized and who, according to Afro-Brazilian Yoruba traditions, would be Idowu, the third son who has to be born after a double birth so that the mother does not go mad (Montes, 2011; Freitas, 2015; Mourão, 2015), or the one who, in an anthropological reading of a structural-psychoanalytical nature, must emerge so that the otherness between the twins is established as the third term of the relationship (Montes, 2011). Like children, the saints approach the ibejadas (infantile entities of the Umbandist pantheon) celebrated in festive tours carried out on the dates consecrated to Cosmas and Damian. The infantilization of the saints does not occur only in the iconography; especially in their celebration we can see that the relationship of Cosme, Damian and Doum with the children goes out of the altars and reaches the streets, where the saints are celebrated with candies, toys and caruru.3

The fact that Cosme and Damian are relevant figures in several religious pantheons allowed us to investigate the implications that their passages, or rather, their presence in multiple different semantic fields, would bring to their definition, to the repertoire of powers, legends and idiosyncrasies attributed to them, as well as to the "label" of devotion in which they should be catalogued (Menezes, 2004). The classic theme of religious "syncretism" or "hybridism" is often complexified, refined and updated based on our observations (Sanchis, 1994; Birman, 1996).

Cosme and Damian's parties in Rio de Janeiro

The distribution of Cosme and Damian candies to children in the streets of Rio de Janeiro on the days around September 27th is capable of producing a great transformation. During this period, the paper bags filled with candies and sweets are transformed into "Cosme and Damian bags", with their own names, unique attributes, personalities and capacity to produce specific effects, such as the joy of those who receive them and those who donate them. Understanding, therefore, the distinctive elements that people use to characterize the Cosme y Damián bag, the operations they develop to compose and disassemble it, together with the attributes conferred in this process and the rules of etiquette to make it circulate -the social life of the bag (Appadurai, 1990; Kopytoff, 1990)-, are a way to understand the social relations involved in the party and the relevance attributed to giving and receiving candies in the production of children's joy. Thousands of children take to the streets, usually accompanied by an adult or an older child, in search of bags, which are given away on street sidewalks. It is also customary to ask at the door of the houses and buildings where the donors live.

In many public schools, classes are suspended or absences are excused so that children can collect candy. There seems to be a sort of competition among them, comparing the number received that year and in previous years. The practice also seems to function as a small rite of passage, since being able to go out with friends in search of bags is a sign of growth and a certain degree of emancipation (toddlers and babies often go with their mothers). The infantile freedom that is established through the circulation of children and adolescents who spend the day chasing candy reminds us of a curious game of inversions, in which they, in a sense, "take control" and, since their practices do not exclude unbridled deception and even violence, leave adults somewhat encapsulated. Thus, an intense movement is set in motion involving children, adults, treats, circuits, spaces, etc. Although the bag deliveries occur in several points of the city, they acquire more strength in the suburbs, to the point that no child is left without at least one bag, in what Freitas (2019) so well defined as "candy stains".4

It is a holiday with its own time and rhythm that significantly changes the socio-spatial dynamics of the city with thousands of adults and children moving atypically in search of sweets, causing interactions and exchanges between social groups and people who do not frequent each other on a daily basis. However, this coexistence does not necessarily imply overcoming the differences and inequalities that structure these relationships on a daily basis. In this sense, Cosme y Damián's day focuses on the relations between the house and the street and puts their limits in suspense.

The practice of giving and receiving candy would also put into operation a kind of "ideal type of generosity", involving anonymity, impersonality, speed and attention to children, which could bring implications for anthropological formulations on reciprocity (Mauss, 2003; Simmel, 1964; Pitt-Rivers, 2011; Coelho, 2006). Thus, to talk about the Cosme and Damian sweets is to give visibility and dimension to an apparently peripheral practice, but capable of mobilizing thousands of people annually (and for several decades), demonstrating its centrality for certain groups and agents, its weight in the construction and strengthening of social ties of solidarity and affection, its weight in the culture of Rio de Janeiro and its surroundings.

The focus on this city was based on a formulation found in the literature, which indicates that in this locality and in the surrounding municipalities the cult of the twins would have acquired particular characteristics, emphasizing the distribution of candies "in bags to children in the street". The practice of Cosme and Damian candy does exist in other regions of the country, but, in many cases, the street does not seem to have the weight it has in Rio de Janeiro, because the distribution is more restricted to the domestic and religious sphere, or the candy assumes a secondary or complementary role. In fact, this tradition is recurrently evoked as the main feature of contrast between the carioca culture based on giving candy to children in the street and the Bahian custom that celebrates the date with the Caruru de Ibeji or Caruru of the children.

On the other hand, both the academic literature and the conventional press indicate that the practice would be, if not diminishing, at least being combated in a little or not at all subtle way by the Pentecostal evangelical segment, which considers that the Cosme and Damian candies would operate as instruments of evil, either because they are idolatry or because they are demonic practices. In this case, the refusal to accept the bags, their destruction by fire to stop the action of the demon and their substitution by "sweets consecrated to Jesus" would converge to attack these practices (Silva, 2007), reduce the number of potential recipients and establish a new "donation etiquette", in a new pattern of sociability in which the donor, to avoid conflict, asks permission from the child's parents to give the sweets (Gomes, 2009; Dias, 2013a, 2013b). During the research, we recorded that, in some parts of the city, public parties are prohibited by the local power associated with the retail drug trade and/or the militia, whose leaders identify themselves as evangelicals.

However, we note in the field other factors that contribute less expressively to the idea that parties are decreasing, such as the transformation in the style of housing, more verticalized and closed in condominiums, the feeling of insecurity in the streets, changes in children's games and coexistence with neighbors, the economic crisis and the increase in the cost to have a party, even changes in dietary patterns that condemn the use of sugar. At the same time, in addition to the strength of a votive tradition passed down generationally in the family environment, the festival seems to be reinforced in the centers umbanda and terreiros and to receive the adhesion of a politically mobilized youth, sometimes associated in collectives, that carries out the party both in private and public spaces, emphasizing its cultural character, as a way of disputing the own meanings of what is recognized as forming the identity of the city, as a reaction to the neo-Pentecostal advance.

Devotion, things and people

The field of devotions, that is, relationships involving veneration, care and celebration in homage to saints and even other sacred entities, as well as the feelings and worldviews related to them has already been worked by folklorists, historians and social scientists dedicated to the study of religion and the understanding of the relationships between ritual forms and social organization (Menezes, 2019). In the case of Brazilian society, the subject was often approached from the search for the singularities of the national culture, thanks to the weight attributed to "popular religiosity", in which the feasts of the saints would not only strongly mark the annual cycle of the calendar, but, precisely by marking it, would involve very significant forms of sociability, providing almost a kind of grammar or expressive vocabulary for the dramatization of social life.

Many associate the worship of saints with promises to be paid when they are granted. However, devotion does not refer only to the ability of the devotees to obtain things through the saint nor to the need of the saint to be honored by the devotees. It also involves an intense communication that passes through looks, gestures, words and things, and involves affections, emotions and desires, in a binding relationship that goes far beyond a punctual and interested exchange. It involves life itself, of the devotees and their families. Devotion unfolds, therefore, far beyond the bags of jam.

The body as an instrument of devotion, kneeling, prostrating, touching and kissing the image of the saint, "feeling" its manifestation. Direct connections are established between saints and devotees, thanks to the exchange of glances and the intensity of prayer. Even in public places it is possible to establish a space-time of deep intimacy.

In the case of Ludens, the interest in devotions is associated with the possibility of articulating them to more general and current anthropological debates, through dense ethnographic interpretations, with a focus on "native" interactions and classification games. The emphasis is placed on the cult of the saints as it is lived and practiced and not on its ideal-prescriptive dimension, which would be, in our opinion, a position extensible to research on religion in general. And, through its study, we intend to discuss the nuances and complexities of the forms of reciprocity that occur between the different people involved in the devotions (which often involve self-sacrifice and surrender); the native ontologies on holiness and the intertwining between the life of the saint and that of the devotee (which allows to establish games of construction of identities, subjectivities and collectivities from different angles); as well as the various forms of sociability involved in these relationships.

It was in exploring the performance of these questions that we began to speak of "anthropology of devotion," a term we intend to keep with the connotation of a formulation in process, to prevent it from assuming a substantive form; that is, to remain a working tool. It is in this way that Ludens researchers have elaborated reflections on religion and its connections, especially at the intersection between devotion, celebration, culture, art, heritage and museum. To this end, we are attentive to the ways in which these relationships are materialized, in objects or things, which are not only annexes, but integral to these relationships (Appadurai, 1990).

In the "Sweet Saints" exhibition, we see that in many homes, reproductions of images of saints have been placed on the walls and tile panels, extending their protection to the devotees in domestic life. In addition to the tiles, we see the images of the saints reproduced in many other ways. What is the reason for this? Protection? Homage? Aesthetic preference? Identification?
To all this? The study of the cult of the saints teaches us that it is possible to have or be many things at the same time. It is considered that the objects associated with the saints can distribute their presence and activate their power. Let us remember that there are no saints without devotees, nor devotees without saints. We speak of a relationship in which a person, by entrusting himself to a saint who is his protector, constructs himself as a devotee, while at the same time attributing to his patron the capacity to be the bearer or "emanator" of sanctity.

The multiple forms that this devotion assumes express Brazilian cultural diversity: ladainha, umbanda points, cordel literature, samba de roda, etc. Cosme and Damian are also frequently addressed by samba schools (Bártolo, 2018). In the 2017 carnival, the Estação Primeira de Mangueira paraded with the theme "Só com a ajuda do santo" ("Only with the help of the saint"), written by carnavalero Leandro Vieira. In the parade, the skirts of the traditional baianas were adorned with fabric appliqués that reproduced small bags of Cosme and Damian.

Behind the scenes of a moving investigation

"Dulces santos" was a collective and collaborative research. Taking into account the gender, generation and class characteristics of each one of us, we divided ourselves between children's chaperones and adult chaperones. We tried to alternate roles and look the other way. In the streets, in the temples, in the family homes, the research was made possible by working together. Our study focused on the interactions and movements around the candy bags, to unfold into broader questions, which required from us several methodological experiments to follow them and make visible the nuances of the celebration (Menezes, Bártolo, Freitas, 2020).

Questionnaires, field notebooks, reports, current and archival photos, sketches and other drawings, newspaper articles, tables with candy prices, audio recordings, participant observation, reflexivity, support from colleagues, friends and family: all of it was a tool for the "Doces santos" research. It was an exercise in creativity: an investigation in movement to give an account of a party in movement. We crossed the city in search of sweets, we went through neighborhoods, streets, squares following children and/or adults. Although they were individual routes, many times they crossed each other, which allowed us to identify points of densification of the celebration.

We bought, assembled, distributed, collected, consumed and stored bags. We faced the challenge of extending, methodologically, the brief moment of giving a bag. We followed the candies and the children; we discovered that the urban flows around Cosme and Damien's day allow us to draw a cartography of the city itself.

Finally, "Sweet Saints" - be it the research, the book, the virtual exhibition or the publications - could only happen thanks to the countless people who generously opened their homes, churches, centers and terreirosTo the children, who accepted our company while running after a piece of candy; to the colleagues who sent materials; to the Brazilian science funding agencies that made possible the conditions for our work. Also to the children, who accepted our company while running after candy; to the colleagues who sent materials, to the Brazilian science funding agencies that made possible the conditions for our work.


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Renata Menezes is a professor in the Anthropology Department of the National Museum, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (ufrj). D. (2004) and M.A. (1996) in Social Anthropology from the Graduate Program in Social Anthropology of the National Museum, ufrj (ppgas/mn/ufrj). Coordinator of the Laboratory of Anthropology of the Playful and the Sacred of the National Museum (Ludens). Researcher at the Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico - Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico.cnpq and Faperj's "Cientista do Nosso Estado". renata.menezes@mn.ufrj.br

Morena Freitas is an anthropologist at the Superintendence of the Institute of National Historical and Artistic Heritage (Instituto del Patrimonio Histórico y Artístico Nacional (iphan) in Sergipe, Brazil. Researcher at the Laboratory of Anthropology of the Playful and the Sacred (Ludens/...).mn/ufrj). D. in Social Anthropology from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. morebmfreitas@gmail.com

Lucas Bártolo D. student at the Graduate Program in Social Anthropology of the National Museum of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (ppgas/mn/ufrj), Brazil. Researcher at the Laboratory of Anthropology of the Playful and the Sacred (Ludens/...), Brazil.mn/ufrj). Master in Social Anthropology from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. bartolo.lucas@mn.ufrj.br

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EncartesVol. 6, No. 12, September 2023-February 2024, is an open access digital academic journal published biannually by the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social, Calle Juárez, No. 87, Col. Tlalpan, C. P. 14000, México, D. F., Apdo. Postal 22-048, Tel. 54 87 35 70, Fax 56 55 55 76, El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, A. C.., Carretera Escénica Tijuana-Ensenada km 18.5, San Antonio del Mar, No. 22560, Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, Tel. +52 (664) 631 6344, Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Occidente, A.C., Periférico Sur Manuel Gómez Morin, No. 8585, Tlaquepaque, Jalisco, Tel. (33) 3669 3434, and El Colegio de San Luis, A. C., Parque de Macul, No. 155, Fracc. Colinas del Parque, San Luis Potosi, Mexico, Tel. (444) 811 01 01. Contact: encartesantropologicos@ciesas.edu.mx. Director of the journal: Ángela Renée de la Torre Castellanos. Hosted at https://encartes.mx. Responsible for the last update of this issue: Arthur Temporal Ventura. Date last modified: September 21, 2023.