Umbanda is a syncretic religion that incorporated Catholicism, Native South American beliefs and Kardecism -- French spiritualism -- into the African possession cults that survived Jesuit extermination.
The origins of Umbanda go back to the Yoruban religion, brought to Brazil by the African slaves in the 16th century. This African religion, based on the channeling of deities who represent forces of nature while sharing, like the Greek gods, human passions, is the foundation for a variety of possession cults of which Umbanda is a later manifestation.
Afro-Brazilian Umbanda devotees in worship
In order to escape persecution, the Yoruban Gods, called Orixás, "disguised themselves" as the Saints of the oppressor. For instance, Ogum, the warrior god is also Saint George; Yemanjá, mother and Goddess of the Ocean is equivalent to Mary. While some cults were formed out of the desire to preserve the African culture (and thus retained its homogeneity), Umbanda would emerge out of the significant encounter between the Africans that managed to escape slavery, the indigenous culture and an European component.
Umbanda worshipper dancing and experiencing trance
In the beginnings of this century, the infiltration of Kardecism, an European spiritist movement which was a mix of possession cult and evolutionary doctrine, along with the Catholic facade, brought Umbanda "to the surface" -- as an underground religious movement (Sales 16-19) . Esther Pressel points to the fact that the mix of Umbanda is not always a balanced one --some terreiros (temples or spiritual centers -- the root of the word refers to "earth") are more Africanized, others more spiritist -- and that it was the spiritist element, since it presents possession as a calmer phenomenon, which made the religion more palatable to the more educated, and thus higher classes (218). In my opinion, it oriented Umbanda towards the middle class but it never excluded the lower classes who were the foundation through out the process of its formation.
Afro-Brazilians in Umbanda spiritual.
The cosmologies of all Afro-Brazilian cults share the same Yoruban deities. However, in Umbanda, instead of the descent of the Orixás into the bodies of the "sons and daughters of saints," also called mediums or "horses," it is the spirits of the dead ancestors that come down to give advice and heal the adepts. The Brazilian anthropologist Lísias Negrão provides an insightful description of these spirit types in terms of their function and personality. One of the most famous types of spirits is the Caboclo, who represents the spirit of a dead Indian - He is young and strong, knows the mysteries of the forest and the healing power of plants. He gives advice on mundane issues that call for quick decision. The other major type is the Preto Velho spirit of the old black person, who is wise and calm and gives advice on greater issues. He also knows herbs but since he's been catholicized, he can speak of Jesus and even suggest western medicine. The third type is the "Child", who has no specific ethnicity. He or she just comes down to play and make people happy.
The "Child," who isn't of any particular ethnicity, is considered simply Brazilian. Besides these major types, there are also the trickster spirits such as Exus and the Pomba Gyras, the prostitutes. Because they are considered the dangerous ones, most rituals start by "feeding them," meaning: paying them homage, so that they don't turn against the participants. There are other types of spirits that are characteristic of specific regions of Brazil such as the bohemian, smart-ass kind of spirit, known as Zé Pilantra, who is the stereotype of the natives of Rio de Janeiro (205-244). Kardecism brought, along with the doctrine of reincarnation present in many Asian religions, the emphasis on invoking spirits of dead intellectuals, such as those of doctors and professors, who are usually of European background. Given the multi-ethnicity of the cosmology, it isn't a surprise that the adepts and mediums are very racially mixed, and it is important to note that the fusion is magnified when a white man channels an Indian or when a black man channels a white and so on.
Xangô - Santuário Nacional da Umbanda
A similar dynamic causing a temporary erasure of class boundaries, probably facilitated the development of Umbanda as parallel to the growth of Brazil as an urban-industrial society. The class communion existent within the ritual ceremony balances out the extreme economic inequality of the society. However, it seems to induce a certain social conformity since the poor are content with their situation as long as it is cyclically overthrown during the ritual sessions. Besides, according to Leilah Landim, Umbanda presents a possibility of social mobility within its context, through the hierarchy of mediumship (104). This, in my opinion, also works in favor of the resolution of class conflicts outside the ritual context though it does not increase social mobility. Nonetheless, though the possibility for social change is diminished here, this temporary pods of class integration are still extremely valid and necessary.
Ogum - Santuário Nacional da Umbanda
Besides being a stage for the communion of people defined by who they are rather than by what they have, Umbanda is the only place in Brazilian society that one escapes sexism, since in most terreiros "women are a majority among the mediums" (Pressel 217). While the Orixas have specific genders, the spirits of Umbanda, not only can be of both genders but also can be incorporated by a medium of opposite gender. Some anthropologists, who look at possession through a psychoanalytical perspective, assert that women are a majority simply because they are more repressed (217). Though it is a logical conclusion based on their reductive understanding of an extremely complex phenomenon, my personal experience rejects it. The female mediums I have met, including member of my family, were always very independent and strong -- their initiation was sort of a natural progression of their lives. Thus, the female predominance in mediumship points to a intuitive restoration of balance, that successfully expresses and resolves gender tensions in and outside of the ritual context.
Umbanda Devotees in worship
Although the interchange of identities among people of different ethnicity, social class and gender is definitely the main agent of a coherent Brazilian identity, certain elements of the possession ceremony and the relations between its components are key to furthering our understanding of the social meaning of Umbanda. Even though the ceremonies vary a lot from terreiro to terreiro, the basic components of the ritual itself can be seen as the micro-dynamics of a societal urge for communion. Group participation is a key element. All the individuals need to be concentrated to form a strong energy bond so that the horse -- the channeler -- can receive the spirit. The channeling is preceded by specific songs, drums or hand clapping, depending on the orientation -- more or less African. Once the spirit descends, the ritual assumes a more individualistic phase which consists of waiting to receive advice and be cleansed by the spirit that comes through the medium. In smaller terreiros, like the one I grew up around, after the individual advice and healing, the spirit gives general advice to the group as a whole and then the group concentration and faith is once again required so that the medium can come back safely.
Umbanda devotee`s beads
The relation between medium and spirit is well illustrated by Victor Turner's research on what he called "the dialectics of Umbanda": Whether conscious or unconscious, "Possession is at once a collective and an individual phenomenon, Velho writes, for the entities received belong to a mythological system, yet each medium gives the entity s/he personifies an idiosyncratic elaboration. Each medium has a preto Velho, but the medium Mario has his own Preto-Velho, 'Pai Benedito' " (qtd. in Turner 54). This clear analogy to the integrative function of theater is also reflected in the relationship between an adept and the entities. It seems as if the spiritual hierarchy, though existent is minimized by the possibility of audience participation. Anyone is capable -- most of the times involuntarily -- to receive an entity. Besides, the feeling of communion is enhanced by the fact that the entities seem to live in a very similar material setting. I remember being struck at the age of eight by the humanness of these higher beings when my Preta Velha (channeled by my grandmother) said in a joking manner: "Oh, I better go, 'cause Preto Velho is just sitting there on his tiny stool, smoking his pipe, staring at the fire waiting to come down."
Umbanda devotee in a spiritual trance
The syncretism that characterizes Umbanda is not a closed system, it is a process that is in constant mutation and adaptation to particular regional needs. "Umbanda doesn't search for legitimation in the keeping of tradition, but rather on the efficacy of its works" (Landim 101). Although all terreiros share a similar cosmology each center is very independent from one another, very autonomous, unlike organized religion. There is no rigorous codification of the ritual sequence nor of the belief systems (Pressel 134). In fact, the creativity in developing a particular ritual language is a form of acceptance. Thus, Umbanda occupies the realm of art and theater, funneling the creativity of its members through a constant reassessment of the meaning of the ritual, which is to say, the meaning of their lives.
It is important to point out that, according to Turner, in spite of the integrative function of the autonomous and heterogeneous terreiros, they are neither free of internal conflicts nor of conflicts among themselves. They are a microcosmos of the society at large, but here the conflicts are mostly among entities, so they are supported by the mythological stories that are the backbone of the rites. Even the power struggle among the administrative representatives of the terreiros should be seen as an opportunity to "develop collective identity" (47). Thus, the power struggles within a particular terreiro and among terreiros for the influence over an area is a vital part of the dynamics though which Umbanda expresses and resolves social tensions.
Umbanda religion orixas
What fascinates me the most about Umbanda is the elimination of racial boundaries. What is especially intriguing is the very fact that there's no talk about multi-ethnicity within its circles. It seems that the process happened so naturally that nobody questions it -- I hadn't questioned it until after nearly twenty years of practice. Umbanda doesn't preach for racial mixture; Umbanda is ethnic fusion. Here, the dead spirits aren't only black slaves; they're Indians, cowboys, prostitutes, bohemians, professors, doctors, tricksters, and children. While some scholars, such as Bastide, find that Umbanda is a degeneration of the African heritage because it signifies a second subjugation to white values through its adoption of white and amerindian spiritism (qtd. in Landim 102), I think that the mediation by the spirit of the dead ancestors, while it distances itself from its origins, is actually a form of reaffirming the essence of the Yoruban religion: the very possession element. If possession is about being a vessel for that which is around us though we can't see it -- or most of the time refuse to see it -- how could the channelers, the mediums of this sacred art not be possessed by the racial tensions in its environment? According to Sheila Walker possession is the very opposite of religious passivity, for in the act of establishing communication with the gods (which, in this case is mediated by the spirits) humans are "taking positive constructive action in creating an order of which men are in control rather than helpless" (103). So, the great lesson of Umbanda lies in its deliberate interpretation of what "ancestry" means, since its realm embraces as ancestors people who live in the same land in spite of their ethnic roots. Therefore, this redefinition of genealogy enables the ritual to function as an agent of integration of national identity. Furthermore, perhaps what the existence of Umbanda is trying to tell us is that the survival of an ancient ritual in the context of a modern society has more to do with learning how to grow through a process of inclusion than with maintaining the purity of its roots through a process of exclusion. -- Carla Melo
Afro-Brazilians in their ritual Umbanda worship
Landim, Leilah. Sinais dos Tempos: Tradições Religiosas no Brasil. Rio de Janeiro: Instituto de Estudos da Religião, 1989.
Negrão, Lísias Nogueira . Entre a Cruz e a Encruzilhada. São Paulo: Edusp, 1996.
Pressel, Esther. Umbanda Trance and Possession in São Paulo, Brazil. Trance , Healing, and Hallucination. Ed. Irving I. Zaretsky. New York: Wiley-Interscience, 1974. 134, 217-218.
Sales, Nivio Ramos. Rituais Negros e Caboclos. Rio de Janeiro: Pallas, 1984.
Turner, Victor. The Anthropology of Performance. New York: Paj Publications, 1988.
Walker, Sheila. Ceremonial Spirit Possession in Africa and Afro-America. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1972.
Oxum - Santuário Nacional da Umbanda
Spirit Possession and Healing Cult among the Brasilian Umbanda
Horst H. Figge
Umbanda is an animistic-spiritistic religion of Brazil with several million adherents especially in the bigger Cities. It may be characterized as an extraecclesiastic consolidation of popular catholicism within the vacant forms of ancient Afro-Brasilian sects. The central belief is the existence of all sorts of spirits; a central task is to give them the opportunity temporarily to take hold of human bodies. There may be a hundred thousand or more trained incorporation-mediums in Brazil by now, that is, people who in certain instances believe, and are thought by others, to be spirits.
Umbanda devotee in spiritual worship
There are, roughly speaking, five categories of spirits called and embodied in Umbanda: deities of nature (who are seen in close connection to Catholic saints), old people, good and bad people of middle age, and
children. All of them show a semi-standardized behavior. Personally known dead are seldom or never called.
There is no cult session at all without the presence of embodied spirits. The priest himself always is a medium and he leads the group and the sessions mainly through his different spirit roles. Every developed medium is the 'horse', as it is called, of at least one spirit of each category, generally of more. Mediums are free to incorporate any spirit, male or female of any category - or in the language of Umbanda: the spirits are free to
choose any medium.
Afro-Brazilian Umbanda religious devotee
Umbanda does not know any organisation or leadership above the level of the thousands of cult-groups. Groups form around certain priests called `chiefs' who train their mediums and later an ordain priests from
among them. The new priests may form their own group or stay with their spiritual father or mother. The social background of members and of passive visitors, the behavior of the spirits, the display of special
clothing, headgear, etc., may be different from group to group, depending on the preferences of the chief, respective his embodied spirits.
In well-organized groups the different categories of spirits are called one by one. If necessary, spirits appearing at the wrong moment, are more or less politely sent away. The sessions generally are accompanied and guided in every phase by songs and rhythmic clapping of hands or drumming, which means that songs and rhythms are specific, e.g. to certain categories of spirits or even to certain individual spirits. A Session may last from 2-6 h or more. The sessions most appreciated by the mediums are festive ones in the open air: in the woods; at the seaside; on a street-crossing, etc., and they may last for a whole day or a whole night. Mediums may embody spirits for hours. The same way they are asked to incorporate, spirits are asked to retire, generally by songs.
They may, however, retire spontaneously after taking adequate leave. As the basic behavior of spirits of a certain category follows norms, so does the behavior shown at the alternation points between medium-role
and spirit-role, the moment in which the spirit is thought to enter and to leave the body. Especially at the end of the possession most Umbandists must be helped by assistants, because otherwise they would seriously
injure themselves. In the course of possession the assistant is a sort of servant to the spirit; however, he also sees to it that the spirit does not infringe the norms of Brazilian society and of the group, and that he does
not damage his 'horse', etc. The declared main object of Umbanda is to do charity. This, however, in
the first place means 'spiritual charity' and `charity done by spirits'. The greater part of passive believers come to the cult sessions only to be helped. They are not very much interested in a ritual they hardly
understand, they have only superficial knowledge of the theological background.
We may distinguish four main kinds of treatment within Umbanda: countermagic, fluid manipulation, offerings and mediumship. Which one of those is prescribed in a given case depends on many things except on the problem itself as it is seen by us, the unbelieving. Unidentified pain, a badly healing wound, fear of dogs, lack of professional success may all be treated in the same way, but the headache of one person by a completely
different method than the headache of another one. The spirits are not at all interested in what trouble or disease a patient really has, what the real reasons are or the historical developments. They are almost exclusively interested in what the patient thinks he suffers, what he thinks the reasons are, and finally what he can be made to think of as an effective treatment. The diagnosis, if we may call it thus, is always orientated by given possibilities of treatment. As spirits only dispose of spiritual means, the troubles have to be explained spiritually to be accessible to the methods.
Umbanda religious followers
There must be mentioned a possible exception, because sometimes spirits prescribe household medicine. But even in these cases the intention is mainly spiritual: they may prescribe a tea of orange leaves and garlic, and when the patient utters his aversion against garlic, make him pour it out in front of the main cross of a cemetery at midnight. I have several times witnessed spirits ordering believers to see a doctor and inquire
whether directions given by doctors were followed. But 1 have also found pills and even catgut in offerings at the seaside.
(1) Countermagic. Nearly every Brazilian is convinced of the possibility of helping and harming people by unnatural means. The spirits generally confirm a patient's supposition to be the victim of a magic attack. The
supposedly guilty person is rapidly found, when the patient names anyone he does not like. The spirit then invents a story of magic actions against the patient, which he can neutralize by stronger ones, and he is willingly helped by the patient who may have noticed something disturbing, the loss of a piece of cloth, a coloured ribbon in front of the door or the like. lt is important that differences between offerings and actions of positive or negative magic and countennagic are mainly spiritual, which means they cannot be recognized, at least not by a common believer. Thus, the countermagic that one of them puts somewhere, may by erroneously considered harmful magic by the next one.
Umbanda Ogun rituals
Actually there is quite a lot of destructive magic done too. But from the belief itself results that the person aimed at neuer perceives it, because otherwise he would be able to defend himself or even throw the spell back. Thus, results of black magic are possible only an the side of its originator and it actually may be considered one of the most lucky means of neutralizing aggressive tendencies.
(2) Fluid manipulation. Umbandists believe that there are two kinds of spiritual energy in everything that exists. Living beings, objects, acts, thoughts, everything, are loaded with a certain quantity of positive and
negative fluid and irradiate them onto surrounding or connected bearers. Indicators of bad fluids are, e.g., filth, ugliness, bad luck, remorse; indicators of good fluids are the contrary. Frech air, daily bath, pleasing
conversation, constructive thoughts, etc., augment the share of positive fluids. A positive balance of good fluids means well-being, contentment, freedom of pain and sorrow, etc. Only embodied spirits have the faculty to manipulate fluids directly. They do so mainly by so-called `passes'. Giving passes, the spirit moves his hands along the body-contours of the patient, by which procedure bad fluids are thought to be drawn out. They are thought to condense within the body of the `horse' and by the special forces of the spirit to be thrown out into the universe by finger snaps or the like.
Umbanda devotees in water ritual act
There are many variants of passes. Some spirits touch the patients more or less intensely, some even lift them up and whirl them around, some may intensely quiver all the time, giving the patient's head, his neck or other parts a vibration massage, still others prefer to treat with the smoke of their pipe or cigar or with water or brandy. Most of those procedures are accompanied by hardly understandable mutters of prayers, wishes and advices of unspecific content.
Believers do not show any visible result afterwards, but obviously they must be convinced of the efficacy, because they come for treatment week after week or at least when in trouble which they see in connection with a personal surplus of negative fluids. Also the mediums themselves like to get passes. The fully developed ones, however, are given passes only by their own spirits, that means the embodied spirits clean their own `horse'.
Closely related to fluid manipulation is what is called `exchange of head'. Spirits claim to be able to take certain troubles, which are considered things that one has and that can be taken away from one person and given to another one. This may be done secretly onto a known - mostly an unknown victim - by magic acts. If it is done openly, the patient can observe a medium wince, be shaken by clonic twitches, fall to the ground,
etc., because, as he is told, the bad substance moves from him to the body of the medium. The medium is cleaned by his own good spirits later on. Often the exchange of head is done with animals which are usually killed afterwards. Longer lasting protection against evil is thought to be given by certain types of necklaces with iron links and amulets prepared or at least blessed and loaded by spirits or, e.g., by a glas of water put behind the entrance door.
Umbanda Ogun rituals
(3) Offerings. Quite often believers are instructed to offer candles, flowers, food, etc., to good spirits, to guarantee their help, or to bad spirits to calm down their temper and make them abstain from noxious influences. Although only few believers know, the spirits generally put much more importance on the act of preparation, time and place of deposition, and especially to the patient's attitude, than to what is offered. lt is
amusing to see a poor patient bargain with the consulted spirit who may reduce his demand from seven black chickens to one brown one or even to three cheap cigars, as long as he is convinced of the patient's honesty.
(4) Mediumship. The treatment that interferes most with the life course of a patient is his development as a spirit medium. In the eyes of Umbandists, every human being has a lot of guiding and guarding spirits, the obligations against which, normally, are quite unimportant. In certain cases, however, it is believed that troubles are caused by those spirits as they want a person to develop into a medium and thus give them the
opportunity to embody. Obviously this suggestion is only made when the chief (or his spirit) is willing to accept the patient as a member of his group. If the patient is not able to become a medium, e.g. because he
cannot spare the necessary time or if he just does not want to, the way out is offerings. If he consents, he has to buy the cult clothes, accept certain regulations, and participate regularly in so-called developmental
sessions. The training is all most exclusively done by embodied spirits, so the trainee always has in front of him an example of how spirits are thought to behave through his body.
Most of the different techniques to eliminate the patient's primary personality by trance can be categorized in one of the two following possibilities: (a) continuous and increasingly contrary tendencies of
behavior are activated, by systematic humiliation or the skillful use of a strong aversion, until suddenly the possibility of showing any behavior at all collapses. The patient may show abrupt, uncoordinated
movements, more or less generalized convulsions, states of stupor or swoon; (b) within the atmosphere of expectation and fright in which the patient thinks himself surrounded by invisible beings, waiting for
them to push him out of his own body, an instant is created in which he gets sure that the decisive moment has come and he cannot resist any more. He may be startled by a cry or suddenly be drawn off balance. It is a most amazing misinterpretation of sessions of spirit-possession cults, to speak of a hypnogenous situation. There is an ear-deafening noise in the generally overcrowded room, the trainee has to stand, sometimes he is even pushed and pulled around. As soon as he starts to stagger or show other symptoms of his soul leaving the body (as Umbandists would say) bystanders intensify their song, shout salutes to the spirit they believe is starting to embody.
Yemanjá no Santuário Nacional da Umbanda
fact that after the preliminary training the secondary personality may get access to contents of the primary personality, so the spirit need not learn all the particularities of his role, if and as his medium knows them.
The ability to fall into trance more or less spontaneously, and to embody a spirit conforming to the individually felt necessity of the moment, is guaranteed by what we may call internalization of the releaser. This and the avoidance of any possible rapport is brought about by the fact that nearly everybody in the cult group participates in the development of the new medium and by frequent and complete alterations of the general situation.
Furthermore, the development of mediums in and by the group guarantees that spirits do not enter into direct contact wich the medium's soul (via hallucinations or automatisms) at least not outside the adequate group
Figge, H.H.: Geisterkult, Besessenheit und Magie in der UmbandaReligion Brasiliens (Alber, Freiburg/München 1973).
MYTHOLOGY AND KNOWLEDGE IN UMBANDA
An Examination of Social Forces in Brazil
and the Emergence of Umbanda.
Michael A. Nicklas
The interaction among various imported and indigenous spiritual traditions in Brazil has created numerous distinct and complex belief systems. During Brazil's colonial period (1530-1822), African, Amerindian, and European transplants were in direct contact, and the differential interaction of their beliefs and practices has made for a distinct regional pattern. In this colonial context, diverse worldviews and previously well-defined spiritual beliefs and practices were thrust together, and have developed syncretically and in juxtaposition. Several factors were especially important in determining the nature of these syncretic interactions. These included the geographical and environmental characteristics of the various regions, economic considerations, and the concentration of various ethnic groups in a given area, especially Africans of common origin.
Afro-Brazilian Umbanda devotees pouring libation as way of reaching their ancestor
This paper examines the ways in which two differing mythologies, Afro-Brazilian and Institutional Roman Catholic, have interacted in the Brazilian cultural context. The focus is on Umbanda, a syncretic
belief system which has developed primarily in urban Brazil in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Specifically, the birth and development of Umbanda is examined in terms of social forces which
are in opposition because of their different, mythologically-based, conceptions of the relationship between knowledge and power: Afro- Brazilian and Roman Catholic religious traditions hold contrasting
conceptions of this relationship. This distinction has socio-political implications which highlight the relationship between marginal cultures and the more dominant Catholic one.'
Afro-Brazilian young girl follower of Umbanda cult
A consideration of contrasting social histories of Institutional Roman Catholicism and Umbanda, and of their differing perspectives on the acquisition of
knowledge and power provides insight into the social and political tension between these groups. This implicit difference sheds light on the historic marginalization of Umbanda in Brazil and on its current
growing popularity. The predominance of different ethnic groups in specific regions effected the emergence of distinct religious practices. The African Yoruba, originally from what is now Nigeria, were concentrated in the north-east region of Brazil known as Bahia. The high ratio of Yoruba to other West African groups in Bahia led to a continuation of Yoruban cultural and religious traits; for example, the religion Candomble, prevalent in this region, maintains the pageantry and color of the rich Yoruban pantheon. In contrast, the southern part of Brazil was directly affected by the importation of slaves of Bantu cultural background from southern Africa. Falling sugar prices in the northeast led to a decreased need for slave labor at the same time that increased mining in the southern region created a greater demand for slaves.
Mother of "Saint".Priestess of Afro-Brazilian religion (Umbanda-syncretist worshipctholic saints and african and indians divinities)
In African religion called Candomblé the Mother of Saint is better knows in Yourubá language as "Yalorixá".This predominance of Bantu peoples explains, in part, the dominance of Bantu spirit practices, known as Macumba in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and as CabulA in the state of Espirito Santo, in the southern part of the country. The Amerindian presence was most pronounced in the Amazon Basin and the interior northeast. Both fugitive slaves and those working on cattle ranches in these areas often had extended contact with Amerindian religious beliefs and practices. The result of interaction between African and Amerindian spirit beliefs is known in the Amazon Basin as Pajelanca and as Catimb6 in the state of Pernambuco. Thus, a geographical consideration of beliefs and practices in Brazil clarifies the emergence of this regional pattern which includes various Afro-Catholic, Afro-Amerindian, and
Bantu-Yoruba syncretic tradition^.^
During the twentieth century, as the result of both widespread migration to urban areas and improved mass communication, beliefs and practices involving hypnomantic knowledge--knowledge gained
through possession or trance-have gradually become more uniform. The development of an industrial economy based primarily in the corridor between Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo has led to an influx
of people to this area from around the country. The diversity of spiritual practices which were thrust together in the Rio-Sao Paulo area has created a rich pool of knowledge from which Umbanda has
been born. Umbanda is the name used by the modern, syncretic groups which draw on Amerindian, African, and European sources for spiritual knowledge and power. This borrowing from multiple sources
distinguishes Umbanda from other regional Afro-Brazilian groups which tend to rely predominantly on one or two root sources. Beyond the blending of beliefs which could be expected from informal contact among individuals in an urban setting, another important vehicle of communication has emerged among Afro-Brazilian communities. A "spiritist press" has developed, publishing a wide range of books dealing with hypnomantic knowledge and drawing upon European, African, and Amerindian traditions. The Imprensa Espirita is not a single publishing group, but rather an umbrella term for the many small publishers who produce books dealing with hypnomantic knowledge and whose wares are sold in specialized bookstores which carry spiritual goods, as well as at newsstands and on street corners.
By way of defining Umbanda, I have chosen an illustrative example from the "spiritist press," Malungo, Decodifica@o da Umbanda.
This excerpt summarizes the function of the various regional or root traditions as they inform each other in Umbanda cosmology. Specifically, I have chosen a passage exemplifying Umbanda interpretation and assimilation of new spiritual and religious knowledge through the mass media. Malungo, Decodificap30 da Umbanda was written by an Umbanda practitioner, Dilson Bento, and was published in 1979.
Umbanda, in Brazil, designates a complex of beliefs and rituals of African roots, fruit of the interaction between Black, Amerindian, and European cultures. Umbanda is a religious movement which is currently in a stage of formation and expansion with a greater following in urban areas. As a social phenomena
[Umbanda] extends itself throughout the Brazilian territory, penetrating the various social classes, making followers amongst both the rich and the poor.
The new converts of European descent who interacted with Umbanda accepted its approaches to "the mysteries" and attempted to translate and understand the concepts according to French spiritism [Kardecism]. These individuals drew spiritual concepts from the most varied of esoteric traditions in order to establish a code for Umbanda. The African cults assimilated this language as long as it didn't alter the African cosmogony or anything related to possession. In this manner Umbanda gained a body of doctrine, more or less defined but extremely eclectic, based both on African traditions and other traditional "schools." . . . Not all teachings of diverse nature were encountered and incorporated in
the way just mentioned. A part of our information came to us in a fragmented and chaotic state through the mass media system. However, an elaboration and comprehension of this information was conducted by mediums outside of their "ego" state, that is, in a state of possession or trance. It can be said that this
information was processed through the unconscious by "traditional wisdom!'
Afro-Brazilian Young woman carries gifts to Yemanjá, in Salvador, Brazil.
By traditional wisdom we mean the elaboration of information by psychic means. Such wisdom is highly regenerative when applied to knowledge which has been fragmented and disassociated by mass-media. The collective memory organizes this data (at the level of the unconscious) in such a way as to always have available a central body of experiences. This central corpus is, in Umbanda, the structure of values of Black culture in Brazil presents a clear description of the assimilation of spirit beliefs and practices into Umbanda. The interaction among diverse traditions created a need for a framework which could incorporate and organize African, Amerindian, and European conceptions of the spirit realm. This framework was based on the authority of individual mediums who decided how new knowledge would be treated: After consideration by the spirits, new ideas might be accepted as received, rejected, or modified. Before this process can be treated in more detail, it is important to examine an individual's motivation for investigating or appropriating the beliefs and practices of another
The common element among the traditions which contributed to the formation of Umbanda, and which facilitated their blending, was the use of hypnomantic knowledge (Obeyesekere 1981:169).The
assimilation into Umbanda of the various approaches to hypnomantic knowledge was possible because "the idiom or context of possession was comprehensible insofar as it was crouched [sic] in terms of a larger shared culture" (Obeyesekere 1981:169). The contributing traditions-Amerindian, African (Bantu and Yoruba), and French Kardecist--emerged from contexts which allowed for interaction with
a spirit realm. In Umbanda, as in these source traditions, the interaction between people and spirits provides information and empowerment for individuals and groups. Moreover, the spirit traditions which inform Umbanda are open belief systems allowing and even encouraging the continual search for knowledge and thus for new, possibly more effective, power.
Blessed water Part II/Festa de Yemanjá
Power in this context must be understood in light of the underlying belief in the Afro-Brazilian complex that events and occurences in the life of an individual are impacted by the spirit realm.Knowledge of means or techniques to manipulate the spirit realm is then, in a real sense, the power to control one's own life. Attending to the search for power and power sources adds significantly to an understanding of Umbanda. In each of the groups mentioned above, consulting religious specialists and following their advice, performing rituals, using herbal medicines, etc. allows individuals to secure power. Some individuals are considered especially powerful because of their success in making contact with power
sources through lineage, spirit beings, magical paraphernalia, or ritual practice. The search for power is ongoing: If one source or technique becomes ineffectual, it is necessary to search for a more effective
means of exerting control over events in an individual's life. The growing popularity of Umbanda in urban Brazil is not surprising. Living in a complex, urban world produces conflicts which can be ritually addressed through the manipulation of knowledge and power. Thus, knowledge becomes a desirable commodity and is appropriated as the occasion arises.
This pragmatic approach to acquiring new knowledge exists in both the regional traditions and in the more widespread practice of Umbanda. The adoption of new knowledge is determined by the
pragmatic test of applying the knowledge. The results of this test determine whether the new knowledge is appropriated. The process through which new knowledge is received and assimilated has become formalized within the Umbanda movement. This process of assimilation is not a significant departure from the manner in which the regional Afro-Brazilian traditions negotiate new knowledge. If an
outside alternative approach to a given problem proves effective, it is generally assimilated into the ritual or magical repertoire of the individual or group who discovered it.
Umbanda has preserved this pragmatic attitude but has formalized the process. New knowledge is often submitted for comment to a medium who, in a trance state, interprets and judges it. Since almost
all Umbanda members receive spirits--experience trance there is a broad base for interpretation. Every medium has a special relationship to the belief structure, a sense of involvement and direct participation.
Moreover, this process of consulting the spirits concerning new knowledge has allowed the incorporation of more esoteric knowledge, which cannot be tested pragmatically. The way this knowledge is ordered derives from Kardecist influences in which a spiritual hierarchy exists. Umbanda is divided into seven lines which group spiritual beings according to geo-cultural criteria. Each of the seven lines is divided into legions or phalanxes. Legions exist for a variety of African deities, Catholic saints, and Amerindian spirits, as well as a legion for each of the following groups: Egyptians, Aztecs, Incas, Hindus, and the Orient (see Bastide 1987: 323-24). Thus it is possible for ideas from Hinduism or Buddhism, for example, to be understood by and incorporated into Umbanda. In the regional Afro-Brazilian structures which lack a defined system for ordering new esoteric knowledge, it would be much more difficult to assimilate such non-pragmatic religious elements.
Historically, the Afro-Brazilian complex, including Umbanda, has been characterized by its position as a marginal culture, while the dominant culture has been defined by Roman Catholicism and Comtean political philosophy (Order and progress)'. This marginalization has been shaped by economic, political, and cultural factors. Recently, this position has become largely cultural, rather than !XI Folklore Fonun 23:1/2 (1990) Michael A. Nicklas economic or political. Raymond Williams addresses the issue of
marginalization with a more precise vocabulary: "We have to think about the sources of that which is not corporate, of those practices, experiences, meanings, and values which are not part of the effective
dominant culture. There is clearly something that we can call alternative to the effective dominant culture and there is something we can call oppositional in the true sense. The degree of existence of these alternative and oppositional forms is itself a matter of constant historical variation in real circumstances."(Williams 1980:40) When situated against the dominant culture of Catholicism, Umbanda can be seen as an example of such an alternative and oppositional form.
During the era of slavery in Brazil (1606-1888), the practice of traditional religious rituals or ceremonies by slaves was banned because it provided organizational structures which could be used against the
slave owner. Afro-Brazilian religious groups were, therefore, viewed as oppositional by both secular and religious powers within the dominant culture; however, even in this climate, Afro-Brazilian religion and
culture persisted. With the emancipation of the slaves in 1888, Afro-Brazilian groups were able to begin the long struggle towards attaining legitimacy. This process was part of a long battle for civil rights and for racial and social equality in Brazil. During this time Afro-Brazilian communities gradually came to be seen as alternative rather than oppositional by the secular state; however, the other component of the dominant culture, the Roman Catholic Church, has continued to view the regional Afro-Brazilian groups, as well as Umbanda, in clearly oppositional terms. In contrast to Umbanda, Roman Catholicism has a radically different understanding of knowledge and power. Sources of power and means of controlling such power are codified and closed.
Afro-Brazilian Umbanda syncretic religion
In Roman Catholicism there is only one legitimate, acceptable power source-the Holy Trinity, all knowledge of whom was revealed in the past. It is believed that an individual cannot possess power originating outside of the framework of institutional relationships. If anything, the existence of another means of knowledge or power only strengthens the Catholic system by reinforcing notions of evil. Knowledge of alternative power sources is seen as contamination and therefore a threat to institutional power. Instead of deriving vitality from new knowledge, this closed system affirms and strengthens itself through the expulsion of foreign knowledge.
From this historical perspective it is now possible to examine how one component of the dominant culture, the Catholic Church-because of a different mythological conception-has attempted to influence the
government in restraining the growth of Umbanda. Until the latter part of the 1960s, the Catholic influence was so prevalent in the dominant culture that the Afro-Brazilian groups, including Umbanda,
were thought not to represent a religion. Because Catholic mythology revolved around a unified system of knowledge and power, and because Afro-Brazilian traditions held quite disparate beliefs, they were
classified as cults and forced to register with state and local authorities through police departments. Section 7, article 141 of the Brazilian constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and religious belief to
all, but with a limiting clause: "There will exist freedom of religious practice except for those groups which behave in a manner contrary to public order or good custom" (Kloppenburg 1961:58). The
legislative assembly of the state of Pernambuco used this clause to require certified psychiatric exams as a prerequisite for leadership in an Afro-Brazilian group, and it was not until January 15, 1976, that
the governor of Bahia revoked a regulation requiring the CandomblC terreiros of Salvador to be registered at the police section for games and customs. (O'Gorman 1977:27) An interesting parallel can be seen here with the birth of state control of mechanisms of discipline in
In England, it was private religious groups that carried out, for a long time, the functions
of social discipline (Radzinovitz: 203-214); in France, although a part of this role
remained in the hands of the parish guilds or charity associations, another - and no
doubt the most important part - was very soon taken over by the police apparatus.
During the colonial period in Brazil, the Catholic Church easily marginalized other religious belief systems. However, with the transition to a secular state mandated by the separation of church and state in the Constitution of 1891, it has become increasingly difficult to repress other religious beliefs. The Roman Catholic Church has exploited the vagueness of the constitutional clause which limits the freedom of religious practice. It has accused the Afro-Brazilian groups of illegally practicing medicine, of committing ritual crimes, of causing psychological damage to members, of promoting immoral conduct, and of financial swindling. In these cases, the Church is powerless to do anything except pressure the authorities to take a narrow definition of "public order" and "good custom" and to intervene accordingly.
Afro-Brazilian boy in Umbanda worshiping prostration
In some instances, the Church has acted more directly and has taken the Afro-Brazilian groups to court. One such case concerns "intellectual property" and religious knowledge. The following are
excerpts from the ruling in the Roman Catholic Church v. Umbanda Federation of the state of Scio Paulo (1946), concerning the use of Catholic images in an Umbanda procession. Here, Section 7 Article 141 is invoked: The borrowing of religious imagery with intent to deceive is considered injurious to the rights of other groups and an improper appropriation of knowledge. Section 1: In response to a protest entered by D. Idilio Jose Soares, Bishop of the Diocese of Santos, against the acts committed by the Federado Umbandista do Estado de S5o Paulo, of the use in their public ritual of images of Catholic origin and which are distinctly associated with the Catholic faith by religious
association. The intent, undoubtedly, is to mystify or blur, causing the impression that the procession is being organized by the Apostolic Roman Catholic Church. The terreiros of SHo Miguel Arcanjo and Nossa Senhora da Aparecida, shall no longer be known by those names and the respective saints shall be removed in light of the fact that the names of the saints and the cult of their images are exclusive to the Apostolic Roman Catholic Church and therefore not available for use by the Umbandistas.(Kloppenburg 11:246)
This court case can be seen as an example of the dominant culture using the judiciary means to prevent the co-opting of knowledge and the assimilation of beliefs. The Catholic reasoning regarding the use of Catholic saints in Afro-Brazilian ritual betrays an intense fear of having "Catholic" knowledge and access to power used in an alternative way. A Catholic bishop's remarks about how Umbanda groups employ Catholic imagery are revealing? The diabolic idea which has modified overnight the development of "Spiritism or Umbanda" was born of an ambition to become greater than the Catholic Church. A
catholic would never enter a terreiro de Umbanda to ask for the help of Ogum, nor give money to a terreiro which supported Oxossi. A catholic however does believe in SHo Jorge or would give money to an organization whose patron saint was SHo Sebastiao. The ingenious device used to subvert the catholics has been to take advantage of the strong association Brazilians have with the various saints. The filling of their terreiros with the images of the saints while at the same time professing a doctrine of spiritism has been effective to the extent that today sixty per cent of practicing catholics also attend terreiros on a regular basis. (Kloppenburg 11:250)
This commentary represents a notable denial of the historical use of Catholic imagery in Brazil and a misunderstanding of the syncretic nature of Umbanda. The dualistic use of images was one of the
earliest forms of interaction between Catholic and Afro-Brazilian ritual and is widely practiced throughout Brazil today. In fact, there is a long-standing similarity between what is considered popular
Catholicism and Afro-Brazilian religion. The Catholicism which was brought to Brazil by the Portuguese colonists beginning in 1530 was a folk Catholicism which in many ways only vaguely resembled the
institutional Roman Catholic stance. The Iberian peninsula had developed as a remote, outlying region of the Roman Empire; it had not only become Christianized at a late date, but also had struggled to
preserve the polytheistic base of the previous "pagan" faith.
The historical interaction of beliefs and approaches to knowledge and power can be related to Raymond Williams's notion of residual cultural traits within the dominant culture:
The distinction between residual and emergent can be applied to both alternative
and oppositional cultures. By "residual" I mean that some experiences, meanings,
and values, which cannot be verified or cannot be expressed in terms of the
dominant culture, are nevertheless lived and practiced on the basis of the
residue-cultural as well as social-of some previous social formation. (Williams
1980:40) Raymond Williams's notion of residual culture exemplifies the historical relationship between official Catholicism and popular Catholicism, as well as Afro-Brazilian traditions, and their differential
approaches to the acquisition of knowledge and power
Afro-Brazilian girl devotee of Umbanda religion
A change in this relationship was acknowledged when the Vatican I1 pronouncement of 1965 recognized the undeniable interaction between Catholicism and local religious traditions (Levine 1986:8-10).
The Latin American Bishops Synod issued a similar statement at the Second General Conference of Latin American Bishops at Medellin, 1968:
Religious expressions may be deformed and to some extent confused with an
ancestral heritage in which tradition plays an almost tyrannical role. They are easily
influenced by magic and superstitious practica . . . and a certain fear of the divine
which necessitates more visible concrete expression . . . desire for security,
contingency, importance, and simultaneously the urge to adore and thank the
Supreme Being. These religious expressions may be the stammerings of an
authentic religious sense expressed by means of the cultural elements at their
disposal. Faith always reaches man clothed in a cultural language. (O'Gorman
1977:lOO) By accepting the continuing impact of traditional religious beliefs on Catholic practice, the bishops essentially recognized that a residual culture exists. "A residual culture is usually at some distance from the effective dominant culture but one has to recognize that, in real cultural activities, it may get incorporated into it" (Williams 1980:41).
In the Brazilian context discussed here, the issue of pragmatism in relation to new spiritual knowledge is a legacy of popular Catholicism as well as the Afro-Brazilian and Amerindian belief systems. The fetishization of power in the popular Catholicism of Brazil evidences this legacy of pragmatism. The most common recognition of the power of the spirit realm and of spirit-directed energy has been the widespread use of amulets. The amulets, worn near a pulse point (on the wrist or around the neck) attract and contain any harmful energy which might be focused by a witch or warlock upon a victim.
These amulets from popular Catholicism thus fetishized power against a perceived evil spirit realm. Another example of pragmatic action in relationship to power appears in the travelogue of an American
visiting Brazil in 1850:
My friend the vicar had a lad long troubled with a bruised leg The sore resisted all his attempts to heal it. As a last resource, a colored "wise woman" was consulted. She raised a smoke of dried herbs, muttered over the wound, made motions as if stitching its lips up, put on a cataplasm of herbs, sent him home and in a week he was well. Another young slave had a diseased foot; nothing seemed to do it good; and at length his owner gave him leave to visit a dark sorceress, who talked to it, made signs over it, rubbed it with oil, covered it with plaster, and in a few days he was sound too. (Ewbank 1856:247)
This example illustrates the Catholic vicar's willingness to work pragmatically and to seek a solution to his problem from an alternative source, thus acknowledging a source of power outside the Catholic Church. When accepted means of treating the illness proved futile, the vicar sent for a "wise woman." This pragmatic relationship to power is a residual element of both Iberian and Afro-Brazilian
culture; in this instance, it was used by a member of the dominant culture.
In contrast to this use of power, the interaction with the spirit realm through possession or trance has not been incorporated into the dominant culture. Popular Catholicism, for the most part, rejected
interaction with the spirit realm, although it recognized its existence and took great measures to prevent its influences. Thus, spirit possession represents a non-incorporated residual element. Historical
factors, such as the advent of mass media in Brazil, are working to allow the integration of these residual elements, whether incorporated or non-incorporated, into a new, revitalized culture. The marginal cultures in Brazil share the residual element of pragmatic action with the dominant culture. The vicar, for example, used a power source which could never be incorporated into the Catholic structure of knowledge. This pragmatic use of power also underlies the African and Amerindian belief structures in Brazil. Because they are based on interaction with spirits, these marginal cultures allow for the ongoing incorporation of new sources of power in their knowledge structures. Only European Catholicism lacks a system for handling knowledge derived from the spirit world.
Child participates in Yemanjá Festival dressed in typical bahian dress with Oshun colors.
The introduction of Kardecism into Brazil in the mid-nineteenth century provided a missing component which led to the birth of Umbanda. Kardecism, the complex of beliefs dealing with mediumship and "spiritist" interpretations of the Bible, originated in nineteenth- century France and rapidly gained popularity among the upper socioeconomic levels in Brazil. Allan Kardec, who wrote The Christian
Scriptures According to Spiritism, believed in consulting the spirits of the dead to gain advice relating to scriptural interpretation and to diagnose spiritual illness. Kardec claimed that Espiritismo "counts as its
own those adherents belonging to all varieties of religious belief and who still practice their other faith. Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims and even Buddhists. All of them can potentially be spiritists"
(Kloppenburg 1961:70). Kardecism was open to other religions because it focused on the spirits of the dead. Moreover, it was attractive to people of many religious backgrounds, since anyone might be
interested in contacting dead relatives or other spirits. Although Kardecism was introduced into Brazil in the late 1860s, it remained distinct from the other spiritual traditions which dealt with
hypnomantic knowledge until roughly 1908. In that year, a boy in Rio de Janeiro became possessed by an Amerindian spirit while consulting a Kardecist medium.
According to legend, the young man, Zelio de Moraes, was taken to the Spiritist Federation when doctors failed to diagnose a strange illness which was plaguing him. During the session, Zelio went into trance and communicated a message questioning the refusal of the spiritists to accept messages from African and Amerindian spirits. After the spiritists present failed to indoctrinate the spirit, it spoke of establishing a new religion in which African, Amerindian, and European spirits would be given equal recognition. (Brown 1986:40) Although Kardecism in Brazil provided a European approach to understanding the spirit realm, it was closed to other spirit belief systems. Additionally, the spirits in European Kardecism were considered by many Brazilians to be overly concerned with complicated doctrinal matters. The eventual incorporation of African and Amerindian spirits into early Umbanda, however, allowed for a focus on healing and curing which had practical applications. Thus, as Kardecism became incorporated into the emerging Umbanda tradition, it underwent a significant change which can be attributed to the
residual influence of African, Amerindian, and European culture still present in Brazil.
Mass culture in Brazil can be characterized by the acceptance and embracing of this emerging culture. It is estimated that there are roughly 300,000 Afro-Brazilian groups in Brazil. Some of Brazil's most famous writers (Jorge Amado) and singers (Caetano Veloso are "sons of saint," that is, initiates in the religion (Bramly 1977:4). Similarly, politicians are constantly trying to associate themselves with the Afro- Brazilian complex as they vie for popular support. The widespread presence of this emerging culture will soon bring into question the validity of the natural equation of the Roman Catholic Church with the dominant culture. As Umbanda continues to grow, the "dominant" culture, lacking an open framework for integrating new knowledge, may soon find itself both marginal and residual. An important aspect of this emerging Afro-Brazilian culture will be the success of Umbanda outside of the Rio de Janeiro-Sao Paulo
corridor where it was born. Umbanda, with its potential to embrace and order new religious practice and doctrine is spreading rapidly throughout Brazil. This is in part due to the Umbanda-dominated
"spiritist press," which has penetrated into all regions of the country. Umbanda, which traditionally has been an oral culture, is developing an eclectic yet well defined body of written doctrine. The implications of this developing body of written literature for the Afro- Brazilian complex as a whole, and the internal dynamics of Umbanda in particular, remain to be seen.
Afro-Brazilian Umbanda worshipper in spiritual tranceNotes
For the purposes of this paper, domhmf culnue refers to the state apparatus and
those empowered by it and to the institutional Roman Catholic Church. When dominunt
culnue is employed without a specific reference to either of the individual components,
the reference can be understood as the combined influence of the same.
For an excellent framing of regional/historical impact on syncretism in Brazil, see
Roger Bastide [1978, ref. cited].
On the other hand, an open belief system can produce anxiety as well as certainty.
A terreiro is the name given the locale where Umbanda meetings occur; this location
may vary in size from a single room to a multi-room complex.
"Order and Progress" is a Comtean motto, which appears on the Brazilian flag. Auguste
Comte (1798-1857) was a French social thinker who developed the philosophical notion
of positivism, a theory whcih became highly influential in Brazil.
Ogun and Oxosi are deities in the vast pantheon of the Afro-Brazilian traditions; they
also exist among the Yomba. They are frequently associated with the saints listed here.
' Son of saint is term designating a man who has been initiated in Umbanda. Women
initiates are called daughter of saint.
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Bento, Dilson. 1979. Malungo, Decodjica~rio da Umbondo. Sio Paulo: Imprensa Eco.
Brown, Diana. 1986. Umbanda: Religion and Politics in Urban Brazil. Ann Arbor:
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Ewbank, Thomas. 1856. Sketches of Life in Brauau& A Journal of a Vuil to the Land of the
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Foucault, Michel. 1972. Discipline and Punish. New York: Pantheon.
Kloppenburg, Boaventura. 1961. A Umbandn no Brm'& On'entacrio para Catolicos. V o m
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k i n e , Daniel H. 1986. Religion, the Poor, and Politics in Latin America Today. In
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Myscofski, Carole. 1988. Pomcguese Messianism in Brazil. Atlanta: Scholars Press.
O'Gorman, Frances. 1977. Aluondo. Rio de Janeiro: Franciscn Alves Editora.
Obeyesekere, Gananath. 1981. Medusa's Hair. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Williams, Raymond. 1980. Bases and Superstructure in Marx's Cultural Theoty. In
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Afro-Brazilian Umbanda follower