The House of Saint Benedict, the House of Father John
Umbanda Aesthetics and a Politics of the Senses
Abstract and Keywords
The ritual aesthetics of Afrobrazilian religions such as Umbanda and Candomblé exhibit a great range of diversity. This chapter explores the possibility that the diverse aesthetics of Afrobrazilian religion reflect and express divergent stances toward contested issues of race and identity in Brazil, while constituting markedly different experiences of spirituality and the sacred. The chapter suggests that we approach Afrobrazilian religious aesthetics through a “politics of the senses.”
When I think about my research with Afrobrazilian religion I often find myself not thinking, or at least not doing what I usually mean by that word. I catch myself instead immersed in a flood of remembered sensations, swept along by a current of sounds and smells and colors and movements. My mind's eye follows the swirl and float and gravity of costumed dancers; the smells of sweat and blood and decaying food offerings wafts to my remembering nostrils; a repertoire of drum rhythms pulses in my chest and puts me through a series of profound moods. Not the usual stuff of social science discourse; more like an aesthetic, or sensual, reverie. Deixe passar—let it pass, put it aside—and get back to work. Write like a social scientist, in the language of class and race and identity and history, the objective facts, please. And yet I cannot help but think that the flood of sensations that I remember and millions of Brazilians experience, in somewhat different ways perhaps, is as much a social fact as any other. Indeed I leave my reverie suspecting it to be a crucial fact, an aesthetic nexus that articulates the whole architecture of history, agency, and power that constitutes Afrobrazilian religion.
This article explores the relationship of Umbanda aesthetics to contested and ambivalent ideologies of race and identity. It deals with a problem familiar to anyone who has had much experience with Afrobrazilian religion. That is: one encounters enormous diversity within Afrobrazilian religion. In my research on the Umbanda (p. 284 ) religion, for example, just within Rio de Janeiro, I worked with groups whose practices ranged from the most ethereal congeries of New Age, Spiritualism, and medieval esoterica to the earthy aesthetics of Angolan Candomblé—styles represented here by the House of Saint Benedict1 and the House of Father John, which I discuss in detail hereafter. The range of style is stunning; in comparison, a Sunday service at a Primitive Baptist church would look like a fraternal twin to an Anglican mass—both nominally Christian of course but strikingly different. What are we to make of this extraordinary diversity of religious practice among people who all call what they do Umbanda?
I will advance a rather conventional sociological explanation: that the differences are firmly imbedded in contested and ambivalent feelings about race and identity, and these feelings are in turn firmly grounded in the familiar drama of Brazilian history. Yet I will do this somewhat unconventionally by focusing on aesthetics. I will argue not only that Umbanda aesthetics is shaped by social forces—in fact a whole history of domination and struggle and hegemony is etched in a language of gesture, ritual, and sensual phenomena—but also that it is an ethically (and ethnically) saturated discourse on being, and being Brazilian. It is a discourse situated not only at the level of words but also in the depths of embodied experience. In short, what I present is a politics of the senses. Needless to say, I approach this task with a certain trepidation. One runs the risk, in writing a politics of the senses, of reinscribing racist, essentialist assumptions that locate people of color within the domain of the sensual, the bodied. That is not my intention; my claim rather is that through the sensual, through sound and smell and dance and touch, we can read a whole history of racism and struggle. I risk being misunderstood, and certainly I risk misunderstanding what I see. But if these historical struggles are fought at the level not only of ideas but at the level of the senses, then the risk, I think, must be taken.
A word first about my research, and about Umbanda. Umbanda is the most widely practiced of a number of popular Afrobrazilian religions that include Candomblé, Batuque, Xangô, and Casa das Minas.2 There are no reliable figures, but there can be no doubt that millions of Brazilians are regular Umbanda participants and millions more have had occasion to attend rituals. It is most popular in Rio de Janeiro, but it is a national presence—Manaus, for example, deep in the Amazon, has a number of Umbanda centers.3 While Umbanda is more prevalent among the urban poor and working class—of course, most workers in Brazil are poor, or at least economically stressed—Umbandistas can be found among all socioeconomic strata. Umbanda is ethnically diverse as well. For the most part, people initially come to Umbanda because they are suffering—from illness, bad luck, stress and emotional problems, marital strife or romantic disappointment, joblessness—in short, from a whole range of problems, chronic and acute. At Umbanda centers, sufferers (p. 285 ) can seek the healing and advice of spirits, incorporated by mediums—mediums who themselves came to Umbanda for healing, and stayed with it. There are a number of different types of spirits, but the most prominent categories are the old slaves (pretos velhos); and the caboclos, who usually represent Brazilian Indians.4 In addition, Umbanda pays homage to the African deities called Orixás.
I have carried out field research on Umbanda in Rio since 1986.5 I have worked with several different Umbanda centers, encompassing a wide range of socioeconomic and religious diversity. As a social anthropologist, my abiding interest has been the processes through which persons and groups appropriate—and remake, and invent—the cultural resources available to them to actively construct viable identities, ideologies, and ethos as they deal with the contradictions, pains, and possibilities of their lives. This article explores one such process that revolves, in large part, around a central contradiction in Brazilian society and history.
That contradiction has to do with the conflicted ideology and practice of race. Brazil is known for its myth of racial democracy—the belief that racism is not a problem in Brazil, certainly not to the degree that it is in the United States. According to the myth, the Portuguese colonizers were not prone to the virulent racism of their American counterparts. Without a hint of irony, the fact that masters frequently engaged in sexual relations with their slaves is adduced as evidence of a lack of prejudice. It is also cited as an important mechanism mitigating racism, by supposedly blurring racial boundaries and at the same time transcending these divisions through ties of consanguinity and affinity. One often hears Brazilians describe themselves as a nation of “mixed blood” (mistura de sangue)—in every Brazilian, the story goes, there is at least a drop of African, a drop of Indigenous, and a drop of European blood. A paradoxical trope; at one level, it melts racial boundaries; but at another, it reifies them in essentialist equations of blood and identity. The myth of racial democracy is of course contradicted by the historical and contemporary realities of racial prejudice;6 a statement more of how things ought to be, not how things really are. The myth valorizes the Afrobrazilian contribution to national identity, and it denies and implicitly condemns racism—while papering over the deep currents of stigmatization and racism that run through Brazilian history and contemporary society.
Umbandistas, like other Brazilians, struggle with these contradictions. In part they shape their religious practice around these contradictions. Indeed, Renato Ortiz convincingly argues that the kind of Umbanda I will describe for the House of Saint Benedict is the product of a self-conscious “whitening” or de-Africanization—strikingly evoked by the title of his book A Morte Branca do Feiticeiro Negro (The White Death of the Black Sorcerer).7 But not all Umbanda is the product of whitening; there are numerous Umbanda centers that self- (p. 286 ) consciously identify their practices—and by extension, themselves—with Africa. The House of Father John is one such place that embraces the Afrobrazilian heritage.
The House of Father John
A sacred place is a space encrusted with stories and rituals and myths that saturate that particular location with ultimate meanings. One such story involves the origins of the House of Father John. I say one such story, but it is a story that different people involved with the house tell in different ways, with significant differences in important details. Here is my telling of it, incorporating the main events from several tellings and transposed to fit the narrative conventions and language of a North American reader.
Some centuries ago an Angolan man, not young but in the prime of his life, waged a guerrilla campaign against the Portuguese slave traders in his land. His African name we don't now know, but he was a warrior and a sorcerer. He was eventually captured, clapped in chains, and shipped off to Brazil. [Note: for at least one of my informants the story never gets this far: Father John dies fighting, choosing death over captivity.] Somehow he was able to hide on his person certain objects, including a cutting from a root. [Some say it was the root of a gamaleira branca, the tree that is Tempo, the ancient and mysterious Orixá of Time. Others say it was the root of some powerful sorcery herb; others say “sei la”—who knows? And in some tellings, the root is not mentioned at all.] In any event, he managed to keep it with him through the passage. The slavers named him John, and sold him off [some say to a coffee plantation in the state of Rio de Janeiro.] Eventually John, now old from forced labor, beatings, and bad food, escaped. [Another variant: Father John leads a rebellion on the plantation and escapes with his followers.] Hunted down by capitães do mato [“captains of the forest”: these were professional slave hunters, often themselves slaves or former slaves], moments before his capture, Father John, knowing his death was imminent, scratched a hole in the red clay with his bare hands and planted his root. And where he planted it, the House of Father John now stands.8
As one might surmise from any of the variants of this origin myth, high value is placed on Africa and on the Afrobrazilian heritage at the House of Father John. To some degree this can be attributed to the demographics of the congregation. While it is a commonplace of Brazil's myth of racial democracy that every Brazilian has some European, some African, and some Indigenous (p. 287 ) blood—I heard that numerous times, especially from my whitest friends—this is visibly true at the House of Father John. Comments such as “My ancestors were slaves and thanks to the Orixás they passed through those hard times, and we will too,” underscore Afrobrazilian identity. But there is more to it than that. Being nominally placed in a given ethnic category does not guarantee that one embraces that identity—self-hatred and denial are all too common legacies of racism. (Perhaps that is why old slave spirits tell stories of black overseers and captains of the forest inflicting the worst cruelties of all. Tales of the past are so often parables about the present.) Brazilians of color embrace Afrobrazilian identity at Father John's while everyone there, white congregants included, celebrates Africa and Afrobrazil. These connections are constituted through stories, like the tale of Father John's martyrdom, and through explicit invocations of Afrobrazilian identity but also through congregants' senses.
The image of Father John's fingernails clawing the wet fetid clay to plant his African root captures striking aspects of the look and feel of the House that bears his name. The House of Father John is located in one of those patches of tropical forest that abut the urban space of Rio de Janeiro. One enters through a gate, walking down a packed clay dirt path that is wet and slick and fragrant with the musty smell of clay and rotting vegetation whenever it rains. Inside its three walls—the back opens on the forest and a collection of outbuildings housing various shrines—the floor is all packed clay, the benches for the attendees rough hewn, the built space all earthy, rugged, redolent of the primitive, the rural, the jungle and the village, the slave quarters. In fact, when the spirits of old slaves are present, the place is called a senzala (slave quarters), and one can easily imagine it as such, especially when it rains in the winter and the wet chill settles in, or when the summer sun turns it into a sweltering oven. It isn't always a senzala—when the Indian spirits are called down, it becomes aldeia (village), and the image is at times embellished by covering the floor with leaves, as in a forest clearing—but most of the time the aesthetics of the senzala rule.
Africa and Afrobrazil are palpably, visibly present at every turn. The Orixás are represented in various shrines. For example, there is a boulder with a triangular piece of iron somehow, miraculously—the man who first showed it to me swore it was not the work of human hands—embedded in it near the gate. That is for Xangô, the Orixá of thunder and justice, who is also patron of quarries and stoneworking; the iron is one of his thunderbolts, the boulder the material of his craft. Another shrine encloses what was once a spring. When they found this place and began building the House of Father John, the workers came across the spring. Around it, I was told, they discovered tools and other artifacts, and eventually established that the spring had fed a tank where the slaves had drawn water and washed. Back inside, the ritual space where the Orixás descend and the various spirits attend to the needing people is dominated by a suite of three drums and a central pole. The central pole connects (p. 288 ) the heavens with the earth, the earth ultimately the ancestral land of Africa. The drums are African, made in the Angola or Congo fashion and played, the drummers tell me, in the Angola style, that is, with the hands and not with sticks as in the West African style of Candomblé.
The rituals can be placed into two categories. Before the routine weekly sessions in which the old slave and Indian spirits are invoked and made available to those in need, a gira [a series of dances performed in a circle] is held for the Orixás. The drummers play a series of toques (drum songs)—typically three or seven—for each of several Orixás in turn, while the mediums sing the corresponding lyrics and dance in the fashion characteristic of the particular Orixá. Usually one or more mediums will be “mounted” by the Orixá whose rhythm is being played, embodying, in gesture, movement, grito (shout), expression, and attitude, the mythical personage. The second type of ritual takes place on the saint's day associated with each Orixá. These are all-night affairs. A medium or mediums, for whom that Orixá is the spiritual parent, emerges from a ritual seclusion of several days, elaborately costumed as, and deeply possessed by, the Orixá. These calendrical rituals, attended by very large audiences, dramatically present the deity, and with it a rich and powerful and multilayered symbolization of Africa and Afrobrazilian tradition, to the community of Father John. But both the dramatic annual celebrations and the routine weekly giras both invoke Africa through language (many of the songs are in Angolan or Yoruban dialect), music, dance, gesture, costume, and sacrifice.
Clay and rain and rotting leaves are not all that one smells at the House of Father John. There is also blood and decomposing flesh. Unlike many Umbanda centers, the House of Father John maintains elaborate traditions of blood sacrifice. Before the weekly sessions, the calendrical rituals, before initations, before anything, an offering is made to Exu, the mercurial trickster who mediates between humans and the Orixás—Sem Exu, não faz nada (“Without Exu, nothing is done”). The eternal go-between, Exu resides at the gate, by the door, at the crossroads—the liminal places of choice and transformation. At Father John's, the offering is a bowl of manioc flour and onions, doused in pungent, bright orange-yellow palm oil, and a chicken, sacrificed on the spot. The killing is essential. As the blood flows and life ebbs, the vital and spiritual force—the axé—of the bird is released, energizing the offering and charging the moment with axé. Blood and breath are the vehicles par excellence of axé, but axé resides also in the heart that pumps blood, the liver that makes it (in folk belief), the genitals that generate life, the brain, and in the organs of locomotion. Thus the wings, the feet, the head, the heart, and the liver go into the offering for Exu.
Beyond that, each Orixá has its menu of birds, mammals, and, for some, reptiles and even invertebrates and mollusks. From snails to bulls, there is a whole system of ritual, a semiotics of blood. I will not concern myself with (p. 289 ) that here. I will just say that the transformation of life to death—through acts of killing, attended by a release of axé, blood and flesh, fresh hides of goats and bulls and sheep nailed to the walls, bowls of the axé organs watered with blood, the eddying currents of smells and fragrances—brings spiritual life. The river of axé, the pounding, swirling flow of drums and dancing, the mythology written in architecture and objects—the aesthetics of Father John is an enveloping, sensual celebration of Africa and Afrobrazil.
The House of Saint Benedict
I was introduced to the House of Saint Benedict by a friend of a friend, a clinical psychologist I will call Elisa, who attended weekly healing sessions at an Umbanda center not far from the House of Father John. Elisa worked with the mediums and their spirits, contributing her insights from Jungian and mainstream behavioral and family therapy approaches within, as she called it, “holistic therapy,” combining spiritualist and Western psychological models. The personnel there explicitly identified their center as a clinic, and indeed the center had the look and feel of a clinic—everything was whitewashed, spick-and-span, people made appointments, mediums and others dressed in white nurse-like uniforms and consulted about “patients” and other issues in staff meetings, and the recommendations that spirits made during their meetings with sufferers were written down on prescription pads with the center's name printed at the top—with a space for the spirit's name and the patient's, the date, and the time. While this would have been an interesting field site, I thought, on the basis my preliminary visit, Elisa regretfully informed me that the director was concerned that my role as an observer might conflict with their therapeutic mission. So Elisa introduced my to her friend Cici, who had frequented an Umbanda center, the House of Saint Benedict, for several years, and was learning to become a medium.
Cici prepared me for my introduction to the House of Saint Benedict by telling me about the mediums at the center—mostly middle-aged women, married like herself to men of the professional class—and by aesthetically characterizing the rituals there. At the House of Saint Benedict, she told me, our Umbanda is “clean” and “light.” For example, she said, we never make food offerings to the Orixás—well, they are pure spirit, why would they want gross material food?—no, we give them offerings of colored ribbons, candles, perfume, and flowers. As for blood sacrifice—nem pensar! Out of the question!
Invisible from the street behind a high whitewashed wall secured by a metal gate, the House of Saint Benedict is located in a solid middle-class neighborhood on a quiet street among well cared for homes. In existence for over half a century, it was founded by the husband of the present leader, Dona Lisa, cheerful and energetic and appearing much younger than her actual eighty- (p. 290 ) plus years might suggest. Dona Lisa recalls that when her husband was alive, the house was always full for sessions. Full of people but full also of joy, positive energies, optimism, and mostly, a spirit of charity toward those troubled people who would come seeking help from the spirits. Many of these were poor, uneducated, and of color, in marked contrast to the founder, Dona Lisa, and the mediums I met there.9 Without her husband, whose portrait is prominently displayed in the hall, that level of activity is no longer possible, but Dona Lisa maintains, with obvious satisfaction and pride, that then as now, the Umbanda you find here is very special—clean, light, pure, virtuous, a thing of beauty, so energizing! We are a family here!
Passing through the portals into the House of Saint Benedict for the first time leaves an indelible impression. Picture a door opening from the dark night into a twilit hall, quiet and still and tinged in blue. The blue radiates from a halo atop the wavy chestnut locks of a larger-than-life plaster Christ, arms outstretched and palms out, robed in white and beige and blue and scarlet. Large vases of lilies and roses are deployed around the lightly tanned savior. A soft white light shines on the statue, but it is the blue of the halo and the blue light of a neon tube framing the scene that colors the vision.
And it is a vision. As one's eyes adjust to the cool blue half-light, as one's ears are washed by swelling chords of strings and flutes from hidden speakers, as one takes in the polished wood of the pews, the soft gleam of polished floors, the open empty welcoming arms of the fair-skinned Christ, one is engulfed in a white Umbanda vision of what lies beyond and so far above—morally, spiritually, spatially—flesh and blood and breath: a cool, orderly, quiescent eternity.
The ritual begins with Dona Lisa, dressed all in white, walking in from stage left to lay prone and touch her head to the floor at the feet of the Christ statue and then kneel in whispered prayer before the image. She stands, turns, faces the audience, blesses and welcomes the handful or so seated in the pews, and stands off somewhat to the left. One by one, the mediums—there are usually four—approach her, touch their foreheads to the ground at her feet, receive her blessing, and rise. From a darkened hallway off to the right, the medium Paulo, dressed all in white, emerges, almost gliding in on his white cotton slippers. Round, cherubic, smiling, carrying a blue-tinged glass carafe in his hand, he approaches the railing in front of the pews. He offers each of us a sip of spring water, remarking on the lightness it imparts to spirit and body, before in his turn touching the ground at Dona Lisa's feet and receiving her blessing. The mediums line up side by side, with their backs to the audience, facing Dona Lisa, who recites a short prayer and intones the opening notes of what will be half an hour of soft, slow, mostly minor-key hymns to Jesus, the Orixás, and the spirits who will be summoned that night. There are no drums—clapping accompanies a few hymns; the dancing is done in place, never much more than a restrained shifting of the feet; and the moment of possession when it comes is marked by little more than a shiver. Finally the (p. 291 ) spirits arrive, the mediums take their seats on low stools if it is a session for the old slave spirits (pretos velhos) or remain standing if it is a night for the Indian spirits (caboclos). People from the audience are beckoned in turn to come consult with the spirits; when they are through, they return to the pews and sit quietly, meditating perhaps or silently praying under the gaze of the plaster Redeemer. The spirits' work is done in about an hour. A hymn sends them on their way; another, upbeat, asks that the star that guided our Father guide his children (us), whatever roads we may take. A prayer is said, Paulo returns to offer us each a sip of water from the carafe, and it is over.
In broad outline, the structure of the ritual is quite similar to that at the House of Father John. (Indeed, the closing hymn is word for word the same.) But in look, feel, sound, smell, emotion, movement, it could not be more different. Ethereal, bloodless, passionless, restrained, disembodied: aesthetically, sensually, it would be difficult to imagine a more striking contrast with the sweat and blood and sacrifice and the acrid and sweet and fetid and fertile smells of Father John. My argument is that this aesthetic contrast mirrors, or perhaps better, traces, the historical (and continuing) struggles over race, identity, and legitimacy in Umbanda specifically and Brazil more generally.
The House of Saint Benedict, the House of Father John; both call themselves Umbanda, and there are many similarities in their theories of this world and the world beyond, and participants at both places would largely agree on questions of right and wrong. And yet they represent two radically different ethos, embodied in strikingly different aesthetics. To understand this divergence, a brief consideration of historical circumstances is in order.
It is generally accepted that Umbanda began in the early decades of the twentieth century in the Rio de Janeiro metropolitan area.10 The religio-scape of Rio was then (and is now) diverse and complex; besides the Catholic Church, there were Spiritualists, Comtean Positivists, Protestants, Jews, immigrants from Europe, the Levant, and the Brazilian countryside with their varied folk traditions, and of course followers of Afrobrazilian religious traditions.11 Umbanda represented a self-conscious fusion of Afrobrazilian and Spiritualist beliefs and practices by persons uncomfortably situated within the contradictory dynamics of race and class in a rapidly evolving political economy. These persons could be lumped into two broad groups. One would consist of persons from the middle classes, bourgeois in their aesthetics and ethics and yet drawn to the experiential spirituality, mystery, and healing reputation of Afrobrazilian religion. The other was drawn from the urban masses, people of color and marginally situated whites, familiar with bourgeois values yet steeped in Afrobrazilian traditions and working class culture—poor and marginalized but with (p. 292 ) middle-class, “modern” aspirations. One might say they were people clinging with one hand to that sturdy root planted in the fetid clay by Father John and the other hand grasping at the ladder of upward mobility. Pulled at once in two different directions, Umbanda emerged not as a point but as a continuum, a range of possibilities, represented in this article as the House of Father John at one end and the House of Saint Benedict at the other. Before exploring these dynamics from a sensual and aesthetic perspective, further historical contextualization is in order.
The Afrobrazilian religious traditions within which Umbanda began have a long history as a vibrant presence within Brazilian culture. Their strength and persistence is largely related to the specific features of Brazilian slavery, which ended in 1888. Unlike the United States, where the slave trade effectively ended rather early, Brazil continued to import large numbers of Africans—and with them their religious and cultural traditions—well into the middle of the nineteenth century. The continual influx of African culture-bearers was even more significant because of very low rates of natural reproduction of the slave population. At the same time, while the plantation and mining economy depended on slavery, the urban economy too was largely carried on by persons of African descent. Coastal cities such as Salvador and Rio were places were large numbers of Afrobrazilians were concentrated. The Latin American propensity toward manumission accentuated the potential of the large urban Afrobrazilian population for voluntary association, including association along religious lines. The fact that the Catholic Church provided an existing structure of devotional brotherhoods that offered valued roles and benefits for Afrobrazilians, as well as an institutional nucleus around which African religious traditions could be reframed, seems to have also been a crucial factor.12 Far from withering, African traditions regenerated in these urban centers and emerged as thriving Afrobrazilian religions, dynamic centers of Afrobrazilian life and culture before and after abolition. In Salvador, for example, Candomblé terreiros13 such as Engenho Velho (also known by its Yoruba name, Ilê Iyá Nassô) were well established in the mid-nineteenth century and continue today as powerful symbols of Afrobrazilian identity and paragons of religious tradition.
But they did so in the face of virulent, often violent, opposition. At various times the state vigorously repressed Afrobrazilian religion, branded as an affront to Catholicism, an outrage against public morality, a symbol and source of superstition, and a threat to public order. Police raids were common during the early decades of this century. The great Brazilian novelist Jorge Amado eloquently testifies—fictionally but nonetheless truthfully—to police terror against Candomblé terreiros in Salvador: beatings, destruction of altars, smashing of drums and images, profanations and violence. The Civil Police of Rio displayed as museum exhibits drums, costumes, statues, and other items seized in their campaigns against Afrobrazilian religions.14 Besides police vi (p. 293 ) olence, the ideological organs of church, state, and press waged a vigorous campaign stigmatizing Afrobrazilian religion. The repression and stigmatization were articulated with genuine revulsion, and by a deep conviction that Afrobrazilian religion represented a diseased condition of ignorance, barbarism, degeneracy, a profound threat to elite visions of an orderly, progressive, modern Brazil. A nineteenth-century writer, Joaquim Manoel de Macedo, who opposed slavery in part out of concern for the cultural legacy its victims would leave (he titled his novel The Torturing Victims) captures the visceral depths of this revulsion in his lurid, sensual description of an Afrobrazilian ritual. I quote Macedo at some length because his language paints a vivid picture of the stigmatized Afrobrazilian other, a picture etched not only in his mind but more broadly in Brazilian society. It was against the background of such images that Umbanda would emerge:
witchcraft has its pagoda, its priests, its cult, its ceremonies, its mysteries: all of it, however, is grotesque, repugnant, scandalous.
The pagoda is usually a solitary house; the priest is an African slave, or some worthy descendant and disciple of same, though born free or manumitted, and there is never lacking a priestess of the same sort. The cult takes place at night by candlelight, or firelight. The ceremonies and the mysteries are of the most incalculable variety, depending on how unbridled the imagination of the liars.
Free persons and slaves come around at night, at the appointed hour, to the sinister house. Some come to cure themselves of sorcery, with which they suppose themselves infected; others to become initiates, or to seek enchanted means to do evil or to obtain favor.
The gross instruments [are] reminiscent of the savage festivals of the Brazilian Indian or the Negro from Africa are heard; one sees rustic talismans and ridiculous symbols. The priest and the priestess ornament themselves with feathers and emblems and living colors. There are prepared, by the fire, or at the old and filthy table, beverages: unknown infusions of nauseating roots, almost always or sometimes rottenthe priest breaks into a frenetic, terrible, convulsive dance.The priestess goes around like a lunatic, coming and going, [and] returns just to turn around and leave; she throws leaves and roots on the fire that fill the disagreeable and infected hall with a suffocating smoke, and after an hour of the contortions, demonic dances, anxiety, and crazed activity of this partner of the liar, she returns at last from the backyard, from where she was out of sight, and announces the arrival of the genie, the spirit, the god of sorcery, for which there are twenty names, each one more brutal and burlesque.
The dance, now spreading, comes again to a boil; the obscene (p. 294 ) Negress and her partner move lewdly. Interrupting their violent dance, they carry to each and all the vase or gourd containing the beverage, telling them to “drink pemba,” and each one takes a swig of the dangerous and filthy pemba. Those who are sick from sorcery, the candidates for the office of sorcerer, [and] those who use sorcery for good or bad ends subject themselves to the most absurd, repulsive, and indecent ordeals and to the most squalid of practices.
The bacchanal is complete; with the cure of the bewitched, with the torments of the initiations, with the concession of remedies and the secrets of sorcery is mixed the firewater, and in the delirium of all, in the infernal flames of depraved imaginations, are evidenced, almost always shamelessly, an unchecked, ferocious, and torpid lewdness.
All this is hideous and horrible, but that is how it is.15
Stripped of its lurid language and thoroughly racist, sexist, and elitist perspective, Macedo's description resonates with scenes I have observed from Afrobrazilian Umbanda at the House of Father John: there are infusions, and dancing culminating in ecstatic possession, and costumes, and dramatic entries of mediums possessed by the Orixás. But how different they appear in Macedo's nightmare! What Macedo's words actually paint is the picture of his own (and not just his) terrifying racial fantasy. Its demons are black, sexualized—most pointedly, the women, the “lewd Negress”—intoxicated, in-tranced. It is a scene of noise, disorder, and lunacy, drenched with a sexualized sensuality, threatening in itself and, one suspects, even more threatening for its projection of repressed desires onto the racialized other. Macedo's account crystallizes the depth and shape of the stigma heaped on Afrobrazilian religion, a crucial part of the background against which Umbanda would take form.
Around the turn of the century, while Afrobrazilian religion was subjected to physical and verbal assault, another affront to Catholicism enjoyed a rather different reception. Spiritualism, also known as Kardecismo in Brazil, was systematized by Hippolyte Denizard Rivail (1803–1869), a Frenchman who styled himself a student of grammar, medicine, and science and wrote under the name of Allan Kardec. Concerned with psychic and otherworldly phenomena, Spiritualism posited a dichotomy of the spiritual and material orders of existence (the former elaborately detailed), reincarnation and spiritual/moral evolution, and the reality of communication with spiritual beings—that is, persons who had once lived an earthly existence. Couched in erudite, scientistic language, Spiritualism resonated with the positivist values and progressive aspirations of substantial segments of the Brazilian elite. Far from being stigmatized as a form of superstition and degeneracy, like Afrobrazilian religion, Spiritualism was associated with the elite and educated (and, by implication, white) sectors of Brazilian society. João do Rio, for example, reported that Spir (p. 295 ) itualists could be found “among our most lucid minds”; he mentions generals, admirals, doctors, members of the bar and press.16 Indeed, though Spiritualism was certainly not acceptable to the Church, it was nevertheless steeped in prestige.
It is from the fusion of these two currents—Afrobrazilian religion and Kardecite Spiritualism—that Umbanda emerged in the early decades of the twentieth century. It would be fascinating to explore the various ways that different Umbandistas relate and reconcile beliefs and practices from these two very different traditions, fashioning them into a coherent, satisfying code of thought and action. But for this article I must limit myself to the symbolic value of Spiritualist and Afrobrazilian currents, to their functions as ideological markers and emotionally laden signs that provide a telling clue to the strikingly different aesthetics represented of the House of Father John and the House of Saint Benedict.17 It is time to turn from an objective historical sketch and return to stories Umbandistas tell about the origins of their religion. Especially important is the encounter with, and incorporation of, Spiritualism, at once a historical fact and a mythic event. The following passage, from the Umbandist writer Israel Cysneiros, recounts the birth of Umbanda.
The mentors of the superior astral plane, however, were attentive to what was going on [the alleged proliferation of black magic, superstition, and, especially, the kind of scenes depicted by Macedo]. They organized a movement to combat the negative magic that was spreading with frightening speed. At first the movement was aimed at the humble classes, the ones most subject to the influence of the climate of superstition that reigned in that epoch.
There were formed then, at this time, the phalanxes of spiritual workers in the form of caboclos and pretos velhos in order for [the message] to be more easily interpreted by the masses. In the Spiritualist sessions, however, these caboclos and pretos velhos were not accepted; seen in such guises, they were considered backward or low spirits.
The situation remained unaltered at the beginning of the year 1900. The orders of the Astral Plane, however, would be carried out.
On the fifteenth of November, 1908, there appeared at a session of the Spiritualist Federation in Niteroi, then under the direction of José de Souza, a young man of seventeen years from a traditional fluminense [from the state of Rio de Janeiro] family by the name of Zélio Fernandes de Morais. He had just recovered, the day before, from an illness whose cause the doctors had vainly sought to discover. His unexpected recovery, thanks to a spirit, caused enormous surprise. Neither the doctors who attended him nor his uncles, who were Catholic priests, could offer a plausible explanation. The family (p. 296 ) was receptive, therefore, to the suggestion of a friend that he accompany Zélio to a meeting of the Spiritualist Federation.
Zélio was invited to participate at the table [the ritual and the piece of furniture where mediums receive spirits]. When the proceedings began, spirits who identified themselves as slaves and Indians manifested themselves. The director warned them to leave. At that very moment, Zélio felt himself overcome by a strange force and heard his own voice demanding to know why the messages of Blacks and Indians were not accepted, and if they were considered backward simply because of their color or their social class. This nearly started a brawl. There followed a heated discussion in which the directors attempted to teach [i.e., dissuade] this spirit who argued with such self-assurance. Finally, one of the mediums asked the spirit to identify himself, in consideration of the fact that he appeared enveloped in an aura of light.
“If you wish to know my namethen try this one: I am the Caboclo Seven Crossroads, because for me all roads are open!”
He continued to announce his mission: to establish the basis of a religion, in which the spirits of Indians and slaves would come to fulfill the will of the Astral. The next day[he would] found a temple, symbolizing the true and total equality that must exist between men.18
Versions of this origin myth are well known to Umbandistas and researchers.19 I heard variations from Umbandistas at various centers, especially at the House of Saint Benedict, where everyone seemed to be familiar with it. Like most myths, this one has some basis in actual events. There was indeed a Zélio de Morais, and sometime in the early decades of the century (Cysneiros makes it 1908, Diana Brown, who actually interviewed Zélio, places the events “around 1920”) he began a ministry of curing and counseling at a place known as the Waterfall of the Macacu Tree. Known as the Spiritual Center of Our Lady of Piety, the center flourished, even after the founder's retirement in the 1960s. As Diana Brown tells us, Zélio and the “founders” came primarily from the “middle sectors”—bureaucrats, the military, commerce—and from the professions situated above them and the respectable occupations below—laborers, teachers, and so on.20 Many of his followers came from those sectors, but many others came from the working classes and the marginalized, largely Afrobrazilian poor. The current of Umbanda that began flowing from the place near the Waterfall of the Macacu Tree (and that runs through the House of Saint Benedict) is often referred to as White Umbanda (also Pure Umbanda) by researchers21 and participants alike. Participants apply the adjective because “White” is associated with good, purity, moral rectitude, innocence, but it also (p. 297 ) resonates eloquently, if unintentionally, with the racializing, de-Africanizing tendencies at places like the House of Saint Benedict.
While at one level the myth explicitly protests racism and elitism—the new Umbanda would welcome the spirits of the marginalized and minister to the masses they represent, while the haughty Spiritualists are bested by the true spiritual power and moral force of the plain-speaking, rustic Seven Crossroads—it also conveys an implictly anti-Afrobrazilian message. The new religion is sent by the superior beings of the Astral realm to clean up the “negative magic”—what Macedo might have characterized as “scandalous,” “savage,” “grotesque” ritual—allegedly permeating Afrobrazilian religions. The myth in fact is a charter for rooting out the Afrobrazilian traditions from Umbanda. Another myth, this one from the House of Saint Benedict, makes the point explicitly and fleshes out the racism underlying it. The story was told to me by an old slave spirit called Father Mané,22 who, unlike other old slave spirits I talked to, spoke with perfect grammar and clear diction, and displayed quite an acquaintance and fascination with Greek mythology, New Age spirituality, big band era jazz, popular science, and European history—especially Enlightenment France. Like most of these stories, this one varies from telling to telling; the version here, in my words, synthesizes Mané's full telling of the story one evening with several other conversations we had concerning details.
It seems that long, long ago the highest wise men of the planet Cabal took up the charitable mission of spreading truth and enlightenment outward to all the other inhabited planets in the universe. They selected their brightest, most educated, and spiritual young people and sent them forth in all directions on spaceships capable of light speed travel, so that they could search indefinitely for peopled planets; as Einstein demonstrated, time and therefore aging stops when one reaches those velocities.23 One such ship happened upon Earth, a raw and savage place inhabited mainly by brutes lacking all but the rudiments of culture and language (the most “advanced” earthlings, living along the Nile, in Mesopatamia, and India, had the beginnings of writing and culture, but they were still little more than tribesmen). The Cabalan missionaries set to work, the fruits of which we see in the development of writing and mathematics, the Neolithic revolution, and the almost simultaneous invention of civilization in Syria and Egypt and China and a little later in the New World. The center of it all, their home base, as it were, was Atlantis, but they were also behind the other great civilizations of Egypt and Babylon. Unfortunately, the Cabalans left their pupils too soon. Babylon sank into wickedness, Egypt enslaved the Israelites, and as for Atlantis, a foolish experiment with nuclear power by arrogant scien (p. 298 ) tists ended catastrophically, destroying its Cabalic civilization. A few citizens managed to survive, the Atlantans clinging to flotsam and drifting to Black Africa, the one corner of the world the Cabalic enlightenment had not even touched. They weren't at the level of the Cabalans by any stretch, but they were far above the Africans. They introduced metallurgy, counting, and law—albeit in simplified form, in deference to the limited capacities of the African people. They also introduced their spiritualist religion, which they called Umbanda after the fundamental vibration Om. Unfortunately, the Atlantans soon succumbed to disease, violence at the hands of the natives, and the sheer despair of being surrounded by such barbarism. As a result, the Africans never advanced very far, and even worse, the sublime Umbanda became mixed with fetishism, superstition, and generally barbaric practices. And that was what was brought to Brazil with the slaves. There was much truth and enlightenment in their religion—the parts from Cabal, by way of Atlantis—but much error and primitivism, from Africa. Our mission is to purge Umbanda of those impurities. So Umbanda, the real Umbanda, isn't an African religion; true Umbanda is Umbanda without Africa.
Mané's account and the myth of Zélio de Morais, while reporting rather different sets of events, represent variations on a theme. To begin with, both locate the fundamental truth of Umbanda in the rarified reaches of elsewhere, in some realm beyond the material, imperfect, sensual world—Cabal, far out in space in the one case; the Superior Astral plane, beyond even space and time, in the other. Both tales condescend. Zélio's new religion will use the spirits of humble old black slaves and rustic Indians to translate the sublime into a language the masses can understand. Mane's story suggests that the ancestors of Brazilians were too primitive and ignorant and corrupt to grasp the wisdom and that it is the mission of the enlightened few to use their superior intellect and culture to cleanse Umbanda and recover its Cabalic purity. That, in fact, is precisely what Mané's medium told me when I interviewed him after the session and on other occasions. Both equally privilege the esoteric and the intellectualized, implicitly associated with the elite, the white, the European—the Frenchman Kardec, and Atlantis, which the popular imagination constructs as a kind of Athens to the tenth power. And both endorse a project of “whitening,” of de-Africanization; Mané's tale is explicit in identifying Africa as the stigma, the cancer, that must be excised from a pure Umbanda.24
And what is it Mané would cleanse from Umbanda? Within Mané's medium's mind, within the minds of those at the House of Saint Benedict, repulsive (p. 299 ) images fester that are reminiscent of Macedo's feverish vision of savagery. When I first read Macedo in the national library in Rio, turning those musty, crumbly pages printed over a century ago, I was struck by how vividly and succinctly Macedo encapsulated the prejudices and fantasies and revulsion that drove—and drive—the aesthetics of white Umbanda. This is a vision thoroughly repulsive to the sensibilities of the would-be bourgeoisie, those working-class followers of Zélio de Morais who yearned for acceptance by the refined gentlemen of the Spiritualist Federation in Niteroi. It is a nightmarish trip (at least for Macedo, and his intended readers) into chaos and barbarism—and Africa, the other that is also within. The words are there. Lunatic, demonic dances, contortions, savage festivals, brutal and burlesque, delirium, depraved imaginations, torpid lewdness. There is even an obscene negress—like many nightmares, especially it seems those in which the threatening protaganists are black, this one gains force and frisson from a grotesque sexualization. It resonates with Renato Ortiz's account of the historical development of white Umbanda—this imagery is what its inventors were fleeing from. It resonates as well with caricatures of Afrobrazilian religion and culture—in the popular media and in the discourse of priests, police, and politicians. These presented, albeit not usually in such lurid fashion, a picture entirely at odds with the desired bourgeois self-image of an enlightened, clean, rational, scientific, proper, modern, and white citizen. Macedo, by the way, was an abolitionist, yet he continually identifies this demonic scene with dark others—Africa, African slaves, negress, Indian. As I read this, I was struck as well by the vivid, sensual imagery—Macedo's ideology is couched in aesthetic, experiential terms. He does paint a picture.
I was also struck by the feeling of having seen Macedo's picture, albeit through unscandalized eyes, eyes that could see this as an affirmation of Afrobrazilian identity, an organic celebration of sense and spirit and communitas25 in opposition to the cold, esoteric, and hierarchical visions of white Umbanda. I wondered whether the scene that so offended his sensibilities was really so much different from what I had come to know and love at the House of Father John. I was certainly familiar with various infusions of roots and leaves. Dona Linda, a daughter of Ossaim, the god of medicinal and sacred plants, prepared a number of such “beverages” from plants she gathered from the steep wooded mountainsides that lay between her home and the House of Father John. One particularly foul-tasting tea—castor oil would be ice cream in comparison—cured me of chronic gastrointestinal distress. Another, made from a plant whose leaves were like miniature green vulvas, Dona Linda prescribed to women suffering various reproductive maladies. There were teas and poultices and herbal baths to calm, cure burns and cuts, expel worms, energize the tired brain, awaken deadened desires, lighten moods, bring wisdom, drive away colds, and clear away the accumulated psychic dirt of living in this world. “Unknown infusions”? Linda, and several of the other women, knew, in detail, (p. 300 ) each plant, what it did, when to collect it—what phase of the moon, what time of day—how to prepare it, what to expect. In her deep quiet voice, Linda would discuss each medicinal plant as she prescribed it, always reminding listeners of the African healers who brought this knowledge to heal their great-great-grandmothers and grandfathers here in Brazil. These “unknown infusions” in fact connect people with Afrobrazilian identity viscerally, through healing ingestion by suffering bodies.
So much for Macedo's nauseating roots. The “gross instruments” I recognized as the three drums, rum, rumpi, and lé (the big, medium, and little drums, respectively), sanctified annually in blood, that call down the Orixás and connect living people with living spirit through rhythms that pulse within and without. The men who play these instruments at the House of Father John have been frequenting terreiros since early childhood, brought by older relatives, internalizing hundreds of toques and learning and teaching the lore of the drums, the differences in design from the various homelands—the Angola style they play with their hands at Father John's, the West African drums played with sticks in Nagô houses. The drummers take musicians' pride in their playing and evince a musicians' fascination with knowledge of the musical traditions, and their fascination and pride, along with the deeply embodied playing itself, are explicitly related to Africa and Afrobrazilian identity.
The demonic dances? At the House of Father John, I learned to recognize the dances representing the African deities that rule the various domains of culture and nature, the elemental categories of fertility, fresh water, industry, ocean, death, justice, beauty, thunder, hunting, disease, truth, courage, lies, disease, childhood, and chaos. I learned to recognize and, more, to appreciate the metaphoric allusions and aesthetic structures, to be moved by the grace and power, of those “demonic” dances. “Appreciate” seems too weak a word for the powerfully sensual, embodied connection I felt through these performances, and of course my connection must in turn be weak compared to that of the dancers filled with the deities and spirits. Macedo's revulsion—the revulsion of the House of Saint Benedict, and by extension of bourgeois society—is turned on its head at the House of Father John, where Afrobrazilian identity is embraced in blood, sound, movement, drums, medicine, dance, and all that pulses in its sensual aesthetic.
It is not enough to suggest that the vibrant ritual at the House of Father John is a sign of allegiance, an affirmation of Afrobrazilian heritage, while the cool blue twilight at the House of Saint Benedict is a rejection of the same. That is certainly true—in the one case there is a passionate embrace of that African “blood” that Brazil's myth of racial democracy has flowing through everyone's veins, in the other a mean bit of racism that can only really be self-hatred over the knowledge that that tainted “blood” flows through oneself, and one's nation. But there is more. These are two fundamentally different experiential worlds, each the sensual, aesthetic, embodiment of a radically different (p. 301 ) ethos. One fairly bursts with life, energy, blood, sweat, movement, rhythm, smell, and emotion, scratching at the wet earth of life and death as Father John did. The other is controlled, restrained, cool, blue, lilacs and swelling strings, otherworldly; no dirt under those nails. One resonates with the middle class, the bourgeois, and those who would be so; the other with the margins, the poor, the victims of a whole history of oppression.
I hesitated to call this an exploration of aesthetics in Umbanda, because “aesthetics” seems to connote an air of frivolity, a concern with decoration and surfaces. There is nothing superficial about these aesthetics and certainly nothing superficial about their implications. In these surfaces we can see (and smell, and hear) registered a whole history of racism, shame, repression, resistance, affirmation, and ambivalence, revolving around unsettled questions of identity and ethics. And the drama played out on these surfaces penetrates, by way of the senses, the very bodies of the folks at the House of Father John, and the House of Saint Benedict. This is what I mean by a politics of the senses.
(1.) Names of people and places, along with certain other identifying details, have been changed to protect privacy.
(2.) There is a rich and varied literature on Afrobrazilian religion, indicative of the diversity of the subject. Sources covering the major varieties of these religions include Monica Augras, O Duplo e a Metamorfose: A Identidade Mítica em Communidades Nagô (Petropolis: Vozes, 1983); Roger Bastide, The African Religions of Brazil (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1983); Diana Brown, Umbanda: Religion and Politics in Urban Brazil (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994); Maria Concone, Umbanda, uma religiao brasileira (Sao Paulo: FFLCH/USP-CER, 1987); Beatriz Dantas, Vovó Nagô e Papai Branco: Usos e Abusos da Africa no Brasil (Rio de Janeiro: Graal, 1982); Juana Elbein dos Santos, Os Nagô e a Norte: Pade, Asese e o Culto Egun na Bahia (Petrópolis: Vozes, 1976); Peter Fry, Para Inglês ver (Rio de Janeiro: Editóres Zahar, 1982); Chester Gabriel, Cominicações dos Espíritos (São Paulo: Edições Loyola, 1985); Russel G. Hamilton Jr., “The Present State of African Cults in Bahia,” Journal of Social History 3 (1970), 357–373; Lindsay Hale, “Preto Velho: Resistence, Redemption, and En-Gendered Representations of Slavery in a Brazilian Possession-Trance Religion,” American Ethnologist 24, 2 (1997), 392–414; Meyer Herskovits, “African Gods and Catholic Saints in New World Negro Belief,” American Anthropologist 39 (1937), 635–643; Ruth Landes, The City of Women (New York: Macmillan, 1947); Patricia Lerch, “Spirit Mediums in Umbanda Evangelada of Porto Alegre, Brazil: Dimensions of Power and Austhority,” in A World of Men, edited by Erika Bourgignon (New York: Praeger, 1980); Marco Aurélio Luz and Georges Lapassade, O Segredo da Macumba (Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1972); Carlos Marcondes, Oloorisha: Escritos Sobre a Reli (p. 302 ) gião dos Orixás (São Paulo: Agora,1981); Paula Montero, Da Doença à Desordem (Rio de Janeiro: Graal, 1985); Raimundo Nina Rodrigues,O Animismo Fetischista dos Negros Bahianos (Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileiro, 1935); Renato Ortiz, A Morte Branca do Feiticeiro Negro (Rio de Janeiro: Editora Vozes, 1978); J. Reginaldo Prandi, Os candombles de São Paulo: A velha magia na metropole nova (São Paulo: Editora Hucitec, 1991); Esther Pressel, “Umbanda in São Paulo: Religious Innovation in a Developing Society,” in Religion, Altered States of Consciousness and Social Change, edited by Erika Bourguignon (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1973); Arthur Ramos, O Negro Brasileiro (São Paulo: Companhia Editora Nacional, 1940); Parry Scott, Sobrevivencia e Fontes de Renda; Estrategias das Famílias de Baixa Renda no Recife (Recife: Editora Massangana, 1983); Liana Trindade, Exu: Poder e Perigo (São Paulo: Icone, 1985); Yvonne Maggie Velho, Guerra de Orixá: Um Estudo de Ritual e Conflito (Rio de Janeiro: Zahar Editores, 1975); Pierre Verger, Orixás Deuses Iorubás na Africa e no Novo Mundo (Salvador, Bahia, Brazil: Corrúpio Edições, 1981); Paul Wafer, The Taste of Blood: Spirit Possession in Brazilian Candomblé (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991).
(3.) Chester Gabriel, Comunicações dos Espíritos (São Paulo: Edições Loyola, 1985).
(4.) A detailed discussion of the ideological significance of old slave spirits can be found in Hale, “Preto Velho.” Diana Brown gives an overview of the different kinds of Umbanda spirits and their relationship to questions of national identity in Umbanda.
(5.) My longest stretch in the field was a year and several months in 1990–1991; I have made several other trips, each of about three months' duration.
(6.) Racial prejudice is undeniable to the objective observer. The middle and upper classes are disproportionately white; the poor, disproportionately black. Racial profiling is pervasive, and not only among the police, who are notorious for singling out young black males—for example, from my experience, doormen for upscale condominiums routinely deny access or give the third degree to unknown black visitors, while buzzing up white guests without question. Elite politicians, television stars, and other highly visible symbols of success and prestige are with rare exceptions white; the homeless children who struggle to live on the streets of Rio—and who not so rarely die at the hands of vigilantes—are with few exceptions black. The literature debunking the myth of racial democracy is voluminous; good places to begin are with Thomas Skidmore, Black into White: Race and Nationality in Brazilian Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974); and Carl N. Deglar, Neither Black nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986).
(7.) Renato Ortiz, A Morte Branca do Feiticeiro Negro (Rio de Janeiro: Editora Vozes, 1978). Readers familiar with Ortiz's book will recognize the influence of his argument that “white Umbanda” or “pure Umbanda” is in part a defensive reaction to the stigmatization of Afrobrazilian religion and culture by the dominant society, especially during the formative decades (early twentieth century) of Umbanda. Diana Brown makes a similar argument, while Luz and LaPassade recognize contestation and affirmation of Afrobrazilian heritage and “counterculture” at places like the House of Father John that I describe in this essay.
(8.) While this last, dramatic event would seem to be the climax and key to the whole business about the root, I do not recalling hearing of this until 1995—four (p. 303 ) years after I first began hearing these stories of Father John. I had always heard that Father John planted his root there—but never until then just how that came about. In other tellings, the conclusion is equally dramatic: Father John is tied to the trunk of a tree to be tortured. As the whip comes down, with his last strength he lunges against the earth, uprooting the tree and propelling it, and himself, into the heavens.)
(9.) Assertions regarding the good works done for the poor and people of color at the House of Saint Benedict struck me as being frankly paternalistic. In her ethnographic study of a Spiritualist group in Rio, Maria Laura Viveiros de Castro Cavalcanti, O Mundo Invisível: Cosmologia, Sistema Ritual e Noção de Pessoa no Espíritismo (Rio de Janeiro: Zahar Editores, 1983, gives an insightful discussion of Spiritualist cardidade (charity) directed toward the poor, which resonated with my experience at the House of Saint Benedict.
(10.) Detailed and insightful accounts can be found in Renato Ortiz, A Morte Branca do Feiticeiro Negro, and Brown, Umbanda.
(11.) Two useful references are: Bastide, The African Religions of Brazil, and Paulo Barreto (also known as “João do Rio”), As Religiões no Rio (Rio de Janeiro: Novo Aguilar, 1976). Bastide was a sociologist and relies mainly on historical sources; Barreto was a journalist who wrote around the turn of the century; his work is based on his personal observations.
(12.) Bastide, The African Religions of Brazil.
(13.) Terreiros are centers for the practice of Afrobrazilian religion. The word generally refers to an open, leveled space—such as those that Afrobrazilian slaves would have used to secretly practice their religion. Terreiros in Afrobrazilian religious context are built spaces, with roofs but often with dirt floors, reminiscent of the clearings of the past, that allow a direct contact between participants and the earth.
(14.) Yvonne Maggie (also known as Yvonne Maggie Alves Velho, Medo do Feitiço: Relações entre Magia e Poder no Brasil (Rio de Janeiro: Arquivo Nacional, Orgao do Ministerio da Justica, 1992).
(15.) Joaquim Manoel de Macedo, As Victimas Algozes (Rio de Janeiro: Typ. American, 1869); my translation.
(16.) Barreto, As Religiões no Rio.
(17.) Mario Laura Vveiros de Castro Cavalcanti gives a detailed ethnographic account of Spiritualism in contemporary Rio, O Mundo Invisível: Cosmologia, Sistema Ritual e Noção de Pessoa no Espíritismo (Rio de Janeiro: Zahar Editores, 1983).
(18.) Israel Cysneiros, Umbanda: Poder e Magia (Umbanda: Power and Magic) (Rio de Janeiro: Sindicato Nacional dos Editôres de Livros, 1983); 99-100, my translation.
(19.) Brown, Umbanda. Ronaldo Antônio Linares Linares, “Como Conheci Zélio de Morães, O Pai da Umbanda,” and “Mais um Pouquinho Sobre Zélio de Morães,” in Iniciação à Umbanda, vol. 2 (São Paulo: Icone Editora, 1988), 15–20.
(20.) Brown, Umbanda, 39–40.
(21.) See for example Brown, Umbanda, and Lindsay Hale, “Mama Oxum: Reflections of Gender and Sexuality in Brazilian Umbanda,” in Osun Across the Waters, edited by Mei Sanford and Joseph Murphy Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), 213–229.
(23.) Mané also gives a somewhat different explanation of how the Cabalans came to earth. It seems that the people of Cabal were pure spirit. Over thousands of years, they grew so numerous that the planet's gravitational field could not hold them all, and many of them were spun off into space, wandering through the universe. Some of these wanderers happened upon planet Earth and founded the civilization of Atlantis. I never pursued with Mané which was the “correct” account.
(24.) While my discussion of Mané's tale(s) emphasizes its racist dimensions, Mané seemed most interested in the fantastic aspects of space travel, the advent of civilization, and Atlantis and its downfall—and, at the end of the story, the mission of restoring Umbanda to its pure, original form.
(25.) Victor Turner, Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors; Symbolic Action in Human Society (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1974), 45. Turner defines communitas as a “bond unitingpeople over and above any formal social bonds” and applies this concept most usefully to religious rituals, pilgrimages, and other totally involving social performances that dissolve everyday hierarchies and powerfully unite people in a feeling of shared humanity—if only momentarily. That certainly is a frequent effect of the rituals at Father John's.