Archives For Umbanda

Welcome, 2014! The calendar New Year may be the only holiday celebration that nearly the entire world experiences or collectively recognizes. Despite this universality, our New Year’s traditions are as diverse as our world cultures. Therefore this unique period of time offers the opportunity to witness and compare foreign practices that have a similar meaning and purpose to our own. This includes cultural traditions that are not normally in the global spotlight.

Such is the case with two New Year’s celebrations that have very clear esoteric foundations:  Brazil’s Festa de Iemanjá and Cuba’s ceremony dedicated to Eshu-Elegbara. Both are products of regional African-based religions:  Candomblé and Umbanda (Brazil) or Lukumi (Cuba).

Iemanja on a Brazilian beach. The man is performing a New Year's tribute to the Sea Goddess. (Photo courtesy of Link)

Iemanja on a Brazilian beach. The man is performing a New Year’s tribute to the Sea Goddess. (Photo courtesy of Link)

Festa de Iemanjá

Over the years, Brazil’s Festa de Iemanjá has become a major secular tradition – one that attracts tourists from around the world. On New Year’s Eve, thousands of locals dress all in white and head to Rio de Janeiro’s beaches in order to honor the Goddess Iemanjá. Images of the Sea Goddess are everywhere as participants throw roses or gifts into the water and feast on the beach. In addition, they “jump 7 waves” to wash away negativity while making wishes for the New Year.

Link, an American Pagan who has lived and worked extensively in Brazil, compares this love of Iemanjá to the American devotion to Santa Claus. He says:

You can probably find roots to Pagan Scandinavia, but [Santa] is permanently engraved in the secular celebrations of the holiday… Those two ideas are totally separate.  And thus is Iemanjá — prime deity of a very esoteric culture, as well as a part of every common person’s New Years Eve. Pour Champagne into the ocean?  For Iemanjá!

Link

Link

This esoteric culture is that of Candomblé and Umbanda, two syncretic religions which developed out of the West African Yoruba religion. After finding its way to the Americas by way of the slave trade, the West African spiritual system merged with Catholicism. Like other syncretic religions, Candomblé and Umbanda now thrive as distinct minority faiths.

Within these traditions, Iemanjá is called an Orixa, not Goddess, and is considered a primary deity. Despite the secular appropriation of the Festa de Iemanjá, the practitioners of Candomblé and Umbanda continue to honor her in their own religious ways. While living in Brazil, Link was fortunate enough to attend a private Candomblé Iemanjá ritual. He recalls:

I asked a few questions about the ritual when I got there, and one guy said “I don’t know.” Another guy said “I don’t know – ask him,” pointing to another man. That man told me. “Tudo aqui e segredo.” Everything here is secret. After that, I stopped asking questions and just enjoyed the evening. It was a valuable lesson … Understanding is very rational, but religious experiences are just that – experiences. Rational thinking can limit the experience sometimes.  

Despite the secular popularity of Iemanjá, both Candomblé and Umbanda practitioners are still largely marginalized. However, times are changing.  Denise de Santi, president of IBWB church of Wicca and Witchcraft in Brazil, notes that although “Brazilian Witches and African Traditions do not mix,” we often stand together in defense of religious equality.

A Feb 2nd processional devoted to Iemanja (Photo Couresty of Flickr's  Sabrina Gledhill)

A Feb 2nd processional devoted to Iemanja (Photo Couresty of Flickr’s Sabrina Gledhill)

Iemanjá may actually be helping. In regions where Candomblé and Umbanda are strongly rooted, Iemanjá festivals are most popular. In Bahia the festivities are held Feb. 2, and, in Sao Paolo, they happen in early December. However, the Rio New Year’s celebration gets the most “press.” This year, news reports are stating that participation was up by 15,000 people. Moreover, the Rio Festa de Iemanjá was reportedly broadcast in Latin America and the United States for the first time via the Fox network.

The growing popularity of all of these festivals, secular or not, does call attention to these minority religions, highlighting their very real presence in Brazil. Does the secularization of their Orixa ultimately help or hinder their spiritual work?  That is a discussion for another day.

Eshu-Elegbara

Unlike the Festa de Iemanjá, the Cuban New Year’s ceremony has not been co-opted by secular culture. It is strictly a public religious ritual for those practicing Lukumi, more often called Santeria, another syncretic religion based on the West African Yoruba traditions and Catholicism. As reported by The Associated Press:

About 200 believers and onlookers thronged Havana’s most important market, Cuatro Caminos, for the ceremony dedicated to Eshu Elegbara… In a central courtyard at the market, people sprayed rum from their mouths at a 2 foot tall cement stone statue of Eshu Elegbara… At its base, they left offerings of coconut, watermelon, candy and flowers.

The article goes on to say that this was the first year that market administrators allowed the religious statue to be permanently erected after 18 years of practice. American Stacey Lawless, an aborisha (practitioner) of Lukumi, said:

I’m glad the Ocha community got permission to build the Eshu-Elegbara shrine at Cuatro Caminos. The shrine looks cool itself. I think it’s important to stress that it is a shrine, not just a statue. That “icon” is actually an embodied manifestation — an avatar if you like — of the Orisha Elegbara. So now he’s present in the Cuatro Caminos market in a very material way.

Stacey Lawless

Stacey Lawless

The administrators’ show of support has allowed the “Ocha community” to take a step forward in its own quest for greater global understanding and presence. As Jason reported yesterday, the Lukumi New Year’s tradition also includes a divination ritual performed by the babalawos, a specialized priesthood devoted to such practice. Their yearly predictions make international news.

With a shrinking world through the evolution and speed of mass media, we are able to witness these unique cultural practices and their New Year’s traditions. As attention is drawn to their rituals, to their Orixa, to their divinations and their people, attention is also drawn to their religions and their very real presence in our global society. In this way New Year’s celebrations, which are largely considered superficial, can also have a very profound purpose in the movement for social change.

(Important Note: Photos of the Eshu-Elegbara ceremony are under AP copyright. To see them, please click on the link to see a slide show of these engaging photos.)

Top Story: Jon Lee Anderson of the Guardian brings us a riveting look at the massively violent drug wars raging in Rio’s favelas, where over 5000 people were murdered last year, and police-affiliated militias can be as deadly as the gangs. While exploring the question of if this situation can be reversed, and the culture of these gangs, Anderson focuses on Fernandinho, a gang-leader who converted to evangelical Christianity in 2007 and melds Christian morals with the violence of his trade.

“On 20 August 2007, a banner headline of the Rio tabloid Meia Hora said: “Thug beheads those who don’t follow his rules”, and underneath, “Fernandinho Guarabu, Dendê’s boss, uses an axe to execute his victims. The evangelical trafficker forbids even macumba in the favela.” (Macumba refers to one of the country’s African-derived religions, along with Umbanda and Candomblé, which strict evangelicals see as little more than witchcraft.) That same day, in the broadsheet O Dia, this report appeared: “In spite of his violence, the ‘word of God’ must always be propagated, sometimes in a radical way. Guarabu has supposedly banned Umbanda and Candomblé rituals, as well as spiritualist séances. At 6pm every day, a pastor’s prayer echoes on the narrow alleys.” What had happened was that Fernandinho had become friendly with Pastor Sidney, and had been born again. He took to his new faith with great enthusiasm. He had “Jesus Cristo” tattooed on one of his forearms in big letters, and Morro do Dendê was soon covered with new religious graffiti. The community swimming pool he had built now had a sign above it saying, “This Belongs to Jesus Christ”. Also, Fernandinho had supposedly ordered his men not to carry out “violent” crimes, such as carjacking, armed robbery and murder, although he was still selling drugs.”

Naturally, the story of Fernandinho’s conversion doesn’t have a happy ending for the Christians who sought to curb his violence. His gang is back to murdering informants, and Fernandinho is estranged from the pastor who converted him. That hasn’t stopped other, less scrupulous, pastors from ingratiating themselves, or even allowing their churches to be used by his operation. Proof, perhaps, that mere conversion can’t solve these problems, and may even redirect the violence into places they hadn’t anticipated (the violence against non-Christians in his favela for instance). With the international spotlight shining on Rio for the upcoming 2016 Summer Olympics, it should be interesting to see what the government does to curb gang violence and reform the police forces before massive floods of international tourists arrive.

In Other News: The Poughkeepsie Journal has a surprisingly solid article by Lauren Yanks exploring the Winter Solstice from a variety of view-points both secular and spiritual. This includes a local Wiccan shop-owner and a Norse Pagan employee.

“Patrick Twamley also works at the Awareness Shop. Twamley follows the Norse pagan tradition. “In the Norse pagan tradition, the night before the solstice is usually called Mother’s Night,” he said. “It’s a time to honor the female ancestors of your line. This probably goes back to the idea of the mother giving birth to the sun.” As part of the Norse tradition, on the winter solstice Twamley sprinkles everybody with ale as a way of bestowing a blessing, usually out of a blessing bowl. Then there is a feast and a toast to the female spirits. “It’s a way to show gratitude for all we’ve been given,” he said.”

Yanks also asks academics about Native American traditions relating to the Winter Solstice, and interviews the minister of the Uniterian Universalist Fellowship in Poughkeepsie. Maybe papers should encourage more academics (Yanks teaches English at SUNY New Paltz) to write features for them, they, at least, know to quote multiple sources.

It seems English Catholic Archbishop Vincent Nichols made a theological faux pas while at a visit to a Hindu temple in London and (allegedly) placed flowers on the altar of the Hindu deities. This most likely unwitting violation of the First Commandment has gotten Rod “Crunchy Con” Dreher’s dander up.

“I’ll say this for the Muslims: they know better than to get into this syncretism garbage. It is not only possible to honor other religions without paying homage to their gods, it is mandatory for Christians. I would not expect a Jew or a Muslim to cross himself at a Christian altar, or before a Christian crucifix or an icon. Nor would I be insulted in the least if he didn’t. It’s those who are indifferent to what a gesture like this means that worry me.”

Ah yes, “syncretism garbage”. Never mind that this wasn’t an act of “syncretism”, but most likely an unwitting mistake, it’s enough of an excuse to unleash the river of bile and snark Dreher holds for minority non-Christian faiths in general, and for Pagan and African diasporic faiths in particular. Did a polytheist kick his puppy as a child? Did Wiccans steal his lunch-money? It can’t simply be Christian piety that drives this particular immaturity.

So have you heard about the Goth Pagan Robin Hood yet? No? You are so missing out! It seems a man calling himself Frater Osiris Xnoubis robbed a bank wearing black leathers and then proceeded to hand the money out at a local sandwich shop.

“He handed a note to terrified cashier Laura Sulling telling her he was armed and demanded she hand over the cash in her till. Xnoubis, a Pagan worshipper, stuffed £6,570 into a bag and told her to “have a nice day” before calmly walking out of the HSBC branch in Terminus Road, Eastbourne. He walked a few yards to The Gildridge pub where he handed barmaid Gemma Clark a £20 note for a bottle of beer and told her to keep the change. After downing his drink he left and went to nearby Harrisons sandwich bar. He handed the bag of cash to astonished owner Clive Benneys, who was also his landlord, saying: “You are good people, help yourselves.” Xnoubis left the shop and promptly went to the police station in Grove Road where he confessed to the robbery.”

A psychiatric report stated he was depressed, but not mentally ill. A judge sentenced him to three-and-a-half years after a guilty plea. Perhaps years from now they’ll sing ballads for brave Frater Osiris Xnoubis, who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Perhaps they’ll give him a merry band of goths and Pagans who help him in his quest! Hey, stranger things have happened.

In a final note, Erynn Rowan Laurie has a review up of “Ten Years of Triumph of the Moon”, a collection of essays inspired by, deriving from, or just celebrating the influential work of historian Ronald Hutton. She finds several things to like about the collection, but says its hindered by sloppy editing and some rather mediocre essays.

“There are a number of other articles in the book, some of which are passable, but unfortunately one of the editors had the least readable and least useful article in the whole compilation. It’s unfortunate he didn’t himself have an editor to look over his own work. I think that if you’re a Hutton fan, you’ll find a lot to like in this book, as well as a few things that might challenge your opinions. If you’re not specifically a Hutton fan but are interested in the state of scholarship regarding Paganism and the occult today, this will also be quite worth reading. Just be prepared for a lot of bad editing.”

Shame about the editing really, you’d expect better from an academic-oriented collection. Still, I’m looking forward to getting my hands on a copy for review (and my own edification).

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

The state of Bahia in Brazil has confiscated all copies of the book “Yes, Yes! No, No! Reflections on Healing and Liberation” on the grounds that it makes false and prejudicial statements about the Afro-Brazilian religions of Candomble and Umbanda, and incites readers to destroy their objects of worship.

“A judge in the state of Bahia, Brazil, has ordered the confiscation of a book written by Catholic priest Jonas Abib, in which he condemns witchcraft as immoral. The book, “Yes, Yes! No, No! Reflections on Healing and Liberation,” warns readers against the dangers of the occult, which includes the “Afro-Brazilian” religions known as “spiritualism.” According to Fr. Abib’s website, the book has gone through 81 printings and has sold over 400,000 copies. “Father Jonas, like Paul, dares to denounce works of darkness, making the reader aware of mind control, yoga, astrology, magic, and the invocation of the dead, revealing the truth about works of darkness, with which it is urgently necessary to separate,” says a summary of the book posted on the same site.

The confiscation of a work is a pretty serious action, but it seems that the book by Jonas Abib, a Charismatic Catholic priest, went head-to-head with the state of Bahia’s constitution. Bahia is the birthplace of Condomble, and the faith is explicitly protected.

“Public prosecutor Almiro Sena, however, has accused Abib of “making false and prejudiced statements about the spiritualist religion as well as religions from Africa, like Umbanda and Candomble, as well as a flagrant incitement to destruction and disrespect for their objects of worship.” He added that the violation was more serious because “the State Constitution (of Bahia) says that it is the obligation of the state to preserve and guarantee the integrity, respectability, and permanence of the values of Afro-Brazilian religion.” Ricardo Augusto Schmitt, a criminal court judge in the city of Salvador, Bahia ruled in favor of the prosecution in May, and ordered the confiscation of all copies of the book from book stores in the state.”

Without that clause in the state constitution, the work could not have been confiscated. This doesn’t affect the work’s status in Brazil’s other states. The ruling will most likely be appealed by the book’s publisher, and the confiscation has incited claims that Bahia is trying to regulate the free exercise of Christianity.

“Federal Deputy Miguel Martini denounced the latest ruling on the floor of the nation’s Camber of Deputies (the lower legislative house), and expressed his concern that Brazil is beginning to censor the beliefs of Christians. ‘Where is this country going?” he asked. “There is a bill under consideration in the Senate that seeks to limit the expression, on the part of Christians, of their Biblical and Evangelical convictions. And now there is a (court) decision, which clearly should be appealed. I am certain that it will be overturned, because the publisher’s juridical board has already taken legal action.’”

Obviously, a scenario like this would be all but impossible in America, where the First Amendment usually trumps attempts to control the publication of hateful or inaccurate information (otherwise Chick Publications would be out of business). We tend to error on the side of freedom, though if your work is proven to be defaming (something difficult to do), the writer and publishers can lose quite a bit of money from awarded damages until the work is removed from the shelves.

So the big question here is if Abib knowingly committed libel, or if he was merely giving his (religiously-informed) opinion of the Afro-Brazilian faiths. In other words, would an American court find the work libelous? Could a tort be filed against them? Should any state enshrine the “permanence” of a faith? What do you think?

The Miami Herald does a profile on the Afro-Brazilian religion of Umbanda, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. Founded in 1908 after a teenager was possessed by an indigenous spirit named Caboclo das Sete Encruzilhadas (“Indian of Seven Crossroads”), the faith now boasts around 8 million devotees in Brazil, with a variety of off-shoots and unique traditions.


A practitioner possessed by the spirit of the Caboclo Sete Flechas.

“Umbanda has been a natural fit for a country where many believe in the everyday presence of spirits and omens. What’s drawn the interest of international scholars is the religion’s unmistakably Brazilian bent, which has won it fame as the country’s only home-grown faith. Umbanda’s Brazilian focus is most obvious in its pantheon of spirits, which includes popular folk figures such as the rogue, who’s a fixture of street culture here; the freed slave known as the preto velho; and an indigenous warrior known as the caboclo, who can appear adorned with feathered headdresses and bows and arrows. Worshipers also can be possessed by someone from the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia, a cowboy from southern Brazil or a poor ranch hand. In its use of Brazilian folk mythology, it’d be as if worshipers in the United States were possessed by cowboys, astronauts and blues singers.”

While Umbanda thrives and spreads around the world, in Brazil the faith is coming into conflict with the growing Pentecostal churches, who see their religion as devil-worship (anti-Umbanda “exorcisms” are often performed). Despite these problems, Umbanda provides a sort of spiritual therapy for adherents, and is a uniquely Brazilian manifestation of the myriad African syncretic faiths.

“At Friday’s ceremony, dozens of people paid $4 each to ask worshipers embodying the spirits about everything from how to get a pay raise to what to do about an unfaithful spouse. The questions commonly sparked long discussions reminiscent of therapy sessions … Cardoso said she joined the religion at age 17 after a possessed worshipper held her hands and cured her of a mysterious illness. She said she hasn’t been sick in the nearly seven decades since then, a miracle she credits to the spirit world. ‘Everyone has their faith, and Umbanda has been the faith of many Brazilians for many years,’ she said. ‘And it’s worked for many of us.’”

Looking at Umbanda, you have to wonder what many of the modern Pagan faiths now flourishing in places like Britain, America, and Australia, will look like in fifty years. Will we mushroom to nearly ten million (or more, by some estimates), and become a major cultural force like Umbanda? If that comes to pass, what will we (and our faiths) look like? Whatever our eventual fate generations from now, we can learn a lot from looking at our “cousins” in faiths like Umbanda, Vodou, and Santeria. So happy anniversary to Umbanda, may they continue to thrive.