Umbanda Turns 100

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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.