Is There Such A Thing As


Is There Such A Thing As ‘black’ Religion In Brazil Essay, Research Paper

Brazil is a multi-cultural and pluri-ethnic society. The population is made up of peoples from all over; native Indians, Blacks from Africa, Iberians, East Europeans and Japanese for example. Miscegenation and racial mixing has resulted in a myriad of races, ethnicities and cultures. The arrival (except the indigenous peoples who were already there) and immigration of these people from all over the world, in the past five hundred years has signified the arrival of numerous different cultures, ways of life, patterns of behaviour, languages, customs, traditions, religions and beliefs. Their lagacies constitute Brazil and its people today. Blacks, throughout history, have played an integral role in the Brazilian economy. The Atlantic Slave Trade brought African slaves to the New World over a three hundred year time span, to work as slave labour throughout the Americas. Africans from Guinea and Angola, to Mozambique, arrived on the Atlantic coast of Brazil between 1538-1888, to work as field workers, artisans and house domestics. In 1798, of Brazil’s total population of 3,250,000, 1,582,000 were Black slaves and 406,000 were free Negroes (Bastide, 1971, p. 6). By 1817, these figures has risen to 3,817,000, 1,930,000 and 585,000, respectively (Bastide, 1971, p. 6). The Black population was not evenly distributed throughout Brazil and tended to concentrate in defined areas. Figure 1 shows that the largest concentrations of Blacks are in the states in the North-East and East, especially in Bahia, which in 1940 had almost 20% of Brazil’s total Black population. Figure 2 illustrates Brazil with these states demarcated. This pattern of distribution goes back to the colonial period, to where Black slavery was used the most, for example, on the sugar plantations of the North-East. Throughout Latin America, Brazil was the destination of most Africans to be used for slavery, and together with Cuba, slavery was not abolished in Brazil until 1888, whereas it had been abolished elsewhere in Latin America in the early to mid 1800’s. It is this large proportion of Blacks and their distribution throughout the country that has resulted in the Brazil of today. It must be noted that through miscegenation and inter-marriages especially since the abolition of slavery, the Blacks have become integrated into Brazilian society, although there is still a large influence of traditional African elements. Bastide (1971) comments that myth has it that when Blacks were brought from the African `Homeland’ to the New World, all marks of their culture were lost and that they were uprooted, physically and spiritually naked (Preface). They were empty objects with no culture, taken to a foreign place to work as slaves. The reality is that the slave ships not only carried the slaves, but also their gods, beliefs and taditional folklore (Bastide, 1971, p. 23). The shock of being transported to this strange and distant land, where they automatically became dependent and subordinate to the slave-owning class, and the general poor health among them, led to an increase in Black religion. Religion appealed to the slaves as a means of escapism; maintaining a resistance to their white Portugese oppressors, whose dominant group they were excluded from. The emphasis of traditional African cultures appealed to the slaves and it was the treatment of the slaves that has shaped Afro-Brazilian religions over 450 years (although the treatment by the Spanish and Portugese was not as harsh as by the Dutch and English). In some areas, churches were unavailable to slaves and the setting up of Negro churches was actively encouraged in places (Simpson, 1978, p. 12). Simpson (1978, p. 15) refers to Brazilian religious cults that have incorporated many African traditions and rituals. He classifies Neo-African Cults: Dahomean, Candomblé, Xangó and Pará; African-Derived Cults: Spirit Cult, Yoruban-derived and Macoumba; the Spiritualist Cult: Umbanda; and the Independent Cult: Batuque. All are found in Brazil, whether widespread or specific to one area. For example, Umbanda is practised all over Brazil but more in urban areas, but the Candomblé is found mostly in Bahia. These religions differ in the extent to which they are derived from African traditions and also in the extent to which they have amalgamated with other religions, for example incorporating Catholic and Indian beliefs. Various religions have different functions and ceremonial behaviour, whether focused on dancing, singing, spirit possession, speaking in unknown tongues, asking for advice, etc. and different beliefs, in their deities for example. In effect, in the five hundred years since the Conquest of the Americas, the mixing of different peoples and their beliefs and rituals has resulted in numerous religions, syncretising to incorporate different aspects of different cultures. The legacy of the African Diaspora is and always will remain evident, especially in Brazil where so many Africans were taken as slaves, and where generation after generation have become Brazilians themselves. At the height of slavery, the Blacks turned to religion as a means of comfort and escapism. When slavery was abolished, the segregation of races became unfashionable and everyone was taken as `Brazilian’. Afro-Brazilians today have their religions, that have over the years become syncretised with a myriad of other religions. In the light of this knowledge, I would argue that such a thing as Black religion did exist, throughout the period of slavery when there was such a thing as Blacks from Africa. However, the abolition of slavery meant that the term `Black’ became ambiguous and less meaningful, loaded with notions of socio-economic status, origin and racism, when a more apt term became `Afro-Brazilian’. Today what exists is a multitude of Afro-Brazilian religious cults that have taken beliefs from traditional African, Catholicism and Amerindian religions. As already stated, due to the wide range of different Afro-Brazilian religions, with various reasons for formation, survival and various functions and rituals that each one practises, it is necessary at this point to select one particular religion to focus on, as the broad variety of the religions would cause problems in trying to establish whether Black religion is an expression of cultural autonomy and resistant to state domination. My reasons for choosing to focus on the spiritualist religion of Umbanda are due to the extensive literature on it’s formation, progression, beliefs and functions with relation to Brazilian politics, society, economy and other religions. In addition, Umbanda is practised widespread over Brazil and appears to play such an important role in the lives of many Brazilians, increasing the interest of studying the religion. Umbanda is an Afro-Brazilian cult that originated in Rio de Janeiro in the 1920’s. It combines spiritualism with `macoumba’, which is a syncretistic cult consisting of elements of African and Amerindian religions and Catholicism. Although most Umbandists come from the upper-lower and middle classes, and there is a definite African influence; membership is not limited to Blacks or to persons of lower class status. In fact, spiritualism on the whole is gaining prestige among middle and upper classes in Brazil, and among many non-Blacks. Despite this, Umbanda does tend to be regarded as a lower class spiritualist religion and is found mainly among lower status Afro-Brazilians. Although Umbanda is practised throughout Brazil, it seems to be more of an urban phenomenon, where meetings could traditionally be organised more easily than in remoter areas, and where personal and social problems appear more rife. It is unknown exactly how many Umbandists there are in the whole of Brazil. The Umbanda religion is not recognised as a distinct and separate religion by the national census department, and many Umbandists would not consider themselves so. Umbanda Centres throughout the country are not united and there are no nationally recognised leaders, making the religion differ from centre to centre and from state to state. Umbanda goups vary in what they believe. At one extreme is the impact of Kardecism, a form of spiritualism introduced to Brazil from France in the mid nineteenth century. At the other extreme, more emphasis is placed on Afro-Brazilian religious traditions, such as the Candomblé and other religions that developed among the African slaves. The majority of Umbanda groups fall in between, drawing their beliefs from Catholicism, Kardecism, Afro-Brazilian and Amerindian religions, and sometimes showing aspects of Hinduism and Buddism. Despite these differences in functions and emphases, all Umbandists believe that spiritual entities must intervene in human lives, and via spiritual possession people can be helped with personal problems. Members believe that turning to Umbanda will help in solving any personal difficulties and medical problems they have. Ritual activities in Umbanda Centres are based on two major sets of beliefs; that of five different types of spirits and the theory of spiritual fluids. The five major types of spirits are the `caboclo’ spirit of dead Brazilian Indians; the `prêto velho’ spirit of dead Afro-Brazilian slaves; the criança’ spirit of a dead child (of no specific ethnic origin; the `exu’ and his female counterpart `pomba-gira’ are spirits of people who were evil; and finally the orixá spirit who represents the merging of West African deities and Catholic saints (Simpson, 1978. p. 292). These spirits will possess the mediums and are often available to spectators seeking advice. As the medium enters the state of dissociation, he/she begins to act similar to and resemble the spirit possessing them. For example, a fifty year old female medium being possessed by the crinça spirit of a dead boy, will begin to act like him, running around energetically, talking like him etc. Plates 1-4 show various stages of spiritual possession by different spirits in an Umbanda Centre in Sao Paulo. This process of spiritual possession is then available to Umbandists who are seeking advice or consultation about medical problems, occupational advice or personal problems for example (Simpson, 1978, p. 163). Umbandists organize their spirits into seven linhas (lines) each led by an orixá, and a further split into seven falanges (phalanxes), and again divided into seven legioes (legions) of spirits. These organizations vary from group to group. The other important set of beliefs in Umbanda Centres is the theory of supernatural fluids. Umbandists belive that the supernatural fluids that surround peoples’ bodies and affect their well-being come from one’s own spirit, spirits of the dead floating around and from incarnate spirits of people close by. There are both good and bad fluids that affect people’s well-being. Umbandists classify any personal problems and illnesses as `spiritual disorders’ and they are caused by numerous reasons. Six common reasons for disorders are due to a negligence of religious duties and obligations owed to a person’s orixá; evil actions performed through Black Magic of a person’s exu; agitation of fluids by unhappy spirits; Karmic illnesses brought on by the new incarnation of a spirit; underdeveloped mediumship; and finally the `evil eye’ which emits and passes bad fluids. These are just some aspects of Umbanda that help to explain spirit possession as an accepted form of behaviour in this religious institution. This basic knowledge is necessary when studying Umbanda, for a broader understanding of the circumstances in which it evolved, its forms and its functions. In order to determine whether Umbanda is an expression of cultural autonomy, it is first necessary to determine the ambiguous term `cultural’. The Collins Concise English Dictionary (1992) defines culture as, “The total of the inherited ideas, beliefs, values, and knowledge, which constitute the shared basis of social action. The total range of activities and ideas of a people. A particular civilisation. The artistic and social pursuits, expressions and tastes valued by a society or class” (p. 317). In order to establish who constitutes a culture in this case, it is necessary to define the boundaries of a group of people who may constitute a culture. Historically, Africans, Amerindians and Iberians made up homogenous cultures, with religions and value systems as legacies of their various homelands. At this time, these groups were more likely to have been expressing cultural autonomy, self-rule being more feasible in their own cultural entities. However, in the colonial period the Blacks and Indians would never have achieved cultural autonomy and a state of self-government as they were always retained in such a low status and oppression. The Iberians were the only culture to achieve autonomy. In such a multi-ethnic society as Brazil, over five hundred years, these cultures (classified originally in terms of nations and races) have impacted on each other, mixed and created a new culture – a Brazilian culture. However, Brazil is too large a culture area and has too large and different a population to be considered as one culture. There is the need to look at a smaller scale, although there are a number of problems that arise from regarding Umbandists as a culture; followers of this religion do not seem to consist of one `type’ of peoples. They come from all ethnicities, races and socio-economic classes within Brazilian society. In addition, the `artistic and social pursuits, expressions and tastes’ valued by Umbandists also fit into other religious practices, such as other spiritualist and syncretic religions. It can therefore be seen that considering Umbandists as a culture in its own right is problematic. Irrespective of what a definition of the term culture is based on, be it race, ethnicity, socio-economic status or patterns of behaviour for example, this spiritualist religion is practised by such a wide variety of people and is incorporated into the lives of so many Brazilians, that so many of them consider it a way of life. As Umbanda is not considered a separate religion by many, numerous Umbandists consider themselves Catholics, with regard to the official census (Pressel, 1973, p. 276). Four out of the five different spirit types apparently symbolize the major ethnic heritages and cultures of Brazil (Pressel, 1973). The prêto velho, the caboclo and the exu represent the African, Amerindian and European elements, respectively. The criança represents no specific ethnic group, but has been said to represent a true `Brazilian’. The practise of Umbanda is widespread and like most spiritualist religions in Brazil is becoming more prestigious. In the light of this, it seems that Umbanda is not an expression of cultural autonomy, as there is no one definable culture involved, and there seems to be no attempt at self-government, as it does not seem to be the nature and aim of the religion. More probable, Umbanda is becoming increasingly popoular as a method of receiving advice and help for personal and health prolems, via spititual possession, which on the whole is increasing in popularity in the metropolises of Brazil. It has already been seen that Umbanda is a religion based on the syncretism of Afro-Brazilian, Amerindian and Iberian beliefs and rituals. It has also been seen why African religions became so popular in the colonial period. They increased as a response to slavery and hence the Portugese state domination. It can be argued that this was not a means of resisting domination per se, but more as a process of survival in the oppression of slavery. Umbanda was not practised in Brazil until the 1920’s, and spiritualism had only been around for about forty years prior to this. It is therefore not possible to assess it’s religious growth in the colonial period, only the aspects from this time that constitute it now. It is more beneficial however to consider the reasons for Umbanda’s survival and growth in the twentieth century into a legitimate religion with high social acceptability (Brown,1986). There are substantial financial rewards involved, for the upkeep of centres and for the cult leaders themselves, when devotees give large economic funds to the cause. Myth has it that industrialisation, urbanisation and the changing sociocultural environment breed more personal problems, and in a developing society such as Brazil medical facilities are not improved at a sufficient rate to supply the increasing population. In addition, the improved transport and communication networks can enhance the availability of Umbanda to everyone. Encorporating elements of most cultures and religions, Umbanda has the potential to appeal to most of the population, and the fact that spirit possession has been around within Brazilian society (among the indigenous Indians), means that it is already well established as a base. The Catholic church has not changed much in the twentieth century and has not attracted the same amount of people that Umbanda has appealed to. The internal beliefs of the religion, and the social life that come with it are an attraction to Umbandists – the regular sessions, parties, outings, the respect and personal satisfaction. It is the reaction of the changing environment in this developing country and the appeal of this religious cult that the advantages overshadow any disadvantages, hence assuring the survival of Umbanda. Pressel (1973) states that Umbanda, “has become something of a `national folk religion’ in the sense of being the religious part of modern mass culture associated with a technical world” (p. 294). Bastide suggests that Umbanda is a protest against white prejudice and that membership is limited to those of African descent (cited from Simpson, 1986, p. 294). This is proved wrong on all accounts as non-Blacks constitute a large proportion of membership, and Brazil has seen the election of some Umbandists to positions of political authority. In addition, as discussed above, most reasons for Umbanda’s formation and survival are not as a resistance to state domination but to escape from the traumas of a city in the developing world. In the past few decades, Umbanda has become more nationalistic, bureaucratic and de-Africanised, but this can be attributed to the emergence of urban popular culture as a whole and not as a response to state domination. To conclude, Black religion grew as an, “attempt to identify with forces in the universe greater than themselves, to express themselves, to escape – at least temporarily and imaginatively – from rejection, discrimination, and exploitation, and, in some cases, to change life-situations” (Simpson, 1978, p. 171). Today however, one can no longer talk of Black religion. Syncretism and amalgamations between religions of different cultures have resulted in Afro-Brazilian religions of more recent. Connections with Africa have enabled the continuance of traditional beliefs, which have been acculturised into the meaning of `Brazilian’. Umbanda is still relatively new and is gaining widespread recognition as a legitimate spiritualist cult. Rapid urbanisation of Brazil means that the millions of followers there are already will continue to be joined by new believers, of varying socio-economic statuses and ethnic backgrounds; all in search of advice or assistance in any personal or health problems. Figure 1 – Table to show the Proportion of Negroes and Mestizos in the States of Brazil, according to the 1940 Census Source : Bastide (1971) pp. 19-20 Figure 2 – BRAZIL and it’s states Source : Williamson (1992) p. 616 Source : Pressel (1973) pp. 265 a-d BIBLIOGRAPHY **Bastide, R. (1971) – African Civilisations in the New World, London, C. Hurst & Company. **Brown, D. (1986) – Umbanda: Religion and Politics in Urban Brazil, Michigan, UMI Research Press. **Collins Concise English Dictionary (1992) (3rd ed.), Glasgow, Harper Collins Publishers. **Ortiz, R. (1979) – `Umbanda, Magie Blanche, Quimbanda, Magie Noire’, Archives Sciences sociales des Religions, 47 (1) pp. 135-146. **Pressel, E. (1973) – “Umbanda in Sao Paulo: Religious Innovation in a Developing Society”, in Bourguignon, E. – Religion, Altered States of Consciousness, and Social Change, USA, Ohio State University Press, pp. 264-318. **Rowe, W. & Schelling, V. (1991) – “From Slavery to Samba,” & “Carnival and Black Identity”, in Rowe & Schelling – Memory and Modernity: Popular Culture in Latin America, London, Verso, pp. 122-138. **Simpson, G.E. (1978) – Black Religions in the New World, New York, Colombia University Press. **Wade, P. (1993-4) – `Session 11 : Afro-Brazilian Religions’, Blacks and Indians in Latin America, Course Lecture Notes, University of Liverpool, Geography Department. **Williamson, E. (1992) – The Penguin History of Latin America, London, Penguin Books, p. 616.

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