Brazil’s Umbanda Religion Finds Strength in Its Credo of Flexibility

Times Staff Writer

Manoel Alves de Souza, a Rio lawyer, was a patient in a mental hospital in 1970 when he took the path of Umbanda. One of the hospital’s psychiatrists encouraged him to go to an Umbanda worship center for ritual treatment of his illness, Souza recalled. In one ritual, Souza was placed within a circle of fire; in others, he was given herbal baths.

Since then, he has been free of mental disturbances and is a faithful believer in Umbanda, he said in an interview. “It helped me a lot. I know many other people who also have found themselves in Umbanda.”

An eclectic and pragmatic religion, Umbanda emerged here in the late 1920s, mixing popular Catholicism, Afro-Brazilian animism and spiritualism imported earlier from France. It has spread through all urban social classes, reaching uncounted millions of people. Some nationalists say it is the only truly Brazilian religion, and it has gained footholds in neighboring Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina.

Other Affiliations

Over six decades, Umbanda beliefs have shifted and swirled incessantly, adjusting to social trends, surviving periods of persecution and seeking to meet the varying needs of local congregations. Although it has consolidated its position as a major religious force, the movement remains a welter of changing creeds with little unifying doctrine or structure. Anthropologists say this may be a key to Umbanda’s success, allowing it to adapt readily to popular needs at any time or place.

In its beginnings, for example, Umbanda offered a “whitened” alternative to popular Afro-Brazilian religions, which were considered uncivilized by many non-blacks. Since the late 1970s, however, as Brazil has become more appreciative of its African heritage, many Umbanda centers have begun emphasizing the religion’s Afro-Brazilian roots.


Umbanda does not require its faithful to leave other churches. In return, the Roman Catholic Church in Brazil has taken a tolerant stance toward Umbanda in recent years. Some Pentecostal Protestant leaders, however, are waging a vigorous anti-Umbanda campaign.

“Evangelicals and Umbanda in ‘Holy War,’ ” said a recent headline in the Rio newspaper O Globo. Some Pentecostal churches offer sessions to exorcise what they see as the devil spirits from the bodies of repentant Umbandistas.

Souza, the Rio lawyer and Umbanda devotee, said those Protestants attacks are made partly in an attempt to win converts, but he said Umbanda faithful should turn the other cheek.

“They have a problem with us, but the true Umbandista has no problem with anyone,” he said. “These are rocks that are destined to lie in our path.”

Souza, 47, practices law in the same second-story office where he conducts business as president of an Umbanda federation. A natty dresser with curly black hair, he sits under a portrait of Yemanja, the African goddess of the sea, equivalent in Umbanda belief to the Virgin Mary.

Saints Less Important

On the opposite wall, over a bookcase full of legal volumes, is a picture of St. Jerome, or Xango, the god of justice.

According to Souza, images of Catholic saints are becoming less important in Umbanda as a pantheon of Afro-Brazilian orixas , or god-spirits, take on stronger meaning.

“Today, the image is still there, but people are more aware that it has a fixating function for those who need an image,” he said. “We are moving away from those things.”

An important part of the Umbanda movement is gradually growing similar to Candomble and other Afro-Brazilian religions that draw little or nothing from Catholicism, Souza added.

“It is returning to its true African roots,” he said.

Patricia Birman, an anthropologist at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, agreed. She said a once-dominant trend toward “whitening the religion” has receded since the late 1970s, when black pride began growing in Brazil.

She said many middle-class worshipers, previously attracted to “whitened” Umbanda, are shifting to Candomble “in search of the ‘authentic.’ ”

Not all scholars see such a trend, however. Sonia Giacomini and Mecenio Santos, anthropologists at Rio’s Institute for Religious Studies, said that although some Umbanda centers also practice Candomble, there is no documented evidence of a major shift toward what Giacomini called “Umbandomble.”

Immense Diversity

What has always been characteristic of Umbanda, Santos said, is its flexibility. Some Umbanda centers emphasize Catholic imagery, others prefer orixas and still others worship neutral spirits.

“The diversity is immense,” Santos said. He said that there are at least seven distinct Umbanda “lines,” or creeds, and that the faithful consists of a full spectrum of Brazil’s races, classes and ethnic groups.

In Sao Paulo, some Umbanda centers are almost exclusively attended by Brazilians of Japanese descent. In the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, many centers are dominated by German-Brazilians or Italian-Brazilians. Members of one Umbanda center in Rio de Janeiro are predominantly Jewish.

In general, Umbandistas believe that otherworldly spirits can influence human affairs with their energy. Spirits “possess” trained mediums in ceremonies that usually include dancing and singing, often to the beat of African drums.

In an important part of the Umbanda ceremony, members of the congregation go to the medium of their choice for individual “consultations,” asking spirits for help in solving problems that usually involve health, money, employment, love or power. The help can be in the form of explanation and advice, a spiritual remedy on the spot or a prescription for future ritual treatment.

Sometimes the treatment includes the use of special herbs, powders or other substances that can be bought at hundreds of religious shops in Brazil. Sometimes the Umbanda center is able to arrange for professional medical care, financial aid or jobs.

In an Umbanda center in Rio on a recent Friday night, the ceremony started with a dozen barefoot women in white dresses lined up in front of a candle and a bowl of manioc on a tile floor under a corrugated metal roof. An altar in an alcove at the end of the hall was covered with white lace and adorned with religious figurines and flowers.

The drums pulsed and the women clapped in rhythm when Father Jeronimo Souza, the elderly “father of saints” and chief of the center, entered the room and sat on a chair near the altar. One by one, the women greeted him, kissing his right hand and both his cheeks.

Then began a series of ritual songs, praising the orixas and lesser entities of the spirit world. After a few minutes, the women were dancing in shuffling samba steps, and a ceremonial leader passed among them swinging an incense burner that poured out billows of pungent rosemary and lavender smoke.

The dancing gradually became more excited. Soon the women were making jerky movements, spinning wildly, sometimes snapping their fingers or falling to their knees. Some of them began smoking cigars.

“They are incorporated,” whispered an observer seated in a row of chairs along the side of the hall, meaning that the mediums had received the women’s spirits.

The women then took positions evenly spaced around the floor, and people from the congregation lined up for consultations.

Marinete Martins de Souza, the daughter of Father Jeronimo Souza and the center’s No. 2 leader, said the mediums receive the positive energy of nature, activated with the help of music, incense and cigar smoke. “It is that energy which cleans out negative energy,” she said.

Later, outside the hall, a woman in her 40s was leaving after her spiritual consultation.

“We ask for a favor and we receive it,” the woman said. “The favors help people with the force of God.”

Although reluctant to talk, she gave an example of how she had obtained help for her son through Umbanda. “They were behind on his pay at work,” the woman said. “I got it.”

The early seeds of Umbanda arrived in Brazil with Portuguese colonizers and African slaves. The religions of different African peoples blended and evolved in the shadows of the white, Catholic-dominated society. Today, such Afro-Brazilian religions as Candomble and Xango, most widely practiced among blacks in Brazil’s impoverished northeast, are similar but far from identical to African and Afro-Caribbean religions.

In the 1850s, a French spiritualist began writing books about his possession by a Druid spirit identified as Allan Kardec. The Kardec books were widely read in Brazil, and Kardecism spread among the middle classes here. Followers of the new religion believed that spirits could evolve into more perfect states through reincarnation and works of charity.

Brazilian Kardecists emphasized the mystical power of highly evolved spirits to alleviate human suffering by dispensing advice, spiritual cleansing and cures through mediums in ritual sessions. The Kardecists looked down on Afro-Brazilian religion as primitive and uncivilized, but Kardecism lacked its ritual power and rich symbolism.

American anthropologist Diana DeGroat Brown links the beginnings of Umbanda to a Kardecist named Zelio de Moraes, who lived in the Rio suburb of Niteroi. Moraes told Brown that after he became paralyzed in his 20s, he was visited by the spirit of a Jesuit priest who gave him the mission of establishing a new religion that would worship the spirits of Brazilian Indians, called Caboclos, and old slaves, called Pretos Velhos.

Moraes said he was soon cured and began receiving the visits of a spirit, the Caboclo of the Seven Crossroads, who helped him organize the first Umbanda centers in the middle and late 1920s. Like Moraes, most of his fellow founders were white, middle-class Kardecists who found Afro-Brazilian religion more appealing but rejected its fondness for animal sacrifices, devilish spirits, liquor and rough physical behavior.

“Not surprisingly, Umbanda, as it developed under the guidance of the Caboclo of the Seven Crossroads, came to express the preferences and dislikes of these founders,” Brown wrote in a book published in 1986.

Spirit ‘Guides’

In most Umbanda centers, the visiting spirit “guides” are Caboclos and Pretos Velhos, although the more distant and exotic orixas are openly worshiped. Exus , mischievous demigods in Candomble, are treated by Umbandistas as harmful devil spirits. But secret rituals of many Umbanda centers include Quimbanda, a kind of black magic that caters to exus .

According to rough estimates, more than 10% of Brazil’s 140 million people are active in Umbanda, and a much larger percentage of people seek help occasionally at Umbanda centers. Many social scientists say that all but a small percentage of Brazilians give some degree of credence to the practical effectiveness of Umbanda.

“Everyone in some way participates in that belief,” said anthropologist Yvonne Maggie Alves Velho. “It is a very strong belief in Brazilian society.”