Beyond Macumba: interview with Umbanda scholar

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About six months ago we inter­viewed Russ­ian prac­ti­tion­ers of Quim­ban­da, a tra­di­tion still quite exot­ic for the post-sovi­et world. We promised you a review of Umban­da, anoth­er Afro-Caribbean tra­di­tion, which is close­ly linked to Quim­ban­da, being a sort of its right-hand twin. We, how­ev­er, can split up the Afro-Caribbean cults between the Right-hand path and Left-hand path only pro­vi­sion­al­ly. This is revealed in the inter­view giv­en by the amaz­ing Alex Minkin.

Alex Minkin is an inde­pen­dent schol­ar and social activist, focus­ing his research on Brazil­ian cul­ture since 1996. He is the founder of Ticún Brasil, an inno­v­a­tive social jus­tice NGO that imple­ments edu­ca­tion­al, social and art projects in Rio de Janeiro, as well as Brazil­ian cul­tur­al events in New York since 2008. Orig­i­nal­ly from Moscow, Alex stud­ied at Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty and the Por­tuguese Lan­guage Insti­tute in New York. He also co-hosts new music project Extend­ed Tech­niques, ded­i­cat­ed to under-explored con­tem­po­rary clas­si­cal and jazz music. Alex is cur­rent­ly work­ing on a book Sev­en Waves of Umban­da that traces the religion’s ori­gins and his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ments and overviews rit­u­als, fes­ti­vals, folk­lore, music and the role Umban­da plays in con­tem­po­rary Brazil­ian cul­ture and soci­ety. The book is based on field research in over a dozen tem­ples, texts by lead­ing Umban­da schol­ars from Brazil and the US, inter­views, and orig­i­nal video footage.

The vol­ume of this inter­view and its rich­ness in infor­ma­tion make it a one-of-a-kind research, and we are very thank­ful to Alex for answer­ing our ques­tions in such detail.


It is gen­er­al­ly thought that the three pil­lars of Umban­da are Catholi­cism, Afro-Brazil­ian tra­di­tions, and Carde­cist spiritism. Is it true? If yes, could you please tell us in more detail about the con­tri­bu­tion of each of them, espe­cial­ly the last one?

Yes, Umban­da emerged in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, at the same time as Sam­ba, co-cre­at­ing Brazil­ian iden­ti­ty based on the mix of Can­domblé (where African tra­di­tion­al beliefs were com­bined with pop­u­lar Brazil­ian Catholi­cism), Euro­pean Karde­cist Spiritism and roman­ti­cized indige­nous ele­ments. This fas­ci­nat­ing reli­gious move­ment must be expe­ri­enced by every open mind­ed spir­i­tu­al trav­el­er to Brazil. With lack of effec­tive cen­tral reli­gious author­i­ty, almost every indi­vid­ual Umban­da tem­ple fol­lows its unique the­o­log­i­cal route inside of Umban­das spec­trum, so some are clos­er to Can­domblé, while oth­ers to Karde­cism. Lat­er we’ll talk about sev­er­al dif­fer­ent direc­tions that devel­oped under the umbrel­la of Umban­da, but first let’s name some of the com­mon ele­ments.

Umban­da believes that spir­its are incor­po­rat­ed in the body of a medi­um – some­one who pur­port­ed­ly medi­ates com­mu­ni­ca­tion between the world of the spir­its and liv­ing human beings – in order to offer spir­i­tu­al con­sul­ta­tions and heal­ing to the con­gre­gants. In Umban­da cer­e­monies, the medi­um enters the state of trance using bod­i­ly move­ments trig­gered by rit­u­al music or, in oth­er words, sur­ren­ders to the spir­it while danc­ing. This act of spir­it incor­po­ra­tion erad­i­cates bound­aries between the self (medium’s “reg­u­lar” iden­ti­ty) and the oth­er (the embod­i­ment of a sum­moned spir­it). The idea of medi­umship comes from Can­domblé, Karde­cism and native Indi­an beliefs.

In both Can­domblé and Umban­da every Orixá cor­re­sponds to a Chris­t­ian saint (the phe­nom­e­non called Syn­cretism) and is tra­di­tion­al­ly cel­e­brat­ed on a date close to that of the sain­t’s day.  Unlike in Can­domblé, African deities (Orixás) asso­ci­at­ed with pow­er­ful forces of nature, such as wind, thun­der and light­ning nor­mal­ly do not pos­sess medi­ums direct­ly. Orixás are believed to be too pow­er­ful and supreme to vis­it every Umban­da tem­ple, so they send vibra­tions with low­er spir­its. I was intro­duced to the reli­gion in 2008 at the tiny Umban­da tem­ple Ten­da Espíri­ta Vovó Maria Con­ga de Aruan­da in Rio de Janeiro that in its prac­tices grav­i­tates towards Can­domblé. In this video, the temple’s Pai Zez­in­ho de Ogum cel­e­brates Orixá Ogun that syn­cretized with Saint Gorge:

Each Orixá has own mythol­o­gy as elab­o­rate as those of the ancient Greek and Roman gods, unique dance pos­tures and rhythms. This mythol­o­gy comes to Umban­da from Can­domblé, but, sim­i­lar to Old Tes­ta­ment prophets in Chris­tian­i­ty, while this foun­da­tion is there, it is not well known, stressed and stud­ied. In Can­domblé, only some of Orixás myths are nar­rat­ed in the rit­u­als through devo­tion­al songs. The most com­pre­hen­sive expres­sion of these char­ac­ters is brought to life through rit­u­al spir­it pos­ses­sions. With empha­sis on oral tra­di­tion, rit­u­al per­for­mance replaces scrip­ture. Brazil­ian soci­ol­o­gist Rosa Bar­bara explains that “music is the com­mu­ni­ca­tion between the medi­um and the Orixá, while the dance is the man­i­fes­ta­tion of the com­mu­ni­ca­tion.» Sim­i­lar­ly to Can­domblé, body vibra­tions are embed­ded in the fab­ric of Umban­da – its ser­vice is appro­pri­ate­ly called Gira, from the word gyrate.

The per­cus­sion (drums and clap­ping) is the main musi­cal instru­ment in both tra­di­tions and is under­stood as rit­u­al­is­tic mag­i­cal acti­va­tors used to com­mu­ni­cate with Orixás and oth­er spir­i­tu­al enti­ties. These drums have been cer­e­mo­ni­ous­ly pre­pared and con­sid­ered to be holy objects because they com­mu­ni­cate with the Orixás, each invoked by the dis­tinct rhyth­mic pat­tern. Drum­mers must under­go inten­sive train­ing and spe­cial cer­e­monies in order to be allowed to play. Each medi­um has her own way to reen­act her spir­it through dance move­ments, and a unique way of speak­ing (for exam­ple spir­its of Gyp­sies speak Por­tun­hol, inter­spers­ing Por­tuguese with Span­ish words). They use props, like a Gyp­sy tam­bourine, that remind the spir­it of his earthy life. For an out­sider who walks into Umban­da cer­e­mo­ny there’s may be a feel­ing of inter­ac­tive the­atri­cal (even vaude­vil­lian) per­for­mance.

Pop­u­lar Brazil­ian Catholi­cism is a key ele­ment of Afro-Brazil­ian reli­gion and lat­er inher­it­ed by Umban­da. Pre-Chris­t­ian gods were repack­aged and reworked under the sur­face of wor­ship­ing to Catholic saints. Although the Catholic reli­gion is monothe­is­tic, pop­u­lar­ly it was expressed in Brazil as if it were a poly­the­ism.  Every saint had a role to play (i.e. San­ta Lucia takes care the eyes and the vision, San­ta Bar­bara helps with the light­ning and hur­ri­canes). In Umban­da and Can­domblé Brazil saw the nat­ur­al union of poly­the­is­tic African Orixás with dis­guised Euro­pean pagan­ism. In the words of lead­ing Brazil­ian Reli­gious schol­ar Regi­nal­do Pran­di, ‘Our sea is the sea of Yeman­ja, the sea of the Chris­tians is the sea of Nos­sa Sen­ho­ra dos Nave­g­antes …but it’s the same sea.’

Anoth­er build­ing block of Umban­da – Spiritism (or Karde­cism, after its founder Allan Kardec) began in France in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry as phi­los­o­phy and sci­ence. The meth­ods of com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the spir­its empha­size ratio­nal­i­ty and could be proven through the deduc­tive method inher­it­ed from sci­ence. In Brazil Spiritism added mys­ti­cal and rit­u­al lay­ers and trans­formed itself into reli­gion (one can say in a way sim­i­lar to foot­ball and car­ni­val). Now the coun­try has the largest Spiri­tist com­mu­ni­ty in the world.


Allan Kardec set foun­da­tions of Spiritism in 5 works: The Spir­its” Book (1857), The Book of Medi­ums (1859), the Gospel Accord­ing to Spiritism (1863), Heav­en and Hell (1865) and Gen­e­sis (1868).

Spiritism man­aged to blend basics of Catholi­cism (char­i­ty), Bud­dhism (rein­car­na­tions) Dar­win­ism (evo­lu­tion) and fash­ion­able 19th cen­tu­ry eso­teric beliefs from Emmanuel Swe­den­borg to Theos­o­phy of Madame Blavatsky. Unlike in Catholi­cism, Christ is con­sid­ered most evolved spir­it and rein­car­na­tion leads to redemp­tion in Karde­cism. Sim­i­lar­ly to Can­domblé, Chris­tian­i­ty was used to legit­imize the ‘exot­ic’ reli­gion in the eyes of Catholics. Just like Can­domblé, ear­ly Karde­cism was per­se­cut­ed (its books were famous­ly burned in Spain in 1861). In Brazil Karde­cism was adopt­ed by intel­lec­tu­als, mil­i­tary and civ­il ser­vants in the late 19th cen­tu­ry, despite the Penal Code of 1890 clas­si­fi­ca­tion of the reli­gion as a crime. The neo- Chris­t­ian mes­sage of char­i­ty became a huge hit among mid­dle-class peo­ple in urban cen­ters who could appre­ci­ate fash­ion­able Euro­pean eso­teric texts. The atmos­phere of Karde­cist meet­ings resem­bles slight­ly a uni­ver­si­ty sem­i­nar with stu­dents lis­ten­ing to read­ings and engag­ing with spir­i­tu­al «speak­ers» gath­ered in a table.

Umban­da is an expe­ri­en­tial reli­gion of allow­ing your­self to open into mys­ter­ies of com­mu­ni­cat­ing with the spir­its. You will not find any of Karde­cist books (or any oth­er books for that mat­ter) in most of the tem­ples. Karde­cism how­ev­er attempt­ed to set the moral code in Umban­da, dis­tin­guish­ing it from more eth­i­cal­ly ambiva­lent African reli­gions. In fact some schol­ars con­sid­er Umban­da a pop­u­lar form of Karde­cism. In accor­dance with Kardec teach­ings the low­er spir­its are reward­ed for their spir­i­tu­al advice (known as char­i­ty) with the evo­lu­tion along the rein­car­na­tion lad­der. Heav­en, hell and the dev­il do not exist on Karde­cist hori­zon and there’s con­cept of free will.


In addi­tion to some of the foun­da­tions set by its pre­de­ces­sors’ reli­gions, Umban­da intro­duced unique­ly Brazil­ian arche­typ­i­cal spir­its that con­gre­gants can iden­ti­fy with and seek spir­i­tu­al advice. The most com­mon are elder­ly black slaves (Pre­tos Vel­hos) and indige­nous peo­ple (Cabo­c­los). The cer­e­monies also call for the spir­its of rur­al cow­boys from the north, Bahi­an migrants, urban out­casts (Exus), Gyp­sies, chil­dren and sages from the East.

Pre­tos Vel­hos in ear­ly Umban­da were the Chris­tian­ized spir­its that suf­fered a lot and came back to preach humil­i­ty. These spir­its often devel­oped to more rebel­lious Black activists towards 21st cen­tu­ry. Curi­ous­ly, ear­ly Cabo­c­los were less relat­ed to native Brazil­ian Indi­ans, but rather inspired by pop­u­lar nine­teenth cen­tu­ry depic­tions of North Amer­i­can Indi­ans of the likes of Fen­ni­more Coop­er (even includ­ing typ­i­cal head­dress not found in South Amer­i­ca). In some region­al Umban­da vari­a­tions, espe­cial­ly on the north of Brazil, Cabo­c­los became clos­er con­nect­ed with Ama­zon­ian tra­di­tions and often cen­tral to the cer­e­monies. All arche­types of Umban­da, oppressed dur­ing their life­time, come back as pow­er­ful spir­its in a way of sym­bol­ic inver­sion to teach the beau­ty of cre­ation and the joy of liv­ing. In addi­tion to con­nec­tion to medi­ums ances­tors, such spir­i­tu­al prac­tice has ther­a­peu­tic effect for Brazil­ians prac­tic­ing Umban­da to relieve the his­tor­i­cal and often present trau­mas of dis­crim­i­na­tion and reli­gious intol­er­ance. By giv­ing the oppressed cen­tral role of deities, Umban­da sym­bol­i­cal­ly revers­es estab­lished social order and heals col­lec­tive trau­mas. Through focus­ing on the neglect­ed and reject­ed ele­ments of the soci­ety the reli­gion is try­ing to repair the his­tor­i­cal dam­age, empow­er the oppressed with spir­i­tu­al force.

What was the rela­tion­ship of Catholi­cism and Afro-Brazil­ian tra­di­tions in ear­ly XX cen­tu­ry?

Before the Sec­ond Vat­i­can Coun­cil in 1965, Catholic Church attempt­ed lit­tle dia­logue with oth­er reli­gions. Catholi­cism was espe­cial­ly intol­er­ant to Afro-Brazil­ian reli­gions because of the explic­it ban to con­sult the dead. Catholic preach­ers in the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry con­demned Can­domblé and Umban­da heal­ing prac­tices as scams and fraud. Umban­da tried to appease the Chris­tians by keep­ing Catholic saints to rep­re­sent most of the Orixás and by de-African­iza­tion of the rit­u­als. It did not seem to con­vince Catholics – in 1946 the church sued Umban­da Fed­er­a­tion of Sao Paulo for copy­right vio­la­tions by using Catholic images in the rit­u­als. Catholics saw in Umban­da a threat to the church’s monop­oly on reli­gious rev­e­la­tion.

Most famous­ly the con­flict between the reli­gions was depict­ed in 1962 film – Brazil­ian Cannes win­ner Pagador de Promes­sas (Keep­er of the Promis­es). A vil­lager, the film’s pro­to­type, is mak­ing a promise to Orixá Yansa to car­ry a cross to the church of San­ta Bar­bara, Yansa syn­cret­ic pair saint. The church priest rejects the offer­ing. 

The legal prob­lems con­tin­ued into our time. As recent­ly as May 2014 a Brazil­ian judge decreed that Can­domblé and Umban­da are not to be legal­ly con­sid­ered reli­gions in Brazil any­more. This deci­sion was lat­er over­turned fol­low­ing pub­lic protests. The coun­try has changed and Umban­da is now wide­ly accept­ed by Catholics as most Brazil­ian of reli­gions. Present­ly the most pow­er­ful, intol­er­ant and often vio­lent adver­sary of Afro-Brazil­ian reli­gions is the rais­ing Pen­te­costal church that equals Orixás wor­ship to pagan­ism or worse.

Was Umban­da in any rela­tion with pos­i­tivist inter­pre­ta­tions of ani­mal mag­net­ism, telekine­sis, sci­en­tif­ic exper­i­ments with auto­mat­ic writ­ing?

Reinal­do Bernardes Tavares, his­to­ry pro­fes­sor at Fed­er­al Uni­ver­si­ty of Rio de Janeiro told me that stud­ies of Para­psy­chol­o­gy were not pop­u­lar in Brazil in the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry and these phe­nom­e­na were under­stood as prod­ucts of the direct actions of spir­its. Umban­da fol­low­ers are still often not aware about these sci­en­tif­ic devel­op­ments – the most impor­tant is faith.

When and under what cir­cum­stances did Umban­da take the shape of an inde­pen­dent reli­gion? In this respect, the year 1907, Rio de Janeiro, and a medi­um named Zélio Fer­nandi­no de Moraes are often men­tioned – how did he end up cre­at­ing a cult? Into what key streams did Umban­da even­tu­al­ly split? What are its main vari­eties as of now, and what are their spe­cif­ic fea­tures?

Umban­da offi­cial­ly began on Novem­ber 15, 1908 in the Karde­cist cen­ter in Niteroi, Rio de Janeiro. Zélio Fer­nandi­no de Moraes, a 17-year-old boy incor­po­rat­ed a spir­it who iden­ti­fied him­self as the Cabo­clo das Sete Encruzil­hadas (Indi­an of the Sev­en Cross­roads), a ‘low­er’ spir­it that was not allowed at the mid­dle class Karde­cist ser­vices.

The diver­si­ty and rich­ness of Umban­da is as strik­ing as it is still unknown to the world. Accord­ing to the research released in Spring 2014 by Uni­ver­si­ty of Rio de Janeiro, there are 114 dis­tinct vari­eties of Afro-Brazil­ian reli­gions, includ­ing dif­fer­ent forms of Umban­da iden­ti­fied in the state of Rio alone, but it is esti­mat­ed that there are over 300 types over­all in the coun­try.

As Zélio Fer­nandi­no de Moraes began the reli­gion at the Karde­cist cen­ter, White Umban­da tem­ples that he found­ed close­ly fol­low doc­trine of Spiritism. The cen­ters are study­ing works of Alan Kardec and ear­ly Umban­da the­olo­gians, the medi­ums are only dressed in white and there is no use of African per­cus­sion (only clap­ping). The main enti­ties who per­form spir­i­tu­al char­i­ty in White Umban­da are Cabo­c­los, Pre­tos Vel­hos and chil­dren, there are no Exus and pom­ba­gi­ras and oth­er Quim­ban­da enti­ties and new­er spir­its and no ani­mal sac­ri­fices.

Many Afro-Brazil­ian reli­gions start­ed to call them­selves Umban­da with or with­out adopt­ing Umban­da the­ol­o­gy and spir­its (cabo­c­los and pre­tos vel­hos) to avoid per­se­cu­tion in 20th cen­tu­ry, since Umban­da became legal­ized much ear­li­er than Can­domblé. In the 1960s migra­tion from the North­east of Brazil brought sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of Can­domblé and oth­er tra­di­tion­al Afro-Brazil­ian reli­gions wor­shipers to the South. These fac­tors result­ed in most wide­spread form of Umban­da in Brazil called by researchers Pop­u­lar or Crossed Umban­da (in a sense of cross­ing Umban­da and Afro-Brazil­ian reli­gions), but com­mon­ly still known by a sin­gle word – Umban­da.

French film direc­tor Vin­cent Moon will be releas­ing dozens of poet­ic cine-essays on cur­rent day reli­gious cults in Brazil next year, includ­ing few on Umban­da that we work togeth­er on.

Here’s his ear­li­er film depict­ing Pop­u­lar Umban­da rit­u­al from the North of Brazil:

Pop­u­lar Umban­da is most dynam­ic and respon­sive to the shifts in Brazil­ian soci­ety, adopt­ing the mys­ti­cal and reli­gious prac­tices that suit its con­gre­gants, adding spir­i­tu­al enti­ties (i.e. Baianos – Bahi­an migrants). This form of Umban­da is open to any spir­it that wants, or needs to man­i­fest itself. No dis­crim­i­na­tion by social, racial, reli­gious or sex­u­al base.  ‘Umban­da reveals iso­mor­phisms and sim­i­lar­i­ties between so many cul­tures that it can be seen as exem­plar of coex­is­tence.’ says Mel Alex­en­berg, head of the Emu­na Col­lege School of the Arts in Jerusalem in his “Edu­cat­ing artists for the future”.

Pop­u­lar Umban­da is ful­ly expe­ri­en­tial and lack­ing the com­mon doc­trine or writ­ten scrip­ture. The rit­u­als are most­ly con­duct­ed in Por­tuguese, but Orixás are often wor­shiped in a way sim­i­lar to Afro- Brazil­ian reli­gions. In some tem­ples most bound to African tra­di­tions ani­mal sac­ri­fices may be offered; such cen­ters are often clas­si­fied by schol­ars as Umban­domblé.

The main enti­ties who per­form spir­i­tu­al char­i­ty in Pop­u­lar Umban­da include both Umban­da and Quim­ban­da spir­its such as Cabo­c­los, Pre­tos Vel­hos, the chil­dren, cow­boys, Baianos, sailors, mer­maids, gyp­sies, Exus, Pom­ba­gi­ras and Exus-Mirins. Region­al vari­a­tion may have its own enti­ties not known in oth­er parts of Brazil (such as 3 enchant­ed Turk­ish sis­ters in Belem). Medi­ums are wear­ing col­or­ful dress­es to rep­re­sent their enti­ties, not lim­it­ing them­selves to white. Anoth­er vari­a­tion of crossed tra­di­tion is Umban­da of Almas and Ango­las pop­u­lar in the south of Brazil. It is strong­ly ground­ed in African tra­di­tions and some­times uses human bones in its rit­u­als.

Var­i­ous eso­teric streams of Umban­da devel­oped by charis­mat­ic medi­ums over the years. They are influ­enced by theos­o­phy, astrol­o­gy, medieval Chris­t­ian inter­pre­ta­tions of Kab­bal­ah and oth­er glob­al occult schools. In Umban­da Mir­im there is no wor­ship of Catholic saints and Orixás are rein­ter­pret­ed in a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent way from African tra­di­tions. Eclec­tic Umban­da empha­sizes Catholic side of syn­cretism. Aumpram attempt­ed to legit­imize Umban­da at the time of per­se­cu­tions by dis­tanc­ing from its African ori­gins.  Aumpram’s scrip­tures writ­ten by Roger Fer­audy trace Umban­da to lost myth­i­cal con­ti­nents, Lemuria and Atlantis, which sunk into the ocean 700,000 years two. In these con­ti­nents, the extrater­res­tri­al beings taught locals the foun­da­tions of Umban­da – Aumpram, or the true divine law. Omb­hand­hum has sim­i­lar myth of ori­gins and also uses Indi­an mantras and San­skrit. Aumb­handã is focus­ing on uni­ver­sal hid­den lan­guage that relates astro­log­i­cal sym­bols, numerol­o­gy, Kab­bal­ah and the use of col­ors.

Pop­u­lar con­tem­po­rary stream called Sacred Umban­da emerged in São Paulo in 1996 with cre­ation of The­o­log­i­cal Acad­e­my of Umban­da. Well writ­ten the­o­log­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal works by found­ing medi­ums Rubens Saraceni (i.e. The sev­en lines of Umban­da: the reli­gion of mys­ter­ies) and Alexan­dre Cumi­no (i.e. His­to­ry of Umban­da) are high­ly rec­om­mend­ed for Umban­da stu­dents. Alexan­dre is also active in social media today with live broad­casts over his Face­book page. Sacred Umban­da seeks to be com­plete­ly inde­pen­dent of African­ist, spir­i­tu­al­ist, Catholic and eso­teric doc­trines while rec­og­niz­ing the influ­ence of these reli­gions.

Umban­da Guara­cy is worth a spe­cial men­tion as it is most suc­cess­ful inter­na­tion­al­ly with net­work of 14 tem­ples in Brazil, Europe (Por­tu­gal, France, Aus­tria, Switzer­land, Bel­gium) and North Amer­i­ca (Cal­i­for­nia, New York, Wash­ing­ton and Cana­da). This move­ment was found­ed in São Paulo in 1973 by medi­um Sebastião Gomes de Souza bet­ter known as Car­los Buby who then received spir­it of Cabo­clo Guara­cy. There is no wor­ship of Catholic saints and Orixás are inter­pret­ed close to African tra­di­tions. Guara­cy is present­ly the only Umban­da tem­ple in New York, so I had a chance to vis­it their small, but wel­com­ing and warm com­mu­ni­ty on sev­er­al occa­sions. Some of the medi­ums speak Eng­lish mak­ing intro­duc­tion to Umban­da eas­i­er to most of the for­eign­ers. Vast major­i­ty of the con­gre­gants are Brazil­ian umban­dis­tas liv­ing in NY with few “gringo” Brazilophiles and spir­i­tu­al seek­ers. Here is Car­los Buby at TED talk São Paulo: 

Take a look at the chart of Umban­da devel­op­ment com­piled by Brazil­ian schol­ar Rena­to Guimarães. The posi­tion of the branch­es in the graph does not indi­cate high­er or low­er hier­ar­chy; the Umban­da streams are shown in the order of their appear­ance as well as some pos­si­ble inter­re­la­tions between them.


Absent from the chart is the newest star in Umban­da con­stel­la­tion – Umbandaime, mix of Umban­da with anoth­er syn­cret­ic Brazil­ian reli­gion San­to Daime. San­to Daime mix­es strong Folk Catholic foun­da­tion with ele­ments of sev­er­al reli­gious or spir­i­tu­al tra­di­tions such as Spiritism, African ani­mism and indige­nous South Amer­i­can shaman­ism. Native Indi­an brew Ayahuas­ca, referred to as Daime with­in the prac­tice, which con­tains sev­er­al psy­choac­tive com­pounds, is drunk as part of the cer­e­mo­ny.

Dur­ing the decades of author­i­tar­i­an mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship that ruled Brazil from mid-six­ties to mid-eight­ies many artists and intel­lec­tu­als joined hip­pie com­mu­ni­ties to rein­vent soci­ety, art and spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. This peri­od also coin­cid­ed with glob­al wave of counter-cul­ture and spir­i­tu­al renew­al based on ancient reli­gions. While Amer­i­cans and Euro­peans drew inspi­ra­tion for alter­na­tive lifestyles from India and Tibet, Brazil­ians had native mys­ti­cal blend of Umban­da. Mag­ic, music, dances and songs of Umban­da allowed its prac­ti­tion­ers to escape from hypocrisy of the main­stream and pro­vid­ed tools for spir­i­tu­al and artis­tic self-dis­cov­ery and expres­sion. Many artists were espe­cial­ly attract­ed by Umbandaime in their search for ecsta­sy, for mys­ti­cal expe­ri­ence, for the trance of incor­po­ra­tion. Luci­na, counter-cul­ture singer and now a rit­u­al drum­mer at com­mu­ni­ty Flor da Mon­tana in Lumi­ar, Rio de Janeiro, recalls how she first vis­it­ed an Umban­da cen­ter. She says ‘It is won­der­ful to see the cabo­clo arrive and talk to you…and give you a bless­ing, because Umban­da is like an Intense Care Unit“

Last fall I vis­it­ed Flor da Mon­tan­ha for a day long cer­e­mo­ny. It is in this spec­tac­u­lar moun­tain­ous area with cloud for­est and water­falls where one of the first con­nec­tions between Umban­da and San­to Daime was made in the ear­ly 1980s. In the course of the 8 + hours cer­e­mo­ny at Flor da Mon­tan­ha the medi­ums and guests incor­po­rat­ed cabo­c­los, pre­tos vel­hos, exus and, most amaz­ing­ly, chil­dren – when every­one was act­ing out her inner child, rolling on the floor, run­ning around with the paci­fiers and act­ing real­ly sil­ly. Daime was offered through­out the day and sev­er­al San­to Daime prayers were added to oth­er­wise famil­iar Umban­da rit­u­als.

As the British would say, it was my cup of tea (excuse the pun). Adding Ayahuas­ca to Umban­da remind­ed me of D.T. Suzu­ki words, “After enlight­en­ment men are men and moun­tains are moun­tains, only one’s feet are a lit­tle off the ground.»  While most of the atten­dees drank 1–2 glass­es, for my friend and I (both try­ing Ayahuas­ca for the 1st time) noth­ing hap­pened before the 3rd dose – then kalei­do­scop­ic effects appeared, changing/enhancing our per­cep­tions of the trance rit­u­al dances.

First part of the cer­e­mo­ny was out­doors, with trance danc­ing first in the heat of the sun and then under the trop­i­cal pour­ing rain with white twirling dress­es turn­ing red from the soil.  

I found Umbandaime to be a very cre­ative reimag­in­ing of Umban­da rit­u­als with orig­i­nal beau­ti­ful songs. The artis­tic com­mu­ni­ty of Flor da Mon­tan­ha with few pro­fes­sion­al actors and dancers made the incor­po­ra­tions so mes­mer­iz­ing. And did I men­tion the deli­cious home­made hon­ey bread?!

This is how my friend Lisa who attend­ed the cer­e­mo­ny for the first time described her expe­ri­ence:

“the Ayahuas­ca had a great effect…I did­n’t feel it as strong as I expect­ed. but it was very pow­er­ful in a dif­fer­ent way. For me the most intense moment was the «clean­ing process» quite at the begin­ning, where we (every­one, who want­ed) got cleaned from our neg­a­tive ener­gies. I felt not only very light and strong after­wards, but also at least 2 meters taller.And I had this strong sense that I want to be there for oth­er peo­ple.

Also I expe­ri­enced that I want­ed to fol­low my impuls­es. Of course the mix with Umban­da was also very special…but at the same time quite over­whelm­ing.

I was on the one hand focused on myself and my own feel­ings and on the oth­er hand there was so much to watch (and it’s also not easy to under­stand what’s going on there all the time)…and I also felt emo­tions of others…you feel in gen­er­al very con­nect­ed – in a nice way, but there were also moments where it was a bit too much for me and I had to go out for a bit.”

I spoke with G. William Barnard, pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at South­ern Methodist Uni­ver­si­ty, Dal­las who is cur­rent­ly work­ing on a mono­graph of the San­to Daime.  He agrees that Umbandaime is a high­ly potent fusion. Here’s brief arti­cle in Eng­lish about his vis­it to the com­mu­ni­ty:

Is it true that Umban­da is more insti­tu­tion­al­ized than Quim­ban­da? That it is more insti­tu­tion­al­ized and, despite the dif­fer­ence of its vari­a­tions, the Spiri­tist Union of Umban­da in Brazil, formed by de Moraes in 1939, still in a sense super­vis­es all Ter­reiros?

The Umban­da fed­er­a­tions do exist and issues numer­ous procla­ma­tions, but try for exam­ple ask­ing a reg­u­lar prac­ti­tion­er about 7 Com­mand­ments of Umban­da (one of the fed­er­a­tion inven­tions) and you get a puz­zled look. More prac­ti­cal func­tion of these fed­er­a­tions is to defend Umban­da against the intol­er­ance and per­se­cu­tion and fight for equal rights with oth­er more main­stream reli­gions. Brazil­ian leg­is­la­tion present­ly con­sid­ers tem­ples of all reli­gions, includ­ing Umban­da a Non-gov­ern­men­tal asso­ci­a­tion mak­ing each of them inde­pen­dent.

This decen­tral­iza­tion is inher­it­ed from Karde­cism and Can­domblé where every man is a medi­um, a chan­nel of com­mu­ni­ca­tion between the liv­ing and the spir­its. There­fore, there is no Umban­da Pope-like fig­ure, nor any kind of hier­ar­chy in the reli­gion.


To what extent does Umban­da take over from Can­domblé? How is it asso­ci­at­ed with Can­domblé now?

Until the 1960s Can­domblé was exclu­sive­ly black reli­gion con­cen­trat­ed in the cities with large for­mer slaves pop­u­la­tion such as Sal­vador, Sao Luis and Recife. Lat­er sev­er­al fac­tors influ­enced its wider pop­u­lar­i­ty in Brazil. On the one hand migra­tion brought tens of thou­sands of Can­domblé fol­low­ers to the oth­er parts of the coun­try. On the oth­er hand, dur­ing glob­al coun­ter­cul­ture move­ment mid­dle and upper class Brazil­ians began to ques­tion Euro­pean cul­tur­al val­ues  and dis­cov­er Can­domble as the most authen­tic form of Brazil­ian spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. The Can­domble oral Orixás mythol­o­gy began to be writ­ten down for the first time in Brazil by schol­ars like Regi­nal­do Pran­di. His col­lec­tion Mitolo­gia dos Orixás became a best­seller and influ­enced major revival of Can­domblé among the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion.

Can­domblé cre­at­ed one of the foun­da­tions for Umban­da that at first attempt­ed to reform it with Karde­cist eth­i­cal val­ues. so Umban­da attempt­ed to reform Can­domblé. As part of the makeover Umban­da added new cen­tral char­ac­ters of pre­to vel­hos and cabo­c­los and moved Orixás to the back­ground.  At the same time Umban­da was influ­enc­ing Can­domblé, most obvi­ous­ly in Can­domblé de cabo­clo where new Umban­da spir­its appear along with tra­di­tion­al Can­domblé Orixás. As Brazil­ian soci­ety is becom­ing more tol­er­ant to African reli­gions, Can­domblé is com­ing back to take more promi­nent role in Umban­da. Move­ment for African­iza­tion of Can­domblé tries to undo the syn­cretism with Catholi­cism. Par­al­lel trends of African­iza­tion of Umban­da and focus on Quim­ban­da char­ac­ters are anoth­er indi­ca­tors that ethics of old­er Afro-Brazil­ian reli­gions make a strong come back.

Illus­tra­tions: pho­tos by Bruno Morais (gira de exu from Ten­da Espíri­ta Cabo­clo Sete Fle­chas Pai Bened­i­to Beira Mar) and Alex Minkin (Exu 1, Exu 2 from Ten­da Espiri­ta Vovó Maria Con­ga de Aruan­da ), Zé Pil­in­tra (man and woman) stat­ues from  Umban­da store at Mer­cadão de Madureira in Rio. Also cov­er of Regi­nal­do Pran­di book of Can­domblé mythol­o­gy «Mitolo­gia dos Orixás».


How is Umban­da asso­ci­at­ed with Quim­ban­da? What appeared first, what are the the­o­ret­i­cal and prac­ti­cal demar­ca­tions of their dif­fer­ences? Accord­ing to Umban­da and Quim­ban­da, do Exus belong to the Orixá, the man­i­fes­ta­tions of the supreme divin­i­ty Olo­du­mareé? Could you tell more about the meta­physics and cos­mogony of Umban­da?

Quim­ban­da is root­ed in the same African reli­gious tra­di­tions that formed Umban­da. It evolved from a hid­den part of African side of Umban­da most of the 20th cen­tu­ry to open­ly cel­e­brat­ed in the main­stream today. The cen­tral Quim­ban­da char­ac­ter Exu dif­fers from a deity Orixá Exu in Can­domblé, as he is a human spir­it of an out­cast, a crim­i­nal, a pros­ti­tute, a gravedig­ger – some­one social­ly unde­sir­able, the low­est in pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion. These spir­its are believed to have the high­est capac­i­ty to under­stand a com­mon man, to offer a way around the dai­ly trou­bles with work, mon­ey or per­son­al life. They incor­po­rate as joy­ful, par­ty-lov­ing crea­tures, join­ing con­gre­gants for a drink, or a smoke.

Up until the late 1980s Exus cer­e­monies were not pub­licly announced by the Umban­da tem­ples that were afraid of back­lash from the church and the gov­ern­ment. With Catholi­cism los­ing its grip as we enter the 21st cen­tu­ry, Quim­ban­da char­ac­ters like Exus take cen­tral stage in cer­e­monies. More recent­ly oth­er spir­its joined the Quimbanda’s ‘left’ side of Umban­da – sailors, gyp­sies and black migrants from the North of Brazil (Bahia).

One of my favorite Quim­ban­da spir­its is Zé Pil­in­tra, in a way a Brazil­ian Ostap Ben­der, tongue-in-cheek folk­loric char­ac­ter from ear­ly Sam­ba Rio times, famed by his extreme bohemi­an­ism and wild par­ty­ing. Zé Pil­in­tra song:

The­o­log­i­cal­ly, Umbanda’s Exus are the mes­sen­gers of all the Orixá, as they are undo the work of neg­a­tive spells and help to revi­tal­ize all the sides of human exis­tence. If you believe that your prob­lems can not be solved by Cabo­c­los, or Pre­tos Vel­hos, you appeal to Exus, who don’t draw clear line between good and evil. Just like its inspi­ra­tion Orixá Exu from Can­domblé, Exu of Umban­da is avail­able for any, even moral­ly ambigu­ous request, or ques­tion. In more Karde­cist or Catholic Umban­da vari­a­tions, there are Exus of light, or bap­tized Exus con­sis­tent with Chris­t­ian ethics of the main Umban­da char­ac­ters – Pre­tos Vel­hos and Cabo­c­los.


The car­toon shows today’s pref­er­ences of Afro-Brazil­ian reli­gions adher­ents: only few peo­ple are attend­ing reli­gious sem­i­nars and cours­es such as medi­um devel­op­ment, more come to demon­stra­tions for the reli­gious rights, but what every­one loves are the par­ties ded­i­cat­ed to exus and pom­ba giras (exu female coun­ter­parts). See for exam­ple the scenes from Exu par­ty beau­ti­ful­ly filmed at one of my favorite Umban­da tem­ples in Rio – Ten­da Espíri­ta Cabo­clo Flecheiro in 2015.

As far as we know, the mech­a­nism of rein­car­na­tion in Umban­da is quite pecu­liar: could you tell about it in more detail? Does Umban­da have any con­cept sim­i­lar to kar­ma? Is it true that some vari­a­tions of Umban­da (AUM­ban­da, for instance) were influ­enced by dharmic reli­gions? If yes, what was that influ­ence?

Com­ing from Karde­cism, rein­car­na­tion in Umban­da sees mor­tals as rein­car­nat­ed spir­its on Earth, whose ulti­mate pur­pose is to evolve. Death is just the pass­ing of the soul into the world of the spir­its, where one con­tin­ues to evolve by doing char­i­ty work with liv­ing human beings. More Chris­t­ian streams of Umban­da don’t believe in rein­car­na­tion, as after­life is explained there in terms of heav­en and hell with omnipo­tent God con­trol­ling every­one’s fate. Accord­ing to Catholic faith, the soul is eter­nal and non-trans­formable and, depend­ing on its earth­ly deeds, it’s direct­ed to either heav­en or hell. Final­ly, more African tem­ples of Umban­da will not talk about nei­ther rein­car­na­tion, nor heav­en and hell; life after death is not well defined in Can­domblé.

I reviewed the the­o­ry of Kar­ma in sev­er­al Umban­da sources and did not find notable dif­fer­ences from Karde­cist views. This con­cept was not present in most of Umban­da vari­a­tions I attend­ed; it is more of a the­o­ret­i­cal sub­ject in some of the upper mid­dle class the­o­log­i­cal Umban­da lit­er­a­ture that accounts for a tiny seg­ment of the reli­gion. Por­tuguese does even not have a let­ter K, the con­cept is pret­ty for­eign to most of the peo­ple.

Apart from Brazil, where else is Umban­da pop­u­lar? Liv­ing in New York, you should be famil­iar most­ly with Amer­i­can con­text. But if you could say some­thing about Umban­da in Rus­sia, CIS, or the Russ­ian Inter­net, that would be very inter­est­ing.

Brazil­ian expats typ­i­cal­ly bring Umban­da with them. The largest num­ber of Umban­da tem­ples can be found in the neigh­bor­ing Uruguay and Paraguay, Argenti­na (where cur­rent Pope once had an inter­faith ser­vice with an Umban­da priest), Bolivia and Chile. A num­ber of Brazil­ians of Japan­ese descent returned to Japan since 1980s. This migra­tion result­ed in new Umban­da enti­ties cre­at­ed in Japan: doc­tors, Bud­dhist monks, and samu­rais. In the US with the largest Brazil­ian dias­po­ra, there are sev­er­al Umban­da Guara­cy tem­ples in NY, Flori­da, Cal­i­for­nia and Wash­ing­ton DC. Guara­cy also has cen­ters in Cana­da, Por­tu­gal, France, Aus­tria, Switzer­land and Bel­gium.

There is also a phe­nom­e­non of non-Brazil­ians dis­cov­er­ing Umban­da. Besides exoti­cism, music and mag­ic that may explain ini­tial inter­est, it has a very con­tem­po­rary and uni­ver­sal appeal in its phi­los­o­phy and rit­u­als that explains the religion’s grow­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty in Europe. Umbanda’s deities are imper­fect souls that under­stand prob­lems of com­mon men and try to evolve by help­ing them. These spir­its are lib­er­at­ing and not judg­men­tal. Unlike Catholi­cism with its clear dis­tinc­tion between Good and Evil, mul­ti­po­lar uni­verse of Umban­da jus­ti­fies var­i­ous modes of human behav­ior as diverse as nature itself. Some of us may feel clos­er to Orixá of thun­der (Xangô), while oth­ers to Orixá of for­est (Oxos­si); some may feel affin­i­ty to fresh and calm waters of the lake (Oxum), while oth­ers to stormy sea (Yema­ja).

Anoth­er rea­son for West­ern­ers to be drawn to Umban­da is its rel­a­tive­ly acces­si­ble set of tools to devel­op a medi­umship. Many peo­ple feel that they have men­tal dis­or­ders because they see or hear spir­its, and have no idea how to chan­nel these vibra­tions. Juliana Sil­va who runs a blog Umban­da in Europe from Lis­bon, says that old school Karde­cist cen­ter can’t be the right answer for every­one look­ing for com­mu­ni­cate with spir­its. In tem­ples of Umban­da, more and more Euro­peans receive guid­ance to devel­op their medi­umship, no mat­ter what spir­it comes to man­i­fest itself. Many of these new umban­dis­tas are find­ing peace, spir­i­tu­al growth and moral sat­is­fac­tion by offer­ing spir­i­tu­al char­i­ty to oth­ers.

In Ger­man city Cologne, Gabriele Hilgers leads such non-Brazil­ian Umban­da con­gre­ga­tion. Gabrielle was born in Düs­sel­dorf and dis­cov­ered Umban­da when she was research­ing new reli­gions around the world. Dur­ing one of the med­i­ta­tions in India she felt an urge to learn Por­tuguese and come to Brazil for the first time to study Umban­da. «It’s a chance for us Ger­mans, to live our truth at heart, a reli­gion which has no dog­mas. The tem­ple received peo­ple from all over Ger­many and also from oth­er neigh­bor­ing coun­tries,” she told in the inter­view to Span­ish News­pa­per El País. Just as in Japan, Ger­man medi­ums invoke the usu­al Brazil­ian Umban­da enti­ties, but also work with arche­types of the local Celtic mytholo­gies Druidry and Wic­ca. Today, hun­dreds of Ger­mans attend Gabriele’s tem­ple, which already ordained three new priests all of them born in Ger­many.

I am not famil­iar with Russ­ian tem­ples of Umban­da, but with ever increas­ing inter­est to Brazil­ian cul­ture and immi­nent glob­al­iza­tion it’s only a mat­ter of time before RUm­ban­da takes off. Per­haps, enti­ties of Gyp­sies may find them­selves at home in Rus­sia first, as there’s a deep affin­i­ty to Gyp­sy mys­ti­cism in Russ­ian psy­che. 

In this video that I made at Ten­da Cam­in­ho Cigano in Nilópo­lis, Rio de Janeiro we can see Umbanda’s rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Gyp­sy spir­its.

Ciganos, as Gyp­sy are known in both Por­tuguese and Russ­ian, sym­bol­ize free­dom, beau­ty and promise of bet­ter future. Mag­ic, music, danc­ing and singing of Umban­da lead to alter­nate real­i­ty and pro­vide its prac­ti­tion­ers with tools for spir­i­tu­al self-dis­cov­ery.

Inter­view: Insect Bud­dha, Jnanava­jra, Maya

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