Pagan Paths

Delve into a fascinating cultural force and deeply spiritual tradition that comprises the axe--power--of Brazilian magickal religions. Followers of all paths will find something unique to incorporate into their lives.

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Umbanda Continued



Hi All! I’m back from my trip to the West Coast. While I was there, I managed to meet Anne Newkirk Niven, the editor and owner of these important Pagan magazines and who runs this blog site. I must say she is a delightful woman overflowing with knowledge about Paganism and the Craft to communicate to you all. If you ever get a chance to see Portland, do visit the Japanese Gardens, where we went on a rainy day. The rain barely penetrated the thick foliage, and made everything look misty and mysterious. Such a treat! Don’t miss the Chinese Garden, either. It’s in the middle of town, and only a block long, but is indeed, a jewel. As I get more familiar with blogging, I will try to upload some photos. But as usual, I digress from my principal topic of Brazilian religions. So here goes another entry.


When last I took up the topic of Umbanda, I spoke on the 7 rules for practitioners. In addition to the “seven commandments,” initiates (called filhos de santo and filhas de santo, “sons and daughters of the saind”) and mediums must attend all ceremonies, bater cabeça (literally “beat their heads;” that is, stretch out before their superiors, touching heads to floor in a gesture of obeisance), help the lieutenants (mãe pequena and pai pequeno, “little mother” and “little father”) of the temple and wear clean, correct clothing.


This last comment reminds me of a story. For a time when I was living in Brazil, I stayed with a family who were practitioners of some of these sects. (I’ll talk about Brazilian pluralism practices at a later date). Anyway, one day a relation of theirs showed up wanting to borrow a white blouse. She needed it because she had recently become a medium at an Umbanda temple. Not only did she need to dress all in white while participating in rituals and becoming possessed by her entities, she needed the white blouse for a photo. She told me that all mediums have a color photo taken for a laminated card, such as the kind we do for drivers’ licenses. The card shows the temple she belongs to, how many years she had been a medium, and lists the entities that she is allowed to incorporate. I say “entities,” because a person may be a medium for an orixá (what we might call a god or goddess—more about that in future blogs), or for another kind of entity, such as a spirit of an Indian warrior, an Oriental Magus, a former slave, and the like. The medium is strictly prohibited from incorporating spirits or god forms that she or he has not been trained to work with. This is just one example of the thread of spirituality as well as the institutionalization of folk religions that is woven into the fabric of Brazilian society.


Also, mediums must behave in a dignified manner, not eat heavy meals, not consume meat from Thursday night through Friday, have faith in their spirit guides and terrestrial superiors, not share their knowledge or frequent other temples, and they may never perform a trabalho (something akin to a spell) for anyone outside their own temple.


Punishments for breach of rules are meted out by the administrative board. These can include suspension for a number of days or weeks from the temple, outright expulsion, and the tombo, or loss of official mediumship. I the last case, the offender’s laminated card is removed from its place on the wall of the temple and destroyed.


Moreover, guilty parties often punish themselves, or from their point of view, are mistreated by their spirit guides. After suspension from active practice, a former medium may incorporate his or her entity, which then forces the person, while in a trance, to be thrown frenetically against walls, floor, and furniture. The guides may even choose to prevent the transgressor from ever again incorporating an entity.


Umbanda is generally a middle-class religion, but people of all ages and from every sector of society and racial group participate. Unlike the period of the 1920’s and ‘30’s, when adherents could be persecuted and incarcerated, Umbanda is now legal and, as a result, institutionalized. This a Deliberative Council for Umbanda, a coordinating agency, and a Federation of Umbanda, with which a vast majority of the temples are aligned, have been created.


The influence of institutionalization is apparent in the hierarch of the individual temples, where both an administrative board of directors and a spiritual hierarch usually exist. Each member must perform specific duties which vary little from temple to temple. The spiritual heads, who often are also the administrative powers, are the male priest, the babalorixá or pai de santo, and the female priestess, the ialorixá, or mãe de santo.


As this blog evolves, I will return to the topic of Umbanda and expand on some of the concepts and practices involved. But for my next blogsa, I will take up the Macumba, Quimbanda, and Candomblé sects. A Happy Thanksgiving to All! 

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Caroline Dow holds a Ph.D. in Luso-Brazilian Studies, is a former Fulbright Fellow to Brazil, professor at Brown and Pittsburgh universities, and current intercultural trainer and assessor. She has authored 15 books on Wicca, Magick, Brazilian traditions, and mystery novels. As a Wiccan High Priestess and Ceremonial Magician, she brings an unique perspective to the study of Brazilian folk traditions.
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