Macumba The Brazilian form of Vodun and Santería, or the worship of the ancient African gods through spIrIt possession and Magic. There is no “macumba” religion; the word is an umbrella term for the two principal forms of African spirit worship in Brazil: Candomblé and Umbanda. Macumba sometimes refers to black magic, but that is more properly called Quimbanda.
Black slaves transported to Brazil by the Portuguese in the 1550s found their tribal religion had much in common with the spiritual practices of Indian tribes along the Amazon river. Forced to syncretize the worship of their gods, or orishas, into the veneration of Catholic saints to escape persecution, the blacks continued to follow the old ways and rituals in secret. By the time the slaves won their independence in 1888, more than 15 generations of Brazilians—black, white and Indian—had heard the stories of the orishas and how their magical intervention had snared a lover, saved a marriage or a sick baby or eliminated a wicked enemy. Today, some members of all classes and races in Brazil believe in some sort of ancient spiritual communion with the gods while professing Catholicism in public.
Candomblé most closely resembles the ancient Yoruban religions, as does Santería, and retains the Yoruban names of the orishas. Spellings are Portuguese, not Spanish, so Changó becomes Xango, Yemaya is Yemanja or Iemanja, Oggun becomes Ogun and Olorun is Olorum. Figures of Catholic saints represent the orishas, although Jesus Christ, also known as Oxala, is venerated as a saint on his own.
The term Candomblé probably derives from Candombé, a celebration and dance held by the slaves on the coffee plantations. The first Candomblé center was organized in 1830 in Salvador, the old capital city of Brazil and now the capital of the state of Bahia, by three former slaves who became the cult’s high priestesses. The slave women inherited the formerly all-male ceremonial duties when the men were forced to spend their time in slave field labor. The women also served as mistresses to the white Portuguese and claimed that the exercise of their magical rites helped maintain their sexual skill and prowess. These “mothers of the Saints” trained other women, called “Daughters of the Saints,” ensuring that the men were excluded from major responsibilities. Even today, the men perform political rather than spiritual roles.
Candomblé ceremonies follow much the same pattern as those for Santería and Vodun, with invocations to the gods, prayers, offerings and possession of the faithful by the gods. Afro-Brazilian traditions stress the importance of healing the spirit, and devotees of Candomblé believe the moment of greatest spiritual healing occurs when a person becomes one with his orisha during initiation into the cult. Such possession is often intense, requiring constant aid from the other worshipers. The priest may beg the orisha to treat the initiate gently, offering a pigeon or other sacrifice to the orisha in return for his or her mercy. The stronger the orisha—gods like Xango or Ogun are considered the strongest—the more violent the possession.
Instead of asking Legba or Elegguá to let the spirits in, followers of Candomblé call on the Exus, primal forces of all nature who act as divine tricksters and messengers to the gods. Connections exist between Elegguá/Legba and Exus, however; some of Elegguá’s manifestations in Santería are called Eshus. They are the gods of mischief, the unexpected and life and death, as well as messengers to the other orishas.
One of the major celebrations to the orisha Yemanja, “goddess of the waters,” takes place every January 1. Brazilian television broadcasts the event in Rio de Janeiro live to the entire country, although smaller ceremonies occur in other coastal and river towns and cities. more than one million celebrants, dressed in white, wade into the ocean at dusk. A priestess, or mão de santo (mother of the saint), lights Candles and then purifies and ordains other young priestesses. As the sun sinks behind the mountains, celebrants decorate a small wooden boat with candles, flowers and figurines of the saints. Sometimes doves sail on the boat as well. At midnight, the boat is pushed from shore, and all watch eagerly as the craft bobs in the waves. If the boat sinks, the orisha Yemanja (believed to be the Virgin Mary) has heard her children’s prayers and accepts their offering, promising her support and guidance for another year.
Umbanda was not founded until 1904 and has its roots in Hinduism and Buddhism in addition to African tribal religions. The teachings of Spiritism—that communication with discarnate spirits is not only possible but necessary for spiritual healing and acceptance of one’s earlier incarnations—also plays a large part in the practices of Umbanda.
The term umbanda probably derives from aum-gandha, a Sanskrit description of the divine principle. Umbanda incorporates not only worship of the Catholic saints but the beliefs of the Brazilian Indians. The orishas go by their Catholic names and personae, and Umbandistas do not call on the gods directly, fearing their intense power. Instead, spirits of divine ancestors act as intermediaries on the worshipers’ behalf.
Although followers of Candomblé and Umbanda approach their faiths quite differently, researchers Alberto Villoldo and Stanley krippner found they share three beliefs:
1. Humans have both a physical and spiritual body.
2. Discarnate entities constantly contact the physical world.
3. Humans can learn to contact and incorporate the spirits for the purposes of healing and spiritual evolution.
Like the devotees of Candomblé, Umbandistas also call on the Exus to protect their temples and let the divine presences enter.
Communication with the spirits of Umbanda resembles very closely the practice of trance channeling. During ceremonies, the Fathers or mothers of the Saints—either men or women can lead the congregation spiritually in Umbanda—become possessed with a spirit guide, usually of an Amerindian or African, or perhaps of a child who died quite young. The two most popular spirit mediums are the Old Black man (Preto Velho) and Old Black Woman (Preta Velha), representing the wise old slaves who perished in toil and torture, taking their African wisdom with them into the spiritual world.
As with possession in Vodun and Santería, those receiving the spirits assume the characteristics of their possessors, performing medicine dances of the American Indians, smoking cigars and pipes (tobacco was sacred to the Indians) or bending over from advanced age and labor. Any worshiper can receive the spirits, with help from the priest-mediums. Umbandistas believe that healing of the physical body cannot be achieved without healing the spirit; opening the mind to the entrance of a spirit guide via ecstatic trance is essential to spiritual growth. Spirits enter the body through the head—this is true in Candomblé, Santería and Vodun—and are perceived by the physical body through the “third eye,” located in the center of the forehead. Spirits never die but continue on an eternal journey through other worlds, sometimes reincarnating in another physical body. Umbandistas believe the most enlightened spirits teach and heal through the mediums of Umbanda, and mediumship forges a link with these highly evolved minds. Every time a medium receives a spirit guide for teaching and healing, the medium’s mind and spirit are raised to another plane of consciousness.
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Umbandista mediums generally refer to “lower” or “mischievous” spirits, rather than “evil” ones, believing that all spirits evolve to higher consciousness. The misbehavers simply need education to set them on the right path.
But the practitioners of Quimbanda or Cuimbanda— black magic—find that evil spirits suit their purposes quite well. Here again the Exus serve, this time as the tricksters, the gods of witchcraft and sorcery. Equated by some with Lucifer himself, “king Exu” receives assistance from Beelzebub and Ashtaroth, known as Exu mor and Exu of the Crossroads.
Exu of the Closed Paths inspires the most dread. To sicken or destroy an enemy, the Quimbandista prepares a red satin cloth adorned with mystical symbols and takes it to a CrossroAds; the magician places upon it four redand-black crosses. (red and black are the Exus’ colors, as they are for Legba and Elegguá.) Accompanying the crosses are a CoCk, plucked and stuffed with red pepper, and other devilish items. Then the Quimbandista lights 13 candles, intoning the name of the enemy and invoking the powers of darkness to do their work. If the Quimbandista is successful, the unlucky victim will find “all paths closed” and will lose his job, become ill, lose his lover and family and eventually dye if not cured by the powers of the orishas.
The Quimbanda Goetia Spells Rituals
- King, Francis X. Witchcraft and Demonology. New York: Exeter Books, 1987.
- Laugguth, A. J. Macumba: White and Black Magic in Brazil. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.
- Villoldo, Alberto, and Stanley Krippner. Healing States. New York: Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 1987.