views updated May 18 2018


Umbanda is a spirit-possession religion practiced by millions of Brazilians, primarily in urban areas. It emerged in the 1920s and 1930s when Brazil was experiencing a measure of political and economic integration at the national level. Umbanda's widespread popularity can be attributed to its focus on helping people deal with a great variety of personal problems and illnesses. Its syncretized cultural elements from Africa, Europe, and precolonial Indo-Brazil also make it attractive.

Umbandists typically hold public spiritist sessions in religious centers located in middle-class and working-class districts twice each week. Inside the Umbanda center are two major areas. Those who have come for spiritual assistance sit in the rear half, with women on one side and men on the other. The front half is devoted to ritual activities and includes an altar covered by a white lace-edged drape. Flowers, a glass of water to draw off evil spiritual fluids from the surroundings, and numerous images of Catholic saints, Old Blacks (spirits of African Brazilians), Caboclos (spirits of Brazilian Indians), and other Brazilian folkloric characters are found on the altar.

The service begins by recognizing Exú, with a special request that this potentially dangerous spirit not disrupt the evening's proceedings. The Umbanda leader, known as "Mother" or "Father," or an assistant, carries a censer filled with burning incense to all parts of the Umbanda center. Individuals use their hands to pull the smoke to their bodies for purification. In the front half of the center, the spirit mediums dressed in white clothing dance in a counterclockwise direction to the polyrhythmic beat of two or three West African drums and other percussion instruments. Using a call-and-response pattern, the leader and mediums acknowledge and praise important deities and spirits of the dead through song. Members of the congregation join in the singing. The leader may offer a brief talk on the importance of charity and of the spiritual works to be performed later that evening. Usually an assistant takes an offering.

Drumming and singing become more intense as spirits of the dead begin to possess the mediums, who by this time are frequently in a light state of trance. As possession occurs, the smiling expression of the mediums is transformed into the stern countenance of the Caboclo spirits or into the face of the aged and calm Old Black spirits. Individuals move forward for a consultation about family or job-related difficulties with one of the possessing spirits. Some say they are feeling nervous, tense, or depressed. Others have headaches. The spirits offer practical advice and recommend magical assistance, such as burning a candle to influence a particular spirit. Before returning to a seat in the rear, an individual may be turned around numerous times. Also, the spirit passes the medium's hands over the client's body. Both of these acts help remove the evil spiritual fluids said to be causing the client's personal problems.

Umbanda's activities apparently serve a variety of functions. Cândido Procópio F. de Camargo argues that Umbanda has a therapeutic function and helps individuals to integrate into urban society. Diana De Groat Brown focuses on Umbanda patron-client relations as part of the larger Brazilian political patronage system and notes that Umbandists have elected state deputies from Rio de Janeiro and Pôrto Alegre. Russell R. Prust regards Umbanda as a place where social networking occurs within a hierarchical social structure in a patron-client relationship. The spirit world is merely an extension of the social hierarchy of the material world and is used to meet one's personal needs. Patricia B. Lerch, taking into account the fact that the majority of Umbanda mediums are women, views Umbanda mediumship as giving women an opportunity to participate with power and authority in the public domain. Superior religious knowledge combined with a medium's personal communication network enables her to distribute material goods, food, and jobs from one client to another according to availability and need.

Roberto da Matta views Umbanda as compensating daily social and political frustrations of the poor by providing opportunities for role reversal, in which a poor individual may act as a spirit medium advising and curing the wealthy. Esther Pressel recognizes the therapeutic and integrative roles of Umbanda and characterizes it as a type of "national folk religion" that helps provide a national identity for some. This identity stems from a mélange of Central African spirits, West African Yoruba deities, Catholic saints, Caboclos, and Old Blacks. Other ethnic and regional characters relating to specific areas of Brazil have been added as Umbanda has spread into more remote parts of the country.

See alsoAfrican-Latin American Religions: Brazil; Syncretism.


Assunção, Luiz. O reino dos mestres: A tradição da jurema na umbanda nordestina. Rio de Janeiro: Pallas, 2006.

Brown, Diana De Groat. Umbanda: Religion and Politics in Urban Brazil. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1986.

Camargo, Cândido Procópio de Ferreira. Kardecismo e Umbanda: Uma interpretação sociológica. São Paulo: Livraria Pioneira Editôra, 1961.

Lerch, Patricia B. "Spirit Mediums in Umbanda Evangelizada of Porto Alegre, Brazil: Dimensions of Power and Authority." In A World of Women, ed. Erika Bourguignon, pp. 129-159. New York: Praeger, 1980.

Matta, Roberto da. "The Ethnic of Umbanda and the Spirit of Messianism: Reflections on the Brazilian Model." In Authoritarian Capitalism, ed. Thomas Bruneau and Philippe Faucher, pp. 239-264. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1981.

Pressel, Esther. "Umbanda Trance and Possession in São Paulo, Brazil." In Trance, Healing, and Hallucination, ed. Felicitas D. Goodman et al., pp. 113-225. New York: Wiley, 1974.

Prust, Russell R. "Brazilian Umbanda: An Urban Resource Distributional System." PhD diss. University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, 1985.

Victoriano, Benedicto Anselmo Domingos. O prestígio religioso na Umbada: Dramatização de poder. São Paulo: Annablume, 2006.

                                    Esther J. Pressel


views updated May 21 2018


A contemporary Afro-Brazilian religion. Like Santeria, it is basically a possession religion in which members assume the form of deities both for worship and magic. It was founded in 1920, at a time when a wave of anti-European feelings was sweeping through the country, fanned by the inspiration of a young man, Zélio de Moraes, by an alleged Indian spirit. Among the initial leaders were former Spiritist mediums who became known for receiving spirits of caboclos, Brazilian Indians, and pretos velhos, former African slaves.

Umbanda's stronghold is Rio de Janeiro and the surrounding area in the south of Brazil. Worship is lively with much clapping, singing, and dancing.


Brown, Diana DeGroat. Umbanda: Religion and Politics in Urban Brazil. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Press, 1986.

Hess, David J. Samba in the Night: Spiritism in Brazil. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

St. Clair, David. Drum and Candle. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday; London: Macdonald, 1971.


views updated Jun 27 2018

Umbanda. A Brazilian cult which, because of its syncretizing tendencies, has also become a general term for all forms of a new eclectic and syncretist religious complex in urban Brazil. The spiritual world is composed of many spirit powers drawn from sources such as the following: (i) caboclos, spirits of great Amerindian leaders or of spiritualized natural forces; (ii) pretos velhos, spirits of the old or wise among Negro slaves, (iii) crianças, spirits of children who died young; (iv) orixas, spirits of African ancestors or deities, especially Yoruba; (v) spirits of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, or the saints of Portuguese folk Catholicism, often equated with the previous group; and (vi) other spirits and occult powers as understood in the sophisticated French spiritualism articulated by Alan Kardec (1804–69), which attracts the higher social classes.