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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Briefly Umbanda

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My last post was about Spiritism, which tells only a very small part of the story of Brazilian folk religions. Spiritism is of European origin, and I must underscore the fact that although it somewhat influences Brazilian folk religions, much more important are the influences of various African sects, which are then translated through a uniquely Brazilian lens.

Probably the most familiar form of worship, at least to the outsider, is Umbanda. The origin of the word that defines this religion may possibly have originated in Angola, although even this is not certain. By the 19th century, the term had come to mean the art of consulting spirits of the dead, the power of spirits to cure, and the art of persuading spirits to influence the living. However, other Umbandistas (followers of this religion) insist that the word is borrowed from an Indian word, aum-bandha, which refers to the limit of the unlimited, or the divine principle. Because of my background in Ceremonial Magick, I especially favor this definition.More importantly, what Umbanda has come to mean for Brazilians is the union of all the bandas, or groups or rituals.

A common view of this religion, taken mostly by outsiders, is that Umbanda is a pastiche of Espiritismo and Roman Catholicism with a dollop of Eastern, African, and Brazilian Native religions thrown in. Although Umbanda does include elements from all of these faiths, I find this viewpoint somewhat facile. The very fluidity, indivduality of interpretation, and elusiveness of Umbanda forms the essence of its distinctive character.

Leaders of this faith have written down specific and complex guidelines which Umbandista mediums carefully follow. (One such guidebook is Catecismo do Umbandista by Eufrazio Pompilio Possera.) Individual leaders do not always agree on each of the various responsibilities and prohibitions. But generally, one can say that they agree that mediums are bound to practice charity both in their ceremonies and in their daily lives by mitigating the suffering of all people on Earth. In that sense, Umbanda signifies a life of love, dedication to the betterment of humanity, benevolence, and renunciation of the material world.

Practitioners heed seven commandments known collectively as the Law of Umbanda. My albeit poor translation from the Portuguese to English follows:

  1. Do not do to your neighbor what you would not wish him to do to you.
  2. Do not covet what is not yours.
  3. Help the needy without asking questions.
  4. Respect all religions because they all come from God.
  5. Do not criticize what you don't understand.
  6. Fulfill your mission even if it means personal sacrifice.
  7. Defend yourself from evildoers and resist evil.

The 4th commandment was brought home to me by a high priestess (ialorixa) of Umbanda when I visited her temple (known as a terreiro, loosely translated as a grounded place in Portuguese). I explained that I was both a Wicca priestess and Ceremonial Magician and was interested in witnessing some of the rituals. She was quite amenable and said to me, "You may in fact, participate fully as an initiate if you wish because although you follow a different path, all paths lead to the same place in the end--union with the godhead." Naturally I took her up on her offer.

Well, I haven't meant to go on for so long, so I will quit soon and finish up in my next post my description of Umbanda, which I hope to follow up on in approximately 2 weeks after I return from my book signing tour of the West Coast (for Tea Leaf Reading for Beginners:  Your Fortune in a Teacup).  I'll follow with some thoughts on Quimbanda and Macumba as well. I am not going to cover the Xangos of the north, as I am not as familiar with them.

I'd also like to mention that I have received a couple of very nice comments from readers. Thank you very much. I am only learning now how to respond to comments. This blogsite works very differently from mine at and I am still getting used to how things work. One of these days I will even try to insert a photo! Until early November, I say ate logo!

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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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