A brief history of Afro-Brazilian religions

Ama Nunoo October 14, 2020
The Candomblé faith in Brazil is descends from Brazil's history of the enslavement of Black Africans. Photo Credit: Eraldo Peres

If there is one group of people with a rich and diverse religious landscape, then it is Brazil. In spite of the influence of Catholicism from Brazil’s colonial era, the country offers a lot of faith varieties from Spiritism, Protestant movements, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, to religions that have African influences via the Transatlantic Slave trade.

The slave trade has had so much influence on Brazilian pop culture and has shaped it up and even though it happened centuries ago, slavery has been instrumental in the complexities of the AfroBrazilian ethnic and national identity.

Afro-Brazilian religions in Brazil today are an amalgamation of different traditions but records show that only under five percent of people are active followers of these African-esque religions. People who may not be staunch followers still visit practitioners with issues bothering their health, love life, or finances.

Candomblé, Umbanda, Xangô, Tambor de Mina, Tambor de Nagô, Terecô, Pajelança, Catimbó, Batuque, and Macumba are some Afro-Brazilian religions practiced in different regions of Brazil. 

These Afro-Brazilian religions came as spiritual conclusions of enslaved Africans and their descendants. These slaves were brought mostly from West Africa, precisely, Nigeria and Benin, as well as from Central Africa.

In practicing the faiths of their homelands, Africans in these new lands sough solace throughout their oppression at the hands of their enslavers. Faith also seemed to present a sense of purpose in both trying and joyous times. Other spaces where faith was practiced were in the quilombos, outlying fugitive slave settlements, where at times, religion was used to organize ways to resist oppression and slavery.

After slavery ended, often in large population centers in Brazil, the African religious communities were birthed in the homes of communal leaders because people were in search of religious refuge, communal gathering as well as physical and spiritual healing.

Most of the practices in these Afro-Brazilian religions have striking similarities among each other. The idea of possession of a supernatural spirit and entering into a trance, both features of the liminality of the human body, are not uncommon in these Afro-Brazilian faiths.

Candomblé and Umbanda are the two prominent Afro-Brazilian religions that have shaped the Brazilian religious landscape since its inception and which exhibit traces of their origins and the culture through which they emerged.

Candomblé was formed in the late 19th century in Bahia where most of the enslaved can be traced. People from Yorubaland, Dahomey kingdoms (present-day southwestern Nigeria and Benin) and Bantu Africa were the larger groups in the settlement at the time.

Yoruba and Ewe-Fon rituals have heavily influenced Candomblé from the language of incantations to their religious organization and to their mythology. The Candomblé faithful believe in several deities referred to as orishas (orixás) who are sometimes even likened to Catholic saints.

Faith in the orishas was still prevalent when they were forced to adopt Catholicism. The totality of their lives had to do with their orishas, and when they could, they practiced the religion in a Candomblé temple where they fulfill their ritualistic religious obligations.

Umbanda meanwhile sprung up in the late 1920s and it borrows from different religions such as Candomblé, Spiritism, Kardecism, Hinduism, Buddhism, various forms of mysticism and Catholicism.

It began in the urban centers of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo and catered to the growing Black and other minority groups, particularly the self-conscious middle-class.

There are three dominant deity influences that Umbanda draws on: old African spirits, spirits of ex-slaves and indigenous warriors as well as the European and American derived Spiritist traditions.

Umbanda practitioners rely heavily on interpretations of the mãe- or pãe-de-santo (titles for female and male priests, respectively) of their temples because they believe that their followers communicate with the spirit world through possessions. Reincarnation, healing, and spiritual evolution are hallmarks of their faith.

Umbanda is an all-inclusive and ever evolving religion and stands high as a symbol of assimilation because it is extremely receptive to new cultures.

If in search of a religious group that is all-inclusive, and can help build up your mental, physical, and spiritual well being with the added benefit of communal belongingness, then an Afro-Brazilian religion might be where to start.

Last Edited by:Ama Nunoo Updated: October 15, 2020


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