Spirits, trances and tradition: Anthropologist speaks about Afro-Brazilian religions at Elon University

Marlena Chertock

MARCH 15, 2011

Lindsay Hale's book on the Umbanda religion came out in September 2009. Hale spoke about traditional Afro-Brazilian religions at Elon University on Tuesday, March 15, 2011. Photo courtesy of coloradanmagazine.org.

While he was researching and living in Rio de Janeiro, Lindsay Hale lived upstairs from a 72-year-old medium named Luciana.

Luciana’s spirit is Yemaja, a mermaid and goddess of the sea. When she goes into a trance, Luciana will sing beautifully but never remember it when she comes out of it.

Lindsay Hale, a social anthropologist, spoke about traditional African and Brazilian religions and spirits that are still practiced in Afro-Brazilian regions Tuesday.

Mediums enter trances that allow spirits to speak through them, he explained. There are different categories of spirits or Orisha. Spirits can be African or Brazilian gods or goddesses, old African slaves or children.

Hale, who teaches at the University of Texas, Austin, has researched the Umbanda religion in Rio de Janeiro since 1986.

Candomblé is the Afro-Brazilian religion that is practiced mostly in Brazil, Hale said. The religion draws on traditions and religions throughout Africa. It shows the survival of African traditions in the new world, he said.

The main aspect of these traditional religions is that people go into trances and receive spirits of people who have passed on. Spirits that are embodied in mediums can sing, dance and offer advice, Hale said.

Spirits have been knocked around by life, but through it all they were able to gain insight and wisdom into the human condition, he said.

“The spirits become a kind of therapist,” Hale said. “They are very wise. The counsel you get from them is very good.”

Graphic by Marlena Chertock.

People who become mediums are the most creative, well-adjusted and sane people, according to Hale.

Mediums refer to themselves as riding a spirit horse or the horse of a particular spirit, Hale said.

“The spirit takes control of the body like the way a rider takes control of a horse,” he said. “Their personality is replaced by the deity.”

Being a medium is “a heck of a responsibility,” Hale said. Mediums devote a lot of their time and life to the religion and to receiving spirits. It takes people away from their family, he said.

“People get into this not because they want to but because they have to,” Hale said. “They solve a problem in the short term, but it keeps coming back. Then you’re a person who is very susceptible to spirits. The only cure is to become a medium.”

Mediums also offer a voice for the spirits to give criticism or social commentary. In this way, the traditions are not locked in the past but react to new conditions and are very alive, Hale said.

“Spirits often give biting critiques of racism in Brazil,” he said. “They couch them in terms of the past. But almost always you can really read into it, they’re really talking about now. They’re talking about most black people in Brazil are poor now. This is a way to talk about it.”

Mostly poor people who identify as Catholics practice these religions, Hale said.

Spirits are often summoned if someone is sick or having troubles with love. The spirit will prescribe a person to make an offering, to remember to light a candle before they walk out the door everyday or to do more elaborate magic, depending on the problem, Hale said.

To summon a spirit, a group of drummers must tap rhythms and often times there is a feast. People dance, twirl and sing to the beats, he said.

“It’s a happy atmosphere,” Hale said. “People arrange all the food on the floor, humongous pots of black beans, shrimp, fish, fruit and corn. Then the people who are no longer alive, the spirits, take in the essence of the food spiritually. They don’t eat it.”


Hale talks about mediums going into a trance


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About Marlena Chertock

Marlena Chertock's first collection of poetry, On that one-way trip to Mars, is available from Bottlecap Press. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Marketplace, and WTOP. Her poems and fiction has appeared in The Deaf Poets Society, Moonsick Magazine, and Paper Darts.

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