Tribal Mysteries


The Macumba religion (also known as Spiritism, Candomble, and Umbanda) is practiced by a large number of Brazilians who cherish the ages-old relationship between a shaman and his or her people. In its outward appearances and in some of its practices, Macumba resembles voodoo ceremonies. Trance states among the practitioners are encouraged by dancing and drumming, and the evening ceremony is climaxed with an animal sacrifice.

Macumba was born in the 1550s from a compromise between the African spirit worship of the slaves who had been brought to Brazil and the Roman Catholicism of the slaveholders. Although they were forced to honor an array of Christian saints and the God of their masters, the native priests soon realized how complementary the two faiths could be—especially since, unlike the slaveowners in the United States, the Brazilians allowed the slaves to keep their drums. The Africans summoned their gods, the Orishas, with the sound of their drums and the rhythm of their dancing. From the melding of the two religious faiths, the Africans created the samba, the rhythm of the saints. The African god, Exu, became St. Anthony; Iemanja became Our Lady of the Glory; Oba became St. Joan of Arc; Oxala became Jesus Christ; Oxum became Our Lady of the Conception, and so on.

During this same period, Roman Catholic missionaries were attempting to convince the Native American tribes in Brazil to forsake their old religion and embrace Christianity. In many instances, Macumba provided the same kind of bridge between faiths for the indigenous people as it had for the Africans imported to the country by the slave trade. While they paid homage to the religious practices of the Europeans, they also could worship their nature spirits in the guise of paying homage to the Christian saints.

The ancient role of the shaman remains central to Macumba. He (it is most often a male) or she enters into a trance state and talks to the spirits in order to gain advice or aid for the supplicants. Before anyone can participate in a Macumba ceremony, he or she must undergo an initiation. The aspirants must enter a trance during the dancing and the drumming and allow a god to possess them. Once the possession has taken place, the shaman must determine which gods are in which initiate so the correct rituals may be performed. The process is assisted by the sacrifice of an animal and the shaman smearing blood over the initiates. Once the initiates have been blooded, they take an oath of loyalty to the cult. Later, when the trance state and the possessing spirit has left them, the aspirants, now members of the Macumba cult, usually have no memory of the ritual proceedings.

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