35.5 Umbanda in the city: Magic, mysticism and the mass appeal of a uniquely Brazilian religion

Wednesday, August 1, 2012: 10:00 AM
Faculty of Economics, TBA
Distributed Paper
Emma STONE , Sociology, University of Auckland, Waitakere, New Zealand

In Brazil, urbanisation and religious change are two closely linked phenomena. In the early 20th century, as Brazil moved into a new era of urban development, industrialisation and concomitant migration, Brazilian religiosity also underwent significant transformation. An explosion of new and syncretised spiritual forms appeared in city centres, and disseminated throughout urban Brazil.

One of the most conspicuous and meaningful new religions to emerge from this era was Umbanda, often accredited with being the first truly Brazilian religion. Intermingling facets of Catholicism, Spiritism and Candomble, Umbanda integrates into its religious cosmology and pantheon diverse symbols of national identity and significance, and has a tendency to be concentrated in urban locales. In a society still marred by corruption and extreme disparities between rich and poor, Umbanda represents one of Brazil's most egalitarian spiritual denominations, permeating all echelons of Brazilian society and encouraging participation among Brazilians of diverse backgrounds, regardless of age, sexuality, gender or ethnicity.

My research among urban Umbanda communities this year has suggested that Umbanda's appeal and prevalence throughout Brazilian cities can be attributed to several salient factors. The democratic ideals that infuse its ideology, its ardent beliefs in charity inherited from Brazilian Spiritism, and its emphasis on magic, mysticism and distinctly Brazilian aesthetic mean that Umbanda holds appeal across distinct social groups. It speaks to those afflicted with problems; seeking cures and resolutions to hardships often associated with the challenges of urban living, but also to those seeking a sense of identity, transcendental meaning, and re-enchantment in the bustle and confusion of the quotidian.