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Seu Silva was enjoying an ordinary middle-class Brazilian life before the spirits intervened. One night he awoke with a start to find himself sitting on a grave in a cemetery miles from home. Another time he woke up shirtless, standing in the surf. He sought professional help before eventually being directed to a man who worked with spirits, who fell into a trance and diagnosed his condition: the exu Tranca Rua (the trickster spirit of an ancient defrocked Portuguese priest) was responsible for the nighttime journeys, and the spirits were calling Seu Silva to serve them as a medium. Seu Silva accepted the summons, and eventually became the founder and leader of the House of Father John, a center of the Umbanda religion in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro, where he serves the faithful by giving voice to helpful spirits who mediate between practitioners and deities.

Social anthropologist Lindsay Hale recounts Seu Silva’s story, and his ministry, in his book Hearing the Mermaid’s Song. Umbanda is a relatively new religion, founded in the early 20th century, that includes elements of 19th-century French Kardecist Spiritism, popular Catholicism, romanticized indigenous elements, and Candomblé—a family of religious traditions carried to Brazil from Africa by enslaved people.

Between 1501 and 1866 an estimated 4.9 million people were captured or purchased in Africa and taken to Brazil. Many of them brought the orixás with them. Known as the òrìṣàs or in the Yoruba religion practiced in what is now southwestern Nigeria, orixás are deities associated with specific elements of nature that are believed to possess certain humans during festive, public ceremonies. Orixá worship, through both possession and sacrificial offerings, forms the basis of several religious traditions that were born in the context of New World slavery, including Santería in the Caribbean and various Afro-Brazilian practices, in which it mixed with traditions brought by enslaved people from Benin, Togo, Congo, Angola and Mozambique, as well as the Catholicism imparted by the Portuguese colonizers. 

“The landscape of African-rooted religions in Brazil is richly varied, including Babassuê, Batuque, Jarê, Macumba, Omolocô, Pajelança de Negro, Quimbanda, Tambor de Mina, Terecô, Umbanda, Xambá, Xangô de Pernambuco, and others,” says José Eduardo Porcher, a philosopher of religion and postdoctoral researcher at the Universidade Federal de Santa Maria in Brazil, “But the pride of place is usually given to Candomblé, for historical, cultural, and demographic, if not simply chronological, reasons.”

Ritual Philosophies

Porcher is currently leading a new effort, funded by the John Templeton Foundation, to encourage scholars to use the tools of the philosophy of religion to better understand Candomblé and Umbanda, while using philosophical aspects of Afro-Brazilian religions to enrich the philosophy of religion as a whole. “Traditional philosophy of religion betrays a bias towards the analysis and assessment of religious beliefs to the exclusion of religious practice,” Porcher says. “The philosophy of religion has paid almost no attention at all to ritual, even the ritual life of religions like Protestantism and Catholicism that have received the most attention within it,” Porcher says. 

 

“If one wants to philosophize about religious practice, then, one needs to understand religion in all its messy cultural-historical diversity.”

Porcher cites the work of team member Steven Engler, a Canadian scholar of religion who has worked to study religious practice with an interpretationist rather than representationalist approach. “Any attempt to understand the meaning of Afro-Brazilian religious rituals involves paying attention to many things: ritual form, body language, non-verbal sounds, music, architectural and spatial divisions, artifacts, images, and symbols on altars, walls, and floors, and so on,” Porcher says. “Engler points out that asking what any or all of this refers to is the wrong way to try to understand what it means. Instead, we need to dive in and start trying to interpret, to make sense, to make connections.”

Questions for the Spirits

One simple example of an outside philosophical framework that, misapplied, provides an incomplete picture relates to the question of religious identity itself. Brazil’s most recent census, from 2010, reports that only two percent list their primary religious identity as Afro-Brazilian — obscuring the large numbers of self-identified Catholics and Spiritists whose spiritual practices include regular visits to Candomblé or Umbanda ceremonies. Porcher says such syncretism has often been analyzed as a metaphorical mask, in which traditions of Catholic saints, for instance, are mapped onto the worship of orixás. “Recently, many practitioners of Candomblé have sought to ‘re-Africanize’ their traditions by removing the white masks from their Black gods,” he says. Umbanda, with its additional layer of European-influenced Spiritism, also embodies a spectrum of religious scenarios. “There is not one Umbanda but many Umbandas, with a great diversity of beliefs and rituals,” Porcher says. 

The rituals practiced by Seu Silva, as described in Hearing the Mermaid’s Song, include animal sacrifices in what Hale calls “Afro-Brazilian Umbanda” — in contrast with “White Umbanda.” Another scholar of Umbanda, Diana De G. Brown, who also spent time with worshippers in the House of Father John, describes Seu Silva as “a polished, commanding, and successful white man in his early 60s” who ministered poor members of his congregation by incorporating the spirit of Father John, an elderly, Black enslaved man. “Clients always insisted that they disregarded the physical presence of the medium and saw only the possessing spirit,” Brown writes. But still they admitted, “Pai João é Pai João porque Seu Silva é Seu Silva” — Father John is who he is because of Seu Silva.

Such observations and interactions raise a host of philosophical questions beyond the obvious ones of identity and selfhood — what do the statements, beliefs and practices imply about views of life after death or immortality? How do offerings, sacrifices and spirit incorporation speak to people’s understanding or experience of the separation and interaction of the material and spiritual worlds? 

Porcher and his team like to quote 20th-century French sociologist and anthropologist Roger Bastide’s observation that Afro-Brazilian philosophy, far from being barbaric, offers “a subtle thought that has not yet been deciphered.” “We accept that hypothesis as a revealing opening about human religiosity,” Porcher says. “Afro-Brazilian religions hold a mirror up to the philosophy of religion, and we can’t shy away from it.”