35 - Afro descendant Literature
The Brazilian author Machado de Assis, tells us the story of a group of men that after finding a new doctrine, set out to test it and discover the efficacy it has over the population. In the comments we will explore some of Brazil’s afro-religions, from Afro-Catholicism to Candomble.
Why the devil couldn't it have been blue?" I asked to myself.
And this thought—one of the most profound ever made since the discovery of butterflies—consoled me for my misdeed and reconciled me with myself. I stood there, looking at the corpse with, I confess, a certain sympathy. The butterfly had probably come out of the woods, well-fed and happy, into the sunlight of a beautiful morning. Modest in its demands on life, it had been content to fly about and exhibit its special beauty under the vast cupola of a blue sky, all sky that is always blue for those that have wings. It flew through my open window, entered by room, and found me there. I suppose it had never seen a man; therefore, it did not know what a man was. It described an infinite number of circles around my body and saw that I moved, that I had eyes, arms, legs, a divine aspect, and colossal stature. Then it said to itself, "This is probably the maker of butterflies." The idea overwhelmed it, terrified it; but fear, which is sometimes stimulating, suggested the best way for it to please its creator was to kiss him on the forehead, and so it kissed me. When I brushed it away, it rested on the windowpane, saw from there the portrait of my father, and quite possibly perceived a half-truth, i.e., that the man in the picture was the father of the creator of butterflies, and it flew to beg his mercy.”
(Translated from Machado de Assis, Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas. Edición digital basada en la de Rio de Janeiro, Fundação Biblioteca Nacional, 2002. URL: Quotes from Machado de Assis. URL: https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/605176-mem-rias-p-stumas-de-br-s-cubas)
¡Feliz año! Happy New Year, dear listeners of Tres Cuentos, the bilingual podcast dedicated to the literary, historical, and traditional Latin American narratives. I am Carolina Quiroga-Stultz, and I am happy to be back and ready to share many stories. We are kicking off the year with the literary narratives of Afro-Descendants.
The intro of this episode is an excerpt reproduced from the book Machado de Assis, Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas.
When I first came to the US. My biggest surprise was how fanatic the country can get about religion. The first time I noticed it was when I was at a bus stop in Tennessee. A lady sitting next to me turned and asked, what church I went to? I did not respond, and she talked until the bus came.
And the list of awkward encounters in the US goes on. In Colombia, I never felt like that. Someone may argue that it is because Catholicism has a tight grip on the region. Therefore, there is not much need to convince one another to change faiths. In truth, most of Latin America's religious fabric has changed a lot, including my family and friends in Colombia.
Today's featured author is Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, one of Brazil's greatest writers. He was aware of the political environment of the time, so he cautiously placed many of his stories in a distant time.
You can find the following story in the book Collected Stories of Machado de Assis, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, published by W.W Norton & Company, Inc.
The story The Bonze's Secret, written in 1882, takes us three centuries back in time, to an imaginary kingdom likely located near Japan. In the story, a group of Portuguese men encounters a priest or bonze that will reveal the core of most doctrines and philosophies, the opinion.
The Bonze’s Secret
By Machado de Assis (Brazil, 1882)
From the Collected Stories of Machado de Assis by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson. Copyright © 2018 by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
An unpublished chapter from “The Travels of Fernão Mendes Pinto”
*Author’s Note: As will be see, what follows is not a pastiche, nor was it intended merely as A test of literary talent; if it were, it would be of very little value. In order to give my invention a certain realism, I needed to place it at a great distance in both space and time, and, to make the narrative ring true, there seemed to me to be no better solution than to attribute it to that famous travel writer who told so many wondrous tales. For the more curious reader, I will add that the words “I have set out above the events that occurred in the city of Fucheo” were written with the purpose of imagining this chapter to be inserted between chapters CCXIII and CCXIV of Mendes Pinto’s Peregrinacão.
I have set out above the events that occurred in the city of Fucheo,* capital of the kingdom of Bungo, in the company of Father Master Francisco Xavier, and of how the king behaved toward Fucarandono and the other bonze’s, who had seen fit to enter into theological disputations with the saintly priest regarding the superiority of our holy religion. I will now speak of a doctrine as curious as it is salutary to the spirit, and worthy of being revealed to all the republics of Christendom.
One day, while out taking a stroll with Diogo Meireles, in that same city of Fucheo in the year of our Lord 1552, we happened upon a crowd of people gathered at a street corner. They were standing around a local man who was holding forth, gesturing and shouting. The crowd numbered, at the lowest estimate, more than a hundred people, all of them men, and all with mouths agape.
Diogo Meireles, who knew the local language better than I, for he had previously spent many months there in the company of a band of merchant-adventurers (he was now engaged in the practice of medicine, which he had studied to useful advantage and in which he now excelled), repeated for me in our language what the speaker was saying, which was, in short, as follows: that he desired only to proclaim the true origin of crickets, which were born out of thin air and the leaves of coconut palms during the conjunction of the new moon. He went on to add that this discovery, impossible to anyone who was not, like him, a mathematician, physicians and philosopher, was the fruit of long years of application, experiment, study, hard work, and even danger to life and limb. All of this he had done for the praise and glory of the kingdom of Bungo, and, in particular, the city of Fucheo, of which he was a loyal son, and if he must pay with this life for postulating such a sublime truth, then so be it, so sure was he that science was a far richer prize than the pleasures of life itself.
As soon as he had finished, the crowd almost deafened us with their tumultuous cries of acclamation, and hoisted the man aloft onto their shoulders, shouting: “Patimau! Patimau! Long live Patimau, who has discovered the true origin of crickets!”
And they carried him off to the porch outside a merchant’s emporium, where they gave him refreshments and bowed ceremoniously according to the customs of this country, which are obsequious and courtl y in the extreme.
Diogo Meireles, and I turned back the way we had come, discussing this singular discovery about the origin of crickets, when, only a short walk from the merchant’s emporium, no longer than it would take to say the creed six times, we came upon another crowd of people, on another street corner, listening to another man.
We were taken aback by the similarity of the situation, and, as this other man also spoke very quickly, Diogo Meireles, once again translated the tenor of his speech to me. The man was saying, to great admiration and applause from the people surrounding him, that he had at last discovered the font of the future life that would surely follow upon the Earth’s utter destruction, and that this was neither more nor less than a single drop of cow’s blood; this was why the cow proved such an excellent habitation for the human soul, and explained the fervor with which so many men, at the hour of their death, sought out this remarkable animal. It was a discovery in which he had complete faith and confidence, resulting as it did from his own repeated experiments and deep cogitation, for which he neither sought nor desired any reward greater than that of glorifying the kingdom of Bungo, and receiving from it the esteem due to all loyal sons.
The people, who had listened to this speech with great veneration, greeted it with the same hullabaloo as before, and took the man to the aforementioned merchant’s emporium, with the difference that this time they carried him on a palanquin. Upon arriving there, he was showered with the same favors and attentions as had been shown to Patimau, with no distinction being made between them, and their grateful hosts were unsparing in the generous thanks they gave to their two honored guests.
We could make neither head nor tail of any of this, for the exact similarity between the two encounters seemed to us scarcely accidental, nor did we find Patimau’s theory of the origin of crickets any more rational or credible than the font of future life discovered by Languru, which was the other man’s name.
However, we happened to be passing the house of certain sandal-maker called Titané, who rushed out to speak to Diogo Meireles, with whom he was acquainted. After exchanging greetings, in which the sandal-maker addressed Diogo Meireles, as “golden truth and sun of thought” and other such gallant names, the latter told the former what we had just seen and heard, to which Titané, replied with great enthusiasm: “It may well be that they are followers of a new doctrine, said to be invented by a very wise bonze who dwells in one of the houses on the slopes of Mount Coral.” And because we were eager to hear more about this doctrine, Titané agreed to go with us the following day to visit the bonze, adding: “They say he will only confide his doctrine to those who truly desire to adhere to it; if that is true, we can pretend that we have come with the sole purpose of hearing his doctrine, and then, if we like it, we may do with it as we see fit.”
The following day, as agreed, we went to the abode of the aforementioned bonze, who went by the curious name of Pomada, which in our language means “charlatan.” He was an old man of a hundred an eight, well read in letters both divine and human, and widely revered by the pagan masses; for this very reason he was distrusted by the other bonzes, who were consumed with jealousy. And so, having learned from Titané who we were and what we wanted, the aforementioned bonze first of all initiated us into the various rituals and ceremonies necessary for the reception of his doctrine, and only then did he raise his voice to reveal and explain it to us.
“You must understand,” he began, “that virtue and knowledge have two parallel existences, one in the man who possesses them, and the other in the minds of those who hear or observe him. If you were to put the most sublime virtues and the most profound knowledge into a solitary individual removed from all contact with other men, it would be as if such things did not exist. If no one tastes the fruits of an orange tree, it is worth no more than wild gorse and scrub, and if nobody sees such fruits, they are worth nothing at all. Or, to put it more succinctly, there is no spectacle without a spectator. One day, while pondering such matters, I realized that achieving this small crumb of self-enlightenment had entirely consumed my life, and, moreover, it would all be in vain without the presence of other men to witness and honor me; I then wondered whether there might be some means of achieving the same effect with less effort, and that day, I can tell you now, was the day of mankind’s rebirth, for it gave me my new doctrine.”
At this point, we pricked up our ears and hung upon the lips of the bonze, who, since Diogo had told him I was unfamiliar with the local language, was speaking very slowly so that I would miss nothing. And on he went: “you will never guess what gave me the idea of this new doctrine: it was neither more nor less than the moonstone, that famous stone so luminous that, when placed on a mountaintop or on the pinnacle of a tower, it gives light to the whole countryside around, no matter how extensive. Such a stone, so rich in light, has never existed and no one has ever seen it, but many people believe it exists and more than one will tell you that he has seen it with his own eyes. I considered the matter and realized that if a thing can exist in someone’s opinion without existing in reality, or exist in reality without existing in someone’s opinion, the conclusion must be that of the two parallel existences, the only one necessary is that of opinion, not of reality, which is merely an additional convenience. No sooner had I made this discovery, however speculative, than I gave thanks to God for bestowing on me such special favor, and I resolved to verify it by experimentation. This I achieved on more than one occasion, but I will not bore you by going into the details. In order to understand the efficacy of my system, it is enough to tell you that crickets cannot be born out of thin air and the leaves of coconut tree during the conjunction of the new moon; and the font of future life does not lie in a single drop of cows blood; and yet Patimau and Languru, who are both clever men, were able to plant both these ideas into the minds of the masses so artfully that they now enjoy reputations as great physicians and even greater philosophers, and have followers who would willingly give their lives for them.”
We did not know how best to express to the bonze our intense appreciation and admiration. He continued to question us, in detail, for quite some time about his doctrine and its founding principles, and once he was satisfied that we had fully understood it, he encouraged us to put it into practice, revealing it very cautiously, not because it contained anything that was contrary to divine or human laws, but because a misunderstanding could cause the doctrine irreparable damage before it had even taken its first steps. Finally, he bade us farewell in the certainty (and these were his very words) that we were “departing with your souls transformed into those of true Pomadists,” a term which pleased him enormously, based as it was on his own name.
Indeed, before evening fell, the three of us had agreed to set to work on an idea that would prove as lucrative as it was judicious, for profit cannot be measured only in money, but according to the respect and praise one receives, for both are an alternative and perhaps better currency, even if they are of no use when buying silk damasks and gold plate.
So, we agreed, by way of an experiment, that each of us would plant a certain belief in the minds of the people of Fucheo, as a result of which we would reap the same reward as Patimau and Languru.
But man does not easily lose sight of his own best interests, and so Titané took it upon himself to earn twice the profit by charging for the experiment with both currencies, that is by selling sandals and, at the same time, earning men’s esteem; we did not object to this, since it seemed to us to have no bearing on the essential teachings of our doctrine.
I’m not quite sure how best to explain Titané experiment in order for you to understand. Here in the kingdom of Bungo, as in other realms of these distant parts, they use a paper made from ground cinnamon bark and glue, a paper of the finest quality, which they then cut into pieces two palms long and half a palm wide. On these sheets, in a variety of bright colors and using the symbols of their own language, they inscribe the weekly news—items of a political, religious, or mercantile nature, about the new laws of the kingdom, and the names of all the fustas, lancharas, balões, and other types of vessels that ply these seas, either in warfare, which is frequent, or in trade. And I say weekly because these sheets of news are indeed prepared once a week, in great quantities, and distributed to the local populace for a small token, which everyone gives willingly so that they can read the news before anyone else hears about it.
Now, our Titané could have wished for no better street corner than this paper, whose title translates into our language as The Life and Clarity of Mundane and Celestial Things, which is certainly expressive, if somewhat overblown. And so he arranged for it to be reported in the aforesaid paper that the news coming in from the coasts of Malabar in China was full of nothing but talk of Titané’s famous sandals: that they were being acclaimed as the best in the world, on account of their robustness and elegance; that, given the splendor of Titané famous sandals, the finest in the universe, no fewer than twenty-four mandarins were going to ask the Great Emperor to create the honorific title of “Sandal of Sate” as a reward to those who had distinguished themselves in any field of learning; that very large orders were flooding in from every region, orders that Titané was determined to fulfill less for love of profit than for the glory it would bring to his beloved homeland; that, nevertheless, he would not resile from his humble intention, which he had already declared to the king and hereby repeated, to donate fifty score such sandals to the kingdom’s poor; and, finally, that, despite being acknowledged as the finest sandal-maker anywhere in the world, he knew the obligations of moderation, and would never consider himself anything more than a diligent artisan working tirelessly for the glory of the kingdom of Bungo.
The whole city of Fucheo was naturally deeply moved upon reading this news, and spoke of nothing else for the whole of that week. Titané’s sandals, until then considered merely adequate, began to be sought out with great curiosity and enthusiasm, and even more so in the weeks that followed, since he continued for some time to entertain the city with many extraordinary tales about his merchandise. And he said to us, very cheerily:
“You can see that I have obeyed the fundamental principles of our doctrine, for I have made the people believe in the superiority of these sandals even though I am not persuaded of it myself, indeed I find them rather ordinary; and now everyone rushes to buy them, for whatever price I choose to charge.”
“It doesn’t seem to me,” I interrupted, “that you have followed the doctrine in all its rigor and substance, for it is not our task to instill in others an opinion that we do not ourselves hold, but rather to convince them of a quality in us that we do not actually possess; that surely is the essence of the doctrine.”
The other two then agreed that it was now my turn to attempt the experiment, and I did so immediately. I will not, however relate every aspect of my own experiment, so as not to delay my account of Diogo Meireles’s experiment, which was the most decisive of the three and provided the best proof of the bonze’s delightful invention.
I will say only that, having a smattering of music and a mediocre talent on the flute, I had the idea of gathering the leading citizens of Fucheo to hear me play the instrument. They duly came, listened, and went away saying that they had never heard anything quite so extraordinary.
I confess that I achieved this result solely by virtue of airs and affectations: the elegant arch of my arms when I played the flute, which was brought to me on a silver salver, the firmness of my chest, the unctuous devotion with which I raised my eyes to heaven, and the contemptuous disdain with which I looked down at the audience, which promptly burst into such a concert of voices and cries of enthusiasm that I was almost persuaded of my own merit.
But, as I said, of all our experiments, Diego Miereles’s, was the most ingenious.
At the time, a most peculiar disease was spreading through the city, one that caused a patient’s nose to swell up so much that it covered half his or her face. This not only made them look utterly hideous, it also proved a very heavy burden to carry around.
Although the local physicians proposed removing the swollen noses, for the relief and cure of those afflicted, no one would consent to succumb to such treatment, preferring excess to absence, and holding that the lack of that organ would be more bothersome than any other outcome.
In such a predicament, several resorted to voluntary death as a remedy, to the great sadness of the whole city.
Diogo Meireles, who, as mentioned earlier, had been practicing medicine for some time, studied the illness and agreed that there was no danger in relieving the sufferers of their noses; indeed it would be beneficial to remove the problem, and cause no further ugliness, since a heavy, misshapen nose was just as bad as none at all. He did not, however, mange to persuade the unfortunate sufferers to make the necessary sacrifice.
Then a cunning plan occurred to him. And so, it was that, having gathered together many physicians, philosophers, bonzes, representatives of authority and the people, he informed them that he held the secret to solving the problem. This secret was nothing less than replacing the diseased nose with one that was healthy, but of a purely metaphysical nature—that is, imperceptible to the human eye, but just as, or even more, real than the one that had been removed.
The crowd was greatly astonished, and some were quite incredulous; I don’t say all of them, for the majority did not know what to believe, repelled as they were by the metaphysics of noses. Gradually, however, they succumbed to the force of Diogo Meireles’s, words and the convincing tone with which he expounded his remedy. It was then that several philosophers, ashamed to appear any less knowledgeable than Diogo Meireles, declared that there was indeed a sound basis for such a discovery, given that mankind itself was nothing more than the product of transcendental ideals, from which they concluded that one could, in all likelihood, wear a metaphysical nose, and thus solemnly assured the crowd that it would be just as effective.
The assembled throng cheered Diogo Meireles, to the rafters, and patients began to come to him in such numbers that he could scarcely keep up. Diogo Meireles, relieved them of their noses with the greatest of skill, his fingers then reaching delicately toward a box in which he pretended to keep the substitute noses, picking up one and applying it to the empty space.
The patients, thus cured and made whole again, looked at each other and could see nothing where the removed organ had been; however, convinced that the substitute organ was indeed there, albeit imperceptible to the human eye, they did not consider themselves cheated, and returned to their daily occupations. I could wish for no better proof of the efficacy of the doctrine, and the success of this experiment, than the fact that all those who were relieved of their noses by Diogo Meireles, continued to make use of their handkerchiefs just as before. All of which I have set down here to the glory of the bonze and for the benefit of the world.
We are back, and I am thrilled to light the torch that will guide us to the place where different faiths intercepted and gave birth to new Latin American religious doctrines.
However, before we dive into such an intricated fabric of ideas, I will introduce briefly discuss our featured autho r, Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis.
In the book Collected Stories of Machado de Assis, the translators Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson tell us more about the Brazilian author.
Machado de Assis published seven short story collections from 1870 to 1906, about 200 short stories in total. Honestly, it was hard to decide which story I wanted to feature. However, The Bonze's Secret opened the door to talk more about Brazil's religious fabric's uniqueness, so there is that.
I highly recommend you get your hands on the book; it is worth it. One of Machado's masterpieces is the story “The Alienist.” It reminds me of the Portuguese writer José Saramago and his novel Essay on Blindness and the Argentinean silent movie The Aerial (in English) by Esteban Sapir that you can find on Netflix.
All three stories deal with humanity's obsessions and how the masses, like blind lambs, let others choose for them. I will not say more; I prefer not to spoil the reading, which might resonate with these troubled times.
Machado’s paternal grandparents were mulattos and freed slaves. Machado's humble origins tell us that his father, Francisco José de Assis, was a mulatto and worked as a painter and decorator. In contrast, his mother, Maria Leopoldina Machado, was a white Portuguese immigrant and was a washing woman.
Joaquim was born on June 21, 1839. He suffered from epileptic attacks and stuttered. While young, he became orphaned by his mother, and years later his father died too. Machado's stepmother, Maria Inés, took him in. When she began working as a confectioner in a neighborhood school, the future poet and novelist had to work selling sweets.
The trade allowed him to meet teachers and students and perhaps instilled in him the desire to learn independently. As an autodidact, he studied French and German. Thanks to his enormous talent and tenacity, Machado de Assis became one of Brazil's most influential writers despite his lack of formal training.
Now, regarding the story we heard, “The Bonze's Secret,” I should clarify one detail. When I first read it, I was confused by the author's note. He claims that the account should be considered an unpublished chapter from the book The Travels of Fernão Mendes Pinto. I thought, who is that Mendes Pinto?
Well, he was a 16th-century Portuguese explorer and writer. He traveled twice to India and later to Malacca and the Far East, including China, Japan, and Siam. Legend holds that the audacious voyageur wrote an autobiographical account of this travels. The stories were so exaggerated, that he was given the nickname Fernão Mentes Minto. To celebrate his tendency to lie.
Under the fictional umbrella of the 16th-century voyage, Machado de Assis creates an original story but credits it to a man that already had plenty of imagination. To me, “The Bonze’s Secret” is a satiric commentary on 19th Century Brazil.
Without further ado, it is time to lay out the intricate fabric of faiths that shaped the society of the biggest Latin American country, Brazil.
In the book Latin American Religions, Histories and Documents in Context, edited by Anna L. Peterson and Manuel A. Vásquez, the authors stress that encounters of all different cultures did not result in a rigid exchange of ideas. Instead, the opposite was true. As the book’s authors state, "popular religious practices and beliefs are not always unorthodox, nor do religious officials always practice strictly orthodox forms."
Peterson and Vásquez add, "In Latin America, popular religiosity, often existing at the margins of official institutions, has tended to diverge from orthodox doctrine and practice… [and that] many heterodox religions have resulted from creative blending and borrowing among Christian, indigenous, and African traditions…"
This observation also applies to the faith brought by missionaries and conquistadors. If you listened to our past episode on Day of the Dead, we mentioned that the ancestors' celebration had its roots on both the Americas and Europe. Moreover, even the European beliefs related to honoring the dead had pagan roots. This is because European Catholicism of the 15th and 16th century was already borrowing its beliefs and structure on pre-Christian popular traditions as well as by Jewish and Muslim cultures.
Missionary Catholicism that arrived to the Americas eventually reinterpreted the ideas borrowed from Judaism and Islam and presented them as written by the hand of the Christian God.
Yet, although externally Catholicism seemed to claim originality, internally it was a different story. Peterson and Vásquez mention that "Spanish and Portuguese Catholicism was dominated by pilgrimages, processions, and other public events, as well as private shrines and devotions. These practices, and the beliefs that accompanied European settlers, were often open to adjustment as people's lives and societies changed."
In other words, natives, slaves, and even missionaries borrowed and adapted to what they encountered and developed mixed beliefs. Of course, this creative blending of ideas was later severely repressed, yet never extinguished.
Brazil's case stands out more than in other countries. Why? Because of the numbers. From the year of 1530 to 1850, around eleven million slaves came to the new colonies. Curiously only six percent landed in North America. About four million went only to the Caribbean Islands of Cuba and Jamaica. The other five million were shipped to South America. Brazil received 3.6 million persons considered as human merchandise.
The significant impact that afro descendants have had across Latin America is undeniable.
According to Peterson and Vásquez, "By the 1820s slaves constituted about one-third of the population of Brazil, with another third made up by Blacks who had purchased or won their freedom."
So, when white colonizers felt uneasy about their minority status, they looked for ways to control the majority. The strategy chosen to dominate such a large population was to instill division among them. Colonial masters chose to mix various African groups to avoid any solidarity based on kinship, origin, or language. It did not work as efficiently as they had hoped. In the end, the Africans in the diaspora found ways to reconstruct their lost identities.
For instance, in Cuba, slaves and free blacks formed cabildos, voluntary associations, around naciones, that is, people from the same parts of Africa. The government considered the cabildos places of social control. The attendees could express themselves collectively without becoming a threat to their masters or the system. However, something else was brewing underneath.
Peterson and Vásquez comment that "by serving as spaces of fraternization and entertainment, spaces where slaves played their music, performed their dances, and passed on their oral traditions, these clubs became crucibles for the emergence of African-based religions."
In Brazil, the Catholic Church saw these spaces as fertile land for the instruction of the Catholic doctrine. I mentioned it in episode 27 when we talked about the black religious brotherhoods or irmadades. Yet, this does not mean that the Catholic church was able to control these social organizations. The black brotherhoods were relatively autonomous, and this turned out to be fruitful.
Peterson and Vásquez indicated that the irmandades or cofradias ended up developing "a rich ecclesiology, iconography, and liturgy that contributed to the formation of Brazil’s traditional popular Catholicism." Moreover, in time, this new religious breed came to be at odds with the official church. Also, after the wars of independence and the end of slavery, these organizations represented a threat to the emerging national governments across Latin America. Why? Because the fragile newborn Latin American nations suspected that the cabildos and irmandades were potential incubators of separatist movements.
However, despite the church’s supervision of these cofradias or irmandades, African religions renegotiated opinions with Catholicism perspectives.
To find what came out of that, we should now open the book Afro-Latin American Studies, An Introduction, edited by Alejandro de la Fuente and George Reid Andrews.
Africans did not passively accept the faith of their masters De la Fuente and Andrews, tell us: “Just as the Spanish and Portuguese engaged the New World through the lens of Christian hierophanies (that is priests interpreting mysteries) and using rituals directed toward Christ, the Virgin, and various saints, so did their African slaves populate the Americas with deities and forces originating in their former social environments.”
There is evidence of African rituals and their complexity in Brazil as early as the 1600s. De la Fuente and Andrews quote a verse from the Bahian born poet, Gregório de Matos that reads,
“All these quilombos, With peerless masters, Teaching by night Calundus and fetishism Thousands of women Attend them faithfully So does many a bearded man [a Portuguese] Who thinks himself a new Narcissus.”
As you can see, even the white Portuguese masters were partaking in the ceremonies. Perhaps this increasing interest drew the church’s attention.
De la Fuente and Andrews tell us that “By the early 1700s, Bahian clergy established a catechism (that is indoctrination) to properly evangelize the slaves, suggesting a perceived threat posed by slaves’ practices.”
In 1707, the archbishop of Bahia, Sebastião Monteiro DaVide, wrote an instruction on the method of evangelizing enslaved Africans and their Creole descendants. Here’s an excerpt of the text, that you can find in the book Religion in Latin America, A Documentary History. Edited by Lee M. Penyak and Walter J. Perry.
“And because the slaves of Brazil are those most in need of Christian Doctrine so numerous are their nations and so diverse their languages, we should search for every means to instruct them in the faith. And there is no more profitable way than a kind of instruction accommodated to the rudeness of their understanding and the barbarity of their speech…”
“And for greater security in regard to the baptism of the brute and raw slaves, and those of unknown language, such as are those who come from Mina, and many also from Angola, the following will be done. After they have acquired some knowledge of our language, or if there are interpreters, the instruction of the mysteries [a special catechism] will be used, which as we said is contained in the third book [Tittle XXXII] number 579. . . And aside from this the raw slaves referred to above will be asked only the following questions:
Who made this world? Who made us? Where is God? Do you want to wash your soul with holy water? Will you cast all the sins out of your soul? Will you want to be a child of God? Will you cast the devil out of your soul?”
Nevertheless, as the French anthropologist Roger Bastide (1978) who specialized in Brazilian literature and society, once said “Time, in the long run, would erode all traditions, however firmly anchored in the new habitat. But the slave trade continuously renewed the sources of life by establishing continuous contact between old slaves, their sons, and the new arrivals, who sometimes included priests and medicine men. In this way, throughout the whole period of slavery, religious values were continuously rejuvenated at the same time that they were being eroded.”
Consequently, it was impossible to expect that Catholicism would not be filtered and transformed into something unique to Brazil.
As I mentioned before, in Brazil, the cofradias or irmandades flourished. They were Catholic lay brotherhoods and spaces for the new Afro-Latin American ritual traditions to convey, restructure, and spread.
Something I learned was that because the Capuchins and Dominican missionaries had reached the Kongo kingdom since the late 1400s, some of the Africans arriving to the Americas were already Catholics.
Then it is understandable how things get a bit complex when defining Afro-Catholicism in Brazil.
For instance, Roger Bastide, the French researcher who in 1957 presented a doctoral manuscript "Les Religions Africaines au Brésil," (The African Religions of Brazil), mentioned that in Brazil there were two Catholicisms.
One, "the version carried to Brazil by enslaved Central Africans, already at least nominally Catholic." Second, "the version of Portuguese popular Catholicism [that] was already in part Africanized." However, De la Fuente and Andrews add that we should consider a third version. That is "the new Afro-Catholic practice that came into being in Brazil, Cuba, Saint Domingue, New Spain, and elsewhere through the mandated Christianization of slaves."
The process of cultural transformation marked by the influx of new cultural elements and the loss of existing ones, resulted in a more elaborated and at times flamboyant Catholic practice. Here, saints have a more significant role, festivals and processions, and possessions or diabolism exposed the physical vulnerability to magical threats.
Under this roof of new symbolisms, rosaries, medallions, amulets, and talismans were popular, offering different types of protection, and certain saints became more relevant than others.
De la Fuente and Andrews tell us, "Afro-Brazilians not only reinforced the importance of select saints already canonized by the Church, but they generated their own." One of those was Rosa Maria Egipcíaca da Vera Cruz.
Legend tells that Rosa landed in Rio de Janeiro as a child slave in 1725. After suffering all kinds of abuses for 25 years, she began having mystical visions. In time she was revered as a popular saint and credited with miracles. However, her fame caught the Inquisition's eye, and she was accused and sent her to Lisbon for trail.
Of course, this made more sacred to her followers. Yet, her story did not slow down African cults, nor the church's paranoia.
De la Fuente and Andrews recount that "Official agents of the church were overwhelmingly hostile toward African and Afro-American practices through at least the middle of the twentieth century."
However, when the Brazilian Catholic church realized the ground gained by Neo-Pentecostal sects, the catholic liturgies became more Africanized. Drums and dances were included to please the masses and keep their numbers up.
The next doctrine that I want to talk about is “Espiritismo,” which eventually will lead us to talk about other doctrines.
Curiously, just about two months ago, I watched a Brazilian movie on Netflix about “Espiritismo” and its founder Allan Kardec. At the time, I thought the guy was Brazilian until there was a scene in French. So, I looked it up and found out that the father of Spiritism was French. However, his impact was so huge that three years after the release of his book “Le livre des esprits,” in 1857, the book was highly distributed in Brazil’s capital. Furthermore, six years later, his body of work had been completely translated into Portuguese.
This tells us that Mr. Kardec’s doctrine had a tremendous impact on Brazilian society. It was such that in 1884, there was a Brazilian Spiritism Federation. In truth, Spiritism was the hot topic among the white elites.
De la Fuente and Andrews say that “Espiritismo perhaps found fertile ground in Brazil in relation to an older folk spiritism descended from Portuguese Sebastianism, with its nostalgia for a golden past and mystic expectations of a glorious, yet unseen, future.”
A regular session of Espiritismo had a medium channeling the voices of ancient souls that would offer to cast out negative energies that had fallen upon the clients. The invoked spirits were said to be healers from ancient and developed civilizations, such as Egypt and even the Aztecs.
A good question to ask is how Spiritism connects with African religions? By 1920, in a Brazilian city called Niterói, a new doctrine was born, Umbanda, a blend of Espiritismo and Candomblé.
De la Fuente and Andrews shed light on what exactly is that Umbanda was about. They say, “In Umbanda, Afro-Brazilian deities were transmuted into systematic military ranks and phalanxes of spirits.” That is that some spirits acted like soldiers carrying orders, whereas the deities were like captains or generals. Fun fact, Umbanda ended up benefiting from the support of Brazil’s military class.
Unlike Espiritismo, Umbanda worked with some African spirits, like the orixás, called Santos, saints. Yet, there were at least two avenues were Umbanda worked. A more “white line,” that was closer to the Kardecist Spiritism, and the other that reached into more African practices.
The latter mimicked some of Candomblé’s rituals, such as spirit possession, but was less complex when it came to initiations and sacrificial exchanges with the gods. In time, it became more available to the masses. Such accessibility eventually hurt the doctrine because it was considered less authentic and too simplistic. I suppose that no matter what, people like a good performance.
For example, in an Umbanda session, the spirits possessed the medium with less ritual and protocol. By 1980, Umbanda lost many followers, who converted to the more complex Candomblé.
Someone maybe wondering about the type of spirits that would show up in an Umanda session. Here’s a list of some of the spirits that would manifest were old Blacks or Pretos-velhos, former slaves, Caboclos, the spirits of Amerindians, Erês or crianças, the spirits of children, Exus or mischievous troublemakers and tricksters also known as messengers; ciganas, gypsies with mystical insight. Other visitors from the other side were prostitutes, known as pomba-gras, and less honorable spirits such as the boiadeiros or cowboys who often sought human help.
It is essential to mention that some of the roles of the spirits changed according to the times. De la Fuente and Andrews mention that “the orixá Exú moved from being identified as a diabolical imp in early 20th century studies of Candomblé…to being reworked as a beneficial mediator and messenger after the 1930s.”
Here I remember that the Catholicism that I was taught evolved too. When I was in elementary school, the All-mighty was a punisher and terribly angry father. Later in my twenties, god had become a very sweet and forgiving dude.
But let’s continue with the topic that concerns us today, the religious doctrines in Brazil.
Earlier, I mentioned the Neo-Pentecostal Protestantism that came to compete with the Catholic Church. Today, this Afro-Latin American religion has grown so much among Afro-descendants in Brazil that it has spread its wings to further lands such as Guatemala, Honduras, and Haiti.
The first Pentecostal sects arrived in Brazil in 1910, and by 1952, numerous Brazilian Pentecostal groups had proliferated. Twenty years later, a third wave came swelling the numbers.
De la Fuente and Andrews describe the Pentecostal believers as creates, who “see themselves as avowed enemies of Afro-Brazilian religions like Umbanda and Candomblé, though in practice there are important commonalities.”
The practices where these faiths intercept (the Pentecostals, Umbanda and Candomblé) are the belief that certain invoked words have magical power, the use of oils and color coded-flowers to carry transformations, and the incorporation of the Holy Spirit, byways of exorcism of bad spirits with the aid of Afro-Brazilian exu spirits.
However, let’s not jump to conclusions. Despite the similarities, there are marked differences too. De la Fuente and Andrews clarify that “the Holy Spirit and the orixás or vodums [in Candomblé], present quite divergent conceptions and performances of extraordinary power.”
For instance, the pantheon of orixás invoked in Candomblé are of African origin and have the names of West African rivers and ancient kings, like Oyá, Obá, Xangô, Odudua. Whereas the Pentecostal God is absolute and the head of a world religion.
Before we wrap up the program, I want to dedicate a couple of minutes to the topic of religious censorship.
In 1889, the constitution of the First Republic of Brazil, founded a year after the abolition of slavery, mandated the complete liberty of religious groups and ended the governmental patronage of the Catholic Church. Yet, freedom of religion did not apply to Afro-Brazilian practices because they were not considered religions. The Penal Code of 1890 prohibited illegal medicine, curing, and the practice of 'magic' and 'spiritism.'
Why? Because in the era of industrialization, that is, the 19th century, these practices were considered as delaying national progress. So, they were repressed. But this repression was doomed to fail. In 1942 certain spirits mediumship practices were so well structured and had gained so much support among the military and the middle-class that were removed from the blacklist of "acts against public health."
Candomblé had to wait a little longer. In 1976, its practitioners were granted freedom to practice. Perhaps because it became a cultural attraction and as De la Fuente and Andrews called it "a national patrimony, especially in Bahia."
So, it is clear that even religions are susceptible to ratings. Just ask the evangelists that were on board with Trump's show for the past four years, although the guy was the entire opposite of what they preached. As Machado de Assis, our featured author, indicated through the Bonze's character, "there is no spectacle without a spectator."
Before I close the program, I will leave you with our featured author Machado de Assis, who watched at humankind's history from the place where past, present, and future are the same, and concluded that our passing through these lands is just an endless loop of hope and mistake. You can find the following excerpt in the book Machado de Assis, Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas, digital edition based on Rio de Janeiro, Fundação Biblioteca Nacional, 2002.
“Then I said to myself, ‘If the centuries are going by, mine will come too, and will pass, and after a time the last century of all will come, and then I shall understand.’ And I fixed my eyes on the ages that were coming and passing on; now I was calm and resolute, maybe even happy. Each age brought its share of light and shade, of apathy and struggle, of truth and error, and its parade of systems, of new ideas, of new illusions; in each of them the verdure of spring burst forth, grew yellow with age, and then, young once more, burst forth again. While life thus moved with the regularity of a calendar, history and civilization developed; and man, at first naked and unarmed, clothed and armed himself, built hut and palace, villages and the city of Thebes with its hundred-gates, created science that scrutinizes and art that elevates, made himself an orator, a mechanic, a philosopher, ran all over the face of the globe, went down into the earth and up to the clouds, performing the mysterious work through which he satisfied the necessities of life and tried to forget his loneliness. My tired eyes finally saw the present age go by end, after it, future ages. The present age, as it approached, was agile, skillful, vibrant, proud, a little verbose, audacious, learned, but in the end, it was as miserable as the earlier ones. And so, it passed, and so passed the others, with the same speed and monotony.”
And that is all for today. We will be back in two weeks with a story from the Afra-Ecuadorian writer Luz Argentina Chiriboga, who explores the complexities of not having the standard type of beauty.
Until the next cuento! Adios, adios.
Religion in Latin American, A Documentary History. Edited by Lee M. Penyak &Walter J. Perry. Published by Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 2006.
Collected Stories of Machado de Assis by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson. Copyright © 2018 by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
Poets of Brazil, A Bilingual Selection, translated by Frederic G. William. New York: Luso Brazilian Books. Brighm Young University Studies, Provo, Utah, USA; Editora da Universidade Feral da Bahia, Salvador, Brasil.
Latin American Religions. Histories and Documents in Context. Edited by Anna L. Peterson and Manuel A. Vásquez. Published by New York University Press, 2008.
Afro-Latin American Studies. An Introduction. Edited by Alejandro de la Fuente and George Reid Andrews. Published by Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Machado de Assis, Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas. Edición digital basada en la de Rio de Janeiro, Fundação Biblioteca Nacional, 2002.) URL: file:///C:/Users/Carol/AppData/Local/Temp/memoriasBras.pdf
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