Hanging with Umbanda

Things that bump and grind in the night. Tom Quinn travels to Portugal to gain first hand experience

It wasn't until I was standing on a corner in Lisbon last week that I realized how little information I had about Antonio, the man supposed to pick me up five minutes earlier. I knew only that he was A. male and B. a practitioner of Umbanda, the voodoo-esque religion that originated in Brazil.

Antonio, according to the plans we made the day before, was to take me to Portugal's Sacred Temple of Umbanda, where I would see two rituals performed by its proprietor, the Babalorixa Pedro de Ogum, or Pai (father) Pedro for short.

Thanks to my two years of working with Umbandistas in Brazil, my expectation was of a country bumpkin who might suggest I ride in the bed of the truck with the chickens, but that impression went out the window when my contact pulled up in a new Fiat and introduced himself in perfect English.

Soon I learned that Antonio, an engineer who spoke eight languages, was new to Umbanda, having been introduced to it by his wife, Iara, just months before. What really intrigued me, however, was the way he spoke of a belief that would likely be dismissed as ridiculous in many circles.

"Umbanda is the most complete religion that I've found, and believe me, I've studied a lot of them," he said. "I took a lot of time to get to know the ins and outs of Umbanda before I joined, and this is what makes sense to me. It's amazing. You'll see."


Thirty minutes later we arrived at an ordinary-looking building that could have passed for a small but comfortable bungalow. It was situated in the midst of an impressive garden with exotic plants and waterfalls, all of which, I was told, were chosen to appease entities invoked there.

We were greeted enthusiastically by Pai Pedro, a white-clad thirty something with a striking resemblance to Randy Quaid circa 1989. Determined to teach me everything there is to know about Umbanda, Pai Pedro gave me a crash course on the subject. I tried to keep up, but hours later I still barely knew the difference between an Exu and a Pomba Gira.

“Umbanda is all about helping people,” Pai Pedro explained. “We turn to spirits to find solutions to our problems. The nature of the problem determines which spirit we invoke.”

By the end of our conversation, Pai Pedro's followers, or “children,” had arrived. As I watched them greet each other like high society types at a baby shower, I again noted that these people were definitely not the stereotypical dregs of society come to sacrifice chickens in the slums of Rio. These were business owners and bankers, college professors and psychologists. I felt a bit silly being the only person present without a postgraduate degree.

The banter continued until everyone had changed from ordinary attire to white pyjamas similar to those of Pai Pedro. Once all were ready, we entered the temple and formed a semicircle around a white altar, which was surrounded by both African and Catholic artefacts and watched over by a white porcelain figure of Jesus, his arms extended as if to embrace us.

The altar illustrated, albeit unintentionally, the history of Umbanda, which started in Africa and was brought to Brazil by the slave trade. Forced to convert to Catholicism, the slaves instead incorporated the Catholic Saints into the existing hierarchy of African Spirits, thus creating a monotheistic religion that is as linked to the Vatican as it is to the Congo.

The room was pin-drop quiet initially, but then began the drumming and chanting, which reverberated off the walls and the floor of the tiny room until it seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once. The music, combined with the dancing of the white-clad congregation, nearly had me swaying back and forth in unison.

Suddenly, one woman began to shake like a broken washing machine stuck on spin. She was a medium, I was told, a person who loaned her body to an entity in order to give supernatural advice to those present via one-on-one conversations held off to the side. I soon discovered that while incorporado, or possessed, the medium's voice, gait, and mannerisms change, presumably because the spirit is in complete control of the individual's body.

Those who aren't yet spiritually developed enough to act as mediums can also receive entities, though they generally lack the control and verbal capacity of their more developed counterparts. At one point or another almost everyone gave in, contorting his or her body into one awkward position after another, pounding incessantly on the floor, or furiously spinning with the single-mindedness of a dog determined to chase—and catch—its tail.

“The entity is trying to get a feel for the body,” explained Pai Pedro. “Think of it as trying on a new coat. You put it on, and then you want to move around to see how it feels.”


When we where hashing out the details of my trip, Pai Pedro insisted that I visit the temple twice: first to see a “right” ritual, like the one described above, which invokes the entities who represent mankind's positive qualities, and again for a “left” ritual, which involves utilising those spirits who embody our vices to rid the congregation of negative energy.

“We need to have balance in all aspects of our lives,” said Pai Pedro. “We can't go around pretending these qualities don't exist. We have to address them, and this is how we do it.”

He waited for nightfall to begin the left-leaning ritual, which made the previous night's event seem about as strange as a sewing circle. Cellophane-covered lights bathed the room in a red glow and accented the decorative changes Pai Pedro had made since my last visit. The figurine of Jesus had been replaced by a large eight-pointed star, and the walls and windows had been covered with bright red or jet black fabric. Stylised pitchforks were plentiful, as were black candles and food offerings for the entities. The worshippers, all of whom were dressed richly yet provocatively, matched the colour scheme, which gave the event a gothic, Tim Burton-esque flavour.

“The (female spirits) on these grounds are very sexual, very sensual,” explained Pai Pedro just before the drumming and chanting began. “We're always careful to buy only the clothes the entities want. It's one of the ways of the spirits expressing themselves”

This ritual featured three mediums channelling entities, though bumping and grinding with an invisible partner had largely replaced the shaking and spinning of the night before. At one point, one fell to the ground, only to throw her head back in a fit of hysterical laughter. All three would spend the next two hours smoking cigarettes, drinking champagne, and aiming “come hither” looks at anyone who made eye contact. They also dispensed advice, often without solicitation from the party concerned. One entity, apparently sensing my chronic inability to keep a girlfriend, provided me with a red rose to help me woo “the woman I like the most.”

Once again, the other worshippers periodically loaned their bodies to the nearby spiritual entities, but rather than shaking or pounding on the floor, most of the women tended to dance seductively while their male counterparts alternated between howling and laughing maniacally. Occasionally an entity would demand a cigar or an alcoholic beverage, and there were plenty of both on hand to satisfy their cravings.

Following the Dionysian ritual, they chatted outside the temple until well after midnight as they waited for their heads to clear and their strength to return. I was exhausted when I finally made it back to my hotel around 3:00 AM, but my still-reeling mind made sleep difficult.


Over the years, I've seen God(s) worshipped in all kinds of different ways. I've felt the burden of Catholic guilt and had the demon of Mormonism cast out of me by well-meaning but totally unhinged evangelicals. Once I even sat in on a waterlogged service of the “Surfers in Christ,” but never have I seen a group that enjoyed their religion as much as the Umbandistas.

Although I found parts of the rituals strange and even scary, the positive effects they had on the congregation were undeniable. Those who arrived tired and stressed from a long day's work left upbeat and relaxed. Whereas some religious people (myself included) actively look for excuses to skip a church service, these Umbandistas bend over backwards to avoid missing a ritual.

“I'm here every week, at least once a week,” said one member. “If I get caught up at work and I can't come, it throws everything off. It just feels like something is missing.”

Pai Pedro knows how important his temple is to those who attend his rituals, and is fully aware that for him, a mid-life career change is simply not in the cards.

“There are people counting on me to be here when they need help,” he says. “I couldn't pack up and leave if I wanted to. This is definitely a life-long calling that I've been given, but I'm okay with that. There's nothing I'd rather be doing.”

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood