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."

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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.”

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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.

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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.”