Arquivo da Categoria: Fotografias

Catholicism and Anthropology


The interest of Anthropology in Catholicism and Christianization dates from the 1900’s, since until then that encounter was often ignored because anthropologists were seeking just for the “odd” or “exotic” in their research field (and here I quote Goldman, 2009, saying that “the addiction and the limitation of seeing what we define as ‘common’ points out to a blindness toward ourselves  since we are the ones that define what the other is or is not pp 112), because of a lack of bibliography in that area or also because of a lack of theoretical tools to enable us to think about the cultural discontinuity implicit in this “Christianization” process (cf. Cannell, 2005; Kee, 1993).

This “blindness” becomes still more evident when we have as subjects of our observations the black communities (I will deal here especially with those communities in the  rural context, which gives them the title re-signified by we anthropologists, as “quilombos), since the Brazilian population, so used to the slave process that has maintained its traces in social relations until the present and ended up by classifying as “inherent” certain practices that were appropriated, thereby causing a lack of interest in respect for instance to the Catholic (and Christian) practices duly adopted by these communities from the Portuguese colonizers.

I am not saying that those appropriations are “inadequate”. Quite the contrary, I would like to point out to our brief reflection on these intense and constant processes during those centuries of Catholic presence/religious practice of black-African matrix.

Unlike the groups who found Christianity for the first time through Missions, like the Brazilian Indians, the quilombolas communities sometimes had a s very close relation with Catholicism since Africa (if we think specially about the bantos, who had contact with the Portuguese Catholicism around the 15th century, even before the “discovery” of Brazil and the following slave trade to the New World (Jadin, 1963, Thorton, 1998)), this fact makes the way they redeveloped the Christian practices specific.

It is as important to stress that, because of this historical context, it is not possible to think about the presence of Catholicism in these areas only through explanatory models that understand conversion as a unilateral “exchange” that will benefit the “natives” through the possession of new technologies and goods (Vilaca, 2008), offered by the Catholic side, since those supposed “benefits” were never very evident or large enough in dealing with “black’s lands”.

We can say that, at least in the Western Lowland of Maranhão (area of this ethnographic study), the Catholic presence was much greater through the insertion of models of life and production, reflected in the way as they start to think about territorial disposition, for instance, than properly through material goods.

This partially explains how the traditional cosmological views were worked out, since not only these communities present an intrinsic heterogeneity (the so-called “quilombolas” today were slaves and their descendents, from more than a hundred ethnic groups, some with more some with less contact with Catholicism) as well as their relation with the internal and traditional concepts, are multiples. (verificar texto em português?)

As an example of these relations are the cures effected by the local “pajes”.  At the Brazilian Indian communities the ineffectiveness of the traditional knowledge is checked when occur the contact between the white men and Indians (white missionaries bringing the allopathic medicine and “curing”) because the Indians died “ (…) even is they have completed all the necessary tabus and rituals, something indicated that the traditional spirits or deities were impotent or angry.  If the medicine of the white man cured them, they attribute the cure to the power of the God and the missionaries explicit this association” (Vilaça, 2008:190).

In the black communities, this relation is not of exclusion, like that related above, but of appropriation: if the pajes failed it is because the charmed “knew why they do it” and many times they indicate allopathic medicine. Therefore, they are not opposing universes but there is a continuity. The pajes of Maranhao appropriate allopathic medicine and prescribe it together with the spiritual cures and other works that involve non-material medicines.

Therefore, this pattern of conversion that understands the local interest by Christianity as a symptom of disturbing contacts between two realities (the Western and the traditional views) and that brings as a consequence distortion of what really is, can be useful for other realities (although many people disagree, such as Pollock, 1993), but not to the quilombolas, since the conversion of which I treat here is secular and already highly consolidated.

As anthropology  has in recent decades encountered the growing phenomenon of “Christianization” (to give an example of Brazil, today, virtually all villages in the Legal Brazilian Amazon have some kind of missionary presence, whether Catholic or Protestant, cf ISA, 2009), there is no way to turn a blind eye to the issue, and this phenomenon has been addressed in ways that differ from former approaches that view such process only as a “a cultural loss/mischaracterization”, without trying to understand the reasons for the infiltration and absorption of Catholicism/Protestantism by these communities.

Enchanted and Catholic: old acquaintances

The Paje’s terreiros of this ethnography are located in the municipality of Guimarães on extreme northwest of the state of Maranhão.  Almost all of them are located in the rural zone and inside quilombolas communities.

These communities, usually are acquainted with the Catholic presence not only through the colonial heritage (old owners of the local farms) but also in the institutionalized way, through the missions and the fixed and physical presence of a “Catholic priest” that lived in the community  at a prior time with the presence of jesuits and missionaires that migrated with the colonizers and nowadays through the CEB’s (basic ecclesiastic communities), “branch” of the CPT (Comissão Pastoral da Terra), both connected to the Catholic church.

In the case of the municipality of Guimarães, the Catholic presence is still marked in our days by the presence of a priest that is the Mayor, “father William”, that besides to expedite in his office during the week, says Sunday Mass, baptizes in the rural communities and gives extreme unction.

Founded during the military dictatorship, in response to the plight of rural workers in Brazil, the CPT played an important political role in these communities.

Alias, the presence of the church in a rural Brazilian has been instrumental in the struggles for land and labor rights of rural farmers. This sociological side of Catholic action, also determined the performance of the rites and cultural processes. So much so that the very notion of “popular culture”and “popular Catholicism” are diffuse concepts, never well defined or understood, eventually encompass multiple and varied processes.

Closely related to these processes is the Second Vatican Council (drawn up between 1962 and 1965) that prepared a new vision of the “man of the land” in Brasil, causing a real transformation in today’s called “quilombos” and pointing to a new position of the Catholic Church over his “flock” that ceases to be passive and is being designed as a product of their own actions. This position will require a change of direction: if the churches preached the gospel before, they now go to “indigenized”, as occurred with the creation of the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI), in the early ’70s. The church in this context comes to assimilate to the evangelizing, changing its discourse from the otherness to constitute itself the otherness. Thus, the voice of those who preach and who claimed is the same and the agency becomes opaque.

Between the 70’s and the 80’s, just when the black movement begins to take shape in America and Brazil, the so called “Mission Actions” of the CNBB (Confederação Nacional dos Bispos do Brasil) were already discussing what mant “being black in the Catholic Church in Brazil” as well as the assimilation by the church of part of the so called “african culture”. One of these “assimilations” was the permission to dance during Mass, approved by the Liturgical Pastoral Guide, p. 90, CNBB:

Dancing in the liturgy, is to express and experience the mystery celebrated in the dynamism of the Spirit of the Risen One who immerses us in the Jesus movement. It let the same Spirit harmonize our being, our relationships with others, with the universe and the Lord, making us one body, a celebrating community “

As pointed Hoornaert (1992), the “Mass of Quilombo” held in Recife (capital of Pernambuco, Brazil) in 1981 was a decisive moment in Brazilian history, which no longer point out the “quilombolas” as subjects crystallized in the past and started to be seen as participants in this revolutionary present.

“From that day on, many communities and groups of African descent have continued to this beautiful and demanding initiative.  This (mass of the Quilombos) happened two years after the Conference of Puebla (1979) where the Latin-American and Caribean Churches assumed the preferencial option by the poor people that were mainly afro descendents and inviting to the recognition of Christ’s suffering features in their’s suffering features: “ in whose we should recognize Christ’s suffering features: indian features and frequetly afro-american feactures, that lived segregarte and in inhuman conditions, may be considerate as the poores between the poor” (Puebla 34) apud Casaldáliga.

These facts made the Catholic Church the forerunner of today’s discussions about the social reality of the black people in Brasil that came to light only a few years latter either by the public/juridic power (Constitution 1988) or by academic/anthropological discussions.

The subject of the Catholic presence in the quilombos always disturbed me since my first field incursions in Maranhão still in the early 90’s. Nevertheless I only start giving more attention to it after a talk with a Paje of Vura’s village in Guimarães, during a tambor offered in Senhor Carmo’s “barracão”, when he was “espiritado with Caçará, a “caboclo”, or “enchanted” of João da Mata’s family.

From this moment on I start observing the Catholic discourse from inside the Paje (or Tambor de Mina) and from now on I shall do small reports  with the aim of constructing the argument that the Catholic presence in these contexts is something endogenous, processed by the community as “local culture” and at the same time “national” therfore in this game of “inside” and “outside” is established a strong discourse between the widest convept of culture and its transformations throughout centuries in this communities.  For instance, still in the present the “Holly Missions” implanted in Northeast of Brasil since the colonial period and acting in the quilombos are a part of the religious calendar of the terreiros de Mina and Pajé.  Each year a “theme” is proposed and it is synthetized in a “slogan” proposed by the Church.

In Guimarães (and in all the Lowland) this theme became part of the everyday life of the local people and the clerigy: could be materialized in the  embroidery of the Bumba Bois that went out to pay a promise to Saint John Baptist for a grace achieved. This themes are discussed by groups of young people, lidership of the quilombos and in the “terreiros” of Mina and Pajé. They also can be used as “advise” from an enchanted to a consultant during a “tambor”.

Therefore, it was through the ritual compromise between the continuity of the form and the rupture of the content that the new pastoral was able to produce adherence to a theology turned to questions of power and land meeting  the desires of these specific communities as well as in colonial times as in contemporarity.

 Of tambor and mass

The day before the Tambor  offered by Mr. Carmo on September 6, 2005, I went visiting him in his village (Vura), 12 kilometres from the so called “sede”, that is the urban zone of Guimarães.

I went for a religious consult. I entered his little consult room, next to the Barracão. Before the consult Mr Carmo showed me his “Boi” (Bumba Boi), that he uses to “play” on the holiday of St John, in offer to his enchanted.

Mr. Carmo was well known in the place because he was a “witch”, and people knew that those who came visiting him intended to do or give back “evil”.  At the beginning of the consulting with Caboclo Caçará I asked him if he (Caboclo Caçará) could be seen by anyone and also if he could only do “evil” to those.

He imedately answered surprised and offended: – I am enchanted, but I am a catholic! As if to confirm his “whitness” side in religion, granted by the qualifying adjetive catholic.

What he wanted to say, and to make it clear, was that, thou he could practice some “whimsy” (joke, mokery, as the people of Maranhão says), he doesn’t have the right to practice “evil” because he is a catholic and is baptized even though he was an enchanted!

Enchanted are the spirits of people who once lived, but did not die, or in Prandi’s words (2001), got “enchanted”, and began living in the invisible world, returning to the world of men in the body of its initiators, in ritual trance. The enchanted come to earth, get down in the “guma” (terreiro) to dance and live together with the mortals, manifesting in the minds of their children or initiated, or “croa” (crown), as they say in the mina, setting with all who attend to the terreiros a loving and customer’s relationship.“


Therefore they can materialize in places as headwaters of rivers, tree trunks, shells or calabashes, what reminded us of the notion of “distributed people” or “extension” (Gell, 1998), although this autor did better references to possessed objects as an extention of the owner, and here seems to be a metamorphosis, a simbiosis, not only the extension.

In Tambor de Mina and Pajé de Guimarães terreiros the so called “African” entities (voduns and orixás) live side by side with caboclos and nobles. Ferretti (2003) points out to one exception of the Casa das Minas, in the capital, São Luis, where the caboclos do not “come down”. 

Clearly this sort of enchanted who are gentlemen, voduns or caboclos is very weak: in a particular terreiro an enchanted can appear as a caboclo, in another, may present a particular vodum of a determined “nation” (Cabinda, for example). This “flexibility is reported by both Ferreti (in many texts) and by Silva (1976).

In any case, it is worth noting the songs of these houses to better understand the integration of Catholicism in the local religious  everyday. The song shows clearly the importance of baptism, the Catholic iniciation of the “caboclo”(enchanted/entity).  See:


caboclo when baptized

can come down in any place

he greets the zambi first

then he turns and starts work

In Lençois beach, in the coast of Maranhão,  lives a complete family of “enchanted” kings and nobles, and the famous character Dom Sebastião that died in the battle of Alcacer Quibir is also part of this “family of Lençol”.

When the battle was lost and a few years passed his ship eventually came to the coast of Maranhão, to this bay with large extension of sand, the “Isle of Lençois”, that is symbolically the desert where the battle was fought. Now Dom Sebastião is an enchanted.

Princess Ina, princess Jandira and little Sebastian (supposed children of Dom Sebastião), Dom Luis (king of France), Dom Manuel, queen Barbara Soeira e Dom Carlos (son of Dom Luis).  Prices João Principe de Oliveira, Principe Alterado, Principe Gelim, Tói Zezinho de Maramadã, Boço Laercês and the princesses Tóia Jarina, Flora, Princesa Luzia, Princesa Rozinha, Dona Maria Antônia, Menina do Caidô, Princesa Oruana, Princesa Clara, Princesa Linda do Mar, Moça Fina de Otá, plus noblemen as Duque Marquês de Pombal, Ricardinho Rei do Mar, Barão de Guaré.

They are all enchanted, spiritual entities that live in this specific place of Maranhão (other families live in other places and each family has its kingdom and established social nets.

And the noble “family” varies according to region as in the house of Mr. Carmo they receive also Princess Maria Rita, “daughter of the Imperor” and other noblemen.

Mr. Carmo himself comments about this universe:

“I have been there (in the City of Oriental, where live enchanted that come down to his terreiro and are his guides) in dreams.

All there is beautiful. There is king, queen, comelço.  All belong to them because it is not like here, you know. There is not a cabin here, another there, no, all there is organized.” (Mr. Carmo during an interview in September of 2005)

The home of Don Sebastian (the enchanted), in turn, is identified as the Kingdom or the Palace of Queluz (although this has only been built in the eighteenth century, in the city of Sintra), which only confirms these constant reworkings of identities.

Various Pajes of the region of Guimarães say that they have been in the enchanted “Kingdom” of Dom Sebastian in their dreams. Thus, communication with the world “of there” happens also through these and not only through possessions or trances. They also say that someone who is not initiated in religion or not “prepared” to see an enchanted world will go “there”, not returned, or, returning with identity problems, not recognizing himself more like being from “here”.

No wonder Santa Luzia (saint who is associated with the line of princesses of Cura/Pajelança)., owner of the “eyes”, of vision and clairvoyance is the “saint” with greater popularity among the curemen, who begin their religious lives mostly by “dreams” and visions.

Likewise, the history shows us that dreams and visions also seem to be recurrent among the peoples of the Lower Congo (Brausio, cited in Thornton, 1998:258):

Kongo´s second Christian King Afonso was struggling for his throne against rivals whom he would later define as “pagans” when a dazzling vision of Saint James Major appeared over the battlefield and cattered his enemies.

  (…) this (vision) was recognized as miracular and valid in Portugal as well, for when in 1512 the Portuguese King ordered a coat of arms be registred for Kongo”.

There, however, the manipulation of dreams for the recognition and legitimation of power occurs in the political sphere, while with the dreams the Pajés in the Baixada Maranhense  have the ability to transit and have a social life in both “universes”.

However, these two “worlds” are not separate, because there is circulation of persons and objects between them. There is even a “partnership”: many pajés claim to be / being married to enchanted. I did hear reports of wives being jealous, or reports of partnership (with trade, for example, as in the report of Mr. Carmo, above) between those from “here” and from “there”.

Therefore, there was not only a compatibility of ways to handle and produce the Catholic religion on both sides of  the Atlantica as appropriation was intense.

Today, Catholicism is part of the rituals in all terreiros of Pajés and there is indeed an “amazement” if it is not present in the rituals, in the social practices, and also in the ontologies.

To be a “Catholic saint” may be Being a “Catholic Saint” can be only one of the faces of some enchanted that as we said before, can be kings, knights and nobles.

Therefore, João da Mata – the Caboclo da Bandeira – is a caboclo in some houses, indian and even Saint John Baptist, as in one of his doctrines.

I am the Caboclo da Bandeira

João da Mata spoken

I am the Christ’s prophet

In God’s kingdom where I was baptized.



I sought to argue, along the text, that Pajés’ Christian practices  in the Maranhão lowlands are seen as endougenous categories by the local people (its practitioners) and therefore the religious conversion models that suit some groups (especially indigenous, in Brazil) do not suit the quilombola reality.

This argument came in backed by ethnographies done in the houses and terreiros of Pajés, where the Catholic initiation (through distinctive liturgical rites, such as baptism) is fundamental to the pursuance in the cure practice of the Pajés. There is not “Pajé” without Catholicism.  And, to be a “Catholic” (or to belong to this universe) may be only one of the characteristic of some enchanted (as João da Mata that is the same Saint John Baptist).

Moreover, the Portuguese court, almost metaphorically representing Catholicism, is intensely present in Pajés, in the figure of kings, marquises, dukes,  and princesses. Thus, the image of the colonizer is the image of Catholicism

Relations between Brazil and Portugal – unlike those experienced by other Portuguese colonies, either by an early independence of Brazil (compared to other colonies), either by unique historical factors, as the presence of the Portuguese Court in Brazilian land – were decisive for the reworking of religious practices.

But more than external historical factors, the construction of notions such as “tradition” and “creativity”-  involving as much claims about the identity as the historical tours – constantly reworked and imbricated, make fundamental this game between the historical background and ethnography to the understanding of particular situations.