What Is the Difference Between Candomblé and Umbanda?

Brazilian religions Umbanda and Candomblé both have their roots in the religious practices of various African tribes, but only one of them involves animal sacrifice.

Apr 4, 2024By Agnes Theresa Oberauer, BA Drama & Philosophy
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When the enslaved people from Africa were brought over the Atlantic to work in Brazilian coffee farms, they carried their cultural practices and religious beliefs with them. Today, practices like capoeira and samba have become an integral part of Brazilian culture. But did you know that the Afrobrazilian religions Candomblé and Umbanda also have their origins in the slave trade?

 

1. Umbanda and Candomblé Have Their Roots in the Slave Trade

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Santo Amaro, Tiago Celestino, 2019. Source: Unsplash

 

Due to the similarities in their belief systems, Umbanda and Candomblé are often thrown in the same pot. Both of them involve belief in a supreme God and several nature deities. But while Candomblé remains closely linked to its African roots, Umbanda presents a mixture of Christian, African, and Spiritist beliefs. There are both similarities and differences between these fascinating religions.

 

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Dinner, by Jean Baptiste Debret, 1839. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

During the Transatlantic Slave Trade, over 5.5 million Africans were captured, moved to Brazil, and forced to work in the coffee and sugar plantations of the New World. Brazil was not only the last country to abolish slavery but also the country that imported the highest number of slaves. Therefore, its very foundation was built on the forced labor of Africans and the Indigenous inhabitants of South America.

 

When the African slaves arrived in Brazil, they brought their cultural practices and religious beliefs with them. The combination and intermixing of different African rituals gave rise to a religion that came to be known as Candomblé. Later on, another religion called Umbanda was born.

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2. Both Candomblé and Umbanda Mix Different Belief Systems

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Practitioners of Candomblé. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

As the enslaved people were forbidden from practicing their religions in public, they started doing so in secret. To avoid punishment, they pretended to be praying to the Christian saints, while worshiping their own gods. According to some accounts, they even went as far as hiding statues of their deities inside the statues of Catholic saints. Their proximity to Indigenous people who had been enslaved alongside them also led to the adoption of some Native American practices and beliefs. All of these factors contributed to the formation of Candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian religion that brought together African, European, and South American influences.

 

Umbanda is generally thought to be a newer and much more dilated version of African beliefs. While some sources claim that Umbanda’s roots lie in the 19th century, it was officially founded in 1908. It brings together elements of Candomblé, Spiritism, and Christianity and is centered around the possession of mediums by various spirits. While Umbanda adopted many aspects of Candomblé, some have criticized it for being a whitewashed version of its mother religion.

 

3. Practitioners Believe In a Supreme Being and Orixás

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Mural Dos Orixás, 2019. Source: Museu Afrobrazileiro UFBA, Salvador

 

Both Umbanda and Candomblé are monotheistic religions, in the sense that their followers believe in a Supreme God. In the belief system of Umbanda, this Supreme Being is referred to by the name Olorum or Olodumaré, while Candomblistas use the names Mawu-Lissá and Zambi. This Supreme Being is neither male nor female and it’s seen as the source of everything, including several lower deities called Orixás. The Orixás are Gods representing the forces of nature, as well as different universal themes and human characteristics. They include the Ocean-Goddess Iemanja, and the Creator-God Oxalá, who is reverenced as the creator of the universe and representative of the sun.

 

But while the Orixás form part of the cosmology of Umbanda and Candomblé, there are some differences. Umbandistas limit their worship to nine Orixás, while the followers of Candomblé pay homage to twelve or more main deities. But this is not the only difference. In Candomblé, each practitioner is thought to be associated with a particular Orixá, who mirrors the qualities of that person and acts as a guiding spirit. Another key difference lies in the fact that participants of Candomblé ceremonies are said to become possessed by their guiding Orixá, while Umbandistas believe that the Orixás only communicate with humans through intermediary spirits.

 

4. Umbanda Rituals Differ from Candomblé’s

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Preto Velhos, Rodrigo Queiroz, 2022. Source: Terra

 

Both Umbanda and Candomblé use music, drumming, and dancing as a way of entering into a trance which is conducive to possession. Once a spirit or Orixá has entered the practitioner, it will often give advice, healing, and prophecies. How this occurs can differ depending on the occasion and place, Candomblistas largely use a practice called jogo de buzió that involves the throwing of shells and the interpretation of the resulting patterns. In contrast, Umbandistas often receive prophecies and advice directly from the mouth of the possessed person.

 

One of the biggest differences between Umbanda and Candomblé lies in the fact that the rituals of Umbanda do not involve possession by the Orixás. Instead, participants of Umbanda ceremonies get possessed by various intermediary spirits, who are said to be the deceased souls of various minority groups. The most well-known of these messenger spirits are the Pretos Velhos, who are thought to be the souls of African slaves and the Caboclos, who are believed to be the spirits of Indigenous people who used to live in the Amazon rainforest. While practitioners of Candomblé also believe in these lower spirits and may even become possessed by them, they do not depend on the intermediary presence of these spirits. In this sense, one could say that Candomblistas go straight to the source, while Umbandistas rely on intermediaries when it comes to communicating with Orixás.

 

5. Candomblé’s Rituals Involve Animal Sacrifice

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The Sacrificial Lamp, by Josefa de Ayala, ca. 1670-1684. Source: The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

 

A key difference between Umbanda and Candomblé lies in the fact that practitioners of Candomblé are known for animal sacrifices. Food is an essential part of every Candomblé ceremony. The religious community uses animal sacrifices, as well as the offering of food and other items, as a way of giving thanks to the Orixás. They also believe that the spirit of the slaughtered animal can serve as a messenger.

 

While the ritualistic killing of goats, chickens, or roosters as part of Candomblé ceremonies is controversial, practitioners of the faith are quick to point out that the Western meat industry is much more cruel. Apart from the fact that animals are killed quickly and painlessly, nothing goes to waste—the meat of the animal is cooked and distributed among the practitioners or shared by the local community, while the skin and bones are used to build instruments and ornaments. Back in the day, Candomblé ceremonies were sometimes the only occasions when its practitioners would get to eat a meal. So, while the slaughter of animals was done for religious reasons, it also served to feed the community.

 

6. There Are No Sacred Texts in Candomblé and Umbanda

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100 Years of Candomblé in São Gonzalo, Roberto Abreu, 2010. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

While religions like Christianity or Islam refer to holy scriptures, Candomblé and Umbanda are oral traditions that are not passed on in written form. There is no bible or holy scripture, meaning that one cannot truly learn about or understand these religions without experiencing them firsthand. The practices and beliefs of both religions are held in the memory of the elders, making each practitioner a living container of religious knowledge.

 

This way of passing on sacred knowledge presents a continuation of the African cultural and religious practices of the past. It also prevents this sacred knowledge from being censored, destroyed, or publicly criticized. There is no official text to refer to, so it’s more difficult to attack the belief system of Umbanda and Candomblé. Throughout history, both religions have been persecuted and demonized. Still, Candomblistas and Umbandistas have kept their traditions alive by safeguarding their ancestral knowledge in the rhythms, songs, and hearts of its practitioners.

 

7. Umbanda Uses Portuguese, While Candomblé Uses Various African languages

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Orixa Statues. Source: Brazil Travel Selection

 

While both religions use songs and drumming as a way of contacting the spirits, Umbanda ceremonies are held in Portuguese. In contrast, the rituals and songs of Candomblé involve the use of African languages like Yorúba and Kimbundu. By holding on to the ancestral languages, Candomblé keeps the connection to its African roots alive.

 

8. Candomblé is More Hierarchical and Strict Than Umbanda 

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Tenda Espírita Vovó Maria Conga de Aruanda, 2016. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

While Candomblé and Umbanda allow both women and men to hold positions of religious leadership, making them less patriarchal than Christianity or Islam, they are not free from hierarchy. In Candomblé, a lot of respect is given to the people who have practiced the religion for a long time or hold a higher rank. Being a much newer religion, Umbanda tends to be a lot more relaxed.

 

A male Candomblé priest is known as an Bablorixá, while female priestesses are called Iyalorixá. In contrast, Umbanda priests and priestesses are generally known as Pai de Santo and Mãe de Santo respectively.  While anyone is allowed to participate in Candomblé ceremonies, people who are serious about the religion will undergo a seven-year initiation process. Only people chosen by an Orixá are allowed to join. This usually happens by a spontaneous possession of the individual during a ceremony. Alternatively, the Orixá will pass on the message via the seashell oracle (jogo de buzió).

 

Once a candidate has been chosen, the first phase of initiation starts. During this phase the participant is not allowed to sit on chairs, he has to dress in white and may only eat with his hands. This is followed by various other phases of initiation, which include head-shaving, spending 21 days in isolation, and being anointed with the blood of a sacrificed animal. Given that the entire process takes seven years and one has to follow very strict rules, it takes a high level of commitment from the practitioner.

 

Umbanda is a lot less structured when it comes to welcoming and initiating new participants. Umbandistas believe that everybody is a medium. People interested in developing their ability to serve as a medium can take part in special training.

 

9. Practitioners of Candomblé and Umbanda Call Their Heaven Aruanda 

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Afrobrazilian Art, Paul White, 2008. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

When the enslaved people from Africa were moved across the Atlantic, many of them left the continent from the port city of Luanda. Over time, this real-world place turned into a mystical memory of the distant past, which the enslaved people and their descendants came to call Aruanda. Today, you will find references to Aruanda in many Afro-Brazilian songs, and it has come to be understood as a kind of paradise or heaven in both Umbanda and Candomblé.

 

10. Practitioners of Candomblé and Umbanda Continue to Be Misunderstood 

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Initiation and Passage Rite Of Candomblé. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

According to official sources, there are around 170,000 persons practicing Candomblé in Brazil, while Umbanda has around 400,000 followers. Despite being legal, both Umbanda and Candomblé continue to be met with a lot of prejudice and discrimination, which is why some of its members keep their faith private. While the practice of Umbanda and Candomblé presents less of a risk than it did during the times of slavery, the shadow of oppression lives on.

 

Many members of Brazilian society continue to think of these faiths as being connected to witchcraft.  It is also very common for members of Brazilian society to refer to any African and Brazilian rituals as Macumba, implying that it is a kind of black magic. When meeting this kind of prejudice, it is important to be aware that the roots of such beliefs lie in the slave trade, colonization, and the Christian Inquisition. Despite being viewed with suspicion by mainstream society, the impact of Umbanda and Candomblé on Brazilian culture cannot be underestimated. Many of the rhythms found in popular Brazilian music have their roots in the rituals of Umbanda, Candomblé, and other Afro-Brazilian practices, proving that the power of music can circumvent the strictest censorship and oppression.

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By Agnes Theresa OberauerBA Drama & PhilosophyAgnes Theresa completed her BA in Drama and Philosophy at the Royal Holloway University of London in 2014 and is currently finishing her MA in Physical Theatre Performance Making at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre. She works internationally as a writer, performance artist, theatre director, and performer. Born in Austria, she has lived in six countries (Russia, Ukraine, Austria, Germany, Estonia, and the UK) and traveled many more, always seeking to expand her horizons and challenge her preconceptions. Her interests range from Greek philosophy to capoeira, posthumanism, and Nietzsche.