Umbanda: 10 Facts About The Afrobrazilian Religion

Did you know that the Brazilian religion Umbanda is one of the most inclusive faiths of all time?

Apr 5, 2024By Agnes Theresa Oberauer, BA Drama & Philosophy

umbanda facts afrobrazilian religion


Umbanda is a Brazilian religion that brings together elements of Candomblé, Spiritism, and Christianity. Its practitioners believe in a Supreme God, various deities, and a large number of intermediary spirits. They also believe in reincarnation and that every human is a medium. While some sources claim that Umbanda was officially founded by Zélio Fernandino de Moras in 1908, others argue that it emerged as a natural evolution of Candomblé. Read on to learn 10 facts about this fascinatingly eclectic religion.


1. Umbanda Is Said to Be Less Than 100 Years Old

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


While everybody agrees that Umbanda is a fairly recent phenomenon in Brazil´s melting pot of cultural influences, some scholars have even given the religion an official founding date: The 15th of November 1908. On top of that, the myth around Umbanda´s creation and its alleged founder is as heart-warmingly strange as it is entertaining.


The seventeen-year-old Zélio Fernandino was set on joining the Brazilian Marine Corps but was suddenly overcome by a strange paralysis. After a few days of being bedridden, the young man suddenly announced that he would be cured the next day. It turned out that he was right. The following morning he got out of bed as if nothing had happened. The family was dumbfounded by the incident and proceeded to take him to various Catholic priests, none of whom could give an explanation for what had occurred. Unable to find answers in the realm of Christianity, the family proceeded to take him to a psychic in Rio.


According to the story, the medium holding the session was visited by various African and Indigenous spirits. But the medium holding the session did not allow these spirits to manifest, declaring that they were “backwards”.

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As it turned out, the spirits were no longer willing to be subject to racist discrimination. A spirit which identified itself as Caboclo of the Seven Crossroads entered the body of the young Zélio and made the following announcement:


“If you call the spirits of blacks and indigenous people backward, I will found a cult in which they are able to pass on their message and fulfill the mission the spiritual plane has entrusted them with tomorrow. It will be a religion that speaks to the humble, symbolizing the equality that must exist between all brothers, whether they are incarnated or disembodied.  My name is Caboclo Of the Seven Crossroads. There will be no closed path for me.”


The next day, on the 15th of November in 1908, Zélio is said to have founded Umbanda. While Zélio’s visitation by a spirit and his subsequent founding of the religion definitely makes a great story, many followers of the religion have contested it. In their view, Umbanda already existed long before that date, and the idea that Umbanda was founded by a white man is nothing but a white-washing of history…


2. The Founding Spirit of Umbanda Was Murdered

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Afrobrazilian Art, Paul White, 2008. Source: Wikipedia


The founding story of Umbanda is just as unconventional as the spirit who is supposed to have founded it. According to the myth around the creation of Umbanda, the spirit responsible for starting the religion was an entity carrying the name Caboclo of the Seven Crossroads.  Upon entering into the body of Zélio, the entity identified itself as being the spirit of a deceased Portuguese priest called Gabriel Maladriga, who spent several years living in Brazil. After returning to Portugal, Gabriel Maladriga was accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake in 1761. In another life, the spirit allegedly incarnated as a Brazilian indigenous person. Given that the founding spirit is said to have lived human lives as both a Christian missionary priest and a member of an Indigenous tribe, the mix of religious influences found in Umbanda does not come as a surprise.


3. The Creation Myth Around Umbanda Has Been Contested as Racist 

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Witchcraft at Salem Village (Engraving), William A.Crafts, 1876. Source: Wikimedia


While the creation story around the Zélio Fernandino de Moraes and the Caboclo of the Seven Crossroads certainly makes a fascinating read, several researchers have contested it. For one thing, they have found evidence that Umbanda was already practiced much earlier than 1908. Even more importantly, many voices claim that linking its creation to the white Zélio Fernandino is in fact whitewashing.


Postcolonial critics argue that crediting Zélio as the founder undermines Umbanda´s African and Afrobrazilian roots. “The word Umbanda already existed for a very long time,” the priest and historian Guilherme Watanabe explained in an interview with the BBC: “It means something like the art of curing and is connected to a medicinal and spiritual practice performed by sorcerers. It was already practiced in Central Africa long ago and came to Brazil via the slave trade.”


On top of that, some sources claim that Umbanda isn’t much more than a whitewashed version of the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé. Given that the practice of Candomblé and other African rituals was not only banned during the times of slavery, but continued to be persecuted long after, it does not come as a huge surprise that its worshipers started looking for ways of making their religion more socially acceptable. Among other things, followers of what came to be known as Umbanda changed the language of worship to Portuguese and added statues of Jesus Christ and various Christian saints to their altars.


The so-called white-washing of Umbanda can therefore be understood as both a result of and a fight against oppression. It also led to the emergence of a religion that is incredibly inclusive: Umbanda does not discriminate against people of minorities and its merging together of different belief systems has attracted quite a large following: While Candomblé is said to have around 170 000 followers in Brazil, Umbanda´s more relaxed approach has attracted over 400 000 people, proving that the mixing together of various belief systems is very much in accord with the spirit of our time.


4. Umbanda is a Religion Based on the Belief in Orixás

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Maria da Guia, a medium of the terreiro Tenda Espírita Vovó Maria Conga de Aruanda. Source: Wikipedia


Followers of the Umbanda religion worship the so-called Orixás—divinities associated with the powers of nature. According to the belief system of Umbanda, Candomblé, and various other religions, the Orixás were tasked with creating and looking after planet Earth by a Supreme Being called Olodumarê. The most well-known Orixás are the Afrobrazilian sea goddess Iemanjá, the God of fire Xangô, and Oxalá, the creator of humans.


During the times of slavery, the Afrobrazilian slaves were not allowed to openly practice the religion they had brought over from their native land. But this did not stop them from following their faith. They simply pretended to be worshiping the Catholic saints, while they were actually worshipping the Orixás. This is yet another reason why Umbanda carries traces of various African religions and those of the Christian faith.


5. Followers of Umbanda Believe in Reincarnation, Spirits and Mediumship 

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Song For Ogum, by Sidney Amaral, 2012. Source: Museu Afro Brasic, Sao Paolo


On top of believing in various gods and entities, Umbanda practitioners believe in reincarnation. In their view, planet Earth is just one of many planes where souls incarnate. They also believe that some evolved spirits chose to serve and help humanity. These spirits may do this in various subtle ways, one of which involves entering a human medium as a way of giving advice and healing. Umbandistas believe that while some mediums are more evolved or naturally talented than others, mediumship is an ability that can be developed by anyone. Umbanda ceremonies involve drumming and dancing, which is conducive to entering into a trance and becoming possessed by a spirit. The religious leaders of Umbanda also offer training in mediumship to its participants.


6. Umbanda Ceremonies Involve Entities Representing Oppressed Minorities 

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Map No.2 Paradise, by Jens Lausen, 1969. Source: Tate Modern, London


While practitioners of Umbanda worship a Supreme Creator and African nature-gods called Orixás, they do not communicate with these spiritual beings directly.  Instead, Umbanda ceremonies center on the possession of participants by various lower spirits, who serve as messengers between the human world and the spirit world.  There are several types of entities which are said to manifest themselves during Umbanda ceremonies.  These include the Caboclos, who are thought to be the spirits of Indigenous people who have returned to the world to help people with health issues. Umbanda mediums also frequently get possessed by the so-called Pretos Velhos (Old Blacks). Other types of entities involved in Umbanda ceremonies involve the Baianos (the spirits of former residents of Bahia), Marineiros (the spirits of seamen), the spirits of children, and a group of vagabond spirits called Malandros. The latter are known to be the protectors of addicts, sex workers and other members of society who have been forgotten, vilified, or abused.


Umbanda mediums also frequently get possessed by the so-called Pretos Velhos (Old Blacks). These are believed to be Afrobrazilian slaves that have turned into disembodied spirits and are now able to give great life advice to whoever seeks it. Umbanda ceremonies often involve possession by former residents of Bahia and the spirits of seamen. While the Baianos are said to support people facing issues around health and employment, the spirits of seamen speak the truth and help purify the spirit. Other types of spirits who make themselves present in Umbanda ceremonies are playful, child-like spirits called Erês, and a group of vagabond spirits called Malandros. They are the protectors of addicts, sex workers, and members of society who have been forgotten, vilified, or abused.


7. Some of Umbanda Spirits Are Said to Be Feminist 

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Women’s protest on the day against state violence. 2013. Source: Wikimedia Commons


When it comes to protecting the marginalized, Umbanda knows no borders. While many of our world’s religions propagate patriarchal values and discriminate against women, Umbanda practitioners believe in a whole group of spirits dedicated to the fight for emancipation. The so-called Pomba-Giras are thought to be the spirits of women who fought against oppression during their lifetime.


One of these is Maria Padilha, the lover of Dom Pedro I de Castela, the former king of Portugal. During a time when women had little to say in public life, the equally seductive and empowered Maria Padilha is said to have advised him on politics, even causing him to abandon his strategic marriage with a French princess. Along with other Pomba Giras, the spirit of Maria Padilha is said to support women who refuse submission to social norms. They represent independence and sexual freedom and are said to help women fight oppression in all forms.


8. Each Spirit and God Is Evoked with a Unique Rhythm and Song 

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


The so-called Pontos are specific songs aimed at praising, calling, and saying goodbye to the Orixás and entities.  As the list of deities and entities is long, it takes practitioners a lot of time to learn the songs and rhythms related to each entity. Using instruments like the atabaque, the practitioners of Umbanda create drumming patterns aimed at honoring and calling the spirits. They also use candles and paint symbols on the ground to evoke the arrival of entities.


9. Both Women and Men Can Serve as Religious Leaders 

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Umbanda Ceremony, 2004. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Apart from believing in a founding God, the Orixás, and a long list of other entities, Umbanda practitioners believe in the values of social, racial, and gender equality. This is not only reflected in the colorful range of entities who populate the belief system of Umbanda but also in the fact that both men and women can occupy the position of Pai De Santo (Father Of Saints) or Mãe De Santo (Mother of Saints).  But this is not all: Umbanda is known to openly welcome people of different sexual orientations and gender identifications. Anyone can become a priest or a medium.


10. Umbanda is persecuted up to this day 

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Umbanda, by Fran Alavina, 2020. Source: Outraspalavras


Despite its mix of Christian, indigenous, and African influences, Umbanda is a religion mostly associated with the Afrobrazilian population of Brazil. Between 1934 and 1950, all religious activities were placed under the jurisdiction of the police. This forced many Umbandistas to go underground or register themselves as spiritists instead.


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Slave Market in Pernambuco, by Augustus Earle and Edward Francis Finden, 1824. Source: Museu Afrobrazil, Sao Paolo


Be that as it may: Like samba, capoeira & other Brazilian practices rooted in Africa, Umbanda is an expression of Brazil’s eclectic cultural mix. It is also a symbol of the Afrobrazilian battle for equality and freedom in a country where slavery was only abolished in 1888. And while the shape Umbanda has taken on over time can be partially traced back to the need to circumvent colonial and racist oppression, it is also a testament to the beauty that emerges when different religions, cultural practices and belief systems join hands in peace.

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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.