Umbanda Religion: History and Beliefs

Candomble Umbanda ceremony in Salvador
Candomble Umbanda ceremony in Salvador. Cigar and dancing, ceremony at Terreiro (yard) peace and love.

Phil Clarke Hill / Contributor

During the period of the transatlantic slave trade and colonization, Africans brought very little with them to the Americas and the Caribbean. Stripped of their possessions and belongings, for many enslaved Africans, the only things they were able to carry were their songs, stories, and spiritual belief systems. In an attempt to hold on to their culture and religion, enslaved peoples often combined their traditional beliefs with that of their owners in the New World; this blending led to the development of several syncretic religions. In Brazil, one of those religions was Umbanda, a mix of African beliefs, indigenous South American practice, and Catholic doctrine.

Did You Know?

  • The Afro-Brazilian religion of Umbanda can trace much of its foundation back to traditional West African practices brought to South America by enslaved peoples.
  • Practitioners of Umbanda honor a supreme creator god, Olorun, as well as orixas and other spirits.
  • Rituals may include dancing and drumming, chanting, and spirit communication work to connect with the orixas.

History and Evolution

Umbanda, an Afro-Brazilian religion, can trace much of its foundation back to traditional West African practices; enslaved people brought their traditions to Brazil with them, and over the years, melded these practices with those of the South American native population. As slaves of African descent came into more contact with colonial settlers, they began incorporating Catholicism into their practice as well. This formed what we call a syncretic religion, which is a spiritual structure formed when different cultures are assimilated together, combining their beliefs to work together in one cohesive system.

Close-Up Of Person Wearing Necklaces
Fred Pinheiro / EyeEm / Getty Images

Around the same time, other religions evolved in the Caribbean world. Practices like Santeria and Candomble took hold in various places where enslaved persons had a high population. In Trinidad and Tobago, Creole beliefs became popular, pushing back against the dominant Christian faith. All of these religious practices of the African diaspora have their origins in the traditional practices of various African ethnic groups, including the ancestors of the Bakongo, the Fon people, the Hausa, and the Yoruba.

The practice of Umbanda as it appears today likely evolved in Brazil some time in the late nineteenth century, but really took off in the early twentieth century, in Rio de Janeiro. Over the years, it spread to other parts of South America, including Argentina and Uruguay, and has formed several similar yet distinctly unique branches: Umbanda Esotéric, Umbanda d’Angola, Umbanda Jejê, and Umbanda Ketu. The practice is thriving, and it is estimated that there are at least half a million people in Brazil practicing Umbanda; that number is merely a guess, because many people don't publicly discuss their practices.

Deities

Practitioners of Umbanda honor a supreme creator god, Olorun, who is referred to as Zambi in Umbada d’Angola. Like many other African traditional religions, there are beings known as the orixas, or orishas, who are similar to those found in Yoruba religion. Some of the orixas include Oxala, a Jesus-like figure, and Yemaja, Our Lady of Navigators, a water goddess associated with the Holy Virgin. There are a number of other orishas and spirits who are called upon, all of whom are syncretized with individual saints from Catholicism. In many cases, slaves from Africa continued to worship their own spirits, the lwa, by connecting them to Catholic saints as a way of hiding their true practice from white owners.

Umbanda spirituality also includes work with a number of spirits, who guide practitioners in the many aspects of their day to day life. Two of these important beings are the Preto Velho and Preta Velha—the Old Black Man and the Old Black Woman—who represent all of the thousands of people who died while under the institution of slavery. Preto Velho and Preta Velha are seen as kind, benevolent spirits; they are forgiving and compassionate, and culturally beloved all across Brazil.

There are also Baianos, spirits who collectively represent Umbanda practitioners who have passed away, particularly in the Bahia state. These good spirits are also symbolic of departed ancestors.

Rituals and Practices

Umbanda, Candomble dancers. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Luis Veiga / Getty Images

There are a number of rituals and practices found within the Umbanda religion, most of which are performed by initiated priests and priestesses. Most ceremonies are either called tend, or tent, and terreiro, which is a backyard celebration; in its early years, most Umbanda practitioners were poor, and rituals were held at people's homes, either in tents or in the yard, so there would be room for all guests.

Rituals may include dancing and drumming, chanting, and spirit communication work. The idea of spirit work is crucial to the core tenets of Umbanda, because divination is used to determine the best way to appease the orixas and other beings.

In Umbanda rituals, practitioners always wear clean, white clothing; it is believed that white represents the true character, because it is a combination of all colors together. It's also considered relaxing, which helps prepare the practitioner for worship. Shoes are never worn in ritual, because they are seen as unclean. After all, everything you step on all day long comes into contact with your shoes. Bare feet, instead, allows the worshiper to have a deeper connection to the earth itself.

During a ritual, the Ogan, or priest, stands before the altar, taking on a role of incredible responsibility. It is the job of the Ogan to play drums, sing songs, and call in the orixas. He is in charge of neutralizing negative energies; in some more traditional homes there are no drums and the songs are accompanied only with clapping. Regardless, no one is permitted to stand between the Ogan and the altar, and it's considered poor form to sing or clap louder than he does.

Sacred symbols are inscribed as well in a religious ritual. They often appear as a series of dots, lines, and other shapes like suns, stars, triangles, spears, and waves, that practitioners use to identify a spirit, as well as for preventing a malicious entity from entering a sacred space. These symbols, much like the Haitian veve symbols, are inscribed upon the ground or on a wooden board, with chalk.

Sources

  • “African-Derived Religions in Brazil.” Religious Literacy Project, https://rlp.hds.harvard.edu/faq/african-derived-religions-brazil.
  • Milva. “Rituales Umbanda.” Hechizos y Amarres, 12 May 2015, https://hechizos-amarres.com/rituales-umbanda/.
  • Murrell, Nathaniel Samuel. Afro-Caribbean Religions: An Introduction to Their Historical, Cultural, and Sacred Traditions. Temple University Press, 2010. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1bw1hxg.
  • “New, Black, Old: Interview with Diana Brown.” Folha De S.Paulo: Notícias, Imagens, Vídeos e Entrevistas, https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/fsp/mais/fs3003200805.htm.
  • Wiggins, Somer, and Chloe Elmer. “Umbanda Followers Blend Religious Traditions.” CommMedia / Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications at Penn State, https://commmedia.psu.edu/special-coverage/story/brazil/Umbanda-followers-blend-religious-traditions.