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Umbanda is a religion that blends Catholicism, Kardecist Spiritualism, and Afro-Brazilian religions . It originated in Brazil in the early 20th century among the Afro-Brazilian population of Rio de Janeiro but has now spread across Brazil and to Uruguay and Argentina. The term "Umbanda" derives from Kimbundu, an Angolan language, and means "religious practitioners".
Umbanda is a syncretic religion based on the worship of Angolan spirits, brought to Brazil by the African slaves during the colonial period, and on elements drawn from Brazilian popular culture. Additionally, Orixás, from the Yoruba pantheon, are given token rule over the various legions of spirits and are associated with a Catholic saint under whose guidance the spirits work. This association started during the time when the african slaves in Brazil were persecuted by their owners for practicing their religion. The solution they found was to hide the original worshipping objects that represented the spiritual entities under different Catholic saint statues in order to give the slave owners the impression that they were worshipping that saint, which had the same personality or qualities of the worshipped entity.
Basically, the spiritual universe of Umbanda is divided in 'falanges' or legions of spirits, which 'work' under the command of a higher spirit. The main 'falanges' represented in Umbanda are as follows:
- Caboclo (native Brazilian) - linked to the Catholic saint San Sebastian and representing spirits of native Brazilian indians. They are highly knowledgeable about herbs, often prescribing herbal remedies.
- Preto Velho (Old Slave) - linked to Saint Anthony and/or Saint Benedict and representing spirits of old slaves who died in captivity. These are very peaceful and kind spirits, that know all about suffering, compassion, forgiveness and hope. They also often prescribe herbal remedies.
- The Yabas:
- Yemanja - linked to the ocean and mermaids, it represents the feminine universal principle. It is considered patron of fishermen. Once a year on February 02 and/or December 31, people in Brazil go to the beaches by the thousands, dressed in white, to offer gifts of flowers, candles, perfume, mirrors, etc. to this entity.
- Oxum - linked to the rivers and waterfalls, it also represents the feminine principle. The entity was one of Xango's wives in the African pantheon.
- Iansan - linked to the wind, tempests and lightning bolts, this is the Orisha of passion, a warrior, and has absolute power over Exus. She was Xango's other wife in the African pantheon.
- Xango - linked to St. John the Baptist, this is the Orisha of justice and represents rocks and mountains.
- Ogun - linked to St. George, this orisha is protector of people in the military and is usually evoked when someone wants to win some sort of battle or struggle.
- Omulu/Abaluaye - this 'falange' is linked to St. Lazarus and rules over diseases, epidemies, illnesses, etc.
- Exus - This 'falange' has female and male spirits which seem to be linked to the devil in the collective consciousness but is also described as a servant to the other seven falanges.
Umbanda is an urban phenomenon grounded in Central African influences but borrowing heavily from European influences and is integrated into urban environs. Many ritual sites (called tendas or terreiros) look like ordinary houses when seen from the street, and some often indeed double as dwellings. Larger, more middle class Umbanda houses often are laid out in a fashion similar to a church. Atabaques (Conga drums) and chanting) play a central role in some Umbanda congregations but are almost non-existent in others. The head of the terreiro is called "pai-de-santo" ("father-of-saint") or "mãe-de-santo" ("mother-of-saint") and his or her intiates are usually called "filhos-de-santo" ("children-of-saint", masculine plural form), just to show the structure within the religion. That doesn't mean that they are considered saints, though, but only that they're responsible for certain rituals related to each saint.
Each Umbanda terreiro practices the religion with slight variations according to the policies of the pai-de-santo. Worship may involve sacrifices to the deities (such as hens, cheap wine, farofa, cachaça, popcorn, cigarettes, hard cider and other types of foodstuffs or beverages, depending on the 'falange' or "saint") and has initiation rites that range from the simple to complex. "Pais de santo" and "Mães de santo" also play divination using the "jogo de búzios" Ifá (the reading of the arrangement of small sea shells), give advice to those who seek it and produce "strong prayers" (Rezas fortes) for those who need them to evade troubles with the other people, lack of money, sexual impotence, and other challenges people may face in their lives.
Umbanda grew rapidly in the latter half of the 20th century. Brazil went from having around 50,000 terreiros in the 1960s to 300,000 by the early 1980s. At that time there were also 300 terreiros in Uruguay and 200 in Argentina.
Until the second half of the 20th century, all Afro-Brazilian religions were considered criminal activity by the Brazilian government and periodically repressed. More recently they have become part of popular culture as many novelists and songwriters have written or sung about them. Several of Jorge Amado's works, for instance, are concerned with the trials and tribulations of the Afro-Brazilians. From the 1960s, many songs about Umbanda and the other Afro-Brazilian religions became popular. Among the famous Brazilian composers who treated the subject, Tom Jobim, Toquinho, Vinícius de Moraes, Geraldo Vandré and Clara Nunes are the most widely known. In the 1970s, poet Vinícius de Moraes married his last wife, Gesse, in an Umbandist ceremony witnessed by many prominent figures of Brazilian culture and politics.
In recent times, some evangelical Christian groups, which have gained many adherents in Latin America in the last decade, have begun attempting to persecute practitioners of Umbanda and other African-derived religions. Some persecutions have involved violence. Practitioners of these religions have taken cases to national courts and achieved a measure of success.