Spiritism in Brazil – Part Three

Brazilian spiritism, as it is found today, is divided into two types: “the popular or low spiritism and Kardecism, or high spiritism.” [1] Kardecism originated in France in the 19th century after the publication of Allan Kardec’s book The Spirits Book.  The book is said to be a collection of answers from spirit beings based on Kardec’s medium contact with such spirits.[2]  Spiritism teaches the immortality of the soul and communication with the dead.  Brazil has the largest and most influential spiritist movement in the world[3], and is the host of the International Spiritist Council.  This high spiritist belief system, has many of the same characteristics of major world religions, such as organized institutions, books and other written material, and specialized training.  A visit to the Federação Espírita Brasileira (FEB) website will give you a substantial amounts of information from history, to revival movements and online curriculum.[4]  High spiritism is not only animistic, it combines Christian doctrine and uses the name of Christ to unify the animistic practice of mediums and divination into what they call the “spiritist-christian” (espírita-cristão).[5]

Low spiritism however, is the spiritist practice of the lower classes and most popular among the masses.  Many are heavily based on the Afro-Brazilian religions, and today they can take on many different names, depending on which spirits are being invoked.  Macumba, Umbanda, and Candomblé are among the most popular ones.  Macumba is defined as an “Afro-Brazilian syncretistic religion, derived from Candomblé, having African elements and Christian influence.”[6]  Macumba is most popular in the Southern part of Brazil whereas Candomblé and Umbanda are more popular in the Northern and Central parts of the country.

Amimist live in fear of the spiritual powers, therefore they work hard to appease them.  Spiritists believe “that human beings can contact spirits and influence them to act on their behalf. Hundreds of believers come to spiritist centers to seek guidance from spirit gods.”[7]

Spiritism is practiced in groups and many festivals are involved to honor and worship the spirits.  The festivals are public gatherings and the spiritists are often joined by Catholics and other religions, including Evangelicals.  This is especially true during the new years’ celebration of Festa de Iemanjá (utilizing the image of the Virgin Mary.  Iemanjá is the goddess of the sea).  People dress in white and in a procession carry small boats filled with offerings (usually flowers and candles) to be placed in the water for her.

The private gatherings however, are made up of members and guests only.  These gatherings are held in a terreiro.  A terreiro could be someone’s home or the spiritist center.   Many rituals include blood sacrifices and dissecting of animals, while others use organic offerings, black (spells meant for harm) and white (spells meant for good) magic or a combination of many different rituals.  The sacrifices and offerings are done after the spirit gods come down and possess the medium(s) that are called the cavalos (horses) of the spirit gods,[8] then these offerings are taken to the streets of the city.

David Burnett in his book World of the Spirits presents a detailed description of an Umbanda ceremony:

The initiates enter carrying smoking incense burners and begin to sing.  The tempo of the meeting increases and members of the congregation begin to sing songs inviting the spirits to come down and work through the initiates.  As the mediums dance, the spirits begin to appear, each spirit possessing the particular medium who is accustomed to receive him.  Mediums, as they become possessed, stop dancing, begin to perspire and often look slightly ill, sway, and then, bending over and giving a series of rapid jerks, receive their spirits.  Upon straightening up, they have taken on the facial expressions, demeanor, and bodily motions characteristic of the particular spirit they received…they wear stern, even fierce expressions and utter loud, piercing cries.  They move vigorously around the dance floor in a kind of two-step, often dropping to one knee to draw an imaginary bow, and they smoke large cigars, whose smoke will be blown over their clients as a form of ritual cleansing and curing.[9]


Other characteristics of these rituals are: beating of drums at dusk announcing the beginning of meetings and prior to sacrifices, tarot and shell readings, casting of spells, and voodoo dolls among many others.  The purpose of these ceremonies may vary; it could be to appease and worship the spirits, as well as seeking guidance or healing.  When driving/walking in Brazil one can easily spot the altars kept outside of the homes where offerings are placed regularly.  These are usually small structures resembling houses which can be easily mistaken as a dog house or a child’s play house.

                [1] James Peter Wiebe, “Persistence of Spiritism in Brazil” (DMiss diss., School of World Mission, Fuller Theological Seminary, 1979), 5.

                [2] Centers for Appologetics Research. 2010, http://www.thecenters.org/searchgroup.aspx?groupid=103  (accessed 19 May 2010).

                [3] Neuza Itioka, A Brazilian Perspective: Case Studies From Brazil, (The Lausanne Movement), http://www.lausanne.org/all-documents/brazilian-case-study.html (accessed 19 May 2010).

                [4] The “Brazilian Espiritist Federation” website is www.febnet.org.br (accessed May 8, 2011).

                [5] Federação Espírita Brasileira, “Mensagen de Unificação” – “Message of Unification” http://www.febnet.org.br/site/movimento_brasil.php?SecPad=24&Sec=277 (accessed May 9, 2011).

                [6] “Macumba, s.f. Sincretismo religioso afro-brasileiro, derivado do candomblé, com elementos africanos e influência cristã.” Dicionário Melhoramentos da Língua Portuguesa, edição especial para Encyclopaedia Britannica do Brasil – Melhoramentos Dictionary of the Portuguese Language, especial edition for the British Encyclopedia of Brazil (São Paulo: Melhoramentos, 1988), 638.

                [7] Van Rheenen, Communicating Christ, 257.

                [8] Ibid.

                [9] Burnett, World, 246-47.

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About Bárbara

I am a Christ follower, wife, mother, missionary, and Online Instructor for LU Online teaching Introduction to Missions. My family and I serve at Living Bread Ministries; planting churches among the desperately poor in South America. I have an MA in Intercultural Studies from LBTS. My passion is to see the Lord Jesus worshiped among the poor and needy and to see lives transformed by the power of the Gospel.
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One Response to Spiritism in Brazil – Part Three

  1. kimchavers says:

    I a follower of Christ as well. In addition, i am a student preparing for a mission trip to south Brazil. Your information here was extremely helpful. Thank you!

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