Catalan cracks Brazil cult nut

March 21, 1997

While Christians celebrate Palm Sunday, others find spiritual fulfilment in Celtic and Shinto beliefs, Julia Hinde and Tony Tysome report. Below, THES looks at Lake District community values and Brazilian cults

BRAZIL'S heady brew of African, Amerindian and Catholic beliefs has captured the imagination of one student at the School of Oriental and African Studies.

Luis Nicolau, a Catalan from Barcelona, has explored the mysterious world of Brazilian religious cults for his PhD thesis. He says that although the majority of Brazilians might say they are Catholic, cult rituals and superstitions pervade the whole society.

These have become popular, and even fashionable, among all classes since the easing of state and church attitudes in the 1960s.

In The Phenomenon of Spirit Possession and Behaviour in Tambor de Mina, Mr Nicolau looks at the Umbanda cult which fuses African animism, Amerindian beliefs and Catholicism. The Tambor de Mina (Drum of the Mina or African) is a generic name for the Afro-Brazilian cults.

Mr Nicolau has particularly studied the impact of traditional African animism introduced by slaves on the traditional religious practices of Brazil's pre-European, or Indian, population.

He said: "What I am trying to analyse is how African traditions relate to two specific cult houses and how these may have been modified by Amerindian religious beliefs and practices." The rituals that worshippers follow in the ceremonies give clues.

Although the procedures and etiquette and even dress can vary from cult house to temple, there are traces of earlier religious roots.

For example, going into a trance in celebration or communion with ancestors is a common feature of African religions. Amerindian tribes believed their shaman had supernatural powers and could heal both spirit and body as well as see into the future. Both aspects are observed in modern Brazilian cult rites.

Modern life has had an effect on the cults in much the same way as pop music has affected a generation of Church of England worshippers who have recently enjoyed rave-style sermons.

For example, Mr Nicolau has found that trance-like behaviour is becoming more violent and aggressive. The possessed frequently hop, jump and writhe convulsively which he says may be as much due to modern dancing as to traditional movements.

The cults that tend to preserve more traditional African practices are the oldest. At least two were founded last century, whereas those founded this century incorporate rituals and behaviour more obviously linked to 20th-century life styles.

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