Arquivo de etiquetas: Religious Anthropology

“This and that” in Yorùbá (religious) patterns of thought

In a lecture on Creole Culture, in Yale, in 1989, Robert Farris Thompson argues that African or Afro-descendant cultures should be looked as this and that cultures. This was a very important advice, which Salamone (2001) took seriously while analysing the case of a Nigerian healer, babalawo (Ifa priest) and Anthropologist that declares himself as monotheist and polytheist. Salamone deals with several coincidentia oppositorum facts. This remind us that our occidental framework of A or B is not operative in all kinds of contexts.

This is very clear when it came to study Yorùbá religion(s). Long-term discussions on ‘monotheist versus polytheist’ in this context, can still be found in some literature, despite the win of monotheist ideology, due to some scholar’s work as Idowu (Olodumare: God in Yoruba belief) and Ifá theology, deeply embodied in monotheist perspective. In a previous paper, published in 2013, following the path of Hallgren’s The Good Things in Life, I argued that Yorùbá religious context shall be understood as an open fluid system. We must remember Peel’s words (1968) … “…the whole system looks different from different social standpoint” (p.29). In fact, the whole system looks different because, in fact, it is.

Stating: religion in Yorùbá context is a this and that case. It is monotheist and polytheist. A good example of this and that pattern of thought can be found on the Orisha. When asked about Oshun, if She is the river, the deity of the river or the woman that died on river, a Yoruba will answer: all. She is the woman that died on the river, the deity of the river and the river itself.

Cite this article as: João Ferreira Dias, "“This and that” in Yorùbá (religious) patterns of thought," in Adarrum , Abril 30, 2017,

The white element in Yorùbá religious culture

Everyone who is familiarized with Yorùbá religious culture, and its Brazilian counterpart Candomblé, knows well the concept of “White Deities”, the Òrìsà Funfun. Many authors mention them in different aspects. While Verger (2002*) devoted his attention to historical-oral aspects of the cult, ritual and visual-aesthetical elements, Hallgren (1988) places those deities in terms of what is calls “white circle”, which pretends to be an arrange of deities, originated from Ilé-Ifè, based on whiteness element. Suzanne Blier, in many of her work, postulated the importance of this white element in Fon-Dahomey culture in European-African Atlantic encounters. Not only Blier but also many other authors, refers that this white element was vital in primordial Afro-European contact in this area, since many deities where associated with whiteness and because of that, the natives interpreted the arrival of those white, long-bearded men as the come of gods.

Nevertheless, despite the fact of Yorùbá Òrìsà Funfun are deeply associated with whiteness, they are generally translated as “Gods/deities who dresses in white”. However, they are named Òrìsà Funfun, which literally means “White Gods”. We have a serious problem in our hands, because they are never mentioned as “Òrìsà Àso Funfun”, “Gods in white cloths”. They are White Gods. Obviously, this presented a serious dilemma for natives during the colonization and slave trade, a fact that remains in present day-by-day religious life of African and its descendants. A people that was enslaved, that was forced to work in New World, that was and stills is largely oppressed, would easily made a slightly change of theology, presenting those White Gods as Black Gods that Dresses in White.

* Brazilian commemorative edition

Cite this article as: João Ferreira Dias, "The white element in Yorùbá religious culture," in Adarrum , Abril 7, 2017,

Theoretical Boundaries

Long-term studies of a specific reality – such as a religious community or a immigrant group – always represents an exercise of gluing theories up the object. Every new study comes as a new layer that, in the end, will look like a complex Photoshopped image, which may not fix with the original background. In the end, also, and maybe, the community has changed to adequate itself to every new layer, in a complex game of shadows.

Reinventing Religions

Edited by Greenfield and Droogers (2001), Reinventing Religions: Syncretism and Transformation in Africa and the Americas, is a notable book – very welcome among students and scholars of Afro-American studies – concerning the intercultural and inter relational processes studied through the concepts of ‘syncretism’ and ‘transformation’.

In the first chapter, focused on the syncretism as an idea, the editors tells us that «Syncretism originally was proposed as a dimension of reinterpretation in the acculturation process, conceptualized to picture what happened to a once isolated people and their culture when they entered into (prolonged) contact with another, usually more powerful, often colonial or imperial culture. (…) The new forms that may result might be composed of elements form the other culture taken over wholesale or a mixing of aspects of its own traditions and those of the other. The mixing and the process, including the reinterpretation of form, both came to be referred to as syncretism» (p. 26).

In the chapter 2, Frank A. Salamone presents us the very interesting case of Prince Doctor, a Yorùbá healer who is also rosi-crucian and babalawo. The intersection of different worldviews in a Yorùbá case is very fascinating.   Thompson’s notion of creolization as a process of “this and that too” is offered as a guideline for the discussion.

In the very old process of syncretic approach between catholic saints and Yorùbá Òrìṣà – that we know well from the afro-Brazilian historical case – is part of the Prince Doctor’s cosmology. As Salamone reports, the healer claims to be «Christian, Muslim, Rosi-crucian, monogamist, polygynist, herbalist, Babalawo-in-training, and anthropologist with no contradiction and as the occasion requires». (p. 46).

This capacity to embrace different and sometimes in confront believes is part of a modern approach to religion. Daughter of the New Age attitudes this syncretic relation looks like Ikea furniture: one buys the furniture in pieces but must assemble it by himself. Because he has no formal link to a specific religion he has tinny ties with all of them, catching some gestures (like Ogboni’s) and participate in Ife’s ceremonies. The author sees in this capacity a source for revitalization in religious sphere. Building bridges between catholic pantheon and Yorùbá deities sounds like a good plan to survive in a plural Nigeria (and not only). The Yorùbá ability of synthesize different worlds is truly remarkable and it is well expressed in St. Barbara and Ṣàngó – one is called when another is not helpfully.

The Ìwà concept is also an interesting issue on this chapter. The problem of destiny is part of the long debate concerning Yorùbá believes. Despite the openness or not of destiny, one’s character plays important role into achieves it or not. In a more social stand, the way one relates to another is deeply framed in character (ìwà). Live and let live can be quoted as explanation for the Yorùbá concept of Ìwà, despite the integrative contradiction present in the freedom and predetermination theological dilemma.

Sidney Greenfield’s chapter (number 3) presents a flight over the Brazilian history of industrialization and urbanization as a contextual frame for the very complex reality of Brazilian syncretism. Like some other countries – including my own, Portugal – the Roman Catholicism was for a long term the official religion. In the Brazilian case, it means since the early days of colonization until the end of 19th century, when it became a republic. However, like in the Portuguese case, Brazilian Catholicism approaches more the saints than God and is more vivid in pilgrimages than in churches, and the practitioners has no problem to migrate from a catholic official saint to a popular one (non-canonized) such as Padre Cícero or the slave Anestácia. That is the Brazilian capacity to bring different things together and creates sense in a contradictory religious field.

From my point of view Ferreti’s text (chapter 5 e 6) is the most interesting one. Despite some researchers see syncretism as a negative process that vanished the borders of religions and also in the African case it is seen as something that pollutes a supposed African purity, the author argues that syncretism is present in everyday practices in the afro-Brazilian temples.

But what sounds more interesting and shall be assumed by all the religious researchers is this: «we are not discussing syncretism here for the purpose of defending the religious “truth” of the facts we investigate. Instead, we aim to understand and analyze these “truths” as social facts» (p. 88). This is a notable statement. The social facts are indeed more important than our preconceived theories. Does not matter what we belief to be a fact or a historical and theological truth or not; what always should putted first is the social evidences – are them facts and truths for that community? This is the main question.

The relation between anthropological studies and devotes are also focused on the texts. The long-term presence of anthropologists in afro-Brazilian temples changes the way object-people looks to them. As the time passes they became more and more part of the community and sometimes they are assumed to become priests by their own, as in Ferretti’s case. A well-know fact is also mentioned in here: the major part of the anthropological studies’ readers is the practitioners. Moreover: «Much of what is becoming considered orthodoxy found in texts being written by gente-do-santo (practitioners) is based on ideas data, and information taken from our work» (p. 95).

In Mundicarmo’s text I found a totally different context of spiritual beings from what I known from Bahia’s Candomblé. Unlike the most ‘traditional’ Caboclos’ cults, in Tambor de Mina they may not have indigenous roots. Turkish spirits, for instance, are very common. According to Pai Euclides – a very popular priest known from the documentary “Rota dos Orixás” – the Turkish Center was founded in 1889 by a black woman named Anastácia Lúcia dos Santos. Despite the house is dedicated to Orixás cult, it was founded for the Caboclo King of Turkey. The syncretism is very present when it is assumed that the African God Averequete is the godfather of Turks. This connection is enforced by the myth of the Turkish fighter Tabajara in the Paraguayan war (1865-1870) and his marriage with an Indian woman named Bantira.

In the seventh chapter, Greenfield embraces the discussion on purity and authenticity in Candomblé. As the author proposes we cannot accept Candomblé as an uninterrupted continuation of Yorùbá culture. Instead what we should assume is a convergence (to use Greenfield’s term) of Yoruba beliefs and Roman Catholicism. The author quotes Dantas’ theory of purity and authenticity in Candomblé as result of Nina Rodrigues and following anthropologists disposition to demonstrate a resistant and truly African culture in Diaspora. In this sense originality as became an anthropologists claim – the Yorùbá-centricity.

Greenfield argues that Candomblé and other afro-Brazilian similar forms are

… better understood as a selection from Yoruba culture reinterpreted in terms of a parallelism or convergence between Yoruba and Brazilian Catholic assumptions about the universe and specially the relationship between humanity and the supernatural as constrained by the social and political conditions that prevailed in Brazil at that time (p. 115).

Despite the author ignore that Ferreti’s assumption of ‘social truths’ and proposes a hermetic read of Candomblé, the analyses of Yorùbá traditions is however very important. The political organization of ilu and the structure of titles in relation to Oyo’s centrality is expressed in mythological speeches – «Myth is by this definition a false reflection of the past because it is continually revised to fit the present» (p. 117). The Òrìṣà cults have became aligned with political strategies and power competition. Religion is a reflex and an instrument for political tensions and redefinitions. As Greenfield argued, the Yoruba social and political context that defines religious structures is not present in Brazil. Candomblé has now become a result of recontextualization; sort of speak. Unlike Yorubaland, in Brazil every practitioner can be possessed by the Òrìṣà and all those deities are now celebrated together in a House, which means that religion was brought from public to private domain.

Sjorslev text (chapter 8) is also very interesting. Despite the questions about possession — as the author mentioned «in possession, the body becomes a social sign.» (p. 136), and is also at the same time a collective fact/performance and a personal experience — the ritual purity easily became part of the author’s discussion. This shows us clearly that purity and authenticity are more than anthropological problems but social facts. Mentioning the revival of Candomblé in São Paulo Sjorslev refers the work of Pierre Verger and Roger Bastide as sources for the quest on African originality. This quest for a ‘pure Africa’ clashes with the dynamic import of spirits while the practitioners move from Umbanda to Candomblé. With that, the spirits and gods «have become free-floating signs in a postmodernist collage» (p.141), and syncretism for it turns have become a central part of religious reality in Brazil, where the recreation, reinterpretation and many other creative processes made the afro-Brazilian religions an «ongoing process, of which we have not yet seen the end» (p. 143).

Umbanda, Portugal and Health

Doctor Sousa Martins (7 March 1843 – 19 August 1897) became a holy man after his dead and a popular source of power among popular rituals.

In all studies concerning afro-Brazilian religions in Portugal (Pordeus, Saraiva, Guillot, et. al.) — in particular Umbanda, the most connected to catholic framework – there is an undeniable emphasise to a widespread popular theology (as I think we may call it) of healthiness. Any sociologist, anthropologist or even a non-scholar Portuguese person will confirm that complains of any kind of disease or illness are a popular unlocker for conversations.  This means that health is a central part of Portuguese identity. Such cultural attitude is a leitmotiv for the popular Catholicism, full of ‘demons’, ‘bad spirits’ and ‘spiritual diseases’. In the native religious beliefs is common the expressions as “go to the witches”. This is a popular language code to communal and well-known practices, especially found (but not exclusively) in rural areas. Any village has it own healer, called rezadeira (prayer), a woman or a man that is communal accepted as someone with a particular power.

With Umbanda’s arrival to Portugal theology of welfare became part of the speeches of all priests in the accommodation to the religious communal psychology. The practices of cure are now the central point of all Umbanda temples in Portugal. The charity, which was so important to the spread of Umbanda in all-over Brazil, in Portugal became less important thanks to the affirmation of those theology and rituals of healthiness. This expresses well Umbanda’s plastic identity. While Candomblé presents itself as an African-oriented religion, with a nostalgia feeling and a traditional root, Umbanda reveals a dynamic attitude that produces an easy and strong appeal in the Portuguese community, not only because of it DNA marked by Portuguese Catholicism but also and most important of all trough a capacity of dialogue and absorb local non-orthodox beliefs such as the healers and those one arise with the New Age.

Cite this article as: João Ferreira Dias, "Umbanda, Portugal and Health," in Adarrum , Dezembro 21, 2013,

African Theology: thinking outside the box


Considerations on African Theology sounds like a non-stop carrousel: moving on a same direction and returning to the starting point at the same time. In Portuguese we call it “a little hake with tail in mouth” situation. While some scholars focus their lens on the historical changes concerning the discourses or even to the rise of the so-called African Theology, nobody waste a moment thinking in the concept of Theology, itself.

The African Theology, at least as a given long-term concept, is understood as a Christian painting with African colours, materials and techniques. In another terms: African Theology refers to a flux of African typical ideas, languages, metaphors and even rites to the Christian God and to Jesus. In my point of view this should be said to be African Christian Theology. Despite the several Christian movements Islam is part of the communal furniture in Africa. Thereby assume that African Theology only refers to Christian movements and churches do not improve African Studies.

Moreover, recognizing that Theology should be related to patterns of thought and manners of practice and live the religion local ancient cults must not be excluded from African Theology framework, as I pointed in my MSc thesis on Yorùbá Religion (2011).

Cite this article as: João Ferreira Dias, "African Theology: thinking outside the box," in Adarrum , Outubro 28, 2013,