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).


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