Umbanda practitioners at a centro in Rio de Janeiro

Umbanda (Portuguese pronunciation: [ũˈbɐ̃dɐ]) is a religion that emerged in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in the 1920s. Deriving largely from Spiritism, it also combines elements from Afro-Brazilian traditions like Candomblé as well as Roman Catholicism. There is no central authority in control of Umbanda, which is organized around autonomous places of worship termed centros or terreiros, and is broadly divided between White Umbanda, which is closer to Spiritism, and Africanized Umbanda, which is closer to Candomblé.

A monotheistic religion, Umbanda believes in a single God that is distant from humanity. Beneath this entity are powerful non-human spirits called orixás; in White Umbanda these are viewed as divine energies or forces of nature, while in African-oriented forms they are seen as West African deities and are offered animal sacrifices. The emissaries of the orixás are the pretos velhos and caboclos, spirits of enslaved Africans and of indigenous Brazilians respectively, and these are the main entities dealt with by Umbandists. At Umbandist rituals, spirit mediums sing and dance in the hope of being possessed by these spirits, through whom the congregations receive guidance, advice, and healing. Umbanda teaches a complex cosmology rooted in spiritual evolution through a system of reincarnation according to the law of karma. The religion's ethical systems emphasise charity and social fraternity.

Umbanda was established by Zélio Fernandino de Moraes and those around him in Niterói during the 1920s. He had been involved in Spiritism but disapproved of the negative attitude that many Spiritists held towards contact with the spirits common in Afro-Brazilian religious traditions. Umbanda gained increased social recognition and respectability amid the military dictatorship of 1964 to 1985, despite growing opposition from both the Roman Catholic Church and Pentecostal groups. Since the 1970s, Umbanda has seen some decline, in places due to the resurgent popularity of Candomblé.

In its heyday of the 1960s and 1970s, Umbanda was estimated to have between 10 and 20 million followers in Brazil. In the 21st century, hundreds of thousands of Brazilians identify as Umbandists. Umbanda is found primarily in urban areas of southern Brazil although has spread throughout the country and to other parts of the Americas.


A group of Umbandists in Rio de Janeiro

Formed in Rio de Janeiro during the 1920s,[1] Umbanda combines elements of Spiritism (Espiritismo) with ideas from Afro-Brazilian religions like Candomblé.[2] Practitioners are called Umbandistas.[3] Umbanda also incorporates elements of Roman Catholicism,[4] or Asian religions like Hinduism and Buddhism,[5] while certain Umbandist groups have adopted Kabbalah,[6] or New Age practices.[7] Reflecting a general universalist stance that encouraged tolerance towards other traditions, Umbandists are commonly permitted to also pursue other religions,[8] with some also practising Roman Catholicism,[9] Judaism,[6] or Santo Daime.[10]

Reflecting its origins in Spiritism, Umbanda has been labelled a Western esoteric tradition.[11] It has also been called an Afro-Brazilian religion,[12] although the scholar of religion Steven Engler cautioned that Africanised ritual elements are not present in all Umbandist groups and that the Spiritist influence was more significant over Umbanda as a whole.[13]

Umbanda is not a unified religion,[14] having no central institutional authority.[15] It displays considerable variation and eclecticism,[5] being highly adaptable,[16] and taking various different forms.[17] Much of this variation is regional.[18] Umbandist groups exist on a spectrum from those emphasising connections to Spiritism to those emphasising links with Candomblé and related Afro-Brazilian religions.[5] Groups taking the former position often refer to themselves as practicing Umbanda branca ("White Umbanda"),[19] Umbanda pura ("Pure Umbanda"),[20] or Umbanda limpa ("Clean Umbanda").[21] The anthropologist Lindsay Hale referred to the more Africanist wing as "Afro-Brazilian Umbanda",[22] while fellow anthropologist Diana Brown called it "Africanized Umbanda".[23] Most Umbandist groups exist at points between these two extremes.[5] Brown noted that there was "no general consensus" as to what exactly Umbanda is and what it is not.[24] Reflecting this variation, Hale deemed it appropriate to talk about "Umbandas", in the plural, as much as a singular Umbanda.[25]

A Umbandist centro in Rio de Janeiro

Scholars often regard these Afro-Brazilian traditions as existing on a continuum rather than being firmly distinct from each other.[26] In practice, Afro-Brazilian religions often mix, rather than existing in pure forms.[27] Groups combining elements of Umbanda and Candomblé are sometimes termed "Umbandomblé", although this is rarely embraced by practitioners themselves.[28] Omolocô was founded in Rio de Janeiro as an intermediate religion between Candomblé and Umbanda.[29] Umbanda is often presented as being opposed to Quimbanda, with Umbandists claiming that they work for good, and that Quimbandists work for evil.[30]

Historically, Umbanda has often been referred to as Macumba, a pejorative term for Afro-Brazilian popular religious traditions,[31] and some Umbandists have referred to themselves as macumbeiros, often in jest due to the negative connotations of these terms.[32] In Umbandist literature, however, the term Macumba is often used in a more restrictive sense to designate baixa espiritismo (low spiritism), traditions that work with lesser spirits for morally questionable purposes.[33]


Various Umbandists have claimed that theirs is not a new religion but an ancient tradition brought to Brazil from elsewhere. Some practitioners have claimed that it derives from ancient Egypt, India, or China, or from the Aztecs or Incas. Others have maintained that Umbanda's origins are either extraterrestrial or from Atlantis.[34] These sort of origin stories reflect the influence of Theosophy.[21] Brown suggested that these explanations were adopted by Umbandists eager to dismiss the possibility of their religion having Sub-Saharan African origin.[21] In contrast, various practitioners of Africanised forms of Umbanda have maintained that the religion ultimately comes from Africa.[35]

Theology and cosmology

An Umbandist dressed in ritual attire

Although it has no authoritative source ensuring a standardised cosmological belief among practitioners,[36] Umbanda has an elaborate cosmology,[37] An important distinction is made between the material and the spiritual, with the latter considered far superior.[38] Umbandist theology is largely Spiritist in basis, adopting the Spiritist emphasis on reincarnation and spiritual evolution,[39] and with spirits ranked hierarchically according to their "degree of evolution".[40] Brown described the Umbandist pantheon as operating in "a complex, impersonal bureaucracy".[41] The pantheon reflects syncretic origins.[42]

Many Umbandists believe in a three-part cosmos, divided between the astral spaces, the earth, and the underworld.[43] The more highly evolved spirits dwell in the astral realm, spirits incarnated in physical form reside temporarily on earth, while malevolent and ignorant spirits inhabit the underworld.[43] Spirits from both the astral and underworld realms can also visit the earth.[43]

Umbanda is monotheistic.[44] It regards God as the creator and controller of the universe,[44] an entity that presides over the astral world but who is distant from humanity.[45] He is sometimes called Olorun,[44] a name of Yoruba origin.[42]

Umbandists often refer to the plano astral (astral plane) as the além (beyond).[46] Sometimes, the realm of the evolved spirits is also called Aruanda, a term that likely derives from Luanda, a port in modern Angola, but which in Umbanda has looser connotations of an area within the astral plane.[47] The astral world is deemed to be divided into a hierarchy of seven vertical levels, the Sête Linhas de Umbanda (Seven Lines of Umbanda), although the specific identity of each line varies among Umbandists.[45] This seven-fold division may derive from Theosophy.[48] Each of the Seven Lines is governed by one of the orixás, highly evolved spiritual entities who each also has an identity as a Roman Catholic saint.[49] The underworld is also divided into Seven Lines, each of which is led by an Exú spirit.[41]

Each of these Lines is also sub-divided into seven sub-lines; each of these is then divided into seven legions; these divide into seven sub-legions; these into seven falanges (phalanges); and these into seven sub-falanges.[45] Umbandists often liken this cosmological structure to the organization of an army, and it may reflect the prominent role that various military figures have played in Umbanda's history.[45] The spirits inhabiting these groups are usually arranged on the basis of regional or racial origin.[50]


A statue of Iemanjá in Salvador

At the top of Umbanda's hierarchy of spirits are the orixás,[40] entities often regarded as deities.[45] The term orixá derives from the Yoruba language of West Africa,[51] as do the names of the various orixás themselves, which in the Brazilian context are also employed in the Nagô tradition of Candomblé.[52] Although the names of the orixás are drawn from Candomblé, Umbandists do not typically interpret these beings in the same way that Candomblé's practitioners do.[39] There is nevertheless variation according to group, with African-oriented Umbandists placing particular emphasis on the orixás, while White Umbandist groups often barely mention them.[39] Accordingly, White Umbandist groups accord the orixás a far less important role in ritual than their African-oriented counterparts.[53]

For Umbandists, the orixás are Olorun's intermediaries,[44] and represent elemental forces of nature as well as humanity's primary economic activities.[54] White Umbandist groups often perceive the orixás primarily as frequencies of spiritual energy, vibrations, or forces of energy.[55] They are regarded as beings that are so highly evolved that they have never incarnated in physical form.[39] Like God, they are distant from humanity, permanently residing on the astral plane.[41] Many Umbandists rarely expect orixás to manifest during rituals, for the orixás are preoccupied with important spiritual matters.[56] They are also thought too powerful for many humans to handle, meaning that their manifestation could be dangerous for the ritual's participants.[56] Instead, the orixás send their emissaries, the caboclos and pretos velhos, to appear in their place.[57]

An offering to Iemanjá

Nine orixás are commonly found in Umbanda, fewer than the 16 more usually found in Candomblé.[58] The supreme deity is Olorun.[59] The son of Olorun, Oxalá is associated with the sky and regarded as the creator of humanity.[60] Iemanjá is a maternal figure associated with the sea.[61] Nanã is also a maternal figure associated with water, but in her case the waters of the lake and swamp.[54] Omolu is the orixá of sickness and healing.[62] Xangô is linked to thunder and lightning, as well as to stone working and quarrying.[63] Ogúm is the orixá of war, metalworking, agriculture, and transportation.[64] Oxúm is associated with fertility and with flowing water, especially streams and waterfalls.[65] Iansã is a female warrior who manifests in storms.[65] Oxóssi is a hunter who lives in the forest.[66] Exu is a trickster and the guardian of the crossroads, being the intermediary between the orixás and humanity.[67] He will often be paid homage first during a ritual, to stop him being disruptive later in the rite.[68]

Each of the orixás is deemed to have their own desires and emotions.[54] The orixás are also associated with particular colors; Oxum with blue,[65] for instance, and Oxossi with green.[65] Each is also linked to particular days of the week; Iansã with Wednesday,[65] and Nanã with Tuesday, for example.[69] They are also associated with a particular celestial body, such as Xango with the planet Jupiter and Yemanja with the moon.[44]

Each orixá is typically associated with a Roman Catholic saint.[70] It is in this form that they are often represented on Umbandist altars,[71] and these links are also reinforced in praise songs.[72] Xangô for instance is often identified with Saint Geronimo,[73] Nanã with Saint Anne,[69] and Omolu with Saint Roch and Saint Lazarus.[69] Many Umbandists identify Exu with the Devil of Christian theology,[74] and Oxalá with Jesus Christ.[75] There is often regional variation in these associations; in Rio de Janeiro, Iemanjá is typically linked to Our Lady of Glory, while in Salvador she is associated with Our Lady of the Conception.[76] There are nevertheless differences of opinion among Umbandists as to the nature of the relationship between orixás and saints.[76] Many Umbandists regard the orixás and saints as manifestations of the same spiritual force rather than being exactly the same figure;[77] some practitioners believe that these saints were once humans who were physical manifestations of the orixás.[78]

Relationships with the orixás

Umbanda often teaches that each person has a coroa (crown) of protective spirit entities.[79] The most important of these is the orixá da frente ("the front orixá"), an orixá deemed to be that individual's spiritual parent.[79] These entities are a person's protectors and patrons.[80] They are also demed to influence the personality traits of a person.[79] Umbandists believe that these entities are deserving of respect and that treating them well will improve a person's life.[80] In Umbanda, it is usual for a medium to determine the identity of a person's spirit patrons.[80] This is different from Candomblé, where the identity is more often ascertained through forms of divination.[80] Knowing the identity of these orixás is deemed to offer a person insights about themselves.[80]

Lesser evolved spirits

Although very different in tone from one another,[81] the preto velhos and the caboclos are together the most important spirit types in Umbanda.[82] Umbanda split from Spiritism over the value placed on these entities, with Umbandists believing that Spiritists often negatively misjudge the preto velhos and the caboclos because of their appearance.[83] For Umbandists, the caboclos and pretos velhos are "beings of light",[30] entities who inhabit the lower echelons of the Seven Lines of the astral plane.[45]

Although they are only the emissaries of the orixas, the pretos velhos and caboclos take centre stage in Umbandist rituals.[41] They are particularly prominent during rituals in which practitioners seek assistance with their problems,[41] with Umbandists approaching these entities in the hope of receiving advice and protection.[84] In practice, Umbanda strongly emphasises practitioner's personal relationships with these spirit beings, with ritual homage given to them in exchange for cures and advice.[85] This relationship bears similarities with that between devotees and the saints in popular Catholicism.[85]

Pretos Velhos

Figurines of the pretos velhos ("Old Blacks"), one of the most popular spirit types in Umbanda

The pretos velhos ("old blacks") are usually, although not always, regarded as the spirits of deceased African slaves.[86] They are usually conceived as being elderly, and thus referred to with respectful terms like vovó ("grandfather") and vovô ("grandmother").[87] The pretos velhos are deemed to be kind, patient, and wise.[88] Despite the suffering they endured in life, they are thought to preach forgiveness and love.[88] They are regarded as healers and counsellors, with Umbandists bringing their problems to the pretos velhos.[89]

The names of these pretos velhos often reflect Catholic forenames followed by an African national affiliation, as with Maria Congo or Maria d'Aruanda.[90] They will sometimes be addressed collectively as the Povo de Bahia (People from Bahia) or as members of a particular nation, such as the Povo da Congo (People from Congo).[90] These spirits are commemorated on the feast of the old slaves, held on May 13, marking the day in 1888 when slavery was abolished in Brazil.[91] Wayside shrines dedicated to the pretos velhos can be found in various places in Brazil.[92] When mediums believe themselves possessed by pretos velhos, they often smoke pipes.[93]

Brown suggested that the portrayal of the pretos velhos reflected the stereotype of the faithful slave common in the writings of Brazilians like Castro Alves and Artur Azevedo. This literary trope had in turn been influenced by the popularity of Portuguese translations of the American novel Uncle Tom's Cabin.[94]


Figurine of a caboclo, the spirit of an indigenous Brazilian hunter and warrior

Caboclos are usually the spirits of indigenous Brazilians, especially those who lived in the Amazon Rainforest.[95] In Umbanda, they are regarded as hunters and warriors who are highly intelligent and brave, but also vain and arrogant.[96] As spirits, they are considered to be "highly evolved".[40] Their power comes from the forces of nature, including the sun and moon, waterfalls, and the forest.[96] Their individual names often reflect these links to nature, for instance Caboclo Mata Virgem (Caboclo Virgin Forest) or Caboclo Coral (Caboclo Coral Snake).[96] They are often described as living in the forest, or alternatively in a paradisiacal city in the forest called Jurema.[97]

These spirits often have snakes as their companions,[96] something alluded to in the songs sung about them,[98] and which may derive from certain Afro-Brazilian traditions from northeast Brazil.[99] The caboclos are deemed to have been people who roamed free, and thus can be contrasted with the pretos velhos, who in life were held in bondage.[98] When mediums believe themselves possessed by caboclos, they often adopt stern expressions and make loud, piercing cries.[100] When these caboclo-possessed individuals perform healing on clients, they are often thought to blow cigar smoke over the latter as a means of cleansing and curing them.[101]

The caboclos do not derive from any prolonged contact that Umbanda's founders had with indigenous peoples, but instead reflect the popular Indianismo of Brazilian culture.[94] Their portrayal often draws on the stereotype of Brazil's indigenous peoples being "Noble Savages",[102] and reflect the heroic depiction of indigenous Brazilians that developed in the country's Romantic literature from the mid-19th century.[81] The term caboclo may derive from the Tupi language term kari'boka ("deriving from the white").[103] Although associated primarily with indigenous spirits, it is also sometimes used for the spirits of cowboys or frontiersmen,[104] or—in parts of northeast Brazil—Turkish kings.[105]

Other evolved spirits

Below the caboclos and preto velhos in the Seven Lines of the astral realm are a large number of unidentified guias (spirit guides) and espíritos pretetores (spirit protectors).[106] Other types of spirit include the boiadeiros (cowboys), crianças (children), marinheiros (sailors), malandros (rogues), ciganos (gypsies) and sereias (mermaids).[18]

The crianças are spirits of children and are valued largely for the joy and humor that they bring.[84] Like living children, they are deemed to like sweets and toys.[107] In Umbandist rites they are thought to often appear towards the end of proceedings, after tiring adult issues have been dealt with. Those possessed by the crianças often giggle, sing nursery rhymes, and perform in a child-like fashion. Umbandists often hold an annual birthday party for these spirits on the Roman Catholic feast day of the child martyr saints Cosmas and Damian.[84] It is possible that the crianças derive in part from beliefs about the Ibeji twins, spirits venerated in parts of West Africa.[107]

Exus and Pombagiras

Figurines of an Exú (left) and a Pomba Gira (right)

In Umbanda, the exus are spirits yet to complete the process of karmic evolution.[30] They are unevolved spirits of darkness which, by working for good, can gradually become spirits of light.[30] Interpretations of these exus nevertheless differs depending on the Umbandist group, with more African-oriented Umbandists often taking a more positive attitude towards them.[74] In Umbanda, the exus are associated with Friday,[108] and with the colors red and black.[109] They are also linked to the obtaining of power, money, and sex.[110] The term exu derives from the name of a Yoruba orisha spirit regarded as a trickster.[111]

Exus fall into two main categories. The exus da luz (exus of the light) or exus batizades (baptised exus) have repented for their sins and seek redemption and karmic advancement by serving the orixas. In life, the exus da luz were often sinners who performed immoral acts through noble intentions.[112] The other type of exus are the exus das trevas (exus of the shadows), spirits who are unrepentant and who afflict and torment the living. They may act as "obsessors", finding a human victim and "leaning" (encostado) on them, causing the latter problems such as bad luck, compulsive behaviours, or addiction. The exus das trevas may do this due to their resentment of the living, or because they have been commanded to do so by a feiticero (sorcerer) practicing Quimbanda.[113] These negative exus are sometimes also called Exú pagão (pagan exu), reflecting the influence of Christian thought.[114] In Umbanda, theexus are often referred to with Christian-derived names like the Devil, Satan, or Lucifer, and are portrayed as being red with horns and tridents, reflecting Christian iconographical influence.[111]

The female counterparts of the exus,[111] Pombagiras are the spirits of immoral women, such as prostitutes.[115] They are associated with sexuality, blood, death, and cemeteries.[116] Linked to marginal and dangerous places,[117] they are often presented as being ribald and flirty, speaking in sexual euphemisms and double entendres.[118] They wear red and black clothing,[119] and only possess women and gay men,[120] who will then often smoke or drink alcohol,[121] using obscene language and behaving lasciviously.[120] The term pombagira may derive from the Bantu word bombogira,[122] the name of a male orixa in Candomblé's Bantu or Angola tradition.[123] In Brazilian Portuguese, the term pomba is a euphemism for the vulva.[115]


Umbandist mediums are typically called filhas and filhos de santo (daughters and sons of the saint).[124] In Umbanda, mediums are responsible for contacting the good spirits,[92] and Brown described Umbandist mediums as "a sort of intermediate category of semi-specialists" within the religion.[41] Umbandists mediums may be regarded as being capable of vidéncia (seeing) spirit entities, and others sensing their presence through intuition.[125] A medium's relationship with their exu or pombagira is considered close, and is mediated through the giving of gifts.[126]

Most Umbandist mediums take on this role as a result of an initial personal crisis, often physical illness or emotional distress, that they come to believe is being caused by spirits as a means of alerting them. Often, they report that they initially resisted the call to become a medium but that the problems faced became too much and so they relented.[127] In Umbanda, it may take seven years of more to train as a medium.[128] While a novice, the medium may be called a cambono.[124] Novice mediums may find their early possession experiences uncontrollable, but over time they learn to control it.[129]

From her research in the late 1960s and 1970s, Brown found that around two-thirds of Umbandist mediums were female and a third male.[130] She noted that while a few were under the age of 18, this was generally discouraged.[130] Each of a medium's spirits will often have their own unique character.[131] Some Umbandist mediums operate out of their home, rather than running a centre.[132]

Mediums are often expected to abstain from alcohol or sex prior to a ceremony.[92] Reciprocity is expected when engaging with the spirits, with those seeking their services often providing them with gifts.[127] A person's misfortunes may be interpreted as a reminder that obligations to the spirits have not been met.[133]


An Umbandist carrying offerings to Iemanjá to a river

Umbanda teaches that everyone has a spirit that survives bodily death.[46] Umbandists sometimes refer to living people as espíritos enćarnados (incarnate spirits).[134] Like Spiritists, Umbandists typically believe that each person has a perispirit, a transparent membrane around the body that mediates between the body and soul.[135] They believe that disturbances is either body and soul can impact the perispirit.[135]

From Spiritism, Umbanda takes the ideas of reincarnation and karmic evolution;[136] the terms reincarnacâo and karma were largely introduced to Brazilian Portuguese via Kardec's ideas.[134] Umbandists believe that the spirit survives bodily death and goes on successive reincarnations, seeking ever higher levels of spiritual evolution.[38] Everyone is subject to karma,[128] and a person can spiritually evolve through their incarnations.[128]

Reincarnation is a central idea for many Umbandists.[137] Practitioners believe that by serving the spirits and assisting the living they can build up their karmic credit. The higher a person's karmic credit, the higher their level on the astral plane, and then the better the status of their next incarnation. Umbandists believe that disincarnate spirits can also build up karmic credit.[134] Practitioners sometimes believe that the events of previous incarnations can influence a person, for instance generating certain irrational fears. Some Umbandists think that the same spirits can meet repeatedly over successive incarnations.[138]

Morality, ethics, and gender roles

Umbandist morality places key emphasis on caridade (charity),[139] something also evident in Spiritism,[140] and which for both religions may derive ultimately from Roman Catholicism.[85] As in Spiritism, for Umbandists charity is regarded as a key motor for spiritual evolution.[48] Practitioners for instance may give gifts and food to poor children to mark the festival of the crianças.[141] Umbandists also place value on humility.[131] Umbandists often believe that things happen for a reason, rather than being mere coincidence, and are part of a person's path in life.[142]

A statue of an Exú; Umbandists refer to those who work with such harmful spirits as Quimbandists

Brown argued that Umbanda inherited the Roman Catholic view that the world was a battleground between good and evil.[143] Umbandists often embody all the things that they oppose in the term Quimbanda.[144] In the Umbandist view, Quimbanda is associated with evil, immorality, and pollution,[143] and particularly with the use of Exús.[144] Given that Umbanda places focus on combating the harmful influences of Exús, a common saying among Umbandists is that "if it weren't for Quimbanda, Umbanda would have no reason to exist".[145] Brown noted that Quimbanda represented "a crucial negative mirror image against which to define Umbanda,"[144] suggesting that it could also serve as an "ideological vehicle for expressing prejudices" towards African-derived and lower class religions.[143] In Brazil, there are also individuals who call themselves Quimbandeiros and openly practice Quimbanda.[109]

Afro-Brazilian religions are often stereotyped as attracting gay men, and to avoid this stereotype some male Umbandists refuse to be possessed by female spirits.[146] Brown noted that a few centros had "an openly gay orientation" with a largely gay clientele.[147] Umbanda has been recognized for its openness toward sexual diversity. Homosexual, bisexual, heterosexual, and transexual people are welcomed without distinction. In places where Candomblé's influence is greater, men and women may fulfill different roles, but they are of equal dignity and importance. Another important aspect is that people who are not heterosexual have the possibility of becoming priests or priestesses, mediums, and so forth without distinction. Many homosexual couples marry religiously at the hands of Umbanda priests.[148] The orixá Oxumaré, as an entity that spends six months being male and six months being female, is sometimes cited as a patron of gay and bisexual people.[53]


Umbandist practices often revolve around clients who approach practitioners seeking assistance, for instance in diagnosing a problem, healing, or receiving a blessing.[18] In Umbanda, spiritual knowledge and ethical behaviour are generally seen as being more important than ritual action.[149]

Houses of Worship

An Umbandist centro, or place of worship

Umbandist places of worship are termed centros,[150] or alternatively tendas (tents).[151] Those adopting a more African-orientation are sometimes called terreiros, a term from Candomblé;[152] this term is avoided by some practitioners of White Umbanda.[153] An insignia, the ponto riscado (sacred sign) may be on the exterior of the centro to identify its function.[154] Not all ceremonies take place here; certain rituals may be held outdoors, for instance beside a stream or the sea if that location is deemed particularly appropriate to the rite.[155] Not all Umbandist groups can afford their own centro; sometimes several groups will share the same building, arranging their services at different times from each other.[156]

These groups have both formal and informal hierarchies.[157] The centro is typically led by an individual called the chefe ("chief"), a term borrowed from Spiritism,[158] or alternatively the mãe-de-santo ("mother-of-saint") or pai-de-santo ("father-of-saint"), terms from Candomblé.[159] In some groups, leaders may be called a babalaô, a term that may be borrowed from the Yoruba word babalawo, a diviner in the Ifá system.[128] A chefe is usually a medium who receives the highest ranking spirits, and they will often lead group prayers and deliver sermons during services.[124] Their leadership is often rooted in their individual charisma,[160] and Brown noted that, although women predominate as Umbandist mediums, most chefes were men.[161] The second-in-command is the mãe pequena ("little mother").[131] A centro may close on the death of this leader; alternatively, their leadership role will often be passed to a family member or, more rarely, to a non-related senior initiate.[162]

Under the chefe will be the corpo mediúnico (ritual corps), the group of mediums active at that centro. These in turn divide into the médiums de consulta (consulting mediums) and the médiums em desenvolvimento (mediums in training).[163] The latter are often expected to attend training sessions, the sessões de desenvolvimento, and to learn their ritual obligations to different spirits as well as the necessary ritual songs and the Umbandist cosmology.[164] Advancement within the centro often relies on a person's development as a medium.[164] In smaller centros, there may be between 10 and 60 members of the corpo mediúnico, while at larger centros there can be several hundred.[124] These larger centros may therefore have further subdivisions within the corpo mediúnico as well as multiple sub-chefes.[124] The congregation of lay Umbandists who attend services at the centro are called the assistência.[165]

Offerings to the orixá Nana at an Umbandist centro

The main ritual space is called the barracão.[166] Often this will face east, a direction deemed most conducive to astral forces.[155] Sacred objects will often be buried beneath the floor, and these are termed axés.[167] This main room will typically have paintings of the spirits on the walls, a space for practitioners to dance, and an altar.[168] The altar will often have figurines of the caboclos, preto velhos, and orixás, the latter often in their form as Roman Catholic saints.[169] Also usually present will be flowers and glasses of water to attract good forces, the latter a direct influence from Spiritism.[169] There will often also be seating in rows to face the main ritual area.[168] Afro-Brazilian oriented terreiros may also have multiple outdoor shrines to different orixás.[67]

Some centros will also have a place for the mediums to change clothing,[168] a kitchen,[170] and an office.[170] There is much work involved in running a Umbanda centro, for instance overseeing maintenance and paying bills.[170] To gain legal registration with the Brazilian state, centros require an administrative system, often consisting of a board of directors, president, vice president, secretaries, and treasurers, although the size of this administration varies by centro.[171] The centro is financed largely by its members, who consist of both its ritual corps and its regular lay attendees; they are expected to pay an initial registration and a monthly membership fee.[172] Centros will sometimes also operate in a manner akin to mutual aid societies, offering their members social welfare services such as access to doctors and dentists or burial funds.[173] The social activities common among Brazil's Christian churches are largely absent from Umbandist centros.[174]

Rituals and ceremonies

Umbandists wear white during their ritual dances to invoke the spirits

Umbandists typically hold public ceremonies called sessões (sessions) several times a week.[151] These will take place in the centro, or if an Umbandist group lacks one it will instead be in rented premises or a private home.[151] The purpose of these rituals is to invoke spirits to come to earth, where they may take possession of the mediums and thus offer spiritual consultations to the congregation.[151] Brown described these Umbandist rituals as being livelier than Catholic or Spiritist ceremonies, but less so than those of Afro-Brazilian traditions or Quimbanda.[175]

Mediums and others engaged in Umbandist rituals typically wear white clothing,[176] a uniform that gives the impression of equality among practitioners.[177] This distinguishes them from Candomblé practitioners, who may wear more complex outfits.[178] Umbandists will usually remove their shoes on entering the ritual space,[24] before genuflecting to the altar.[168] To start a ceremony, a ritual purification using incense, the defumacão, is used to banish harmful spirits.[168] In ritual, offerings of food may be prepared for the spirits.[179] At sessões, the exus will be placated and asked to remain absent.[111]

A session may be begun with the recitation of a Roman Catholic prayer or the reading of passages from Kardec's writing.[100] Also often opening a session is singing,[100] with the songs sung at such ceremonies being called pontos.[180] Usually sung in Portuguese, they celebrate the powers and exploits of the spirits,[181] thereby inviting them to attend the ritual.[100] In a ritual, pontos will often be sung in honor of the leader of each of the Seven Lines.[181] These may be accompanied by hand clapping or drumming, depending on the Umbanda group in question.[96] In White Umbanda, the singing of hymns may be accompanied by clapping.[38]

Possession and consultations

Umbandist drummers; the use of drums is common in more Africanised variants of Umbanda

The gira is a dance to celebrate the orixás;[142] the members of the ritual corps will often dance in a procession.[100] Those who are possessed by spirits will cease dancing, and may sway and jerk rapidly.[100] While possessed, the medium is considered a cavalos (horse),[182] or sometimes an aparelhos (vehicle), for the spirit.[124] Their facial expressions and demeanour may change to reflect the possessing spirit.[100] Their first act will sometimes be to bow before the altar to display respect for the orixas.[100] Attendants may then dress the possessed medium in a manner suited to the possessing spirit, as for instance with the giving of feathered headdresses to those possessed by caboclos.[100] A possessing spirit may then "open the way" for others to follow it.[183]

Once all of the spirits are believed to have arrived, the singing and dancing will stop and the consultas (consultations) will begin.[93] These consultas will typically take up over half the ceremony's length.[145] Those awaiting a consultation with the mediums will often have a ficha (token).[93] The spirit messages of the possessed mediums may be in a coded ritual language, which the medium's assistant will then interpret for the client.[184] In some instances, clients have also reported being possessed during the ceremony.[184] Consultas form the principal link between Umbandist mediums and lay followers, and it is as a client at a session that most people first engage with Umbanda.[185] Successful conssultas attract converts and are a centro's main means of recruitment.[186] Mediums who gain reputations to successful consultations gain prestige; in doing so, they may end up challenging the head of the centro.[187] Such mediums might also split off to form their own centro.[165]

If Exus possess a medium during the session, they will generally be exorcised.[111] If a client is diagnosed as being harassed by Exus, efforts will be made to tirar (pull out) this entity from the person's body. Sometimes, multiple mediums will do so, placing their hands on the patient and absorbing the Exu into themselves; it is believed that they have the ability to defend themselves from its influence.[184]

In White Umbanda, consultations generally always take place as part of the public ceremony, thus emphasizing the idea that they are being offered to clients as a form of charity, rather than as a means of earning money.[175] Umbandist mediums generally do not charge for working with the spirits, but clients will typically support them with material gifts.[188] In more Africanised forms of Umbanda, as in Candomblé, private consultations will also be held outside of public ceremonies.[175]

Services will often be ended with prayers and pontos.[184] The practitioners will then change out of their ceremonial clothing and leave the centre.[184] Umbandist practice can often incorporate Roman Catholic elements. In São Paulo, for instance, it is common for Umbandist groups to recite the Lord's Prayer or Hail Mary during their rituals.[153] Many Umbandist groups have also embraced New Age practices such as aromatherapy, crystal healing, numerology, tarot cartomancy, and chakra realignment.[189]


A particular orixa will be paid ritual homage on the saint's day that correlates with them.[181] These acts of ritual homage are called obrigações (obligations) and will usually take place at a place in the natural environment associated with the orixa in question, for instance a pile of rocks for Xango, at fresh water for Oxum, or at salt water for Yemanja.[181] Ritual homage will also sometimes be made to exus, in which case it is usually done at the crossroads. Offerings to the exus typically include candles, cachaca, cigarettes, and sacrificed black chickens.[111] Many Umbandists believe that performing a homage to these entities goes beyond the bounds of Umbanda and becomes Quimbanda.[111]

In Afro-Brazilian Umbanda

An offering of food to the spirits made in an Umbanda ritual

In Africanized Umbandist terreiros, ceremonies tend to take place on Saturday nights, beginning around 10pm and continuing until dawn.[190] In contrast to the white clothing of White Umbandist groups, practitioners at these ceremonies will often be colorfully dressed.[190] More African-oriented Umbandist groups will often feature practices like animal sacrifice, dancing, and drumming which are found in Afro-Brazilian religions like Candomblé.[191] These are typically avoided by White Umbanda traditions,[142] the practitioners of which sometimes regard such practices as primitive.[192]

The drumming is performed to summon the spirits to appear at the ceremony;[193] different rhythms are often selected for different orixás.[194] Amid the drumming, singing, and dancing in a circle, Umbandists believe that the caboclos, as representatives of the orixás, will appear and possess one of the participants.[195] Later in the ceremony, other caboclos, as well as pretos velhos, exus, and pomba giras, will appear and possess people to offer advice, protection, and healing.[196]

Animals sacrificed in these African-oriented terreiros are usually chickens, although sometimes guinea fowl, sheep, goats, or more rarely bulls are used.[193] Typically, the animal's throat will be cut,[166] after which its corpse may be butchered and body parts placed on the altar.[197] In White Umbanda, these sacrifices are deemed misguided, unnecessary, and cruel, with White Umbandists believing that blood sacrifice attracts the lowest types of spirits and generate bad karma for those engaging in the sacrifice.[198] Various White Umbandists have also questioned why spiritual beings would require nourishment from physical blood.[198]


Clients' problems are often, although not always, attributed to a spiritual cause.[199] Common causes of harm can include malevolent and ignorant spirits from the underworld,[43] karmic retribution from previous lifetimes,[199] or the curses of living humans.[199] Sometimes, the client's problems are diagnosed as evidence that they are ignoring their own undeveloped powers as a medium.[200]

A person may come to Umbanda because they believe that they are being tormented by a malevolent spirit. Umbandist mediums will then cajole the spirit to leave.[201] If a person is repeatedly attacked by spirits, Umbandists may deem that individual to be especially sensitive to spirits and recommend that they become a medium themselves so as to learn to control the issue.[202] To deal with harmful spirits, the medium may encourage their client to create an Umbandist altar in their home, or to light candles intended to dispel harmful spirits and attract good ones.[203]

Umbandist mediums may prescribe herbal or homeopathic remedies for their clients.[204] Umbandists often employ herbal baths or washes called banhos to cleanse and fortify themselves.[205] Another type of herbal infusion, amacis, are more commonly found in Afro-Brazilian Umbanda and are often rooted in Afro-Brazilian medicinal traditions.[206] Herbs used may be collected on specific days based on their astrological associations.[155] Also found in Afro-Brazilian Umbandist groups is a complex healing rite termed the sacudimento (shaking), in which offerings are given to the spirits and prayers and songs are offered.[207]

Practitioners of White Umbanda generally place great faith in mainstream medicine, reflecting the ideological positivism inherited from Spiritism.[208] For these adherents, the spirits are thought to deal primarily with the spiritual aspects of illness, rather than the physical ones.[208]



Umbanda derives from the combination of Afro-Brazilian religions with Spiritism.[16] A variant of the American religion of Spiritualism, Spiritism was developed by the Frenchman Allan Kardec.[209] Kardec's Spiritism combined Spiritualism's general emphasis on spirit mediumship with the Hindu ideas of karma and reincarnation, Christian ethical systems, and the social evolutionism and positivism of Auguste Comte.[210] It placed emphasis on the idea of spirits progressing on a path of moral and intellectual evolution, meaning that there is a distinction between higher, or "evolved" spirits, as well as lesser ones.[211] Spiritism arrived in Brazil circa 1857,[212] where it was often called Kardecismo or Espiritismo.[213] Brazil's Spiritists still often regarding themselves as Roman Catholics.[211] Spiritism proved popular among the largely white Brazilian bourgeoisie,[214] with Rio becoming the hub for Brazilian Spiritist activity.[213] The first Brazilian Spiritist Federation forming in 1884 as an attempt to unify the movement.[215] Throughout Latin America, Spiritism often hybridised with other religious traditions from the 1860s on.[216]

Amid the Atlantic slave trade, between 3.5 and 4 million enslaved Africans were transported to Brazil,[217] with the numbers reaching their highest levels in the 19th century.[218] The trade continued until 1851, with slavery ultimately being abolished in the country in 1888.[217] In Brazil, enslaved Africans were allowed to join Roman Catholic religious brotherhoods, and it was within these that they privately continued the practice of African-derived religious traditions.[219] Different names for Afro-Brazilian traditions arose in different parts of the country;[220] in Salvador, Bahia, these traditions became Candomblé.[221] The 19th century saw Rio de Janeiro become Brazil's economic hub, resulting in growing numbers of Afro-Brazilians moving there.[222] Afro-Brazilian religious groups were first recorded in Rio de Janeiro in the early 20th century, although were probably present in the city beforehand.[221] Candomblé was likely introduced to the city by migrants from Bahia.[223] In the early decades of the 20th century, Candomblé was subject to considerable disapproval from the bourgeoise classes and the dominant Roman Catholic Church, with its terreiros often experiencing police repression.[224]

Brown noted that Umbanda was "deeply influenced" by Spiritism but "diverged from it in many important ways".[140] Umbanda would make the spirits of African and Indigenous American people central to many of its rituals, but in Spiritism these entities were often perceived as being low on the level of spiritual evolution and thus avoided.[225] Umbanda departed from Candomblé in various ways; it reduced the pantheon of orixas found in Candomblé, dropped the practice of animal sacrifice, and simplified the initiation process.[1]


Zélio de Moraes, the founder of the first Umbandist group

Although there may have been various groups merging Spiritist and Afro-Brazilian religious ideas in the early 20th century,[226] Umbanda formed in Rio de Janeiro during the 1920s.[1] Its founders were Kardecist Spiritists who were disappointed with the orthodoxy of Spiritism,[227] and who were interested in the country's Afro-Brazilian religious traditions, which they deemed more exciting and dramatic than those of the Spiritists.[228]

A key figure was Zélio Fernandino de Moraes, founder of the first Umbandist group, the Centro Espírita Nossa Senhora da Piedade (Spiritism Center of Our Lady of Mercy). This initially operated in Niterói from the mid-1920s before moving to the centre of Rio de Janeiro in 1938.[229] According to claims that gained prominence in the 1970s, in 1908, when he was 17 years old, Moraes had been cured of an illness by a highly evolved spirit. His parents then took him to a Spiritist ritual, where the spirit Caboclo Seven Crossroads (Caboclo das Sete Encruzilhadas) incorporated into him. This spirit defended the appearance of African and indigenous spirits that then incorporated in other mediums, despite the Spiritist prejudice towards them.[230]

The term Umbanda may derive from the Portuguese uma banda, meaning "one group".[231] The religion's founding members were mostly white men, largely occupied in middle-class professions involving commerce, government bureaucracy, and the military.[232] Brown suggested that Umbanda could be seen as an attempt by middle-class white Brazilians to exert control over the popular religion of the lower classes.[233] By combining Afro-Brazilian and European ideas, Umbanda was presented as a national religion for Brazil at a time when the country was increasingly being presented as a cultural melting pot.[136]

In 1939, Zélio de Moraes formed the first Umbandist federation, the Umbandist Spiritist Union of Brazil.[234] In 1941, the Primero Congresso do Espiritismo de Umbanda (First Congress of the Spiritism of Umbanda) was held in Rio de Janeiro, representing a collective attempt to codify Umbandist teaching. The congress' proceedings were published in 1942 and highlight Umbanda's origins in Spiritism and the early Umbandists' desire to distinguish themselves from Afro-Brazilian traditions.[235] In turn, some Umbandist groups whose membership was predominantly Afro-Brazilian began maintaining that Umbanda was a religion with African origins,[236] and that anyone not using drumming and animal sacrifice in their rites was not truly practicing Umbanda.[237] In turn, White Umbandist leaders retorted that the Africanised traditions were in fact Quimbanda or Candomblé and were falsely using the term "Umbanda".[238] This confusion may be explained if the term "Umbanda" had been adopted independently both by Zélio de Moraes' group and by certain Afro-Brazilian practitioners.[239]

After the Second World War

From the 1950s on, six other Umbandist federations formed in Rio, three of them open to more Africanised elements.[234] The most important of these was the Umbandist Spiritist Federation, founded in 1952 by Tancredo da Silva Pinto, and which adopted a more African-focused approach.[234] Umbanda began to split into two poles, one closer to Kardecism and eager for social respectability, the other more open to emphasising its Afro-Brazilian roots.[234] In 1967, Moraes stepped down as leader of his group, with the role being taken by his daughter.[240]

Although remaining concentrated in the major cities of southern Brazil, Umbanda spread throughout the country in the years following the Second World War.[241] Brazil's dominant Roman Catholic Church recognised Umbanda's growth, as well as that of Kardecism and Pentecostalism, and mounted a campaign against them.[242] This approach formally ended in 1962, with the changes brought on by the Second Vatican Council.[243]

In 1964, a military dictatorship took power in Brazil.[244] The military government largely protected Umbanda; many soldiers were Umbandists and the junta regarded the religion as a counter to the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, which they perceived as having grown increasingly sympathetic to the political left since the 1950s.[29] From 1965, Umbandist centros/terreiros were permitted to secure legal recognition with just a civil registration.[150] Umbanda also gained recognition as a religion on the Brazilian census.[245] The 1960s and 1970s saw the rapid growth of middle-class participation in Umbanda.[246] After the 1960s and 1970s, the number of Umbandists declined.[247] During the 1970s, Candomblé spread from Bahia into São Paulo, where it grew rapidly, largely at the expense of Umbanda.[248]


Practitioners of Candomblé and Umbanda at an event run by Brazil's Ministry of Culture in 2018

Umbanda grew rapidly after the Second World War.[249] Diana Brown noted that by the 1970s, there were estimates that between 10 and 20 million people, as much as ten percent of Brazil's population, were practicing Umbanda.[241] In 1969, there were estimates that 100,000 Umbandist centros were then active in Brazil.[249] The number of Umbandists declined following the 1970s,[247] although in 1986 Brown suggested that Umbanda still had millions of followers in Brazil.[5] Brown noted that many of those who visit Umbandist centres do so only in emergencies, thus being "casual participants" in the religion.[186] In 2009, Hale suggested that the number of "occasional participants" ran into the millions.[127] Although originally concentrated in Brazil's large southern cities, the religion has spread throughout the country.[241] Brazilian immigrants have also taken the religion to other parts of Latin America like Uruguay as well as to the United States.[250]

Umbandists come from across Brazil's racial and class spectrum,[142] and different centros vary in their racial and class demographic.[3] Based on a research sample from different Rio de Janeiro centros in the late 1960s and 1970s, Brown found that 52 percent were white, 29 percent mulatto, and 18 percent black.[251] Conversely, writing in the early 21st century, Hale thought that most Umbandists were people of color and are working or lower class.[193] Brown also suggested that middle-class practitioners have been more influential in Umbanda's history;[252] middle-class Umbandists have included high-ranking military figures, journalists, and politicians,[150] Brown believed that White Umbandist centros typically had a diverse socio-economic membership,[253] while Africanized Umbandist terreiros had particular appeal for "people in the entertainment world and the arts," gay people, and those in "the upper sectors" of society who were interested in alternative lifestyles.[190]

Many of those who come to Umbanda were raised in a different religion.[8] Brown's research found that most of those who started going to a centro learned of it through family or friends.[254] The main reason that people get involved in Umbanda is because they have a problem and hope that the religion's spirits will be able to identify the cause and provide a remedy.[255] Health concerns are the primary reason for clients going to a centro, but other issues are to do with love, family problems, unemployment, finances, or drinking.[256] For many of these clients, visiting the centro will be a last resort after they have tried other methods of dealing with their problem.[257] Those involved often keep their practice discreet, sometimes not informing family members that they are Umbandists.[258]

Some Umbandists move on to join Candomblé, believing that the latter deals with more powerful supernatural forces and thus resolves problems more readily.[259] Umbanda is sometimes described as an appropriate preparation for Candomblé,[260] and the move from Umbanda to Candomblé can also bring greater prestige within Brazilian society.[261] Umbandist mediums sometimes hold critical views of Candomblé, regarding it as authoritarian,[262] and criticising the high prices charged for initiation into it.[178]

Reception and influence

From the 1950s, Brazil's Roman Catholic establishment campaigned against Umbanda, portraying it as a primitive religion that was frequented by ignorant people.[243] The religion has also been criticised by Protestant groups, which in Brazil are largely Pentecostalist, and which see their own religion and Umbanda as mutually incompatible.[6] Throughout much of the 20th century, Umbanda also faced hostility from Brazilian intellectuals on both the left and right.[263] Brazilian Spiritists have also often looked down upon Umbanda because of the way it deals with what these Spiritists regard as less developed spirits.[140]

Scholarly research into Afro-Brazilian religions began in the late 19th century, although for much of the 20th century the focus was on Candomblé and other traditions deemed to have a "purer" African origin than the more syncretic Umbanda.[264] In the early 1960s, a group of sociologists at the University of São Paulo began to study Umbanda, the most prominent being Roger Bastide, who saw the religion as an expression of urban industrial change.[243] Over following decades, research focused primarily among Afro-Brazilian Umbandists, rather than White Umbandist groups.[265]

Umbanda has also influenced some practitioners of Santo Daime and a tradition called Umbandaime has emerged as a hybridized religion combining elements of both.[14] Umbandist trance states have also been studied by Heathens seeking to create new forms of seiðr.[266]

Neopentecostal Protestantism

In Brazil, Umbanda and other religions with an African basis suffer due to religious intolerance,[267] with born-again neopentecostal religions being the most intolerant with regards to Umbanda, Candomblé, and Kardecism.[268]

Traditional Branches of Candomblé

Some radical practitioners of Candomblé criticize Umbanda because they consider it superficial and believe it does not acknowledge the most important rites of worship of Orixás. Some have also criticized Umbanda for not separating the worship of spirits from the worship of entities, since Candomblé considers Orixás and gods to be purer and of a more primordial energy, and that for that reason, they should not be confounded with the energy of spirits that have lived on Earth.[269]

Praise and Honors

Intangible Cultural Heritage

In 2016, following a study done by the Instituto Rio Patrimônio da Humanidade (Rio Heritage of Humanity Institute), Umbanda became one of Rio de Janeiro's Intangible Cultural Heritages.[270] The study recognized the importance of syncretic Afro-indigenous Brazilian culture, with its religious syncretism being a driving force behind various social facets of great sociocultural impact.[270]

In addition, the Inventário Nacional de Referências Culturais (National Inventory of Cultural References) is in the process of recognition of multiple Umbanda terreiros as cultural heritage sites throughout the state of Rio de Janeiro.[271]



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  • Hale, Lindsay (2009). Hearing the Mermaid's Song: The Umbanda Religion in Rio De Janeiro. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. ISBN 978-0-8263-4733-6.
  • Hayes, Kelly E. (2007). "Black Magic and the Academy: Macumba and Afro-Brazilian "Orthodoxies"". History of Religions. 46 (4): 283–31. JSTOR 10.1086/518811.
  • Johnson, Paul Christopher (2002). Secrets, Gossip, and Gods: The Transformation of Brazilian Candomblé. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195150582.
  • Magliocco, Sabina (2004). Witching Culture: Folklore and Neo-Paganism in America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 978-0-8122-1879-4.
  • Wafer, Jim (1991). The Taste of Blood: Spirit Possession in Brazilian Candomblé. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 978-0-8122-1341-6.
  • Voeks, Robert A. (1997). Sacred Leaves of Candomble: African Magic, Medicine, and Religion in Brazil. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press. ISBN 9780292787315.

Further reading