African-Derived Religions in Brazil

African-derived religions in Brazil include, most prominently, Candomblé and Umbanda, as well as Xango, Batuque, Cantimbo, and Macumba, which are regionally associated traditions. African-derived religions have played an important role in the formation of Afro-Brazilian ethnic identities, both historically and today. Such traditions have been both celebrated and denigrated at different times and by different actors, from the Catholic Church in the post-independence era—which characterized them as evidence of “backwards” African culture and Afro-Brazilians as failing to become “true Catholics”—to today’s Pentecostals, who condemn Candomblé and Umbanda as “devil worship.”

Not all African religions survived to become African-derived religions. Islam, for example, was the religion of many of the Hausa, Fulani, Yoruba, and other slaves brought to Brazil, but was subsumed by other practices that gave rise to Candomblé and Umbanda. Thus, today’s practices represent an amalgam of various traditions, which continue to evolve in conversation with practitioners in Nigeria and elsewhere in West Africa. Though statistics report that Candomblé and other African-derived religious participants are few in number—under 5% of the population—this fails to reflect the many Brazilians who are not initiates but who nonetheless may visit a practitioners (such as a healer), perhaps to address a challenge around health, money, or love. In fact, the 2010 census found that 13% of the Brazilian population claim to have more than one religion, usually Catholic and Umbanda or Catholic and Spiritist.

As suggested by the common Brazilian saying, “if one does not come due to love, one comes due to pain,” solving the problems of life, particularly physical healing, is central to both Candomblé and Umbanda. Illness, diagnosis, and cure all have a supernatural aspect and many of the religious rituals are strategies for maintaining or restoring physical, mental, or social well-being. Possession is another characteristic of African-derived religion, locating liminality within the physical being.


Candomblé draws on the religious traditions of a multiplicity of African ethnic groups, but especially the Yoruba, Fon, and Bantu. Like Santeria and Voudoun elsewhere, Candomblé recognizes a pantheon of deities known as orishas (orixás), many of whom are associated with Catholic saints, a reflection of early syncretism under slavery as slaves were forced to hide their beliefs within the veil of Catholicism. Full participation requires initiation, a lengthy ceremonial process during which an initiate becomes bound to a particular orisha. Daily practice at a terreiro, a Candomblé temple, includes the fulfillment of various ritual obligations, offering food and sometimes animal sacrifices to an orisha or orishas, public and private celebrations, consultations with clients, and celebrations. Public festivities draw a wide range of onlookers, from devotees, to Brazilians and tourists for whom the cultural aspects of Candomblé appeal strongly.


Umbanda is a uniquely Brazilian faith that originated in Rio de Janeiro during the 1920s and spread extensively thereafter. Umbanda practitioners span a continuum of practice along a spectrum that includes elements of African traditions, Catholicism, Spiritism, Kardecism, Hinduism, Buddhism and various forms of mysticism. Practitioners also span a breadth of demographic identifiers. With its nationalist symbols and its white, middle-class adoption of Candomblé traditions Umbanda has a troubled past. To many, especially black practitioners of Candomblé, Umbanda is, at worst, another instance of racial exclusion. At best, middle-class institutional and intellectual leadership reproduces and perpetuates Brazil’s traditional patron-client structure within an urban setting. 

The Umbanda pantheon draws upon the racial troika of racial democracy, providing space for the spirits of old Africans, ex-slaves, and indigenous warrior as well as the white spirits privileged by the European and American-derived Spiritist traditions. Practitioners believe that the spirit world communicates with that of the living via spirit possession and that these spirits can intercede on people’s behalf. Rituals are the means by which such contact is made. Reincarnation, spiritual evolution, and healing also play roles of varying import depending upon the interpretation by the mãe- or pãe-de-santo (titles for female and male priests, respectively) of a particular temple. 

Umbanda’s lack of standardization, its innate syncretism, and its lack of exclusivity allows for continuous reinvention and reception to new cultures and adherents. For example, Umbanda has become popular among Japanese Brazilians. For those living in Brazil it provides a symbol of assimilation; for those who migrated to Japan in the final decades of the twentieth century it serves as a cultural marker. Rejected by the native born Japanese,  immigrants cloak themselves in an explicitly Brazilian identity. Its emphasis on holistic healing has also attracted Western Europeans and North Americans.



Ushi Arakaki, “Japanese-Brazilians among Pretos-Velhos, Caboclos, Buddhist Monks, and Samurais:  An Ethnographic Study of Umbanda in Japan,” The Diaspora of Brazilian Religions, eds. Christina Rocha and Manuel A. Vásquez (Leiden: Brill, 2013), pp. 249-70. 

Diana DeG. Brown, Umbanda Religion and Politics in Urban Brazil (Ann Arbor:  UMI Research Press, 1986).

Alejandro Frigerio, “Umbanda and Batuque in the Southern Cone:  Transnationalization as Cross-Border Religious Flow and Social Field,” The Diaspora of Brazilian Religions, eds. Christina Rocha and Manuel A. Vásquez, (Leiden: Brill, 2013) pp. 165-95. 

Deirdre Meintel and Annick Hernandez, “Transnational Authenticity:  An Umbanda Temple in Montreal,” The Diaspora of Brazilian Religions, eds. Christina Rocha and Manuel A. Vásquez (Leiden: Brill, 2013) pp. 223-47.

Clara Saraiva, “Pretos Velhos across the Atlantic:  Afro-Brazilian Religions in Portugal,” The Diaspora of Brazilian Religions, eds. Christina Rocha and Manuel A. Vásquez (Leiden: Brill, 2013), pp. 197-222. 

Stephen Selka, Religion and the Politics of Ethnic Identity in Bahia, Brazil (Tampa: University Press of Florida, 2007).

Robin E. Sheriff, Dreaming Equality: Color, Race, and Racism in Urban Brazil (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001), p. 13.

Manuel A. Vásquez and Christina Rocha, “Introduction:  Brazil in the New Global Cartography of Religion,” The Diaspora of Brazilian Religions, ed. Christina Rocha and Manuel A. Vásquez (Leiden: Brill, 2013), pp. 1-42.