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date: 23 April 2017

Popular Religion in Colonial Brazil

Summary and Keywords

Popular religiosity in colonial Brazil was marked by the process of colonization, which placed populations of differing ethnic and cultural origins together in dynamic and conflicting ways. On the one hand, the lived experiences of these various populations reflected the beliefs of their continent of origin: Europe, Africa, and America. On the other hand, they were unavoidably intertwined, giving rise to novel forms of religious practice. Heterodox behaviors were notable from the beginning of colonization, adding to the peculiarities of the slave system that constituted colonial life and defined its social relations. In a vast territory over which the surveillance and control of religious institutions—both ecclesiastical and inquisitorial—proved unworkable, daily experiences of religiosity became increasingly distinct from the more dogmatic and “official” traits sustained by the Catholic Church. A particular type of religiosity, as heterodox and mixed as the population itself, took shape within the limits of Catholicism while continuously escaping its confines. Catholicism endured from the earliest times as the guiding orientation of Brazil, supported by the Crown as well as regular and secular clergy alike. The education of the elites was Catholic, and many of the earliest writings about the new land of Brazil came from the quills of the pious, producing foundational images marked by religious metaphors. For these reasons, popular religiosity reveals a great deal about the nature of Brazilian culture, and it is necessary to analyze it within the context of broader dynamics that define popular beliefs that do not always fit within the orthodox guidelines of official Catholicism and erudition.

Keywords: Miscegenation, lived experiences, brotherhoods, heterodoxy, calundu, translation, inquisition, slavery, culture, religiosity

Early Times: Faith, Commerce, Colonization

The incorporation of what is now Brazil to the Portuguese empire took place within the context of the great European navigations, within which the most important actors were the Italians, Spanish, and Portuguese. Although the intentions of these groups were decidedly economic, scholars of the Early Modern period now consider it wrong to separate the economic sphere from the religious. For example, a traveling companion of Vasco da Gama (1497–1498), João Nunes, perfectly expressed what had brought the Portuguese to India: “We have come to seek Christians and spices,” Nunes replied when asked by two Tunisian Moors.1 From that point on, throughout the 16th century, propagation of the faith was always cited as one of the essential motifs of Portuguese exploration, with chroniclers and observers generally supporting the notion of the “Kingdom of God for Portugal,” often invoked in the 17th century by Father Vieira, perhaps its greatest exponent. Having exploited the commercial potential of the new land—especially its Brazilwood—since 1500, King Dom João III decided in 1549 to officially colonize Brazil: the ships that arrived in Salvador brought the first governor-general, Tomé de Sousa; officials and instruments that enabled the establishment of local administration; seeds; domestic animals; and Jesuit missionaries. Three decades later, about 180 sugar mills ground sugar cane along the coast from Pernambuco to Bahia, and the first visit of the Inquisition of Lisbon arrived in the region to investigate deviations from the faith and to root out heretics. Thus was established the tripod that would sustain the occupation of Portuguese America: faith, commerce, and colonization.2

Relations between the agents of faith, commerce, and administration were not always harmonious. Throughout the 17th century, for example, missionaries and settlers became embroiled in frequent conflicts over the enslavement of the natives. The very name of the land was debated in ways that expressed conflicting views, one religious and one secular. Although official documents early on adopted the designation “Brazil,” common among the merchants of the red wood used to produces dyes, men of letters generally preferred another name: Terra de Santa Cruz, given at the time of Pedro Alvares Cabral’s expedition in 1500, when he took possession of the land on behalf of the Portuguese crown. In his most famous book, Décadas (1552–1563), humanist João de Barros defended the religious moniker, while the first history of Brazil, written in 1627 by the Franciscan friar Vicente do Salvador, sought to explain why the profane name prevailed. Although he found it more appropriate to commemorate the sacred wood on which Jesus had died—the cross—rather than the red wood that made the merchants’ fortune—Brazilwood—Vicente do Salvador attributed the triumph of commerce over faith to the work of the devil.3

With its name invoked in the struggle between God and the devil, many of the conceptions formulated regarding the new land were imbued with religious meaning. In 1711, the Jesuit Antonil considered Brazil “the hell of blacks, the purgatory of whites, and the paradise of mulattoes”4—a vast colony/purgatory where the inhabitants of the kingdom went to penitently wash away their sins (more than a few were sent there as degredados), yearning, like their souls, for the day when they could attain salvation, in this case, the return to Portugal. In classifying Brazil as a mulatto paradise, the Jesuit used a religious metaphor to characterize the miscegenation that was already becoming the defining feature of the budding society.5

Religious names and symbols thus marked the beginning of colonization in Brazil. The first urban settlements almost always invoked “Christian mythology”: São Vicente, São Salvador da Bahia, São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro, and São Paulo de Piratininga.6 In the first decades of the 18th century, a mining boom led to the establishment of several new villages, most of which were also given religious names: Vila de Nossa Senhora do Ribeirão do Carmo, Vila Real de Nossa Senhora da Conceição do Sabará, Vila de São João del Rei, and Vila Bela da Santíssima Trindade, to name a few. The religious character of urban settlements helped justify colonization, and the transfer of relics further legitimized the process: body parts of martyred missionaries and saints central to the Christian tradition—for example, Saint Francis Xavier and the eleven thousand virgins of Saint Ursula—traveled within the Portuguese empire, reinforcing the sacredness of local churches and urban centers, narrowing the symbolic links between catechesis and martyrdom. The blood of missionaries killed by the natives, like the Jesuit priests Pero Correia and Francisco Pinto, enabled dialogues and translations between the cultural universe of Europeans and of the Amerindians, while at the same time facilitating the preeminence of the Old World over the New.7

In a geographic space and in a historical context steeped in religiosity, erudite and popular expressions of faith maintained permanently dynamic relations, often making it difficult to separate the official Catholicism of the church from that practiced in the everyday lives of individuals. From the earliest moments of the evangelizing mission and the implantation of the ecclesiastical apparatus, multiple appropriations took place in every direction.

The Variety of Lived Religious Experiences

Distance was one of the defining features of colonial life. An ocean set Brazil apart as an administrative unit from its metropolis, Portugal. Internally, Brazil was composed of many parts, “the conquests,” as was often said, separated from each other by months of travel, depending on the region. The first bishopric of Brazil was created in Bahia in 1551, but the ecclesiastical structure was installed very slowly: by the 18th century, there were fewer than a dozen bishoprics throughout the territory. The supervision of religious practices, left to the individual dioceses and carried out by means of “visits” to the various territories, was therefore often extremely tenuous and rarefied, enabling a multifaceted religious experience to take shape according to the different cultures and customs of the colonial populations coming from Europe, Africa—so vast and varied—and distinctive indigenous groups. In this context, religious orders assumed a central role, with missionary activity engaging in the conversion of the populations and shaping their forms of devotion.

Perhaps surprisingly, this peculiar religious experience was not only due to the presence of non-Christianized populations. The vast, sparsely populated territory, with the exception of indigenous peoples, attracted religious dissidents persecuted both in Portugal—where the Inquisition had been active since 1536—and in the rest of Europe, riven by religious wars until the end of the 16th century. If Jews, new Christians—converted Iberian Jews—and Protestants of different sects sought shelter in the new land, most white men who arrived were Catholics, many of whom brought heterodox religious practices from their regions of origin, including traces of magism and other beliefs drawn from European popular culture. Moreover, many of the Portuguese Catholics who arrived had been exiled for various offenses, several of them concerning crimes against the Catholic faith, punished both by the Ecclesiastical Judgment—concubinage, for example—and by the Holy Office. The latter had jurisdiction over a wide range of “moral crimes”—the most common being bigamy, sodomy, and blasphemy against religious saints and dogmas—as well as the heretical practices of baptized Catholics, such as professing Judaism and Protestantism, or participating in witchcraft.

The beliefs of Pedro de Rates Henequim illustrate how the practices of European religiosity could be reworked in a colonial setting and in the daily interaction with other cultural traditions. The son of a Dutch father and a Portuguese mother, he was born and raised in Lisbon, oscillating between the Catholic and Protestant worlds. As an adult, he decided to try his luck in Brazil, where gold mines were flourishing and where he became acquainted with indigenous beliefs. Back in Lisbon, he became attracted by Jewish culture, especially Cabala. A constant reader of the Bible, he reinterpreted the great themes of Christianity and human history, such as the divine nature of the Virgin Mary, the sex of the angels, the Holy Trinity, and the eternal nature of sentences to Hell (which he questioned). Some of his propositions concerned Brazil directly: that the Portuguese language was the first spoken in the world, God having taught it to Adam in Paradise, and should thus be enforced throughout the Fifth Empire; that the latter was approaching and would take place in Brazil; that earthly paradise was in America, below the equinoctial line; that bananas were the fruit of the Tree of Life; that the entrance to hell lay behind a black boulder under an inscription that read, in Portuguese, “who as God”; that when, at the creation of the world, Earth was covered with water, Brazil remained above sea level, as it did also when the great deluge occurred.8

Henequim had been deeply affected by his time in Brazil between the end of the 17th century and the first years of the 18th century. If he had ever been certain on matters of faith, his worldview was shaken by the multiple possibilities of religious experience he witnessed during the Portuguese conquest of America.

The native population was initially the primary target for missionaries and, at the same time, the main justification for Portuguese colonization. Evangelization would enable the Amerindians to rejoin the church, to which they had supposedly once belonged. Scholars at the time assumed that the twelve apostles had evangelized the entire planet, a notion perhaps based on a literal interpretation of Psalm 18:5, which reads: “in omnem earth exivit sonus eorum et in finis orbi terrae verba eorum.” Coming from the East—where, in India, the Portuguese actually found Christian communities at the end of the 15th century—Saint Thomas was believed to have preached among the Amerindians. During the first century of colonization, Jesuits like Father Manuel da Nóbrega and Fernão Cardim supported this view by pointing to evidence such as the footprints of the apostle impressed upon the land and riverbeds and also the fact that the native populations worshipped a deity called Zumé. Saint Thomas supposedly preaching on the South American continent is perhaps the only mythical formulation that the Portuguese colonizers were capable of imagining, being less prodigal in that sense than the Spaniards.9

Indigenous mythology, for its part, intertwined with the preachings of the Jesuits, evangelizers par excellence during the early days of colonization, before the arrival of Franciscans, Carmelites, and Mercedarians. The multifaceted Santidades that emerged between the mid-16th century and the early 17th century represent a peculiar fruit of the cultural exchange between the Catholicism espoused by the Society of Jesus and indigenous millenarian beliefs, like the Tupi myth of the land without evil. In one of the most famous Santidades, set in the sugar plantation of Jaguaripe in the fertile area around the Bay of All Saints in Bahia known as the recôncavo, a young Indian who had studied in the Jesuit schools proclaimed to numerous followers that a great flood would come, from which the adherents of his sect would be safe. He was aided by an Indian woman whom they called the Mother of God, and performed rituals that incorporated elements of Catholic rites such as saints and crucifixes into traditional indigenous dances. The plantation owner appeared to cover up the religious movement and even adhere to it, whether out of conviction or in order to manipulate and better avail himself of the indigenous workforce.10

Africans began to arrive in considerable numbers during the last decades of the 16th century. Those who were not already Christian—like the ones from the kingdom of Congo—had to be baptized, whether in Africa before embarking or on American soil as soon as they landed. It was up to slave owners to provide for the religious instruction of their slaves and to ensure that priests regularly administered the sacraments. Conversion justified the enslavement of black men, women, and children, and there is a vast literature, lay and religious, that justified this order of things: the slaves suffered on earth but supposedly won the heavens. Bearers of ancient and deep-rooted beliefs and magico-religious conceptions—or simply religious, as is said with increasing frequency—African populations and their descendants developed a rich and distinctive religiosity that still exists in Brazilian daily life. In addition to bringing together and even merging deities from their places of origin with figures from European Catholicism, they adopted practices and developed rituals in which it is possible to observe, in concomitant and sometimes superimposed or amalgamated ways, elements specific to these different traditions. For example, the carrying mandinga bags and the rituals of calundu were both widespread throughout almost the entire colonial territory as of the 1600s, intensifying during the 18th century.

Mandinga bags were cloth-made amulets also used in Europe, known there as bolsas de corporais, to protect its wearer by “closing its body.” They were especially prized among the black population, free and enslaved, and widely traded in Brazil and throughout the Portuguese empire. They differed from European bolsas by incorporating elements that reflected the mixture of distinct cultural traditions: writings with symbols drawn from specific beliefs in various parts of Africa, fragments of pages from the Koran and Catholic prayers, body parts of people and animals—hair, teeth, nails, bones—pieces of communion wafers, and even stones from the altar on which the Catholic Mass was officiated. The ritual preparation of mandinga bags endowed them with potency and efficacy: herbal infusions and smokes, observing certain times, midnight being especially significant. Also known as Malinkê, the Mandingas were originally peoples inhabiting the kingdom of Mali. The fact that they were especially fond of using these types of amulets explains why their name has come to designate these artifacts while their followers have become known as mandingueiros, a term that remains in use in Brazil to this day.11

The calundus are one of the magical-religious practices referred to most often in the documentation, encompassing varied rites sometimes private and sometimes public in nature. For more intimate ceremonies, they required only a small room and artifacts linked to material life—pans, basins, jars—while for larger ones they needed more spacious settings inside or outside the home, such as yards, where an audience could watch and, along aided by music and rhythms, participate in the ritual and the acts of possession which were central to the role of the officiant. The latter, in both cases, was designated as a calunduzeiro and regarded his fate as a disease linked to Africa and his ancestors making clear the inescapable nature of the spiritual practice: it could not be fought; rather one had to accept it and, through the ritual, perform cures and divinations.

While there are cases of calundus in which Catholic traits are apparent—such as the allusion to saints—there is, on the other hand, the possibility that calundu represents an effort by Africans torn from their homeland to confront the uprooting that had victimized them. From this perspective, calundu was also a way of thinking and of being in the world while in an uncertain state, as slavery in Portuguese America was.12

Mestizo Catholicism

The religious experiences of colonial populations were frequently linked to externalized displays, which does not, of course, negate desires for more intimate and reserved communication with the supernatural, an aspect that is always more difficult to document. Festivals, dances, and irreverent and free attitudes marked many religious demonstrations, often also characterized by the establishment of affective relations to the divine. Masterfully analyzed by Gilberto Freyre, this affective religiosity had as one of its peculiar traits the establishment of close and even irreverent relations with the saints, bringing them to life amid daily and domestic concerns. This domesticated Catholicism marked the lives of people at different social levels. Saint Anthony is one of the best-known examples: he became the patron of causes connected to the world of affection; a holy matchmaker placed in a corner of the house as punishment when he proved indifferent to appeals made to him while at the same time serving as a relentless aid in the search for escaped slaves. Devotion to Saint Anthony, in short, combined tenderness and cruelty. And there were others, like Saint Gonçalo do Amarante, “matchmaker of old women,” or Santa Rita de Cassia, patroness of impossible causes. Domestic religiosity touched various aspects of daily life, including the senses. Freyre’s analysis of the sweets made in the big houses of plantations in the Brazilian northeast, where religiosity and the senses had been coming together since colonial times, is particularly suggestive, representing the pleasures of sex and the palate. The highly eroticized names of sweets, expressed in popular and almost crass terms, attests to this overlap: girl tongue (língua-de-moça), nun’s belly (barriga-de-freira), old-man raiser (levanta-velho), angel chatters (papos-de-anjo), and pamperings from heaven (mimos-do-céu).13

The precariousness of the institutional network of the Church during colonial times resulted in laypeople organizing various religious associations: the brotherhoods (irmandades), confraternities, and third orders dedicated to various invocations like saints, Our Lady, and the Blessed Sacrament with the purpose of assisting members—including through monetary loans—with funeral expenses and requiem masses. Promoting and hosting devotions while also celebrating important festivities of the religious calendar, these organizations materially sustained the Catholic faith, filling the void left by the precarious implantation of ecclesiastical institutions.14

In certain regions, confraternities were tied to social and ethnic groups. At the extremes, there were brotherhoods restricted to wealthy white men and others for mestizos and blacks. There are cases that suggest efforts to recreate African ethnic communities within certain black brotherhoods, like the Nossa Senhora do Rosário confraternity. Some black populations appropriated images linked to literate elites, one of the most interesting examples being the cult of Saint Efigênia and Saint Elesbão, considered to be natives of Africa and central to the Christianization of that continent. The brotherhood of these saints was founded in 1740 in Rio de Janeiro with most of its membership coming from the so-called Slave Coast, also known as the Mina region. They unified their worship by seemingly embracing both saints as devotional symbols that enabled a dialogue with the ancestral gods of their region of origin. The situation in Minas Gerais at the same time, however, appears different, where devotion to the saints (it is not clear that these saints are Santo Elesbão and Santa Efigênia, as in Rio) was disassociated and its symbolism identified with varied groups, not just Africans from the Mina Coast. This discrepancy indicates that ethnic groups and the cult of the saints had a historical and dynamic character, changing in time and space depending on specific situations. According to Anderson Oliveira, in the brotherhoods “the lived experience of the sect made it possible for black groups to assert relative autonomy in the face of the hegemonic religiosity pursued by the Church.”15 In general, however, devotion to saints constituted a kind of demarcation that signaled and, through the rites of worship and festivities, reinforced the identity of the group. Congregating themselves “around patron saints, Africans and their descendants created bonds of solidarity that allowed them to achieve a degree of autonomy amidst the hardships of the slave system.”16

The established powers—the Church and Crown, but also slave owners—recognized the strength and importance of this mestizo Catholicism, woven throughout the centuries, constitutive of the colonizing process. They mixed repression with acceptance, using such forms of religiosity to, at best, alleviate the suffering of the slaves and, in a cruder sense, to avert uprisings. Two of the most celebrated Baroque feasts of the colonial period, that of the Triunfo Eucarístico in 1733 and the Aureo Trono Episcopal in 1748, both in the gold-mining region of Minas Gerais, marked religious events: the former commemorated the transfer of the Santíssimo Sacramento da Igreja do Rosário dos Pretos to the parish church of Nossa Senhora do Pilar, while the latter celebrated the arrival of the first bishop to the region. Melding elements of the sacred and profane, and erudite and popular language, its protagonists were elite white men as well as Indians and blacks. The festive rites sought to convey the idea that there was room for everyone in that world, as if enormous social distances could be elided by belonging to the commonwealth of the Church.17

Coronation festivals for the Congo king were also eloquent expressions of colonial Brazil’s mestizo Catholicism. Held in honor of the saints worshipped by black groups within brotherhoods and comprising the symbolic coronation of one of its members, elected annually as “Congo king” (rei Congo), they reached their most significant moment between the 18th and first half of the 19th century. The king, with his respective queen, was crowned by the priest within the brotherhood church. Before and after the act, he traversed the city accompanied by a procession, songs, and dramatic dances. The festive rite combined royal insignias—robes, a scepter, and special clothes for the kings, the royal figure (the Congo king), and the saints; invocations of the community’s saint, such as Nossa Senhora do Rosário; and dramatic dances and merriment. Music, verses, and “dance steps and props identified with African peoples,” along with the use of alcohol (aguardente), lent a profane tone to the festivity.

Composed of distinct African traditions, these feasts thus recovered elements from the native lands of many black groups through expressions of Christian faith, “present since the sixteenth century in the region of the ancient kingdom of the Congo.” Through this ancestral African Catholicism, the slaves and their descendants created a particular religiosity, flexible enough to accommodate both ancestral and Catholic beliefs. With the decline of slavery in the second half of the 19th century, these religious feasts lost their vigor and the slave owners stopped supporting them, which attests to the importance they held as an element of compromise at the heart of the slave system.18

The story of Rosa Maria Egipcíaca da Vera Cruz is another example of the possibilities of this mestizo Catholicism. By 1725, at the age of six, Rosa had been brought from the Mina Coast and sold as a slave to an important family in the gold-mining region of Minas Gerais, where, in addition to her work in the house, she acted as a prostitute. Attacks, possessions, and religious visions drove her away from that life, drawing her closer to an exorcist priest who became her confessor—she had been accused of witchcraft and was forced to flee. She then went to Rio de Janeiro, where she became famous, supposedly founded a shelter (recolhimento) for religious women, learned to read and write, was celebrated as a saint, spread the devotion of the three hearts (Jesus, Mary, and Joseph), invented a Rosário de Santana, and had a premonition that a new flood would inundate Portuguese America and it would fall to her to guide people toward salvation by joining the Recolhimento do Parto, the shelter she had helped to create. Rosa would end up arrested and prosecuted by the Inquisition, responding to the charges against her in Lisbon. Unlike her exorcist and confessor, she was convicted and, with her sentence read into the Auto de Fé in 1765, Rosa disappears from the documents and the outcome of her story remains unknown.

Rosa identified with Tridentine Catholicism and the baroque piety of her time, and was prone to displays of ecstasy and visions. In that way, she was similar to many other European visionaries. Why, then, read her story as an example of colonial Brazil’s mestizo Catholicism? Because lived religious experience was the acculturating element that offered her an unusual trajectory for a newly arrived African: as her biographer Luiz Mott observed, similar paths were more common in the second generation of Afro-descendants; that is, among blacks known as Creoles. In order to record her mystical visions and notions, Rosa learned to read and write when she was over thirty years old, and it is a pity that her work, “The Holy Theology of the Love of God, Bright Light of Pilgrim Souls,” (“Sagrada Teologia do Amor de Deus, Luz Brilhante das Almas Peregrinas”) has been lost. It was possibly the first such work written in a Luso-American setting by a black woman who had escaped captivity. In an effort to overcome the distance between beliefs from her native land and those from where she was forced to grow up, Rosa proved more realistic than the king, or rather more strictly Catholic than the Catholics had been for generations: as a hyperbolic person, she exaggerated in everything, multiplying by three the number of people in the group devoted to the Sacred Heart that was just taking shape in Europe: “Rosa is our Afro-Brazilian Margarida Maria [Alacoque].”19 In devising a “Rosary of Santana,” introducing a prayer dedicated to her in place of the “Hail Mary,” and altering the color of the beads, Rosa seemed to associate, on one hand, the Catholic imperative of honoring one’s elders—the ancestry of the Holy Family—as a way of fighting new enlightened ideas, and, on the other hand, the desire to reconstitute kinship bonds among enslaved Africans.20

With regard to the memory of the body and gestures, Rosa Maria Egipcíaca, who wanted to be holy and beloved by Jesus and who on so many points was in tune with the baroque religiosity of Europe in her time, habitually smoked a pipe and, from time to time, danced the fandango near the church choir, as if participating in the festivities so dear to other Afro-Brazilians, the ones that marked the activity of the brotherhoods.

Discussion of the Literature

For a long time, popular religiosity during the colonial period generally interested folklorists and scholars of popular culture, Afro-Brazilians in particular, without attracting much attention from historians, who in some of the foundational works of Brazilian historiography did not address the topic.21 The subject was not mentioned, for example, in História Geral do Brasil (1854–1857) by Francisco Adolfo de Varnhagen (1816–1878), or in Capítulos de História Colonial (1907) by João Capistrano de Abreu (1853–1927). Nor is it discussed in seminal works such as Raízes do Brasil (1936) by Sérgio Buarque de Holanda (1902–1982). Gilberto Freyre (1900–1987), in Casa Grande e Senzala (1933), was the first to broach popular religiosity within a historical and anthropological reflection on Brazil, associating, in an original and influential analysis, religiosity with everyday concerns: sexuality, affection, harvests, and animal diseases. It was also Freyre who best understood, in his time, the dynamic and multifaceted character of popular religiosity, drawing attention to the permeability between Portuguese and other traditions, notably those of African origin. Religiosity interested Freyre because it contained elements that could lead to a more thorough understanding of colonization itself.

While significant studies emerged over the following decades regarding institutional aspects of Catholicism, popular religiosity was only indirectly addressed in studies of brotherhoods and confraternities.22 Considering that popular religiosity is the study of lived religious experience, as opposed to institutions and the more formal aspects of religion,23 Anita Novinski’s pioneering work on Portuguese-Brazilian converts in the 17th century inaugurated a vast literature on New Christians in the colonial period based on documents from the archives of the Portuguese Inquisition.24 Until that point, New Christians had been primarily studied in the context of their economic activity. The novelty of Novinski’s work was in analyzing the subject in socio-cultural perspective and emphasizing the ambiguity of the religious experiences of these historical subjects, considered to be torn between distinct universes: Catholic, Jewish, and that of converts.

Studies in the 1980s represented an inflection point. They were heavily influenced by the growing trend of revisiting inquisitorial sources and the work of researchers such as Novinski and Mott, who wrote important works on sexuality and popular religiosity using techniques of anthropology and ethnography. Also influential was the growing popularity in Brazilian universities of histories of French mentalité—strongly marked by the sociology of religions—and exponents of European cultural history. Scholars were increasingly interested in studying the religious experiences of the common man and understanding religiosity as varied, ambiguous, and multifaceted, utilizing an interdisciplinary approach.25 Just as Freyre had done, scholars sought to link religiosity with colonization in order to highlight the circulation of varied and distinct beliefs within the Portuguese empire, particularly its Atlantic segment. O Diabo e a Terra de Santa Cruz (1986), dealt precisely with that flow of people and beliefs, as did Vainfas’s Trópico dos Pecados (1989). That is also the main theme of Mott’s Rosa Egipcíaca—uma santa africana no Brasil Colonial (1993). These works intended to demonstrate, from varying angles and perspectives, that popular religiosity during colonial times must be understood within the framework of the colonizing process, in which the slavery of African blacks occupied a central role.

Studies published in the following two decades deepened thematic lines of research and reassessed documents of the Inquisition in various ways. Moving beyond the more general analyses present in previous works, they opted for specifics: the mandinga bags (Daniela Calainho, 2008); calundu (Alexandre Marcussi, 2015); and individuals considered heretical or heterodox, such as João Nunes (Angelo Adriano Faria de Assis, 2013)26, Pedro de Rattes Henequin (Plínio Freire Gomes, 1997) or Domingos Alvares.27 Studies of institutions also contributed to our understanding of religious experience, clarifying aspects of New Christian religiosity, as Bruno Feitler did in 2003,28 or the religiosity of the colonial population more broadly, as Aldair Carlos Rodrigues achieved through analysis of ecclesiastic courts (2011) and the networks of relatives of the Holy Office (2014).29

Drawing on other forms of documentation and influences—the renewed historiography on slavery and the African continent, for example—there has been a proliferation of studies on Afro-Brazilian popular Catholicism. The work of Mariza de Carvalho Soares on religiosity and ethnic identity in the brotherhoods of Rio de Janeiro (2000)30 and Marina de Mello e Souza’s on the festivals of the Congo king (2002) are part of this newer line. Increasingly, scholars paid special attention to the peculiarities of the various African regions from which the slaves came, their specific cultural traditions, and the differences between ethnic and linguistic groups, leading to the conclusion that practices formerly considered to be products of multiple cultural traditions in fact were predominantly African in origin. Regarding the phenomenon of calundu, for example, which I studied extensively, I revised my original positions (2002 and 2011) without, however, being able to make much further progress. Reis (1988), Mott (1994), Sweet (2003), and, more recently, Marcussi (2015) have emphasized the need to understand calundu within the framework of Central African religious beliefs and practices. For Marcussi, calundu is a sophisticated intellectual expression capable of allowing Africans and their descendants to confront the uprooting caused by the violence of trafficking and slavery.31 These analyses combine a more attentive grasp of the nature and internal dynamics of religious beliefs with the historical and cultural contexts in which they occurred. The book A formação do Candomblé by Parés is, in that sense, exemplary, linking the development of the rite to the complex differentiation between the many ethnicities of African origin.32

In the last decades, there have been works on religion as a space of complex cultural translations between Europeans and indigenous people. The conflictual coexistence between missionaries and Tapuia Indians in the backlands of the northeast was the object of Pompa’s study (2002), while Jesuit catechisms inspired by European traditions and administered among the indigenous populations were the focus of Agnolin’s book (2007).33 Both works draw from Italian historical-religious anthropology and illustrate how that approach can be useful in juxtaposing and relating discourses produced by distinct cultural universes that the colonizing process forced together in increasingly intricate ways. It seems to be a positive alternative to the “anthropocentric view” that, as scholars working on Afro-Brazilian religiosity commonly fear, might cloud our understanding of popular religiosity during colonial times.

With distinctive approaches and varied perspectives that become dated over time and then renew themselves again—syncretism, acculturation, transculturation, cultural miscegenation, translation34—studies of popular religiosity are of consistent interest to scholars and certainly still have much to reveal and a long way to go.

Primary Sources

In order to access the religious practices of a largely illiterate population, it is imperative to consult sources produced by established powers that were often engaged in suppressing such manifestations. This obviously requires careful attention and appropriate methodologies. Among the most important primary sources are the archives of the Court of the Holy Office in Lisbon (largely available today on the Torre do Tombo National Archives website) and the ecclesiastical courts of the different bishoprics and archbishoprics in Brazil as well as in Africa and Portugal.35 The documents of the Inquisition are quite varied. In addition to the suits and sentences, widely used by historians in the 1980s and 1990s, there are other types of records, such as prosecutor notes (Cadernos do promotor), which have served recent researchers such as Sweet. The well-known visitations carried out by the Court of the Holy Office in Brazil are all published, which does not exclude the possibility of finding unpublished documents related to it in the archives, as happened with the third visitation.36

Documentation produced by the brotherhoods is another precious source: statutes, regiments, lists of the members, as well as parochial records that can contribute to our understanding of popular festivities. For what has been called “African Catholicism” and for more institutional aspects, such as the ordination of a black and mestizo clergy, it is necessary to consult priestly licensing records, which examined the requests of candidates for entry into secular religious life.37 This documentation is almost entirely in manuscript form. The religious orders also have precious private archives. In what concerns the Society of Jesus, for example, there are letters and published documents that greatly facilitate research.38 A lot of the missionary documentation has been published and fruitfully consulted, as have the travel reports of laypeople and religious actors.39 For Brazil, the documentation produced by travelers, widely used by Gilberto Freyre, must be employed with care since it all refers to the 19th century, when the colony, under the initiative of the prince regent D. João de Bragança (later D. João VI), opened Brazilian ports to foreigners. For the first centuries, however, there are the accounts of non-Portuguese Europeans who were in Brazil under temporary occupations by the French (1555–1559, 1612–1614) and Dutch (1630–1654). These records are precious to understanding early Amerindian religiosity.40 For the conversion of Amerindians and Africans, writings that include chronicles and moral treatises have been profitably consulted by researchers, always mindful of the biases inherent in the documentation.41

Further Reading

Avila, Afonso. O lúdico e as projeções do mundo barroco. São Paulo: Perspectiva, 1971.Find this resource:

Bastide, Roger. Les Religions Africaines au Brésil. Vers une sociologie des interpretations de civilisations. Paris: PUF, 1960.Find this resource:

Boschi, Caio. Os leigos e o poder—irmandades leigas e política colonizadora em Minas Gerais. São Paulo: Atica, 1986.Find this resource:

Marcussi, Alexandre Almeida. Cativeiro e Cura—Experiências religiosas da escravidão atlântica nos calundus de Luzia Pinta, séculos XVII–XVIII. PhD diss., University of São Paulo, 2015.Find this resource:

Mott, Luiz. Rosa Egipcíaca: uma santa africana no Brasil. Rio de Janeiro: Bertrand Brasil, 1993.Find this resource:

Mott, Luiz. “Cotidiano e vivência religiosa: entre a capela e o calundu.” In História da Vida Privada no Brasil—Cotidiano e Vida Privada na América Portuguesa. Vol. 1. Edited by Laura de Mello e Souza, 155–220. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1997.Find this resource:

Oliveira, Anderson José Machado de. Devoção negra—santos pretos e catequese no Brasil colonial. Rio de Janeiro: Quartet/FAPERJ, 2008.Find this resource:

Pares, Luís Nicolau. The Formation of Candomblé. Vodun History and Ritual in Brazil. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Pompa, Cristina. Religião como tradução—missionários Tupi e Tapuia no Brasil Colonial. São Paulo: EDUSC/ANPOCS, 2003.Find this resource:

Soares, Mariza de Carvalho. Devotos da Cor—identidade étnica, religiosidade e escravidão no Rio de Janeiro, século XVIII. Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 2000.Find this resource:

Souza, Laura de Mello e. The Devil and the Land of the Holy Cross—Witchcraft, Slavery and Popular Religion in Colonial Brazil. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Souza, Marina de Mello e. Reis negros no Brasil escravista—história da festa de coroação de rei congo. Belo Horizonte, Brazil: Editora UGMG, 2002.Find this resource:

Sweet, James H. Domingos Alvares, African Healing, and the Intellectual History of the Atlantic World. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Vainfas, Ronaldo. A heresia dos índios—catolicismo e rebeldia no Brasil colonial. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1995.Find this resource:

Vainfas, Ronaldo. Trópico dos Pecados. Moral, Sexualidade e Inquisição no Brasil Colonial. 2d ed. Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 2010.Find this resource:


(1.) Sanjay Subrahmanyam, O império asiático português, 1500–1700—uma história política e econômica (Lisbon: DIFEL, 1993), 82–83.

(2.) Stuart Schwartz, Sugar Plantations in the Formation of Brazilian Society—Bahia, 1550–1835 (Cambridge, U.K.: University of Cambridge Press, 1985). For documentation related to inquisition visits, see topic related to sources. Ronaldo Vainfas, Trópico dos Pecados. Moral, Sexualidade e Inquisição no Brasil Colonial, 2d ed. (Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 2010).

(3.) “However, inasmuch as the devil, with the sign of the cross, lost all dominion that he had over men, and feared losing as well the great share that he had over those of this land, he endeavored that the first name be forgotten and the name of Brazil remain, because of a wood so called, fiery red in color, with which they dye cloths, rather than that of the divine wood, which gave color and virtue to all the sacrements of the Church” (Frei Vicente Salvador, História do Brasil—1500–1627, 3d ed. [São Paulo: Melhoramentos, n.d.]); Laura de Mello e Souza, The Devil and the Land of the Holy Cross—Witchcraft, Slavery and Popular Religion in Colonial Brazil, trans. Diane Grosklaus Whitty (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003); and Laura de Mello e Souza, “O Nome do Brasil,” Revista de História 145 (2001): 61–86.

(4.) André João Antonil, Cultura e Opulência do Brasil por suas Drogas e Minas (Lisbon: Comissão para a Comemoração dos Descobrimentos Portugueses, 1998).

(5.) Souza, The Devil, 3–44.

(6.) On Christianity as mythology, see Hilário Franco Jr., A Eva Barbada—Ensaios de Mitologia Medieval (São Paulo: EDUSP, 1996).

(7.) Maria Manuela Carneiro da Cunha, “Da Guerra das Relíquias ao Quinto Império—importação e exportação na História do Brasil,” Novos Estudos 44 (1996): 73–87; and Renato Cymablista, Sangue, ossos e terras—os mortos e a ocupação do território luso-brasileiro—séculos XVI e XVII (São Paulo: Alameda, 2011).

(8.) “As 101 teses de Henequim.” Plínio Freire Gomes, Um herege vai ao Paraíso—Cosmologia de um ex-colono condenado pela Inquisição (1680–1744) (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1997), 154–169, transcription on p. 166.

(9.) Luís Filipe F. R. Thomaz, “A Lenda de S. Tomé Apostolo e a expansão portuguesa,” Centro de Estudos de História e de Cartografia Antiga, Instituto de Investigação Científica Tropical, Série Separatas 233 (1992); and Sergio Buarque de Holanda, Visão do Paraíso—os motivos edênicos no descobrimento e colonização do Brasil (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2010).

(10.) Ronaldo Vainfas, A heresia dos índios—catolicismo e rebeldia no Brasil colonial (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1995).

(11.) Souza, The Devil; Daniela Buono Calainho, Metrópole das Mandingas—religiosidade negra e Inquisição portuguesa no Antigo Regime (Rio de Janeiro: Garamond, 2008); and Vanicléia Silva Santos, As bolsas de mandinga no espaço atlântico—século XVIII (PhD diss., University of São Paulo, 2008).

(12.) Laura de Mello e Souza, “Sorcery in Brazil: History and Historiography,” in Sorcery in the Black Atlantic, eds. Luís Nicolau Parés and Roger Sansi (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 41–54; Luiz Mott, “O Calundu Angola de Luiza Pinta—Sabará, 1739,” in Revista do Instituto de Artes e Cultura (UFOP, 1994): 73–82; and Alexandre Almeida Marcussi, Cativeiro e Cura—Experiências religiosas da escravidão atlântica nos calundus de Luzia Pinta, séculos XVII–XVIII (PhD diss., University of São Paulo, 2015).

(13.) Gilberto Freyre, The Masters and the Slaves (New York: Knopf, 1946).

(14.) Caio Boschi, “Sociabilidade religiosa laica: as irmandades,” in História da Expansão Portuguesa, eds., Francisco Bethencourt and Kirti Chaudure, 5 vols (Lisbon: Circulo de Leitores, 1998), 3:353.

(15.) Anderson José Machado de Oliveira, “Devoção e identidades: significados do culto de Santo Elesbão e Santa Efigênia no Rio de Janeiro e nas Minas Gerais no Setecentos,” Topoi 12 (2006): 60–115, ref. to p. 84; cit. to p. 103.

(16.) Ibid., ref. to p. 68; cit. to p. 78.

(17.) Laura de Mello e Souza, Desclassificados do Ouro—a pobreza mineira no século XVIII, 4th ed. (Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 2004).

(18.) I use the analysis of Marina de Mello e Souza, Reis negros no Brasil escravista—história da festa de coroação de rei congo (Belo Horizonte, Brazil: Editora UGMG, 2002), 273 and 323.

(19.) Luiz Mott, Rosa Egipcíaca: uma santa africana no Brasil (Rio de Janeiro: Bertrand Brasil, 1993), 318.

(20.) Ibid., 495.

(21.) For example: Câmara Cascudo (1898–1986); Nina Rodrigues (1862–1906); Artur Ramos (1903–1949); and Mário de Andrade (1893–1945).

(22.) Along those lines, when studying the brotherhood of Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos in the interior of Minas Gerais in the 18th century, Scarano brings to light important aspects of the religious experience of slaves and freedmen, blacks and mulattos (Julita Scarano, Devoção e Escravidão [São Paulo: Companhia Editora Nacional, 1975]).

(23.) An area that produced noted studies such as the one by Leila Mezan Algranti on feminine reclusion in the 18th century (Leila Mezan Algranti—Honradas e Devotas: Mulheres da Colônia—condição feminina nos conventos e recolhimentos do Sudeste do Brasil—1750–1822 [Rio de Janeiro: José Olympio, Brazil: Edunb, 1993]).

(24.) Anita Novinsky, Cristãos Novos na Bahia (São Paulo: Perspectiva, 1972).

(25.) Authors such as Lucien Febvre, Marc Bloch, Jean Delumeau, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Carlo Ginzburg, and Peter Burke stood out at the time.

(26.) Angelo A. F. Assis, João Nunes, um rabi escatológico na Nova Lusitânia: sociedade colonial e inquisição no nordeste quinhentista (São Paulo: Alameda, 2011).

(27.) James H. Sweet, Domingos Alvares, African Healing, and the Intellectual History of the Atlantic World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

(28.) Bruno Feitler, Inquisition, juifs et nouveaux-chrétiens au Brésil (Louvain, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 2003).

(29.) Aldair Carlos Rodrigues, Limpos de sangue—familiares do Santo Ofício, Inquisição e sociedade em Minas colonial (São Paulo: Alameda, 2011); and Aldair Carlos Rodrigues, Igreja e Inquisição no Brasil—agentes, carreiras e mecanismos de promoção social—século XVIII (São Paulo: Alameda, 2014).

(30.) Mariza de Carvalho Soares, Devotos da Cor—identidade étnica, religiosidade e escravidão no Rio de Janeiro, século XVIII (Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 2000).

(31.) Laura de Mello e Souza, “Revisitando o calundu,” in Ensaios sobre a intolerância: inquisição, marranismo e anti-semitismo (homenagem a Anita Novinski), eds. Lina Gorenstein and Maria Luiza Tucci Carneiro (São Paulo: Humanitas, 2002), 293–317; “Sorcery in Brazil: History and historiography,” in Sorcery in the Black Atlantic, eds. Parés and Sansi; João José Reis, “Magia Jeje na Bahia: a invasão do calundu do Pasto da Cachoeira, 1785,” in Revista Brasileira de História 8.16 (1988): 57–81; Mott, “O calundu angola de Luiza Pinta”; James H. Sweet, Recreating Africa—Culture, Kinship, and Religion in the African-Portuguese World, 1441–1770 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003); and Marcussi, Cativeiro e Cura.

(32.) Luís Nicolau Parés, The Formation of Candomblé: Vodun History and Ritual in Brazil (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

(33.) Cristina Pompa, Religião como tradução—missionários Tupi e Tapuia no Brasil Colonial (São Paulo: EDUSC/ANPOCS, 2003); and Adone Agnolin, Jesuítas e Selvagens: a Negociação da Fé no encontro catequético-ritual americano-tupi (séc. XVI–XVII) (São Paulo: Humanitas/FAPESP, 2007).

(34.) Regarding these concepts, see Roger Bastide, Les Religions Africaines au Brésil. Vers une sociologie des interpretations de civilisations (Paris: PUF, 1960); Sergio Ferreti, Repensando o sincretismo, 2d ed. (São Paulo: EDUSP/ARCHÉ, 2013); Fernando Oritz, Contrapunteo cubano del Tabaco y del azucar (Advertencia de sus contrastes agrario, económicos, históricos y sociales, su etnografía y su transculturación) (Havana: Jesus Montero, 1940); Serge Gruzinski, La pensée metises (Paris: Fayard, 1999); and Pompa, Religião como tradução.

(35.) Laura de Mello e Souza, “As Devassas Eclesiásticas da Arquidiocese de Mariana—Fonte primária para a História das Mentalidades,” in Norma e Conflito. Aspectos da História de Minas no século XVIII (Belo Horizonte: Editora UFMG, 2006), 19–29; and Caio Boschi, “As visitas diocesanas e a Inquisição na Colônia,” in Revista Brasileira de História 7 (1987): 151–184.

(36.) Primeira Visitação do Santo Ofício às partes do Brasil pelo Licenciado Heitor Furtado de Mendonça—Denunciações da Bahia, 1591–1593, preface by C. de Abreu (São Paulo: Paulo Prado, 1925); Primeira Visitação do Santo Ofício às partes do Brasil pelo Licenciado Heitor Furtado de Mendonça—Confissões da Bahia, 1591–1592, preface by C. de Abreu (Rio de Janeiro: F. Briguiet, 1935); Primeira Visitação do Santo Ofício às partes do Brasil pelo Licenciado Heitor Furtado de Mendonça—Denunciações de Pernambuco, 1591–1592, preface by Rodolfo Garcia (São Paulo: Editora Paulo Prado, 1929); Primeira Visitação do Santo Ofício às partes do Brasil: Confissões de Pernambuco, ed. J. A. G. Mello (Recife, Brazil: Universidade Federal de Pernambuco, 1970); Segunda Visitação do Santo Ofício às partes do Brasil—Denunciações da Bahia (1618–Marcos Teixeira), preface by Rodolfo Garcia, Anais da Biblioteca Nacional do Rio de Janeiro 49 (1927); Segunda Visitação do Santo Ofício às partes do Brasil pelo inquisidor e visitador o licenciado Marcos Teixeira. Livro das Confissões e Ratificações da Bahia—1618–1620, preface by Eduardo de Oliveira França e Sônia Siqueira, Anais do Museu Paulista (XVII); and Livro da visitação do Santo Ofício da Inquisição ao Estado do Grão-Pará—1763–1769, preface by José Roberto do Amaral Lapa (Petrópolis: Vozes, 1978).

(37.) See, for example, A. J. M. Oliveira, “Os processos de habilitação sacerdotal dos homens de cor: perspectivas metodológicas para uma história social do catolicismo na América portuguesa,” in Arquivos Paroquiais e História Social na América Lusa—Métodos e técnicas de pesquisa na reinvenção de um corpus documental, ed. João Luís Fragoso et al. (Rio de Janeiro: Mauad, 2014), 329–362.

(38.) Serafim, S. J. Leite, Cartas dos Primeiros Jesuítas no Brasil (1538–1553) (São Paulo: Comissão do IV Centenário da Cidade de São Paulo, 1954–57); Serafim Leite, História da Companhia de Jesus no Brasil, 10 vols (Rio de Janeiro: Instituto Nacional do Livro, 1918–1950); and Simão de Vasconcelos, Crônica da Companhia de Jesus [1663], 2 vols (Petrópolis, Brazil: Vozes, 1977). For a recent work utilizing Benedictine archives, see Beatriz Catão C. Santos, “Reflexões sobre um percurso de pesquisa: o Mosteiro de São Bento e o culto de São Gonçalo do Amarante,” in Arquivos Paroquiais e História Social na América Lusa, ed. Fragoso, 303–328.

(39.) Some examples include Antonio Brásio, Monumenta Missionaria Africana (Lisbon: Agência Geral do Ultramar, 1952); G. A. Cavazzi, Descrição histórica dos três reinos do Congo, Matamba e Angola, 2 vols, ed. and trans. Padre Graciano Maria de Leguzzano (Lisbon: Junta de Investigação do Ultramar, 1965); and M. Guattini and D. Carli, La mission au Kongo (Paris: Chandeigne, 2006).

(40.) Jean de Léry, Histoire d’un voyage en terre de Brésil (Paris: Livre de Poche, 1994); Claude d’ Abbeville, História da missão dos padres capuchinhos na ilha do Maranhão (São Paulo: Martins, n.d.); André Thevet, Les singularitez de la France Antarctique (Paris: Maisonneuve & Cie., 1878); and Gaspar Baraleus, História dos feitos recentemente publicados durante oito anos no Brasil e noutras partes sob o governo do ilustríssimo João Maurício Conde de Nassau, etc. (Rio de Janeiro: Ministério da Educação, 1940).

(41.) Jorge Benci, Economia cristã dos senhores no governo dos escravos [1700] (São Paulo: Grijalbo, 1977); André João Antonil, Cultura e Opulência do Brasil; Fernão Cardim, Tratados da terra e gente do Brasil [1618] (São Paulo: Companhia Editora Nacional/MEC, 1978); Manuel da Nóbrega, Diálogo sobre a conversão do gentio, ed. S. J. Serafim Leite (Lisbon: Edição Comemorativa do IV Centenário de São Paulo, 1954); and Nuno Marques Pereira, Compêndio narrativo do Peregrino da América [1728], 6th ed. (Rio de Janeiro: Publicação da Academia Brasileira, 1929).