By Robbie Blakeley, Contributing Reporter

RIO DE JANEIRO – For a great many Christians, their faith can be divided into two simple halves – Catholic and Protestant. In Rio, things are not so simple, and Christianity has blended with multiple variations of faiths, most notably Umbanda, which attracts between one and a half and two million followers and encourages visitors to worship.

A traditional Umbanda ceremony in the south of Brazil, photo by Aline Scaravelli/Flickr Creative Commons License.

Having originated in Rio in the late nineteenth century, the faith began to play a more prominent role in Carioca life at the start of the following century, thanks largely to the efforts of Zelio Fernandino de Moraes, a psychic who preached amongst the poor African population in Rio. The religion spread throughout the south of the country, and is now practiced in Argentina and Uruguay as well as Brazil.

As in another popular Brazilian religion, Candomblé, ceremonies are led not by an orthdox priest, but by a Pai de santo, a ‘Father of saint’. (It should also be noted that a Mãe de santo, ‘Mother of saint’, is just as common; unlike in Catholicism there has been no sexual discrimination throughout the history of Umbanda). The Pai de santo lives up to his name. He not only leads the entire ceremony, but is also consulted by the followers or Filhos de santos, ‘Children of saints’, on how to live their lives and overcome difficulties. More than just a channel for God, he is seen as a psychic who is wise in sorcery as well as religion and philosophy, and his guidance is essential to the followers of his particular branch.

The ceremony is often split into two parts. For the first, all the Filhos are dressed in white and bow at the feet of the Pai in supplication before performing a dance in praise of God. This happens at all Umbanda rituals, but it is the second part that differs widely depending on which African faith originally mingled with Christianity, as well as the specific message the Pai wants to preach.

Musicians at a Umbanda festival work up the hypnotising rhythms, photo by Aline Scaravelli/Flickr Creative Commons License.

The Filhos may then change into clothes of red and black, to symbolize sin and evil, and lead another dance designed to challenge the souls of the dead, urging them to ask for redemption and a path to goodness. Combined with the heavy beat of the drums, the dancing is highly emotive; the rhythm of the drums next to a shrine with offerings and libations to God exposes the meeting of two opposite cultures brought together by history – Portuguese immigrants and African slaves.

All Filhos then turn their back on the shrine at the front of the temple, indicating the souls they want to cleanse also turn their back on God, before dancing and singing for forgiveness. The congregation may then go forward and ask the Pai for guidance and counseling.

Umbanda is an open religion; anyone is invited to join, even if it is just to watch the unfurling of what is a truly unusual ceremony. Being far more informal than what might be coined a ‘traditional Christian service’, with drums, singing, dancing and drinking, it truly beats a different, more colourful, path to God’s door.

For anyone interested in attending an Umbanda ceremony, the Tenda Espirita Ventania in Meier holds rituals every day, at 45 Rua Isolina, 20710-070.


  1. Really interesting and informative article – something that I knew nothing about before but am now intrigued!

  2. educational and interesting. acculturation due to the influence of europe yet again – whether for good or bad is still up for debate

  3. Jonathan,
    umbanda is not the mixing of Christianity with the indigenous religion, is actually a mixture of African religion (Candomblé) with Catholicism.


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