A classic example of a non-human shapeshifter is the ‘trickster’, who appears in myriad cross-cultural guises and stories from India to Latin America and in forms as diverse as Mercury, Hermes, Krishna, Raven, Coyote, and Eshu. Cosmologies that include tricksters destabilize readings of ontological configurations as ordered or unambiguous, while challenging the anthropologist’s bias toward describing cultural representations as coherent and homogeneous. Studies of shamanic, animist, and/or perspectivistic cultures have made progress in relating understandings of interspecies metamorphosis to concepts of self, spirit, corporeality, and substance (Descola 1996; Pedersen 2001, 2007; Praet 2009; Viveiros de Castro 1998). However, far less contemporary ethnographic attention has been given to instances of shapeshifting that do not directly imply people or their shamanic technologies.
Through a focus on the metamorphosis of spirit entities, in this article I explore two Latin American possession cults—one in Cuba and the other in Brazil—that reveal cosmoses with varying degrees of open-endedness. In both religious traditions, people perceive spirits to be aware of themselves, of their possibilities and limitations as metaphysical entities, and of the dividends of their awareness for human experience. Recursivity here is thus deeply related to self-reflexivity or self-awareness: it is because the cosmos is aware of itself as cosmos (in its constitution) that it is able to describe, produce, and change itself, thereby transforming the world. In these two cases, I argue that we can observe this recursivity in the interplay between the spirits’ expressions of their autonomy from living beings and through the spirits’ own contingency as effective beings on human belief, representation, perception, and action. Spirits and persons appear as two sides of a single proverbial Möbius strip (cf. Handelman 1998: xxiv), each with its own horizons and scope for self-generation that are the result of having a meta-perspective (self-reflexivity).
In the Cuban-Creole practice of Espiritismo Cruzado (a mixture of European-derived spiritualist philosophies and Afro-Cuban religious ontologies), some spirits that are conceptualized as components of persons exhibit metamorphic properties. These spirits unfold themselves in manifold ‘skins’, which betray their multiplicity of (past) lives, the myriad aspects of these lives, and their cultural and cosmic influences. Mediums—or espiritistas, as they are known—think of these metamorphoses, called desdoblamientos (unfoldings), as the means by which spirits signal the need for their human hosts to undergo complementary changes and as certain consequences of those changes (e.g., material offerings or emotional developments). In what can be described as a world-making endeavor between spheres, spirits and persons enfold each other in the production of their respective selves or personhoods.
In Brazilian Umbanda, an early-twentieth-century mediumship cult with indigenous and African influences, some spirit entities go further, disentangling themselves from the ontological categories afforded to them by human actors and critically playing with their alternatives in a trickster-like fashion. Spirits transgress through a largely taken-for-granted process of ‘evolution’, which sees categories of spirits transforming into others over time, and, more subversively, by producing discourses that test the public and cultural stereotypes that often pertain to them. However, Umbanda’s entities spin a very particular form of meta-anthropology by recognizing that these labels afford the success of their own manifestations on a human sphere, which they criticize as increasingly impoverished in its ‘culture’ of remembering names.
These two examples are arguably comparable because they take the ‘relation’ between cosmos (spirit, entity, virtualities) and the world (culture, minds, persons) as ontologically eventful. In Cuba, the ‘world’ at stake is the person and her or his ‘parts’, while in Brazil it is collective cultural consciousness and its representations. It is no coincidence that both of these religions are intrinsically self-transformative and innovative sets of practices. To put it simply, one of my points here is to show that this self-transformative nature derives in part from the Trickster open-endedness of their models of spirit and/or person. Yet although the figure of the Trickster may epitomize this open-endedness, what is ultimately at stake is the anthropological willingness to discern more complex alternatives to the relationship between cosmos and people.
There is no doubt that relationships exist between the various aspects of socio-political, socio-structural, and economic life and spirit or entity-laden cosmologies. The question is whether we can isolate ‘trickster phenomena’ from these broader contingencies and see what purchase this yields for understanding how cosmology behaves and impinges upon the human actors that regenerate it. Trickster phenomena may end up not being about tricksters at all, but about the boundaries of cosmological exchange and renewal. Yet this may require a step back, in the direction of the Trickster itself.
In his commentary on Paul Radin’s treatise on Native American trickster figures, such as Coyote, Jung (1972: 200) notes that the “phantom of the trickster haunts the mythology of all ages.” As an archetypal psychic structure of ancient origins, Jung says, the trickster represents the primitive, animalesque component of the psyche, “a faithful copy of an absolutely undifferentiated human consciousness” (ibid.), most prevalent in the present day among minds in cultures still immersed in darkness. While Jung underscores the creative potentialities of this chaotic subworld, most scholars recognize the Trickster as more than intra-psychic baggage from the lower echelons of social evolution. Combs and Holland (1996: 82) describe him as “the quintessential master of boundaries and transitions.” Trickster is paradoxical, at once a clown and a creator, a gift giver and a thief, a disrupter of “convention, order, and preconception” (ibid.: 87) and an originator of institution, culture, and technology, “found symbolically wherever rigid notions of life exclude part of life’s totality” (ibid.: 93). Tricksters the world over typically embody contradictory mixtures of attributes, one of which is innocence or naiveté—he is the “eternal child who cannot be significantly damaged,” as Lewis Hyde (1998: 70) notes. It is not simply that the Trickster transgresses morality; he holds the world and all its possibilities (including moral ones) in abeyance, yielding novel avenues of truth and boundary making, loose from rigid dualisms or sets of opposite significations. The Trickster wields “mind-boggling falsity that calls the truth itself into question” (ibid.: 70) and “statements that double back to subvert their own contexts” (ibid.). Tricksters hold A and not-A true at once, playfully revealing the traps of rigidity where they exist, in culture, destiny, and psyche. As Rane Willerslev (2007) shows, it is not just the spirits who may embody the Trickster, but persons too. For the Siberian Yukaghir whom he writes about, hunters may transform themselves into various ‘others’ via forms of partial identification through mimesis. But as imitator, the hunter “must move in between identities, in that double negative field” that Willerslev (citing Richard Schechner) calls “not me, not not-me” (ibid.: 12).
In the rest of this article, I would like to hold the Trickster close at hand: in the first instance, because my materials from Cuba and Brazil point to considerations brought about by trickster-like aspects of these spirit-cultures that are invariably unexplored in contemporary accounts; in the second instance, because Tricksters tell us to go beyond appearances and resist certainty in our perceptions and accounts of them. One potentially fruitful way to do this, it seems, is to refuse to reduce these tricksterish characteristics to how we think others constitute their reality through belief or representation, or by means of responses to their socio-cultural environment. Rather, as Handelman (2004: 10) argues for ritual in general, “[e]mphasizing the existential ‘withinness’ of phenomena points to their irreducibility to the intentions and desires of their makers or shapers.” This does not mean ignoring the human element of the equation. Handelman proposes that “[s]elf-organizing phenomenal forms have variable capacities to generate new aspects of themselves” (ibid.: 13) and that this necessarily implies a double movement, “curving inwards, torquing outwards, through form recognizing itself within itself, and on the basis of this self-integrity moving outwards, driving into broader cosmic and social worlds” (ibid.). As with rituals and rites, many accounts of spirit ontologies have focused on the relationship between manifestations of spirit possession or shamanism and their social, historical, and political contexts (see, e.g., Boddy 1989; Mageo 1996; Ong 1987; Stoller 1989). However, similar to what Kapferer (2004: 45) argues relative to rituals, some spirit entities gain their force precisely because they are not always reflective of larger realities, but present their own internal logic that articulates with their human counterparts. What remains to be determined is the manner in which they articulate and what their effects are, without, by asking this, reducing them to this articulation.
Enfolding Cosmology in Cuban Espiritismo
Ontological multiplicity is arguably a pervasive quality of the larger spiritual universe that is accessed, generated, and manipulated by Afro-Cuban religious experts. For example, in Cuba’s foremost popular religious cult, Santería, which bears strong West African influences, most of the 20 or so venerated oricha gods, or santos, as they are known, have multiple avatars, called caminos, or paths, sometimes as many as 21 (Bolívar 1990; David Brown 2003). The oricha gods exist in and through their physical indexes. They manifest as the person whose body and destiny become entwined with the god’s ‘making’ on a human plane and as the material vessels and paraphernalia ‘made’, which become known as the santo. Far more complex forms of plasticity are evident in Palo Monte, an umbrella term for magical practices associated with Bantu-speaking slaves in Cuba (Figarola 2006; Ochoa 2010), whose officiants deal directly with the realm of the ‘tricky’ dead. Paleros forge power through the construction of a cauldron-like container, called a Nganga, in which are placed all manner of substances, from sticks, metals, stones, gun powder, and animal parts to the bones of a human being whose spirit works with the expert in achieving his magical ends, be it healing or provoking mishap. Palo witchcraft is feared for its effectiveness, not just because it is premised on work with the ‘materialized’ and morally pliable dead, but because these entities achieve their ends by means of deceit and metamorphosis. Paleros and espiritistas see a fluid transit between their spheres of practice, but whereas Palo has the human expert as the ultimate orchestrator of the products of his craft, in Espiritismo the notion of a spirit’s ‘presentation’ (presentación) cuts through an ontology of self that has both spirits and persons as each other’s makers.
Espiritismo is practiced by individuals with the ability to see, hear, feel, or incorporate spirits of the dead. Unlike the cults mentioned above, popular forms of Espiritismo are characteristically informal, requiring no initiation rites or consecrations for officiation. They are practiced organically as the need arises in people’s homes by individuals who have nurtured their sensitivities. While more formalized congregations of spiritists gather in Havana in a handful of centers dedicated to the philosophical and moral teachings of Allan Kardec, the founder of European Spiritism, the vast majority of active mediums require little in order to work, with the exception of a small altar on which water-filled vessels, candles, and spirit representations are usually placed. These serve as the cornerstone for spirit evocations during collective rites called ‘spiritual masses’ (misas espirituales), in which the dead are summoned in prayer and song to ‘come down’ (bajan). While Espiritismo honors its nineteenth-century Kardecist roots through concepts of spiritual evolution, metempsychosis, and karma, in a contemporary setting it is largely inseparable in its basic ontological assumptions, and by virtue of its quotidian function, from the Afro-Cuban ritual universe in which espiritistas circulate (see Palmié 2002: 288). Practitioners of Santería and Palo request the dead’s permission and guidance before any rite is effectuated, and this is achieved through misas espirituales and consultations. The dead, people say, always ‘come first’ (iku lobi ocha). But underlying such imperatives is the idea that spirits do not simply appear to people or accompany them; rather, they ‘structure’ them. In this section, I aim to show that Cuban spirits manifest a logic of ‘enfoldment’, whereby they bring a ‘withoutness’—a capacity to stand as other to persons—to bear on a ‘withinness’, their necessary implication in the constitution and ontogeny of selves. The concept of desdoble (unfolding) captures the important dynamic between the manifestation of often unknown ‘virtualities’ on the part of spirits, on the one hand, and the effects of (and on) human knowledge, action, and self-structure, on the other.
In Cuba, a particular category of spirits is believed to ‘come with’ the person, and people refer to these entities in possessive phraseology, for instance, as ‘my spirits’. In the widely diffused mediumship cult of Espiritismo Cruzado (Millet 1996), this collective is known as one’s cordón espiritual (lit., spiritual cord), or simply one’s muertos—that is, disincarnates of varied ethnic, cultural, intellectual, and religious backgrounds whose mission is to protect and guide. The close proximity of other categories of muertos, such as deceased family members or spirits sent by witchcraft, is regarded as undesirable, and great efforts are made to ‘elevate’ or dispatch them from the material and human anchorages at which they clutch. The entities of one’s cordón are thus conscientiously cultivated since, paradoxically, they are both present and absent. Conceived to exist as potential presences (or qualities) starting at birth, these spirits must be worked on and strengthened into existence as effective beings through acknowledgment, communion, and exchange. From an initial state of ‘dormancy’ or ‘passivity’, muertos become forceful, creative influences in the material or social lives of their protectees, as well as in their deeper psychological and emotional attitudes. Not to ‘develop’ one’s muertos, as people say, is tantamount to allowing one’s potentialities to lie permanently in the shadows.
These influences are premised on what is generally understood as the processual, emergent, and circumstantial character of a person’s relationship with his or her protectors. This translates into two main implications. First, it implies shifts in the intensity of a given spirit’s presence at any one time, which includes the possibility of a substitution of one main spirit for another. “There are spirits that are there for a time with us, let us suppose, playing an important part in the journey we are undergoing, say, the spirit of a Gypsy,” says Leonel, a middle-aged santero (Santería practitioner) and spirit medium, “and afterward, it’s like they’re gone. There is a particular affinity at that moment, and then it disappears … and you may have information of a new entity, say, an African with whom you may start to work. It’s like the Gypsy moves into a secondary plane, like I have no more need to work with what it symbolizes.” Leonel has experienced these transitions several times in his religious career. More recently, his main African spirit has allowed an Arab astronomer entity to gain salience in his cordón in order to better guide his study and exercise of astrology. Second, the processual nature of a cordón espiritual results in transformations in the appearance of existing spirits. Spirit mediums implicitly refer to this mutability when they say that “the spirit is letting me see it” in ways that can vary substantially. Spirits may ‘appear’ to mediums’ eyes in distinct guises, evoking specific points in the life whose appearance they now manifest, for example, younger or older versions of themselves.
“The spirit can change,” said Olga, an experienced middle-aged medium with whom I worked extensively, “depending on the things that you are developing in your life at the moment. There can be a change in physiognomy, of aesthetics, a transformation, so that the spirit can help you with the phase you are going through.” According to Eduardo, Olga’s husband, material things, such as offerings of honey, fruit, flowers, rum, perfume, and even tools or weapons, which are placed at the foot of spirit representations, enable these changes by affording spirits certain powers of intervention. But the notion that these transformations are often the consequence of a person’s growing internal landscape and imaginary is reinforced by the belief that people bring about these changes as a result of their mere transit or movement through the world. For example, Eduardo observed that one of my ‘nun spirits’, described by him as a Carmelite, was now manifesting an Orthodox Christian appearance, which he explained by the fact that I had traveled through Eastern Europe earlier that year.
One of the most common assumptions espiritistas articulate is that a critical condition of a spirit’s potential for multiplicity is the person herself, but ahead of and often despite herself. Throughout my exposure to espiritistas and their domains of knowledge retrieval in the years following my doctoral fieldwork, I observed how descriptions of my spirits mutated, accompanying the flow not simply of my life developments as they occurred, but of their perceived gaps and underlying needs.1 “Your spirits all look different this time,” Olga remarked in 2009. “Your Gypsy doesn’t come with castanets and cards anymore [as she had in 2006]. She’s more like an Arab gitana.” My Iberian Gypsy spirit now wore a transparent tunic over loose trousers, a set of necklaces, and a chain around her head with gold coins. Her skin was light and rosy this time, rather than the dark-olive complexion of before. “She reflects a certain joy, clarity,” Olga continued, “and she’s bringing you much light for all things love-related,” which Olga regularly remarked I should be working on harder at that time. However, in 2011 my Gypsy spirit had again changed. “There was a transformation here once more,” Olga said in my first misa espiritual of the fieldwork season. “Your Gypsy comes as a sort of emissary of Ochún [Santería’s goddess of love and fertility], dressed in vibrant yellow and with a turban on her head. It’s like she comes with a paso de santo,” by which Olga meant that the Gypsy was now signaling an alliance with the forces of Santería, in which I would indeed receive some minor initiations this time. “She brings with her a clay pot in which are five small river stones, and she places them in front of you, cleansing you with the river water,” Olga continued. In other words, this spirit was encouraging and reflecting my future involvement in Santería. To consolidate the positive changes that the Gypsy was willing to bring to me, the mediums said, I should dress her doll spirit representation in yellow, procure five small stones from the river to offer to her, and proceed with my initiations. Along with the Gypsy, some of my other spirits had undergone metamorphoses. For example, my much-described Middle Eastern–Jewish bureaucrat spirit now came as a nineteenth-century European intellectual, complete with dark suit, top hat, moustache, and sideburns. While in both versions the spirit carried a small suitcase and was a man of ‘letters and papers’, the more recent one seemed to relate directly to my then book-writing phase, according to Eduardo and Olga, thereby manifesting and empowering my literary drive.
While the question of which came first—the spirit or my writing activities—seems moot here, espiritista circles provide no shortage of examples showing how spirits propel, rather than simply follow, human endeavors. This is especially the case in a determination of ritual allegiances. Both in Santería and Palo Monte, an individual should shun initiation if he or she does not have a muerto who knows about such things. Moreover, very often it is this muerto who induces illness, alters sensory experiences and dreams, or simply appears to other mediums, requiring that initiatory steps be taken. There are interesting parallels here with Olga Ulturgasheva’s analysis (this issue) of the Siberian concept of djuluchen—a spirit that travels ahead. For the Eveny youngsters she works with, a part of the person travels to the future (a forerunner) and the rest of her must catch up, as if the latter were a ‘shadow reality’ of a potential yet to be fulfilled.
However, in Espiritismo this picture is complicated by the idea that muertos are embroiled in individual moral development steps, called evoluciones, and that their appearances and requirements alter according to these ‘evolutions’, to which the living must also respond. While a protective muerto’s trajectory of moral ascension is generally gauged by its relationship to the person, there are instances of opacity in mediums’ accounts of spirit transformations. Ivan, a Palero and espiritista in his fifies, says that he has seen one of his daughter’s husband’s spirits unfold into three distinct psychological phases or states, and that when one of these ‘comes down’ (baja), so do its characteristics, be they politeness or uncouthness. As Ivan explained: “It’s like the spirit has a multiple personality disorder. In one of these personalities, the spirit has a beautiful voice, and he even sings for us. However, in the other phase he’s sad, depressed, and cries all the time. It’s very curious. How can we define this, say it’s the same entity, if it comes in fragments?” Other, more radical shifts include those when the spirit betrays two or more discrepant ‘skins’ by unfolding into a different spirit altogether. For instance, it is not uncommon for the same entity to unfold into two or three distinct identities—a Gypsy who turns into a nun who turns into a native Indian—which mediums theorize as the past lives of a single spirit. Moral shifts are thought possible within this frame. One Palero I spoke to said that he had seen the spirit of a monk unfold into a Nganga muerto, although the mechanisms underlying this dramatic shift remained ineffable to him at the time, given the intuitive gap between these categories of entities.
An important part of this ‘ineffability’ derives from understanding that spirits do not simply manifest aspects of diverse and temporally distributed forms of personhood: through such ethnic, religious, or cultural transformations, they are able to embody and transmit cosmic forces or powers, known in Cuba as corrientes. These corrientes are usually linked to Santería’s oricha gods and their respective life domains. Thus, the fact that mediums apprehended my Gypsy spirit as a version of Ochún, the love deity, would not prevent the same entity or another from appearing, for example, as old, crippled, and followed by dogs (the symbolism associated with the Cuban Yoruba deity of illness, Babalú-Ayé) if the message were explicitly about my own health. Most of the entities making their entry in misas espirituales or other spaces of mediumistic acknowledgment come ‘crossed’ (cruzado), that is, bearing signs that create connections to broader life circumstances and cycles, generally articulated through Santería’s imaginary. Oricha gods, in turn, associate with Catholic saints, which encourages further articulations. Finally, spirits express an openended transformational logic through their implicit relation to all other entities who ‘vibrate’ in similar groupings or categories, called comisiones. Countless of these comisiones exist, from the medical to the African, giving rise to multiple and different types, each with its own domain of expertise. The spirits’ seemingly limitless capacity for crossing thresholds of cosmic influence and alliance suggests that while spirit appearances are knowable through their relation to a person’s life circumstances, including speculative future ones, selfhood is ultimately subject to the spirits’ unknowable potential for dynamic transformation. Linked to this is the notion that no one can comprehend the full scope or composition of a cordón espiritual. Desdobles (unfoldings) of corriente or another identity further contribute to the ineffability of a person’s selfhood, influencing reflexive interactions with the world, and are key to the transformational logic expressed in Espiritismo and further afield as well.2
In their ethnography of a Santiago-based Afro-Cuban religious practitioner, Garoutte and Wambaugh (2007: 140) argue that developing as a religioso (someone who has faith in or is initiated into Afro-Cuban religions) implies a type of “unwrapping of self,” following the accumulation of layers of initiations and rites over time. However, the evidence from Espiritismo suggests that this ‘self’ does not pre-exist the spirits that are made visible and experiential through it. ‘Making’ spirits is a cosmogonic act that brings forth tangible entities via their materialization in bodies, things, and persons. Espiritistas use mimesis and representation to achieve these acts, which, far from theatrical, underscore the profound effects of performance, not just in the “creation of presence” (Schieffelin 1985: 708), but in the ongoing construction of understandings and scopes of self. The logic of this re-creative aesthetic is underpinned by the notion that material things have the power to consolidate the potential of a given spiritual constitution, such as when a doll that represents a Gypsy spirit helps brings forth the spirit. This alters conditions for the manifestation of further potentials: the strengthened presence of the spirit encourages the expression of some Gypsy-related tendency in the person. This mutuality, propelled by material engagement with spirits, is not dissimilar to what Kathleen Richardson (this issue) describes in the context of robotics, whereby robots and roboticists structure one another, affectively and otherwise, through forms of technological animism.
We are reminded here of Kapferer’s (2005: 131) evocative argument that Singhalese exorcistic rites work precisely because there is no reality that is not at once illusory, “that is, constituted and sensible through the operation of the human perceptual faculties and rooted in the process of human symbolic construction.” Aesthetic approaches are efficient because they reconstruct alternative realities, Kapferer suggests, thereby reorienting the victim to a legitimate, healthy perspective. This is often true for both healers and healed, as Edith Turner (this issue) suggests in relation to her experience of the aesthetics of healing an interlocutor. The cultivation of a sympathetic sensitivity in her fingers leads Turner to a reflexive healing consciousness that emerges in the act. A similar reflexive strategy of re-creating the cosmos obtains during rituals among espiritista mediums, who, for example, mimic the spirits’ identities and characteristics through songs, material artifacts, and bodily postures that evoke the muertos’ response and thus instantiate their proximity and presence. We could say that espiritista ritual evocations exemplify Carlo Severi’s (2002: 27) cogent argument that a “reflexive stance … is not always exterior to … the performance” but “can become a constitutive part of ritual itself,” situated within it as a condition for the narration and possession of emergent realities. This reflexivity is not engendered by the linguistic devices of the chanters; rather, it is a fundamental property of the spirit beings who choose to instantiate themselves through it, precisely because, in trickster fashion, they simultaneously do and do not identify with the mediums’ miming of them during the ritual. The participative dimensions of human consciousness are thus as ontologically vital for the muertos’ existence as they are for those who call on them. Desdobles are quintessential examples of “self-propelling difference” (Handelman 2004: 13) that reveal the spirit-person complex as unbounded in its potential to generate new knowledge structures and to self-organize and self-integrate in light of them.
If in Cuba spirits provoke an ontological dialogue with persons in order to achieve their production as components of those persons, which is predicated on the spirits’ capacity for mutation and multiplicity, in Brazil spirits harness a fluid transit of identities that reveals the boundaries of human culture, memory, and representation. At stake in both cases, it seems, is not just the negotiation of states of transition and ontological ambiguity in a given cosmos, but the nature of its animation devices and their limitations.
Exus and the Universe of Names in Umbanda
Umbandist mediums can assert apparently contradictory notions. On the one hand, the spirits of the indigenous Indians (Caboclos), the Old Black slaves (Pretos Velhos), the children (Crianças), the entities known as the ‘people of the street’ (o povo da rua)—that is, lustful female Pombas Giras, Gypsies, sailors and cowboys, prostitutes and pimps, con men and hustlers—and other spirits who come under the cosmic grouping of the Yoruba deity Exu (aka Exus) are all widely considered to form the metaphysical cornerstones of Umbanda’s cosmology. Organized in a military-like structure, implying lines and sub-lines, each led by superior spirits, this assortment of entities is constitutive of Umbanda’s identity as prototypically ‘Brazilian’ amid an ecology of other seemingly more exclusivist religious traditions, such as Candomblé Keto or Kardecist Spiritism. On the other hand, this spiritual architecture betrays an indeterminacy captured well in statements such as the following one pronounced by the leader of Rio de Janeiro’s Primado de Umbanda (one of the city’s main Umbanda associations): “We all know that the Preto Velho (the Old Black slave) need not be either black or old, or even a slave.” In a nod to this notion, a medium I sat with once during an Umbanda ceremony turned to me suddenly and observed that he saw, walking in through the door at that moment, “the spirit of a middle-aged white man, who gradually doubled over as he approached the altar and transformed into the bent, tired body of an old black slave.”
The flagrant arbitrariness of identities in such examples was noticeable in the discourse of other-than-human entities. For instance, in an interview I conducted one evening with a charismatic Exu, the limitations of human-made categories emerged as a frank irritation to the spirit world. “Everyone nowadays wants an Exu Caveira. Nobody wants one of the less well-known ones, like Exu Magê. They’ve just forgotten him,” he said indignantly, referring to a sub-category of Exu entities that come under more ‘evolved’ falanges (phalanxes).3 According to this spirit, many an Exu has been constrained by Umbanda’s dwindling repertoire of names and is forced to manifest under the better-known spirit categories. Yet this spirit was equally keen on disarming any preconception that Exu is always Exu. Indeed, as another Exu remarked in the same ritual session: “I am an Exu, but as I’ve told you, I come as Caboclo, Preto Velho, Criança. Not many are the spirits, but many are the forms.”
Umbanda was looked on by early scholars of Afro-Brazilian religion as Brazil’s first ‘national’ religion (Bastide 1971), a discourse perpetuated by contemporary practitioners. Under this light, its complex armies of entities were described as a stage for Brazil itself (Prandi 1991), or as a ‘microcosm’ for Brazilian society, whose genesis implied the co-opting of Candomblé’s orixá gods and European Spiritism’s notions of evolutionary stratification and morality. On this basis, Umbanda purportedly encompassed the manifold images of Brazilian society and its historical dramas, articulating stereotypical, often racialized narratives of its denizens while making room for novel social personas. As Diana Brown and Mario Bick (1987: 74) argue, understanding the complexities of modern Umbanda requires “an examination of Brazilian class formation and interaction, race and racial identities, national political institutions and ideologies, as well as national and international re-evaluations of the image of Africa and its people.” Umbanda is certainly a fertile ground for an analysis guided by nation, class, and race-driven concerns. Its practitioners routinely evoke or disavow aspects of national consciousness to suit their positional and ideological interests, giving rise to discursive subcategories of Umbanda known widely as ‘pure’ or ‘white’ or ‘orthodox Umbanda’, on the one hand, and macumba (a term associated with sorcery by white elites) and bruxeria (witchcraft), on the other. However, my contention is that cosmology should not be regarded as just a refraction of wider, more tangible processes; it should be understood at least partly in its own terms as a producer of certain worlds. The point here is to acknowledge how Umbanda generates ontological possibilities that afford their own disentanglement from modes of social and racial determinism. My data on selected temples in Rio de Janeiro reveal the significance of local theorizations on a cosmology in permanent and reflexive relation to itself and to the practitioners who think and live through it. Nowhere is this more evident than among the spirits known as Exus.
The hundreds of entities known under the category of Exus in Umbanda reveal themselves in ritual settings as trickster types. While contemporary neo-Pentecostal movements look on Exus as refractions of the Devil, these spirits are better thought of as masters of possibilities. They are seduced by devoted mediums and believers into providing advice and effective paths for problem resolution, reserving merciless punishment for those on the receiving end of their wrath. As usurpers of normative ideals, such as moral stature, socially acceptable parameters of sexuality and desire, and ethical exchange, Exus—particularly Pombas Giras and other street-type spirits—threaten the fabric of archetypal Brazilian social roles maintained by the greater community (cf. Hayes 2011). But this transgressiveness is not only of a moral sort. Exus reveal a concern for the creative potential of ontological thresholds. As the quintessential form-givers of Umbanda’s ontology, they disclose the mutability of spirits, who can always be other than what they appear, as well as the contingency of these appearances on their believers’ languages of evocation and materialization.
Lalu and Midnight are Exus at Pai César’s temple in an area of Rio called Jacarepaguá. When they descend in ritual ceremonies amid cackling laughter and song, their bodies are cloaked in long velvet capes with insignia specific to them, one of which is a pitchfork. They enjoy smoking cigars, guzzling bottles of whiskey offered by visitors or the house’s ‘children’, and dancing to the beat of drums. But while they remain in the body of César, the temple’s young founder and leader, Lalu and Midnight are prone to lengthy and public philosophical speeches in which key, widespread assumptions are deliberately inverted. These provocative monologues frequently take issue with the bad reputation of Exus in Brazilian society. On one occasion, Lalu said the following to the temple’s gathering: “People think we’re inferior spirits, that we need to evolve, and that this is why we come to work with the mediums. They’re wrong! It’s the opposite! The ones who most need light are the mediums! Why is it that we sometimes assume the form of the Devil? The cape, the skull, the fire? The form we take is this one because if you work down in the depths of the dark shadows dressed like an angel, you’ll be eaten alive! … These are spirits who don’t know forgiveness or mercy or charity, only destruction. That’s where we work. So much so that people sometimes mistake us for that evil. People think we’re the Devil, but we fight against him!” To fight evil, Lalu suggests, you must dress as—and even be—evil. This mimesis-as-effectiveness argument went to the core of the temple’s subversion of Exu renditions and was presented as a necessary ethical recourse to ontological transformation. “There are a lot more Exus at your temples than you think,” Midnight sarcastically declared to a group of Umbanda leaders from other filiations. “There are many Exus whom you think are Caboclos,” he chuckled, targeting a common conception of the Caboclo as spiritually superior to Exu. In his explanations before the start of a ceremony that I attended, Pai César touched upon these points: “Many spirits have unfortunately used the name of Exu. They’ve spread meanness, promiscuity, mischief, and all that is negative. But the truth is that these belong only to us, not them.”
Instances of metamorphosis are arguably central to Umbanda’s founding narratives. In his ethnography of the Umbanda movement in São Paulo, Lísias Nogueira Negrão (1996) notes that while mythical stories regarding the biographies of entidades (spirit entities) are few, particularly when compared to those of Candomblé’s orixás, he recorded a series of versions relating to the Caboclo that impart Umbanda’s Kardecist teleological concerns with reincarnation. In one such account, the Caboclos are identified as former priests, who, on first contact with the Indians, slowly ‘turned’ into Caboclos, while nevertheless retaining their knowledge and wisdom. “They began to lose their clothes, lose their clothes, until one day they began to be similar to the Indians,” says the Umbandist to Negrão (ibid.: 210).4 For Negrão, these stories evoke a critique of scientific rationalism and its exclusive realms of knowledge, while expressing the ambiguous relationship with the Catholic Church that is formative of Umbanda’s ideology (ibid.: 211). But the spirits at the genesis of Umbanda are infused not just with these transformational aspects, premised on the succession of lives and notions of evolution, but with forms of knowledge or being that transcend their mundane manifestations and display a sense of playfulness. For instance, Emerson Giumbelli (2010: 114) notes that Leal de Souza, one of Umbanda’s first documenters and authors, used the phrase “high knowledge disguised as mediocrity” to characterize Umbanda’s entities. According to Giumbelli, Souza proposed that the entities use African cabildo languages and those of Brazilian tribes between themselves, while using common language (albeit distorted) with people. This is strategic, Giumbelli suggests, and is meant to give the impression that they are somehow savage or inferior to people. Souza is quoted in Giumbelli in a passage that I translate from the Portuguese: “These space laborers [i.e., spirit entities] wish to be considered more backward, so that the individuals who are reputed to be superior, when obliged to seek recourse to these humble spirits, perceive and understand their own inferiority” (ibid.).
Elsewhere, in a chapter that traces the multiple lives of the Caboclo das Sete Encruzilhadas (considered to be the entity at the heart of Umbanda’s creation), Giumbelli (2013: 188) further proposes that Leal de Souza posits the “inferiority” of Caboclos and Pretos Velhos as necessary. In Souza’s reading, Giumbelli says, entities with greater affinity for their enemies could confer greater force and efficacy to their combat (ibid.). This is an interesting point that brings an indigenous perspective to bear on cosmological mimesis, masking, or even deceit in the pursuit of successful intervention, as Lalu’s speech above indicates. It suggests that we should take a closer look at what an ‘entity’ is in Umbanda.
For Pai César, his medium wife Patricia, and members of their religious family, entidades of Umbanda’s falanges are complex beings generally exempt from the vicissitudes of human reincarnation and material cycles. While joining the falanges of an Umbanda temple requires permission from superior forces, César believes that the ‘vibrations’ behind these entities are worldly: “They have them in China, India, and in other places under different names.” Exu Midnight confirms this hypothesis: “Many of the spirits of Umbanda appear according to the spiritual forms [given by each religious tradition]. They may have never, however, stepped on earth. And, contrary to their human appearances, they may have never lived as human beings at all. There are even some that come from different galaxies to offer their services in the body of the medium. And they use names like Pena Verde, Pena Branca, Estrela Dourada, Arcoíris, Caboclo Tamandaré, Exu Marabô, and so forth. And there are others who are normal people. They are spirits of beings who were here before.”
Midnight’s observation on the nature of spiritual beings behind Umbanda’s fixed sets of names underscores one major difference between Candomblé and Umbanda. While the former receives deities or gods—the forceful, majestic, but silent orixás—the latter is thought to incorporate personalized beings. Technically, in Umbanda, ‘entity’ refers neither to the spirit of a dead person nor to a divinity, such as an orixá, but lies somewhere in between. The ‘entity’ is the point at which differentiation is seen to occur. While referring to two well-known Preto Velho spirits, Rogério, an Umbanda medium, once told me: “There are many Pais Joaquims. Tias Marias are plentiful … This doesn’t mean that the Tia Maria that is working on that medium over there is the same one that works right here in this temple. The name is similar, but it’s just a label, created by the spirit or by the formalization of the work done in Umbanda proper.” According to Rogério, an entity can subdivide infinitely because entities are not individual beings but ‘vibrations’ that agglutinate themselves to the medium’s body during trances. Their essence, never contained, is multiple, fluid, and, importantly, born from the subjective. Luis Fernando, a temple leader in the neighborhood of Piedade, Rio, compares the relationship between an entity’s cosmic ‘vibration’ and its local, personal instantiation to how an energy transformer is distributed to multiple outposts. “The Caboclo Sete Estrelas that comes on myself is not the same one that comes on that medium’s head over there, irrespective of whether the entity’s name is the same,” Luis Fernando explains. “It is only our reference for it. We always need one, like you and I need names. I cannot just stand in front of him and say, ‘Hey, you over there.’” Accordingly, when mediums begin to work with their entidades, the temple leader gradually hones this affinity into a functioning unity.
However, for other mediums, the exact nature and reverberation of larger entities remains enigmatic. Mãe Lenita, the ritual and spiritual assistant to a well-known Umbanda medium in Brazil, Jair de Ogum, says of his main entity in the Candomblé ‘line’, with whom both have worked for over 30 years: “Sometimes we ask him [Ogum Yara]: ‘Who are you?’ And he answers me: ‘I am you. I am what you think I am.’ He looks in my eyes, and he says ‘I am what you think I am.’ And he doesn’t change his mind. If you think he’s good, he is good. He says that he is a star, he is a sun, he is a moon, he is a pregnant woman, he is an old man. I am a tear, I am a child, I am a smile.” These forms of ontological reflection—doubt, even—speak to what Katherine Swancutt and Mireille Mazard identify in the introduction to this issue as an increasing tendency among native thinkers toward what they term ‘hyper-reflexivity’, resulting in ideas that are sometimes articulated or reinvented with the tools and concepts of anthropology itself. Building on this, I argue that Umbanda has wielded its modes of ‘deep reflexivity’ since its inception, enabled by concepts of a largely plastic, metamorphic cosmos that is responsive to its environment.
For instance, the concept of ineffability has been taken up by Mattijs van de Port (2005) in his analysis of Candomblé ceremonies in Bahia. He suggests that possession trance is often as “mysterious a phenomenon for the Candomblé community as it is for anthropologists” (ibid.: 152). In a world where authenticity is sought arduously, Candomblé possession is attractive precisely “because it seems to escape all attempts at signification,” and its realities are beyond conventional knowledge, thus creating a locus for the “really real” (ibid.: 153). Van de Port thus views possession “first and foremost as the production of the ineffable in a symbolic universe in which meanings are adrift and truth regimes are in disarray” (ibid.). At first sight, Umbandists might also be understood as players in the production of ineffability. The notion that certain ‘truths’ are beyond a medium’s grasp is so taken for granted among practitioners—even among intellectuals—that we might be tempted to see a process of ‘authentication by mystification’ occurring in Umbanda. But this would be simplistic. Umbandistas deal with a sense of knowledge that is ineffable—or better, infinite—and yet immanently ordinary and tangible. In other words, in Umbanda ineffability is not the opposite of common or conventional knowledge, but its node of access or origin. Possession is, then, not beyond the comprehension of practitioners, because in Umbanda trance is experienced more often as a conjunction of agencies than as an annihilation of consciousness. Practitioners demonstrate that incorporation is often a juggling act constituted through parallel awareness of the worlds born from both infinite potential—as ‘vibration’—and instantiation, the epitome of which is name, identity, and form. This is, too, what Exus so poignantly reveal in their discourses.
Stefania Capone (2010: 61) argues that we should replace a rigid conceptualization of the Afro-Brazilian religious sphere with one that stresses a continuum, “where the potential combinations are constantly renegotiated” and orthodoxy is fabricated a posteriori. This is certainly true for a heterogeneous Umbanda. But Umbandists go further, as do their spirits, in suggesting that their religion’s ontological structure may comprise a multitude of spiritual ‘bodies’ or ‘personas’ (in the Maussian sense), rather than pre-formed substances. Behind these personas resides something more complex, unpredictable, shapeshifting—and this may account for Umbanda’s appeal, efficacy, and perceived dangers. The absence of knowledge, as Lars Højer (2009: 585) argues in his study of religious ‘loss’ in post-socialist Mongolia, is often more powerful than its presence: “the more unknown and residual the spirit powers, the stronger, the more compelling, and the more unpredictable they become.”
The presence and persistence of inherently transgressive entities such as tricksters remind us that what is often at stake in otherwise stable cultural universes are features of the cosmos that exhibit unpredictable shifts of categories, forms, and functions, thus defying ontological absolutes. We should, therefore, place the idea that cosmological order is a precondition of religious experience under scrutiny. This can be done by paying closer attention to the transformational logics underscoring its specific mutations and fluidities and their clearly social consequences. It is not surprising that in Brazil scholars have sought to intertwine spirit identities with national themes of racism, domination, resistance, and suffering. But the spaces created for social change and critique through Brazilian trickster spirits should arguably be read as fragments of broader, often overlooked processes of ambiguity and shapeshifting in Afro-Brazilian religious ethos, which allow for pervasive forms of creativity and renewal in Umbanda’s spirit pantheons. In Cuba, the Trickster appears not just in Santería as the deity Elegguá, who must be placated before work with any of the other oricha gods becomes possible. The Trickster also appears as Palo Monte’s ‘tricky dead’ and, in a more subtle way, manifests itself in Espiritismo’s concepts of the person, whose extensions, the muertos, appear alternately as self and not-self, furnishing modes of self-construction and understanding that transcend their forms.
In both contexts, these processes point to reflexive trickster components of religious experience and to cosmologies that recreate themselves and their actors through their apparent autonomy from these same human actors, thus challenging mediums in their structuration efforts. Spirits, in turn, present themselves as both in and out of spaces of description and experience, oscillating between domains of knowledge and ineffability. What I have been calling the trickster aspects of Espiritismo and Umbanda brings into consideration gray areas of classification, not only in the lives of those we study and the constitution of the spirit worlds they commune with or embody, but arguably also within the armament of our own research assumptions. Cultural categories, as Swancutt and Mazard point out in their introduction, are active participants and collaborators in the processes of world making experienced by our interlocutors. For both espiritistas and Umbandists, it is human culture in the broader sense that is at stake, at the individual and national level. Hyper-reflexivity is thus taken to the limit by Exus in Umbanda, for whom human categories are a mere ‘garment’ with which to effectively work. Human categories in Umbanda therefore transcend both anthropological and native categories. But Exus do more than represent ‘trickster-dom’: they point to the broader fluidity of a cosmos that seems to self-generate, unfolding and enfolding in directions not immediately envisaged by mediums. Due its potential for connections, refractions, and multiplications, the Umbanda cosmos is then much like Cuba’s cordón espiritual.
My ethnography of Cuba and Brazil points to a concern with the fabric of appearances, categories, and their limits, including those of our ethnographic representations. Spirit cosmologies in these contexts reveal a plain world where nothing is missing, where everything is somehow in excess and in the process of ‘becoming’ itself, as Marcio Goldman (2007) maintains for Candomblé. But what is evident to me is that, in Espiritismo and Umbanda, this cosmogony occurs with the shifting complicity of a universe of entities that foregrounds both the ontologically participative nature and the limitations of human classification. In Espiritismo, the ‘animate’ is mutually constituted and constituting, but never still. In Umbanda, the spirits allow us to glimpse the mechanics of this animation as a cultural product, in which they perceive themselves to be enmeshed, even as they gain from it the distance and scope for metamorphosis.
I am grateful to my funding institution in Portugal, the Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia, for enabling the postdoctoral fieldwork on which the data used in the article were collected, as well as to my research center during this time, Centro em Rede de Investigação em Antropologia (CRIA). Special thanks go to my Cuban and Brazilian interlocutors and friends, especially Eduardo and Olga (Cuba) and César, Patricia, and Mãe Lenita (Brazil). Finally, I thank Anastasios Panagiotopoulos for reading an early version of this text, the anonymous reviewers for their helpful suggestions, and the editors of this special issue for their kind invitation to participate.
In this sense, my relationships to my interlocutors—through my spirits—could be considered ‘hyper-reflexive’ (see the introduction to this issue).
See, for instance, Mireille Mazard’s account (this issue) of how ‘soul attributes’ and metamorphosis are intrinsic to Nusu persons and spirits in Southwest China.
Phalanxes, or falanges, are ‘lines’ of spirits operating under the command of a more evolved entity. For example, the phalanx of Pretos Velhos is headed by the West African-derived god Obaluaiê.
Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are my own.
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