We are happy to continue our series of interviews with people from all over the world involved in Yorùbá culture. Astrid Habiba Kreszmeier, Iyá Habiba de Oxum, is an initiated Oshun priestess in the Brazilian Umbanda tradition. She founded the Ilê Axé Oxum and the terra sagrada association in Europe. As a psychotherapist, she develops and trains methods that build on direct natural experience and involve the spiritual dimensions of life. She is the author of numerous psychological books and lecturer on topics related to healing and social welfare. We will get an interesting insight into the world of Umbanda, the involvement of the Yorùbá Orisha in this religion and the second diaspora in Europe.
In some of our past blog articles we already had a closer look on aspects of Brazilian Yorùbá culture. Brazil is huge and an estimated number of around four million imported slaves left their cultural heritage in this country. They passed their traditions on to the next generations and today millions of people from all kind of backgrounds follow the spiritual paths of African slaves. Umbanda is one of the most widespread Afro-Brazilian religions today and includes the worship of Orisha and Yorùbá elements. Let's get the fundamentals explained by an initiated Umbanda Oshun priestess and meet Iyá Habiba.
Moussa: Iyá Habiba, I heard that Umbanda is a spiritual practice founded by Zélio Fernandino de Moraes in Brazil about one hundred years ago. The general opinion is that it is a mixture of African, European and Indigenous Brazilian believes. Can you tell us about Umbanda?
Iyá Habiba: Slowly, slowly! Before I recount my thoughts on the history of Umbanda, I’d like to remind you that every story and every formation of history and identity is only based on an excerpt of life’s full expression. This selection defines the beginnings, influences and contexts – it explains the world and constitutes realities. It is a process that applies to individuals, peoples, and religions. The tendency to believe that this particular excerpt was the valid truth and that history was a single story is seductive. Unfortunately, it is also often damaging. I am thinking of Nigerian writer Chimananda Ngozi Adichie, who tells us about the danger of having only "a single story" in a lecture she gave online.
There are different stories to tell, different ways to create history, especially for the Umbanda, or the many Umbandas that exist. What ties them together is the capacity of integration and adaption, the plurality and decentralized forms of self-organization. Within all these Umbandas there is this one branch you mentioned, that was founded by de Morães. Those groups derive from a Christian or spiritistic background and follow charitable and moral principles. Here, spirit beings, so-called entities, often manifest themselves as ancestral souls. It is as an interesting phenomenon that in these rapidly growing “tendas” or “templos” primarily those souls are endowed with power who during their lifespan were suppressed and marginalized in the social reality of Brazil: Indigenous Brazilian spirits, so-called Caboclos, and African spirits, known as Pretos Velhos (Engl. literally “Old Blacks”). Although these Umbandas were initially practiced primarily by the white growing middle class in the cities, they were subjected to religious repression. This led in the 1950s to a "de-Africanization" and a strengthening of the Kardecian spiritistic influences. Under the increasing influence of evangelical Protestant churches, there are Umbandas today who want to understand themselves as pure and white. To them the presence of the African elements is like a thorn in the flesh.
But there are also other types of Umbandas?
Yes, in addition, there are those Umbandas which consciously turn to multiculturalism and creatively integrate all kind of spiritual traditions. To the European, African and Indigenous Brazilian entities they add spiritual masters from the East, elements of Buddhism and Hinduism, Yoga and Tao, as well as general esoteric and energetic concepts or shamanistic practices. Depending on the preferences of the community and its leadership, rituals are established here under the primacy of love and peace and usually follow the worship of a monotheistic, transcendent God. These Umbandas emphasize the syncretistic character, mingling and connecting generously divinities, principles and saints.
And ultimately, there is the part of the Umbandas I am following, which is based on historicity and the African roots of this religion. We understand and practice Umbanda as a religiosity, which basically follows Bantu-related structures, just as Candomblé derives its identity from the culture of the Yorùbá and the Ewe/Fon people. From this perspective the formation of the Umbanda, like other African-based religions in the diaspora, has been described as a religious sociological phenomenon that was developed and defined under certain historical and political conditions in Brazil. The essential characteristics here are the incorporation of natural and ancestral forces in a state of trance, what serves healing purposes and the guidance of the community. This is combined with a sense of life that embeds the human being into the living nature, with ritual, dance, sacrifice and trance as means of communication.
There are much more layers in Umbanda than I thought. So Umbanda did already exist in Brazil at the times of slavery?
This can be assumed with great certainty. During the first 250 years of Brazilian colonialism, primarily Bantu people were brought as slaves to Brazil (see the Animated Map of Slave Trade). It was not until the late 18th century that many people from West Africa were forced to migrate across the Atlantic Ocean. Among them the traditions of the Yorùbá people, their language and religion, had a strong influence. Yorùbá culture can be regarded as an essential syncretistic component of Umbanda, others joined later. So, when I am asked about the history of Umbanda, my story begins with the spiritual wealth of the Bantu-speaking people who came from Angola and Congo during the beginning years of slavery. This history is not commonly told in this manner, because it is based on the oral literature underlying these African-derived traditions. There are no proofs, no documents, and there is definitely no lobby speaking up for Umbanda today - in fact it’s quite the contrary. This led to a questionable interpretation of the story, which eradicates or suppresses 350 years of history. I feel myself belonging to an Umbanda which has already begun in the 16th century. I am glad that more and more anthropologists, religious scholars and other opinion-makers and practitioners represent this perspective. In numerous Umbanda temples in Brazil the African heritage is currently getting its appropriate place.
What are the main principles, the spiritual fundaments of Umbanda?
All I can tell you about is the Umbanda I personally know and practice. Central is the cosmology of an animated world, in which visible and invisible layers, material and spiritual forces, the profane and the sacred, are permeating one another and are in a mutual state of exchange, a constant movement. Humankind searches and finds therein its place and its destiny - by cultivating contact with the invisible and visible dimensions of the world: through collective rituals, rhythm, dance, caretaking of sacred places, shrines, and honoring two important fields: the nature with its space and various elements, and the ancestral world.
Umbanda affirms that we human beings have spiritual companions on our sides and are given an individual destiny. The cultivation of these companions or entities, called Caboclo or Preto Velho, is a major part of the Umbanda initiation. In public or closed trance rituals these entities are incorporated and perform healing or divining tasks. With the influence of the Yorùbá religion - the Ifá, the Orixás and their Xires (note: xire is an Afro-Brazilian term for a public ritual) - the Umbanda cosmology has received an expanded framework of sense and wisdom. The healing magic was joined by the temple magic, the curative orientation by the priestly tribute to the divine forces, the curative help itself, the entity, by a meaningful power of destiny, the Orixá.
You worship various Orisha (in Brazil written Orixá, but pronounced more or less equally) and spirits like the Caboclos, deceased indigenous people, or Pretos Velhos, African souls. How are they related to each other?
The cultivation of the spiritual forces of nature is the central element of Umbanda. The so-called Caboclos or Indigenous spirits can be understood as “donos da terra”, the owners of the land, or as space-related reference to the ancestors. They represent sacred forces of the earth. They may originally have been a distinct element of the Bantu cults, as for a long time the image of the Brazilian Indio was considered the “local” par excellence. Through the influence and embedding of the Orixás into the Umbanda practices, today the Caboclos are seen as helping forces to the divinities. In some places they are recognized as an expression of the Orixá Onilé. The Pretos Velhos also own an important place among the worshipped entities as another element referring to the ancestors. In our house they do not show themselves as deceased grandfathers, but as wisdom from the long history of mankind, which directs us to Africa, no matter where in the world you live or come from. The Pretos Velhos show themselves in a healing, comforting and counseling manner and work together with and inside of the magic of the Orixás and their divinatory approaches. These two "lines", Caboclos and Pretos Velhos, are incorporated in public rituals, so-called “giras”, which take place regularly and are open to the guests’ requests. In addition there are two other entities, the Marinheiros/Marinheiras (Eng. “sailors”) and the class of Exús (Yor. Èṣù) and Pombojiras, who are important for certain rituals. These mentoring-helping-spirits are surrounded by the circle of Orixás, who are cultivated in individual initiations and festivals of the “terreiro”.
Can you tell us more about the Orisha you call Onilé? I guess you mean Yor. Onílẹ̀, literally "the owner of the earth, soil, the indigenous one"?
Yes, I mean this power, but I would rather define it as a guardian than owner of the earth. This Orixá can be understood as the divine force acting through the whole earth, but also as the one living inside the specific earthen realm. For us, who cultivate the Orixás now on the European soil, Onilé is particularly important as a connecting force. But Onilé also has a general social meaning. Anthropologist Prandi formulates the thesis that the increased reflection on the natural dimension of the Orixás, which can be seen in many temples all over Brazil today, is a counter-movement towards the alienation and exploitation of our earthly resources. And at the same time a reminder for Orixá Onilé, which is handed down as a female deity in Brazil.
The Orisha are not mounting the bodies of initiates in Umbanda practice? Instead it is one of these types of spirits, who have a close relationship with a special Orisha?
In Umbanda the Orixás can also manifest themselves directly in the initiate’s body - and often also mount the non-initiates. Then it has to be examined if an initiation would make sense or which steps have to follow. However, usually there is first an incorporation of a spiritual entity, like a Caboclo or Preto Velho, that is then strengthened and developed following the individual spiritual path, and later the Orixás are called and cultivated. But as the spiritual world often does not communicate in our order or time, there are many exceptions to this rule.
How was it determined that you should be initiated into Oshun? Do you use divination techniques, like the “jogo de buzios” (Engl. cowry shell oracle, Yor. ẹ̀rìndínlógún)?
It happens that a visiting entity of a “pai de Santo” (Engl. “father of a saint”, Babalorisha) determines by the use of the Yorùbá cowry shell oracle the Orixá of a “filho” (Engl. “son”, initiate), but essential is the observation of the dance, life and spiritual constellation of an individual. The definition of my personal Orixá as Oxum took place within the ritual framework of an enclosure, especially held for this purpose. The "jogo de buzios" is less likely to be represented in Umbanda. The information which we get through the incorporation of the entities in trance plays the major role.
Your initiation name is, ìyá, Yorùbá for mother. The name of your house is Ilê Axé Oxum (Yor. ilé àṣẹ Ọ̀ṣun), house under the authority of Orisha Oshun. The Yorùbá influence is generally strong in Brazil, especially in the Candomblé de Ketú or Nagô. What's the difference between the Orixás of Umbanda and the Orixás of Candomblé?
As far as I understand the vast topic of the Orisha religions, its great contribution to the world is the acceptance and the cultivation of pluralism and diversity. Thus, a clear borderline between Umbanda and Candomblé in Brazil is hardly noticeable, while at the same time the differences within the Umbandas and Candomblés are large. Concepts, cultivation, rituals and initiations of Orixás differ from house to house. While in one temple the dances and the stringency of the sacrificial rituals are important, in other houses it is more about the mythologies and the embedding of Ifá, the nature-based presence, or emphasizing the anthropomorphic aspects of the Orixás. This is the beautiful diversity of this spiritual world!
But what makes a difference to Candomblé is that the various Umbandas dedicate a lot of their attention and rituals to the cultivation of the entities. This means that the presence and ritualization of the Orixás has less space, is less elaborate and possibly less binding. It is generally known that Umbanda does not make use of animal sacrifices. Many Candomblés follow a fixed "festive calendar", where they celebrate rituals for the Orixás connected to the house and complete their activities by the initiation of “iaôs” (Yor. “iyawo”, young wife, initiate) or other demands of the "buzios". So I see more structural as essential differences concerning the Orixás. In my house as well, the incorporation of entities forms the basis of the initiation, including the regular “gira” rituals. The “terreiro” is organizing Orixá festivals once or twice a year and calls “filhos” to the so-called “feitura” initiations, that is, those rituals in which the “filhos” receive their Orixás. All together this forms already a very dense annual ritual calendar.
What Orishas are you working with in your Ilê Axé Oxum? When I attended your ritual I heard songs for Osanyin, Oshun and Obatala, as far as I can remember.
We work with 17 Orixás. Oxum, Oxalá, Xangó and Irôco, also called Tempo, are among the central forces. Within the “giras” those forces get praised in songs who are important for the actual work that has to be done and those who manifest themselves.
For the people who have never been to a "gira" - can you give a short description of what happens at one of your public rituals?
The so-called “gira” ritual is carried out by an initiated circle. Using drums, songs and following a ritual sequence, the space is first brought into balance and then we call for the incorporation of the entities. These entities appear to serve our guests and their needs: spiritual cleanings, protection rituals, divinatory recommendations. The guests come with a variety of questions concerning e.g. their life, health and family, or they search for spiritual accompaniment. The “gira” is the place of initiatory practice for the “filhos de Santo”, as the adepts are called. They learn about the ritual and can incorporate their entities to deepen their relationship with them.
You brought the Brazilian Umbanda traditions to Europe, what is the second diaspora of the African practices. You work with communities in Switzerland, Austria and Germany. How is Umbanda applied to this different environment, what are the changes that you experienced?
This may sound surprising, but what really makes a difference is the weather and the climatic condition. The rhythm of the seasons and especially the long winters make adjustments in the rituals necessary. It is hardly possible to carry out initiations outside with temperatures below zero degree Celsius. You have to change to closed heated rooms, what creates other spiritual atmospheres.
At the beginning you mentioned that some Umbanda practices don't want to be involved with African traditions anymore, as they think of themselves as being "white and pure". For me this seems ridiculous, as African culture like drumming, dancing or spirit possession are so obvious. This is pure racism!
Yes, it is. It can be understood as the form of racism that is alive in Brazil - and not only there! At the present time, however, one can observe a new culture of remembrance, regarding the African roots and heritage. Here the forces seem to show themselves again and take their due place. We will see if they can withstand the aggressive expansion of the evangelical Protestant churches and the current political movements.
I am asking myself: under those conditions, is this second diaspora of the Orixás, which you mentioned, the movement to Europe, also a meaningful, indeed necessary, migration? Perhaps it helps to allow the power and wisdom of all the Orisha traditions, including the Umbanda, to come into a new protected space to further evolve and renew?
Yes, may it contribute to the spiritual wealth and health of the planet - axé! Muito obrigado Iyá Habiba, thank you! (Note: This interview was translated from German language.)
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Terra Sagrada / Ilê Axé Oxum Website
Terra Sagrada Video Channel on Vimeo
Inga Scharf da Silva: Umbanda. Eine Religion zwischen Candomblé und Kardezismus. Über Synkretismus im städtischen Alltag Brasiliens. Spectrum 83. Lit Verlag, Münster 2004.
Jan Assmann, Harald Strohm (ed.): Magie und Religion, Finkverlag, 2010
Prandi Reginalo: Segredos Guardados - Orixás na alma brasileira, Compania das Letras, Sao Paulo, 2005.
Lindsay Hale: Hearing the Mermaid's Song: The Umbanda Religion in Rio de Janeiro, University of New Mexico Press, 2009