Accepted paper:

Naming the fluid: Brazilian Umbanda and the turning-points of the infinite


Diana Espirito Santo (Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile)

Paper short abstract:

In this paper I explore the creative dividends of what appears to be two simultaneous levels of cosmology operative among practitioners of the Afro-Brazilian religion of Umbanda in the city of Rio de Janeiro, one static and historical, and the other unknowable.

Paper long abstract:

For practitioners of Umbanda, an umbrella term designating a set of modern largely urbanized Afro-Brazilian spirit mediumship practices, their complex, even bureaucratic, cosmos of 'spirit-entities' is a situated, historical manifestation of what is considered an infinite, millenarian divine (Zambi). Each entity-spirit with whom a medium engages is at once an earthly crystallization of this ancient 'vibration' and its multiple refractions (based on the number seven), and a nameless, formless being who temporarily assumes an archetypical spirit 'skin' in order to better effect its mission among the living. These identity 'skins' - as complications of a Brazilian national historical imaginary - become the cultural language by which an acultural 'truth' (Umbanda) is paradoxically revealed, and by which mostly 'human' moral messages (humility, joy, etc) are engendered. A permanent, creative disjuncture of ontological structures is thus somehow inevitably present. On the one hand, cosmology is rarely fixed, and perhaps even illusory: what appears to be a static quasi-military hierarchy of spirit forms betrays in fact a fluid, transformational magma of agencies whose mobility and shape-shifting is what generates cosmic flow. On the other, the pragmatics of collapsing this flow become all-important: mediums must embrace certain artificial structures (posture, songs, signatures and importantly, names) - the meta-cosmology given by the entities themselves - in order to produce 'Umbanda'. It is unsurprising that the processes involved in the identification of entities are frought with ambiguity. This paper will explore these tense spaces of naming and materializing as turning-points of ontological insight.

panel W053
Shifting ontologies and contingent agencies