Question: "What is Umbanda?"
Answer: Umbanda is a belief system that can be traced back to African practices and the slave trade. Often described as an “Afro-Brazilian religion,” it blends traditional African practices with indigenous Brazilian beliefs, spiritism, and Roman Catholicism. Umbanda shares similarities with other syncretic religions like Santeria and Candomble.
Umbanda likely originated in late 19th-century Brazil, gained traction in the 20th century, and spread beyond Brazil to other parts of South America like Argentina and Uruguay. It is now a thriving religion in Brazil. Umbanda’s expansion occurred during the dictatorial regime of Getulio Vargas, and many adherents of the syncretic religion faced persecution from the government and from other religions. It was only after the re-establishment of the democratic system that Umbanda flourished. Current estimates have over 400,000 Umbandistas in Brazil (https://theworld.org/stories/2013-03-12/brazils-only-indigenous-religion-coming-its-own, accessed 8/22/23).
Umbanda has various branches including Umbanda d’Angola, Umbanda Jeje, Umbanda Ketu, and Umbanda Esoterica. These branches have unique aspects, but three core beliefs unite them: the pantheon, the spirit world, and reincarnation.
1. The Pantheon
At the center of Umbanda’s pantheon is Olorum or Olodumare, a god from the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria. Olorum is the supreme being in the Pantheon, also known as Zambi in Umbanda d’Angola. Accompanying Olorum are divine intermediaries called Orixas. The Pantheon resembles many African religions where there is a supreme being and lesser ones. Some Eastern religions like Hinduism are similarly polytheistic.
The Orixas form a complex hierarchy composed of legions, phalanges, sub-phalanges, guides, and protectors. The hierarchy is often classified into the Seven Lines or Sete Linhas da Umbanda. At the hierarchy’s apex is the Oxala, also known as Obatala in Yoruba mythology, a son of Olodumare. Oxala is linked to Jesus in Umbanda, though there’s a remarkable difference between Jesus as described in the Bible and the Obatala of Yoruba mythology. The latter was a negligent elder son who failed in his creative responsibilities and got drunk when creating humans, a far cry from the actions of the holy Son of God.
Umbanda associates other orixas with Christian figures due to the blending of some Roman Catholic practices. For instance, Xango (or Shango) is connected to John the Baptist, and Oxumare to Bartholomew. Lemanja has ties with Our Lady of Navigators, and Omulu with Lazarus. Some other Roman Catholic saints like Saint George, Saint Sebastian, and Saint Anne have their orixa parallels. This syncretism likely began during the slave trade when slaves sought to conceal their worship.
2. The Spirit World
Besides the orixas, Umbanda acknowledges a spiritual realm and many different spirits. These spirits fall into three levels: pure spirits, good spirits, and bad spirits, or klumbas. Two notable spirits are the Preto velho and Preto velha, classified as good spirits. They represent the spirits of dead slaves, the first of which was said to be an abused slave. The good spirits act as guides, speaking through mediums during Umbanda rituals. Pure spirits are archangels, angels, and perfect spirits, among others. Then there are the bad spirits that the believers generally hesitate to summon.
Umbanda, like many African traditional belief systems, believes in reincarnation. Even modern-day Christians in Africa sometimes debate the reality of reincarnation, with anecdotes seemingly supporting the concept. Hindus also believe in a reincarnation cycle, but their interpretation differs from that of the Umbandistas.
In addition, Umbanda is known for its rituals conducted in a place called the terreiro. Everyone participates in the rituals, with a priest or priestess being in charge. Mediums play a vital role in communicating with the spirits. Worshipers often wear white attire, symbolizing a true character, as they dance and use sacred symbols. Modern thinkers have diverse opinions about Umbanda, but many praise it for its charitable work and its acceptance of the LGBT community and feminist ideals.
Followers of Umbanda are like the Athenians who were “very religious” in their recognition of the existence of an “Unknown God” (Acts 17:22–23). We can use this common ground as a basis for witnessing of the Savior, doing so in “all gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). Of course, we must avoid compromising Christian beliefs through syncretism, as that would distort the gospel message.