Sunday, April 11, 2010


Yo no creo en las brujas,
pero que las hay, las hay

That’s a Spanish proverb that doesn’t translate well into either English or Portuguese. A close approximation of the meaning is “I don’t believe in witches, but they really do exist”.
I quote it here because I can think of no more succinct way to sum up the attitude of most Brazilians about the power of magic to intervene in their daily lives. 
The intervention can come in the form of “white magic”, in which spirits are enlisted to do good, or it can come in the form of “black magic”, where spirits are enlisted to do evil. Either way, it’s not the kind of magic practiced by people like David Copperfield or Houdini. It’s the real stuff, the magic of primitive peoples, the magic of five hundred, a thousand, ten-thousand years ago. It came here as  part of the cultural baggage of over three million Africans, imported into Brazil as slaves, and it's a magic as old as man.
Nobody in this country believes that a trabalho (ritual) carried out by a Pai do Santo (think of him as  someone who intercedes with the spirits)
or a Mãe do Santo (his female equivalent) can bring love, cement a relationship, give success in business, punish an enemy or cure a disease.

Except that almost everybody really does.
And everyone has a story to tell.

We have a friend, a well-educated woman, who is convinced that her brother was cured of a serious eye disease by spiritual intervention. She had a trabalho performed in Salvador, Bahia, on a day when her brother was in the city of São Paulo, almost fifteen hundred kilometers away. She told the Mãe do Santo only that her brother had a problem with his eye. She didn’t say which one. The woman “received the spirits” bent over and began shrieking in pain, her hand over her right eye. (The same one in which our friend’s brother was afflicted.) After about fifteen minutes she quieted down, sat up straight and pronounced him cured. Our friend went home, called him, and he was. 
Just like that.

As a young teenager, my wife knew a girl in her neighborhood who paid a Pai do Santo to have a boy fall in love with her and then, when she tired of him, paid again to have him fall out-of-love with her. My wife accompanied the business at first hand. Each event happened from one day to the next.
Just like that.

Of course they are.
Or maybe not.

The one thing I can tell you for sure is that the casting of spells in this country is big business. Every town and village has at least one person adept in the black arts. Every big city has many hundreds, sometimes thousands.
And, these days, if you’re in an insolated spot, it’s even possible to enlist help via the internet.

Consultation with your local practitioner often begins with the casting of the buzios.
You have questions about your life or your future? You ask, and the practitioner throws the shells. The spirits direct the way they fall. You can’t read the answer directly, of course. You need the practitioner for that.

Sometimes, the spirits advise that your problem, whatever it is, has to do with a spell cast against you. You’re advised to react, to protect yourself. Sometimes, the spirits know exactly what you need, but they want you to fess up, to ask for it, to obtain their intervention.

Protection often requires procedures like bathing in foul-smelling mixtures of herbs and oils.
More proactive trabalhos, like achieving success in business, or getting someone to fall in love with you, might require a more complicated procedure. Either way, some stuff is going to be required to perform the ritual (or series of rituals). 
Shops like this one stock everything necessary. They’re to be found all over the country.

And, as you'll note if you carefully inspect the photo above, they even accept credit cards.

Of course I know, Dear Reader, that you don’t believe in any of this silly business.
And never will.

But, just on a lark, if you come to Brazil,
I'd be delighted to refer you to the lady who throws the buzios for me.

Leighton – Monday


  1. Leighton - I taught in a girls' high school when I first got into the field of education. The school was located in an Italian-American neighborhood with the emphasis on "Italian". In those days there were families still able to immigrate from Italy.

    Most of the girls wore a lot of gold around their necks and, invariably, there were three medal, Jesus, Mary, and St. Anthony, and the horns of the devil. This charm has two pieces of gold that look as if the index and pinkie fingers are extended. Although the horns are worn to ward off evil, they represent the horns of the devil so the dichotomy can perhaps be explained by the fact that I have seen the horns pointed at someone if the wearer believed she had been cursed and she wanted to return the favor.

    The girls encouraged me often to visit a fortune teller or in lieu of that I could write out my question or concern, put it in a sealed envelope and it would be turned over to somebody's grandmother.

    The biggest fear is the evil eye, caused y jealousy and envy. Some mothers in the neighborhood did not appreciate it if their baby was admired. This was unique in that most mothers love to hear that someone thinks their baby is beautiful. But admiring a baby could call down the evil eye, leading to the baby being stolen by evil spirits, certainly a terrible curse for a family.

    In that everything bad in life might be caused by the evil eye, it was necessary to run a test to confirm it or, hopefully, refute it in which case everyone could relax. The test was simple. Olive oil is dropped on a shallow bowl of water. If the olive oil expanded into a solid mass in the middle of the plate, the problem was, indeed, caused by the evil eye. If the olive oil broke into pieces and migrated to the edge of the bowl, there was no curse. Sometimes a headache was just a headache.

    I am not sure where Jesus, Mary, and St. Anthony fit into the system but all the Catholic churches, of which there were many, had banks of holy candles burning brightly.

    As in your wife's experience with her friend, my students were teenagers and, as your wife witnessed, curses could be called down on someone in the morning and removed in the afternoon, to have the pattern repeat the next day. What is a critical need today might not be so important tomorrow. For this reason teenage girls should not be given the opportunity to negotiate for curses. These are serious business and is there anyone more mercurial than a teenage girl?

    African slaves introduced these practices in Brazil. It is thought, especially by northern Italians, that Sicilians are the descendants of Africans who made the relatively short trip from the continent to the island and brought their superstitions with them.

    I wouldn't have anyone throw the buzios for me. I don't want to know what lies in my future. One day at a time is enough. As to curing the sick, I do believe in the power of faith and prayer. "More things are wrought by prayer than can be conceived by the minds of men."


  2. Fascinating, Beth.
    And right there in America!
    Who woulda thunk it?
    Thanks, as always, for your contribution.

  3. My first view of Rio was by car, at night, from the airport into downtown. When we stopped at a signal, I saw offerings to some Macumba saint(s)on the sidewalk next to my car window. There were candles, trinkets, and flowers. When I looked up, I saw a group of worshipers coming out of the Catholic church down a path that passed by the Macumba offering, crossing themselves as they passed it. One of those never to be forgotten moments.

  4. Fascinating post. To turn it on its head, there would be those in Brazil who would be incredulous that Americans would NOT believe in signs and portents.

    And I'm sure you've heard about the horrific events in certain countries where children are being murdered because they are accused of being witches.

    Interesting this should come up as I've just read some delightful books by Sarah Addison Allen: Garden Spells and Girl Who Chased the Moon. Rather bewitching books, set in North Carolina.

  5. This is fascinating, and if I ever got to Brazil I think I'd want to visit your lady who throws the buzios.

    I listen to Glastonbury Radio over the net fairly often, and correspond from time to time with the lady who is the current head of the Glastonbury Chamber of Commerce. She's a Druid and owns three witchcraft shops. Me, I just read Tarot cards!

  6. Leighton,

    Thanks so much for your post about magic in Brazil.

    I admit, I could be persuaded, I would like to be persuaded and believe in magic.

    The older I get, the more open I am to different spiritual beliefs.

    I have my Tarot cards read regularly and am always amazed by how spot on the readings are.

    I'm not sure what buzios are, but I would love someone with a good heart to throw some for me!


  7. Buzios, Susie, are cowrie shells - the ones you see in the picture.
    Casting them is kinda like the Brazilian version of reading tea leaves, or staring into a crystal ball.
    Except that most of us are convinced that buzios work, whereas the other two don't.

  8. I arrived at this website by chance, after discovering a very interesting story about Orson Welles and some Brazilian fishermen.

    Then I read this post, and I must say, Mr. Leighton, that the way you pictured this "magic" is anything but fair.

    You are talking -- or should be -- about religions with their own perspectives and philosophies. It is not about offering black magic services in an exotic underdeveloped country. You haven't grasped a single inch of what these religions are all about. There is, for instance, great differences between the different religions that sprouted from the same African influence. There is also a great difference between the "spirits" you mention and the varied rolls of divinities worshipped in each different sprout.

    It is just the same (racist, sorry to tell you) prejudice set against the (in)famous Voodoo practices, which are actually part of a religion that, for being rooted in African cultures, was doomed to be seen as a half-barbarian ancient practice that evokes our most primitive instincts and desires. There are lots of things about Voodoo, but all people "know" is that little doll; which many pundits argue that has nothing to do with Voodoo itself.

    Mr, Leighton, these religions are not about selling magic. Of course you can find people "selling" these services, even though not in "every town" as you suggested. But you have much more serious leaders and practitioners to talk to, alas you mention none. Would I stick myself to the practices of the most deviant priests of the Catholic Church to picture what this religion is? Of course not. And that is just what you did, reinforcing prejudices that are too much of a burden in this racist country already.

    So, please, try to be more delicate and conscious of what you are talking about next time you write about Afro-Brazilian religions.

    Thank you.