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Sorcerous Saints and Elevated Ancestors

Over the last months I have noticed an increase in resentments concerning the use of saints in sorcerous contexts and in particular within cults and faiths of African pedigree. A few people have written asking how Christian Saints and African faiths are at all compatible and some have written to tell that this Christian oppression of African faiths must cease as yet others of a more Satanic inclination have expressed a furious resentment with mentioning orixa and in particular Christian saints as being remotely related to Quimbanda in any form or way. It is my understanding that it is a field that invites confusion, so I hope this blog posting can make these matters more tangible and clear.

As detailed in Palo Mayombe in relation to Kimpa Vita (1684 -1706) and the rise of Antonianism in the African territory that was referred to as ‘Congo’, but designated at large Bantu and Ewe speaking people spread out south and north in Western Africa. The ‘Congos’ arrived to Brazil from Cabinda and counted people from Angola, Congo and other countries sharing linguistic and religious similarities.

We find in relation to Kimpa Vita and her movement  words like makungu and nkisi applied on saints and symbols of the Christian faith in the early days of the Christian mission. The word makungu were used to describe saints like St. Anthony, St. Benedict and Our Lady of the Rosary that were experienced to have a particular affinity with the African people. The word makungu means ‘elevated ancestor’. This means that the African view upon saints were motivated by the concept held about what enables a person upon death to become an ancestor that could take an active role in people’s lives. The word nkisi could also be used, which loosely means ‘a thing of power’, and was considered a vital and vibrant extension of Nzambi/God. This word would also be used to describe a saint like St. Anthony who was also given an African name ‘as nkisi’, in his case Cuye Lumbemba, with its variations, is known in Palo Brillumba to be the nkisi moving this saint.

Another phenomenon worthy of mentioning is the battle in Lepanto at the Ionian Sea in 1571 where the Portuguese occupants saw a victory over the Moorish people which they attributed to the protection of Our Lady of the Rosary which was at the time known as Our Lady of Victory. Her feast day is 7th of October and the fest day is attributed to the date of victory in this battle at Lepanto. She became a popular saint and her cult was early on installed in the district known as ‘Congo’. However, it seemed that this saint favoured the Africans more than the missionaries and occupants and so she became rapidly a saint seen as protecting the Africans. Countless stories in the 17th Century speak of her showing herself in epiphanies exclusively for Africans and in this way her cult spread out as an exclusively ‘Congolese’ cult. It was something about her legends and myths, to gain victory when confronted with impossible opposition that nurtured a kinship, and her benevolence towards the Africans that turned her into an ‘elevated ancestor’.  

Her cult arrived to Brazil in 1713 with the Congolese slaves that were sent to Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais. We find her here together with St. Benedict and St. Anthony as patrons for exclusively African fraternities completely dislocated from the Church save for its clerical blessing to exist. The records from the archbishopric of Ouro Preto 1745 states that the existence of these fraternities are maintained as a ways of keeping peace in the district, while the practice of the cult with dance, drums, gunpowder and possessions were seen as barbaric and savage, a heresy better left alone. This fraternity became even more important in 1747 when Ganga Zumba Galanga, a ‘Congolose’ king was installed as such in Ouro Preto under the name of King Chico. He gained rapidly his freedom and was given a portion of the mines to work for himself, making him a very wealthy king.

What effectively happened in this situation was a spiritual coup on a saint that seemed to provide success for the Africans and making her theirs. The good fortune befalling King Chico would attest to her favours being more attainable for the Africans than the people of the Church. The coronation of King Chico was a turning point in many regards, but in particular how it enabled the Africans that unwillingly came to Brazil to accept this New Land as their land, because victory was affirmed to be a possibility with King Chico’s success and coronation.
What should be taken notice of here is that this particular saint came from Cabinda/Angola to Brazil with the slaves and not through the people of the Church. As any careful study of the attempts of turning the Bantu speaking people into true Christians testify to, they might have accepted aristocratic titles, baptism and the powers of saints – but usually on their own premises that shaped and forged the understanding of saints in a distinct African world view. In other words, the understanding they held of Christian dogma was a constant heresy that was over the time just allowed to exist.

We should in this context be be mindful of the idea vested in the term nkisi, ‘a thing of power’. Anything of power was conceived of as a ray and reflex of Nzambi – and if a thing of power was available for use it was also up for being taken and cultivated if it responded to ones petitions and summoning. If the saint was white or black didn’t mattered, what mattered was if it worked. This fact is demonstrated in Kimbisa and how Christian saints are adopted into a field of syncretism resting on African – and in particular ‘Congolese’ tenants – so in the end it is not Christianity abducting African faith, but quite the opposite.

We find a similar syncretism in Quimbanda from the 1920’s and onward where practitioners of what was known as ‘low spiritism’, Candomblé de Caboclo and macumba in general attempted to sort out the spiritual legacy in Brazil in terms of lineages. Around 1930 we find St. Cyprian being in control of the African line of Umbanda. In this line we find Pai Cabinda, Pai Congo, Zun-guiné and many others that were known as pretos velhos, or ‘old blacks’ were testifying to the African heritage. Certainly a Christian bias was present at this time when white intellectuals gravitated towards Umbanda from Kardec’s spiritism that was widespread in urban centres, in particular Salvador and Rio do Janeiro, and attempts of elevating this ‘low spiritism’ found in the African line were set in motion. This syncretism helped in fleshing out the particular stream of macumba cultivated in Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais into becoming known as Quimbanda. Now Macumba/Quimbanda was not a uniform cult. It varied from place to place and house to house in relation to what was proven effective and thus in these earlier manifestations, brought from the cabulas (the refuges of runaway slaves and also more or less free African communities) we found symphonies of what was just called ‘macumba’ in the sense of something sorcerous, something belonging to the many reflexes of ‘low spiritism’.

In the late 1940s Aluizo Fontenelle wrote a book called ‘Exu’ where he as a white intellectual presented a syncretism of the spirits of Quimbanda with the daimonic spirits of Grimorium Verum. His work was an adaption of the knowledge circulating in particular houses of macumba in Rio do Janeiro that was practicing ‘low spiritism’, which was another name applied on what we know as Quimbanda today – but at the time also included Umbanda, which was partly established on the practice known as Candomblé de Caboclo as well as macumba.

Fontenelle, an ardent student of the works of Eliphas Levi, worked out a ponto for Exu Rei that represented a fusion of Lucifer and Ogum, the orixa of iron and blacksmithery, while he assigned the role of Maioral to St. Michael the Archangel.

As his book makes clear this role is not given because Fontenelle is interested in converting the sorcerous African line, it is a connection made because of St. Michael’s capacity of controlling these unruly forces worked in Quimbanda. St. Michael with all demons under his cape is de facto the King demon himself and was understood to represent a principle of order and respect in a cult of hierarchy. In other words his work was about establishing a spiritual order rooted in principles from Christian theology he felt made justice to the streams of macumba, Quimbanda, Umbanda and spiritism he was involved with. It was his way of making sense of things, not a Christian mission on his part.  

It is understandable that the presence of a saint or two in cults sorcerous in nature puzzle people, but we need to understand that for the Angolan priest in the 16th Century that sensed power in a saint, it is in the same ways today for a practitioner who works with both hands and understand the concept of dual observance. At the end of the day, it is this we are speaking of, how you can see in a saint, a contradiction that with a particular approach can be turned into a force of personal use. For instance St. Cyprian holds all this ambiguity of being a sorcerer that converted to Christianity because he realized some power there, but he didn't abandoned what he was doing prior to his conversion, rather he added one more storehouse of power to his arsenal of magic. It was not about giving up what he had, it was about accepting one more stream of power.  

If we make an attempt of undressing saints and angels, demons and spirits from the cultural and religious fabric we tend to veil them in we can enable a direct and true communion where we see them for what they are and not blinded by the religious fabric they are wrapped up in or the doctrine of faith we have wrapped ourselves up into.

In particular when it comes to saints we should be mindful that every saint was once a human being that upon death was elevated, just like people living remarkable lives in conformity with their Fate were seen as individuals that might be elevated upon death in many African faiths.

For sure for many saints and the Christian faith itself carries the air of oppression in the memory of its blood soaked missions, but when our passions clouds our clarity of mind we impose veils of resentment and the cloth of judgment upon spirits and saints that are not necessarily true.

I believe everything should be question and that we should be slow in making conclusions. We never know what the next day brings and we never know if the demonized person or spirit is our confidant if we don’t give them a chance because of our prejudgments and internalized dogma. Incidents like Our Lady of the Rosary that was adopted by Bantu/kimbundu speaking Africans and brought to Brazil by them should at least give us a reason to pause and reflect and question if the world is as black and white as some tend to think or if matters are more fluid and dynamic than this.

For sure this brings no comfort for the soul of he or she who have figured it all out until the last brick in the dogma, but we need to realize that history is nothing but a series of facts that we attempt to make sense of with our prejudgments and personal bias that shoots in all possible direction in the process. I mean when you are convinced beyond doubt that a given thing is exactly as it is, well, doubt should be invited in again and again...

... and as for the spirits themselves and how we cultivate them, well, the proof rest in actually doing the work and being attentive to what is going on in the invisible realms and be honest in our assessment of what works and what don’t work.  Just because you see enmity between two friends it is not necessarily so. Perspectives can fool us as much as they enlighten us. Because this pragmatic frame of mind is not only the attitude of a sorcerer; it is also very much ‘Congolese’...     

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