Candomblé, Umbanda e Macumba…Oh My!

There seem to be many conflicting view points as to what these religions are, and that’s always bound to happen when a religion or tradition is oral rather than prescribed in a book.

Last summer I met another Brazil enthusiast who spent most of her time in Bahia. Somehow we started talking about religion, and she made a comment that there is no Candomblé in Rio de Janeiro. What?! Candomblé is in every crevice of the state. When I told her that Candomblé is, in fact, present in Rio and that I was actually initiated there she responded that everyone always told her that there’s only Macumba and Umbanda in Rio.

That could have been the result of a few things. It could be that she spoke to some purists who believe that if you want the best of Candomblé it only exists in Bahia, the Mecca. It could be that she misunderstood the Brazilian use of Macumba, or that something was lost in translation, or any number of possibilities that lead to misunderstandings.

Then this morning, I received an email from someone asking what the difference is between Candomblé and Umbanda. My response was simple; Candomblé is the cult of Orisha, and Umbanda is a spiritual tradition. There are lots of intricacies involved in really understanding the differences between the traditions, how they function, and what they believe. BUT, it really boils down to just that, in my opinion.

So here’s a quick overview:

Candomblé: An African based Brazilian religion that includes several branches (nations/nações) that cultivates Orisha (Yoruba), Inkice (Bantu), or Vodoun/Lwa (Fon). Some people limit Candomblé to the nations that have origins in Bahia (Ketu, Angola, Efon, Ijesha, Jeje, etc…), while others consider nations that have origins outside of Bahia as part of Candomblé as well. Some of those traditions are Xamba, Xango, Batuque who cultivate Orisha as well, but in slightly different ways than the more popular Orisha (Ketu, Efon, Ijesha) nations of Candomblé. It’s important to note that although Candomblé is uniquely Brazilian, its foundations are predominantly African as the religion was reconstructed by African women who were brought to Brazil during the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade.

Umbanda: A Brazilian religion based on Indigenous Brazilian, European and African elements that cultivates spiritual entities. In the U.S., most people recognize the spirits that Umbanda deals with as Muertos (spirits of the dead), and some practices may be similar to Espiritismo. However, it’s important to remember that the spirits are not personal blood ancestors. It’s also important to realize that one cannot read a book or website and decide which spirits they want to have. Investigation by a medium (and the medium’s entity) is necessary to figure out which spirits walk with a person. Fortunately, there are more Umbanda practitioners in the U.S. than Candomblé practitioners. It’s much easier to maintain Umbanda outside of Brazil when compared to Candomblé. California, New York, and D.C are a few cities that come to mind that I know have established Umbanda temples and regular worship. To find some, simply google *Umbanda* and your state. You can also search for Templo Guaracy, which is an established temple that has several branches in the U.S.

Macumba: Defining Macumba can be very tricky, because it’s a term that has many different meanings to Brazilians. Macumba can be used to refer to Candomblé and Umbanda as an umbrella term (“Sou Macumbeira,” I follow Candomblé). It can be used to refer to an ebo (offering/sacrifice) that’s being made (“Vamos fazer essa Macumba,” Let’s do this ebo). It can even be used to refer to a feast itself (“Fui pra uma Macumba ontem” I went to a drumming/feast yesterday). On the flip side, it can also be used as a pejorative in a similar way that “Voodoo” is used in English (“Chuta que é Macumba” Get rid of that Macumba/Voodoo).

Obviously, this is just the tip of the iceberg. To make things even more confusing, there are many who follow both Candomblé and Umbanda. Some Umbanda traditions will use the names of Orisha in their practice. Some followers of Candomblé will have spiritual entities (and take care of them), but don’t belong to Umbanda at all. And still, there are many who prefer to keep things entirely separate. There’s enough space on earth for us all!

I hope this snippet makes your Internet searches easier to sift through, especially given the incredibly small amount of information available to English only speakers on any of the Brazilian traditions.