Holy Harlots: Femininity, Sexuality, and Black Magic in Brazil

By Wehmeyer, Stephen C. | Western Folklore, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Holy Harlots: Femininity, Sexuality, and Black Magic in Brazil


Wehmeyer, Stephen C., Western Folklore


Holy Harlots: Femininity, Sexuality, and Black Magic in Brazil. By Kelly E. Hayes (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. Pp. xiii + 312, illustrations, acknowledgments, notes, bibliography, index. $65.00 cloth, $27.95 paper.)

Kelly Hayes's Holy Harlots: Femininity, Sexuality, and Black Magic in Brazil is a welcome addition to the corpus of scholarship on contemporary Afro-Caribbean religion, esotericism, and magical practice. Hayes's work puts the reader simultaneously in mind of the best aspects of two of the most significant works of the early '90s in this vein: Jim Wafer's Taste of Blood and Karen McCarthy Brown's Mama Lola.

Like Wafer, Hayes's skirts the more gentrified visions of Afro-Brazilian traditional religion, exemplified by state-sponsored Afro-centric Candomblé terreims, preferring to focus her attention on the grittier realities of the pavo da rua, "the people of the street." This term is used by practitioners of Umbanda to refer to the Exus: African-derived trickster spirits who have become fused in the Brazilian imagination with the lurid iconography associated with the Christian devil, and who manifest as a complex, and seemingly limitless pantheon of stereotypical embodiments of the earthiest aspects of the human experience. Raffish dandies like the spirit ZePelintra caricature the image of the malandro (the ne'er-do-well), a well known figure on streets of Rio who survives by wit and cunning rather than by honest labor, while spirits like Exu Joao Caviera ("Exu Joe Skull") speak to the omnipresence of death in the rough favelas of modern Brazil. These spirits, and those who honor them are both, to some degree "people of the street," as the cult of the Exus attracts those who are intimately acquainted with the ambiguous and often challenging moral landscape of life on the periferia: "a term that identifies not only the perimeter of urban space but also the marginal conditions believed to prevail there . . . marginality, lawlessness, immorality, chaos" (97). The images of the Exus thus reflect the lived experience of their devotees in "the world as it is."

Of all the Exus, the figure perhaps most beloved, most feared, and often most confounding to outsiders is the spirit Pomba Gira, the focus of Hayes's study. While Exu/Eleggua has manifestations in other Afro-Caribbean religious traditions, Pomba Gira is unique to Brazil. She exists in numerous forms, aspects, and avatars, with names, iconography, legends and sacred songs alternately depicting her as Wife of Lucifer / Queen of Hell or, "as a gypsy with colorful flowing skirts, as a coquette, cabaret girl, or streetwalker... Pomba Gira is invariably a woman of ill-repute, sometimes a courtesan or prostitute, sometimes a dangerous enchantress..." (43). As theirs is a decentralized religion without a singular doctrinal authority, practitioners of Umbanda construct the identity and character of the spiritual entities they serve out of a dense and shifting collection of oral legends, trance performances, material iconography and the lyrics of pontos cantados-"sung points"-evocatory songs. Hayes establishes the nature of Pomba Gira for her reader in much the same way, building an image of this marginal yet powerful goddess through reference to the legends she has collected from believers, observations of (and conversations with) mediums possessed by the spirit, material culture, ritual action, and her own considerable knowledge of the corpus of pontos cantados.

Like Brown's Mama Lola, Hayes's book is largely a study of a single practitioner, offering the reader a vision of Brazilian Umbanda/Quimbanda as it exists in the life of a remarkable woman, the spirit medium Nazaré. Also, like Brown, Hayes writes about her developing ethnographic friendship with Nazaré, her husband Nilmar, and with the spirit of Pomba Gira herself with the same kind of earnestness and real affection that characterizes Brown's characterization of Vodou healer Alourdes Champagne. …

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