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

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Drawing on dominant notions of female sexuality as both alluring and perilous, images and statuary of Pomba Gira depict her as a voluptuous demon clad in red, sometimes brandishing a trident figure 1. Such representations link her to a long European Catholic tradition of seductresses, succubae, and other diabolical female figures. Another branch of her family tree connects her to Africa and to the deities of the Central and West African peoples who were brought to Brazil as slaves during the three-hundred-year course of that transatlantic trade.

Adepts of Umbanda and other Afro-Brazilian religions frequently describe Pomba Gira as the female form or counterpart of Exu, the mercurial trickster figure derived from the Yoruba deity Esu, who in Brazil became conflated with the Devil. Like the figure of the Devil, Pomba Gira is recognized far outside the confines of sectarian religion.

She has become a stereotypical figure in the Brazilian imaginary, and references to her may be found in popular telenovelas prime-time soap operas , literature, cinema, popular music, and street slang. As a result most Brazilians know at least the broad outlines of her popular mythology. Indeed this profile is familiar to any inhabitant of the Western world, for Pomba Gira is the quintessential femme fatale, that perilous seductress depicted in pulp fiction and film noir.

By developing a relationship with this entity, devotees channel this ambivalent force in ways that can be individually—if seldom collectively—transformative. Hailed as Sovereign of the Cemetery, Queen of the Crossroads, and Mistress of the Night, among other titles, Pomba Gira is venerated in myriad incarnations in small temples throughout the city of Rio de Janeiro and other urban centers. Each of these pomba giras has her own specific preferences and a more or less developed life story, although all share a family resemblance. In midnight ceremonies devotees ritually summon these entities with drum and song to the human world, where, incarnated in the body of one or more trained mediums, individual pomba giras commune with admirers and attend their petitions.

These are events of great revelry for it is said that pomba giras return to the human world not only to assist petitioners but to se divertirem have fun : to dance, sing, enjoy their favorite vices, and be adored. Uncontrolled such spirits may possess the unsuspecting at will, provoking all manner of affliction and scandal. According to Nilmar, it was just such disruptive conduct on the part of his wife that convinced him to seek help. Following this advice, Nilmar arranged to bring his wife to an Umbanda temple, telling her that they had been invited to visit a friend.

And the leader said to me, "Look, we have to do a trabalho [ritual work], she has to develop this spirit. You will need to buy the things for this trabalho. And so we began there, in this way. And only later, I began to find out that the crazy things that she was doing were the result of these entities. Practitioners of Umbanda and other Afro-Brazilian spirit-based religions say that by developing the spirit, or establishing an intimate relationship of ritually mediated exchange, the afflicted is able to transform a disruptive experience into a constructive one.

Kelly E. Hayes

In return for their offerings of food, drink, praise, material items, and—temporarily—their own bodies, devotees believe that the spirits will mystically intervene on their behalf in the affairs of the human world. Such ritual exchanges between human and spirit are understood to generate various effects directly measurable in the lives of individuals, including healing, success in romantic or business endeavors, family harmony, well-being, protection from harm, the resolution of affliction, and other material benefits.

This notion of reciprocal commitment between human and spirit is expressed by the polyvalent term trabalho, or work, a central organizing concept in Afro-Brazilian religions.

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Not only are certain rituals and offerings referred to as trabalhos, but devotees say that by providing the corporeal form by which the spirit can manifest itself in the world, they trabalham work with the spirits. In return spirits come back to the terrestrial world in order to trabalhar , attending the requests of humans in need of their spiritual assistance. As she learned to work with Maria Molambo and other spirit entities, the behaviors and feelings that she had come to understand as possession episodes became less disruptive to her home life and more amenable to ritual control.

Like many who work with the spirits, in time she started her own cult center, holding ritual ceremonies and providing a range of spiritual and therapeutic services for clients in the basement of her home. Those in the know say that Pomba Gira specializes in resolving intimate questions of love, erotic attraction, money, and power, those problematic arenas of life where deeply held desires often clash with dominant moral codes.

As a result many people distance themselves from Pomba Gira and her devotees. Yet for those who claim to work with these spirits, receiving them in possession trance, Pomba Gira can be an efficacious if ambivalent ally.


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A marginalized figure herself, Pomba Gira speaks to many of the lived realities of her devotees. In this book I examine the intersections of magic, morality, and social marginalization in contemporary Brazil as they are embodied in and through the figure of Pomba Gira.

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

However, though the bawdy spirit is my ostensible subject, what follows is neither a history nor a biography of a supernatural being. Although she appears in multiple forms, Pomba Gira is always a woman who defies patriarchal criteria of feminine respectability. Historically speaking, she seems to have first emerged as a distinctive entity with her own characteristics and skills among urban Afro-Brazilian cult practitioners in the early twentieth century from a matrix of European and African conceptualizations of femininity, sexuality, and magical action. Like all supernatural beings, however, Pomba Gira takes on the breath of life—that is, she exists and is meaningful—only at the permeable interface between an external, social environment and an internal world of personal experience.

Holy Harlots: Femininity, Sexuality, and Black Magic in Brazil - California Scholarship

Stories and rituals involving this entity must accord with consensually accepted meanings in order to be accepted as authentic, but to be effective they also must address issues or conflicts particular to the afflicted person herself. To put it in slightly different terms, I approach Pomba Gira as a form of social discourse: a conceptual and experiential frame for the expression of various disjunctive experiences, interpersonal conflicts, perceived threats to the self, or other stresses, for which there may be few other socially acceptable outlets.

Embodied in Pomba Gira, the holy harlot, these tensions are made dramatically manifest in the material world, thereby becoming subject to human reflection and manipulation. In this sense Pomba Gira and other Afro-Brazilian spirit entities provide a set of symbolic resources and ritual strategies by which individuals are empowered to work on themselves and the world around them. This alternative moral imagination relies on different configurations of gender, sexuality, and power and offers different interpretive possibilities for narrating the self and acting in the world.

Within its universe of meaning, ritual works that appeal to Pomba Gira function as strategic forms of action that attempt to make sense of what is experienced as morally senseless or qualifiable as outright evil by forging other connections between cause and effect. Hayes provides an intimate and engaging account of the intricate relationship between Pomba Gira and one of her devotees, Nazare da Silva. Combining Nazare's spiritual biography with analysis of the gender politics and violence that shapes life on the periphery of Rio de Janeiro, Hayes highlights Pomba Gira's role in the rivalries, relationships, and struggles of everyday life in urban Brazil.

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Password Password required! Forgot Your Password? Create an Account. Explore Departments. Free Returns. Devotees maintain that Pomba Gira possesses an intimate knowledge of human affairs and the mystical power to intervene in the human world. Others view this entity more ambivalently. Kelly E. Hayes provides an intimate and engaging account of the intricate relationship between Pomba Gira and one of her devotees, Nazare da Silva.

Combining Nazare's spiritual biography with analysis of the gender politics and violence that shapes life on the periphery of Rio de Janeiro, Hayes highlights Pomba Gira's role in the rivalries, relationships, and struggles of everyday life in urban Brazil. About the Author Kelly E. More Details Contributor: Kelly E. Free Returns We hope you are delighted with everything you buy from us.