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Katherine Henterly

Katherine Henterly is a Junior in Georgetown College pursuing a degree in Economics with minors in Spanish and Portuguese. She is originally from Bay Village, Ohio, a small suburb outside of Cleveland. Katherine is spending the Fall 2011 semester in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She arrived in Brazil in July and will be staying there until the middle of December. During the month of July she completed an intensive Portuguese language class, and in August began taking regular semester classes. Katherine is studying at Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro where she is taking classes about Brazilian culture and literature and the Brazilian economy.

The Influence of the Catholic Church and Indigenous Religions in Brazil

October 31, 2011 | 1 COMMENT

In Rio de Janeiro you can see God everywhere. Literally. From almost anywhere I stand in the huge city of Rio, I am able to see the magnificent 130ft statue of Christ the Redeemer looking over the city. Brazil has an overwhelming number of Catholics, and it is easy to see the influence that the Catholic Church has on everyday life in Brazil.

“Fica com Deus,” which literally means “Stay with God,” is a common phrase that Brazilians use to end a conversation, in person or on the telephone. It is impossible to walk the streets without running into a vendor selling the ever-popular colorful ribbon bracelets printed with the name “Senhor do Bonfim,” meaning “Our Lord of a Good End.”

Spiritual matters are very prominent in the lives of Brazilians, and early into my stay here, I learned that religion is not a taboo topic of discussion, as it often is in the United States. While Catholicism is the most popular religion in Brazil, syncretism of different religions and spiritual beliefs is extremely common. The Catholicism practiced in Brazil is heavily influenced by African and Indigenous religions. Many Brazilian Catholics participate in the rituals of the African religions and believe in Orixás, or gods of the indigenous people.

The popular myths and legends that are told in Brazil are an example of how indigenous and Afro-Brazilian beliefs are present throughout the country today. Many of these Brazilian legends have messages that pertain to religious beliefs, moral behavior or the act of sinning. One of these legends is the legend of “O Boto,” or “The Dolphin,” which originated in the Amazon, but is told throughout Brazil.

According to the legend, at nighttime an Amazon River dolphin transforms into a handsome man who seduces women, impregnates them, and then returns to dolphin-form once again before sunrise. The legend of the boto served, and still serves today, as a way for unmarried Amazon women to justify an unwanted pregnancy.

Another well-known character from Brazilian folklore is the Headless Mule. The Headless Mule is the ghost of a woman who has been cursed by God for committing the sin of sacrilege against the church or for fornication with a priest. The woman is condemned to roam the countryside after sunset as a fire-spewing headless mule.

It is easy to see that both of these myths have their origin in religious roots, as one serves as a justification for a sin while the other serves as a warning of the consequences of committing a sin. While both of these myths are known throughout the whole country of Brazil, they carry the most weight and significance with the indigenous people of the Amazon.

Today the Brazilian government recognizes a separation of Church and State, and each citizen has the right to freedom of religion. The dominant Catholic Church coexists in harmony with various indigenous religions. Not only does the Brazilian government allow freedom of religion, but it also plays an active role in preserving the religious and cultural traditions of the indigenous people. While indigenous people are on their land reserves, they are outside of the Brazilian law. This ensures that the Brazilian law will not interfere with ancient customs and practices of the indigenous people.

Brazil is a country with extraordinary diversity comprised of peoples from many different ethnic backgrounds. Miscegenation and continual contact between the different ethnicities has led to the development of a Brazilian national identity that recognizes the cultures of the indigenous people while also including traditions from Portuguese immigrants and representations of popular culture, such as Carnival and soccer.

The harmony that exists between the Catholic Church and ancient African religions in Brazil is an example of the “live and let live” attitude of the Brazilian people and the openness with which they embrace diversity in their country.


It is so interesting to juxtapose the role of religion in Copenhagen with that of Brazil, as described in Katherine Henterly’s letter, “The Influence of the Catholic Church and Indigenous Religions in Brazil.” While she sees God everywhere, I see him nowhere. In Brazil, religion is discussed freely and openly, whereas in Copenhagen it is seen as extraordinarily taboo.

Furthermore, Katherine’s discussion of Brazillian religious myths is both fascinating and frightening. I am reminded of Greek mythology, when stories about the God’s were created to explain natural phenomenon such as earthquakes and lightening. Brazil’s Christianity is clearly extremely distinctive, as it includes aspects of it’s own culture that sets it apart from the religious practices we see in America. For example, much of its folklore revolves around the Amazon river and indigenous animals, which makes their spirituality uniquely Brazilian.

I cannot fathom how difficult it would be to adjust to a culture where religion is so prevalent. In America, religion is so rarely discussed, so it must be very strange to have it unavoidably in your face at all times. It was strange for me not to see religion ever, especially coming from a school where there is a cross in every class room, but I can imagine that it would be very strange to adjust to the opposite scenario as well.

African Influence in Brazil Evident through Candomblé Religion

November 23, 2011

I recently had the opportunity to travel to Salvador, Bahia, a city on the northeastern coast of Brazil known for its prominent African influence. During the sixteenth century, Bahia was Brazil’s main seaport and the epicenter of the sugar industry and slave trade. The African slaves who came Bahia brought with them the Candomblé religion, which survives today despite prohibitions and persecutions throughout its history in Brazil. Candomblé owes its survival in part to the fact that African worshippers aligned many of their deities with Catholic saints, in an attempt to promote harmony between the two religions.

While in Salvador, I had the opportunity to observe a Candomblé ritual, which turned out to be one of the most fascinating experiences of my trip thus far. While Candomblé rituals are generally closed to the public, they sometimes open their doors to a small number of visitors. Before arriving at the “terreiro,” the temple-like space where the ritual takes place, our tour guide gave us a few guidelines.

Firstly, we were advised to dress only in white, so as to respect the Orixás, the African deities. Secondly, we were prohibited from bringing cameras to the ritual, as the worshippers believe that when a photo is taken during a Candomblé ritual, the camera captures a soul.

When we entered the terreiro, we took our seats on the outer edge of the room next to the band, which was comprised of a group of young men playing various percussion instruments. Before the ritual began, each of the worshippers processed into the terreiro and approached the front of the room, where they bent down and kissed the “mãe de santo,” or head priestess, before taking their seats.

The female worshippers were dressed in floor-length cotton white dresses with scarves wrapped around their hair, while the male worshippers wore white pants and a white tunic. The majority of the worshippers took their seats around the edge of the room, like us, but around twelve remained in the center of the room, forming a circle and dancing to the beat of the drums.

We learned from our tour guide that these twelve people were the higher priests and priestesses, who are able to “receive” the gods and enter into a trance-like state. When one receives a god, their own spirit must leave the body in order to allow the god to enter; so the priest is essentially possessed by the god while in this trance-like state. At various times throughout the next hour, each of the twelve members began to spin in wild circles, which signaled that they were about to receive a god.

Once the god “entered” the body, each person reacted differently. The majority of the priests and priestesses appeared to be in a peaceful sleep, albeit while standing and with a strange, unmoving expression on their face. One of the most impactful sights of the ritual was one of the priestesses, who looked to be around 16 or 17 years old, by far the youngest of the group. Once she received the god, her eyes rolled to the back of her head and the whites of her eyes were clearly visible as she staggered around the room convulsing and emitting loud-pitched wails at intermittent intervals.

About thirty minutes after the gods entered the priests and priestesses, each was escorted out of the terreiro for intermission, while still in their trance-like state. After the short intermission, the priests and priestesses reentered the terreiro, now costumed in the garb of their respective god or goddess. It was truly an impressive, if not somewhat frightening, sight to see each person decked in elaborate outfits and wielding various weapons, all while continuing to dance with their eyes closed in very close proximity to one another.

Unfortunately we were unable to stay for the end of the ceremony, but by the time we left we already had about a hundred questions to ask our tour guide. He explained to us that a priest or priestess can receive a god at any age, as they are born with this capability. If one of your parents is able to receive a god or goddess, you will most likely be born with the ability as well, as it is passed down throughout families. Each priest or priestess receives the same god during each ritual, and the god whom they receive is either known at the time of birth (in this case, it would be the same god whom their parent received), or determined through a fortune-telling practice called búzios, which is reading of shells.

Attending the Candomblé ritual has been one of the most remarkable things I have experienced during my time in Brazil. While I have learned about various indigenous and African religions in my history classes, as a Catholic, I have never before witnessed these religious practices firsthand. I am still not entirely sure what to make of the experience, and I have many questions that are left unanswered.

Do those born with the capability to receive a god truly believe that this god enters their body? Or are there some priests who engage in the ritual merely out of respect rather than personal belief? These and many other questions I hope will be answered as I continue my studies in Brazil.