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Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy

Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index

Sacred Leaves of CandomblÚ: African Magic, Medicine, and Religion in Brazil

Voeks, Robert A. (1997)
Austin, TX: University of Texas Press

ISBN:0-292-78730-8 hardcover
0-292-78731-6 paperback

Description: Hardcover, first edition, xx + 236 pages.

Contents: Note on orthography, preface, 8 chapters, Appendix 1: CandomblÚ Species List, Appendix 2, House Ab˘ for Three CandomblÚ Terreiros, notes, glossary, references cited, general index, index to scientific names.

Excerpt(s): Sacred Leaves of CandomblÚ is a study of CandomblÚ ethnobotany-the source, diffusion, use, classification, and meaning of Afro-Brazilian sacred leaves. ...

Originally expecting to document the origin and use of a few African plants in Brazil, I discovered in short order that the story of the CandomblÚ flora not only was rich and complex, but was in many respects a metaphor for the African American diaspora. Neither can be comprehended without understanding the subtle interplay between history, geography, culture, and political economy. ...

While much of this book is descriptive in nature, at least three themes emerge that are at variance with prevailing streams of thought in the biological and human sciences. First, this book is not about the highly touted medicinal potential of pristine tropical rainforests. Rather, it underscores the intrinsic medicinal worth of peopled tropical landscapes, of disturbed forests and fields and the healing flora they harbor. ...

Second, this book is not about victims of the African slave trade, men and women forever hobbled by the chains of historical oppression. It is about victors, empowered African slaves and their descendants who steadfastly refused to succumb to European cultural dominance. In no case are their successes more visible than in the area of religion and healing. ...

Third, this book is not about African religious orthodoxy, nor does it in any way support the notion that syncretic Afro-Brazilian belief systems are somehow less pure than those of their Yoruba forebears. Rather, it is about the inevitable osmosis of ideas and innovations between cultures in intimate and extended contact. In Brazil, Africans and their descendants were able to forge a successful New World belief system exactly because they were willing to absorb, eagerly and without apology, relevant spiritual and folk medicinal practices from their European captors and their Amerindian coworkers. ...

Field research for this project was carried during June-August of 1988, July 1990-January 1991, July-August, 1991, and January 1992. I worked in and around the cities of Salvador, IlhÚus, and Itabuna, Bahia. My primary methods included extended interviews and participant observation, as well as field excursions to spiritual gardens, vacant lots, secondary habitats, and primary rain-forest. I witnessed dozens of ceremonies and healing rituals and was spiritually cleansed myself on several occasions. (pages xiv-xv)

The belief systems that survived with the African diaspora, derived from disparate source regions and following independent New World trajectories, exhibit more differences than similarities. Each adapted to, borrowed from, and was ultimately reformulated by social, political, economic, and religious features that were peculiar to each region. Most neo-African religions have little in common, and some exhibit little more than an odd assortment of African-derived cultural traits. There is, nevertheless, a thread of common purpose and practice that runs through the New World African religions. They are practical and they are hedonistic. African-derived belief systems concentrate on the resolution of earthly problems, the everyday dilemmas of the here and now, the health and prosperity of adherents and of the African American community at large. Thorny questions about the hereafter-salvation, redemption, and the like-are seldom addressed.

African American belief systems provide a culturally acceptable context within which the origin of health problems can be determined and the process of healing effected. Because illness is perceived to represent reactions to forces outside the realm of secular comprehension, African American religious leaders frequently occupy the social role of community curers, acting as spiritual brokers between the physical and material worlds. (pages 2, 4)

Beginning with the formation of the first CandomblÚ terreiros in the early nineteenth century, the knowledge of magical medicine retained by individual Africans became collective knowledge, kept alive and passed on from generation to generation-however modified-by the hierarchy of the terreiro. A few traditional terreiros have zealously preserved what they perceive to be the purely African elements of these ethnomedical systems, whereas the multitude of smaller, proletarian terreiros, which at least by force of numbers constitute the true Brazilian CandomblÚ, have acted as clearinghouses for African as well as various fringe medical and magical beliefs. Adherents as well as secular clients now seek out a host of ethnomedical services, searching for the cause, the diagnosis, and the prescription for problems ranging from spiritual and magical to purely organic. There are few illnesses or immediate social problems for which one or another CandomblÚ priest cannot offer an explanation and a remedy. And there are few, if any, healing rituals that do not depend on the use of the liturgical and medicinal flora. "Without the leaves," as one priest noted, "there is no CandomblÚ." Thus, social and economic factors notwithstanding, the physical environment into which Africans were transported was a pivotal factor in their ability to recreate their belief system. (page 160)

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