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Belief in the power of feitiçaria or black magic has both endured and continually changed over time in Brazil. However, black magic is a peculiar and protean thing. Rather than defining a specific set of ideas, practices, and objects, or a systematic body of knowledge, black magic is better understood as a type of discourse the social function of which is to stigmatize its referent as maleficent, immoral, or evil. Because of its negative connotations, black magic typically is a discourse of accusation rather than self-affirmation: People accuse others of practicing black magic rather than describing their own practices this way. Nevertheless, the dangerous potential attributed to black magic means that some people openly claim it as a source of power in certain circumstances. Focusing on the various intersections of black magic and sexuality in Brazilian history reveals aspects of social life and categories of persons that elite authorities, in the effort to civilize and reform Brazil, identified as problematic. Because these shifted over time, different constellations of black magic and sexuality emerge as especially salient in different historical periods. In the colonial period (1549–1822), women’s love magic troubled ecclesiastical authorities as the Catholic Church struggled to establish its patriarchal vision of social and moral order over an unruly colony. Under the empire (1822–1889), black magic was associated particularly with the threat of black sorcerers whose perceived promiscuity and primitivity threatened the civilized society that elites envisioned. During the first Republican period (1889–1930), public officials used black magic as a catchall designation for a broad range of popular spiritual practices deemed illicit by the state in its struggle against social degeneracy and other ills. The first few decades of the 20th century saw the consolidation of the Afro-Brazilian spirit entities Exu and Pombagira as distinctive apotheoses of black magic and sexuality in the Brazilian cultural imagination. Forged in the conjuncture of African and European traditions, these controversial yet extremely popular entities are said to work with both the “right hand” and the “left hand” and are called upon in situations marked by moral ambiguity. Their prominence in Candomblé and Umbanda is one reason that evangelical Protestant churches like the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (IURD) consider Afro-Brazilian religions to be instruments of the devil and target Afro-Brazilian religious practitioners, objects, and spaces in their campaigns of spiritual warfare. More recently, discourse about black magic among evangelical Christians has centered on the violence and sexual immorality associated with the drug trade that has flourished in many Brazilian cities. As a moral discourse that defines the licit by identifying the illicit, black magic is used in situations marked by struggles for social legitimacy and the access to resources and influence that such legitimacy enables. The protean nature of black magic means that it is endlessly adaptable to different social realities, from the struggles of Portuguese colonists in a new land to the urban violence associated with contemporary drug trafficking. And because questions of power are deeply embedded within the term, accusations of black magic seem to burgeon precisely in moments of social transformation when the status quo is in flux, centers of influence are being formed, and new patterns of social division or alignment are being established.

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Women in colonial Brazil (1500–1822) were affected by the presence of the Portuguese Roman Catholic Church in nearly every dimension of their lives. The Catholic Church dominated the colonial religious and social world and, with the imperial government of Portugal, set and transmitted gender expectations for girls and women, regulated marriage and sexuality, and directed appropriate education and work lives. Even with the harshest restrictions, women were able to develop an independent sense of self and religious expression both within the Catholic Church and outside its reach. Native Brazilian women felt the impact of the new faith from the earliest days of conquest, when their opportunities for religious influence expanded among the early colonists and missionaries. After the 1550s, however, new rules for belief and behavior gradually replaced indigenous culture. Offering the Virgin Mary as the ideal woman, the Church expected that indigenous women convert to Catholicism, work for the colonists, and marry according to traditional canon law. Portuguese immigrant women also faced the constraints of the early modern gender roles, with chastity, modesty, and submission deemed essential to their feminine nature, and marriage, domestic labor, and childcare their fate. Enslaved African women were compelled to accept Catholic teachings alongside the expectations of servile work and marginalization in colonial society. For each segment of colonial society, religious rules barely acknowledged the real abuses that afflicted women through the personal and sexual domination of colonial men, and women found little consolation in the ideals set for elite women. Religion itself presented women with opportunities for personal development, and women found spiritual expression through votive prayers, cloistered convents, membership in religious brotherhoods, and covert religious and magical practices. European women used magical rites in defiance of Catholic teachings, while indigenous women preserved elements of their own healing traditions, and African women and their descendants created charms and celebrations that secured their separate religious identity.