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date: 15 December 2019

Summary and Keywords

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.

Keywords: black magic, feitiçaria, sorcery, low spiritism, sexuality, Inquisition, Afro-Brazilian religions, Exu, Pombagira, Quimbanda

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