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University of California Press
Holy Harlots: Femininity, Sexuality, and Black Magic in Brazil / Edition 1

Holy Harlots: Femininity, Sexuality, and Black Magic in Brazil / Edition 1

by Kelly E. HayesKelly E. Hayes
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Holy Harlots examines the intersections of social marginality, morality, and magic in contemporary Brazil by analyzing the beliefs and religious practices related to the Afro-Brazilian spirit entity Pomba Gira. Said to be the disembodied spirit of an unruly harlot, Pomba Gira is a controversial figure in Brazil. 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, Nazaré da Silva. Combining Nazaré’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.

A DVD of the film Slaves of the Saints is included.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520262652
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 05/11/2011
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Kelly E. Hayes is Assistant Professor of Religion at Indiana University.

Read an Excerpt

Holy Harlots

Femininity, Sexuality, and Black Magic in Brazil

By Kelly E. Hayes


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94943-0


Wicked Women and Femmes Fatales

This entity that was incorporated in her was gargalhando [cackling] horribly and saying, "She is mine, I am going to take her to the cemetery, I am going to take her to the grave, to the sepulcher, she is mine!" She was grimacing and gnashing her teeth and we were trying to get her to go inside, but she wouldn't, she had a force inside of her and she wouldn't budge. But finally, we succeeded in getting her inside, and she was cursing me and glaring at me and it wasn't her in there. And I became terrified at that, by that thing that had dominated her. —Nilmar


Recalling the fearsome, cigarette-devouring entity that had taken possession of his wife, Nazaré, some dozen years before, Nilmar glanced around the small, street-side kiosk where the three of us sat huddled across a table before continuing in a low voice:

And this is something that I knew if I told anyone outside, they would never believe me, but she broke all the bottles in the place, as she was passing by, they just exploded. She never touched them, but they exploded. And then she sat there on the ground, in the middle of the temple, and began to light cigarette after cigarette and to eat them—lit cigarettes. She ate them one after another, and at the time she didn't smoke. She grabbed a bottle of cachaça [rum] and guzzled the whole thing down.

For those familiar with the Afro-Brazilian spirit world, Nilmar's account of his wife's strange behavior clearly indicates the presence of the raucous Pomba Gira. The generic term for a class of female spirit entities, all of whom share certain features as well as a specific denominative, Pomba Gira is recognizable by her distinctive gargalhada (throaty cackle), brazen manner, and appetite for cigarettes and strong drink. In the stories and songs through which her mythology circulates, Pomba Gira is portrayed as "a woman of ill repute," sometimes a courtesan, sometimes a prostitute, but always a woman whose erotic life while on earth contravened the norms of proper feminine comportment and whose disembodied spirit continues to be linked to the world of the living. Because of these ties, Pomba Gira is believed capable of erupting into people's lives in unpredictable ways.

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. Possibly evil, definitely dangerous, she embodies a uniquely Brazilian envisioning of femininity's dark side. Like other ambivalent, erotically charged representations of supernatural femininity, such as Vodou's Erzulie Danto or the Hindu goddesses Durga and Kali, Pomba Gira symbolizes the dangers that female sexuality poses to a social order in which positions of formal power are occupied almost entirely by men. 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. They seem to be most popular among inhabitants of the poor and working-class neighborhoods that cling to Rio's steep hillsides and ring its periphery, a population that sees in their stories aspects of their own lives and attributes to them the supernatural power to resolve their troubles. 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. Abrupt or striking changes in an individual's manner, particularly those involving licentious or provocative behavior, unpredictable mood swings, vulgar language, rebelliousness, or debauchery, may be interpreted as evidence of possession by an untamed pomba gira.

According to Nilmar, it was just such disruptive conduct on the part of his wife that convinced him to seek help. After numerous episodes of odd or uncharacteristically aggressive behavior of which Nazaré vehemently denied any knowledge, Nilmar confided his troubles to a colleague, who advised him to consult a spiritual healer. Following this advice, Nilmar arranged to bring his wife to an Umbanda temple, telling her that they had been invited to visit a friend. Describing the events of that memorable afternoon, Nilmar recalled that, as the temple's leader emerged to greet them and Nazaré perceived the ruse, a terrifying force overcame her with an intensity that shattered glass bottles:

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." He told us the day that the ceremony would be held and we bought the things required and we went. 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.

Nazaré, who had been sitting silently throughout Nilmar's account, interjected, "I heard from my own mouth, but it wasn't me talking, that what [the spirit entity] wanted was luz [light]." Following the leader's instructions, the couple purchased the various items necessary for a complex ritual work, or trabalho, that would help Nazaré to "develop" the spirit, a popular incarnation of Pomba Gira named Maria Molambo das Sete Catacombas (Raggedy Maria of the Seven Catacombs). After this initial trabalho, Nazaré began to frequent Umbanda ceremonies, gradually learning how to ritually control what she and Nilmar came to understand as episodes of spirit possession and to limit them to the appropriate times and places.

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. 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. 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. Some say that by helping petitioners realize diverse desires, pomba giras gain the luz (light) necessary for their own spiritual progression. Among the spirit's devotees, mutually beneficial exchange is at the heart of Pomba Gira's cult, although the actions of such unruly entities can never be wholly controlled.

Nazaré spent the next decade cultivating her relationship with the spirits under the tutelage of different Afro-Brazilian spiritual leaders and honing her mediumship skills. 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. Nazaré attributed this endeavor not to her own agency but to that of Maria Molambo, whose reputation had begun to attract clients and petitioners from the neighborhood seeking the spirit's assistance. 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.

This connection with the hidden or illicit dimensions of human desire and with the rituals intended to realize these desires links Pomba Gira with macumba or quimbanda, pejorative terms for those Afro-Brazilian spiritual practices that outsiders classify as immoral or malevolent—that is, black magic. 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. A marginalized figure herself, Pomba Gira speaks to many of the lived realities of her devotees. At once reviled and celebrated, demanding and dangerous, she embodies the volatility and stigma of life on Brazil's urban margins.


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. However, though the bawdy spirit is my ostensible subject, what follows is neither a history nor a biography of a supernatural being. Rather than abstract this imaginative persona from the human dramas in which she figures, I focus on the significance of Pomba Gira in the life of an individual devotee, Maria Nazaré de Souza Oliveira, a working-class housewife, mother, and spiritual healer who lives with her extended family on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. Situating the spirit within the particularities of Nazaré's life, I explore her relationship with Pomba Gira as a means for "working on the self and the world," to borrow the historian Robert Orsi's formulation. The book's real subject is the myriad ways that individuals endeavor to transform both themselves and the world around them through stories and ritual practices invoking this spirit entity, and how they are transformed in the process.

Because Pomba Gira is a widely recognized persona within Brazil's cultural imaginary—that inventive landscape of legendary beings, supernatural entities, and archetypal characters that exists in every society, I begin by describing the main characteristics of this spirit as portrayed in the stories, songs, and images through which her mythology circulates. 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. 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. So after outlining Pomba Gira's culturally determined and collectively shared features, I consider Nazaré's experience in more detail, exploring this entity's role in the circumstances of Nazaré's life, both as she narrated it to me and as I observed it from 2000 to 2002 and in subsequent visits of shorter duration since that time. This provides the setting for a more detailed discussion of the role of Pomba Gira in the intimate struggles of daily life on the poor and working-class fringes of Rio de Janeiro.

Close attention to the interplay between Nazaré's narrative and ritual invocations of Pomba Gira and events in her life highlights the strategic appeal of this "woman of the street," who is regularly called upon in situations of domestic distress or romantic intrigue. Nazaré's case illustrates how appeals to this spirit function in a social setting where men and women have different levels of involvement in and expectations about sexual intimacy, marriage, and family responsibility and are subject to different standards of moral behavior. In a move that initially might seem paradoxical, by invoking the spirit of an unruly harlot Pomba Gira's mediums avail themselves of an alternative envisioning of spiritual power that, in rupturing established norms of feminine conduct and moral action, holds out the possibility for effecting various transformations.

Moving from the collective world of normative meanings and values to the inward experiences of individuals and back again, my interpretive strategy situates narratives, possession performances, and ritual works involving Pomba Gira within a broader landscape of Afro-Brazilian spiritual traditions and contemporary social dynamics in Rio, as well as within the more intimate setting of one woman's domestic life. This analytical frame highlights Pomba Gira's function as a symbolic agent mediating individual bodies and experiences and conventional discourses within Brazilian society about gender, sexuality, desire, and moral action.

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. As is the case with other examples of spirit-based traditions in which women predominate, such as Candomblé, Santería, Puerto Rican Espiritismo, urban Vodou, Korean Shamanism, and the Zar cults of North and East Africa, to name a few, working with Pomba Gira can be seen as a creative yet culturally sanctioned response to restrictive gender roles or inadequate love relationships, a way to express otherwise forbidden thoughts or feelings, and an economic strategy for women who have few options beyond the traditional wifely role. Yet the fact that this entity is incorporated overwhelmingly by two segments of the urban population in Rio de Janeiro, housewives and effeminate or homosexual men, indicates that she speaks particularly to problematic issues involving gender, sexuality, morality, and desire—particularly those desires condemned as illicit or improper.


Excerpted from Holy Harlots by Kelly E. Hayes. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


Illustrations, ix,
Acknowledgments, xi,
1. Wicked Women and Femmes Fatales, 3,
2. Pomba Gira and the Religious Imagination, 38,
3. Life on the Margins, 71,
4. Sexuality, Morality, and the Logic of Gender, 95,
5. Becoming a Zelador, 117,
6. Spiritual Defenders and Protectors, 141,
7. Maria Molambo's Revenge, 158,
8. If God Is All Good, Then Only the Devil Can Combat Evil, 175,
9. Balancing Human and Spirit Worlds, 201,
Notes, 225,
Bibliography, 265,
Index, 289,

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"A book outside of the box that will evoke the Pomba Gira in all its readers."—Nacla/Report On the Americas

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