Martina Ahlert | Anthropologist |

In the numerous possible ways of understanding the world (or worlds), there are people who are never alone. In their journeys, battles, celebrations and daily experiences, they mobilise relationships with other human and non-human beings, establishing partnerships, caring exchanges and bonds. They are equally touched by these encounters and affections, which prompt them to rethink issues of identity and materiality as well as ways of perceiving and appreciating existence. We can use this idea when thinking about the relationship between people and ‘the enchanted’ in the context of Afro-Brazilian religions found in Maranhão, a state in Northern Brazil.

The overarching term encataria maranhense (‘enchantment’ from Maranhão) incorporates regional Afro-Brazilian religions such as pajelança, tambor de Mina and terecô. These religions have traditionally fostered encounters and interactions between multiple beings and people. Their local presence dates back to the time of slavery. It is worth mentioning that just before Independence in 1822, Maranhão was the “Brazilian province with the largest proportion of enslaved people (78 thousand or 55% of its population)”1. This region enjoys a pantheon of entities generically called ‘the enchanted’. They are seen as spirits or beings that have not yet experienced death but rather have disappeared by ‘enchantment’.2

Encantaria (or encantoria, as it is commonly referred to) is another type of world, another dimension of experience where the enchanted live. In different ways, this dimension is connected to, or intersected with, human experience. It takes place in certain natural environments (such as woods, waterfalls and streams) and religious places dedicated to rituals (such as tents, terreiros, halls and quartos de santo) or through the bodies of those who ‘receive’ and ‘carry’ the enchanted during instances of embodiment.

As well as states of embodiment, the enchanted can be felt in bodily sensations or seen as spirits or in dreams. Their manifestation tends to strike body and mind, indicating the need to build relationships with them through the intermediation of duties, promises and tasks of care. To ‘carry the enchanted’, to be a ‘medium’ or to have ‘encantoria’ are some ways of referring to the presence of the enchanted in the life of a person. This is considered a great responsibility, a ‘serious game’: something that requires commitment and dedication.

By marking people’s lives with their presence, the enchanted transform them: events are re-signified; new activities start to compose daily living; and life plans gain a new dimension. More than inhabiting a distant and untouchable context or constituting a sort of exotic world or narrative, the enchanted are enmeshed with people in ritual experiences and also in ordinary, daily and domestic situations. They connect with people in multiple ways, constituting a family, as a godparent or companion. Therefore, an enchanted received by a grandmother can be left as inheritance to a grandchild; another enchanted can become a child’s godfather; or can even be considered a husband or wife. In these circumstances, the notion of religion is expanded and cannot be contained or circumscribed to specific places or life moments.

The enchanted also challenge norms related to corporality. Male bodies can be ‘occupied’ by the female enchanted and vice-versa. Younger or even enchanted children can be ‘received’ by older people, while older enchanted forms can be ‘carried’ by young people. Health problems and mobility issues disappear in bodies filled with vitality and strength dancing throughout long nights of ritual. Men and women
who ‘carry’ the enchanted do not feel hungry, thirsty or tired when they are rocked by the sounds of drums and calabashes in the Afro-Brazilian rituals of Maranhão.

The enchanted can also bring a new dimension to the knowledge of players who receive them, for instance, by gaining skills in healing and therapeutic treatment for physical, psychological and spiritual ailments. Their knowledge and companionship are also present in rites of passage: when someone dies they feel, mourn and say good-bye; when someone is born, they give blessing, and often play the role of midwife. All these dimensions are carefully articulated in some life stories: a young pai de santo (male priest) called Pedro, who lives in inland Maranhão, inherited a female enchanted entity from his grandfather when he died. In fact, Pedro and his entity knew each other since birth, when she played the role of midwife by incorporating his grandfather.

Historically, Afro-Brazilian religions in Maranhão have suffered prosecution and sanctions imposed by official bodies through the police. Some practitioners still suffer religious intolerance coupled with racial prejudice. In many cases, intolerance is often disguised by the idea that these religions belong to the past or are symbols of deprivation, poverty or backwardness. In other instances, this is materialised through physical violence; discrimination in the workplace; verbal abuse and misguided interpretations.

Forms of resistance and struggle have long been used to preserve interactions with the enchanted, as well as to reassert the importance of their presence and to validate the fight against violence. In the past, the enchanted protected drum rituals that took place in the forest by confusing persecutors, making them lost so they would never find the right direction; or even by taking control of their bodies when their presence was threatening. When we listen to the narratives told by older people about these chases, on the one hand, they emphasise strategies used to protect the rituals, such as moving around and choosing places designed to draw minimal attention. On the other hand, they highlight the audacity of some enchanted entities, who sang pontos (religious songs) to face up to police chiefs and lieutenants, showing no fear at their presence.

Nowadays, the care and strength provided by the enchanted help people deal with spiritual and material difficulties, in their struggle to keep their land and traditional territories and against the inequalities that often typify the clash between development enterprises and traditional ways of life. As such, they accompany people in barricades on roads and train tracks; they offer encouragement and strength for tired bodies in protests and struggles; they fill people with courage and make them “great”, according to Dona Dalva, a mineira (designation given to people who take part in the religion tambor de Mina) from inland Maranhão. The enchanted participate, with men and women, in political confrontations against threats to their territories. For example, the fate of many quilombola communities (communities of descendants of runaway slaves) is threatened by landowners, major works and large enterprises.

As our ancestors – and, at the same time, our contemporaries – the enchanted tell us about ways of existing and resisting in a world where black women and men face a plethora of silencing mechanisms and violence. They also tell us about issues linked to the ancestral nature and occupation of Maranhão, a Brazilian state where female black militancy has played an important and prominent role. The female body – which ‘receives’ both the enchanted and offspring – is the locus of care and affection par excellence but also of political struggle. However, these bodies and their actions are more than a response to oppression, as they are not enclosed in the logic of violence. More than that, just like the enchanted that inhabit them, they are creative power.

Martina Ahlert is an anthropologist, lecturer and researcher at Universidade Federal do Maranhão. She developed her interest in political anthropology and encantaria during her PhD in Social Anthropology at Universidade de Brasília and her post-doctorate at Museu Nacional, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro.

1 Matthias Röhrig Assunção. “A memória do tempo de cativeiro no Maranhão”. In Tempo, vol.15, n.29, 2010, pp.67-110.
2 Mundicarmo Ferretti. Desceu na guma: o caboclo do Tambor de Mina em um terreiro de São Luís – a Casa Fanti-Ashanti. São Luís: EDUFMA, 2000.