Accepted paper:

Inducing belief in the impossible: "otherworldly" theatricality, belief, and experience in the ritual performances of a little-known African-Brazilian secret society


Patric Giesler (Gustavus Adolphus College)

Paper short abstract:

After describing a dramatic ritual performance of the little-known African-Brazilian secret society of the Babá Eguns (spirits of the deceased fathers), I propose a model of how its ritual performances induce the belief in the Baba Eguns so fundamental to the ritual’s healing and other experiences.

Paper long abstract:

In the paper, I describe my eventual entry in January of 1977 into an extraordinary and, at the time, very little-known African-Brazilian secret society called, O Culto aos Babá Eguns (The Cult to the Deceased Ancestor-Fathers), hidden in the forests of an island off the coast of Bahia, Brazil. I then recount my observation of a dramatic ritual performance, filled with "otherworldly" theatricality and marked by a spontaneous and frightening event. The ritual and the spontaneous event draw on an impossible claim. The claim is that the society's elders could invoke the spirit of an esteemed ancestor in the form of a force or "wind." This "spirit-wind" then arose below and filled a sacred cloth, shaping it into an entity, a Babá Egum, that could interact with his descendents, give counsel and heal, or reprimand and punish, as needed. But if you were touched by the cloth of a Babá Egum, you would be "touched by death," and die. In the frightening event I observed, someone was "touched by death" and physically transformed. Based on these and my subsequent ritual observations and research in 1981, 1991, and particularly in 2009-10, I report some of my findings about the character and functions of the ritual experiences and the secret society, all of which are contingent on the belief in the reality of the Babá Eguns. I then propose a model of how the ritual performances and experiences induce belief in their impossible claim about the Babá Eguns.

panel P210
Ritual creativity, emotions and the body