by Leighton Gage
Yo no creo en las brujas,
pero que las hay, las hay
That’s a Spanish proverb that doesn’t translate well into either English or Portuguese. A close approximation of the meaning is “I don’t believe in witches, but they really do exist”.
I quote it here because I can think of no more succinct way to sum up the attitude of most Brazilians about the power of magic to intervene in their daily lives.
The intervention can come in the form of “white magic”, in which spirits are enlisted to do good, or it can come in the form of “black magic”, where spirits are enlisted to do evil. Either way, it’s not the kind of magic practiced by people like David Copperfield or Houdini. It’s the real stuff, the magic of primitive peoples, the magic of five hundred, a thousand, ten-thousand years ago. It came here as part of the cultural baggage of over three million Africans, imported into Brazil as slaves, and it's a magic as old as man.
Nobody in this country believes that a trabalho (ritual) carried out by a Pai do Santo (think of him as someone who intercedes with the spirits)...
...or a Mãe do Santo (his female equivalent) can bring love, cement a relationship, give success in business, punish an enemy or cure a disease.
Except that almost everybody really does.
And everyone has a story to tell.
We have a friend, a well-educated woman, who is convinced that her brother was cured of a serious eye disease by spiritual intervention. She had a trabalho
performed in Salvador
, Bahia, on a day when her brother was in the city of São Paulo
, almost fifteen hundred kilometers away. She told the Mãe do Santo
only that her brother had a problem with his eye. She didn’t say which one. The woman “received the spirits” bent over and began shrieking in pain, her hand over her right eye. (The same one in which our friend’s brother was afflicted.) After about fifteen minutes she quieted down, sat up straight and pronounced him cured. Our friend went home, called him, and he was.
Just like that.
As a young teenager, my wife knew a girl in her neighborhood who paid a Pai do Santo to have a boy fall in love with her and then, when she tired of him, paid again to have him fall out-of-love with her. My wife accompanied the business at first hand. Each event happened from one day to the next.
Just like that.
Of course they are.
Or maybe not.
The one thing I can tell you for sure is that the casting of spells in this country is big business. Every town and village has at least one person adept in the black arts. Every big city has many hundreds, sometimes thousands.
And, these days, if you’re in an isolated spot, it’s even possible to enlist help via the internet.
Consultation with your local practitioner often begins with the casting of the buzios.
You have questions about your life or your future? You ask, and the practitioner throws the shells. The spirits direct the way they fall. You can’t read the answer directly, of course. You need the practitioner for that.
Sometimes, the spirits advise that your problem, whatever it is, has to do with a spell cast against you. You’re advised to react, to protect yourself. Sometimes, the spirits know exactly what you need, but they want you to fess up, to ask for it, to obtain their intervention.
Protection often requires procedures like bathing in foul-smelling mixtures of herbs and oils.
More proactive trabalhos, like achieving success in business, or getting someone to fall in love with you, might require a more complicated procedure. Either way, some stuff is going to be required to perform the ritual (or series of rituals).
Shops like this one stock everything necessary. They’re to be found all over the country.
And, as you'll note if you carefully inspect the photo above, they even accept credit cards.
Of course I know, Dear Reader, that you don’t believe in any of this silly business.
And never will.
But, just on a lark, if you come to Brazil
I'd be delighted to refer you to the lady who throws the buziosfor me.