Marajó fieldsite in Brazil

Primary Site Researcher

Emma Cohen

Dr Emma Cohen is a Researcher at the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology and the Centre for Anthropology and Mind within the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography at the University of Oxford. Emma completed her PhD in 2005 at the Institute of Cognition and Culture, Queen's University Belfast, where she remained for a further 18 months as a research fellow.

She has carried out ethnographic fieldwork on an Afro-Brazilian religious tradition in Belém, northern Brazil, and has focused primarily on concepts, behaviours and practices associated with spirit possession in her research population and across the ethnographic record more generally.

Her first book, The Mind Possessed (2007, OUP), combines cross-cultural ethnographic analysis with perspectives and findings from the cognitive sciences, and contributes to the developing field of cognitive science of religion.

She has been developing an experimental programme of research (along with Experimental Psychologist, Dr Justin Barrett) to address fundamental cognitive questions generated by her ethnographic research, including how people (across cultural and religious contexts) represent the relationship between minds, bodies and persons. | Website


Belém, northern Brazilian state of Pará, almost at the mouth of the River Amazon.


Belém, known locally as the Amazonian metropolis, has absorbed a large number of rural migrants over the past few decades. The population swelled from just over 400,000 in 1960 to 1.8 million inhabitants currently occupying a total area of 1.820km². This constitutes almost one third of the population of the entire state of Pará, the second largest state in Brazil.

The number of Afro-Brazilian religionists is unknown. The majority of these people consider themselves Catholics and despite recent amendments to the demographic census, introduced to facilitate the declaration of plural religious affiliation, it is apparent that frequenters and initiated members of Afro-Brazilian terreiros, or cult houses, tend to declare only their Catholic affiliation. All Afro-Brazilian religious meeting places are required by law to register with a district Federation.

In 2003, the Federation of Spiritist, Umbanda and Afro-religions for the State of Pará had 1,600 registered terreiros in the Greater Belém area. This was probably just the tip of the iceberg, with many non-registered terreiros and other rooms used by mediums for spiritual healing and counselling sessions existing throughout the city.

The number of initiated members at these terreiros varies considerably (within each house over time and among different groups), but an average core group might be composed of somewhere between 10 and 20 members, with many more frequenters, neighbours and friends attending regular public ceremonies and private healing, divination and counselling sessions.

Two local men with a bicycle



Group identity/ethnicity

The population is phenotypically mixed. As is the case across northern Brazil the majority colour group is pardo, or brown, followed by white, black, Asian, and indigenous. A complex phenotype-race relationship exists - many members of the Afro-Brazilian traditions in Belém considered themselves phenotypically 'white' for the purposes of the demographic census, but racially 'black' by virtue of their African religious heritage.

Colourful street decorations

Economic activities

Belém is the largest port on the Amazon and a rubber boom town. Since the sharp decline of the rubber trade around a century ago, the city has never enjoyed anything like the prosperity of that 'belle-epoque' and has struggled to keep afloat on the back of mineral exports, light consumer industries and service industries.

In the last 10 years, the local council and government have succeeded in developing the city's infrastructure as a tourist destination, expanding and improving communications, visitor attractions, and eco-tourism options.

The membership of the Afro-Brazilian traditions mainly draws from low SES sectors of Belém's society. Many women earn a living as domestic maids in wealthier households, or by selling handmade craftwork, such as jewellery, crochet garments, or as manicurists. Where men can find work, it tends to be as unskilled labourers, 'message boys' or couriers, and independently, as photographers, hairdressers or masseurs for example.

There are few opportunities for upward social mobility. Indeed, insofar as certain Afro-Brazilian religious activities constitute a service (eg of healing and counselling), participants and especially elder members can gain both income and kudos by building up a regular clientele.


Principal religions are Catholicism and the rapidly expanding Pentecostalism. One of Latin America's largest Catholic street processions, the Círio de Nazaré, takes place every October in Belém. While participation in Afro-Brazilian religious activities is generally not acceptable for Pentecostalists, many Afro-Brazilian religionists simultaneously profess devotion to the Catholic saints and the African and indigenous spirits.

Indeed, a large part of ritual and liturgical practice in Afro-Brazilian cult houses draws from Catholic practices, and syncretism between Catholicism and African religions goes back to the times of slavery (16th to 19th century). A developing nationwide movement is now calling for the 're-Africanisation' of African religions in Brazil.

Religious practice

Afro-Brazilian religious traditions vary from house to house and region to region, but all centre upon behaviours, such as ritual 'obligations' and mediumistic possession, that are directed at developing relationships with and acquiring the support of supernatural beings of various origins (including African, European and Brazilian).

A rich theology may be found in the texts and pronouncements of learned cult leaders and academic scholars, but it is rarely the theology that attracts clients and potential initiates to the cult house door. In any case, few would be likely to encounter this theology within the cult house as the majority of leaders receive little formal training in such matters.

The guidance of the leader on correct ritual procedure is invaluable, however, in facilitating the fruitful exchange between supplicant and spirit (eg through initiation ceremonies and propitiatory rituals) and the development of mediumistic capacities.

Hierarchical relations

Brazil has been described in the anthropological literature as being on the 'borderlands of the western world' (Hess and Da Matta, 1995, The Brazilian Puzzle, Columbia). Part of what this means is that while a modern egalitarian code exists, for example, in the form of laws that apply to everyone equally, it exists in constant, highly observable tension with a traditional code of personalism, ascribed rank and nepotism.

The power (and often the license) to push the boundaries of legal codes varies as a function of one's relative status - principally economic status, which is bound up in employment, family and state connections as well as race and, to a decreasing extent, sex.

Within the formal structure of the Afro-Brazilian cult house, hierarchy and contingent influence are equally salient. Members are hierarchically differentiated according to 'years of initiation'. Certain anniversaries mark the bestowing of certain titles, privileges and responsibilities (known as cargos), eg normally at seven years, an initiated member receives the right to inaugurate his/her own terreiro and initiate new members. Each terreiro has its own leader and he/she officiates cult house affairs autonomously - there is no formal central authority on religious practice and teaching.

People dining


In Brazil, education is compulsory for children from 7-14 years of age. Public schools are free but the dropout rate is high. Census data (2000) for all people over the age of seven in the northern region of Brazil in 2000 show that for every five pupils who start primary education, approximately only two pupils make it to the final year.


Since the late 1980s Brazilian citizens have had free access to medical care.

Afro-Brazilian religions attract the majority of their clients (and potential initiates) through mediumistic healing activities. These clients are of all statuses and backgrounds, and usually make an appointment with the terreiro after they have failed to diagnose or effectively treat their condition elsewhere.

Healing remedies entail anything from one-off treatments to programmatic courses, often involving indigenous shamanistic techniques, bathing in herbal infusions and participation in terreiro rituals.

Sunset and sea view

Explore this fieldsite with Google Earth

Google Earth allows you to explore sites anywhere in the world using satellite images of those sites. Navigate the fieldsite and explore it in detail using the files below:

Google Earth files for Belém (KMZ, 626B)


Emma Cohen (2007). The Mind Possessed: The Cognition of Spirit Possession in an Afro-Brazilian Religious Tradition. Oxford University Press.

Emma Cohen (in press). Witchcraft and sorcery (PDF, 317KB). In H. Whitehouse and J. Laidlaw (eds.) Religion, Anthropology and Cognitive Science. University of North Carolina Press.

Emma Cohen (forthcoming). Channellers, cowries and conversations with the gods: Explaining multiple divination methods in an Afro-Brazilian religious tradition (PDF, 440KB). (To appear in a volume of proceedings from conference, Unveiling the Hidden.)

Emma Cohen E. and Justin Barrett (forthcoming). When minds migrate (PDF, 484KB). Conceptualising spirit possession.

Emma Cohen E. and Justin Barrett (under review). Conceptualising possession-trance: Ethnographic and experimental evidence.

S. Leacock and R. Leacock (1972). Spirits of the deep; a study of an Afro-Brazilian cult. 1st edn. Garden City, N. Y. Published for the American Museum of Natural History by Doubleday Natural History Press. (Highly recommended text on Belém in general.)

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