Spirits and Trance in Brazil

An Anthropology of Religious Experience

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Bettina E. Schmidt
Bloomsbury Advances in Religious Studies
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , June
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Spirits and Trance in Brazil Bettina Schmidt presents an informed discussion of spirit possession, attempting to renovate a term which has often been poorly defined. While in certain respects the book reads as a theoretical companion, Schmidt illustrates her arguments with reference to fieldwork conducted in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The author takes a novel approach to fieldwork, conducting research in four different contexts: the Afro-Brazilian religions of Umbanda and Candomblé, Kardecian Spiritism, and the rapidly growing Pentecostal movement. By comparing and contrasting possession practices between these groups, and combined with an extensive literature analysis, Schmidt attempts to provide a broad discussion of what possession is—and is not–concluding that the dissimilarities between the different categories of possession necessitates the “provincialisation” of the phenomenon, viewing it as a practice which may only be understood in the context in which it is performed.

Spirit possession has often been portrayed as a subaltern practice: possession religions attracting a high frequency of homosexuals, those of low socioeconomic status and, in societies where they occupy a marginalised position, women. Several anthropological approaches are applied to this phenomenon. Schmidt presents a structured discussion of the various theoretical positions, and how the debates on the subject have changed over time. She does not, however, fall into the trap of presenting the development of the field as a strict evolutionary trajectory, advancing towards some ideal end-point, but rather as an ongoing dialogue. The author postulates that these diverse approaches may be integrated—if one views them as the product of a specific time, place, and religious context. This theme is further developed in the examination of the various literatures on religious experience. The term “religious experience” is critically assessed, the term itself a result of Western, Protestant discourses and intended to distinguish itself from the “other.” It is therefore concluded unfit as a category with which to classify diverse experiences of the divine. The author examines several different frameworks by which anthropologists might instead approach these experiences, such as the phenomenological approach of “bracketing” one’s own beliefs in order to understand the other systems as possessing their own, internally coherent truth. While generally amenable to these approaches, Schmidt emphasises that experiences of the divine are often ineffable, and cannot readily be integrated into more general, cross-cultural categories. Unfortunately, Schmidt’s approach to the cognitive science of religion is not quite as studied or astute. Schmidt characterises the cognitive approach as dismissive of subjective experience—a portrayal unwarranted by much of the work in the field. Many of the seminal works within cognitivism utilise ethnography and qualitative data to advance arguments about the way experiences of the divine are categorised and processed– for example, Tanya Luhrmann’s work, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (Vintage, 2012), employs qualitative analysis almost exclusively in its discussion of religious experience. Schmidt also seems to misunderstand certain lines of reasoning within cognitivism, such as misinterpreting Emma Cohen’s argument (in The Mind Possessed: The Cognition of Spirit Possession in an Afro-Brazilian Religious Tradition , Oxford University Press, 2007), about third-party perceptions of spirit possession as instead regarding the propensity for individual mediums to become possessed.

The central theme of Spirits and Trance in Brazil is to review and refine the current definition of spirit possession. The bulk of Schmidt’s argument comes from highlighting supposedly irreconcilable definitions of possession between different groups: in Pentecostalism, it is an affliction; while in Candomblé, it is a blessing. In Spiritism, the medium during the instance possession is seen to retain a high degree of agency over themselves, while in Umbanda the medium surrenders their body to the possessing agent altogether. However, Schmidt does not conclude that possession is unsalvageable as an analytical term. Rather, it should be examined as a “deictic” concept, only to be understood in the sociocultural context in which it is performed—with an emphasis on practice, not belief. For instance, the theory advanced by Ruth Landes in The City of Women (Macmillan Press,1947) that possession religions such as Candomblé allow women to develop a region of control in a male dominated world could not rightly be applied to modern Candomblé, as it is increasingly becoming populated by heterosexual men. This is not to invalidate Landes’s work, or for that matter any other study of possession, but rather to view this facet of possession as dependent on a specific social and historic context. This shift towards “localizing” spirit possession is not without merit: in a sense, it is a natural conclusion of the anthropological dedication to cultural relativism. However, Schmidt’s argument that meaningful commonalities cannot be made between different contexts does not quite convince. While the author highlights contradictions between different possession practices, a minimal definition of possession might still be viable—such as “the belief and practice in which an individual is perceived to surrender some degree of agency over their body to a foreign entity.” This definition would continue to allow anthropologists to use possession as a meaningful, cross-cultural category by which to assess how different societies understand such concepts as identity, the body, and the porosity of the self.

Spirits and Trance in Brazil provides a detailed theoretical discussion and analysis of concepts within possession studies, combined with an innovative approach to fieldwork. While this reviewer was not convinced by the arguments presented, the book provides a welcome development within the academic study of spirit possession which will, no doubt, foster serious discussion about the future of the field.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Samuel Ward is a doctoral candidate in cognition and culture at the Institute of Cognition and Culture, Queen's University in Belfast.

Date of Review: 
February 28, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Bettina E. Schmidt is Professor in the Study of Religions and Director of Graduate Studies at the School of Theology, Religious Studies and Islamic Studies at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, UK.


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