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The roots of the end of the world culture

Unicamp Study finds an unexpected parallel between the preaching of the "divines" and the "counselors", present until not long ago in the Brazilian backcountry (sertão), and the missionaries that preached in the São Francisco region

ReproductionWill the backcountry turn into sea or will the sea become backcountry? Professor Maria Cristina Pompa decided to investigate the mystery in her thesis Religion as Translation: missionaries, tupi and “tapuia” Indians in Colonial Brazil, which was supported by Fapesp. In the study, she examines how, in the colonial period, a culture of the end of the world based on the dialog between Indian cosmology and missionary preaching, was created. The researcher observed an impressive parallel between the preaching of the “divines” and the “counselors”, still active until recently, and “itinerant” missionaries, Jesuits and Capuchins, who preached in the backcountry of the São Francisco river region in the 17th and 18th centuries. “The content of this preaching was marked by moralizing and penitential religion, using baroque splendor, like a Father Vieira,” explains Maria Cristina.

For most authors who have covered this subject, peasant religion is linked to the backwardness of the backcountry people. “To talk about the backcountry is to mean its ‘mysticism’: its Pedra Bonita, Canudos or Juazeiro, processions of penitents and the end of the world”, she says. “Nonetheless, the ‘messianic’ manifestations of the Northeast are incomprehensible outside the symbolic backcountry system – which I define as a culture of the end of the world , where apocalyptic and penitential religion is one of the ways of looking at the world. It is through this image that the possibility of changing history and inaugurating a new world of justice and brotherhood “. These movements are often presented in the form of a “holy war” of good against evil.

The syncretic meetings of the missionary religion of the Catholics and the indigenous people were present since the earliest days of our colonization. Maria Cristina Pompa based her analysis on the so-called “tupi-guarani prophethood”. In her opinion, indigenous prophethood is not intrinsic to the tupi-guarani culture, but is rather the result of the meeting between American cultures, a “negotiated construction”. “And this negotiation begins with the very category of ‘prophet’, used by traditional sources to indicate the great tupinambá shamans: the caraíbas, as the Indians called white people. This shows the strength on both sides of the colonial meeting, of translating the otherness in understandable terms inside a known semantic universe: religious language is the mediation ground where each culture can find the meaning of the ‘differentness’ of the other”, analyzes the researcher.

In her investigation, Maria Cristina covered the missionary documentation on evangelizing the tapuias (as all non-tupi Indians in the interior of the country were called in colonial times). In these records, there are lists of getting close and distancing between the missionaries and the Indians in the villages. “When the effort to absorb the otherness by whites and its translation in native terms appears: mythical figures regarded as ancestors of the whites, cosmogonic myths ‘reinventing’ the biblical Genesis; the flagellation the Indians enthusiastically practiced, who had this practice in their puberty rituals, and so forth”. The documentation describes catechistic activities in the villages, sometimes cruelly displaying the true “end-of-the-world”, which was for the Indians the meeting with the West, catholic and colonial.

The world thus far kept in order by the tapuias’ myths and rituals collapsed on this meeting: traditional ceremonies were banned, monogamous marriage was imposed and divine punishment is invoked, in the form of death and sickness, as chastisement against traditional customs, now referred to as “odious superstitions” and “conductors of evil”. “Between refusal and acceptance, between flight to preserve traditional ways and choosing to submit their lives to an extra-human power seen as greater (that of the Christian God and His agents), the tapuia Catholicism is constructed, in which only some rituals are chosen because they make sense: public penitence, praying for an end to drought or smallpox, the rituals of Holy Week”, tells the professor.

Her analysis concludes, chronologically, with the expulsion of the Jesuits and turning the villages into townships with the policy of the Marquis of Pombal of ordering the integration of Indians into the colonial population, even encouraging marriage between whites and indigenous women. Undoubtedly there was imposition of the Catholic religion, often violently, according to Maria Cristina, such as when the kracuí underwent mass conversion under threat of being condemned to slavery by Domingos Jorge Velho. But this religion was also “an original indigenous re-creation, based on their symbolic systems and their practice”.

They missionaries preached a harsher form of penitence, in an apocalyptical view of the mediaeval and millennialist inheritance in which “the arrival of the Gospel to the last peoples on Earth was, according to Matthew’s prophecy, the sign of the end of time and the triumph of the Kingdom of God on Earth”. Based on this view, the indigenous people reexamined their myths and their rituals, incorporating this new circumstance, “that of the end of their world and their history and the beginning of a new history”.

The New World starts being transformed from heaven to purgatory, the place where trials and suffering were necessary to achieve the salvation of souls. This historical pattern formed “the cultural root of that redemptionless history, permanently threatened by the Apocalypse, which even today permeates the popular religious sense in the countryside, where salvation is not granted a priori by Jesus Christ’s sacrifice, but it is something to construct, through the preaching of the counselors. For this reason, the title of the thesis paraphrases the historian Sérgio Buarque, showing the other side of the colonial “paradise”.

For her postdoctoral thesis, the researcher intends return to the subject of catechism in the backcountry in the 19th century, “to that popular sense of religion in whose core arose the social and religious movements such as Canudos”. The professor explains that ever since the writer Euclides da Cunha, in his description of the Canudos war, literate Brazilian culture has seen the so-called messianic movements ambiguously, “somewhere between the attitude of pious wondering faced with incomprehensible ‘religious fanaticism’ and the effort to define ‘scientifically’, by Nina Rodrigues’s physical anthropology and even the sociological approach disclosing economic and social inequality”.

Maria Cristina Pompa also recalls that religion and its symbols do not have the same explanatory ability as politics, sociology, or economics. “The terminology used, and the explanation made, do nothing more than define a something else that is barbarous and incomprehensible, backcountry and backward, unable to use the language of reason and condemned to express itself in ‘alienated’ ways”, she ponders. We await, therefore, the continuation of this notable study.

The project
Religion as translation: missionaries, tupi and “tapuia” in Colonial Brazil; Type Doctoral Thesis; Tutor John Manuel Monteiro – Unicamp; Researcher Maria Cristina Pompa – Unicamp