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Sacred Leaves of Candomblé

Sacred Leaves of Candomblé
African Magic, Medicine, and Religion in Brazil

This book traces the origin, diffusion, medicinal use, and meaning of Candomblé’s healing pharmacopoeia—the sacred leaves.

November 1997
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
256 pages | 6 x 9 1/4 | 33 b&w photos, 6 maps |

Candomblé, an African religious and healing tradition that spread to Brazil during the slave trade, relies heavily on the use of plants in its spiritual and medicinal practices. When its African adherents were forcibly transplanted to the New World, they faced the challenge not only of maintaining their culture and beliefs in the face of European domination but also of finding plants with similar properties to the ones they had used in Africa.

This book traces the origin, diffusion, medicinal use, and meaning of Candomblé's healing pharmacopoeia—the sacred leaves. Robert Voeks examines such topics as the biogeography of Africa and Brazil, the transference—and transformation—of Candomblé as its adherents encountered both native South American belief systems and European Christianity, and the African system of medicinal plant classification that allowed Candomblé to survive and even thrive in the New World. This research casts new light on topics ranging from the creation of African American cultures to tropical rain forest healing floras.


Hubert Herring Book Award
Pacific Coast Council on Latin American StudiesOutstanding Academic Books list, 1998CHOICE (Current Reviews for Academic Libraries

  • Note on Orthography
  • Preface
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. The Bahian Landscape
  • 3. Indians and Africans
  • 4. Religion of the Orixás
  • 5. Candomblé Medicine
  • 6. Medicinal Plant Classification
  • 7. The Candomblé Flora
  • 8. African Religion in the Americas
  • Appendix 1 Candomblé Species List
  • Appendix 2 House Abô for Three Candomblé Terreiros
  • Notes
  • Glossary
  • References Cited
  • General Index
  • Index of Scientific Names

Robert A.Voeks is Associate Professor of Geography at California State University, Fullerton.


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The conquest and colonization of Brazil (and of most of the rest of the Americas, for that matter) found inspiration and justification in Christian religious doctrine. The New World provided hoards of pagans to be proselytized, vast new territories to be brought under the domain of the Christian cross, and a golden opportunity to cleanse the medieval church of long-entrenched decadence and corruption. It is true, of course, that this ecclesiastical agenda was decisively undermined by economic and political interests, and that conversion of the native population translated in short order to ethnic genocide of continental proportions. But however steep the price in lives and cultures, these spiritual objectives were ultimately realized on a hitherto unprecedented scale. Iberian Catholicism prospered throughout tropical Middle and South America, while Protestantism came to predominate in temperate North America.

The principal exception to New World Christian hegemony, to total spiritual monopoly by one or another of the monotheistic religions of salvation, occurs not among the descendants of the conquering Europeans, nor among the scattered remnants of the indigenous population, but rather among the least willing of the numerous waves of Old World immigrants to arrive in the Americas—African slaves and their descendants. In spite of the horrific conditions of the Middle Passage, the brutal and dehumanizing influence of plantation existence, and the imposition of an alien and oppressive social structure, Africans managed, remarkably it would seem, to transplant the roots of their native belief systems successfully to the Americas. From New York to Los Angeles, from Cuba to Uruguay, African Americans are chanting the praises of distant African deities, charting their life paths with ancient African divination methods, and healing the body and spirit with African-derived medicine and magic.

The transatlantic diffusion of African-based healing systems was fraught with obstructions. Beyond all the social, economic, and religious impediments that served to limit the implantation of African ethnomedical systems, which were grounded in a spiritual and intellectual worldview that was anathema to Western Christian beliefs, newly arrived healers were confronted with a basic material dilemma: how to continue practicing plant-based medicine and magic in an alien floristic province. For newly arrived West Africans, separated from their healing forests and fields by over two thousand miles of ocean, the biogeographical differences between the Old and New Worlds represented more than an intellectual curiosity. They meant the difference between staking out a claim to power and influence among their people—perhaps even the ruling class—or acquiescing wholly and forever to the European social order imposed by the oppressors.

A review of those regions dominated by people of African descent suggests that, by whatever means, this ethnobotanical puzzle was solved (Fig. 1.1). African-based religious and ethnomedical systems not only arrived and survived, but much to the chagrin of those who predicted their eventual collapse, they have expanded their geographical ranges, in some cases dramatically. Haitian Vodun, known variously as "hoodoo," "juju," "root work," and "conjure" in North America, has spread from its eighteenth-century introduction in New Orleans to the northeastern and southwestern United States. Bahamian Obea men, purveyors of magic and medicine, are found throughout the Caribbean, the southeastern United States, and Panama. Cuban Santeria, a New World Yoruba belief system that is steeped in African ethnobotanical knowledge, has diffused to Florida, New York, and California, and even as far as Venezuela and Spain. Umbanda, an Afro-Brazilian religion that has incorporated considerable elements from Amerindian and spiritualist sources, is estimated to reach 30 million largely white, middle-class followers. And this list is not exhaustive.

The belief systems that survived with the African diaspora, derived from disparate source regions and following independent New World trajectories, exhibit more differences than similarities. Each adapted to, borrowed from, and was ultimately reformulated by social, political, economic, and religious features that were peculiar to each region. Most neo-African religions have little in common, and some exhibit little more than an odd assortment of African-derived cultural traits. There is, nevertheless, a thread of common purpose and practice that runs through the New World African religions. They are practical and they are hedonistic. African-derived belief systems concentrate on the resolution of earthly problems, the everyday dilemmas of the here and now, the health and prosperity of adherents and of the African American community at large. Thorny questions about the hereafter—salvation, redemption, and the like—are seldom addressed.

African American belief systems provide a culturally acceptable context within which the origin of health problems can be determined and the process of healing effected. Because illness is perceived to represent reactions to forces outside the realm of secular comprehension, African American religious leaders frequently occupy the social role of community curers, acting as spiritual brokers between the physical and material worlds. Such healing traditions include but are not limited to theories of etiology related to the spiritual realm, the capacity to associate symptoms with specific diseases, and the ability to prescribe and prepare treatments that are related to the source of the problem. Through recourse to the tools of divination, healers concentrate on why a patient is suffering, such as spiritual offenses or lack of respect for ancestors, rather than the emotionally unsatisfactory how offered by the Western medical profession.

African American healing systems, to a greater or lesser extent, represent the blending of various ethnic and religious traditions. They-are the end products of several centuries of New World cultural evolution, far removed from the context of the African reality within which they first developed. It seems pointless to argue for the orthodoxy of one or another African American belief system since rigidly exclusionary systems were probably never found in Africa. Elements of African cosmology and practice diffused gradually from group to group and from region to region-as did beliefs and practices from Islam and Christianity-prior to and during the length of the slave trade.' The success of these systems, both in the Old and New World settings, must be attributed in part to their flexibility, their ability to assimilate features that were complementary and useful and to reject those that were not. The vestiges of these native African systems in the Americas are uniquely American: not distant outposts of ancient cultures, but amalgams of African, European, Amerindian, and other traditions.

African American healing systems rely heavily on the use of plants. Trained in the arts of herbalism and magical conjure prior to making the Middle Passage, African priests had developed their native healing systems with reference to a protean Old World tropical flora. Their plant pharmacopoeias were decidedly products of place. In order to continue practicing their vocation in the New World, African priests and their descendants were forced to recreate their healing pharmacopoeias in an alien landscape. By one means or another, they were obviously successful. Notwithstanding the generally low esteem afforded their healing capabilities by outsiders, African Americans managed to incorporate a vast list of plant species into their healing ceremonies and rituals.

It is this process, the means and ends of an ethnobotanical reconstruction that was centuries in the making, the recreation of the Yoruba healing system within the limits imposed by an alien flora and a restrictive European civilization, that is the principal topic of this book. It is a lesson in the dynamic biogeography of culture. I begin near the beginning, before Africans were forced across the sea, when the continents and floristic assemblages of Africa and South America were beginning their separate voyages.


“...[A] creative contribution to Afro-Brazilian studies, ethnobotany, and environmental history.... Simply and engagingly written, it is both appropriate for introductory-level undergraduate courses and an important work for specialists on Afro-Brazilian religions.”
Hispanic American Historical Review

“Fascinating because it brings together in a single book information drawn widely from the several disciplines of geography, botany, history, and anthropology to provide an account of the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé... in a competent and readable manner.”
Sandra Lauderdale Graham, author of House and Street: The Domestic World of Servants and Masters in Nineteenth-Century Rio de Janeiro