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Observations placeholder

Dr William Sargant – The Initiation ceremony of the Macumba of Brazil and Orisha cult, from Nigeria and Dahomey



Type of Spiritual Experience


Dr William Sargant was born in Highgate, London, in 1907 and educated at Leys School and St John's College, Cambridge.  Up to 1972 he was Physician in Charge of the Department of Psychological Medicine at St Thomas's Hospital, London. He was Associate Secretary of the World Psychiatric Association and on the staff of the Maudsley Hospital, London for many years, He was also Registrar of the Royal Medico-Psychological Association, Rockefeller Fellow at Harvard University and Visiting Professor at Duke University. He was also the author of Battle for the Mind, and The Unquiet Mind.

A description of the experience

The Mind Possessed  - Dr William Sargant

..successful religions-those which really grip people’s hearts - are those which produce evidence of the actual existence of their gods. The Christian religion, in most of its official forms, rarely now demonstrates the power of its God, and to most worshippers our Christian saints are indeed very dead. The fact of the Macumba gods and goddesses coming all the way from Africa to Brazil to take possession of the worshippers and talk through them is sufficient to create absolute faith in them. In addition they are potential healers of most ills.

Recife is a steamy hot old town in the north of Brazil, and here I met a very famous Brazilian, Gilberto Freyre, who wrote the fascinating book The Masters and The Slaves. He arranged for us to see a Macumba ceremony, but it was quite obvious that we saw only what was permitted to non-members of the Orisha cult, which was brought over from Nigeria and Dahomey by the slaves and quickly became established among all classes.

Certain of the Orisha gods and goddesses, and there are at least fifteen of them, were given the additional name of a Catholic saint, but no worshipper, especially a possessed worshipper, had any doubt that he was worshipping not the saints but the Orisha gods and goddesses. Going down to the area where the ceremony was to be held, I noticed outside the door of the building a tree with many decorations on it, obviously connected with the service that we were about to see.

 In the room there was drumming and dancing, the men and women going round and round to an ever-increasing and exciting crescendo of drums, until they were possessed by a variety of gods and goddesses. It is possible to tell by the behaviour of the dancers which particular deity is possessing them and, often, talking through them…………..

It was difficult to get details of the initiation ceremonies, but we did discover that they include the killing of animals and. covering the initiate with the blood, and all sorts of elaborate, and sometimes frightening ceremonies, besides the usual dancing to drumming rhythms. And I was able to obtain a series of photographs of one initiation ceremony which are substantially correct according to some of my informants.

These ceremonies usually occur twice a year, when several people are to be initiated. The priest or priestess has to decide which of the gods or goddesses have taken possession and the initiation will vary accordingly. This entails deep hypnotic trance, during which the person to be initiated may show cataleptic phenomena, and then there is the final breaking point. During initiation the person experiences a change of outlook, a change in the way of life, and becomes consciously or subconsciously guided by particular Orisha.

During these sessions lasting two to three weeks, all sorts of suggestions can be made while the initiate is in trance and a new pattern of thought and behaviour can be implanted in place of the old. There are different initiation ceremonies for different groups, and the cult is also used to heal, apparently genuinely, various diseases.

One person reporting on these cults says that after initiation some people with a drink problem have been known to turn teetotal.

It seems that the initiate, when brought back into the outside world, remembers very little of what happened during his weeks or months of initiation. Memories are mostly repressed, but the person's conduct is often materially altered.

The source of the experience

African tribal

Concepts, symbols and science items




Science Items

Activities and commonsteps