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Brazil: ‘Hands That Cure, Words That Heal’

[All links lead to Portuguese language pages except when otherwise noted]

With their herbs, gestures, prayers and comforting words, the “doctors of the people” are an important element of Brazilian popular culture and religious syncretism. Folk healers are found throughout the country, but play a special role in remote areas, where medical professionals are scarce and allopathic medicine is inaccessible.

In a post called ‘Hands that cure, words that heal', Ricardo Câmara recalls the history of faith healing and highlights the work of benzedeiras (women who pray for and bless the ill), usually a free and voluntary activity that has spread throughout Brazil as an alternative to traditional medicine since the sixteenth century:

Terço e folhas nas mãos, oração na ponta da língua e muita fé em Deus. As benzedeiras e benzedores que surgiram no Brasil com a chegada dos Jesuítas, no século XVI, são figuras presentes na cultura popular até os dias de hoje.
A benzeção, como várias outras práticas religiosas e médicas populares, aflorou-se com intensidade no período Colonial Brasileiro e os fatores que propiciaram o desenvolvimento da prática da benzeção, com certeza, remetem à precariedade da vida material, destacada pela raridade de médicos, de cirurgiões, de produtos farmacêuticos, e ao sincretismo dos povos em geral, que também contribuíram, e muito, para que a prática da benzeção se propagasse ainda mais.

Rosaries and leaves at hand, prayers on the lips and much faith in God. Folk healers, who emerged in Brazil with the arrival of the Jesuits in the sixteenth century, are present in popular culture up to now.
Blessing, like many other popular religious and medical practices, surfaced with intensity in the Brazilian colonial period and the factors leading to the development of the practice refer, of course, to the precariousness of material life, highlighted by the scarcity of doctors, surgeons, pharmaceutical products, and by the syncretism of the population in general, which in turn contributed to spread the practice of blessing even further.
Blessing woman Dona Izabel. Photo by Fredox Carvalho, for Agência de Notícias Cavaleiro de Jorge (used with permission).

Blessing woman Dona Izabel. Photo by Fredox Carvalho, for Agência de Notícias Cavaleiro de Jorge (used with permission).

The training of folk healers, individuals who according to Maria Luiza Benitez are usually “predestined and born with a special gift of power, talent or knowledge”, requires great dedication:

O estudo do curandeiro difere grandemente dos estudos e práticas da medicina convencional. Não há livros de medicina, nem notas de aprovação. Mas é preciso vencer todos os testes e provações. E é exclusivamente por meio da dor, do sofrimento, da doença e da própria morte que o curador adquire acesso ao universo das realidades extraordinárias. O mundo do além é o terreno onde se pode obter o conhecimento, a experiência, as qualificações e o poder para auxiliar os demais.
O chamado costuma vir em sonhos ou por intermédio de um acidente, doença, injúria sofrida, ameaça de morte eminente, da morte e mesmo morte clínica temporária.

Studying to become a healer differs greatly from the study and practice of conventional medicine. There are no medical books or passing grades, but you have to overcome all tests and trials. Additionally, it is only through pain, suffering, disease, and death itself that the healer gets access to the world of extraordinary realities. The world beyond is the land where you can obtain the knowledge, experience, skills and power to help others.
The call usually comes in dreams or through an accident, illness, injury, suffering, threat of imminent death, even death itself, and temporary clinical death.
Shaman in a Pataxó indigenous tribe in Bahia. Photo by Flickr user Mario Niveo (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Shaman in a Pataxó indigenous tribe in Bahia. Photo by Flickr user Mario Niveo (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Teacher Glauco Ricciele Ribeiro reveals how women become folk healers:

Benzedeiras senhoras de coração puro, servem ao próximo sem interesses ou cobiça. O dom adquirido por elas são passados de geração a geração. Mas em nosso mundo atual, tal prática cada vez mais desaparece e junto dela a fé popular perde suas características. [...]
Mas poucos sabem como uma benzedeira inicia seu “sacerdócio”. Tradicionalmente a Sexta-feira Santa é a única data onde se ordena o Dom de ser Benzedeira a uma mulher de bom coração e sem impedimentos. Esta pessoal deve ajudar através das rezas todo tipo de necessitado sem distinção de classe ou credo.

Folk healers are women with pure hearts, who serve others without self-interest or greed. The gift they acquire is passed from generation to generation. But in our world today, such practices are increasingly disappearing and, together with them, the popular faith loses its characteristics. [...]
But few people know how a healer began her “ministry”. Traditionally, Good Friday is the only day in which the gift of healing is given to a woman of good heart and without hindrances. Through all kinds of prayers, she ought to help people in need without distinction of class or creed.
The Blessing Culture. Photo from the Etnia Brasil website by Livia Zaruty (CC BY-NC-ND).

The Blessing Culture. Photo from the Etnia Brasil website by Livia Zaruty (CC BY-NC-ND).

Journalism student Angélica Weise disagrees that the art of healing is disappearing:

Elas fazem parte da cultura popular. A maioria é de uma generosidade incrível. Por mais antiga que seja a tradição, as benzedeiras se encontram mais vivas do que nunca. Basta ter vocação e força de vontade. Mesmo com a medicina avançada, muitas pessoas recorrem a elas para os diversos tipos de cura. [...]
Para encontrá-las não há endereço. Basta perguntar nas ruas que logo alguém conhece ou já ouviu falar delas. Na maioria são velhas e simples. É olhando para o rosto e contando suas rugas que encontramos a idade delas. Quem acredita em benzedeira, jura que elas fazem milagres.

They are part of popular culture. Most are incredible generous. No matter how old the tradition is, folk healers are more alive than ever. It only takes calling and will. Even with the advancement of medicine, many people turn to folk healers for various types of healing. [...]
To find them, you need not to have an address. Just ask in the streets and you will find someone who knows or has heard of them. Most are elderly and humble. It is looking at their faces and counting their wrinkles that we find out their age. Those who believe in spiritual healing, swear that they promote miracle cures.

Conventional doctors are not so convinced of the miraculous power of spiritual healing and are concerned about the practice, considering that “the scientific safety should not be set aside”.

Meanwhile, traditional healers of two cities in the Brazilian state of Paraná, Rebouças and São João do Triunfo, have seen their activity recently recognized by pioneering municipal laws in Brazil. This resulted in a project of Social Mapping of Folk Healers, whose unprecedented legislation was celebrated as a victory by the local network of traditional communities and peoples:

Num processo de continua luta e organização social das benzedeiras articuladas no Movimento Aprendizes da Sabedoria (MASA) em 22/02/2012 o Presidente da Câmara Municipal de São João do Triunfo promulgou a lei municipal nº 1.370/11, a qual reconhece a identidade coletiva das benzedeiras de Triunfo, regulariza o livre acesso as plantas medicinais por parte dos detentores de ofícios tradicionais de cura e propõe a construção de política municipal especifica de acolhimento das práticas tradicionais de cura nos sistema formal de saúde.

After a process of continuous struggle and social organization of folk healers from the Learners of Wisdom Movement (MASA), the president of São João do Triunfo's City Council passed City Ordinance No. 1,370/11 on on February 22, 2012, a law which recognises the collective identity of the folk healers of Triunfo, regulates free access to medicinal plants by the holders of traditional healing craft, and proposes the elaboration of municipal policy specifically to bring traditional healing practices in the formal health system.
City ordinance recognises the work of folk healers of Triunfo. Photo by Rede Puxirão de Povos e Comunidades Tradicionais published by Flickr user Cultura Viva (CC BY-SA 2.0).

City ordinance recognises the work of folk healers of Triunfo. Photo by Rede Puxirão de Povos e Comunidades Tradicionais published by Flickr user Cultura Viva (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Regardless of whether the cures are a reality or the result of a placebo effect, the act of healing through non-traditional means is considered an intangible heritage of Brazilian culture by the National Institute of Historic and Artistic Heritage (IPHAN) [en], which belongs to the federal government of Brazil as part of the Ministry of Culture.

In addition to bringing spiritual comfort, folk healers inspire artists, like the writer Sinval Santos da Silveira, who tells us the story and secret of a woman who lived in a very humble house, with no electricity or running water:

Mulher de idade avançada, magrinha, mal alimentada,
e de um coração cheio de bondade…
Sobre uma pequena mesa, a imagem da Santa, em
quem deposita sua fé e a sua vida.
Benze, em nome da Santinha, curando torcicolo, arca
caida, dor de dente, dor nas costas, dor de olhos, de
garganta, de cabeça, mal olhado, inveja, etc.
Seus pacientes ou clientes, pelo trabalho milagroso,
nada pagam, nada devem.
O prazer de poder ajudar alguém, que lhe procura,
está acima de qualquer outro valor.
Só agora entendo, que o poder de cura daquela mulher,
sempre residiu numa única coisa, que tinha em excesso,
em sua humilde casinha: muito amor…

Elderly, skinny, malnourished woman,
whose heart was full of goodness…
On a small table, there is an image of the Saint in
whose care she places her faith and life.
She blesses, on behalf of the sweet Saint, healing stiff neck,
lumbago, toothache, backache, sore eyes and throat,
headache, evil eye, envy, so on.
Her patients or clients pay nothing, nothing owed
for the miraculous work.
The pleasure of helping someone who looks for her
is valuable above anything else.
Only now I understand that the healing power of that woman
was always based on the only one thing that her humble house
had in excess: lots of love…

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