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  • Holy Harlots: Femininity, Sexuality, and Black Magic in Brazil
  • Barbara Browning
Kelly E. Hayes . Holy Harlots: Femininity, Sexuality, and Black Magic in Brazil. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. Pp. 293.

Kelly E. Hayes' Holy Harlots is a study of the role of a Pomba Gira, a bawdy female spirit central to Brazilian Umbanda ritual practice, in the life of a female worshiper living in a notoriously dangerous favela on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. Hayes grounds her study in an intimate portrait of Mãe Nazaré, the priestess who regularly incorporates a particular manifestation of the spirit known as Maria Molambo. An hour-long DVD called Slaves of the Saints, also directed by Hayes, accompanies the book, and both Mãe Nazaré and Maria Molambo feature prominently in the film. The book is a careful, attentive parsing out of the origins of this spiritual figure and her significance in the personal narratives of Mãe Nazaré. But Hayes takes pains to insist that her focus goes beyond "ethnographic biography" in the limited sense of the study of one charismatic woman's life; she wants to explore Molambo's significance in a broader social context.

Students of African diasporic religion will quickly be reminded of Karen McCarthy Brown's seminal work, Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn—and indeed, Hayes pays tribute to this earlier work, which similarly recounted the spiritual narratives and explanatory models of a dynamic, commanding woman. But while Mama Lola's storytelling capacities seemed to inspire Brown to take her own poetic liberties, melding an often novelistic voice with her ethnographic observations, Hayes has taken a more modest stylistic approach—perhaps unsurprisingly, given that the book grew out of her doctoral dissertation. She describes, for example, a social "setting where men and women have different levels of involvement in and expectations about sexual intimacy, marriage, and family responsibility" (9), rather than engaging in a more impassioned or judgmental account. But Nazaré herself more than makes up for Hayes's discretion: she is a handful, and she is the first to tell you so.

Or rather, she tells you that Maria Molambo is a handful. Nazaré, who is forced to put up with various indignities, explains that she is a "slave" not to her arguably abusive father and husband, not to the six children who demand [End Page 218] her domestic labors, not to the clients who demand her spiritual services, but to the entity whom she incorporates, and who articulates with astonishing raunch and swagger just what she thinks about those "different levels of involvement and expectations."

The book commences with an overview of the origins and attributes of the figure of the Pomba Gira, noting that the ostensibly "purer" forms of African religious practice (particularly those houses designated "Nagô" in Brazil) have historically been privileged in both the ethnographic literature and the popular imagination. The Pomba Gira, on the other hand, is a New World entity, not a traditional African one. Hayes goes on to situate her informants in their social context, where class, race, and gender are inescapable determinants in one's mobility. Then the book turns to Nazaré's own "spirit narratives"—the stories she tells about her own life, and her interpretation of the interventions of Maria Molambo as she negotiated various personal difficulties. Finally, Hayes recounts a number of trabalhos—ritual actions prescribed or enacted by Mãe Nazaré for the welfare of her clients.

Trabalho means, literally, work, and at one point Hayes paraphrases Stephan Palmié on the labor politics that might be seen as framing each ritual trabalho: "in the context of structural poverty and political repression, the image of the market . . . is a cruel phantasm because it mystifies the hierarchical relations of the dominant and the dominated who must sell their labor for a vastly unequal rate of return" (196). But ironically, it is in the ritual context that "works" are often demonized as "fetishism" by both Catholic and Evangelical religious dogma and more generally by outsiders to African religious practice.

It is gender relations, however, rather than class relations, that are emphasized in Nazaré's stories. Hayes's subtitle indicates this, as well...


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