Exu, good and evil

Devidasa of Nurpur, Shiva and Parvati Playing Chaupar Folio from a Rasamanjari Series, 1694-95.


Religions deal with narratives that propose reflections and courses of action, that offer advice, make suggestions

“Exu, who has two heads / He makes his tour with faith (2x) / One is
Satan from Hell / Another is / Jesus Nazareth” (sung point).

“The true nature of the obscene is the will to convert” (Hilda Hilst).

Exu is a very particular figure in the Umbanda pantheon. It is a figure that is defined by ambiguity, by contradiction, by the unstable union of opposites. Exu is the orixá of the streets, paths, crossroads; he is associated with the body, matter, fertility and sensuality. No wonder it is the preferred target of the most exalted currents of the neo-Pentecostal evangelical world (or of the third phase of the Pentecostal movement) and of Catholic sectors of the so-called charismatic renewal,[I] it is the totem, the symbol, the favorite image of those who sustain themselves through the constant incentive to destroy genuine bridges of exchange and dialogue between different religious creeds.

In the closure they produce, these religious segments manipulate, twist and re-signify certain rites and elements of the practices they intend to annihilate, which largely justify them rhetorically and with which, paradoxically, they maintain unsuspected lines of continuity.[ii] It is against the universe of the orixás, the enchanted ones, the nkisis and the voduns – and the social practices associated with them – that diverse churches, organizations and religious experiences in Brazil (yesterday as today) are armed, mobilized and nurtured. there, Exu has a special place. Exu is evil, he is the devil, Lucifer, Satan. And it is. But not only. And not in the sense they want to impute to it.[iii]

I would like to suggest, at the outset, a non-religious point of view: God and the devil do not exist. At least not in the way that people immediately imagine. What exists are religious experiences of the sacred and transcendence – which seems to be part of the nature of human culture, at all times. Thus, god and the devil exist to the exact extent that, based on their images, men and women act in their interactions and social relationships. They exist to the exact extent that beliefs prevail in their existence, teachings and examples. In a word: they exist for those who believe. Not independently of those who believe, as is the case with scientific truths. Furthermore, god and the devil “exist” as metaphors for the human psyche and broader social trends. Orixás, saints, angels, voduns, nkisis, gods and demons are names, words and stories. And they derive their extraordinary attraction and moral and regulatory strength from there; what are Oedipus, Judas, Jesus, Ogun and Delphi if not stories about desire, taboo, loyalty, love, hate and betrayal? From a non-religious point of view, religious entities, then, exist as moral forces, as Durkheim insisted. Every mythical narrative works, in an abstract and encrypted way, the spectacle of the human condition in its plots, fears, anxieties, fantasies, dramas and desires. Freud even said that, through the analysis of dreams, it was possible to verify that “the unconscious uses, especially for the representation of sexual complexes, a certain symbolism, in part individually variable and in part typically fixed, which seems to coincide with the that we conjecture behind our myths and legends” (FREUD, 1910, p.30). Analyzing Christian mythology, Freud himself offers us the interpretation according to which

God is a substitute father, or rather an elevated father, or, in still another way, a copy of the father as he was seen and experienced in childhood (the individual in his own childhood and mankind in its pre-existence). history) as father of the primitive horde (…) We also know, from the hidden life of the individual that analysis reveals, that the relationship with this father was ambivalent perhaps from the beginning; at any rate, he soon became like that, that is, he understood two opposing affective impulses, not only a tender and submissive impulse, but also a hostile and defiant one. According to our conception, the same ambivalence governs the relationship of the human species with its divinity. In the endless conflict between nostalgia for the father, on the one hand, and filial fear and rebelliousness, on the other, we find an explanation for important characteristics and decisive vicissitudes of religions. We know about the evil Demon that he was imagined as a counterpart of God, and yet he is very close to God's nature. But his story has not been as well researched as God's, not all religions have embraced the evil spirit, God's adversary, and its pattern in individual life remains obscure thus far. One thing is for sure though: gods can become evil demons when new gods repress them. When one people is conquered by another, it is not uncommon for the dethroned gods of the vanquished to become demons for the victors. The bad demon of the Christian faith, the Devil of the Middle Ages, was, according to Christian mythology itself, a fallen angel, of a nature similar to the divine. It doesn't take much analytical acumen to guess that God and the Devil were initially identical, a single figure that later decomposed into two with opposite characteristics. In the early days of religions, God himself possessed all the terrifying traits that were later collected in a counterpart of him. It is the process, well known to us, of the decomposition of an idea of ​​contradictory content — ambivalent — into two clearly contrary parts. But the contradictions of God's original nature are a reflection of the ambivalence that dominates the individual's relationship with his father. If the just and good God is a substitute for the father, we should not be surprised that the hostile attitude, which hates and fears and complains about him, also came to be expressed in Satan's creation. Therefore, the father would be the individual prototype of both God and the Devil (FREUD, 1923, p.216-7).

Even in the enormous diversity of its modulations and nuances, the western religious tradition – white and Judeo-Christian – tends to classify experiences and religious symbols forged in other civilizational matrices in the key of superstition, belief, myth or magic, with that understanding them as inferior or relatively poorly elaborated forms of the exercise of faith and the experience of the sacred. But, it refuses to look at itself as what it is: a variegated set of mythical narratives that contain lessons, lessons learned, rules of conduct (individual and collective) or advice: “advising is less answering a question than making a suggestion about the continuity of an unfolding story” (BENJAMIN, 1936, p.216). That tradition, therefore, is just like the forms of experiences of the sacred by they were imputed as superstitious, magical, or inferior in terms of religious sophistication and systematization; neither better nor worse, just different. However, she is astonished to see herself portrayed the way she usually portrays.

However, several individuals and sectors of this tradition are not satisfied with cultivating their ideals, conceptions and beliefs regarding salvation; they are not content to exercise their own freedom to do as they please with their own lives; no. They need converter the world. There is a plethora of sayings and watchwords that justify the organization of actions that are decisively and resolutely aimed at the propagation of their faith and the conversion of the community. You have to save people. You have to take the word. One must preach the teachings of the living God. You have to take the light. It is necessary to fish and rescue souls. It is necessary to show everyone the path, because outside the path there is no salvation, outside the light (and there is only one) there is only darkness, there is only the temptations of the world in its wandering and randomness. We, who have found God (capital letter), need to make him reign in the hearts of men, for in the final judgment all will be judged and, without the word, will be condemned; the fight in His name is a fight against Evil that is defined by the conversion of those who, today aloof, will be grateful tomorrow to the point of obstinately spreading their testimonies of life as the living, concrete and real symbol of His direct action. Propagating the faith and the word – of the “living God” – is an exercise in Christian charity. It's a favor. A favor offered tenderly, charitably and selflessly – with the best of intentions – to those who do not yet enjoy the wonder of union with God that the chosen ones already experience. The chosen ones who are part of the same family, a family of communion, brotherhood and worship in Christ, our Father, the God of the impossible.

This is the portrait that we can construct of a certain desire for salvation, conversion and domination of the world that is so forcefully present in the Brazilian public scene today; it is certainly an exaggerated portrait of reality, but it maintains its degree of pertinence by offering a certain level of intelligibility about the universe of practices to which it refers – and, after all, “my profession is to exaggerate”.

The absolutization of good and evil is at the origin of all fascism and all religious fanaticism. It is obvious that there are extremes and there are several cases (such as sexual violence) in which leaders and members of the most diverse religious orientations commit unethical, immoral or criminal acts – and that in the name of and through religion. These are cases, more often than not, that express the typical blindness of fanaticism and sectarian behavior. One can read around the various attacks on umbanda and candomblé terreiros that have grown vertiginously in Brazil in recent years. Perhaps it is not unnecessary to say that religious intolerance in Brazil, as one of its most urgent public problems, is predominantly expressed against religions of African origin, thus being the expression of one of the multiple dimensions of Brazilian structural racism. Here, Buddhists, Catholics, Evangelicals, Jews or Muslims are not the main victims of persecution based on their faith. Given the history of the way in which black religiosity was treated by agents and institutions of the national State (before and after the abolition of slavery and the proclamation of the Republic), it is problematic to expect, on the part of those who have in umbanda or in candomblé its religious inscription, goodwill with the best intentions with which those who want to propagate their faith in the “living god”, insistently calling for conversion. By the force of law, weapons and morals and dominant good customs, that religiosity was and is suffocated and silenced in very different ways – of the most brutal[iv] to the most imperceptible and unconscious and therefore most efficient; therefore, the best-intentioned calls coming from the universe of rhetoric, performances and practices of neo-Pentecostal matrices can only be seen as an invasion and an impertinence – as violence, in short – on the part of the adherents of religions of African origin[v]. And this has nothing to do with concrete people – the bearers of the call to conversion –, but with the national history itself and the Brazilian social structure; it is the reality independent of the agents, and which acts through them, that produces the mismatch. How can we expect those who have religious experiences in umbanda or candomblé to be indifferent (or friendly receptive) to a call to evangelical conversion in a context – such as the current one – in which cases of attack, destruction are multiplying, almost like an epidemic? and depredation of religious grounds and temples perpetrated by those who consider themselves to be in a true moral crusade and in the most legitimate spiritual battles? Anyone who thinks there is nothing much is on the other side; positioned in another “place of speech” (to use a term that has caused so much controversy lately), that is, it has a trajectory and an experience that create a blind spot for certain realities and certain fields of phenomena. That's what happens to those who are privileged: they don't know they are; and this unconsciousness is functional from the point of view of the reproduction of the situation of privilege.

Real inequalities create concrete obstacles to egalitarian coexistence. There are “structural constraints that weigh on interactions” (BOURDIEU, 2004, p.152). A black person who refers to the phenotype of a white person in a tone of offense, disdain and contempt does not have the same illocutionary force as a white person who offends a black person because of his color, his hair or the shape of his lips and nose[vi]. That's because words don't fall from the sky in a void of social relationships; they are never said outside of a certain context that is carried from beginning to end by the sedimented history until then. The “disgusting black” and the “disgusting white” do not have the same meaning and the same impact for the very simple reason that race is a social marker of the difference that historically structures inequality in Brazilian society in favor of whites. The distribution of goods and opportunities obeys a structure of positions that is independent of individuals and that obeys racial criteria – in favor of whites. Race is one of the dimensions that structure inequality in Brazil (in favor of whites): individuals have more or less access to opportunities and material and symbolic goods (they have more or less privileges) depending on their race – or the traits phenotypics according to which, in their everyday and institutional interactions, people classify each other in terms of black, brown, white, indigenous or yellow. That is why any public policy or any institutional action (micro or macro) aimed at the problem of religious intolerance must take into account that the problem is specific (related to the national racial issue) and requires a specific, non-generic, treatment. because egalitarian treatment only reproduces existing inequalities – the omission acts in reproduction: “the rule of equality consists only of unequally apportioning unequals, insofar as they are unequal. Treating equals with inequality, or treating unequals with equality, would be blatant inequality, not real equality” (BARBOSA, 1921, p.26).

But, let's look at god and the devil as metaphors, as images or symbols of psychic and social tendencies of love, union, conservation, construction, benevolence, charity, peace, order, rigidity and affirmation, on the one hand, and hate, disunity, transformation, destruction, aggressiveness, anger, violence, disorder, fluidity and denial, on the other. From this point of view, god and the devil are forces, they are powers that, each in their own way, can be at the service of the dynamics and cycles of life – which include death, but also the production and renewal of bonds, ties , open and airy relationships and forms of organization and social action. It is necessary to find, in love, a place for hate.[vii]. Know how to make room for it and the positivity (beyond the pure destructiveness or free will of aggression) that can come from it. The exercise of freedom and autonomy, of a space of privacy and individuality, built in the relationship with the other, in life together, requires that space not only be given to love and union, but also to lack of love and disunity, which does not mean the destruction or annihilation of the other, but the need for a distance precisely so that proximity and exchange – conversation and coexistence – are possible. Exchange, exchange and transit of experiences, perceptions, experiences and teachings, so that alliances, coexistence and mutual aid between different people are possible and restorative[viii]; so that bridges can be built – the bridge connects and separates at the same time (or connects because separates): “in the correlation between division and reunion, the bridge accentuates the second term and overcomes the distancing of its extremities while making it perceptible and measurable” (SIMMEL, 1909, p.12). Exu, like the bridge or the door, is defined by this “cultural mediation” (SILVA, 2012) that comes from his “power over the crossroads” (PRANDI, 2001, p.40). In his version of the rascal Zé Pelintra, Exu is defined by this ability, which is that of flâneur (BENJAMIN, 1989), transiting between different worlds and codes of conduct, oscillating between order and disorder and always sneaking around and finding gaps and passage channels in the most adverse situations and between the most opposite and differentiated worlds – in a movement that corresponds to , in part, to what Antonio Candido (1970) coined as the dialectic of malandragem.

Exu is precisely that figure. It is mediation because he is god and the devil at the same time – he is “a mediator between different mythical and social universes, a double being that carries the mediated parts within itself” (SILVA, 2012, p.91). He is Satan from Hell and Jesus Nazareth. In the Umbandist cosmovision, which is also Christian[ix], good and evil are less absolutized than we tend to think immediately and on a daily basis; more relativized, complexified (because the good of one can be the evil of another and the good here can be the evil there) and resignified (or expanded in their meanings); polytheistic, in Umbanda's perspective evil and good are not absolute, but present different facets from the narratives of their myths and entities.

The question of sin, evil, or the need for an adversary for good is something that concerns monotheistic religions much more. Where there are many deities (polytheism), one cannot have an antagonist who opposes a single “God”, since this does not exist (…) How could Exu relativize the concepts of good and evil, being an angel or a demon, the the devil himself, who had been a fallen angel, was able to return to being an entity of good through Afro-Brazilian religions. Therefore, the Exu-demon (I use the hyphen as a sign of this reading) never represents absolute evil (SILVA, 2015, p.29-32).

In the Umbanda cosmovision, therefore, God and the devil are, to a certain extent, together and united – intertwined. And, fundamentally, there is no other devilish – out – to be extinguished because the Devil is also here, beside, greeted, revered and within each one. Just like God. In my wanderings through houses and religious temples (umbanda and candomblé), I have heard it said that “Exu is neither good nor bad, Exu is just”. And that, from Xangô, the orixá of Justice, “one should not ask for justice, but for mercy”.

Let me finish with a personal experience – a religious narrative. Because that's what religions are about: narratives that propose reflections and courses of action, that offer advice, make suggestions. In a consultation with an old black woman, Vovó Cambinda do Oriente, entity of a medium who is a great friend[X], at some point she explained to me more or less the following: “son, when you look in the mirror and, in the reflected image, you see something wrong or out of place, you get ready, right? You don't touch the mirror... What people don't understand is that there isn't a mirror for each one to look at what's inside of them. The mirror you have is each other. But when you see something wrong or out of place in others, you try to change and fix others, not yourself, but you don't touch the mirror to fix your own hair..."

Gilberto Gil, who, in addition to being an old black man, is an Old Black man, comments on his Esoteric: “it's no use even abandoning me, because mysteries will always be painted around… if it's not with me, it'll be with someone else… hold your bar, and I'll hold mine”.[xi]

This seems to me to be one of the meanings of the ecumenical and inclusive potential of Indo-African religions: there is no intention of converting the world. Good and evil are not outside, they are within each of us. And everyone who takes care of themselves.

*Daniel Soares Rumbelsperger Rodrigues é doctor in sociology from the Institute of Social and Political Studies of the State University of Rio de Janeiro (IESP-UERJ).


BARBOSA. Rui. [1921]. prayer for young people; popular edition annotated by Adriano da Gama Kury. Rio de Janeiro: Casa de Rui Barbosa Foundation, 1997.

BENJAMIN, Walter. [1936]. The narrator: considerations on the work of Nicolai Leskov. In: BENJAMIN, Walter. Magic and technique, art and politics: essays on literature and cultural history. São Paulo: Brasiliense, 2012. Selected Works, v.1.

______. Charles Baudelaire: a lyricist at the height of capitalism. São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1989. Selected Works, v.3.

BOURDIEU, Pierre. things said. São Paulo: Brasiliense, 2004.

CANDID, Antonio. Dialectics of Trickery. Magazine of the Institute of Brazilian Studies, (8), 67-89, 1970.

FREYE, Gilbert. [1933].Casa Grande & Senzala: formation of the Brazilian family under the patriarchal economy regime. Sao Paulo: Global, 2005.

FREUD, Sigmund. [1923]. A Seventeenth-Century Neurosis Involving the Devil. In: FREUD, Sigmund. Group psychology and analysis of the self and other texts (1920-1923). Complete works, volume 15. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2011.

______. [1910]. Five Lessons in Psychoanalysis. In: The Thinkers Collection. Sao Paulo, Abril Cultural, 1974.

LACAN, Jacques. [1972-1973].The Seminar: Book 20: More, Still. Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar Editor, 1985.

LUEPNITZ, Deborah. Schopenhauer's porcupines: intimacy and its dilemmas🇧🇷 Rio de Janeiro: José Olympio, 2006.

OUR Sacred. Direction, screenplay and screenplay by Fernando Sousa, Gabriel Barbosa and Jorge Santa. Rio de Janeiro: Quiprocó Filmes, 2017.

PRANDI, Reginald. Mythology of the Orixás🇧🇷 São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2001.

SILVA, Vagner Gonçalves. Between the tour of faith and Jesus of Nazareth: sociostructural relations between neo-Pentecostalism and Afro-Brazilian religions. In: Vagner Gonçalves da Silva (Org.). Religious intolerance: Impacts of Neo-Pentecostalism in the Afro-Brazilian Religious Field. São Paulo: EDUSP, 2007.

______. Exu do Brasil: tropes of an Afro-Brazilian identity in the tropics. Anthropology magazine. São Paulo, USP, vol. 55, no. 2, 2012.

______. Exu: the guardian of the house of the future. Rio de Janeiro: Pallas, 2015.

SIMMEL, Georg. [1909]. The Bridge and the Gate, In: Journal of social sciences – politics & work, no. 12, 11-15, 1996.


[I] Recently, the episode in which, at a high point of his preaching, the well-known priest Fabio de Melo said the following was the object of some repercussion (in the media in general): “Oh my God, they made a macumba for me. If you think, if you really believe that a black chicken at the door of your house with a liter of cachaça has the power to bring destruction in your house, in your life, you don't know the power of the risen Christ. With all due respect to those who make macumba, you can do it at the door of my house and if it's fresh, we'll eat it”; cf. https://www.metropoles.com/celebridades/padre-fabio-de-melo-e-acusado-de-intolerancia-religiosa.

[ii] See, for example, Silva (2007).

[iii] My point of view here is very personal and I am not speaking on behalf of umbanda or any other house; although I wear white and, duly initiated, I am part of an Umbanda house, so that Umbanda religiosity occupies a significant affective dimension in my life, in my daily life and in my history, I identify with Mateus Nachtergaele's speech when say that he considers himself a “kneel and pray atheist”.

[iv] See, for example, the campaign Free Our Sacred, of which the documentary Our Sacred it is one of the fruits and instruments. The documentary is a production of Quiprocó Films and has a script, direction and script by Jorge Santana, Gabriel Barbosa and Fernando Sousa, whom I thank for their comments on a first version of this text. The documentary tells the story of the struggle for the release of religious pieces seized by the police forces of the state of Rio de Janeiro when Umbanda and Candomblé were criminalized (during the First Republic and the Vargas Era).

[v] It is interesting to note that the wealth historically produced through artistic exchanges between the so-called “popular culture” and “erudite culture” in Brazil (in the case of samba, for example) occurred simultaneously with the destruction of many other worlds. That is, the new world built in this part of South America was through the annihilation and silencing of many other worlds and cosmovisions – and this destructive process had Western Christian religiosity as its central vector, in a process, as Ailton Krenak says, that extends until today: the wars of conquest unfold until today on a continuous motorbike, without stopping, with an undisguised religious dimension. Gilberto Freyre (1933, p.92), for example, said that “Catholicism was really the cement of our unity” – and the “demonization of Exu”, with the counterpart of the “exucision of the Christian demon and his feminization through figure of the Pomba Gira” (SILVA, 2012, p.86), was undoubtedly an outstanding component of that “cement”. The current times, of neo-fascist rise and absolutization of the notions of good and evil that obstruct and interrupt the coexistence and coexistence of the different in the public space, are especially dangerous for a figure like Exu, who is defined by his character as a messenger and mediator.

[vi] The same principle applies to other cases of power asymmetries: men and women, cis and trans, heterosexual and homosexual – among others.

[vii] I take this reflection from the essay that opens Schopenhauer's porcupines: intimacy and its dilemmas, by psychoanalyst Deborah Anna Luepnitz; the title of the short introductory essay, Making room in love for hate, is inspired by a passage by the poet Molly Peacock (“there must be room in love for hate”) and the following by Freud (1921, p.43): “according to the testimony of psychoanalysis, almost every intimate and prolonged sentimental relationship between two people – marriage, friendship, the bond between parents and children – contains a sediment of aversion and hostility affects, which only due to repression is not perceived”. It is this type of approach that led Lacan (1972-1973, p.122) to speak of “amodium”.

[viii] See, for example, among several possibilities, this interaction, in the midst of the new coronavirus pandemic, between Casa do Perdão (led by Mãe Flávia) and the Kairós Women’s Recovery Center (led by Pastor Vanderlei):


[ix] I believe we can say – albeit very superficially – that umbanda is the original, creative and varied synthesis (since there is no centralization, institutional hierarchy, a fixed body of rites and rituals and a single sacred book) of candomblé (it even with different nations – such as Ketu, Jêje and Banto), popular Catholicism, Kardecist spiritism and indigenous religiosities (also heterogeneous). Thus, the tradition of Christ is part not only of Catholic and Evangelical religious strands, but also of Umbanda.

[X] That same friend, in a critique of the first version of this text, alerted me to a passage from auspicious, by Goethe, which I did not know and which fits here perfectly, in which Mephistopheles pronounces thus:

“I am the Genius who always denies!
And rightly so; everything that comes to be
It is worthy only to perish;
It would therefore be better for nothing to become more.
Therefore, whatever you call
Of destruction, sin, evil,
My element is, integral”.

[xi] Gilberto Gil's speech appears in the biographical documentary released in 2019, directed by Lula Buarque de Holanda and entitled “Gilberto Gil – Anthology Volume 1”.

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