We need to talk about Exu

Image: Margerretta


Attacks and attempts at associating Afro-based religions with the practice of malevolent rituals are nothing new.

“I loved the sky, I loved the moon\ It was at the crossroads that I saw your Tranca Rua”

In recent weeks, a video shared by First Lady Michelle Bolsonaro has gained repercussion, in which former president and candidate for the Planalto Palace Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva participates in a meeting with Umbanda and Candomblé leaders. The record, originally shared in 2021 by federal deputy Paulo Teixeira, also from the Workers' Party, showed the former president receiving a popcorn shower at the Bahia Legislative Assembly. In the tradition of Afro-Brazilian cults, popcorn appears as a powerful item capable of absorbing negative energies, being widely used in health and unloading rituals. This ingredient appears in the liturgy of religions as food belonging to Obaluayê, the Orisha of health and evolution and healing of the body and spirit.

A year after the event that originated the record, the video began to be shared by São Paulo city councilor Sonaira Fernandes (Republicans), although loaded with a discourse opposite to the original meaning of the ritual. The parliamentarian and the first lady began to associate the PT candidate with “darkness”, even stating that Lula would have “delivered his soul to win this election”. This August, during an event held at the Planalto Palace, Michelle declared that, before Jair Bolsonaro took office, the building would have been “consecrated to demons”. Once the PT initiatives were overcome, however, the environment today would be “consecrated to the Lord”.

With the consolidation of the distance in polls of voting intentions between Lula and Jair Bolsonaro, with the possibility, even if remote, of Lula's victory in the first round, the fake news of Bolsonarism went into action at full steam, even with warnings from TSE members. The news trigger even through official profiles, such as that of deputy and pastor Marco Feliciano who published on his Twitter account that if Luiz Inácio were elected, he would close evangelical churches across the country, thus reinforcing the narrative of a supposed struggle for good , embodied in the figure of Jair Bolsonaro and evil, represented by the PT candidate.

Attacks and attempts at associating Afro-based religions with the practice of malevolent rituals are nothing new. In a list of objects that made up the collection of the Museu de Magia Negra, body then linked to the Section of Toxics, Narcotics and Mystifications of the 1a Auxiliary Police Station of the Civil Police of the Federal District, produced in the 1940s, shows, among several objects, a statuette representing the figure of Mephistopheles, identified in parentheses with the orixá Exu.

At the turn of the XNUMXth century to the XNUMXst, with the vertiginous growth of neo-Pentecostal churches, it became common to follow on some “ritual” television stations, where people possessed by spirits, commonly identified as the most varied types of Exus, would supposedly be freed from all the evils caused by such possessions.

In view of this, it is extremely important to move forward in the public debate to dismantle this discourse based on prejudice and hatred, where such representation has increasingly become common sense. Thus, I will try to show how the real representation of Exu takes place, the orixá whose image is most distorted by those who do not understand its real meaning in the tradition of religions of African origin.


opening the ways

Before entering our character's universe, it is worth clarifying some points: the orixás are deities worshiped on the African continent, occurring mainly in regions of Nigeria and the Gulf of Benin. Landing in Portuguese America as slaves, the Yorubans took the cult of the orixás across the seas, re-signifying devotion through the creation of candomblé. According to the historian Luiz Antonio Simas, despite the Yoruba matrix being the predominant one, it can be established that there are three general lines of candomblé, with a great interaction between the lines, including the liturgical procedures.

Thus, the classification made by Simas occurs as follows: (i) keto, of Yoruba tradition, from the Nagô peoples; characterized by the cult of the orixás; (ii) Hehe, of Fon tradition, of the Jeje peoples; characterized by the cult of voduns; (iii) Angola, of bacongo tradition; characterized by the cult of the Inquices.

In turn, within Umbanda, the cult of orixás occurs in a variety of ways, with greater or lesser intensity, and in connection in most cases with Catholic saints, for example, an orixá like Oxossi, in Bahia is syncretized with São Jorge and in Rio de Janeiro with São Sebastião, where in turn São Jorge is syncretized with Ogum.

Syncretism is a process marked by complex nuances, thus bringing back the argument of Luiz Antonio Simas, such a practice can be seen as an “Afrodiasporic strategy to worship their deities, as it can be seen as part of a process of connections linked to the accumulation of vital forces, at a subtle crossroads between the Africanization of Catholic procedures and the Christianization of black and indigenous rituals”.

Faced with such diversity and transformations, it is still somewhat surprising the distortion made consciously, or not, of such entities and rituals, of course the structural racism that permeates society, as well as the growing hate speech against what is seen as dissent cannot be ignored.


Exu asks for passage

In the liturgy of religions of African origin, Exu is the orixá who opens the way, he is the one who neutralizes and removes the density of the load with which people arrive at the terreiro; for being responsible for opening the paths and taking the demands to the other orixás. Exu is the first to be worshipped, just as he is also the one who eats first when food is offered. A striking feature of religions of African origin, the ritualization of food appears as a means for restoring the vital force of individuals and the group to which they belong, that is, through the offering of food there would be the restitution of axé.

According to researchers Luiz Antonio Simas and Luiz Rufino in their work The Enchanted Science of Macumbas, Ifá teaches us that “Exu is the one who smokes the pipe and plays the flute. He smokes the pipe as a metaphor for absorbing the offerings and plays the flute as a restitution of axé, the vital energy”. It is not possible to understand the breadth of the cult of the orixás without understanding the role of Exu, he is the one who establishes the connection between our material world and the dimension in which the orixás live.

Due to his archetype, Exú ends up being associated with the human being, as he would be full of flaws and virtues, always walking a fine line, this fact aroused the attention of several artists and intellectuals over time. A classic example is the passage of Macunaima, where the character created by Mário de Andrade visits the house of the legendary Tia Ciata, a seminal figure in Rio de Janeiro's samba and recognized Mãe de Santo who maintained ties with the most diverse social segments of the then federal capital, taking to her house from dockworkers to influential political figures, passing through prostitutes, rascals, samba dancers, chorões and of course the population of little Africa who saw in Ciata a reference that was not only spiritual.

Returning to the book written by Mário de Andrade and to the chapter where, our white Catimbeiro Indian, sly black sorcerer (recalling the samba by Norival Reis and David Corrêa for the Portela carnival in 1975) witnesses a macumba for Exu, among those present would be characters such as: Ascenso Ferreira, Manuel Bandeira, Raul Bopp, Blaise Cendrars and Jayme Ovalle.

Exu is the most misunderstood orixá in Christian culture. According to Vicente Parizi, “represented by the phallus (symbol of creation), by the horn (traditional symbol of power) and by the club (symbol of his strength), he was confused with the Christian demon, and is still seen that way by some segments of society, who fear him as the representative of evil.” However, nothing is further from reality. Exu is the defender of justice, the best and most loyal friend, the best advisor. Exu is cheerful, faithful, loyal, never abandons his supporters: responsible for order, discipline, caretaker of loyalty, respect, perseverance and patience.

As an orixá who resides at the crossroads, the true meeting point of all roads, Exu can go not only in all directions, but also in the past and in the future. Thus, bringing back the words of Luiz Antonio Simas, the historian explains that Exu's domains “extend above all to the streets, gates, corners and worldly crossroads. For several lines of Umbanda, Exu is the protector of the street people: prostitutes, bohemians, rascals, beggars, wanderers of life”.

Thus, it will not cause astonishment to those initiated or minimally informed about the scratch, the energy contained, for example, in a samba circle performed in the light of the full moon, in some corner of any city. For sure, while the samba is happening, in its surroundings, gypsies, rascals and our compadres enjoy the improvised curimba and have fun without forgetting, of course, to take care of those resistant bohemian souls.

In the face of everything that has been brought up here, it is worth saying that one cannot understand the breadth of the cult of the orixás without a clear understanding of the role of Exu. Its primal function is to endow beings with movement capacity and communication power, being the same energy that is present in everything that exists. It is Exu who, through his axé, will establish links between our material world and the dimension in which the orixás live.

And based on all this movement and power, it is up not only to the people of Santo, but also to every part of society that places itself in the progressive and democratic field to fight not only the attacks on the candidate who has been the victim of rumors and false news, but also any manifestation of religious intolerance or misrepresentation of rites, orixás and entities linked to Afro-Brazilian religions, so that through the power of Exu, recalling the samba of Nelson Cavaquinho and Guilherme de Brito, the sun will shine again, and that we have the strength to see evil (in the particular case of our country, Bolsonarist fascism) disappear.

Laroiê Exu!

* Daniel Costa graduated in history from UNIFESP, composer and member of the Grêmio Recreativo de Resistência Cultural Kolombolo Diá Piratininga.



Luiz Antonio Simas. Umbanda. A story from Brazil. Brazilian Civilization Publisher, 2021.

Luiz Antonio Simas and Luiz Rufino. The enchanted science of macumbas. Morula Editorial, 2018.

Vicente Galvao Parizi. The Book of the Orishas. Africa and Brazil. Fi Publisher, 2020.

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