“Bumba Meu Boi” The Mythical Bull of Brazilian Imagery

Marcos Callia
São Paulo, Brazil
Sociedade Brasileira de Psicologia Analitica

Contributors: Isabel F.R. Labriola, Leniza Castelo Branco, Márcia Coelho Moura, Marcos Fleury de Oliveira

Moitara is a thematical, annual meeting to study and ponder on Brazilian cultural themes and symbols, organized by the Brazilian Society for Analytical Psychology.

Moitara is an Indian meeting of several tribes to mutually help each other during the ritual of bartering for food and different objects they produce. We symbolically use the idea in our meetings to try to establish interchanges between Jung’s analytical psychology and other fields of human knowledge. Anthropologists, sociologists, historians, theologians, artists and other invited specialists on the proposed themes help us to think, understand, feel, and experience some aspect of the symbols of our national expression. The chosen themes are popular manifestations, historical events, authors and their works, or creative expressions, produced by our culture – themes which stratify and drive Brazilian imagery.

Our first Moitara was in January of 1978 inspired by the thematic meetings which took place in Eranos, idealized by professor Carlos Byington and organized by the founders of the Brazilian Society for Analytical Psychology. The theme was “The Brazilian Indian Culture Symbolism”. It was a creative way to study and expand the very rich symbolism of those several cultures that built Brazil. During the seventeenth organized event, we studied the Afro-Brazilian symbolism (Candomble and Umbanda), Carnival, the Week of 1922 – Modern Art Movement, Italian and Spanish immigrations, the writer Machado de Assis, Religious Syncretism, Brazilian Northeastern Folklore, and the “Bumba Meu Boi”. In November, 2004, we will hold our eighteenth event which will have as its central theme, “Death in Brazilian Culture”.

Such meetings show all of us, Jungian Brazilian analysts, how important it is to get an analytical review of our national symbols. This makes us conscious of history and helps us understand our origins, creativity, and shadows. As a meeting, Moitara motivates interchanges, reflection, experience of symbols, and it keeps us in an inner dialogue within our very culture, rescuing what we could call the Brazilian soul.

By recreating our identity as a young and delicate country looking for our creative idiosyncrasies, we saw that Jung, just like God, is Brazilian.

We will present today a theme that is a synthesis of our Moitara2002 study named “BUMBAMEUBOIBUMBA”, (an onomatopoeia that brings together “Bumba Meu Boi” and “Boi Bumba”, thus offering rhythm and sound) –”Ruminations About the Brazilian Culture.” I would like to remind you that Moitara combines both scientific and cultural elements, inviting outstanding personalities of the intellectual and artistic scenarios, and folklore, music, poetry and dance groups.

This Conference will be named: “Bumba Meu Boi”, The Mythical Bull of the Brazilian Imagery.

“Everything with horns carries the Devil within,”says a Brazilian proverb. Such reference, associated to the bull and ox symbolism, provides a special meaning since this animal, with his frightening appearance and remarkable strength – although carrying an image of demoniac power and rashness – also offers the possibility of transformation through sacrifice. The bull-ox is humanized and worshiped, and introduces the mystery of oneness in the symbolic ambivalence seen between the divine and the profane.

When we started to study the ox in Brazil, we got an idea of the dimension of this archetype and its penetration in our national territory. There are many festivals, tales and legends, like the Fairy and Flying Oxen, and important cowboy tales and poems which are sung. Countless folklore groups play the “Bumba Meu Boi” showing the grandeur of the theme in Brazilian culture. As an example, there is the famous ox festival of Parintins, in the Amazon region, fully supported by the media, where two competing oxen fight in a grand arena. Such festival is a carnaval-type show based upon the “Bumba Meu Boi” of Maranhão and is played using themes of jungle mythology, attracting a great number of tourists. The ox from Parintins is considered to be a kind of flag for a regional Amazonian cultural identity that values and incorporates the Indian roots and re-emphasizes the Brazilian mestizo identity.

“Bumba Meu Boi” is a traditional ritual-festival that takes place almost throughout all of Brazil and consists of the sung, danced and dramatized history of a mythical bull-ox that is killed and miraculously resuscitated. This ox is a sculptural representation produced over a wooden frame, with a paper-mache head, and a “skin” decorated with spangles and bead embroidery. The dancer wearing the structure represents the “soul” of the ox or “guts”.

Bumba is performed all year round as part of a cycle that starts with the work of building the bull, going through his baptism and festival, reaching his death and rebirth in the following year. It is considered one of the most important and beautiful manifestations of the Brazilian popular culture. This Bumba is essentially important to develop the identity of the Brazilian people, and evokes faith, hope and a cultural transformation.

There are many regional possibilities, such as the one from São Luiz. But because of its tradition and religiosity during Saint John’s festival, and due to the intense participation of the population of Sao Luiz, the state capital, we picked it as our starting point, the original “Bumba Meu Boi” of the Northern state of Maranhão.

Recognized by anthropology as a Full Social Fact (based upon analysis of the ritual), the Bumba is characterized by being intensely capable of cultural integration, enunciating several diversified levels of dimensions – such as in relation to mythical, religious, and social issues – that correspond to a mythical age and contemporary social movements.

As an archetypal phenomena, it appeases social differences, reveals religiosity and faith, presents a current social criticism and governance, and offers hopeful prospects to the people.

By choosing the Maranhão’s ox, we are limiting the various oxen versions of the Brazilian Northeast, pointed out in many documents as the place of appearance of the first Bumba manifestations.

Such folklore can present very different features. These are seen in the more powerful traditional groups produced by the black community, other groups that show wealthier costumes, or even those that are very simple with just few a participants.

But before we go deep into the “Bumba Meu Boi” theme, we will amplify the ancient symbol of the bull and ox that motivated human imagery in several different ways.

Stories get mixed together, but the idea of a mythical bull-ox appears in many mythologies that point towards the archetypal aspect of sacrifice. African, French and Spanish cave drawings (60,000 to 100,000 B.C.), already show man afraid of such animals. Egypt had the bull Apis; the Hebrews, the Golden Calf; India, the Sacred Cow and Shiva`s Bull (Nandi); Greece, Dionysus and the Vine, Zeus and Europa. In Crete we can find the cult of the Minotaur and Tauromaquia, and in the Orient the Taoistic drawings of the bull transformation. It would be impossible to point out all cultural manifestations derived from the presence f the ox. In sacrifice and worship rituals, at competitive festivals and games, the ox follows man in his developing consciousness.

According to Joseph Campbell, we find the Neolithic image of a bull-headed boy together with a cow-headed goddess (5500 B.C.) near the Tigris River (currently Iraq).

The astrological age of Taurus was reported to be between 4, 476 B.C. and 2, 330 B.C., and one of its most remarkable features is man’s worry about survival on Earth. The bull symbolizes cosmic evolution of a fundamental force trying to manifest basic desires of survival and safety.

During the age of Taurus, civilization starts to establish and limit spaces, progressively moving from the nomad level (hunter and collector) to ownership and development of land (agriculture), leading to the appearance of great civilizations. Mankind becomes sedentary, starts to cultivate the land, and relates more with the cosmos and structured religiosity. This age creates new religions as well as science, technology, mathematics, astronomy and medicine.

Egyptians are famous for their cult of the bull Apis, the most worshipped and famous of all sacred animals. It was a bull that had special features, certain signs and spots on it`s chest, and horns shaped as a quarter-moon (linking the sign of Taurus to Venus). The animal was captured in Africa and brought to Memphis in a golden boat. It was ceremoniously enthroned and lived in its sanctuary as a herald, as the living image of divinity. It received offerings, was part of processions, and during his funeral ceremony, he was followed to the Nile River by a procession of masquerading noisy adepts (one of the possible origins of carnival) to be drowned and followed until his final death. After its death, it was mummified, locked in a sarcophagus and subject to funeral rites that would last for sixty days. It had a tomb and was buried with honors. The population would go into mourning.

Lately, the bull Apis has been identified as Osiris, the god of death and transformation. Osiris is also known as “The Abundant Green”, because it was the god that tought agriculture to mankind. His brother Sete locked him inside a sarcophagus (like a seed) and later dismembered him. Osiris was recomposed by Isis as a mummy (the first one in history) who later transformed into Horus, its son.

In Greece, there used to be a big tumultuous and noisy procession during Dionysus cult, followed by the sounds of cymbals and flutes. The Maenads, Dionysus’ priestesses, drank wine, and went into “ecstasies” and “enthusiasms”. Behind such retinue came the bulls destined for the sacrifice performed by “diasparagmos” and omophagia, which means dismembering the animal still alive and consuming his meat and blood while still warm.

Athenian buffooneries would take place during the full-moon night, choosing an animal for sacrifice. The plot consisted of the bull being killed by a participant with a hatchet. He would then run away, while another participant would behead the animal to be consumed while his body was still warm. The buffoon who killed the ox with the hatchet ran away and was chased by the participants, who would then find, judge and condemn him. In spite of being considered guilty, he was set free from his conviction by accusing the hatchet of the murder.

The hatchet was finally sentenced and tied to the animal whose body was rebuilt and stuffed with herbs. After such rebuilding, there would be a play representing the ox in the act of using a plow. The sacrificed animal was seen as God, and consumption of his meat, as the communion that incorporates the magical powers of such God.

Dismembering turns the animal’s limbs into fertility amulets and fetishes that everyone carries. To sacrifice the bull is like immolation of the animal nature which drives the psychic energy towards discipline and spirituality. The savage bull is killed and reborn as a tamed bull.

In Mithraism, popular religion of the Roman Empire – second through fifth centuries B.C.– the temples’ central point was a relief showing Mithra sacrificing a bull, with flowers and fruits sprouting from his blood. Mithra was the most important Oriental divinity, brought from India and Persia, and was the god of Heaven, Earth and death. His birth was celebrated on December 25th – the day of the northern hemisphere’s winter solstice, and the day the Sun starts its northern course of the annual cycle: the “Natalis Solis”. The central part of his cult was a bull sacrifice. He was considered to be the first created being and the source of all life. The “tauróbolo” consisted of a bull sacrifice and a blood baptism of those initiated. Mithraism used to compete with Christianity. Some scholars believe that if Christianity had been checked, the world would have become Mithraic. These two religions present very similar liturgies: the sacred birthdates, purification with blood, the birth of Mithra from a virgin by divine intervention and Sunday as the sacred day. All of this brings the ox-bull and Christian symbolism into perspective.

In Crete, we find worship offered to the Minotaur, the god with the head of a bull, born out of the love between Pasifae, the wife of Minos, and a magnificent bull that Poseidon produced from the sea. But in reality, Minos broke his promise to Poseidon of sacrificing the special bull, and because of that he was punished. Minos’s wife fell in love with Poseidon’s bull and bore Minotaur. Minos arrested the Minotaur in a labyrinth (from “labis”, double hatchet and palace of the hatchet) and would feed him with human flesh, which required a yearly sacrifice of a group of young Greeks. Theseus killed the Minotaur using the Tauromaquia ritual, which was very common in ancient times. A ritual hunting is shown in a Crete fresco where a disarmed young man performs dangerous acrobatics with a bull, as in a bullfight.

As with the Minotaur rites at Cretan bullfights, from where it was brought to Spain, and in the same exact way the Paleolithic bulls were killed by the solar power of a shaman, we can see today the Bull God of the Moon with his quarter-moon like horns killed by the solar sword of the killer – Mithra, the Sun God.

By this expansion of the bull’s image, we are able to see how the animal played a central role at ancient religions and cults. Even today, although it had changed and took on local elements at each representation, it extends to several parts of the world, maintaining the central archetypal element of the bull’s birth and death, and his transforming rebirth.

There is something interesting and usually imperceptible to bring up: the difference between the bull and the ox. Do you know the difference?

This symbol presents an ambivalent aspect but keeps a structural nexus between its opposing elements, showing the fullness of the animal symbol with which men deeply identify. The bull symbol has to do with fertility due to his abundant semen and extraordinary strength. His horns symbolize greatness, power and impetuosity. It is a powerful, impulsive and voracious male.

The bull represents instincts’ exaltation and creative powers inwardly recognized by the human being. It is a symbol of passion, irreverence and determination, of sexual strength, and of the male’s innate power of fertilization. This human impetus reaches its peak at the bull’s image, and by his castration and sacrifice, he becomes an ox, the symbol of chastity, meekness, work and submission –the taming of the instincts. The bull now transformed into an ox carries the burden of labor, pulls the plow that cuts the soil to transform the seeds for future expression of the human and cosmic creativity on Earth.

The ox, like man, when carrying the yoke, transforms nature and recycles culture in his seeds. In this apparently ambivalent polar archetype, we evolve. The symbol is expressed in a great ideal of the evolution that mankind hankers after so much. Even so, the ox keeps his horns and strength, and continues to be invincible. By emasculating the bull, man conquers the beast and discovers it as a transformed ally, with whom he identifies.

Since the myth is a cultural production, the basic structure of its archetypal elements are found to be beyond racial and cultural differences, enriched by local customs, art and history. One of the most expressive ways such an archetype manifests in Brazil is through the “Bumba Meu Boi”.

There are many ideas about the origin of the “Bumba-Meu-Boi”, but we know that it relates to the Brazilian cattle cycle (nineteenth century). Besides the archetypal sources already mentioned, our Iberian colonizers also hold the festival of “Tourinhas” (simulated bullfights), the catholic ox procession, the Canastra ox, the ox dance, the famous bull races, and the Spanish art of Tauromaquia, where man tests his strength over the beast in a ritual arena.

There are also important mentions of ox festivals in Africa – the Ba-Nanecas of the Bantu people have a cult to an ox named Geroa conducted in a procession and celebrated with chanting and consecrated instruments.

In Maranhão and Bahía, the way in which the influence of the Sudanese groups and the presence of the Bantu-Angolans mix together in the oral culture, and recall together with the ox image, is a recalling of the vital strength of the African continent.

The myth behind the appearance of the “Bumba Meu Boi” in Brazil goes back to the legendary figure of the king of Portugal, Dom Sebastião, in the sixteenth century, also known as the Desired or Covered. A king was very much hoped for by the Portuguese court. Due to the lack of an heir to the throne, the Portuguese court was running the risk of being annexed by the kingdom of Spain, and that is why he was known as the Desired one. This hoped-for king and savior disappeared years later in Africa, after being defeated by the Saracens in the Battle of Alcacer-Quibir, which left his people again without a leader, and again at risk of annexation by the Spanish kingdom.

The suffering and helplessness of the people without a king, associated with the messianic traditions of the new Portuguese Christians, produced Sebastianism, representing the waiting for the Messiah, an immortal personality that would lead his people to glory. Sebastianism expects such a king to return one day, thus relieving life’s tragedy of suffering and helplessness, giving enthusiasm and faith in a time to come.

According to the original myth of the “Bumba” of Maranhão, Dom Sebastião would have gone to Brazil with his entire aristocracy in caravels, to live with his majestic court at the bottom of the island of Sao Luis. During Saint John’s nights, the king appears transformed into a black bull, with a silver star in his front. According to the legend, the day a brave man hits him in his front, the king’s spell will be broken, and he will gloriously reappear with the entire pomp of his magnificent court. With such a mythical plot, the “Bumba Meu Boi” bull corresponds to the desired king that, after being killed and disappearing, is brought back to life to bring happiness and glory back to the people.

Bumbas can be organized in an urban or rural region where religious duties fall upon the people, creating a commitment and a communion. What creates the bonding in this party is the devotion to the saints. These local community oxen receive names that grant some meaning to the group and, from this point on, they become organized and create a tradition. Thus, there are oxen and rivalries among them. The Indians Bumba are called the Matraca Bulls (clappable wooden instruments).

The Zabumba Bulls use a type of drum that is caracteristically of African origin and the Orquestral Bulls use other types of musical instruments.

One of the festival features is the part of it which is born out of those manifestations and expressions of the oppressed Afro-Brazilian community seeking liberty. We have many historical references that show how Afro-Brazilians used the ox play and motif as an expression of their revolt and resistance, and some groups were very violent and even carried weapons inside the ox’s frame, which finally caused its prohibition. Before such a scenario, the power seen in this festival produces what we used to call shadow and today appears as light.

The ritual festival happens together with the religious festival cycles of each region. In Maranhão, it is celebrated year round, divided in three acts: during Easter, the proposal starts with the building and decoration of the new ox. His baptism and appearance is celebrated during Saint John’s appearance festival, in June, and his death is played out in September, to be reborn next year. We are unable to explain why the ox baptism at the beginning of the festival falls on Saint John’s day. But it is important to remember that June 24th is also the day of the mestizo and of the winter solstice in the southern hemisphere, and the same symbolic day of Mithra’s and Christ’s birth in the northern hemisphere.

Bumba brings up devotion to Saint John, the one who baptized Christ. During the festival days of the saint, hundreds of oxen appear in the streets of the city playing and dancing, with their rhythms and colors, while waiting for their baptism to be celebrated by the priest of the local church. After the baptism, the groups exhibit themselves all night in several spaces prepared for the festival (“arraiais”), with people’s massive participation. The following day, there is a big meeting of all oxen at a historical avenue of the city, that in old times used to be the frontier within the city established by the government’s decree.

The costumes offer great dignity to the wearer. In their wealth, they remind us of Dom Sebastião’s court, or the return of a glorious kingdom, promised for people’s glory.

There are several rhythms and drumbeats (intonations) for play or dance depending on the type of Bumba: it can be more Africanized (traditional) or more general. The name “Bumba” comes from the drum called “zabumba”, or from the verb “bumbar”, meaning beating. “Bumba-Meu-Boi” presents the idea, “Get it, my ox! Attack, my ox! Dance, my ox!

Its dance expresses mankind’s path towards metaphor and symbol. It is the archetypal basis common to all men in their connection with the deep and unconscious roots, connecting man in a festive meeting to that which is animal, demoniac and divine.

The dance and parties follow the ox. Just like a procession of the Egyptian Apis bull, like the party of Dionysos, we can forget the Shiva period with its bull. The dance and the ritual there are the connection with the oldest divinity. People dance to live, to cure, to chase away evil spirits, to purify, to marry, to bring rain, and to celebrate. The body is the instrument of action for the realization of the human being.

Shivaism is essentially a religion of nature. Shiva in the position of creator does not speak to the world but dances to it. The activity of the Gods, through the dance, is like an epiphany through body movement, rythms, and the energetic relationship with divinity.

Shiva, known as the Lord of Dance, is the manifestation of the original energetic rythms. It is Shiva who binds the divine world with ours day to day; its the connection betweens the Creator and Creation. The dance is its own transformation, the same Dionysian metarmorphosis.

Dionysos is the real expression of Shiva and represents the comunin with the natural savage beast; the transformation of wine. This cult offers authentic expression of the divine acting in the soul and as a consequence in the body without division.

Shiva, the creator, dances over the World with his bull, and the men dance with the Gods in a ritual of worship and comunion with the divine.

The trance, the state of posession, the ecstatic dance, and the erotic dance are direct ways of binding the divine dimension and the supernatural by way of epiphany.

The ritual dances move the archetype’s energy, evoking the icons and power and grace. Shiva has the Nandi bull as the vehicle, and for the origins of this mithycal bull we can see that it was born in the ocean, plays and dances like the Bumba Meu Boi from Maranhão

At the core of this tragic-comic history there is a mythical bull being killed and miraculously brought back to life, which brings great euphoria to everyone, and rejoicing.

The plot can be summed up as the history of Catirina’s pregnancy and her fickle desire to eat the tongue of the most beautiful ox belonging to her husband’s boss (the white man). Her husband, known as father Francisco (the African man), steals and kills the ox, running away to the jungle, where he is hunted first by the cowboys, next by the indians, and is finally brought back to face the boss and be judged. Next comes a theatrical act with drama and chanting, sometimes funny, sometimes critical or even philosophical, until the ox is brought back to life by the skill of a quack Indian, a “pajé”, a charlatan. Everything turns into a big joke or a criticism of the country’s situation, in a big open popular theatre that produces much laughter and confusion.

The characters in the play are: Catirina, pregnant, and her African husband Francisco, dressed as clowns; the Boss, who is the white lord – with a well-fitted garment, since he is the powerful and rich landowner; the cowboys employed by the Boss; the Tapuia Indians –with their feather costumes and headpieces; the Indian Pajé, or doctor; the Cazumbas – very strange and scary figures that represent the ancestors’ spirits haunting the place and protecting the ox – and the main role played by the ox itself.

The plot starts with the fickle desire of a pregnant woman. In Brazil people believe that the desire of a pregnant women must be satisfied, no matter what, otherwise, the child will be born having the looks of the desire. In other words, if the child becomes destitute, the very desire will personalize in his/her face. So, Catirina’s desire, although strange, is authentic and valid, since it brings benefit to the child that will be born. The desired one – or the ox and his tongue – will be sacrificed and dismembered for a greater good: so that the newborn doesn’t suffer due to desires. It is the desire transformed.

And why the desire is for an ox’s tongue, since the animal has parts much more noble and better to be relished? Perhaps we should ask pregnant women, because it is a difficult question to answer. But we could say that the ox’s tongue, for anyone who has seen one, is the very “phallus” in size, consistency and aspect and, after being cut, will expose us to feel the pains of castration.

The next act of the ritual festival takes place in September, with the dramatic death of the ox. After the ox is killed, his blood (wine) and a piece of his body, product of the dismembering at the end of the spring ritual, are taken and used as a medicine or as a fetish while everyone waits with devotion and faith for his rebirth next year.

A sacrifice, as a sacred act, is a public ceremony where mankind dissolves his humanity into a sacred dimension, and overflows in a communion with divinity. Each sacrifice corresponds to a festival, bringing ecstasy and enthusiasm in communion with ancestry and divinity. The sacrifice of the Bumba festival, although symbolic, evokes a deep emotion among participants.

Bumba keeps the symbolic level of the humanization process alive, reproducing the archetypal traditional model. The religious aspect is undeniable, and establishes an integrating aspect. The art of the impossible is realized, and desire is transformed.

This ritual festival is considered to be one of the most beautiful Brazilian festivals and appears as one of the first mestizo rituals of its culture. As an essentially archetypal festival expressed in Brazilian culture, “Bumba Meu Boi” is a great cyclic ritual of sacrifice, faith, hope, vitality and communion with a glorious kingdom.

Now! Could the bumba be an expression of the Shiva, Dionysos, with their happiness and ecstasy? Could our Christ be reborn within us when we ritually drink and eat his blood and a piece of his body through transubstantiation? Or would it be Osiris, dead, dismembered, recomposed and transmuted into his son Horus? Might it also be the return of the god Mithra back to life in the dark and forgotten side of the collective unconscious, winning over and sacrificing the beast! All of them are former bulls, and we are all bulls, in spite of

being unaware of it. It is the strength of this archetype and (however exotically) it expresses itself in Brazil that points not only to the archetypal survival but also to the freedom of collective unconsciousness. This living archetype acts in our country recreating and structuring symbols of Brazilian identity.

Three races come together in this ritual: the white man, who is the owner of the ox and who looks European, who tells the story through the medieval type of theatre, the act; the repressed Afro-Brazilian who brings from Africa his oral history, rhythms and drums; and the Indian, who originally owns the land and brings the magic of his dance and choreography. Together, these three races present the origins of an authentic mestizo ritual of death and rebirth as part of Brazilian imagery.

We could compare the core themes – sacrifice, death and rebirth of the animal – considering them to be part of archetypal structures, but the presentation context, plus the songs and poetry, form their creeds and religiosity, which are fully Brazilian. The archetypal themes, meaningful for a culture, survive and are integrated, as in this case. It is a Brazilian cultural phenomenon that brings our tradition into modernity, making visible and transparent the prolific roots of our collective imagery. “Bumba Meu Boi”, with its various images, wavings and rhythms, seems to be playing along with our possible utopias of permanency and symbolic changes.

Defining and re-defining, the Bumba exposes us to the great archetype of the bull-ox, and keeps it alive, eternal, fearless, undecipherable and humanly archetypal in the human psyche.

We are all oxes or bulls, divine or profane, despite our unawareness of it.

References

  • Jung C.G., Simbolos de Transformação.
  • Bueno, André de Paula, Bumba Boi Maranhense em S. Paulo.
  • Marques, Ester, Midia e expressão estética na cultura popular.
  • Campbell, Joseph, O poder do Mito.