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Afro-Brazilian Identity and the Greeks in Meleagro and Dionísio esfacelado

Andrea Kouklanakis

 This paper examines two distinct ways in which Classical references are incorporated into literary works dealing with the African experience of diaspora in Brazil. Meleagro (1951), by folklorist Luís da Cãmara Cascudo (1898-1986), is an anthropological study on the origins and practice of Afro-Brazilian witchcraft (Catimbó). The book betrays a clear Eurocentric perspective as already expressed in its title.  The second work, Dionísio Esfacelado (Quilombo do Palmares) (1984), ‘Dionysus Dilacerated (Quilombo of Palmares)’ by contemporary poet-scholar Domício Proença Filho (1937-) is a collection of epic-lyric poems.  These recompose an Afro-Brazilian historical and cultural identity from the Atlantic crossing, through the slave experience, the formation of quilombos (fugitive slave colonies), to contemporary black life.

A prolific folklorist, Cascudo wrote numerous books on Brazilian culture and religion, including his 1952 Dictionary of Brazilian Folklore. He taught at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte and was the founder of the Society for Brazilian Folklore. He is best understood as contemporary with the Brazilian modernist movement of the 1920’s --1940’s and notable intellectuals such as Mario de Andrade and Gilberto Freyre.  However, he remained marginal to the movement, due to his conservative political orientation, his geographic situation in the North, away from the cultural centers of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and because of intellectual biases against Folklore as an academic discipline. Nevertheless, Cascudo’s work is significant and revealing for his comprehensive study of Brazilian customs, and for the role he ascribes to Afro-Brazilians in his work.  Recent scholarship has begun to revisit and reassess his contribution.

Combining the details of ethnographic research with the precision of a lexicographer, Cascudo finds in the practice of Catimbó a Greek antecedent in the story of  Meleager, the Greek hero. Meleager stands as an example of universal and original essence of magic because of the hero’s connection with the firebrand that kept him alive.

Meleager was doomed when his mother Althea, angry that her son had slain her two brothers, cast into the fire the brand that kept him alive, thereby killing him. Cascudo interprets the use of the brand as a magical object identical with the use of magical objects found in Catimbó, thereby allowing him to assign the latter a Greek and European origin. Following his philosophical considerations of a totum ex parte premise for the essence of witchcraft, he ends by saying that what killed Meleager was the magic that lives inside Catimbó’.

In Dionísio Esfacelado, on the other hand, Domício Proença Filho recalls the birth of Dionysus as metaphor for the African experience in the Brazilian diaspora. There is a focus on the  Quilombo dos Palmares, and its enduring legacy, as that colony survived for nearly a century (ca. 1605-1695). The poems together indirectly recall themes of the god’s evisceration from his mother Semele (Africa) and his transplantation into a new site, Zeus’ thigh (Brazil).

Through a complex of imageries of dilacerated wombs, transplantation of people, and through diction that points to visceral realities, Proença Filho constructs a black identity which can be understood as equivalent to Dionysus’ experience. Indeed Dionysus is in Dionísio Esfacelado as a poetic reality, such as we see in these verses excerpted from one of the poems in the collection.

a socos dos pés                                                at the stomping of feet

a cantiga migalha                                            bits of song

nas casas de Baco                                           in the houses of Bacchus

e o suor do sovaco                                          the sweat from armpits

a escorrer sempre mais                                    ever streaming down

Silêncio, Musa!                                               Silence, Muse!

Já não choras mais.                                          Cry no more.   

Cascudo’s representation of classical antiquity, conditioned by a European culture, distorts and erases the African content of the Catimbó.  Proença Filho, on the other hand, offers us an Afro-Brazilian experience, which poetically connects African and Greek antiquity with one another.

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Afro-Latin and Afro-Hispanic Literature and Classics

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