Prostitute, sorceress and saint: Brazil’s first Black female writer honored at Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival

The Viradouro samba school featured Rosa Egipciaca, a slave with a religious following who drew the ire of the Inquisition

Carnaval Rio de Janeiro
A carnival celebrant plays the part of Rosa María Egipciaca in Rio de Janeiro; February 21, 2023.Alex Ferro (Viradouro | Riotur)

Rosa María Egipciaca – an unknown woman with a fascinating story. Her name is now more familiar to Brazilians after the 18th-century slave’s starring role in the Viradouro samba school procession at the Sambadrome parade ground in Rio de Janeiro. Floats, costumes, dancers and 3,200 people all came together to revive the memory of this woman – a slave, prostitute, sorceress, saint and the first Black female writer in Brazil.

It all began when Tarcisio Zanon, the Viradouro samba school’s artistic director, came across a book by anthropologist Luiz Mott about Rosa María Egipciaca, a Brazilian saint and slave from Africa. He eagerly read the book, and an idea grew. “Carnival has Black – Afro-Brazilian – origins. We always try to bring those stories to light. Many important people in Brazil’s past do not appear in our history books, and the samba school’s mission is to highlight them,” said Zanon as he prepared for the parade in Samba City, the giant pavilions in Rio de Janeiro, where the floats are built.

Rosa is the Christian name given to this little girl from the Courá ethnic group who, in 1725, was kidnapped and enslaved by the Portuguese from the coast of present-day Benin. She arrived in Rio de Janeiro when she was six and was taken to the neighboring state of Minas Gerais during the gold and gem rush. Working as a slave on a ranch, she was soon forced into prostitution. Sex slaves received clothes and jewelry from their customers that they could eventually use to buy their freedom, but Rosa donated everything to the poor. When she began to have mystical visions during an illness, people started regarding her as a holy woman. Rosa adopted the nickname “Egipcíaca” after St. María Egipcíaca, an Egyptian ascetic who was also a prostitute.

santa africana Rosa Maria Egípcia, durante el Carnaval de Río, el 21 de febrero de 2023.
The carnival float for Rosa María Egipcíaca in the Rio de Janeiro parade. Ismar Ingber (Viradouro | Riotur)

Rosa was bought by a priest named Francisco Gonçalves Lopes, also known as “Chuta Diablos.” Gonçalves vowed to exorcise the devil from Rosa, and she became the demon-possessed star attraction of his popular exorcism show. During one inquisition, her tongue was burned for 15 minutes with a candle to prove her paranormal powers. The bishop of Mariana called her a fake and had her publicly flogged, an unusual punishment for women at the time. Rosa and Gonçalves became inseparable – the priest even wore a pendant around his neck with one of her teeth. The pair fled to Rio de Janeiro, where they were taken in by Franciscan monks at the Convent of St. Anthony.

“Everyone saw her as this demon-possessed Black sorceress, but she gradually shed that reputation. When she moved to Rio, the Catholic Church treated her differently, and people began venerating her as a saint,” said Zanon. Her gifts never failed to fill churches at a time when the Catholic Church used Black saints like St. Ephigenia and St. Benedict to convert slaves. Rosa’s fame proliferated, and she founded a home to care for girls and prostitutes. She mixed her saliva into a communion wafer that her devotees considered sacred and conducted crowded ceremonies that blended Catholic liturgy with African rites and smoky voodoo dances.

At the height of her fame, she learned to read and began to write compulsively. She recorded her visions in a 250-page book that the Catholic Church later branded as heretical. Gonçalves partially destroyed the book, trying to save it from the Inquisition. Only 15 pages remained intact and are now kept in Portugal’s National Archives in Lisbon.

santa africana Rosa Maria Egípcia
A dance honoring the African saint during the Rio Carnival.Tata Barreto (Viradouro | Riotur)

The last years of Rosa’s life were marked by increasingly megalomaniacal delirium. She predicted a flood that would devastate Rio de Janeiro just as the earthquake destroyed Lisbon and said her small convent would emerge from the floodwaters like Noah’s Ark. Another boat would appear carrying King Sebastião of Portugal, who had disappeared two centuries earlier in Morocco. They would marry and create a new empire. Rosa claimed that she carried Christ’s physical heart in her body and that she was breastfeeding baby Jesus.

Rosa became violent with high society dignitaries in the throes of her trances, ultimately leading to her fall from grace. In 1763, the Catholic Church denounced her as a heretic and false saint. She was taken to Lisbon, where she died in prison. Zanon says this is a sign of her significance, since taking prisoners on trans-Atlantic journeys was unusual.

This year’s carnival tribute to Rosa Maria Egipciaca follows past homages to Black women forgotten by history, such as the slave Xica da Silva, the African queen Agotime and the escaped-slave leader Tereza de Benguela. Other samba schools presented Afro-themed parades this year, and Rio’s education department has even recommended some as study material for public schools. The Mangueira samba school highlighted the African roots of Bahia’s music; the Beija-Flor school focused on heroes of Brazil’s independence who have been omitted from official history books; and the Tuiuti school showcased the relationship between Black and indigenous culture on the island of Marajó.

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