Ruth Landes & The City of Women

For International Women’s Day this post celebrates another American Boasian-trained anthropologist who researched in the field of African-American and African-Caribbean belief systems in the early- to mid- 20th century.

Ruth Landes (1908-1991) undertook research into Candomblé in Bahia, Brazil, between 1938 and 1939. Candomblé is one of a number of religions which originated amongst enslaved Africans in Brazil that combine elements of African and Roman Catholic spirituality. It is a possession religion whereby adepts are possessed by spirits, the orixás.

Landes’ experiences are detailed in her book, The City of Women, first published in 1947. Here, she recorded accounts of visiting Candomblé places of worship, participating in ceremonies and interviewing members of the faith.


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At the time Landes was conducting her fieldwork, there were possibly as many as 150 Candomblé meeting places (terreiros) in Bahia, each with its own religious leader, pantheon of spirits and spirit mediums (filhas de santo). Most of the Bahian terreiros were led by women and the filhas de santo were also mainly female.

Ruth Landes paid special attention to women’s participation within Candomblé. This stance led to criticism from one reviewer, the renowned anthropologist Melville Herskovits, who argued that she had neglected the importance of men’s roles in the faith and put too much emphasis on homosexuality amongst some of its male priests.

He also disagreed with Landes’ view on the origins of Candomblé. In her introduction to the 1994 edition of The City of Women, Sally Cole argues that Herskovits, as an Africanist, felt that Landes underplayed the African elements of Candomblé. In Landes’ opinion, although Candomblé had African influences, rather than being a survival of an African religion in the New World, it was “new living Brazilian religion” which had developed out of a set of particular circumstances and mix of cultures in Bahia.

Much like Zora Neale Hurston Landes used the technique of mixing ethnography with autobiography in her writing. This too drew criticism from contemporary reviewers. As Kamala Visweswaran points out, because of this mixing of styles both women’s works were “dismissed for not being ‘proper ethnography”.

The idea, in the early 20th century, of an anthropologist considering their own background in relation to the people they were studying was unusual at the time. Nowadays, anthropologists, especially those working in the postcolonial and feminist arena, acknowledge how forward thinking Landes’ work was, not only through her use of autobiography to situate herself (a white, Jewish woman) in the text but also in her emphasis on “race and gender”.


In many ways, Ruth Landes’ concluding statement in The City of Women sums up the book and additionally provides an apt thought for this International Women’s Day. When discussing with Brazilian friends what she’d tell those back in the USA about her experiences in Bahia, she replied, “I’ll tell them about the women. I think they make Brazil great”.


Next time… I investigate the Devil’s Backbone (in the ethnobotanical rather than the chiropractic sense).


Sources (in order of appearance in text)

Ruth Landes, The City of Women (with an introduction by Sally Cole, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994, reprint of orig. edn, New York: Macmillan, 1947), pp. ix –xxv, 148.

Kamala Visweswaran, Fictions of Feminist Ethnography (Minneapolis & London: University of Minneapolis Press, 1994), p. 7.

Image credits: picture of the cover of The City of Women by H.R. Sparkes

Portrait of Ruth Landes – author unknown –



Interlude: International Women’s Day/ Martha Warren Beckwith

Today, Nature and Supernatural Nature is taking some time out from its investigation into the spirit lore associated with Jamaican plants to celebrate International Women’s Day and pay tribute to the woman who provided the inspiration for this blog, Martha Warren Beckwith

Martha Warren Beckwith (1879-1959) was an American anthropologist, folklorist and academic who is perhaps best known today for her work on Hawaii. However, her Jamaican research was pioneering as not only did she focus on the Caribbean when it was considered an unfashionable area for study by many anthropologists but she also took African-Jamaican folk religions seriously. She was writing at a time when Jamaican folk stories, song and dance were starting to be celebrated but the island’s folk religions and spiritual beliefs were still denigrated by many commentators.

Beckwith’s Jamaican fieldwork, which took place between 1919 and 1924, resulted in a number of articles and the books, Black Roadways: A Study of Jamaican Folk Life (1929), Jamaica Proverbs (1925), Jamaican Folklore (1928) and Jamaica Anansi Stories (1924). Her Caribbean research influenced Melville Herskovits, who himself went on to influence a generation of “American anthropologists who studied the Caribbean, including Katherine Dunham, Zora Neale Hurston, and George Eaton Simpson” (Forde and Paton, p. 17)

Beckwith was not only ground-breaking in her approach to her Caribbean fieldwork. She also played an important role in the development of folklore studies in academia. In 1920 Beckwith became research Professor of the Folklore Foundation and Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at Vassar College, making her America’s first chair of folklore. In the early twentieth century, folklore studies at university level were based in either anthropology or literature departments. Beckwith disagreed with this, considering folklore to be a subject worthy of study in its own right and, under the auspices of Vassar’s Folklore Foundation, Beckwith was able to bring literature and anthropology together in the study of folklore as a distinct subject.


So on this International Women’s Day I’m raising a glass to all those who work to make women’s lives better and also to the inspirational Martha Warren Beckwith

Next time…

Normal service will be resumed as I look at the duppy prevention and vermifugal qualities of Worm-weed.


Maarit Forde and Diana Paton, “Introduction” to Obeah and Other Powers: The Politics of Caribbean Religion and Healing (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2012).

Picture credit: by Davide Restivo at