CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

The Divinatory Consultations in Modernity:
The Mystic Fair in Sao Paulo - Brazil


by Silas Guerriero (Pontificia Universidade Catolica de Sao Paulo)
Paper presented at the 2001 International Conference The Spiritual Supermarket: Religious Pluralism in the 21st Century, organised by INFORM and CESNUR (London, April 19-22, 2001)

In modern Western society there is a wide variety of divinations. Older fortune-tellers continue to exist and keep offering their services to different sections of society. Other types of mantic practices have disappeared and new ones have emerged. Astrological consultation and similar types of divination are within everyone’s grasp, and are a great success.

The Mystic Fair is one of these new components. The oracular consultation allows the person a reorganization of his life through subjectivity and imaginary emergence. Like a space where a magical and mystic living is possible at a given moment, the individual establishes unthinkable combinations in daily life. This meeting between diviner and client is a moment of exchange that remits the person to a new reorganized space. The past is constructed based on the elements taken away from memory and re-signified through the oracular reading. Others are simply created during the conversation, composing a mosaic of memories that, at that particular moment, acquires color and life. The client adds new ingredients that transform the diviner’s speech into something plausible and present. The future, as it is brought to the light of the present many times, in so many successive consultations, is revisited. At each one of these moments, the client can redirect his attitudes before the daily difficulties and rethink those details which, although they have not happened, exist as a potentiality and as a possibility. Therefore, the future influences the present.

The perspective of this study was always one of understanding the divinatory practices of the Mystic Fair in a more sweeping context which goes beyond the oracular consultation. However, this ample universe, often named by the participants themselves and also by the scholars as New Age, New Gnose, alternative complex or simply esoterism and mysticism, is too heterogeneous, and cannot be understood as a single movement, under the penalty of losing its awareness and capacity of analysis. An empirical and analytic effort is necessary to notice the different orders and regularities which this universe contains. The oracular consultations make up one of the most visible facets of this universe, being even regarded, both by the media and the phenomenon scholars themselves, as a distinctive sign.

1. A Mystic Fair Picture

The offering of divinatory practices in public places is not unusual in the big cities scenario, being part of the daily life of many people. It is necessary to notice the way divination maintain a mysterious and hidden aura, while diviners open themselves to a public exhibition offering their products as if they were in a trade fair. The Mystic Fair was a pioneer of this model of rendering oracular services.

Started in 1986, with a clearly businesslike attitude (albeit as a small business), the success of the Mystic Fair has constantly increased. In its golden days, the Fair came to deal with up to 600 clients in a single day, in more than 25 different oracle stands. At present with a reduced, although permanent, number of clients, it takes place in two first-class locations in Sao Paulo: Ibirapuera Park and Avenida Paulista.

In the Mystic Fair there is a quick commercialization and a great turnover of a number of divinatory products of the agencies. As a typical feature of society today, it is easily consumed, fragmented and adjusted to the other dimensions of life in big cities. Out of the appearance of exotic, half-lit places smelling of incense, today the Mystic Fair, with its styled stands, mixes Arabian-like tents with modern, practical metallic structures available in any street fair.

The fair offers consultations to several types of oracles such as tarot, cartomancy, búzios, numerology, palmistry, tea-leaf reading, clairvoyance, I Ching and astrology, among others. The stands are placed side by side, indistinctly.

For the Fair coordinators, the different divinations are used for specific purposes. Based on this concept that is followed by the mystics and reproduced by their most faithful clients, we can trace a Fair oracles typology. It shows that, in spite of joining them in the same space and of indistinct offer, there is a peculiar logic of internal differentiation constructed and practiced by these individuals.

The oracles offered in the Mystic Fair were rated according to an order principle which shows that it is not merely an indistinct conglomerate of divinations. They also constitute a symbolic structure that accommodates individuals - mystics and clients -giving consistency to what is apparently chaotic and random.

The proposed rating includes four basic interrelated poles, forming two axles: one horizontal and the other vertical, as shown in the figure below:


At the erudite pole one finds astrology and tarot, both the Egyptian and the Spanish types. These are divinations which require a deep and continuous study by the professional. However, this does not mean that other oracles cannot be studied or that they are not taken seriously. Esoterism has a long tradition of iniciatic studies in several mantic arts; but what happens in the Mystic Fair is different. There is a symbolic internal construction that disposes the divinations in different positions regarding erudition, demanding more or less knowledge of the professionals which work in the Fair.

The two divinations displayed here present differences between them. The tarot is one that has the largest supply and demand. On the other hand, astrology is rarely used. In common they have the characteristic of seeking the potentialities and personality signs of the client. There is no concern with future divination, but with the disclosing of hidden possibilities.

At the horizontal axle and opposed to the erudite pole is the popular pole, with cartomancy and cards in general. The best known and most consulted are the ordinary cards and the gypsy cards. The word popular originates from the characteristic indicated by the foretellers that these divinations are learned through popular wisdom, "at home with the grandmother, with the aunt, with the neighbor..." They require neither systematic studies nor the concern for the searching of explanations for these oracles techniques in books. They are mainly supported by the mystics’ intuition. The diviners say its purpose is simply to guess, predict and answer specific questions.

The vertical axle tries to account for the foreteller's mediation. The mediate pole keeps the divinations which are independent from techniques and are totally based on the mystic perception and intuition. They answer any question brought in by clients. Clairvoyance in general is on this pole.

At the opposite side, the immediate pole, the rule is that of the mystic non-intermediation. Everything is based on the technical reading that, like say the diviners, is independent of the professional’s position. The hand lines are at disposition to anyone who knows palmistry techniques. The same applies to Arabian tea-leaf reading.

One quite famous and requested divination in the mystical Fair, buzios, has remained out of that rating. Such fact could not fail to occur, because it is the only divination that is connected to a specific religion. It is a particular case. At the beginning it was treated with a certain disdain, since the African community did not accept the yard of the fair as sacred environment. Gradually it conquered its own clientele and took its space in the Fair. It is a known fact that, in other countries, on the contrary, where the candomble is not part of the local culture, buzios acts indistinctly as any other oracle.

It is appropriate to mention that this rating is not a rigid one. The mystics themselves end up by mixing oracles during a consultation, in a polyvalent attitude. The rule is that they should not do this. If a client is willing to consult the tarot and I Ching, for example, he must pay for the second consultation. Since the rule is not always followed, we end up having a possibility of hybridism among the poles.

The rating makes possible not only the ordering of oracles, but also the possibility of thinking about the internal dynamics of the Mystic Fair with its characters: the mystics and the clients.

The press and common sense are used to define the oracle professionals in public places as a team of tricksters, who take advantage of others’ superstition and see the clients as ignorant people seeking superficial responses for their immediate doubts. These clients would be ordinary passers-by who, among other leisure activities, come to occasionally consult the oracles. Such concept is very far from what happens in the Mystic Fair.

Regarding the oracles background and mystic knowledge, one can aggregate the Mystic Fair professionals through the same rating proposed formerly. Those who have dedicated or keep dedicating themselves to the studies can be found on the erudite pole.

I use the term as a way of internal differentiation. All Fair divinations request a domain of specific codes by the mystics. On the other hand, one could consider splitting the various oracles (especially tarot) into vulgar and erudite.

The issue focused by the research refers to the foretellers' background. If, on the erudite pole, or on the immediate one, reading of specific techniques and domain is required, in the opposite poles, the popular and the mediate ones, the emphasis will be on feeling, seen as a gift that can only be channeled for the benefit of its carrier as well as of the people around him. However, there is no depreciation of one in favor of the other. Both are valid.

The mystics have different life stories, age ranges, religious beliefs, political affiliations and, mainly, act with different divinations inside a fair that, as the word itself indicates, is an exhibition with the purpose of selling a number of goods. Their own vision of the meaning of mysticism already indicates a disparity. But there is something beyond the single professional issue, which indicates the logic behind this long lasting union of people around the divinatory arts.

2. The Mystic Fair and Modernity

Once the focus on the research objective is adjusted, one must move gradually backward with the camera, trying to glance around. The Mystic Fair is not a single happening, neither its protagonists constitute a segregated clan. It is necessary to understand the Fair and its oracles as inserted in a wider social context.

Divinations offered in the streets or through advertisements are not a novelty. So, which were the conditional factors that made possible the offering a number of oracles aggregated in one place and at the same time? Could it have happened ten or twenty years sooner that it did?

Let us start by considering its name: Mystic Fair. Twenty years before its creation it would have been an unthinkable name because it would not make sense. The term "mystic" would have indicated a contemplative life dedicated to divine mysteries, spirituality and individual contact with the transcendent. How could such elements, or even behaviors, could have been placed and exposed in a fair?

On the other hand, in the 1980s and ‘90s, mystic fairs proliferated in big cities not only in Brazil but all over the world. They did not have the same purpose of offering exclusive oracles. However, the generic term - mystic fair - is here to stay. Recent analyses in the area of social sciences started including this new phenomenon in their concerns, directly or indirectly. Several mystic fair modalities were found in different locations: Paris and Rio de Janeiro [1], Brasília [2], Recife [3] and Belo Horizonte [4]. All of them have included divinations as one of the primary services rendered, besides the alternative therapies, energizing methods and instruments, products for a healthy life and others.

These fairs started appearing as commercial activities linked to a rising way of experience spirituality. Soon these changes started to be seen and felt in the different dimensions of the lives of the people involved. Behavior, sociability, community life, spirituality, adherence to oriental religions, non-acceptance of political and religious authorities, alternative therapies and cures, search for new meanings for one’s life, these were some of their more visible features. From the 1980s onwards, there was a true explosion in the media of these new values, making them a good commercial attractive.

Therefore, it was inside these denominated New Age experiences that the emergence of fairs was possible, aggregating different oracles, offered at a standard price, with a high turnover, but not limiting itself to these experiences. It is a symptom of a moment of development of modern society but, at the same time, oracle consultations started prior to that. It has always been regarded as an example of the New Age, but their protagonists are, in the main, distinct from the definitions given to the called "new agers".

3. The belief in the Divinatory Games

The Mystic Fair divinations make sense for their consumers. Due to the fact that the majority of clients are regular consultants (who consult the oracles for more than once in a month), one needs to understand how these predictions articulate in a wider set of knowledge and beliefs of these people.

In short, what guarantees the Mystic Fair oracles efficacy is the beliefs system shared by their agents. This system keeps a close relationship with the set of values existent in their culture. In the same way, it is fed by the latter, and it ends by contributing with its part, even if in a small way, for the composition of new beliefs to the larger extent of society. The Mystic Fair characters are not restricted to the universe of beliefs called New Age, but they build their own systems which interrelate either with the ampler society or with the universe of new spiritualities, especially because these last two also maintain an intense game of relationships between themselves.

I use the expression "belief in the disbelief" to emphasize the fact that people today accept to believe in what they consider not to be a belief, or indeed they accept only in thinking sceptically. The vulgarization of science and the positivistic influence on common sense brought a reluctance to openly and consciously accept the belief in invisible forces. There is an extreme valorization of empirical and supporting science. The Truth is established through so-called scientific evidence. Therefore, one disbelieves in everything which is not visible, touchable or evidenced. At the same time, the reappearance of mysticism brought back the belief, or rather, the possibility of believing. However, it was necessary to conciliate this new belief with values impregnated with the concept of validity. Now one believes, but one believes disbelieving, sceptically, or believing that one day everything will be explained by science. One accepts belief because it is an anticipation of a wider and deeper knowledge. There is a myth of a holistic knowledge including all explanations that involves science (a science nowadays humanized) and mystics (nowadays "evidenced"). The belief in this myth is what I call "belief in the disbelief".

Science is socially imposed. Its positioning prevents it from being seen as a holder of beliefs. It misleads when it makes one believe that to accept its truths it is not necessary to believe.

The same happens to what Colin Campbell considered a half-belief, as one’s reluctance to say that he believes in superstitions. [5] It is an immense consensus and validation of a beliefs system considered as proven truth. Therefore one can accept that which is occult as it is seen not as a belief, but as the discovery of a wider knowledge, legitimated by science.

The "belief in the disbelief" expresses a difficult game of distinct rationalities. Beliefs in occult forces or in divinatory powers were, and often still are, defined as irrationalities. Under this perspective, the fact that a person who declares himself rationalist and materialist and yet who consults the Fair divinations can be understood as a contradictory manifestation. In general, people consider scientific and magic rationalities as excluding ones.

The same individual who proclaims to believe science progress and declares himself as complying with scientific rationality, may consult tarot cards in order to know whether his enterprise will be successful. These are distinct logics, but each one makes sense in its own time. This person would never cry out for occult forces to repair a broken car. He knows very well that it is to the mechanic that the car should be taken. But it is possible to understand this misfortune as a work of fate.. Therefore, this person can go through a consultation at the Mystic Fair before taking a road again with the same car.

This beliefs system which permeates the oracle consultations universe of the Mystic Fair, is marked by a diffuse spirituality. This manner of experiencing spirituality, far from being bonded to the institutions which hold the sacred symbolic power, that is, the socially institutionalised religions, valorizes the individual’s choices in the search of an essence and of a truth capable of resolving the evils which afflicts him.

In this picture of references, the magic comes to be accepted without great questioning. There is concern neither for proving its efficacy by means of experimental sciences, nor to say that it is false. There is recognition of the symbolic power behind the magic. The symbolic efficacy portrayed by Lévi-Strauss [6], is recognized and valorized among us. As from this scenery epistemology, the person gradually creates and imposes its own beliefs, at least those which are more convenient at that moment.

The beliefs system constructed and experienced by the Mystic Fair individuals articulates different rationalities. Science and spirituality combine themselves constituting a conceptual picture in which distinct logics are utilized as they become necessary. It is important to emphasize that, as science, they comprise not exactly its methodology or specific instrumental, but a scientific terminology, a scientificism made popular by the mass media. In our society there is a predominance of jargons originated in scientific speech and often used in an out of context way. [7] The view they have of the science is of a mediatic scientificism from which they extract what is interesting.

Belief and disbelief comprise the external poles of a system in which individuals testify the possible veracity, or not, of the diviner’s speech.


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[1] [back] Cf. Fátima R. Tavares, "Feiras esotéricas e redes alternativas: algumas notas comparativas sobre os circuitos carioca e parisiense".

[2] [back] Cf. Deis Siqueira, "Psicologização das religiões: religiosidade e estilo de vida".

[3] [back] Paulo H. Martins, "As terapias alternativas e libertação dos corpos"..

[4] [back] Alexandre A. Cardoso, "Pés na terra e cabeça nas nuvens; contornos do misticismo contemporâneo"..

[5] [back] Colin Campbell, "Half-belief and the paradox of ritual instrumental activism: a theory of modern superstition", p.158.

[6] [back] Claude Lévi-strauss, "A eficácia simbólica", In: C. Lévi-strauss, Structural anthropology.

[7] [back] TV programs as TV Globo´s "Fantástico", feed themselves from the scientific speech in order to gain credibility, contributing to consolidate the use of scientificists terms.


* [back] Special tanks to Cintia Stammers who reviewed this paper.

The Spiritual Supermarket: Religious Pluralism in the 21st Century

April 19-22, 2001

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