The Holy Ghosts of the Azores

Zur deutschen Fassung dieses Berichts.


“Close to 90% of Azoreans are Catholics”, the otherwise very detailed travel guide about the Azores claims, believing that this settles the matter. But those who know the Christian world from their own travels or from my theologically well-founded blog know that Catholic is not the same as Catholic.

And when you walk across the island of Faial, you start to doubt the strong position of the Catholic Church. Its buildings are in ruins. The people do not pay any attention to the churches. Only trees are populating them, and horses graze on the former church grounds. Sometimes, if you look careful enough, you see an old man spitting out as he walks past the religious ruins.

The rest of the world believes that the Church has considerable influence in Southern Europe (beginning in Bavaria). And if you look at the colorful processions for every tiny little saint’s birthday in Puglia or on Malta, there is something to it.

I had expected similar spectacles in the Azores, especially for Easter, the supposedly highest festival in the annual liturgical cycle, although the materialists among Christians pay more attention to the end-of-year gift-giving festival.

But even for Easter, the church doors remained shut.

My curiosity grew, almost as relentless as a priest’s criminal record. But he at least has the possibility to absolve himself and – after being transferred to a new parish – to start again from scratch. I, however, was forced to get to the bottom of the matter, not least because I felt the inquisitive readership urging me on.

And thus began my quest.

Even the people who know everything else, where and when which ship sank, what kind of whales are to be hunted in which month for what purpose, which bananas are edible and which chestnuts are not, where the best tobacco grows, what percentage of energy demand is supplied by windmills, who will win the next mayoral election and why Pedro came home so late on Tuesday, even these know-it-alls always answered my questions with: “I don’t really know much about religion”, and then suddenly had to leave urgently for a meeting or go out to sea again.

It seemed to be a taboo, like asking “and, what did you do in the war?” in Yugoslavia. Readers must remember that I was a stranger on the island and could not lock my front door. So, I did not want to make myself too unpopular. Many curious reporters have never returned from islands. Egon Erwin Kisch was only able to save himself through a courageous jump onto a ship.

In Yugoslavia, I had learned that alcohol loosens the tongues. So, off to the bar. I vaguely remembered that after Easter, Pentecost, the theologically more complicated and therefore less popular festival, was coming up. After the third glass of passion fruit liquor, I dared to ask whether Pentecost would be a normal working day.

“If you are not with the Brotherhood, you have to go to work like any regular day, I suppose,” one of the men said sarcastically.

“Which Brotherhood?” I was about to ask, but just in time I saw how the other one clasped the bloody steak knife as tightly as if he wanted to dagger the traitor. His gaze was darker than a thunderstorm front coming over from Mexico, about to unload in all its fury and ferocity.

I am more of a sunny than of a thunderstormy disposition, so I quickly put the few escudos for the drinks on the table and left. I hadn’t achieved much, except the reference to a Brotherhood, but I had missed the last bus.

As I tottered out of the tavern, I noticed for the first time that next to the bar, there was a kind of chapel. Painted bright yellow, decorated with a white royal crown, enthroned on which was a dove. And a cross on the roof, so it was something Christian. But no tower, no bells and no opening hours. And the door was locked. That was strange, because on Faial, nobody locks anything.

It couldn’t be the local church, because that one was next door, as abandoned as all the churches in the Azores.

An elderly gentleman, who must have noticed my questioning looks, walked over from across the street and explained: “This is the Império do Divino Espírito Santo, the Empire of the Divine Holy Spirit”, which I thought was a rather flowery description for a small chapel.

“Is this the new church?” I asked, pointing my head towards the old and destroyed building.

“Oh no”, the old man laughed. “The Empire of the Holy Spirit has absolutely nothing to do with the Church.”

I looked puzzled.

“It is the Brotherhood who takes care of the Empire.”

Now, I was fascinated.

But at that point, the two men with whom I had been drinking came out of the bar.

“The Holy Ghost is omnipresent. He sees everything. He knows everything,” slurred the more drunken of the two when he saw me in front of the temple.

The less drunk of the two wanted to pull his buddy to the car.

“We keep nothing secret from the Holy Ghost,” yelled the first one.

“The Brotherhood,” the old man cautioned me, “has existed for over 700 years. It is difficult to understand in one day.”

“Especially when the brothers are drunk,” I thought, but said nothing.

“I wish you a safe journey home,” said the old man and turned around. In Portuguese, the sentence sounded almost like “Be careful not to stumble into a volcano and vanish into infernal purgatory.”

What followed were weeks of research in libraries, roaming around in ruins, countless conversations in probably every pub on the island, and of course the search for the Temples of the Holy Spirit, of which there were even more than pubs. I got deeper and deeper into the maelstrom of mysterious secret societies and theological theory. For a few months, my life was like a Robert Langdon novel. Only without Audrey Tautou.

In order not to unduly shock the readers who are confronted with a completely new topic here, I will shorten the research, leave out the detours and dead ends, and concentrate on the hard facts. In particular, we will ignore the rumor that the disciples of the Holy Ghost are really the guardians of the Holy Grail.

On the northeast coastal road, there is this temple, also in pretty yellow. On the gable, there are the dove and the crown, symbols of the Holy Spirit and the Royal Court. Opposite is a small store, in front of which a few young people held a noisy meeting for lack of any other venue (or because they had been kicked out elsewhere).

I purchased a cold drink and mingled unsuspiciously with the young crowd. Neither musically nor phenotypically did they seem to be the local intelligentsia. So, I felt like I didn’t have to mince my words, but could come straight to the point.

“Do any of you know what that yellow building over there is?”

“Sure, old man.” The latter is an expression of respect in Portuguese, used for people whose name one doesn’t yet know.

The boy in a hoodie seemed talkative, quite the opposite from the Brotherhoodies, so I let him talk.

“There’s a big party every year. We slaughter an ox, and then we have a fancy feast. Everyone is invited. First, there’s soup, then some sweet bread, then steak.”

“And it’ s like this every week,” another one added.

“Exactly. From Easter to Pentecost.” Only this year, because of the Corona virus, the kitchen remained cold and the ox stayed alive.

“And every weekend there is a procession, with the Emperor taking home the crown.”

I had to ask: “Who is the Emperor?”

“That’s the oldest one in the Brotherhood.”

“Bullshit,” someone intervened, “my brother was Emperor last year, and he is only 14.”

Whew, this was becoming more and more obscure.

“Well, maybe in Almoxarife. Here, it’s always the old folks doing it.”

“In our village, a different Emperor is elected each time. But they are often young boys. They have to walk around with the crown every Sunday and have to listen to speeches and stuff. It sucks.”

“But you get a lot of cake.”

“Fuck the cake, man, I’m gonna get another beer.” With that, he went into the store.

I myself would have been very receptive to cake, but I still had many questions.

“What does all of this have to do with the Holy Spirit?” I wanted to know.

“How on Earth should I know,” he replied, as if I had asked for next week’s lottery numbers.

I refused the drugs they offered and left. I had not really understood the cult, but then, I would not have received theological explanations from young people elsewhere if I had asked about the background of Hanukkah or Corpus Christi.

This is roughly the level of information that is publicly available. Everywhere, I heard of festivals, of parades, of sacrificed oxen, of soup for everyone, of processions, of music, and of a crown, which is sometimes kept here, sometimes there, and ceremonially carried around in between.

It soon dawned on me that the custom is celebrated differently in every village and indeed differently in each Empire in larger municipalities. Sometimes, the Emperor is elected, sometimes a child is chosen, often drawn by lot. In addition to the emperors, there were also Mordomos, Foliões, Trinchantes, Briadores, Copeiros and Aguadeiros, whose titles are difficult to translate because they fulfill a different function in each Empire. In any case, there are enough jobs so that no one is left empty-handed. And the women have to cook.

There are no written rules, everything is handed down orally.

Over hundreds of years.

And if the Azores were not so far away from Europe, especially from Rome, rendering them safe from the Inquisition and the Catholic Church, then here too, in their last refuge, there would be no more Brothers of the Holy Ghost. And the Holy Grail would be lost forever.

Only here, on these nine islands in the middle of the Atlantic, on the volcanic peaks of sunken Atlantis, true faith has survived. Speaking of Atlantis: You can see this very clearly in Farrobim, where the temple with the most beautiful view is located. One looks towards the neighboring island of Pico and the highest mountain of the Atlantic Ocean.

Only the self-confidence of those who know more than anyone else can explain the modesty that is evident in little temples like this one. “Let the Catholics build golden churches and cathedrals, they are on a wrong path”, the Azorean Brothers are thinking.

Autonomy from the official church hierarchy is very important for the Brotherhoods of the Holy Spirit. They have nothing to do with the Catholic organizational structure. Between the faithful and the divine, they see no need for intermediaries. As you can see from the telephone cables, they believe in a direct connection with God.

If the Catholic Church does build a church or has to rebuild it because the locals burned it down (note the quadruple date on the example below), the Azoreans make it clear by the location of the nearest Empire which cult ranks higher in the local hierarchy.

In some villages, the local Catholic priest is invited to celebrate mass or bless the food at the Holy Spirit ceremony, but everything is done by invitation of the Emperor (or the Mordomo or the Trichante). It is rather a public relegation of the Church’s representative.

But what is the Vatican supposed to do? As the Georgian theologian Joseph Dzhugashvili once remarked, the Pope has no divisions. And certainly no ships, the Azoreans would add. If the priest does not cooperate, he is completely ostracized. If he revolts, he disappears by an unfortunate accident.

Moreover, with its three-hypostasis hypothesis, the Catholic Church itself laid the foundation for the worship of the Holy Spirit, as I learned in a very enlightening conversation with three priests who were temporarily unemployed because of the Corona pandemic and whom I met in the bar at the end of the world. They spoke quite openly with me, probably because they had already consumed a lot of high-proof spirits that day.

“Veneration of the Holy Spirit dates back to the 13th century…”, Father Moreno was about to begin, but Father Castanho interrupted him:

“In Portugal. In France, the Ordre du Saint-Esprit was already established in 1160.”

“Of course in Portugal. We are in Portugal here, aren’t we?” Father Moreno asked back, somewhat combative.

Father Castanho put on an apologetic smile before countering: “Saint Elizabeth was Princess of Aragon before she became Queen of Portugal.”

“She was the wife of Dionysus,” exclaimed Father Marrom enthusiastically. “Let’s have some wine!”

I had to drink with them.

In any case, when Queen Elizabeth moved from Spain to Portugal, she was shocked by the extreme poverty. (This was before Portugal joined the European Union.) She founded a food bank, which distributed unused food, of which there is usually plenty in a royal court, to the poor. The logo of this institution became the royal crown and the dove symbolizing the Holy Spirit.

To mock the poor, the queen placed the crown on their heads at Pentecost. This is the origin of both the custom of public food serving and the coronation of non-kings at the Holy Ghost festivals.

“As always with Christian rituals, there is a pre-Christian history”, Father Castanho sighed, and only the pride in his knowledge could keep the despair about the lack of his own religion’s originality somewhat in check. “The Greeks also had an ox sacrifice, the buphonia, where meat was distributed to the poor.”

“After all, Pentecost is nothing else but Shavuot,” Padre Moreno added, and all three stared sadly into their empty glasses.

“One caipirinha, please!” ordered Father Marrom.

“This is already your fourth today,” the bartender admonished him.

“Four is a holy number,” declared Father Marrom solemnly, and the mood at the theologians’ table cheered up as they enumerated evidence for this assertion.

“Four evangelists.”

“Four archangels.”

“Four rivers in the Garden of Eden.”

“Four patriarchal basilicas in Rome.”

“Four horsemen of the Apocalypse.”

How good that I had made the lucky clover full by joining them.

“But actually,” said Padre Moreno, who had realized that I was looking for serious information, “the cult of the Empire of the Divine Holy Spirit goes back to millenarian mystic Christians, especially the Joachimites.”

Laypeople always imagine that conversation in a foreign language is more complicated the more abstract the subject is. The opposite is the case. Words like premillennialism, dispensationalism or eschatological messianism are actually the same in every language. Only the endings and the pronunciation are a bit different. But from words such as bread, table or black pudding, one can never deduce their counterparts in a foreign language. That’s why I can discuss constitutional law in other languages, but I cannot read menus.

Thus I learned that the worship of the Holy Spirit dates back to Joachim of Fiore, a millenarian prophet who divided history into three ages in accordance with Trinity. After the Age of the Father (Old Testament) and the Age of the Son (New Testament), the Age of the Holy Spirit was to begin in 1260. The Holy Spirit would make the hierarchy of the Church superfluous, and people would return to original Christianity. This Third Age, unfortunately also called the Third Empire or Third Reich, was to last a thousand years, and now you know where the Nazis got their terminology from.

Like any prophet who does not want to make a fool of himself, Joachim died well before 1260. Despite his passing away, he still found followers, the Joachimites. The spiritual current of the Franciscans took up the teaching at first, but Pope Alexander IV banned it. To be on the safe side, he did so in 1256, four years before the prophesied date. That’s convenient, if you can simply forbid the future.

On the continent, the Joachimites were exterminated with typical Catholic rigor, but coincidentally, the spiritual Franciscans were among the first settlers of the Azores. And so it happened that these islands were the only safe retreat for the Joachimite doctrine and have remained so until today.

Whether the people who get free soup or walk home with the crown are aware of all this, I do not know.

“By the way, Joachim von Fiore did have one advocate in the Vatican,” concluded Father Moreno. “If you read the article on Joachim of Fiore in the Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, you will most certainly recognize the author. Back then, his name was still Joseph Ratzinger.”

“But only in the second edition of 1960,” Padre Castanho added. “When the third edition was published in 1996, he was already Prefect of the Inquisition Department. He was already making a career for himself.”

“And when the old essay resurfaced in 2013, he had to resign as pope. That was the real reason,” Father Moreno said sorrowfully.

“Benedict XVI was from Bavaria,” beamed Father Marrom, untouched. “Let’s have a round of beer!”

I had learned enough – and drunk more than enough – and said goodbye with many thanks. On the way home, I noticed the cross with the three bars at the temple in São Pedro. The papal cross. So, the three priests had told the truth.

However, and this also shows that the different Empires are completely independent from each other, this was the only temple on Faial with this symbol. Some have simple crosses on the roof, some have the dove, some have the crown, some have a crown with a dove.

And in some cases, the flag was flying, which probably meant that the crown was in the house. Or that a draw was being held to decide who would be the next Emperor. Or that they were deliberating who would be admitted to the Brotherhood.

Oh yes, the Brotherhood, I hadn’t really learned much about it yet.

Have you noticed that if you combine the names of the two Azorean islands Graciosa and Faial, the word “Graal” comes up, Portuguese for grail? Well, if that ain’t no holy hint…

Soon, I realized that no one wanted to talk to me about the Brotherhood in the presence of others. Apparently there is a code of silence, like with the Carthusians and the Mafiosi. I wandered around the island several times, stopping inconspicuously at the Empires again and again, and sometimes met a single brother who carelessly uttered a few words, thinking: “This strange German looks like a stranded pirate, he will forget everything anyway until he gets home.” Anyone who wants to do research must hide his light under a bushel – contrary to the recommendation of brother Jesus in Matthew 5:15.

The brothers, whose tongues became loose, attached importance to the fact that in the fraternity, everyone has the same rights and duties. “From cowherd to count,” as one said. But perhaps this is only the case in the small villages, because in the island capital of Horta I found an “Empire of Nobles”

and an “Empire of Workers” below the old fish processing factory.

No, wait. This flag belongs to another story about Horta.

I never found out how to become a member of the Brotherhood.

“That’s different in every village,” was the standard statement.

“How about in this village?”

“Well, if you don’t want to, nobody can force you.”

And that was it. More information could not be gleaned from anyone.

But I do have another explosive piece of information for you: During World War II, megalomaniac Germany had a plan to conquer the Azores, code-named “Operation Isabella”. Germany’s plans for expansion in Europe, North Africa and Asia coincided exactly with the map of all the presumed hiding places of the Holy Grail. Certainly no coincidence…

Towards the end of my research and because I realized that this story is very male-dominated, I met a woman in front of an Empire on the south coast, whom I also asked about the purpose of the building.

“Oh, this is for the men. They are playing cards there.”

“But,” I stammered, “I thought it was about the Holy Ghost? About the Brotherhood?”

She looked at me aghast: “You must not believe everything that people tell you.”

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About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a writer, a spy or a hobo.
This entry was posted in Azores, History, Photography, Portugal, Religion, Travel and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The Holy Ghosts of the Azores

  1. David says:

    “Georgian theologian Joseph Dzhugashvili” – great!

    And I’m impressed they knew about Shavuot – even most unaffiliated Jews don’t know about it!

    • I have to admit, although I am a hardened Atheist, that I often found clerics to be very educated and erudite.

      And Mr Dzughashvili better would have stuck to his theological career…

  2. I don’t know very much a religion. I was raised without it… thankfully. But I love a good historical mystery.
    The woman was probably right. The men just play cards and dress up and put on a play a few times a year.

    I’ll bet the Vatican has the best library in the world. Too bad I only read English and a tiny bit for French and Spanish.

    Oh, and thank you for the post card. The temperature here has been in the high 90s F (35-37 C) so the snow looked very lovely. 😁

    • Thank you for your continuing support! I was thinking you might enjoy some snow, because I guess we’ll need another Ice Age until there will be snow in Southern California.

      Although I have recently written rather positively about secularization, in which the Catholic Church had to give lots of its properties, one sad aspect of this is that many church-owned libraries were destroyed, too. Sometimes, the books were sold off in all directions, but sometimes they were physically destroyed.
      Rarely was a whole collection saved. One of the libraries in my hometown of Amberg is actually what remained from a monastery library. You can see a photo of the Baroque reading room here: https://www.provinzialbibliothek-amberg.de/geschichte (The modern part of the library is not quite as fancy, sadly.)

    • That is a beautiful room! I’m surprised it survived the war.

      I think these things should be available to the public but the public has the responsibility to care for them. Rights & Responsibilities go together. Too many people demand the first without accepting the second.

    • It is a state library now, so it’s supported by and accessible to the public (although it’s not the main room of the library and you can’t just browse the books by yourself).

      There was actually very little damage (and almost no fighting) in this region during World War II. It was far away from western and eastern front, and the Allied bombing was usually quite targeted. In Amberg, only a military depot and some heavy industry were bombed.

      It was a different story with some of the bigger cities, notably Nuremberg as the closest one. That saw a proper battle and was completely destroyed. – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bombing_of_Nuremberg_in_World_War_II – But if you walk through Nuremberg’s Old Town today, you wouldn’t notice it. The walls, the bridges, the towers, the Imperial Castle, the churches, everything was rebuilt. It all looks completely medieval.

      Cynically enough, some architects and city planners were even thankful for the destruction of major European cities because it allowed them to rebuild the erstwhile medieval town centers with their narrow, winding roads into cities as they were planned in the 1940s and 50s, with wide roads, lots of parking spaces, huge blocks of concrete and moving people into suburbia. – https://www.deutschlandfunkkultur.de/zerstoerung-als-chance.954.de.html?dram:article_id=257977

    • That’s horrible. Turn all the historical buildings into “Disneyland”. Better to leave the bombed out shell or build a “modern” building than a fake.
      I’m glad there are areas that remain truly as they were. We dont have medieval sites… I think the oldest we have is 17th Century and on the west coast we have Father Serra’s Missions. They don’t feel old or particularly historical.

      I think the narrow streets and dead ends and haphazard buildings would have more character and be more interesting than a planned city.
      I spent my teens in a “planned community”. It was very lovely with the green spaces and the similar houses… lovely and boring!!

      Thanks for the additional information!

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