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  The Flying Cow: Exploring the Psychic World of Brazil
Guy Lyon Playfair

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When The Flying Cow was first published in 1975, it revealed a world of psychic wonders in Brazil hitherto barely explored by outsiders. Author Guy Lyon Playfair had spent two years as a member of the Brazilian Institute for Psychobiophysical Research (IBPP), the first group of its kind to investigate and document the wide range of inexplicable phenomena – from poltergeists and psychic surgeons to trance artists and children who recall previous lives.

He spent several days and nights in a poltergeist-haunted house, managing to record several inexplicable happenings on tape. He watched as a young man untrained in art dashed off a series of portraits in the styles of numerous deceased masters, some in a matter of seconds. He witnessed some of the country’s unorthodox healers at work, and saw them open bodies with their bare hands, eventually finding out for himself how it feels to be on the receiving end of this most bizarre form of alternative surgery.

He also looked into some of the best known cases from the past, collecting new eye-witness evidence for the mysterious abilities of such legendary figures as Arigó, the ‘surgeon of the rusty knife’, colourful and controversial mediums such as Carlos Mirabelli, Peixotinho and Otilia Diogo. He even obtained an account of the rarest of all psychic phenomena – materialisation – from a chief of police.

The Flying Cow was followed by its sequel The Indefinite Boundary in 1976. Material from the latter has been included in this edition, making it the most comprehensive survey available of the paranormal world of Brazil.

The author gave up a secure and lucrative career as freelance journalist and translator to explore that world, and in this book, fully revised and updated, he describes what he found there. Much of it is as surprising today as it was when it was first published.

About the author

GUY LYON PLAYFAIR was born in India and educated in England, obtaining a degree in modern languages from Cambridge University. He then spent many years in Brazil as a freelance journalist for The Economist, Time, and the Associated Press, also working for four years in the press section of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The first of his twelve books, The Flying Cow, in which he described his experiences investigating the psychic side of Brazil, was translated into six languages and became an international best seller. His most recent book is Telepathy – the Twin Connection. He now lives in London and is a council member of the Society for Psychical Research.

Sample chapter


The telephone rang in my São Paulo apartment one day in 1974. The caller told me she had just arrived in Brazil and had been given my number by a friend of a friend. She was interested, she said, in psychic phenomena.

‘What can I do for you?’ I asked. I had a deadline to meet for a long and boring commercial translation job.

‘I’d like to see a materialization,’ she replied. ‘Tonight, if possible.’

‘So would I,’ I said. ‘But the last one I heard about was ten years ago and 350 miles away, and was probably faked.’

‘Oh. Perhaps a psychic operation, then? You know, those people who do operations with their bare hands ...’

I knew. But the only psychic surgeon I could recommend in São Paulo was on holiday.

‘Well, maybe just a levitation or something?’ the eager voice went on. ‘Or one of those poltergeists?’ I began to feel like the manager of a toyshop that has suddenly run out of toys. I excused myself, gave my caller some other phone numbers to try, and went back to my translation. I needed the money to finance my own researches into all these things, which I had been doing since my arrival in São Paulo the previous year.

Would this have happened anywhere else but in Brazil? Is there any major city in the world where a visitor would expect to come across examples of almost every known type of psychic phenomenon within minutes of stepping off a jet? I doubt it.

For Brazil is surely the world’s Most Psychic Nation as well as one of the largest. (Fifth in both area and population). Imagine a country stretching from Edinburgh to the Sahara desert and from Lisbon to Istanbul with a population fast approaching 200 million, according to its 2010 census. In a land of such a size, strange things are bound to happen and so they do, being generally accepted as normal rather than ‘paranormal’.Alm ost anything is possible.

Brazilians like to tell the story of the man who comes home one day and tells his wife he has just seen a cow flying across the road. Her immediate reaction is not to question his sanity, but merely to ask : ‘Ah, é? (oh, really?) What colour was it?’

So it was hardly surprising for Brazil to be visited by another TV crew, solitary reporter or just curious tourist looking for some of the action they had heard about from friends of friends or read about in the books of such experts in the stranger side-effects of Brazilian Spiritism as Pedro McGregor, David St.Clair, Isa Gray, John G. Fuller and Anne Dooley. (1)

What was surprising is that so little else had been written about psychic phenomena in Brazil and the Spiritist context in which many of them tend to occur. It should be an ideal country for research, for there seem to be too many phenomena and too few researchers. Indeed, until more than half way through the twentieth century, there were almost no serious researchers at all in this field. The first Brazilian to make a sustained attempt to study his country’s psychic scene on a scientific basis, and to collect a vast amount of first-hand evidence for it, was Hernani Guimarães Andrade, an engineer and senior civil servant in the São Paulo state government who in 1963 founded the Instituto Brasileiro de Pesquisas Psicobiofísicas (Brazilian Institute for Psychobiophysical Research, or IBPP) of which a good deal more anon.

Perhaps I should first explain what had led my caller to think I might be able to provide some psychic entertainment on demand. What had I done to get such a reputation? Let me sketch in some background.

I arrived in Rio de Janeiro in 1961 as an English teacher hired by the British Council, although I had no experience of teaching English or indeed anything else. After a couple of years I was offered an extension of my contract, a passage home, or the price of a passage home. So luckily I took the money and stayed, determined to do what I really wanted to do, which was write. I started in the traditional way on the local paper, the Brazil Herald, then moved up to Brazilian Business, the monthly journal of the American Chamber of Commerce for Brazil, also managing to do some moonlighting for Time, the Associated Press, The Economist, and several other outlets for my (hopefully) emerging talent.

I then spent four years working full time in the press department of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). For seven or eight years I was able to earn my living and generally enjoy myself. Then, in 1971, the press office at USAID was abolished and I became redundant. By then, my Portuguese was good enough to do translations and interpreting at news conferences, and before long I was doing very nicely as a freelance. I seemed set for a comfortable life in Rio.
All this time I had never taken more than a passing interest in stories I occasionally heard about flying saucers (and flying cows), psychic surgeons and so on. I had been quite impressed by a ceremony I had attended in which a young woman was initiated into one of the many Afro-Brazilian cults, but somehow I never explored the subject any further.

Then one day in 1972, Larry Carr dropped in for a chat. He was a Hollywood actor who had come to Rio to make a film some eight years previously and decided to stay on. I had met him while doing some script translation for the film, and was intrigued by his accounts of the local Spiritist scene, which he had clearly taken the trouble to study at first hand, and had even become a member of a Spiritist group headed by Pedro McGregor, which I also joined more out of curiosity than any kind of religious conviction.

So when Larry asked me if I would like to meet a psychic surgeon, I thought ‘why not?’, and in Part 2 I describe what I saw when I did meet him. It was after that meeting, and my visits to Pedro’s group, that I felt all this psychic stuff should at least be investigated. If it was all illusory, if not totally false, it might at least make a fun story, perhaps a background ‘mailer’ for the Associated Press.

Before long I was satisfied, as I will describe, that it was not all illusion or fakery. I read everything I could find on psychical research in Brazil, which did not take very long, and I soon came to the conclusion that there were more things going on around me than were dreamt of in Horatio’s philosophy, or anybody else’s. I needed some first-hand evidence, though, and I asked Pedro if he knew of anybody in Brazil who was doing the kind of work that was done in Britain by the Society for Psychical Research.

Yes, Pedro said, there was a man in São Paulo named Andrade who was doing this, and thought I ought to meet him. He didn’t have an address for him, though, and I had no idea how to contact someone with a fairly common surname in a city of several million people. Then I happened to pick up a book in a bookshop and saw his name on the back cover as ‘editorial consultant’. So, I thought, the publisher must know how to get in touch with him.

On an impulse, I hopped on a bus, and as I rolled along the 250-mile motorway to São Paulo that USAID had helped to build, the idea slipped into my head that I was going to move there. Arriving early one Monday morning, I headed at once for the publishing house, where a friendly secretary promptly put through a call to Andrade’s office, and told him that a British writer from Rio would like to meet him.

Half an hour later, I was in his office, and an hour later I left feeling that we were old friends. Hernani said I would be welcome to work with his institute, the IBPP. He could not offer me any payment, since he financed the institute out of his modest salary as a civil servant, but I would be free to write about anything I might find in his files. It was an offer I could not possibly refuse, and I accepted it without hesitation.

But I still had to earn a living somehow. So leaving Hernani’s office with the promise that I would be back, I got in touch with a translation agency a friend in Rio had mentioned to me. The owner was glad to see me, as he was getting more orders than he could handle, and promised me plenty of work at rates far higher than I had been getting in Rio. Then I looked up an old friend from my teaching days who now had his own language school, and offered me a spare bed in his basement while I looked for a flat to rent. So in one day I had been offered a well-paid job, a place to stay, and a chance to do research with the IBPP. That was the day my life changed.

Now for a word on the Spiritist background with which most of the contents of this book are connected in some way or other. The words Spiritist or Spiritualist may conjure up visions of funny old ladies peering at crystal balls, communing with Native American guides, and talking a lot of trivial rubbish.

The position in Brazil is somewhat different. There are at least three major Brazilian religious cults in which belief in spirits and their active participation in our earth lives is implicit. I am mainly concerned here with the largest of these, which is known as Kardecism, or Christian Spiritism according to its codifier, the Frenchman who wrote under the pseudonym Allan Kardec (1804-69).

Spiritism, which has been well entrenched in Brazil since the end of the nineteenth century, is not quite the same as Spiritualism. A Spiritualist according to Kardec, ‘believes that there is in him something more than matter,’ whereas a Spiritist accepts communication with the spirits of the departed on a regular basis. A Spiritist is automatically a Spiritualist, but the reverse may not be true. Many Spiritualists of Kardec’s time did not believe in reincarnation, for instance. This is a fundamental corner-stone of Spiritism, and Kardec was one of the first to popularize the concept of it in Europe while his follower Gabriel Delanne (1857-1926) was the first to collect evidence for it.

Spiritism, as presented in Kardec’s The Spirits’ Book (1857) is a science and a philosophy as well as a religion. It is the only religion that can claim to be based on scientifically demonstrated and repeatable facts rather than on unverifiable traditions, occult revelations or subjective mysticism. Kardec was no mystic or pagan, but a stolid and rather pompous schoolmaster who was educated in Switzerland. He insisted that he did not invent or found Spiritism himself; his books contain instructions purportedly dictated by to him the spirits themselves via a couple of Parisian mediums, and Kardec refused either personal credit or payment for them. His role was merely that of ‘codifier’.

He defined the purpose of Spiritism as follows: ‘To make a coherent whole of what has hitherto been scattered; to explain, in clear and precise terms, what has hitherto been wrapped up in the language of allegory; to eliminate the products of superstition and ignorance from human belief, leaving only what is real and actual.’ (2)

It was intended to complement and complete existing religions rather than replace them, and Spiritists fully accept Kardec’s view that the faith he codified was no more than Christianity restored to what it was at the time of its founding - a dynamic and militant creed unencumbered by priests, dogmas and inquisitions; a practical way of life aiming to help us evolve towards our ultimate destiny of pure spirit and communion with the source of all creation.

However, Brazilian Spiritists are very much concerned with the here and now. Their welfare activities are out of all proportion to their official numbers. They build, staff and run huge hospitals, orphanages, asylums and job-training centres that are among the finest in the country. At one time it was officially estimated that Spiritists ran no less than 36% of all social-assistance establishments in Brazil, though since 1962 the annual government census has not listed social work by religions.

The other two major Brazilian cults that are based on acceptance of the spirit world and regular communication with it are Umbanda and Candomblé. The former is a wholly Brazilian blend of traditional African practices with certain superficial features of the Roman Catholic Church, while the latter is a purely African cult brought over by slaves and faithfully preserved, especially in the city of Salvador in the state of Bahia. Each of these is sometimes mistaken for macumba, a word with no generally accepted definition normally used to denote black magic, for which the correct word is quimbanda.

Tourists and journalists are usually welcome at Candomblé or Umbanda meetings, and these colourful cults have received far more attention outside Brazil than the less spectacular Kardecist meetings, which are usually held in simple unadorned rooms in rented buildings or private homes. It is not true to suggest that Brazil is one vast voodoo arena, with exotic rites at every street corner and African drumming filling the tropical nights along with the smell of incense. Nor is it true (as has been suggested to me by non-Brazilians) that assorted Spiritist beliefs are merely a hangover from the country’s backward colonial past, confined to rural regions and fast dying out in the big cities.

Take São Paulo. This is the largest industrial centre in South America, where well over half of Brazil’s gross national product is generated. It is a city largely made by immigrants, and a family with a German, Italian, Japanese or Lebanese surname is to be found on every block. Yet no less than one quarter of all Spiritists recorded in a recent government census come from either the state or the city of São Paulo, and the faster the city grows (it is said to be the fastest-growing in the world) the stronger the Spiritist movement seems to become.

The São Paulo State Spiritist Federation (FEESP) was founded in 1939 by a group headed by a colonel in the military police. Its impressive headquarters is a large eight-storey building a few blocks from the city’s main banking district. It was built entirely by voluntary and unpaid labour using donated materials and is staffed by 200 unpaid volunteers, providing free assistance to a daily average of more than 1,000 people. Like Rio de Janeiro’s gigantic Tupyara Spiritist centre, it must be one of the largest mass psychotherapy clinics in the world. It has a whole roomful of files of patients who have been cured of what non-Spiritists might call psychological or psychosomatic disorders.

The Federation also runs the Casa Transitória, a complex of buildings also put up by volunteer labour on a 50,000-square metre piece of former swampland on the outskirts of São Paulo. It specializes in assistance to members of needy families, and offers boys and girls from the slum areas training in a number of skills and trades. Over the years it has helped hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions.

Another impressive example of Spiritism in action is the Casa André Luiz in Guarulhos, a few miles from São Paulo, where 1,400 retarded children are cared for with love and devotion they would be unlikely to find elsewhere. ‘We haven’t got a welfare state like you have in England,’ a Brazilian Spiritist told me once. ‘So we have to provide one as best we can.’

‘What kind of people are the Spiritists?’ a visitor once asked me. He seemed to think that they must all be slightly peculiar, if not actually mad.

‘They’re just like anyone else,’ I replied. ‘Only perhaps slightly better, on the whole.’ I mentioned a few names of prominent Spiritists I had met in São Paulo.

There was José Freitas Nobre, a lawyer and federal deputy for the opposition MDB party, who polled the second largest number of votes in his state in the 1974 elections. In the same year he launched the Fôlha Espirita, one of several hundred Brazilian periodicals devoted to the propagation of Spiritism.

There was Rafael A. Ranieri, a former city mayor and senior police officer who was elected state deputy for São Paulo. We shall hear more of his extra-mural activities later.

There was Jarbas Marinho, a successful civil engineer who specialised in supermarket construction, and who would dash weekly from his drawing board to give classes in magnetic healing at the Federation, for which he did much of the structural engineering work - for free, of course. He was also a council member of the IBPP, and a regular delegate to international parapsychology congresses.

There was Elsie Dubugras, a retired airline company employee who became Brazil’s most active Spiritist journalist. As editor of the popular monthly Planeta, she was still working until shortly before her death at the age of one hundred.
There were so many Spiritist doctors in São Paulo that they had their own association, whose members offered their patients spiritual guidance and healing along with conventional treatment, only charging a fee for the latter.
Other Spiritists I knew in São Paulo included psychologists, psychiatrists, teachers, government officials, in fact members of just about any walk of life. I was interested to discover that many of them became Spiritists because of personal experience of what they considered evidence for the existence of a non-physical world, agreeing with Kardec that ‘phenomena which are inexplicable by any known laws are occurring all over the world, and revealing the action of a free and intelligent will as their cause.’

As I was soon to find out, they were certainly occurring in Brazil, and this book is about some of them.

The first edition of The Flying Cow was published in 1975, followed a year later by The Indefinite Boundary. For this edition I have combined the two, omitting material that did not relate to my own experiences and adding some new cases that were investigated by my IBPP colleagues after I had left Brazil and returned to England. I have also omitted material that has now been published separately: my account of the career of Brazil’s best known medium Francisco Candido (‘Chico’) Xavier, and three of the best cases from the IBPP files (3,4). 
In Part One I describe three cases from the past involving three very different mediums: Francisco Lins Peixoto (‘Peixotinho’), Carlos Mirabelli and Otília Diogo who between them provide evidence that ranges from the probably genuine to the almost certainly fraudulent.

Part Two deals with the controversial subject of ‘psychic surgery’, that is, operations performed by people with no medical qualifications at all in conditions that would make any conventional surgeon shudder.

Part Three is mainly concerned with the most colourful of all psi phenomena, poltergeists, and with cases suggestive of reincarnation, both of which Brazil seems to get more than its fair share of.

‘Tell me, thou unknown power…’ Macbeth ordered, when he found himself mixed up in an interesting case involving precognition, materialisation and a few other inexplicable phenomena.
‘Seek to know no more,’ the witches told him.
I am glad I decided not to take their advice.

Publisher: White Crow Books
Published November 2011
266 pages
Size: 229 x 152 mm
ISBN 978-1-907661-94-5
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