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Life of a Folklorist: Mário Souto Maior, a cabra da peste

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Life of a Folklorist: Mário Souto Maior, a cabra da peste

Article available in: PT-BR ESP

Last update: 08/06/2022

By: Rúbia Lóssio - Coordination of Studies of Popular Cultures at Fundaj - PhD in Sociology

Delivered by a midwife, like all cabras da peste, in a specific ritual proper to the popular beliefs of Northeast Brazil, rich in superstitions, on July 14, 1920, in the Agreste region of Pernambuco, in the municipality of Bom Jardim, in Rua Coronel Gonçalves, no. 54, a boy named Mário Souto Maior appeared, son of the Colonel of the National Guard, merchant, and farmer Manuel Gonçalves Souto Maior and of Maria da Mota Souto Maior. They had no idea that their son would become a great folklorist.


Mário Souto Maior says in his book “As Dobras do Tempo — quase memórias” that he only became a folklorist when he came to work at the Fundação Joaquim Nabuco in Recife in 1967, in the administrative sector. One time, the Executive Director Mauro Mota received a letter from Claribalte Passos, Director of Brasil Açucareiro magazine, requesting ten papers on folklore. Mauro Mota insisted that Dr. Souto prepared an article for the magazine. As nothing happens by chance, from there, Dr. Souto begins to realize his literary dream. He recalled the last time he had written: a monograph titled “Roteiro de Bom Jardim” with his brother Moacyr Souto Maior, in 1954. Well before that, in 1938, he had written “Meus Poemas Diferentes”. He says he was very rusty, but racked his brains and managed to put on paper the work “Brincando de Folclore”. The Brasil Açucareiro magazine published his paper, later baptized as “Três Histórias de Deus Quando Fez o Mundo”.


Very excited about the acceptance, Dr. Souto collected everything he knew about the popular beliefs of the Northeast regarding motherhood, later creating the book “Como Nasce um Cabra da Peste” in 1969, the result of his first deep folkloric research. The night Dr. Souto received the book’s page proofs from Editora Arquimedes, he could not even sleep. Although it was not reported by a woman, the ritualism from pregnancy to birth, as seen in the Northeast, was described by an attentive observer dedicated to our folklore. Today, the book has even become a play and been translated into German.


Following a request from sociologist Gilberto Freyre, in 1980, Dr. Souto elaborates the “Dicionário do Palavrão e Termos Afins”, a dictionary of Brazil’s curse words, which becomes a nightmare. But a nightmare that worked. After waiting five years to edit the dictionary, Veja magazine published the article “É cultura, pô – Liberado o dicionário de palavrões”:


It took five years for the authorities in Brasília to release, last month, the pioneering book of the ethnologist, now presented as a relevant work to national culture. Besides acquiring nihil obstat and government praises, the dictionary received a preface by sociologist Gilberto Freyre, cover flap by carioca law judge Eliezer Rosa, comments by Aurelio Buarque de Hollanda, cover by Francisco Brennand, and back cover by Jorge Amado, an indisputable authority on the subject. With 5,000 copies, it is expected to mark the debut of Editora Guararapes, from Recife, next August.


This is how, through Gilberto Freyre, Fernando de Mello Freyre, Mauro Mota, Gladstone Vieira Belo, Sylvio Rabello, among others, a folklorist was born.


But all this hidden virtue, from the childhood in the countryside of Pernambuco, full of popular beliefs, superstitions, legends, circle games, typical foods, chairs on the sidewalk, weir baths, sighs, good people, mangoes, cashews... All of this, part of a rich and fascinating imagination, also helped the research of Mário Souto Maior.


Dr. Souto always said, “be wary of people who do not love children, animals, and plants.” This sensitivity would later be reflected in his books dedicated to children, which would delight any adult. As a child, he almost drowned when he went to bathe in the weir without telling his parents, because he could not swim. After this trauma, he never wanted to bathe in a weir, river, or the sea again.


The books “Comes e bebes do Nordeste” and “Alimentação e Folclore” likely originated from his first visit to Recife when he was five years old. Mário Souto Maior learned the ABCs with teacher Santinha, who lived in the alley of the mother church of Bom Jardim. When he learned to read, he went on to study at the school of teacher Valpassos. He liked hearing the stories of João do Bonde on the stairs of the church. João do Bonde was a very funny man who did not attend school, but had a very fertile imagination. Dr. Souto says that when João do Bonde went to Recife and saw the sea for the first time, he was not delighted. He met the tram (bonde), which he thought was so fabulous that after visiting Recife, all of his stories mentioned the tram. This is why he became known as João do Bonde. And it is why João do Bonde is in all of the children’s tales published by Dr. Souto.


Folklorist Souto Maior was also intimate with everything modern. He mixed folklore with technology. Lúcia Gaspar, librarian and a friend of Dr. Souto, pointed out:


He has a passion for documenting everything concerning popular culture. He’s the most ‘technological’ folklorist I know. Tradition and technology seem to be antagonistic elements, but in Mário Souto Maior they coexist in perfect harmony. He researches tradition and quickly provides it to those interested, using the most modern electronic equipment in existence.


Thus, from eight to ten years old, on days of the street market, which happened in the courtyard of the church, he gathered all the money he received so he could see the cosmorama, an optical device that expanded views of cities in other countries. In 1928, it was the novelty of the time.


From his home page, we can virtually find folklore in the author’s simple and didactic language. He had such passion for technology that Renato Phaelante, who paid homage to Dr. Souto when the author turned eighty, declared that:


There, Mário Souto Maior was considered a pioneer because of the many innovations that he introduced in the city. And this is another feature of his calm temperament which guards a curious, restless, bold, and avant-garde spirit. Dr. Souto introduced the first kerosene fridge in the city, the first fan, the first TV set, and the first radio receiver, which used to be called “pick-up”. He also introduced an audio recorder that recorded in copper iron. He was the first amateur radio broadcaster in the city under the prefix PYYEC.


Souto Maior kept the richness of his childhood in his memory. Little Mário grew up, and in 1930, he went to live in Recife in a house on Rua do Hospício because he was enrolled in the boarding school Marista. He did not stay in the house for long because of the Brazilian Revolution of 1930. As time passed, at thirteen years old, Souto decided to be a poet, thus elaborating a book that he baptized “Minhas Poesia”.


Since then, Mário never stopped dreaming of being a writer. He founded a newspaper with his friend Américo Sedycias on January 19, 1936, called O Literário, which, although short-lived, meant a lot to him. He attended the pre-law course at Colégio Carneiro Leão. And he lived in the pension of Dona Sinhá, in Rua Barão de São Borja, where he became friends with Guerra de Holanda, Pelópidas Soares, and Isac Schachnic. They founded the Academia dos Novos, a group formed by avid readers and literature lovers. And in 1938, after devouring so many books, his first work was published. The first edition of “Meus Poemas Diferentes” had 250 copies, funded by his father.


On December 23, 1984, Dr. Souto married Carmen, and from their union came seven children: Fred, Gise, Jane, Lis, Jan, Glen, and Ed.


As the years passed, he became a public prosecutor of the District of João Alfredo, in Pernambuco, from 1948 to 1954. Soon after, he became the director of Ginásio de Bom Jardim, which he founded himself. In 1945, he was appointed mayor of Orobó, also in Pernambuco. Then, in 1967, he became the counselor of the Executive Board of the Instituto Joaquim Nabuco de Pesquisas Sociais and a teaching inspector of the Ministry of Education and Culture.


Although his literary dream was asleep, his will and sensitivity reemerged when he was fifty years old, urging him to continue researching folklore despite what he calls his eye of Camões (a blind eye), which failed to disturb him at all. Dr. Souto lost his left eye, but it did not stop him from continuing to dream. On his home page, his son Jan says:


They say that “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” Well, blind in one eye since he was a teenager, with five degrees of myopia and one cataract next to the other which serve as a window to life, my father can capture, with the help of his digital machine, a Sony Mavica, small moments of his day-to-day, which would certainly go unnoticed by most people. His poor vision is complemented by his sensitivity and ability to trap images as efficiently as he does with words.


His favorite hobby was taking pictures with his state-of-the-art camera. But it was thanks to his writings on folklore that Souto Maior received many awards, proving his recognition by several institutions.


On his daily life, Dr. Souto had, in his simplicity, a loving way of talking to people. He was a man of many friends who used to say that nowadays you only make “hi” friends, that is, no chatting, just “hi.”


Mário Souto Maior’s ideas and inspiration began in those times when he was bestando. He says that to be bestando is to think of nothing, to look at nature, to see cars and people pass by, to take time to do nothing. Nothing more natural than folklore. Dr. Souto brought coconut water, chocolate, jabuticaba, and acerolas to work and “played” during breaks of his research work, taking photographs of visitors who arrived, of nature, of magazines.


This look reveals an enlightened and simple person in his story. During the day, Dr. Souto cared about his family. A lover of good music, his hobby at lunchtime was listening to classical pieces, boleros, waltzes, reggae, musical themes of soap operas, and even American music. He knew the world through the screen, with his videos from various places on the planet.


He said to me: “Dear, I almost lacked courage!” And he once told me: “The secret of longevity is to always have a goal in life, to live with several generations, and to be always producing something.”


Dr. Fernando de Mello Freyre, then president of Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, wrote the preface to the book organized by Jan Souto Maior in honor of Dr. Soutos’s eighty years of life: “... that I have the honor to preface: not only as a tribute, but as an act, in full, celebrating life”.


For all this, Dr. Souto was a transparent person whose joy was his family, and who was called an armadillo because he did not like leaving home for anything except to work.


He was invited for an interview in São Paulo, on Programa do Jô, aired by Rede Globo on July 9, 2001. He was also honored at a Carnaval party in Recife, the so-called Artists’ Ball (Baile dos Artistas), in February 2001.


Living as a folklorist is not easy. When Dr. Souto passed away on November 25, 2001, his son Jan Souto Maior wrote:


Living off culture in Brazil is not a dream, but pure utopia. This is Mário Souto Maior, my father, who knows how to honor his name, filling with pride those who in vain try to follow his trajectory. Go, Dad, go and we will catch up with you...


And his wife, Ms. Carmen, pays her last respects by saying:


“I lost Mário, who was my life. I stayed with my children, who are the reason for my living. This is why I must be strong to carry on with my mission until the end. I thank all friends who have comforted me at this difficult and painful time in my life. Thank you for all for caring. My friendship...”


To be a cabra da peste is to be a dreamer, to bring the landscape of the countryside with you; as the poet Jessier Quirino says, it is to have the smile of a child in your soul, to be a lover of nature, to have willpower in your veins; because, as Euclides da Cunha says, “sertanejo – read: northeastern – is first and foremost a fort”. Strong and simple. It is having in your blood the will to eat the things of the earth; understanding what the people say, think, and hear; observing the people, their habits and customs; valuing the folkloric festivals and participating with gusto, gusto for cachaça, flour with rapadura sugar, sugarcane broth, and corn to the smell of the smoke of the campfire; seeing a quermesse, praying to the patron saint, asking for rain, and keep bestando. The life of a folklorist is being matuto (someone from the countryside) in the capital, wanting to show how our people live, and carrying in the soul the essence of our roots, which cannot be lost in time.


What matters is valuing folklore in every way, bringing in the imagination our best, which are our roots. We thus leave this as a small portrait of this singular man, teacher, inspector, lawyer, prosecutor, and folklorist (one of the greatest of our time), who was a true cabra da peste!


Recife, August 2002.


sources consulted

GASPAR, Lúcia. Mário Souto Maior: cronologia e Bibliografia. Recife: 20-20 Comunicação e Editora, 1995.

MÁRIO Souto Maior. Disponível em: Acesso em: 27 maio 2002.

MÁRIO SOUTO MAIOR. [Foto neste texto]. Disponível em: Acesso em: 30 set. 2019.

SOUTO MAIOR, Jan (Org.). Mário Souto Maior - Oitenta anos. Recife: Ed. Massangana, 2001.

SOUTO MAIOR, Mário. As Dobras do Tempo - Quase Memórias. Recife: 20-20. Comunicação e Editora, 1995.

SOUTO MAIOR, Mário. Meus Poemas Diferentes. Recife: Geração Editora, 1938.

SOUTO MAIOR, Mário; SOUTO MAIOR, Moacyr. Roteiro de Bom Jardim. Recife, 1954.

how to quote this text

LÓSSIO, Rubia. Life of a Folklorist: Mário Souto Maior, a cabra da peste. In: PESQUISA Escolar. Recife: Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, 2002. Available from :  Access on: Month. day, year. (Ex.: Aug. 6, 2009.)