The Santeria religion emerged from the beliefs of enslaved Africans. Specifically, slaves of the Yoruba faith came from the region of Nigeria and Benin in West Africa. Over time the enslaved Africans mixed their religion with the Catholic faith to form the Santeria religion.
The Yoruba Babalawo (High Priest) used the Catholic calendar to venerate African saints, making the veneration of the saints a central part of the religion. In Spanish, the word Santeria means the “Way of the Saints,” also known as La Regla de Ocha, meaning the Order of the Orishas, or La Religion Lucumi, meaning the Order of Lucumi, Lucumi being another name for Santeria.
Santeria and Slavery
Slavery arrived in Cuba in the 15th century with the Spanish settlers, but the Yorubas were brought to Cuba from Africa in the 19th century. These Yoruba labored in sugar cane plantations in central Cuba. More than 275,000 Yoruba Nigerians entered Cuba between 1820 and 1860 and were called Lucumi. When the slavers brought people from Africa, they were forced to abandon African religions and convert to Catholicism.
The Yoruba’s Spanish slavemasters did all they could to prevent the slaves from practicing their faith. The Yoruba’s faith however forbids them to practice the dominant religion of the Spanish and they resisted conversion to Roman Catholicism. Adapting instead to new circumstances, knowing that trees and plants that flexed with the storm tended to survive, unlike those that refused to bend.
So in order to keep their religion going, the Afro-Cubans mixed their deities with the Catholic saints. For instance, they mixed one of their goddesses, Obatala, with the Virgin of Charity because of their similarities. A modern-day Santeria worshiper has an altar for Catholic saints and another one for the African Orisha gods.
The worship is never confusing in the heart of the worshipers since they believe the Orishas are mystical and complex beings. Appearing in different forms since they are divine energy that surrounds and lives among the people. The Lucumi continued to perform their rituals, and the proof of the religion’s effectiveness in spiritual affairs made it a foundational part of Cuban culture.
The Growth of Santeria
Santeria is an oral and practical tradition that teaches how to use the combination of wisdom and power to deal with hardship. The religion has incorporated other faiths and has developed beyond its Yoruba and Catholic origins, standing on its own as a powerful symbol of Afro-Cuban culture.
Although its base is in Cuba, the religion has spread in the USA and other border-sharing countries after the revolution in 1959. The religion started as an underground religion but has rapidly grown among Americans. At first, the religion spread among poor, enslaved people, and the uneducated Caribbeans practiced it. Today many people, including black, white, and Asian–Americans, practice the religion as it continues to spread.
Believers see Olodumare as the Supreme God and the Orishas as demigods given the responsibility of guiding the world. The Orishas are similar to angels or Greek gods, with different responsibilities and natures. For instance, believers in Yemaya see her as the Orisha of the sea and motherhood.
The Orishas perform mysterious deeds and miracles. People even communicate and argue with their Orishas, but to seek help and guidance, believers go to the Babalawo to perform rituals on their behalf. Especially when they desire good luck. The Babalawo interpret the wills of gods and sometimes perform ceremonies that involve celebrations or mourning. The ceremony has a way of calling on believers, and non-believers as well, to drum drums, drink, and make animal sacrifices.
The animals are like scapegoats, bearing punishment and symbolizing repentance on behalf of the believers. They believe the butchering of the animal is a way of thanking the Orishas for saving their lives. Partaking of the meat heals peoples’ pain and makes them whole again by providing healing from painful circumstances in past, present, or future. When the ceremony starts, those to be crowned for positions in the religion eat with the gods from the butchered meat at the altar.
There are claims that the divinities, in the form of an oracle, magically ate the sacrifices being offered. Believers could feel the spirits, Orisha, and deceased familiar ancestors communicating and having an excellent time with them. People see it as a co-presence as the priest uses spirits to possess living beings to be vessels of communication. The Orishas are seen as saviors who saved the Afro-Cubans from enslavement by negotiating and helping them dethrone their Cuban colonial masters and ending racism. During the slave era, it was believed that the Orisha librated enslaved Africans by infiltrating the enemies and empowering enslaved people. All the Orisha aim to bring balance to life.
The Orishas are the manifestation of Olodumare (God), sent to maintain relationships with human beings. They are powerful but not immortal spirits. The religion believes every person has a purpose from God, and believers can fulfill their destiny through harnessing a cosmic form of energy, the Orishas. The spirits stay active due to the sacrifice and devotion of their followers. Some Catholic believers join in this practice of worshiping the Orishas since they have similar symbols and rituals.
Chango (seen in some places as Shango) is a popular saint of fire and war who wields a double-headed ax. During the worship of Chango, believers wear white and red, proclaiming him the strongest god. This Orisha has the ability to harness the power of violent storms and can use that power for violence or peace. The followers of Chango receive their power from a shrine in Oyo, Nigeria.
This power is given to the priest in the form of thunderstones when lightning strikes in the sky. The priest collects the powerful stones and stores them in a calabash kept on a wooden mortar, or Odo Chango, until the festival. During the festival, the priest washes the thunderstones with the sacred leaves and plants that Shango loves; palm oil and snail juice are used as well. Afterward, the priest sacrifices a rooster and pours the blood on the thunderstones; however, he ram is Shango’s favorite meat. The priest kills the ram, and the blood is poured on the stones at Orisha’s altar. After the sacrifice, the priest touches the mortar and summons Esu (Eleggua) to take the sacrifice to Chango. Esu is the messenger of the gods.
Chango is also known for his courage and is considered the giver of courage. He gives believers the courage to overcome any challenging situation in life and death. Believers say that Oya opens the gate to the death realm, but it’s Chango that gives humans the courage to enter.
Obatala is a goddess associated with the Virgen de la Merced (the Virgin of Mercy). He brings creation and peace to her believers, who wear white in homage. Obatala is considered the father of all believers. This spirit is a father figure called Lord in the White Cloth, the King in White Apparel, the Creator of Humans, or the King with Distinctive Boundary. He is believed to have the power to control the mind and thoughts of man.
However, this Orisha has no gender. Obatala can come as a man or woman but is referred to as a man. In addition, Orisha is given the task by Olorumare to create humans, which makes him the owner of human heads. Believers worship Obatala with gifts at his home in the mountains. Every Orisha has a statue arranged according to hierarchy in their places of worship or during ceremonies. Obatala holds the highest position with his title as the father of all Orishas.
Yemaya is the orisha of the ocean and according to some myths the mother of all the other orishas. Believers devoted to Yemaya wear white and blue, which represent motherhood and the ocean. She is compared to the Virgen de Regla.
Yemaya and Oshun are sisters. Yemaya is a popular goddess who controls the sea and motherhood, including fertility. She guards women during maternity and is the guardian of Oshun’s children. The religion believes that Oshun has a higher responsibility to love than her kids, but she’s not seen as a wayward mother. On the contrary, Oshun is considered to be gracious since she put her children in Yemaya’s care, knowing her sister loves kids and could do a better job at raising them. Yemaya is also adored as the mother of life since she is the goddess of the sea. Yemaya’s followers wear white gowns in ceremonies where she showers them with love. The people move in wave-like motions to mimic the sea which escalates to the waves that form during a hurricane.
Yemaya fills the atmosphere with tenderness, beauty, and love; however, she also has her cruel and dark side.. She enjoys eating cockroaches, and any Santero (a practitioner of the Santeria religion) possessed by her spirit eats cockroaches. The reason for this is that cockroaches are messengers of other gods.
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Eleggua creates a path for believers to reach other Orishas. The religion of Santeria depends on the attributes and characteristics of Eleggua. Although Eleggua is childlike, mischievous, and theriomorphic, he is loved and feared. The Yoruba/Santeria pantheon considers this Orisha of great importance to the religion. Elggua manifests in many forms. He controls people’s destinies, which makes him the Lord of the Crossroads. He is also the guardian of the gate, which gives him the task of protecting homes and opening the gate of favors and opportunity.
Besides Obatala, Eleggua is the only Orisha to know where Olodumare (the Almighty God) lives because he is God’s messenger to other Orishas. The Orishas have the power to curse or bless, but Eleggua must be satisfied to make the sacrifice effective. Believers who please Eleggua become successful during challenging situations while calamity befalls those who fail to please him.
Olokun is the Orisha of all seas and oceans. Oftentimes, people confuse Yemaya for Olokun because Yemaya is also an Orisha that’s connected to the ocean. However, Yemaya is “responsible” for the surface area of the ocean, while Olokun holds power over the whole ocean.
As such, Olokun rules all bodies of water, and she holds authority over other water deities, including Yemaya. Olokun’s daughter, Aye, is the Orisha of ocean depths and wealth, and she, too, falls under the authority of Olokun.
Interestingly enough, although Olokun is usually considered a female Orisha, some worshipers see her as a male. In her female form, Olokun was a senior wife of Emperor Oduduwa. Having other wives as rivals, Olokun manifested the Atlantic Ocean.
In Brazil, Olokun was often seen as another manifestation of Yemaya. Her role in the Brazilian-African religion started to diminish over time, up until the 20th and 21st centuries, when the priests from West Africa started visiting Brazil and revived the cult of Olokun.
Aye is the daughter of Olokun and the Orisha of wealth and ocean depths. She helps her worshipers improve their economic situation, but only if they actually work hard for their success. With Aye, it’s not enough only to pray; one needs to make an effort to achieve prosperity.
However, Aye doesn’t grant only economic wealth, as riches are quite subjective. For some people, money doesn’t mean much. For them, good health, children, or friends are a real fortune. In that case, praying to Aye will invoke those things in one’s life, not just money.
This Orisha has a great relationship with her mother, and many people who want to appease Olokun pray to Aye first. Aye is worshiped at river coasts, and her worshipers wear white clothes, which symbolize Aye’s purity, dignity, and reverence.
Oshun is the Orisha of the rivers and freshwater, and she is represented by the Osun river in Oshogo, Nigeria. She is also seen as the goddess of life. Since life can’t exist without water, failure to worship her can result in an unfortunate life. She also has power over fertility because she controls the abdominal area. Followers seeking to bear the fruit of the womb go to her for guidance. Also, believers consult her during initiation to guide the new believers on their way. During the initiation rites, the initiate enters the water and undresses as a way to let go of old life, wash the impurities, and rebirth the believer.
The priestess pours honey, palm oil, cornmeal, and shrimp into the waters. The practice is to appease and flatter Oshun into escorting an initiate into the Santeria faith. Many believers do attest that the act is beautiful and could be repeated over and over again. Her believers feel warm and secure since Oshun is Chango’s wife. Santeros believes she has the solution to love and marriage and is good at helping people overcome problems. However, a person that annoys her may begin to quickly lose their good fortune.
Oya and Yewa
Worshipers of Orishas keep statues to represent the saints on their altars. The altar holds fruit, money, candles, and pastries that have been offered to the saints. The faith allows individuals to pay homage to many Orishas in their lifetime. Many Santeria worshipers honor as many as five to six spirits.
Santeria is not an organization
Santeria believers have no central organization, but they meet in a house called a casa or Ile. The senior Santeria priest often lives in the house. He or she heads the Ile, or family, and is seen as a godfather or godmother to their brothers and sisters. The Ile is a place to worship the spirits and receive guidance to help in their daily lives. In addition, the children receive wisdom from the Orishas. Believers go to the Ile for Orishas to show them the path of spiritual growth.
In the Ile, there’s a hierarchy in the home. The people living there work as a family and respect this hierarchy. The level of spirituality a person has determines where they will be in the hierarchy. To become a member of the Ile, you must be prepared for a life of devotion and spiritual reflection. Others who prefer to connect in a less committed way do not have to become members there but still are welcome to worship in the Ile.
In the culture of the religion, the true believers are those initiated into it. However, others are believers but are not yet initiated. For instance, people in Cuba learn and use the parts of the religion that they believe in. Some even visit the Santero (priest) or Santera (priestess) to receive help during times of difficulty. Some who consult the oracle later become true believers of the religion. However, such people are seen as aleyos (outsiders or strangers) since they have no direct connection to the worship.
Furthermore, there is a large group of religious aleyos (aleyos religiosos) that attend the ceremonies. They have made a formal commitment but have not fully undergone the initiation. These people wear elekes (necklaces) and make their interactions through the elders or Ile. The religiosos attend many ceremonies, such as the reception of warriors. In respect to this, believers politely change the name from religiosos to aborisha to place them higher than the aleyos, who do not undergo any initiation.
The priest or priestess fully initiated in the religion is called Olorisha, in Spanish as Santero or Santera. The initiation is performed on an oracular divination to convert the selected to Olorishas. The path of the Olorishas is a fierce and total commitment transition into the spiritual realm with the Regla de Ocha. The act is a deep calling making it difficult for many Lucumi to become Olorishas.
Priesthood & Power of the Olorisha
Santeria priesthood is for both genders. The training is an initiation. The Babalawo or babalorisha, meaning Father in the Spirit, or iyalorisha, meaning Mother or Wife in the Spirit, perform the initiation. The initiation is to rebirth the members in the spirit and, in turn, take an oath of commitment to the Orisha. Hence, they believe Priests to have the spirit of Orisha in them.
Animal sacrifice in Santeria
As stated in the belief, followers sacrifice animals to the Orisha in order to maintain a strong relationship with the spirit. In addition, it draws followers closer to the spirits by creating awareness of the Orisha in the environment. The process is symbiosis and a win-win for Orisha and the believer. On most occasions, these sacrifices occur during marriage, birth, healing, and death.
The religion endures on sacrifice, and the faith is expanding with more ordination of priests. Like other religions, they slaughter the animal by the throat in a single knife stroke. Then, believers share the animal, give a cut to the oracle (sometimes sprinkled blood), and cook the rest for eating. In the healing and death rite, the dead animal symbolizes the cleansing of the believers. And eating at the altar is dining with the Orisha. Depending on the occasion, the priest uses animals like chickens, doves, ducks, sheep, goats, etc.
A vision of the future
The priest or Olorisha can predict the future and are seen as mediators between the earth (aiye) and heaven (orun). They give counsel and guidance to followers who consult them and interpret interesting life experiences and cycles. They communicate with the gods by casting kola nuts, shells, and other means. Also, they interpret the act in a way called Ifa, done mainly by the Babalawo. For example, some use 8 different shapes from bones called ekwele, cast them on the ground, and make the prediction and guidance according to the arrangement.
Santero and Santera are good with traditional medicine and herbalism. They are the health professionals of the community. Like Catholicism and other African traditions, holy water is considered a Santeria medicinal formula and has been shown to have healing.
Santeria Ase and being one with nature
Ase is the life force within a living thing that makes things happen. Devotees of the Orishas believe in this power and try to reach it through greetings, prayers, and spiritual growth by using Iwa-Pele, which refers to gentleness and good behavior. This practice grants the believers inner peace (known as Ori) and satisfaction with life. Ase was created by Olodumare and reaches the Santeria through Olorun, the ruler of the heavens and god of the sun. Ase is also spread by the messenger known as Eshu.
The universe revolves around harmony and equilibrium, which is the aim of the Regla de Ocha religión. A person with no inner balance or peace experiences conflict with nature becoming a patient of osorbo or negative energy. But when an individual is balanced and peaceful inside, they begin to experience blessings in the form of good health, luck, relationships, success, and other positive traits.
A person with negative energy will only resolve with nature after visiting the priest or priestess. The priest or priestess communicates with the spirit or Orisha through an oracle. The divination is to solicit the spirit to fix the problem. The visit is known as a consultation or registro. Outsiders may consider the process as fortune telling, but it is a divination to the Orishas asking for help and prosperity.
At the core the Santeria religion teaches us that every living thing has the same spiritual energy as nature, connecting us to the divine. The Olorisha intercede on behalf of the believers to find a true path in life.