Santería: Origins & Beliefs

Between the 16th and the 19th centuries over 1 million Africans were brought to Cuba as slaves - principally to work in the sugar fields.  Most of the kidnapped were Yoruba from the central part of Africa in present day Benin and southwestern Nigeria (shaded on map of Africa) and brought to Cuba (follow line on the map).  Torn from their homeland, they held on to their belief system despite many attempts by the Spanish colonial lords to repress it.  Faced with pressure to give up their religion, the slaves merely adapted it to the Catholicism as it was practiced in Cuba.  Each of the Yoruba gods was equated to one of the many Catholic saints creating a so-called syncretized religion, meaning that two differing belief systems were brought into harmony with each other.  Rather than worship their gods openly, slaves would pray to Catholic saints (thus appearing very pious to the slave owner).  Because the slaves had to hide their religion behind the Catholic saints, the name of their belief system became known as Santería, which some now consider politically incorrect.  For this reason it is also referred to as Regla Lucumí or Regla Ocha.  There are other syncretized religions in different former slave countries such as Brazil.  Even today it is not uncommon to meet Cubans who go to a Catholic church and also adhere to the customs of their African forebears.

Santería is not practiced in a church nor does it have a written canon (set) of beliefs.  Its practices are handed down orally and are sometimes veiled in secrecy because for centuries there was risk of retribution for openly practicing the religion.  Nevertheless there has been an adherence to many terms from the Yoruba language, Lucumi, which is still spoken in Nigeria. Because of the lack of a written dogma (set of rules), Santería can vary geographically.  The number of the gods can vary as can their spelling or pronunciation. 

Santería permeates the Cuban way of life as is observable in certain customs.  Before drinking from a newly opened bottle of rum, for example, it is customary to pour a few drops on the ground as an offering.  In many houses one can see offerings or altars to the Orishas or Yoruba gods.  During Fidel's victory speech on January 1, 1959, in the city of Santiago a dove alighted on his shoulder - a fact which many took to be divine sanction of the revolution. 

In Santería there is belief in a single god called Olorun, Olodumare or Olofin, who communicates to the world through a pantheon of Orishas (set of gods) who control every aspect of life.  It is the Orishas who are equated with the Catholic saints.  They are depositories of ashe or the energy which pervades all things.  They convey their ashe to humans through sacrifice.  Each Orisha has its own personality and powers and is associated with certain colors, numbers, days of the week and objects.  Communication between the Orishas and humankind takes place by means of ebó or offerings (including sacrifices), divination, and ritual.  Divination is performed by a babalawo (high priest) or Santero (lower priest) often using such objects as seashells (cowrie shells) or pieces of coconut rind.  Above one can see a babalawo.  Through consultation with a santero or babalawo, one examines one's life and then makes offerings (obé) to bring the favor of the Orishas or ward off evil influences.  Music, drums, and dance with rhythms highly influenced by African culture are also important aspects of the religion.  During a bembé or drumming party one might be "montado" (mounted) or trance possessed by an Orisha who will communicate through this means with him/her. 

Respect is also paid to the Eggun or the dead.  There is a saying in Santería that the dead go before the Orishas. This means that in any ceremony one honors the dead first.  They are also consulted before one consults the Orishas.  Having been alive, they are considered more empathetic to human needs. It is of course necessary to keep the Eggun happy; thus it is not uncommon in a house to see a table covered with a white table cloth with various goblets full of water for the Eggun, such as at left.  One honors not only one's immediate ancestors but also those dead who belonged to one's spiritual house - i.e. those who were initiated by a certain person are considered to be in the same spiritual house and are considered as close as family.

The initiation - el Asiento - "making the saint"

Initiates to Santería consult in a very complicated, quite expensive, and partially secret ceremony with a Babalawo, who will help the initiate discover who his guardian Orisha is.  It is believed that every person is born under the "guidance" of a specific Orisha.  It is important to discover the correct Orisha to honor, since honoring the false one could be perilous, resulting in spiritual hardship or even physical illness.  During the ceremony the individual "dies" and is reborn in their new religion.

Initiates, who might be of any age, become known as iyawó or yaguó.  During the first year after initiation, the neophyte (new convert) will adhere to a strict code of conduct and will wear nothing but white.  They will also begin to wear ilekes or sacred beads, which, based on their color and shape, will identify which Orisha he or she honors.  It is important not to wear the beads while sleeping, partying,  menstruating or having sex as this would sully them.

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