What Is Santería? Guide to Its Practices & Beliefs 

Updated July 6, 2021
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Santería is a prominent religion with African roots. It was brought to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic by African slaves and is a blend of Roman Catholicism and the Yorùbán religious beliefs.

Santería Spiritual Practices

Santería means Way of the Saints and is a unique, oral tradition-based religion. Even though the slaves were forced to be baptized and convert to Catholicism, they retained their Yorùbá religion heritage through their religious practices. The slaves meshed their religion with Catholicism much the same way slaves in Haiti did with Voodoo. The transformation of the original religion can be seen in how the Yorùbá deities (Orichás) were blended with the Catholic saints.

The Santería belief system is based on the theory that all life comes from a primal life force known as the aché or growth. The aché exists in everything and is too complex to comprehend fully. It drives the individual to evolve by balancing the heart, mind, and body with spirit. Through the guidance of the aché, Santería believers find their paths and purposes in life.

Rituals and Ceremonies

The Yorùbá religion embraces a form of trance divination used to communicate with the spirit world. Many of these practices seem similar to Voodoo, such as inviting spirits to possess ritual participants so they can communicate with the divine.

Music, drumming, chanting, dancing, praying and eating are all part of Santería ceremonies and rituals. The drums are considered sacred and only men can play them. The dancers show their respect by never turning their backs to the drummers.

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Some ritual dances are performed by covering the body in white powder made from eggshells (cascarilla) and drawing spiritual symbols with it. The purpose of rituals is to assist the performer in connecting with the Orichás. The ultimate goal of these practices is to reconnect with the divine, Olodumare (God).

As in Voodoo, the spirits often possess those participating in ceremonies and rituals. Similar terminology is used, such as the spirit "mounting or riding" the person like one would a horse. The spirit then moves through the person in dance and takes part in the eating of the sacrificed animal that has been cooked and prepared for the celebration.

Symbolism of Animal Sacrifices

The sacrifice of animals plays a vital role in Santería. Chickens are the most commonly used animal, although goats, sheep, and other animals can be used. The ritual sacrifice of animals has to be performed in a very precise way of cutting the collar area. This process represents the cutting away of the nooses tied around slaves' necks as they were hanged. The ritual cutting is done to protect them against such a fate. There are several Santeria practices performed to remind the practitioners of their history as slaves from Africa.

Animal sacrifices are made to bless various life events, such as a marriage, death, birth, and a healing. After the ritual, the animal is cooked and eaten, except when it is sacrificed for a death or healing rite. In those instances, the death or sickness is passed on to the animal and the spirits feed on the animal's blood.

Spiritual Twisting and Remedy

Santería practitioners embrace the fact that they share the world with spirits, and these spirits can even be on their bodies. They connect and communicate with these spirits during rituals and moments of spiritual possession and trance. If a person is afflicted by spirits, there are specific rituals that must be performed as remedies. The priest or priestess taps into the energy of the aché for a wide range of uses. For example, the priest or priestess can use the aché to connect and communicate with spirits to facilitate healings, divinations, or counsellings.

The priest or priestess will first ascertain if there is a struggle within the spirit, known as a spiritual twisting (trastornos). Depending on the type of twisting, the priest or priestess will help the person by evicting the assaulting spirit. The spirit is then treated as though it, too, is afflicted and its very act of possession was nothing more than a cry for help. The priest or priestess then sets about healing the spirit.

Understanding Santería and Its Practices

Santería is a multi-layered religion steeped in ancient traditions and blended with other religions. Those who practice Santería move through life alongside spirits and participate in a vast cache of rituals steeped in both the supernatural and physical world.

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What Is Santería? Guide to Its Practices & Beliefs