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What Is Santeria?

Sally Painter
Santeria 1

Santeria is a prominent religion found in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, African slaves brought from the Yorùbán region to Cuba also brought their religious practices much the same way slaves brought Voodoo to Haiti. And, like Voodoo, the Yorùbán religious beliefs evolved through the blending of Roman Catholicism into modern day Santeria.

Founded by African Slaves

Santeria also took religious aspects from various practices in West Africa and the Caribbean as well as a few Native American spiritual ideals. The blending of these practices created a very unique, oral tradition-based religion.

The Santeria belief system includes:

  • Deities
  • Sacred drumming with dance
  • Chanting
  • Animal sacrifices

At the core of Santeria is the Yorùbá religion. Anthropologists believe that the Yorùbá migrated from various Middle Eastern regions including Egypt and Assyria.

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.

As with most slave religions, the Yorùbá religion was supplanted with that of their owners. Even though the slaves were forced to be baptized and converted to Catholicism, they retained their 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.

Santeria Priests and Priestesses

Not all initiates are on the path to becoming a priest or priestess, but all initiates have a godparent to sponsor and help them learn. While there are no churches in the Santeria religion, there are Ilés (house temples or houses of saints).

The Ilé is typically the home of either the priest (Santero) or priestess (Santera) or a rented building. A part of the home is dedicated to a shrine honoring one or more Orichás and an altar (igbodu).

In his book, Santeria: African Spirits in America, Joseph M. Murphy describes the Ilé as a "complex hierarchy of initiates grouped into families of godchildren." The Ilé is often used to describe this extended family of a community.

After going through a cleansing initiation followed by four major initiations, the priest or priestess spends the following year wearing only white and avoiding contact with any non-initiated. At the end of the year, a ceremony is held and the initiate is granted the right to perform initiations and cleansings, hold consultations and administer remedies to the sick and afflicted.

Some priests will become diviners using cowrie-shell divination but rarely is a priestess allowed this right. Priests and Priestesses serve as the Orichás representatives and are treated with great reverence and honor as a divine conduit.

Rituals and Ceremonies

Music, drumming, chanting, dancing, praying and eating are all part of Santeria 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 egg shells (cascarilla) and drawing spiritual symbols with it. The purposes 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.

It's important to note that many of the Santeria practices are ritual reminders to the practitioners of their history as slaves from Africa. There are very complex and specific rituals for afflictions by spirits, such as an intrusive spirit that attaches itself to a person or is conjured and sent to create havoc in a person's life or relationship. The afflicted consults and works with a priest or priestess to not just resolve his issue, but also the spiritual issue binding the troubled spirit.

The priest or priestess assists in first ascertaining if there is a struggle with a spirit, known as a spiritual twisting (trastornos). Depending on the type of twisting, the priest or priestess will help the person by not just evicting the assaulting spirit, but also treating the possession as a call for healing.

Healing Practices and Spirit Possession

A priest or priestess is often a healer or Santeria herbalist though it isn't a requirement that a healer be a priest or priestess. Sometimes a priest or priestess will work with a healer. There are several traditional healing practices found in Cuba, especially those using herbal remedies.

A healer helps individuals suffering from spiritual issues that manifest into physical illnesses. This requires the healer to connect with the divine then interpret what is going on with the sick person. Spirits are often blamed for bad luck as well as illnesses.

Since the Santeria belief system is based on the theory that all life comes from a primal life force known as the aché or growth, the aché is very central. According to Cynthia Duncan, PhD and initiated priestess, the aché exists in everything and is too complex to fully comprehend. It drives the individual to evolve by balancing heart, mind and body with spirit. Through this guidance, practitioners find their paths and purposes in life.

The priest or priestess taps into this energy 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.

Animal Sacrifices and Religious Meanings

The sacrifice of animals plays a vital role in Santeria. Chickens are the most commonly used animal, though other fowl as well as goats, sheep and other animals can be used. The ritual sacrifices of animals has to be performed in a very precise and specific way of cutting the collar area.

This process represents the cutting away of the nooses tied around slaves' neck as they were hung. The ritual cutting is done to protect against such a fate. According to an interview with a Santeria priest published in Cultural Anthropology, the crux of being a priest is to become "Lucumi" (enslaved Yorùbá ) as a way to recall heritage and achieve greater self-knowledge.

Santeria practitioners embrace that they share the world and the space around them 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.

The animal sacrifices are performed to bless various life events, such as a marriage, death, birth and 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. The spirits feed on the animal's blood. Those participating in the ritual share the animal with the Orichá by eating it.

Understanding Santeria and Its Practices

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

What Is Santeria?