Throughout the Caribbean, Central, and South America new, distinctive, hybrid religious forms have arisen out of the encounters of indigenous Amerindian peoples, European settlers, and imported Africans and Asians as Europe colonized the Americas. Santeria’s hybrid heritage comprises the orisha worship practiced by the Yoruba peoples of West Africa; elements of Roman Catholicism; and the Spiritism developed by Allan Kardec in France (see Espiritismo; Kardec, Allan) and promoted throughout the Caribbean and Latin America during the nineteenth century. Santeria makes Cuba one of the outposts of the Yoruba gods in the New World.
The history of Santeria begins in West Africa where the Yoruba had evolved their own religious and social traditions. The Yoruba kingdom was set in a network of political and cultural interaction with the old kingdom of Benin in Nigeria and the kingdom of Dahomey in what is now the Republic of Benin. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries all three of these kingdoms battled against each other and were involved in the Atlantic slave trade. Yorubas were a small segment of the enslaved Africans brought into Cuba at the beginning of the slave trade but later at the height of the warfare that fed it (1840 through 1870) more than one-third of the Africans brought into Cuba were Yorubas.
The Cuban Catholic church attempted to guide the African population away from their traditional religious beliefs towards complete conversion to Christianity but in a gradual fashion that tolerated some mixing of religions during the process. Over the course of time, however, it became clear that the African cultural and religious traditions, even in this mixed form, were not about to disappear, and both the Catholic church and the colonial government joined hands to try and stamp them out. In Cuba waves of persecution aimed at Santeria have alternated with periods of relative tolerance ever since the late nineteenth century; as a result, Santeria became clandestine.
The spiritualist literature of Allan Kardec began to arrive in Cuba in the 1850s. Between 1870 and 1880 the teaching of this French engineer who claimed his books were dictated to him by spirits became a veritable rage throughout the French and Spanish Caribbean and Central and South America where it became known as Espiritismo (Spiritism). Some Cuban Santeria priests came to view an apprenticeship in Espiritismo as a valid, even necessary, prerequisite for Santeria practice and became adepts in both systems. Despite the impact of Espiritismo and Christianity, Yoruba religious conceptions dominate Santeria’s pantheon, ritual and world view.
Santeria is neither a salvation religion that rejects the world nor a revealed religion with an authoritative founder or holy book in which a new world-changing truth is claimed to have been unveiled. For Santeria devotees spiritual beings and religious truths do not exist in a world apart from the natural and social world known to our senses; instead, they reside within it. Hence Santeria is human-centered, Earth-centered and concerned primarily with the self (see Self-Religion, The Self, and Self) and with ritualmastery of the natural, social and spiritual forces affecting daily life. In Cuba Santeria has been transmitted primarily by oral tradition since at least the eighteenth century.
Santeria theology recognizes a somewhat distant Supreme Being, called by various Yoruba names, such as Olodumare, Olorun, and Olofi or simply Dios (God) in Spanish. The Supreme Being created a number of lesser deities (called alternately orichas or santos) to populate and civilize the earth and endow it with the essential powers necessary for the harmonious existence of all living things. (Each oricha corresponds to a saint known and venerated in Cuba’s Catholic churches.) When the first human beings were formed by the orichas, they were taught how to access each oricha’s powers and energies in order to achieve harmony with the orichas and Supreme Being, and to maintain a balance with nature and within themselves. This knowledge, transmitted down to the present day by countless generations of priests, is believed to constitute the core of Santeria’s religious traditions.
Communal worship is highly participatory and features ritual dance; call and response chants performed in Yoruba and accompanied by drums; ceremonial spirit possession; ancestor veneration; and, on occasion, animal sacrifices. Lay devotees carry out a round of private offerings to the santos in their homes; priests and priestesses perform rituals and provide herbal medicine, counseling and symbolic healing to devotees and the general public. There is also a cycle of annual festivals coordinated with the Catholic saints’ feast days.
Santeria’s attitude toward religion is basically instrumental—that is, ‘if it works for you, believe it’—and, despite a history of persecution by both the Cuban government and the Catholic church, Santeria priests and devotees are generally tolerant of other religious systems.
The spread of Santeria outside of Cuba mainly owes its origins to those Cuban exiles who left in 1959 and also to those who were part of the exodus from the port of Mariel in 1980. They brought Santeria to the United States, where it spread to other Latino communities, and to African-American, White, and Asian communities as well.
From these contacts in the United States Santeria has made its way back into the Caribbean to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Cubans transplanted the religion to Mexico, and also to Venezuela. A small number of exiled santeros made their way to Europe and established Santeria in Spain, spreading it from there to other European countries.
At the dawn of the twenty-first century a Santeria revival began in Cuba, fueled by increased tolerance from the government, and increased contacts within the Santeria diaspora created by the Revolution. Aided by high speed travel and the Internet, there is greater intercommunication between the growing numbers of people inside and outside of Cuba who see themselves as devotees of the orisha.