SANTERIA (Social Science)

Santeria has long been called an Afro-Cuban religion: This designation highlights the origins of many of its elements and early founders but also obscures the fact that Santeria has long been a major religion in Cuba practiced by diverse people and has become a global religious movement. Between 1780 and 1850 the Atlantic slave trade transported approximately 1 million enslaved people to Cuba. Nearly 500,000 came from West Africa, where they were in the process of forging the culture now called Yoruba. In Cuba they intermingled with others and forged a popular religion, related to but distinct from the traditional religion of the Yoruba.


The world in which Santeria’s followers live overflows with diverse kinds of spirits and divinities, and this "theo-diversity" reflects and embodies the natural biodiversity of both tropical West Africa and Cuba. The supreme god, Olodumare, created the natural world in which humans now live as well as a host of orishas (divinities, called orichas in Cuban Spanish) responsible for its various aspects. Most orishas lived in heaven with Olodumare before descending to the earth. Here they revealed outrageous personalities, led phenomenal lives, and did memorable deeds, and then they ascended into heaven, turned into natural features (e.g., rivers), or disappeared into the earth itself. The stories and rituals for the orishas reveal their specific personalities, complete with foibles, virtues, and preferences for specific foods, objects, metals, and colors. Each orisha rules a specific part of nature and some aspect of human life or society. Most people consider the orishas to be divine representatives or facets of Olodumare.

Eleggua, the mischievous messenger of the other orishas, wears red and black, carries a hooked stick for grabbing things, drinks rum, and smokes cigars. He lives in the forest, the savannah, bars, and crossroads. Always generous, Yemaya is the maternal ocean. A Great Mother figure, she dresses in blue and white, rules motherhood, and eats rams, ducks, pineapples, and watermelons. Obatala, the father of the orishas, has clean white clothes and a cool, even character. He resides in high places, patiently forms human bodies and other creations, and eats white animals and fruits with white flesh. The sensual Oshun lives in the river and rules childbirth, dance, and erotic love. She loves brass, gold, pumpkins, oranges, and mangoes. Shango is a fiery king invoked as the fourth ruler of the Yoruba city of Oyo. He wears red and white and makes his presence known through thunder and lightning. In Cuba approximately thirty orishas make up the pantheon, but people acknowledge the existence of an even greater number.

Each human being has a patron orisha and an innate spiritual component thought to reside within the physical head. Chosen by the individual before birth and authorized by Olodumare, this inner head (orinu) contains the individual’s destiny, character, and special talents, and it reflects the person’s essence (ache). The individual’s ache continues after death and becomes an ancestral spirit (egun), whom the living acknowledge and venerate through ritual.

Ache, the inherent essence and power to make things happen, exists in all natural objects and life forms. Certain herbs heal specific illnesses, and healing is their ache. A mixture of herbs sacred to the orishas helps consecrate priests and priestesses, and this is also called ache. Particular individuals have special talents that transform circumstances—their ache. Words, spoken or sung, carry ache, and thus the Lucumf language (derived from Yoruba) remains an important part of the religion. Similarly animal blood and certain key parts of sacrificed animals have ache to engage the orishas and the ancestors in human affairs. Santeria conceives of the natural world and its ache through polarities: Heaven and earth, white and red, and male and female are just a few of the oppositions that organize the religion’s rituals.


Santeria’s followers mount complex ritual performances to interact with the orishas and other spirits. Through offerings of objects, foods, and animals, people "make ebo’ to placate and petition the spirits. In divination they use traditional mechanisms (coconut pieces, cowrie shells, or palm nuts) to learn the disposition of the spirits and what sacrifices will create the appropriate balance between humans and the spirits. Most divination results in an odu, one of 256 possible divination signs thought to be spirits in their own right; odus contain proverbs, allegories, advice, and myths about the orishas, used to orient people to their circumstances. Specific songs, drum rhythms, and dance steps call the orishas to possess their followers, and the orishas use the human body to dance, sing, salute community members, and give advice. Through rituals and ceremonies, Santeria initiates channel the ache of the orishas.

Through various initiations, people intensify their relationships with the orishas. The ceremonial receiving of consecrated necklaces (elekes) for the principal orishas creates a link between the individual spiritual head and those orishas; similarly it forges a bond between the individual and the initiators (godparents) and their ritual lineage. The warrior’s ceremony gives the new initiate sacred objects (fundamentos) through which to engage four important orishas who guide, protect, and invigorate the individual. The initiation of a new priest or priestess unites a large number of participants in a complex seven-day ceremony (kariocha) that begins a year-long process of transformation. These rituals forge intense, intimate connections between people and the orishas, and Santeria often becomes an encompassing way of life.

Santeria’s followers have often embraced other religious traditions and sources of divine power. Santeria emerged in proximity to the Catholic Church, and the similar spiritual hierarchies made for easy comparisons: Orishas have long been compared with saints. While many scholars imagine Santeria simply as a syncretism, a mixture between Yoruba religion and Catholicism, the religion focuses on worshipping the orishas and allows its followers to include or exclude links to Catholicism and other traditions, like the Afro-Cuban religions Palo Monte and Abakua, which have their primary sources in other African cultures. People often extend the veneration of the ancestors to include spiritism (from France), and its rituals have evolved to include some specifically Cuban forms. Some people borrow ideas and symbols from Freemasonry and astrology.


Cuban immigrants carried Santeria beyond the island, and it now enjoys great popularity in the Caribbean, Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, and the United States, while smaller active communities exist all over Canada and Europe. As in Cuba, the religion unites diverse people, transcending racial and economic differences. Discrimination against the religion has led to strong movements for legal recognition, and in 1993 the U.S.

Supreme Court recognized Santeria as a religion and its followers’ right to sacrifice animals. Followers of the religion have begun exchanging ideas, images, and ritual practices with both Haitian Vodou and Brazilian Candomble, each sharing strong historical ties to Yoruba religion. As Santeria becomes a global religion spread by traveling elders, published texts, and the Internet, face-to-face relationships remain central to learning the world-view and rituals. Both the orishas and the odus provide flexible conceptual systems with which people can understand and respond to their diverse circumstances.

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