During my trip to Cuba, I had the opportunity to talk to santeros and see and live their culture. I thought it was very interesting, so when I came back, I felt the need to share what I learnt as well as do a bit of research to learn more. Since it is a religion/cult that has been quite secretive from its origin, a lot of details vary from family to family. I am not a santera, so this is a brief article done with care and interest.
Santería (in Spanish “The Way of the Saints”), also called Regla de Ocha-Ifá is a cult that was born due to the syncretisation of the Catholic religion implanted by the Kingdom of Spain and the millenary yoruba religion of African slaves (Nigeria, Benín y Togo) during the colonial period. It also has some characteristics from the Haitian Voodoo (animal sacrifices and divination).
In colonial Cuba, because the Spanish only admitted Catholic religion, slaves had to practice their rituals in secret. The slaves identified the Saints with their African divinity or energy equivalent and practiced rituals in their own homes. The name “santería” comes from the Spaniards, who mocked the slaves for having such apparent excessive devotion to the Saints.
Santería is very unknown from the outside perspective because it was practiced in secret and the knowledge was continued from generation to generation. However, it ended up being accepted in society for health reasons (healing ceremonies) as well as the development of music and afrocuban culture.
After the Revolution, some santeros migrated to Florida, Mexico, Spain or Puerto Rico among other countries. The Revolution also caused the State to separate from the church and therefore, santería has nowadays a better social status and it is not practiced in secret. Today, due to Cuban’s movement around the world, santería is not only practiced in Cuba.
Santería is based in the worship to ancestors who have died (egún) and the belief in an universal god who created everything. It is called “Olodumare” (which means “omnipotent” in the yoruba language) and it is referred as a feminine entity. Her power or energy is called “aché” or “ashé”. There is a Cuban expression which comes from this: “tener ashé” which means “to have ashé”, “to be lucky”. Olodumare communicates with human beings through manifestations of himself: the Orishas.
These are complex mystical beings, whose essence can’t be expressed in an image. They exist in divine energy which surrounds us. Most of them had a human form and gained a “semidivine” status after death, just like the Saints in the Catholic religion.
Each have their own personality and they control different aspects of everyday life. The Orishas also make sure each person follow their destiny that has been determined since their birth. Orishas themselves choose the person they protect since birth. If the human does not fullfil their destiny, they reincarnate and the Orishas punish them until they fulfil it.
These are a few of the most important Orishas:
Elewá/Elegguá: messenger of Olofi and other Orishas. Guardian of doors, dead included, he opens paths and is represented by Saint Anthony and Niño de Praga o de Atocha.
Obatalá: father of the Orishas, master of peace and purity and represented by Virgen de las Mercedes.
Orunla: also known as Ifá and Orúnmila, main fortune-teller the youruba’s pantheon, master of priests (babalawos) and represented by Saint Francisco de Asís.
Yemayá: mother of several Orishas, master of the seas and maternity, for she is the first mother of humanity and represented by Virgen de Regla.
Changó: master of virility, fire, thunder and lightning, he gives victory above any enemy and any difficulty. He is represented by Saint Bárbara.
Oshún: master of love, marriage, gold, joy and the rivers, represented by Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, patron of Cuba.
Oyá: queen of the dead, owner of storms, master of the cemetery and represented by Saint Theresa and Virgen de la Candelaria.
Babalú Ayé: master of illnesses, protects health and is represented by Saint Lazarus.
Ogún: son of Yemayá, master of metals and any person working and represented by Saint Peter.
Ochosi: son of Yemayá, master of hunters and represented by Saint Norbert.
Due to their faith in reincarnation, santeros believe that, within certain limitations, it is possible to chose the destiny of the next life before being born. This implies that there are some things that are set in life such as character, occupation, poorness or richness, intelligence, luck or misfortune and life duration.
Therefore, even though it is not possible to change the destiny itself, one can make it worse by not following a prohibition or taboo of their Orisha, disobeying a deity or any witchcraft ceremony gone wrong. This why they use fortune-telling and divination ceremonies.
Through fortune-telling, they discover why and the origine of the negative influences in their life and can then, be corrected. Not only the spiritual reasons for the countless problems and difficulties in life are discovered, like love, health and money, but also it is informed of how to solve them.
The Structure of Santería
In Santería, there is a priest hierarchy. The highest priests are the Babalawos. Next, there are the babalorishas and iyalorishas, who are consecrated santeros with or without godchildren. The Iyawos are santeros who have consecrated and have been initiated for a year and the Aleyos who are unconsecrated believers. All of them are santeros and are initiated with specific ceremonies.
The initiation process is long and complex. It has several phases and it varies depending on the Orisha. First, it is necessary to determine which Orisha corresponds to the person who wants to be initiated. This is done through divination, by an initiated or a Babalawo to have more certainty. The preparation for the initiation include a special bath (similar to a baptism in the Catholic religion) and the initiated has to wear white for a whole year, as a symbol of a new life. In the initiation an Orisha is assigned formally, also identified as “guardian angel” and it defines the god and carer of the initiated. During this first year, the initiated must obey to certain prohibitions about the clothes, sexual relationships, good and everyday life. The initiation starts with receiving the necklaces and ends with the “sit” (asiento).
Every ceremony or ritual in santería starts with a bow to the dead, which extend to the eldest ancestors. It is believed that the dead can interfere in their lives, both to protect them as well as bother them. When the dead feel cared for, they take care of the believers. It is also believed that the dead are stronger than the living, so santeros take caution towards sad souls, “dark spirits” with ill intention.
In several ceremonies, initiation included, music is an important character. Percussion rhythms, songs and dances are used to please Orishas and invite them to join the celebration. Through the drums, an alternated conscience state is achieved, known as “posession” and it is said that “the saint comes down” or that the initiated has “the saint on”. This refers to the Saint coming down and setting in the head of the santero. The dancers stop doing basic repetitive steps and shake or do specific and distinct gestures from the different Orishas.
Another characteristic of santería is the sacrifice of animals. In this cult, the blood of the sacrificed animals belongs to the Orishas, and therefore, to the creator god Olofi. It is a divine right. The killing of the animals is not a nonsense, it is done in ceremonies that are held with seriousness and respect. Only trained people are allowed to do it. When an animal is sacrificed in a purification ritual, it is believed that the animal absorbed the problems, dangers and bad vibrations of the person the ritual was done to. This is why this meat is never eaten, but eliminated according to a specific Orisha. In the initiation ceremony it is obligatory to sacrifice animals because “there is no birth without blood” and in the initiation a new life is “born”.
This is the information I got from talking to people and from the websites below, but again, not every family is the same and if you’re interested is always good to do your own research. I am simply sharing a religion and culture that feels very enriching in its own way.