views updated Jun 27 2018






Santería 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 Santería 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 Santerías followers live overflows with diverse kinds of spirits and divinities, and this theodiversity 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.

Elegguá, 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, Yemayá is the maternal ocean. A Great Mother figure, she dresses in blue and white, rules motherhood, and eats rams, ducks, pineapples, and watermelons. Obatalá, 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 Oshún lives in the river and rules childbirth, dance, and erotic love. She loves brass, gold, pumpkins, oranges, and mangoes. Shangó 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 (orinú ) contains the individuals destiny, character, and special talents, and it reflects the persons essence (aché ). The individuals aché continues after death and becomes an ancestral spirit (egun ), whom the living acknowledge and venerate through ritual.

Aché, 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 aché. A mixture of herbs sacred to the orishas helps consecrate priests and priestesses, and this is also called aché. Particular individuals have special talents that transform circumstancestheir aché. Words, spoken or sung, carry aché, and thus the Lucumí language (derived from Yoruba) remains an important part of the religion. Similarly animal blood and certain key parts of sacrificed animals have aché to engage the orishas and the ancestors in human affairs. Santería conceives of the natural world and its aché through polarities: Heaven and earth, white and red, and male and female are just a few of the oppositions that organize the religions rituals.


Santerías followers mount complex ritual performances to interact with the orishas and other spirits. Through offerings of objects, foods, and animals, people make ebó 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, Santería initiates channel the aché 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 warriors 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 Santería often becomes an encompassing way of life.

Santerías followers have often embraced other religious traditions and sources of divine power. Santería 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 Santería 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 Abakuá, 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 Santería 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 Santería 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 Candomblé, each sharing strong historical ties to Yoruba religion. As Santería 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.

SEE ALSO African Diaspora; Animism; Religion; Rituals; Vodou


Brown, David H. 2003. Santería Enthroned: Art, Ritual, and Innovation in an Afro-Cuban Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Clark, Kamari Maxine. 2004. Mapping Yoruba Networks: Power and Agency in the Making of Transnational Communities. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Mason, Michael Atwood. 2002. Living Santería: Rituals and Experiences in an Afro-Cuban Religion. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Matory, J. Lorand. 2005. Black Atlantic Religion: Tradition, Transnationalism, and Matriarchy in the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Palmié, Stephan. 2002. Wizards and Scientists: Explorations in Afro-Cuban Modernity and Tradition. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Michael Atwood Mason


views updated May 29 2018


SANTERÍA is a religious tradition of African origin that developed in Cuba and that was spread throughout the Caribbean and the United States by exiles from the revolution of 1959. Santería began in the nineteenth century when hundreds of thousands of men and women of the Yoruba people, from what are now Nigeria and Benin, were brought to Cuba to work in the island's booming sugar industry. Despite brutal conditions, some were able to reconstruct their religious lives through a fusing of the traditions remembered from their homeland and from their encounter with the folk piety of the Roman Catholic church.

The Cuban Yoruba often used the iconography of Catholic saints to express their devotions to Yoruba spirits called orishas. The name Santería, "the way of the saints," is the most common Spanish word used to describe these practices, and the word santero (m.) or santera (f.) indicates an initiated devotee. Later generations of santeros would construct elaborate systems of correspondences between orishas and saints, leading observers to see this Caribbean religion as a model for understanding religious syncretism and cultural change. Despite the frequent presence of Catholic symbols in Santería rites and the attendance of santeros at Catholic sacraments, Santería is essentially an African way of worship drawn into a symbiotic relationship with Catholicism.

Santeros believe that every individual, before he or she is born, is given a destiny, or road in life, by the Almighty. It is the responsibility of the individual to understand his or her destiny and to grow with it rather than to be a victim of it. Santeros recognize a pantheon of orishas whose aid and energy can bring devotees to a complete fulfillment of their destinies. The basis of Santería is the development of a deep personal relationship with the orishas, a relationship that will bring the santero worldly success and heavenly wisdom. Devotion to the orishas takes four principal forms: divination, sacrifice, spirit mediumship, and initiation.

For the ordinary devotee, Santería serves as a means for resolving the problems of everyday life, including problems of health, money, and love. Divination can reveal the sources of these problems, and it points the way to their resolution. Santería has preserved several Yoruba systems of divination in a hierarchical ranking according to their reliability and the amount of training required to master them. The most complex system of divination in Santería, Ifa, can be "read" only by male priests called babalawos. In response to a querent's problem, a babalawo will throw a small chain (ekwele) that has eight pieces of shell, bone, or other material affixed to it. Each piece is shaped so that, when thrown, it lands either concave or convex side up. This arrangement results in 256 possible combinations, each representing a basic situation in life. The combination that falls at any particular time is the purest expression of fate, and thus of the God-given destiny of the querent. Most of the patterns refer to stories that tell of the problems faced by the orishas and heroes in the past, and that relate the solutions that were found. These solutions become the archetypes used by the querent to resolve the problem that he or she has brought to Ifa.

Nearly all problems are resolved by deepening the devotee's relationship with the orishas. There is no firmer way for the devotee to show this relationship than through the symbolism of shared foodthat is, through sacrifice. The orishas, like all living things, must eat in order to live. Although they are immensely powerful, they are by no means immortal, and for continued life they depend on the sacrifice and praise of human beings. Each orisha enjoys certain special foods, ranging from cakes to stews, fruits, or drinks. If an orisha requests, santeros will sacrifice fowl, sheep, or other animals. The slaughter is always performed quickly and cleanly according to ritual rules, and the flesh is nearly always cooked and consumed by the congregation as part of the orisha 's feast.

The most dramatic form of devotion to the orishas is ceremonial spirit mediumship. At certain ceremonies called bembes, guemileres, or tambores, a battery of drums calls the orishas to join the devotees in dance and song. If an orisha so chooses, he or she will "descend" and "seize the head" of an initiate. In this state the incarnated orisha may perform spectacular dances that the human medium would be hard put to imitate in ordinary consciousness. More important, an incarnated orisha will deliver messages, admonitions, and advice to individual members of the community, bringing their heavenly wisdom to bear on their devotees' earthly problems.

As a devotee grows in these ways of devotion, one particular orisha may begin to assert itself as the devotee's patron, and the love of this orisha will provide the devotee with his or her basic orientation in life. When this orisha calls for it, the devotee will undergo a demanding and irrevocable initiation into the mysteries of the patron orisha. The initiation ceremony is carried out with great solemnity and care in the home of an initiate of long experience. During a lengthy period of isolation and instruction, the devotee is brought to a spiritual rebirth as a true child of the orisha. During this ceremony the orisha is "enthroned in the head" of the devotee, seated and sealed as a permanent part of the devotee's personality.

As the initiate grows in this new level of devotion, his or her relationship with the seated orisha becomes increasingly fluid. The sacrificial exchange between them comes to be seen as the outward manifestation of an inner process. Thus Santería culminates in a mysticism of identity between human and divine, where the road of life is the way of the orishas.

Santería continues to grow in the late twentieth century. Its popularity in Cuba seems to have been little affected by the socialist revolution, and thanks to nearly one million Cuban exiles, it is thriving in Venezuela, Puerto Rico, and the United States. The number of full initiates is difficult to determine because of the tradition of secrecy that santeros have maintained in order to survive a history of oppression and misunderstanding. The presence of Santería in a given neighborhood may be gauged by the profusion of botánicas, small retail stores that sell the herbs and ritual paraphernalia of Santería ceremonies. In 1981, there were at least eighty botánicas in Miami, Florida, and more than a hundred in New York City.

See Also

Afro-Brazilian Religions; Journalism and Religion; Vodou; Yoruba Religion.


A limited literature exists on Santería in English. The finest presentation of the symbolism of the orishas is Robert F. Thompson's Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy (New York, 1981). Migene González-Wippler has written three books on the subject. Santería: African Magic in Latin America (Garden City, N. Y., 1975) is a disorganized introduction that borrows freely from Spanish sources. The Santería Experience (Englewood Cliffs, N. J., 1982) is a detailed, well-written, first-person account of the author's experience with Santería in New York. Rituals and Spells of Santería (New York, 1984) presents source materials on Santería liturgy and magic. William R. Bascom has written two articles on Santería in Cuba; reflecting his wide experience as an anthropologist among the Yoruba in Nigeria, these articles are "The Focus of Cuban Santeria," Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 6 (Spring 1950): 6468, and "Two Forms of Afro-Cuban Divination," in Acculturation in the Americas, edited by Sol Tax (Chicago, 1952), pp. 169184.

Among Spanish sources, pride of place belongs to the works of Fernando Ortiz. Between 1906 and his death in 1969, he published hundreds of pieces on all aspects of Afro-Cuban culture. The work that deals most directly with Santería is perhaps Los bailes y el teatro de los negros en el folklore de Cuba (Havana, 1951). The most widely available works in Spanish in the United States are those of the great exiled folklorist Lydia Cabrera. Among her many books in print on Afro-Cuban themes, El monte (Miami, 1968) and Koeko iyawo: Pequeño tratado de regla Lucumi (Miami, 1980) are considered authoritative by practitioners and observers alike. Two books by anthropologically trained scholars provide excellent surveys of the tradition: Julio Sánchez's La religión de los orichas (Hato Rey, Puerto Rico, 1978) and Mercedes Cros Sandoval's La religion afrocubana (Madrid, 1975). Sandoval's book makes use of Pierre Verger's classic Notes sur le culte des Orisa et Vodun à Bahia (Dakar, 1957), which traces the connections between the religion of the orishas in Africa and that in Brazil and includes invaluable texts of prayers to the orishas as well as excellent photographs.

Joseph M. Murphy (1987)


views updated May 18 2018


The Lucumí and Nago people from present-day Nigeria, in Africa, were enslaved by the British, French, and Portugese and brought into the New World, where they were consigned in Cuba to Spanish plantations. By 1728 "Ulkumí" people, as they were then known, were found among the enslaved in Cuba. The plantation economy took form during the early nineteenth Century. It is estimated that the importation of Nagos and Lucumís from the Ojo Kingdom reached 275,000 to 350,000 people between 1820 and 1860. By the late 1800s these enslaved Lucumí and Nago people were known as Yorubas, their linguistic identification. These Yorubaland people brought a powerful religious cosmology that served to counter their enslavement and the Spanish form of Catholicism. In the 1840s, the Yoruba were a minority among the enslaved, representing 34 percent of the Africans in Havana, but their religious system, known as Ifá, spread among other enslaved nations. Due to the intensive exploitation of the enslaved on the Spanish plantations, their average life expectancy was seven years. This high mortality rate necessitated the legal as well as illegal importation of Africans to work the plantations, reintroducing Ifá religion and culture throughout the nineteenth century.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, Ifá represents the African religious form, while La Regla de Ocha (the Rites of Ocha) and Lucumí religious forms are Cuban. Lucumí became an ethnic identification for all Yorubas in Cuba. Forms of Ifá religion can be found throughout the Caribbean and South America, including Brazil where it is known as Cantomblé.

The word santería is translated as "the worship of saints." Santería focuses on earthly pursuits, divination, and providing the individual with a spiritual balance between good and evil. It is an animist religion that combines ancestor worship and mediumship. Europeans mistakenly viewed Ifá beliefs as similar to their Christian afterlife concerns, and the combined practice was allowed to buttress enslavement. This led to viewing Ocha as a syncretic religion that incorporated Catholicism into itself.

Since the 1930s, the syncretic paradigm has been used to explain the combining of two incompatible belief systems into one: Yorubaland's Ocha and Spanish Catholicism. This is the Eurocentric explanation for the use of saints at the altar of Ocha believers. Nevertheless, Ocha maintained an African religious orientation, which distinguishes it from Catholicism. This differentiation in cosmology led many believers to have both an afterlife orientation (Christianity) and a here-and-now belief (Ocha). Believers often add saints to their altars, a remnant of the Spanish colonial era when Africans were forced to veil their worship, and this has contributed to a history of secrecy in the religion. Further, many believers sought legitimacy by using the iconography of Catholicism.

The orisàs, ancestor deities of the Yorubaland people, number more than three hundred in Cuba, although not more than sixty identified with saints. One example, Saint Lazarus the Leper, was identified with the Orisà Babalú Ayé, to whom supplicants who are sick and infirm provide votive offerings. These offerings (ebbó) are often given after divination and can include the blood-letting of animals. The tools for divination (interpretation of significance) are Ifá's Opele, where eight pieces of concave and convex coconut shells, affixed to a chain, are tossed on a tray; and the Diloggún, where sixteen unfastened corrie shells are similarly tossed. The third form of divination is the Obí, oftentimes done with four unfastened coconut shells, two of which are covered in white, and are tossed on the ground or on a tray. The Obí form is the most popular among Cubans. A bàbálao, an initiated priest, interprets and determines significance (la letra) by casting these shells.

Most believers are not initiated priests, but belong to a ritual kinship system where the bàbálao is godfather to a membership of godchildren who belong to a house of worship (Ilé Lucumí) or more popularly known as a Casa de Santería. It is a male-dominated religion, but women are making inroads into many roles. The Yorubaland language is used at ceremonies, but in the Americas it has lost much of its vocabulary, intonations, and accentuation, associated with the African variant. Worship is individualized, but generally festivals (bembé) occur for the orisàs in which an orchestra plays three batá drums and a chorus sings. In the absence of an orchestra, recorded music is played. Ilés de Lucumí have existed in Florida, especially Tampa, since before the Cuban Spanish American War (1898). In United States today, the belief system is mostly found in other areas where Cubans have settled and where there are concentrations of other Latinos/Hispanics, such as in California, Chicago, New Jersey, and New York.

See alsoAfro-Cuban Religion; Animal Sacrifice; Drumming; Popular Religion; Syncretism; Vodun.


Bascom, W. Ifá Divination. 1969.

Benavides, Gustavo. "Syncretism and Legitimacy in Latin American Religion." In Enigmatic Powers: Syncretism with African and Indigenous Peoples' ReligionsAmong Latinos. Edited by Anthony Stevens Arroyo and Andrés I. Pérez y Mena. 1995, pp. 19–46.

Brandon, George. Santería from Africa to the New World:The Dead Sell Memories. 1997.

González-Wippler, Migene. Santería: The Religion. 1989.

Law, Robin. "Ethnicity and the Slave Trade: 'Lucumi' and 'Nago' as Ethnonyms in West Africa." Historyin Africa 24 (1997): 205–219.

Midlo Hall, Gwendolyn. Databases for the Study of Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy, 1699–1860: Computerized Information from Original Manuscript Sources. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press. 1999.

Midlo Hall, Gwendolyn. Social Control in Slave Plantation Societies: A Comparison of St. Dominque and Cuba. 1972.

Murphy, Joseph M. Santería: An African Religion inAmerica. 1988.

Ortiz, Fernando. Cuban Counterpoint, Tobacco andSugar. Trans. Harriet De Onís. 1940. Repr. 1970.

Ortiz, Fernando. Los Negros Brujos. 1906. Repr. 1973.

Pérez y Mena, Andrés I. "Cuban Santería, Haitian Vodun, Puerto Rican Spiritualism: A Multicultural Inquiry into Syncretism." Journal for the ScientificStudy of Religion. 37 (1998).

Pérez y Mena, Andrés I. "Religious Syncretism." In TheLatino Encyclopedia. 1996.

Pérez y Mena, Andrés I. Speaking with the Dead: Development of Afro-Latin Religion Among Puerto Ricans inthe United States. 1991.

Andrés I. Pérez y Mena


views updated May 14 2018


Santería, the Spanish name for a system of religious practices of African origin brought to Cuba in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In that period hundreds of thousands of Africans were enslaved to work in the thriving sugar industries of the island. A plurality of these arrivals shared a similar culture and language called Yoruba by English ethnographers and Lucumí in Cuba. Since they came in such large numbers in such a short period of time, the Lucumí were able to maintain and adapt many of their cultural institutions, not the least of which were the complex theology and liturgies for a pantheon of spirits called orishas (Orixás). The Lucumí found correspondences between their orishas and the saints of popular Cuban Catholic piety, often masking their secret and suppressed traditions with the public faces of the saints. Thus, the tradition came to be known as Santería, the way of the saints.

The name Santería is not always acceptable to many present-day practitioners, since it has so long borne, like the North American use of "voodoo," the misrepresentations of outsiders. By its reference to the Catholic saints, the name also implies an admixture of Catholic elements to African traditions that present-day practitioners would argue are purely African. Alternatives such as la regla de ocha (the order of the orishas), la religión Lucumí, or simply "Lucumí" or "Orisha" are used.

The core of the Cuban orisha tradition is the development of an intimate relationship between a human being and his or her patron spirit, or orisha. The relationship often begins when an individual is so troubled by problems such as ill health or lack of money that he or she will consult a priest or priestess of the orishas. The priest and priestess will have been trained as diviners and, depending on their rank, they will utilize a variety of means to determine the spiritual source of and solutions to the seeker's problem. All priests and priestesses are empowered to divine solutions with sixteen cowrie shells called dilogun. The heads-or-tails patterns that result from the fall of the shells reveal the path of action for the seeker to take to resolve his or her problem. A related but more complex system of divination called ifa is reserved for a special male priest called the babalawo, the "father of the mystery." In either system the diagnosis of the problem will lie in the seeker's neglect of his or her patron orisha. The divination will tentatively determine the orisha's identity, and a resolution of the problem will be found in a series of ritual actions culminating in a sacrifice to the orisha.

This opening sacrifice leads toward a growing, reciprocal relationship with the orisha as a human being offers respect, praise, and ritual food while the orisha reciprocates with gifts of power, blessings, and wisdom. As the relationship matures, divination will determine that the orisha seeks a permanent relationship, a kind of marriage in which the human being will become an iyawo, a bride to the spirit. In a lengthy and costly series of ceremonies, the initiate will have the orisha "seated" in his or her "head," thus marking the permanent presence of the spirit within the consciousness of the human being. This asiento (seating) initiation marks the entry of the individual into the orisha priesthood, and he or she is to be called a babalorisha (father in the orisha) or iyalorisha (mother in the orisha). Often enough the Spanish terms santero and santera are applied to this level of priesthood.

The most dramatic encounters with the orishas are found in communal drum and dance ceremonies called bembés. Here, amid elaborate polyrhythms and complex choreography, certain orishas are called to "mount" the heads of their initiates so that they lose consciousness while the orishas use their bodies to join in the ceremony. Manifested in the bodies of their "horses," the orishas sing and dance with the community, offer advice and warnings, and gladden the hearts of their devotees.

Since the Cuban Revolution of 1959, nearly 1 million Cubans have left the island to form communities, primarily on the U.S. mainland and in Puerto Rico and Venezuela. Carried by Cuban babalorishas and iyalorishas, the orisha tradition has undergone a second diaspora, adapting itself to these new environments. Just as it is likely that there are more orisha devotees in the New World than in the Old, so there are probably more in the Cuban diaspora than in Cuba itself. Since every community is autonomous, it is impossible to determine the numbers of practitioners of the tradition. It has grown well beyond its original Cuban community to include Latin Americans of all nationalities and ethnicities, as well as North American blacks and whites.

See alsoAfrican-Latin American Religions: Overview; Syncretism.


William R. Bascom, "The Focus of Cuban Santería," in Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 6, no. 1 (1950): 64-68.

Fernando Ortíz, Los bailes y el teatro de los negros en el folklore de Cuba (1951).

Mercedes Cros Sandoval, La religión afrocubana (1975).

Julio Sánchez, La religión de los orichas (Hato Rey, Puerto Rico: Colección Estudios Afrocaribeños, 1978).

Lydia Cabrera, Koeko iyawó, aprende novicia: Pequeño tratado de regla Lucumí (1980).

Joseph M. Murphy, Santería: An African Religion in America (1988).

Migene González-Wippler, Santería: The Religion (1989).

George Brandon, Santería from Africa to the New World: The Dead Sell Memories (1993).

Additional Bibliography

Ayorinde, Christine. Afro-Cuban Religiosity, Revolution, and National Identity. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004.

Brown, David H. Santería Enthroned: Art, Ritual, and Innovation in an Afro-Cuban Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Cros Sandoval, Mercedes. Worldview, the Orichas, and Santería: Africa to Cuba and Beyond. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006.

Fernández Olmos, Margarite, and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert. Creole Religions of the Caribbean: An Introduction from Vodou and Santería to Obeah and Espiritismo. New York: New York University Press, 2003.

Hagedorn, Katherine J. Divine Utterances: The Performance of Afro-Cuban Santería. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001.

Pérez Medina, Tomás. La santería cubana: El camino de Osha: Ceremonias, ritos, y secretos. Madrid: Biblioteca Nueva, 1998.

Wedel, Johan. Santería Healing: A Journey into the Afro-Cuban World of Divinities, Spirits, and Sorcery. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004.

                                     Joseph M. Murphy


views updated May 29 2018


SANTERÍA is a religious tradition brought to the United States by immigrants from Cuba in the latter half of the twentieth century. It originated among the Yoruba peoples of present-day Nigeria. The Yoruba were enslaved in large numbers in the first decades of the nineteenth century and brought to Cuba to labor in the island's expanding sugar industry. Perhaps as many as 500,000 Yoruba men and women came to Cuba, where they were called "Lucumi." The Lucumi established a strong ethnic presence in Cuba and created important cultural institutions that survived their enslavement and flourish today.

The word "santería" means "way of the saints" in Spanish and reflects the tendency of the Lucumi to correspond their deities from Africa, called "orishas," with the saints of the Roman Catholic traditions into which they were indoctrinated. This tragic history of forced acculturation has led some contemporary practitioners to reject the name "santería" as a colonial misnomer for an independent African tradition that might preferably be called "Lucumi religion," after its ethnic heritage, or "Orisha religion," after its deities.

The orishas are personal, cosmic forces that inhabit and energize the world of nature: mineral, vegetable, animal, and human. In theory, there are innumerable orishas1,600 is a traditional number used to show the vastness of the pantheonbut in practice there are some sixteen that are widely known and venerated. Each orisha has a distinct personality, and is approached through its own songs and dances with appropriate ritual foods, plants, and altar displays. The orisha Ogun, for example, is a hard, masculine deity, who as the cosmic blacksmith transforms the world through metals and tools. The orisha Oshun, by contrast, is a cool, feminine deity of the river, who works through the pliant, but no less powerful medium of water. Each orisha offers blessings and benefits to its devotees ranging from spiritual experience to practical assistance in finding jobs or maintaining health. The lore of the orishas contains a very large pharmacopoeia and this tradition has been of inestimable aid in providing medical and mental health care to the urban poor. In the late twentieth century, hospitals in Miami and New York established cooperative programs with orisha devotees to try to meet the needs of people often poorly served by established health institutions.

Since its introduction to the United States in the latter half of the twentieth century, the veneration of the orishas has spread well beyond the original Afro-Cuban population. In the early years of the twenty-first century, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and other Latin Americans, as well as significant numbers of African Americans and white Americans have embraced it. It is difficult to estimate the number of practitioners, as there are few public organizations or groups of congregations beyond the individual "houses," which typically claim twenty or thirty active participants. In the United States, the number of initiated priests and priestesses may number 50,000, while active participants are likely ten times that. As for those who might consult a priest or priestess for help, they number in the millions. Kindred orisha traditions are practiced throughout Latin America, particularly in Cuba, Brazil, Argentina, and Venezuela, making "santería" a world religion of growing influence.


Brandon, George. Santería from Africa to the New World: The Dead Sell Memories. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Murphy, Joseph M. Santería: An African Religion in America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1988.

Joseph M. Murphy

See also African American Religions and Sects .


views updated Jun 11 2018


Santería, or "saint worship," is a religion that has its roots in both the spiritual practices of the Yoruba people of western Africa and in Roman Catholicism. The Yoruba people believed in the supreme God Olodumare and in lesser deities known as orishas. As slaves brought to work on sugar plantations in Cuba, they were baptized and catechized in the Roman Catholic Church in accordance with the Slave Code of 1789. The synthesis of these two religious practices occurred as slaves began to recognize Catholic saints as spiritual beings similar to their orishas. Eventually each orisha was matched with a Catholic saint and came to be known by both the African and Christian name (for instance, Orula and St. Francis of Assisi describe the same being). Under Spanish rule, the followers of this religion, santeros, continued to honor their spiritual ancestors and sought power through them. They communicated to the orishas through the ashe, the blood and power, of animal sacrifice and other offerings, such as food or clothing; today, community service is also a method of communication. The orishas, in turn, spoke to santeros through divination, performed by babalawos, who could read the future in sea- or coconut shells or in cards immersed in clear water.

Santería became a presence in the United States largely as a result of the exodus of Cubans after the revolution of 1959. There is little public display of the religion. Botanicas, which sell candles, beads, oils, herbs, plants, and plaster statues of Catholic saints, are found in Latino sections of New York, Miami, and Los Angeles. The number of followers is not easily determined. In southern Florida, which has had a large Caribbean immigration, roughly seventy thousand people practice Santería.

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has protested the ritual slaughter of animals by adherents to Santería on several occasions. One 1980 raid on an apartment in the Bronx where Santería was reportedly being practiced yielded three goats and eighteen chickens. A larger case arose when Ernesto Pichardo opened a public church for Santería followersthe first in the United Statesin Hialeah, Florida, in 1987. After a two-year struggle, the town passed an ordinance banning animal sacrifice. Pichardo and others claimed such rulings to be hypocritical in a society where meat is slain daily for consumption, especially since in Santería the animal sacrificed is often eaten afterward. In June 1993 the Supreme Court removed the ban on religious animal sacrifices as discrimination against religious practice.

See also Catholicism in the Americas; Orisha; Yoruba Religion and Culture in the Americas


Gonzalez-Wippler, Migene. Santería, the Religion: A Legacy of Faith, Rites, and Magic. New York: Harmony, 1989.

Murphy, Joseph M. Santería: An African Religion in America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1988.

walter friedman (1996)

grissel bordoni-seijo (1996)


views updated May 29 2018

Santería (Cuban, ‘the way of the saints’). A complex of religious cults in the Afro-Cuban population, combining Yoruba African and Spanish Catholic traditions, especially concerning the saints (santos) who are identified with the spirits (orisha) of the Yoruba pantheon. Worship features prayers and songs in Yoruba, drumming which may speak for the spirits, and sacred stones of power, associated with the spirits, kept under the altar, and ‘baptized’ and fed annually with herbs and blood.

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