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Santeria: Religion of the Masses

March 06, 2002
By Dr. Kwame Nantambu

The name by which the religion is now most commonly known, "Santeria," is a pejorative term first applied by the Spanish to the religious practices of the peasantry. It was used as a derogatory reference to the unusual amount of devotion and attention paid to the Catholic Saints, often in preference to Jesus Christ. This term was again used in Cuba to identify the "pagan" religion. The Yoruba devotion to the Orishas, who were often referred to as "Santos" ("saints") by both slave and slave-owners, was mistakenly seen as the "fanatical" worship of demigods and the neglect of "God."

Therefore, the demeaning term "Santeria" was ascribed to the religious practices of the so-called "savages." Only in recent years, after having the label applied by outsiders for an extended period of time as the term began to be used by members of the religion.

Santeria or La Regla Lucumi originated in West Africa in what is now Nigeria and Benin. It is the traditional religion of the Yoruba peoples. The European slave trade brought many of these people to the shores of Cuba, Brazil, Haiti, Trinidad and Puerto Rico, among others. But along with the bodies being brought over for sale into a life of misery, something else was being brought along, namely their souls and their religion.

The God Olorun interacts with the world and humankind through emissaries. These emissaries are called Orishas. The Orishas rule over every force of nature and every aspect of human life. They are approachable and can be counted on to come to the aid of their followers, guiding them to a better life, materially as well as spiritually.

Communication between Orishas and humankind is accomplished through ritual, prayer, divination and ebo or offerings (which include sacrifice). Songs, rhythms, and trance possessions are also means with which followers and believers interact with the Orishas and how they are able to affect their day to day lives so that they may lead deeper and fuller lives during their stay in this world.

In the New World, the Orishas and much of the religion was hidden behind a fašade of Catholicism with the Orishas themselves represented by various saints. The slave owners would then say: "look at how pious this slave is. She spends all of ter time worshipping Saint Barbara." Unbeknownst to them, the slave would actually be praying to Shango, the Lord of Lighting, fire and the dance, perhaps even praying for deliverance from that very slave owner.

This how the religion came to be known as Santeria. The memory of this period of Afrikan history is also why many in our religion regard the term Santeria as derogatory. The traditions of Santeria are fiercely preserved and full knowledge of the rites, songs, and language are prerequisites to any deep involvement in the religion.

Initiates must follow a strict regimen and are answerable to Olorun and the Orishas for their actions. As a person passes through each initiation in the tradition, this knowledge deepens and their abilities and responsibilities grow accordingly. In fact, during the first year of their initiation into the priesthood, the initiate or Iyawo or 'bride' of the Orisha must dress in white for an entire year.

The Iyawo must not look into a mirror, touch anyone or allow to be touched, and they may not wear makeup, or go out at night for this year. Santeria is a syncretistic religion of Caribbean origin. It incorporates the worship of the Orisha (literally "head guardian") and beliefs of the Yoruba and Bantu people in Southern Nigeria, Senegal and Guinea Coast. These are combined with elements of worship from Roman Catholicism.

Its origins date back to the European slave trade when Yorubas were forcibly transported from Afrika to the Caribbean. They were typically baptized by the Roman Catholic Church upon arrival, and their native practices were suppressed. However, they developed a novel way of keeping their old beliefs alive by substituting each Orisha of their traditional Afrikan religions with a corresponding Euro-Christian Saint.

Many traditions within the religion recognize different equivalencies. One common example include:
Babalz Ayi became St. Lazarus (patron of the sick)
Shangs became St. Barbara (controls thunder, lightning, fire.)
Eleggua or Elegba became St. Anthony (controls roads, gates, etc.)
Obatala became Our Lady of Las Merceds, and the Resurredted Christ
(father of creation; source of spirituality)
Oggzn became St. Peter (patron of war)
Oshzn became Our Lady of Charity (controls money, sensuality.)

Santeria is currently concentrated in:
Cuba and other Caribbean islands and the Hispanic population in Florida, New Jersey, New York City and Los Angeles in the United States, Argentina, Brazil, Columbia, Mexico, Venezuela, France, the Netherlands and Puerto Rico.

It had been actively suppressed in Cuba since the communist revolution - particularly during the 1960's. However, oppression has largely ended and the popularity and practice of Santeria exploded in Cuba during the 1990's.

Many Santerian beliefs are not freely discussed outside of the faith. In addition, there are many religious leaders whose beliefs and practices differ significantly.

The following is a general outline of what is known:
Deities: God is referred to as Olorun, or Olodumare, the "owner of heaven." He is the supreme deity, the creator of the universe, and of the lesser guardians, called Orisha. Each of the latter has an associated Christian Saint, a principle, important number, colour, food, dance posture and emblem. The Orishas need food in the form of animal sacrifice, and prepared dishes, as well as human praise in order to remain effective.

Ritual Sacrifices: These forms are an integral part of many Santerian religious rituals. The animal's blood is collected and offered to the Orisha. Chickens are the most common animal used. Their sacrifice is believed to please the Gods and to bring good luck, purification and forgiveness of sins.

Possession: Rhythmic sounds and feverish dancing during Santerian rituals are believed to lead to possession of the individual by the particular Orisha being invoked. The individual then speaks and acts as the Orisha.

Veneration of Ancestors: One's ancestors, called Ara Orun ("People of Heaven") are refereed to for moral guidance and example. Their names are recited at family ceremonies.

The following Santerian practices are known:
Secrecy: Very little information about beliefs, rituals, symbolism, practice are released to the general public. One has to be initiated into the faith before information is freely released and shared.

Tradition: Santeria is not a religion of a book, like Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. Like most Aboriginal religions, it is preserved by oral tradition.

Ritual: A ritual typically begins with the invocation of Olurun. Drums provide background Afrikan rhythms. The Oru or Rhythm changes to that associated with a specific Orisha, who is then invoked as well. Animals, most commonly chickens, are sacrificed during many rituals. Dancing is another main component of the ritual.

Priesthood: Priests are called Santeros or Babalochas. Priestesses are called Santeras or Iyalochas. Olorisha can refer to a priest or a priestess. They are trained for many years in the oral tradition of the faith. This is followed by a period of solitude before being initiated. They learn dance, songs and healing methods.

Botanicas: These are stores that specialize in providing Santerian supplies. They sell charms, herbs, potions, musical instruments, and other materials used by the followers.

There are many national variations to this religion. This is particularly obvious in places like Los Angeles, CA, U.S.A. where the Spanish speaking population has many national origins. Mexican Santeria, for example, emphasizes its Roman Catholic roots; it often includes nationally based icons, like the Virgin of Guadeloupe. Cuban Santeria tends to emphasize its Afrikan origins.

Many conflicts have arrived by the practices of Santeria. There has been considerable friction between Santerians and groups promoting the care and treatment of animals. The source of the conflict is the animal sacrifices, which form an integral part of some of their rituals. Chickens and other small animals are ritually sacrificed at times of serious sickness or misfortune and at times of initiation. Santerians defend their practices by pointing out that:

The animals are killed in a humane manner and later eaten, just as the many of millions of animals slaughtered daily in North American commercial establishments.

Ritual sacrifice of animals was a extensively practiced in ancient Israel and was only discontinued after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in the eighth decade A.D.

They feel that the sacrifices must continue because their Orisha need the food. Animal sacrifices have formed part of their religion for over one entire millennium.

They believe that although the people were yanked away from their homes involuntarily in Afrika and enslaved in the New World, Orisha, the religion and its power could never be chained down and the religion survives now -- not as an anachronism, but ever grown among Afrikan peoples in the Diaspora.

Santeria speaks to the spirituality of Afrikan peoples. It represents their direct connection and relationship with the spiritual God force. It emboldens the Alpha and Omega of Afrikan peoples. It symbolizes the power of the Afrikan despite his physical enslavement. But most importantly, Santeria is Afrikan in origin and its Gods are BLACK / AFRIKAN.

In the practice and belief system of Santeria, Afrikan peoples see themselves; become in-tuned with nature, the cosmos and the universe. They become in-tuned with the holistic nature of their life and being. They become God-like. This is the Afrikan way.

Shem Hotep

Dr. Nantambu is an Associate Professor, Dept. of Pan-African Studies, Kent State University, U.S.A. a Public Policy versus Human Needs.

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