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The International Writers Magazine: Cuba / Religion

Santeria: An Afro-Cuban Religion
• Dr. Carlos M. Taracido
The Saints of Cuba, Santeria or Regla de Ocha, is the Afro-Cuban religion practiced by many blacks and some whites in Cuba, and recently among Cuban immigrants in Miami and New York. To a lesser extent, it is also practiced in Puerto Rico and, by cultural spread, among Hispanos on the Eastern seaboard of the United States.


Santeria (literally, "Belonging to the Saints") or Regla de Ocha ("Rule of the gods") has its roots in Africa--in what is now Yorubaland, Nigeria--and was brought to Cuba by the slaves. Through Santeria, all of the major and many minor gods in the ancient Yoruba pantheon have found their way, via Cuba, to us in the United States.

       Santeria preserves characteristics of the Yoruba pantheon, which is extremely complex and sophisticated. It is strongly reminiscent of that of the ancient Greeks, whose gods and goddesses appear to be quite human in their behavior. But Santeria is more than a simple adaptation of the Yoruba beliefs.

      The religious practices of the Africans in Cuba were influenced in many ways; each tribe borrowed freely from the customs and ideas of the local Cuban culture. Santeria , therefore, represents a typical case of syncretism--the popular combination or reconciliation of different religious beliefs. What has evolved is a curious mixture of Yoruba magic and Catholic traditions.

      During colonial times in Cuba, open devotion to the African gods was not tolerated officially. In order to continue the rituals, an acceptable facade had to be developed. It was natural, therefore, for the natives to "legitimize" their religion by adopting the Catholic saints of the settlers. Catholic priests encouraged and sometimes led these saintly devotions in order to convert the slaves, thus fostering the development of Santeria.

The adoption process was an easy one. Some parallel was found between a Catholic saint and a Yoruba god, and then the external symbols of the saint were incorporated into the worship ceremony of the god to legitimize it in Cuba.

      For example, Changó the Yoruba god of fire and lightning, is represented in Santeria by Saint Barbara, a third century virgin-martyr. According to legend, Saint Barbara was the daughter of a rich merchant. Following her conversion to Christianity, her father had her beheaded; in retribution, he was struck by a thunderbolt from heaven. Since chango'is the master of fire and lightning, Saint Barbara was chosen to represent him. It is ironic that Chango,' who in some of his manifestations is quite sexually aggressive, is represented by a virgin. Nevertheless, this is the type of association that was made between the Yoruba gods and the Catholic saints.

      Santeria borrows not only the symbols of the Christian saints, but their physical images as well, since there are few images of the gods in the African tradition and since the image of the particular god, or oricha, usually must be present in order to cast a successful spell. Quite often, exquisite statues are imported from Italy or Spain. Other times, small plastic or plaster statues are used. In any case, these statues are the same as those used in the Catholic church.

      Another relationship between Santeria and Catholicism is that the feast in honor of an oricha falls on the date that the Catholic church has chosen to commemorate the corresponding saint. The feast of chango, (Saint Barbara) is celebrated on December 4, and that of BabalU Aye' (Saint Lazarus) on December 17. Music similar to that found in Haiti accompanies the celebration and is provided by the bata drums.

The Santeria Hierarchy

Devotion to or protection by a particular oricha is symbolized by the wearing of a beaded collar, which is believed to protect the wearer against all evil. Beaded necklaces must not be worn,
however, during bathing or sexual intercourse. The patron of beads in Santeria is the herbalist, Osain, who, according to legend, was born with a crown of beads. In honor of his position all collars
must be washed in an herbal potion,or omiero, before they are ritually used by the santero.

     The colors of the necklaces vary according to the oricha to whom they are consecrated:

     Obatalá - (Virgin of Las Mercedes), the oricha who protects hospitals and jails, has a collar made of white beads.

     Yemayá - (Virgin of Regla) is the goddess of the seas and lakes,who protects fishermen and sailors. Her collar is made of white and blue beads, strung to the desired length in multiples of seven. Yemaya's feast day is September 7, when great festivities are held at the small fishing village of Regla.

     Oshun - (Virgin of Caridad del Cobre, Patron Saint of Cuba) isYemaya's sister, the patroness of lovers and love. Counterpart of the Haitian ErzuZie Frida she is the most provocative oricha, liking good perfume and sweet things. Oshun is also the keeper  of all rivers. Her collar is made of Yellow beads, and her feastday is September 8.

     Changó - (Saint Barbara), the warrior saint, has a collar made of white and red beads.

     Elleguá - (The Holy Child of Atocha, of St. Roch) is a ver  powerful oricha to whom one should pray before initiating a ceremony. Her collar is made by alternating black and red beads.

     Oyá - (La Candelaria), the ruler of the cemeteries, rarely manifests herself. She is one of the three women of Chango who is called upon when there may be danger of death. Her collar is made of black beads alternating with white.

     Babalu Aye - (St. Lazarus), depicted in the Catholic lithos as   old man, his body covered with sores, is the patron oricha of diseases of the skin and infectious diseases. His church in the village of Rincon, Havana province, is famous as a shrine where thousands of persons with skin diseases have been healed. Babalus collar is made of white beads that are striped with blue.

Typical Beliefs

     Santeria teaches that every person is assigned at birth one of the orichas as a protector or guardian angel. The baby is also assigned a special plant, a birthstone and an animal, which, if kept with the child as he grows up, will insure that he will become successful and powerful.

     The birthstone has no relationship to the birth date, and may be either a precious gem or a colored pebble. It is important not for its intrinsic value, but for the magical intensity with which one feels he must possess it. It is also interesting to note that the birthday in Santeria has no spiritual significance, because, according to the santeros, hundreds of thousands of people are born on the same date, and they all lead different lives--some successful, some not. Success comes, rather, from devotion to and respect for the gods, which must be accompanied by resistance to evil influences.

     Garlic, brown sugar and water are believed to be useful defensive measures against evil. The santeros burn garlic skins and sugar in a small pan, producing a thick smoke which fills the entire house and wards off evil spirits. They also keep a small receptacle of water under their beds to "dissolve" any spirits that may descend upon them during the night. Other Cuban Religions

     There are other religions in Cuba besides Santeria which also have their origin in West Africa. The secret society of Abakuá. or Ñañiguismo, came from the Efik or Efor tribes of Southern Nigeria. The initiation rites of the Abakuá society in Africa required future members to prove their bravery by performing human sacrifices. This was continued during colonial times in Cuba, but at the beginning of this century the sacrifices were changed from humans to goats.

      The Abakua society with its various potencias (chapters) was (and probably still is) a mutual aid society. On the wharfs of Havana, all the stevedores were Abakua members, and one had to be a monina (brother) to obtain or maintain a job. By banding together, some chapters, such as the ñangio, achieved more power than trade unions. It is said that a ñangio has to be three things: a good son, a good friend, and very brave and masculine. This masculinity concept is evidenced in two ways: through the chauvinism that excludes women from the society and its ceremonies (called games), and through the exclusion of homosexuals, who are despised by the ñangio.

     Another Afro-Cuban religion, Regla de Palo or Mayombe has its origin with the tribes of the Congo. Practitioners of this religion in Cuba are feared and despised because they use the power of the dead and parts of a cadaver to work their magic. A mayombe believer destined to hurt someone is called Mayobe Judio. He works alone in a cemetery or deep in the woods, and for a few coins and some of his blood he "buys" a nfiuri (dead soul) to do his bidding. The instrument of his power is the mgana (or ganga), an iron kettle containing cemetery dirt, roots, animals, and human bones wrapped in a cloth bound with owl feathers. This fetish supposedly has a life of its own and can perform acts like levitation.


     One very important part of the Yoruba religion is divination. In Africa, the Ifa cult, which practices a form of geomancy, employs sixteen palm nuts and a divination tray covered by a sacred powder. The palm nuts are tossed onto the tray, and the resulting configuration is then interpreted.

Because 256 different combinations may result from the toss, only well-trained individuals are capable of performing divination. Ifa is also practiced in Cuba, but the number of trained babalaos (high priests of the cult) is decreasing drastically.

      A simplified form of Ifa divination is cowrie tossing, which also requires a qualified individual to toss the shells and interpret the results. Cowrie shells, split in half when used for divination, may fall with the split side up, or with the bottom or "mouth" up. They are "counted" in reference to the "mouth" side, and, as in Ifa, are assigned a specific letter or number. An oddu (short story), which is part of the oral tradition and learning experience of babalaos and santeros, accompanies each letter or number. By judiciously following the advice of the cowries, individuals are expected to avert tragedies and live up to their full potential.

      An easier way to consult the orichas is to toss the coconuts, or obi. This may be done by anyone, regardless of training, as long as he has due respect for the gods and does not perform the ritual as a prank. The directions are simple: One breaks a dried coconut and
chooses four clean pieces of the shell, which should then be washed with river water. From the corners of the pieces, a number of small bits corresponding to the number assigned to the oricha you wish to consult are broken off. If one doesn't know which oricha one should address, consult Ellegua, since he is the one that "opens the way." Prayers are said, preferably in Yoruba, to the deceased santeros and, if being performed by an initiate, to honor the godfather or godmother who did the initiating.

   After touching the heart and praying to Ellegua, the four coconut pieces are tossed with the right hand. The responses are interpreted as follows:

1)     All four pieces with the white side up(alafia) is a positive answer to the question.                                                                                      
2)     Three white pieces and one black (otagua)means there is doubt in the question. Ask again and this time it will be answered.          
3)     Two white and two black pieces (elleife) means yes.   

4)     One white piece and three black (ocanasordi) means no.

5)     All four pieces black side up (ollecana), the worst response to appear, speaks of a dire future, of death and of suffering. One must stop the questioning, and go to a babalao for Ifa.


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© Dr. Carlos Taracido July 2012

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