Asho Orisha (Clothing of the Orisha): Material Culture as Religious Expression in Santería

Obatala of Ewin Leti (ibae)

Mary Ann Clark

Rice University

A Thesis Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree Doctor Of Philosophy, Religious Studies

Now available from UMI Digital Dissertations, request # AAT 9928518.


“Asho Orisha” suggests that the objects surrounding and the items clothing the Orisha of Santería (also known as Lucumi or Orisha religion) form chains of signifiers tied to the theological and philosophical core of the religion. It focuses on the domestic displays devotees maintain for their deities on a day-to-day basis, the altar displays (thrones) created by devotees for the anniversaries of their initiation into the priesthood, and the body of the new initiate (the iyawo). This work traces the ways in which theological concepts from Africa are redefined and reinterpreted in the Americas so as to maintain a consistent conceptual system in a new environment. It uses a combination of participant-observation, individual interviews and photographic documentation. It includes 13 photographs of altars and clothing.

The focus of this work is divided into three principle sections. Chapter 3 looks at the altars as a whole to see the ways pre-colonial African, colonial Cuban and contemporary American ideas about how one presents and approaches the holy are incorporated into these displays.

Chapter 4 looks at the portions of displays devoted to six major Orisha (Obatala, Shango, Yemaya, Oshun, Ogun and Eleggua) and suggests that color forms a primary semiotic system. An analysis of color symbolism aids in the analysis of the other objects found in these displays.

Chapter 5 extends this semiotic analysis to include the initiation experience and the extended liminal period of the iyawoage. Like the altar displays, the iyawo embodies the Orisha and thus functions as a mobile sacred site. The construction of the persona of the iyawo and the rules surrounding the iyawoage are fruitfully interrogated to explicate additional theological and philosophical concepts. Issues of cross-gender and cross-status dress highlight the ways that clothing serves as a symbolic system to maintain Yoruba ideas about the sacred relationships embodied in the iyawo.

Chapter 6 concludes this work with a discussion of the place of Spanish terminology and Catholic imagery within the semiotic system and briefly discusses the ways in which the religious displays work as mnemonic devices.


Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Introduction

  • Introduction
  • A First Introduction to the Religion
  • No Hay Ningún Santo Aqui!: The Use of Human Figures within Santería
  • Iyawoage
  • Theoretical Basis of This Study
  • Analytic Tools
  • Methodology Consideration
  • Review of the Literature

Chapter 2. The Religion

  • Introduction
  • Theology
  • Spiritism
  • Destiny and Divination
  • Focus of the Religion
  • Orisha and Their Stories
  • Initiation, Iyawoage and Practice

Chapter 3. Sacred Space as Palimpsest: A Dialogic of Santería Altars

  • Introduction
  • Description of a Birthday Altar
  • The Birthday Celebration
  • Altar Types and Descriptions
  • European Background
  • The African Experience
  • Orisha Worship Communities
  • Dialogic Incorporation in the Cabildo Period
  • The Visible and the Hidden
  • Conclusion

Chapter 4. The Secret Language of the Orisha

  • Introduction
  • An Infinite Chain of Signifiers
  • The Language of Color
  • The Orisha
  • Obatala: “King of the White Cloth”
  • Shango: Balanced Thunder
  • Yemaya: Mother of the Waters, Owner of the Sea
  • Oshun: Wealth, Fertility, and the Good Life
  • Ogun: Working the Iron
  • Eleggua: The Face of the Trickster
  • The Use of Human Figures

Chapter 5. Initiate, Priest, Embodied Deity: Constructions of Self in the Initiation Experience

  • Introduction
  • The Initiation Experience
  • African Initiation Models
  • Childhood and Marriage Symbolism
  • The Asiento: Making a Saint
  • Initiation as Radical Transformation
  • The Iyawo Year
  • Omitutu: Cool White
  • The Iyawo as Sacred Site
  • The Sacred Center
  • Costume as Communication System
  • Santería Costumes and Sacred Garments
  • Gender Ambiguity: The European Perspective
  • Gender Ambiguity: The African Perspective
  • Prestige Structures
  • Marriage as Metaphor: The Colonial Perspective
  • Clothing as Power
  • Clothing as Metaphor
  • Conclusions

Chapter 6: Conclusion

  • Orishas and Saints
  • The Place of Saints in Santería
  • The Santería Altar as Memory Palace
  • Conclusions



  • 1. Orisha Correspondences
  • 2. Orisha/Saint Correspondences