See my “African Religions in the Americas Reading List” for my list of the most reliable books on these traditions.
What is the difference between Santeria, Lukumi and Orisha religion?
I use the terms Santeria, Lukumi and Orisha religion interchangeablely. ‘Santeria’ is considered a derogatory term by some practitioners although it is widely used
especially in Latino communities. ‘Lukumi’ is preferred by many particularly those of African-American heritage and ‘Orisha religion’ by many others. All refer to the same religious complex.
Where can I find the letra del ano (Letter of the Year)?
Traditionally the babalawos of Cuba get together on the first day of the new year to determine the so-called “letra del ano,” the Ifa odu that would rule the coming year. Included in the divination are predictions of the year, the ruling Orisha, the flag and the recommended ebbo and sacrifices. Today you can find multiple readings of the year from Cuba, Miami, New York and, often, from Ile-Ife and other locations in Nigeria. Each group of diviners reads for the members of their ile (household). Although several claim their reading is for all of Cuba, or all of the US or even the whole world. Since there is no worldwide or even country-wide authority for Orisha religion, the predictions and suggestions of any one babalawo or group of babalawos only apply to their own community. In spite of this, many groups publish their predictions on the net and many anxiously away such publications. However, if you are getting your information about the new year from the internet rather than from your own godparents, you are wasting your time; if you are performing ebbo based on one or more of these readings, you are wasting your money and your energy. If your religious family performs a reading of the year, you should follow the warnings and suggests of that reading. If your family does not have a general reading and you really want to know what
to expect in the new year, you should talk to your own godparents or spiritual directors about getting a reading for yourself from a qualified babalawo or oriate.
Is Santeria based on Catholicism, if not why the Catholic symbolism?
At the level of deep ritual there is little or no Catholicism in the Santeria communities I’m familiar with. The ritual language is a variant of the West African language of Yoruba and the ritual processes are based on Yoruba ritual
Santeria/Lukumi/Orisha practitioners incorporate a wide range of objects into their religious displays (altars) including colored cloth, beads, fruit, flowers, food, drinks, items manufactured specifically for them as well as items manufactured for other groups/purposes. Statues and/or dolls are often used. My research indicates that many of the Orisha had no anthropomorphic representation in their African homeland. Many of the human figures found on the altars of African practitioners are representations of devotees not the deities. Other natural or manufactured goods more often represent them. As part of their assimilation in Cuba, many practitioners incorporated colonial Spanish cultural items into their religious displays. While these objects serve a decorative purpose they are not essential to religious practice.
Among the Spanish colonial items were statues of Catholic saints. Orisha religion is based on a cosmology in which everything has an Orisha association, everything represents or is the tool of one of the deities. It is no wonder than that devotees in a colonial Catholic environment would have integrated the surrounding Catholic culture into their cosmology. Thus many of the most common Catholic saints have been given Orisha correspondences based on certain aspects of their iconography. (In many cases, a single Orisha has been associated with multiple saints.) However, in the United States, particularly among non-Hispanic and/or non-Catholic practitioners, these correspondences
have little or no meaning and thus the use of these statues has fallen away.
Another source of Catholic symbolism among Santeria practitioners is the incorporation of Spiritism (Espiritismo) into their religious practice. Espiritismo is a separate and distinct religious system based on the work of Allan Kardec (aka H. Leon Denizard Rivail). Developed in France, Espiritismo has strong ties to Catholicism and uses much Catholic symbolism. Many Hispanic people, particularly those with Caribbean backgrounds, practice it. Although
all of the Santeria practitioners I know also practice Espiritismo to a greater or lesser extent, the two separate systems should not be confused.