Santeria (or Lukumi) is one of the many syncretic religions created in the New World. It is based on the West African religions brought to the new world by slaves imported to the Caribbean to work the sugar plantations. These slaves carried with them
their own religious traditions, including a tradition of possession trance for communicating with the ancestors and deities, the use of animal sacrifice and the practice of sacred drumming and dance. Those slaves who landed in the Carribean, central and south America were nominally converted to Catholicism. However, they were able to preserve some of their traditions by fusing together various Dahomean, baKonga and Yoruban beliefs and rituals and by syncretizing these with elements from the surrounding Catholic culture. In Cuba this religious tradition has evolved into what we know today as Santería, the Way of the Saints. Today hundreds of thousands of Americans participate in this ancient religion. Some are fully committed priests and priestesses others are “godchildren” or members of a particular house-tradition, many are clients seeking help with their everyday problems. Many are of Hispanic and Caribbean descent but as the religion moves out of the inner cities an into the suburbs a growing number are of African-American and European-American heritage. As the Ifa religion of Africa was recreated in the Americas it was transformed, today as it moves moves into mainstream America we can expect further tranformation.
Joseph Murphy, in his classic Santeria says that “The sacred world of Santería is motivated by ashe. Ashe is growth, the force toward completeness and divinity. [This is a] view of the world [as] an ontology of dynamism, that is, a belief that the real world is one of pure movement. In fact, the real world is one not of objects at all but of forces in continual process.” (130) I understand ashe as the energy of the universe. Modern physics teaches us that everything is merely energy moving at different rates of speed. I can change portions of the universe by adding and removing energy. In the simplest example, adding energy to water changes it into steam, removing energy changes it into ice. By understanding these principles of energy I have the power to control my environment. In the same way, by understanding the principles of ashe I can dance my true destiny.
Murphy continues, “Ashe is the absolute ground of reality. But we must remember that it is a ground that moves and, so, no ground at all. To conceive this ground, in order to speak of it as something rather than nothing, santeros speak of Olodumare, the Owner of Heaven, the Owner of all Destinies. Olodumare is the object of ashe, the ultimate harmony and direction of all forces.” (130) The Yoruba and their spiritual descendants view the world as a web of interconnected beings connected by ashe. The highest of these beings is Olodumare the source and owner of creation. Olodumare is the Owner of Heaven in the metaphysical sense of owning or being the source of a mystery. Creation consists of two realms: the visible and the invisible worlds. Heaven is the name given to the invisible realm, the realm that guides the evolution of the visible realm. Olodumare is both the source and owner of this mystery and as such is beyond human comprehension. Thus he is seen as austere, remote and difficult to approach. We find no shrines erected in his honor, no rituals directed toward him and no sacrifices made to placate him. Instead he is known in the visible world through the Orisha who are considered the manifestations of knowable aspects of Olodumare, whose essence remains a mystery.
The Orisha are multi-dimensional beings who represent the forces of nature, act as Jungian archetypes and function as sacred patrons or “guardian angels”. They have attributes and stories similar to the stories and attributes used to describe the ancient Greek and Roman pantheons. To the the followers of Santeria, however, the Orisha are not remote divinities, ensconced in their heavenly niches, far removed from worldly matters. On the contrary, they are vibrant, living entities who take an active part i everyday life. One does not pray to an Orisha on bent knees.
In Africa, each Orisha was identified by a series of colors, numbers, natural elements, drum rhythms, dance steps, and icons that represent the qualities and
attributes of that Orisha. The people saw the Orisha in the flash of lightening, stones, the rivers, and the like.
(See also what Iya Olamide, a priestess of Yemoja with nearly two decades of ocha, has to say about the Orisha at Where Ogun Fears to Tread.)
When the Yoruba people came to Cuba it was often dangerous to openly practice the old ways. The people did two things to survive. They “hid” the Orisha in the open. By this I mean they used the symbols of the Orisha to subtlety represent the Orisha, for example, bananas tied by a red sting or cloth in the kitchen, a scrap of white cloth over the door, railroad spikes at the foot of a tree. To the uninitiated these may look odd but not sacred. In more public environments they used their understanding of the Orisha to dressed them in the costumes of the Catholic saints the people saw around them.
Below the Orisha in this cosmological system are human beings, made by the hand of the Orisha, Obatala, with the breath of life from Olodumare. It is humans who can make the offerings that feed the Orisha, it is the human communities that gathers together to call the Orisha into their human children.
It is believed that every person has a specific energy pattern that is the foundation of his or her individual consciousness. This energy pattern marks the nature of the person’s personality and character. This energy pattern is described as the Orisha that “owns one’s head”. Living in harmony with Nature, with Creation, means living in harmony with one’s true self, with the lessons one is to learn in this incarnation. When one know one’s patron Orisha one can form a spiritual link with those energies.
Although they are more powerful than human beings, the Orisha are not omnipotent. Like all living things they must be constantly nourished. Only human can offer the sacrifice and praise the Orisha need to survive. And only humans can initiate the devotees that the Orisha call into their service. Without human beings, there would be no Orisha, without human cooperation there would be no Orisha either in their presentations or in their devotees.
In the Yoruba cosmology there is no other world, only this world that contains both visible and invisible elements, that is those who are seen and those which is not seen. Both the Orisha and the ancestors dwell in the invisible world. During the rite of passage that is physical death, the human soul soul can become transform into one of the egun, that is an ancestral spirit.In Santeria, the ancestors included both the named and unnamed dead. With the rigors of the Middle Passage and slavery, few black Cubans had the connections to their ancestors common in Africa. Genealogies were lost or forgotten but the respect for the Dead remained.
In the mid 1800’s Kardecian spiritist traditions were brought to the islands of the Caribbean from France. This European “scientific” spiritism was incorporated into the existing African-based traditions of ancestor worship to form the new
religion of Espiritismo. In both Cuba and the United States some santeros combine elements of Espiritismo with their practice of Santeria.
Spirits are believed to have power to help and hinder the actions of humans. Individuals may have one or more protector spirits. But like the Orisha the spirits depend on the actions of their human “family” to become more highly evolved in
their spirit realm.
Plants, Animals, Rocks, Water, and the Like
At the lowest level of power, but still of vital importance to the cosmos are animals, plants and what we call “inanimate” objects like rocks, the wind, dirt, iron, food, water, honey and the like. All of these contain levels of ashe that is be used by human beings for the benefit of the visible and invisible worlds. Just as the Orisha and spirits can not gain ashe without the help of the humans, so also these beings can not be transformed into higher element without the actions of human beings.
Humans are required to keep the ashe of the universe flowing through this web of beings. If you think of these different beings as nodes in a web of being, humans are at the center controlling and directing the flow of energy between the various elements. Humans depend on members of each of these classes of beings
for life, health and fortune. Each of the other types of beings depend on the actions of humans to enhance their own ashe.
One lives in an interconnected cosmos in which some entities (spirits and Orisha) from other “planes” can mount or inhabit beings on this plane. One is always connected to one’s ancestors, the Orisha and one’s spiritual family. It is impossible to achieve any initiations outside of a community and higher initiations require a larger community to both perform and accept one’s
African and Afro-Diaspora Religions:
New World (Caribbean, North and South America) and African religious sites. Includes information on Santería, Candomblé, other Orisha religions, Vodoun, and more.
- Santeria: Correcting the Myths and Uncovering the Realities of a Growing Religion, Mary Ann Clark. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers. 2007
Santeria, Joseph M. Murphy. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.
- Santeria from Africa to the New World: The Dead Sell Memories, George Brandon. Bloomington:Indiana University Press, 1993.
See My Reading List for a more complete bibliography.