Santería: Looking at the Basics
By: an anonymous author
Santería is a Spanish word that literally means "devotion to the saints" or "way of the saints". The term Santería was originally a slur used by white plantation owners, denoting impure or deviant forms of Catholicism that worshiped saints over God or Jesus. In Santería, Christian saints are equated with Yoruba orichás, or gods. White slave owners knew nothing about orichás, and thus simply believed that the Africans were overly interested in the Catholic saints.
Most practitioners of the religion call it La Regla de Ocha – the Order of the Orichás, or La Regla Lucumí – the Order of Lucumí. “Lucumí” refers to the many Africans of Yoruba ethnicity who were forcibly brought to the New World as part of the Atlantic slave trade, particularly to the islands off of North America such as the Caribbean, Puerto Rico, Haiti, and Cuba. Cuba is the area most associated with Santería, and has the highest concentration of practitioners. It is said that a common phrase - my friend (oluku mi) - used by the Yoruba people when greeting each other, spawned the term Lucumí.
Santería is a blend of Roman Catholicism and Yoruba mythology from West Africa. It’s an example of a process called religious syncretism, when two faith systems coexist or blend into one. The process wasn't quite as harmonious as it sounds – Africans, or Lucumí, arriving in the New World were forced to convert to Catholicism in addition to the sheer devastation of being sold into slavery. In order to protect Yoruba traditions, the Lucumí disguised and protected their cultural values by merging them with Catholicism.
Beliefs and Central Ideas in Santería
While Santería began as an underground religion that preserved Yoruba beliefs in a hostile culture, it evolved to become a more complete combination of Yoruba tradition and Catholicism. It is relatively uncommon for modern practitioners of Santería to draw contrasts between Roman Catholicism and Yoruba beliefs. Instead, they see the two faiths as inherently similar and are often just as comfortable attending a formal Catholic Mass at a church as they are participating in a traditional Lucumí ceremony within their own homes and temples.
Unlike Christianity, Santería doesn't have a set of formal scriptures. Instead, the central tenets of the faith are passed by word of mouth from one generation to the next. Santería tradition also involves the telling of sacred religious parables known as patakís, which on top of making traditional values known, are used at times used as a form of guidance.
Ashé, or aché is a central component of Santería. Ashé is the spiritual energy that comprises every creature, object, and even the universe itself. According to Lucumí tradition, when the universe, or aché, became aware of itself and began to think, it turned into the god Olodumare, (sometimes, Eledumare). Though Santería has many deities known as orichás, the central gods are Olodumare, Olorun and Olofin. They are not three distinct gods but three different facets of one supreme ruler, very similar to the Holy Trinity in Roman Catholicism. Basically Olodumare represents God, Olorun is on par with the Holy Spirit, and Olofin is the equivalent of Jesus Christ.
Olodumare is the architect and orchestrator of the universe (he is aché personified). Olodumare is not directly consulted by adherents to Yoruba-based diasporic faiths, instead they consult the orichás. Olorun creates life by spreading vital energy in the form of sunlight, and is also ruler of the heavens. His energies are spread as ashé throughout everyone and everything in creation. Finally, Olofin (also Olofi) is the personification of divinity. He communicates the Supreme God's beliefs and commandments to the orichás, who then communicate to human beings, specifically the priests and priestesses of Santería.
Humans, orichás and Olodumare are all connected through ashé. All human beings and all living things contain ashé, but not in equal amounts and not of the same kind. The differences in ashé explains the differences found among human beings. Ashé allows one to achieve and to create positive change and balance; thus a lack of ashé manifests as an imbalance. Beyond this basic description, as ashé is contained throughout all of the universe (including Olodumare himself), properly working with it, is in essence a way of paying tribute to and bonding with the Supreme God.
Practitioners of Santería work to cultivate and balance their ashé by showing strong ethics. Iwa is the term for one's moral character. One demonstrates Iwa by their devotion to God and the way they treat others.
|Image: A shop in Havana, Cuba selling Santería items. By Ji-Elle (Own work) CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.|
While there are only three main manifestations of the Supreme God, there are said to be at least 401 minor deities, or orichás. Because of the slave trade and the massive diaspora of Africans to islands and countries across the New World, orichás are not unique to Santería, or to Afro-Cuban communities, but permeate a variety of other Latin ethnicities and traditions as well.
There is one pronounced difference between Lucumí beliefs and strict Roman Catholicism, that can be seen in the way practitioners of Santería regard death and the afterlife. Priests and priestesses of Santería believe in the existence of Heaven, but they don't see going there as being the ultimate reward for living a morally sound life. Instead, they believe that the ashé within a person can be recycled after death, allowing that person to be reincarnated. Thus, the reward for living a good life and showing devotion to God occurs while on Earth (Ayé) rather than in Orun, or Heaven.
Initiation into Santería
Santeros (priests) and santeras (priestesses) are also known as olorichas. There is an intensive initiation process for those working to become olorichas. Not all involved in Santería become formal priests. Casual practitioners, or those consulting with priests on an occasional basis are known as aleyos (strangers, or outsiders). The initiation process spans out over a period of one week. First the initiate undergoes a cleansing procedure, where a maternal or paternal ancestor cleanses them with an herbal preparation. Much focus is given to the head during this process, it is rubbed with natural substances known to bring peace.
After the cleansing is completed, the initiate undergoes the first phase of initiation - a ritual process known as Obtaining the Elekes. An eleke is a bead adorned necklace; each eleke style represents a specific orichá. Divination is used to determine which orichá is best suited to an initiate, this of course determines which eleke they will be given. The eleke they will ultimately wear will serve as bonding device of sorts, between them and their guardian orichá. However, Obtaining the elekes is not simply about the connection between an initiate and their guardian orichá, it is also representative of an age old tradition within this faith, that requires an ongoing relationship between a godparent and their godchild.
The godparent's role is to be there as an advisor - the godchild is to consult the godparent to ensure that they traverse their spiritual journey with greater ease, and also their connection ensures that an age old tradition survives intact through their lineage. Thus the godparent's role in this part of the initiation is of great significance.
Once an initiate receives their eleke, they meet with a priest who will determine the initiates ideal path of Eleguá - there are said to be more than 100 paths. This second ritual phase is called Medio Asiento, of which the primary element is building a likeness of Eleguá. From their life being analyzed by the priest, it is better understood what they will need in order to traverse their journey. Eleguá will journey with them and will protect them. The likeness of Eleguá that the initiate builds will guard their home.
During the third ritual, Los Guerreros, or "Receiving the Warriors," an initiate will receive sacred metallic objects that represent the orichás known as warriors. The purpose of the rite is to have the warrior orichás protect the soon to be oloricha henceforth. After this part of the initiation is completed, there will be an altar prepared to honor the warriors, and it will be the initiate's duty to ensure that he/she makes offerings to them. For the record, an initiate that has undergone either or both of the Obtaining the Elekes or Receiving the Warriors Rituals, is thereafter called an aborisha.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, is the ritual of Kariocha, known as "Seating the Orichá" or "Making the Saint." Highly secretive, this purification ritual could loosely be compared to a baptism, in which an initiate is brought into their new incarnation - that of a priest or priestess. Though this seems like a final step it is in essence a new beginning, as thereafter the individual begins to grow and develop, once they are cast into their new role as a priest or priestess. On top of having become bonded with his or her guardian orichá during this process, the oloricha will also have bonded with Eleguá, Changó, Obatala, Oshún, and Yemaya.
For a period of one year after their initiation has taken place, they are called an iyawo. It is required that they dress entirely in white. An iyawo must observe numerous restrictions, that are believed to preserve their spiritual purity and allow for proper bonding with the orichás.
The Depth of Santería
Santería is a vast and complex religion that draws from many locations and cultural groups. It is common in the West to believe that Vodou or Vodoun and Santería are the same faith, but they are entirely separate religions. What they do have in common is that they are both syncretic between Catholicism and the Yoruba faith. Santería is not the practice of black magick, as some are prone to believing, but is a fully-formed faith system used by many.
It is easy to see how a faith that is not governed by defined scriptures will differ from region to region, and too will differ within each ancestral lineage it is being practiced by. So while there are doubtlessly going to be lineages that will frown upon anything but the use of the most gentle of magickal rituals, there will just as well be lineages that embrace the usage of magick of various kinds, that have tweaked the tenets of Santería to meet their differing requisites. At any rate, it is claimed that those practicing magick within Santería commonly conceal magickal skills, to all but those within the faith that should know of them.
Some adherents of Santería claim that black magick is not in line with the tenets of this faith in its purest form, and that Santería is primarily about invoking blessings through following advice from ancestors, elders, and orichás; and for this reason magick relative to the truth of Santería, would be performed to draw blessings and good fortune, and also to protect. At the same time it could also be said, that the definition of what Santería is in its purest form, would differ from lineage to lineage. I threw this last comment in to show what an expansive breadth this faith could truly cover, rather than to imply that those who practice Santería secretly all engage in magickal practices - either helpful or harmful in nature.
A true estimate of how many Santería practitioners there are worldwide would be difficult to produce, but a popularly provided estimate suggests that the actual number lies between 75 and 100 million.
The aspects described above only scratch the surface of all that Santería contains. It seems that the only way to truly understand it, is to speak with practitioners and learn in a face-to-face, hands-on setting.