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Santería is a syncretic religion of West African and Caribbean origin, also known as Regla de Ocha, La Regla Lucumi, or Lukumi.[1][2] Its liturgical language, a dialect of Yoruba, is also known as Lucumi.



The priests are known as babalorishas, "fathers of orisha", and priestesses as iyalorishas, "mothers of orisha", and serve as the junior Ile or second in the hierarchical religious structure. The Babalorishas and Iyalorishas are referred to as Santeros and Santeras, and if they function as diviners of the Orishas they can be considered Oriates. The highest level of achievement is to become a priest of Ifá (ee-fah). Ifa Priests receive Orunmila who is the Orisha of Prophecy, Wisdom and all Knowledge. Ifa Priests are known by their titles such as Babalawo or "Father Who Knows the Secrets". In the recent years, there have been initiations of Iyanifa or "Mother of Destiny," but their role as Ifa diviners is not generally accepted per the Odu Ifa Irete Intelu which states women cannot be in the presence of Olofin or Igba Iwa Odu and so cannot be initiated as divining priestesses. Instead, women are initiates as Apetebi Ifa and are considered senior in Ifa to all but fully initiated Babalawos. However, since Santeria evolved outside its West African origin, due to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and acquired various influences of Catholicism, Congolese religion, spiritism and Dahomean influences, though there are many similarities between Santeria and Yoruba, there are distinct differences as well. There is even West African evidence as well as in Brazil that women in Ifa priesthood, albeit small, may have existed for a number of centuries, especially since some religious houses of the Candomble tradition were founded by iyanifa. There is some regional variation to acceptance of women being initiated to Ifa even in Nigeria, while it is more common than not for women to be accepted in those areas. But the regional practices may have contributed to Cuba's restriction of women in Ifa priesthood, perhaps due to the practices and theological opinions of one group overruling that of another within Yorubaland.


The most well known Orishas are; Eleggua,[3] Oggún, Oshún, Changó, Oyá, Obatalá, Yemayá and Orula. These are the most common Orisha names, especially in Cuba.


Santería is a system of beliefs that merge the Yoruba religion (brought to the New World by slaves imported to the Caribbean to work the sugar plantations) with Roman Catholic and Native American traditions.[2] These slaves carried with them various religious traditions, including a trance for communicating with their ancestors and deities, animal sacrifice and sacred drumming.

In Cuba, this religious tradition has evolved into what we now recognize as Santería. In 2001, there were an estimated 22,000 practitioners in the US alone,[4] but the number may be higher as some practitioners may be reluctant to disclose their religion on a government census or to an academic researcher.

Of those living in the US, some are fully committed priests and priestesses, others are "godchildren" or members of a particular house-tradition, and 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 and into the suburbs, a growing number are of African-American and European-American heritage. As the religion of Africa was recreated in the Americas it was transformed.

"The colonial period from the standpoint of African slaves may be defined as a time of perseverance. Their world quickly changed. Tribal kings and families, politicians, business and community leaders all were enslaved in a foreign region of the world. Religious leaders, their descendants, and the faithful, were now slaves. Colonial laws criminalize their religion. They were forced to become baptized and worship a god their ancestors had not known who was surrounded by a pantheon of saints. The early concerns during this period seem to indicate a need for individual survival under harsh plantation conditions. A sense of hope was sustaining the internal essence of what today is called Santería, a misnomer for the indigenous religion of the Lukumi people of Nigeria.

In the heart of their homeland, they had a complex political and social order. They were a sedentary hoe farming cultural group with specialized labor. Their religion based on the worship of nature was renamed and documented by their masters. Santería, a pejorative term that characterizes deviant Catholic forms of worshiping saints, has become a common name for the religion. The term santero(a) is used to describe a priest or priestess replacing the traditional term Olorisha as an extension of the deities. The orishas became known as the saints in image of the Catholic pantheon." (Ernesto Pichardo, CLBA, Santería in Contemporary Cuba: The individual life and condition of the priesthood)

As mentioned, in order to preserve their authentic ancestral and traditional beliefs, the Lukumi people had no choice but to disguise their orishas as Catholic saints. When the Roman Catholic slave owners observed Africans celebrating a Saint's Day, they were generally unaware that the slaves were actually worshiping their sacred orishas.[1] In Cuba today, the terms "saint" and "orisha" are sometimes used interchangeably.

The term Santería was originally a derisive term applied by the Spanish to mock followers' seeming overdevotion to the saints and their perceived neglect of God. It was later applied to the religion by others. This "veil" characterization of the relationship between Catholic saints and Cuban orisha, however, is somewhat undermined by the fact that the vast majority of santeros in Cuba today also consider themselves to be Catholics, have been baptized, and often require initiates to be baptized. Many hold separate rituals to honor the saints and orisha respectively, even though the disguise of Catholicism is no longer needed.

The traditional Lukumi religion and its Santería counterpart can be found in many parts of the world today, including the United States, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Panama, Nicaragua, Argentina, Colombia, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Great Britain, Canada, Venezuela, and other areas with large Latin American populations. A very similar religion called Candomblé is practiced in Brazil, along with a rich variety of other Afro-American religions. This is now being referred to as "parallel religiosity"[5] because some believers worship the African variant that has no notion of a devil and no baptism or marriage, yet they belong to Catholic or mainline Protestant churches, where these concepts exist.

Lukumi religiosity works toward a balance in life on earth (androcentric) while the European religions work toward the hereafter. Some in Cuban Santería, Haitian Vodou or Puerto Rican spiritualism (Afro-Latin religions) do not view a difference between saints and orishas,[6] the ancestor deities of the Lukumi people's Ifa religion.

There are now individuals who mix the Lukumí practices with traditional practices as they survived in Africa after the deleterious effects of colonialism. Although most of these mixes have not been at the hands of experienced or knowledgeable practitioners of either system, they have gained a certain popularity.

In 1974, the first Santería church in the US was incorporated as the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye.[7]

Rituals and Ceremonies

Santeria does not use a central creed for its religious practices; it is understood in terms of its rituals and ceremonies. [8] These rituals and ceremonies take place in what is known as a house-temple or casa de santos (house of saints), also known as an ilé. Most ilés are in the homes of the initiated Priests and Priestesses. Ilé shrines are built, by the priests and priestess, to the different orishas which creates a space for worship, called an igbodu (alter). [9] In an igbodu there is a display of three distinct thrones [draped with royal blue, white and red satin] that represent the seats of the queens, kings and the deified warriors. [10]

Each ilé, is comprised by those who occasionally seek guidance from the orishas, as well as for those who are in the process of becoming priests.[11] The many cabildos and casas that bridged the 19th and 20th centuries are fondly remembered by contemporary priests as the origins and strongholds of Cuban Lucumi culture and religion.[12]

Becoming a full-fledged Santera or Santero (Priest or Priestess of Santeria), the initiator has to go through an intensive weeklong initiation process;[13]in which, the teaching of the ritual skills and moral behavior happens informally and nonverbally. To begin with, the initiator goes through what is called a cleansing ritual, wherein the initiators padrino (godfather) cleanses the head with special herbs and water. The padrino rubs the herbs and water in a specific pattern of movements into the scalp of the head. However, if a person is entering Santeria for the need of healing, they will undergo the rogacion de la cabeza (blessing of the head), in which coconut water and cotton are applied on the head to feed it. [14] The ritual of the cleansing of the head cools and refreshes the whole person, wherein the initiator is born again. Once cleansed, there are four major initiation rituals that the initiator will have to undergo, which are: obtaining the beaded necklace, receiving the Eleggua, receiving the warriors, and making saint. [15]

The first ritual is known as the acquisition of the beaded necklaces (known as elekes); according to De La Torre, “the colors and patterns of the beads on the elekes will be those of the orisha that serves as the iyawo’s (bride) ruling head and guardian angel and so the first thing that must be done is to determine who the orisha is. This must be done by a babalawo (fortune teller), in a divination ritual known as bajar a Orunla (to bring down Orunla).” The elekes necklace is bathed in a mixture of herbs, sacrificial blood and other potent substances and given to the initiated.[16] The initiate most often receives the necklace of the five most powerful and popular orisha, as the multi-colored beads of the elekes are each patterned for the primary Orishas (Ellegua, Obatala, Yemaya, Chango and Oshun), and they serve as a sacred point of contact with these Orishas. When the necklace is received, the initiated must bow over a bathtub and have his/her head washed by the orisha. The elekes [17] serves as the sacred banners for the Orishas and act as a sign of the Orishas presence and protection; however, it must never be worn during a women’s menstruation period. [18]

The second important ritual is known as medio asiento, the creation of an image of the orisha Eleggua. The individual will go through a consultation with a Santero, where all the recipients’ life, past present and future, will be reviewed. During the consultation, the Santero determines which of the 21 paths of Eleggua the recipient will receive. Then, based on his findings, he chooses materials that will be used to construct the image of the Eleggua, a sculpture that is used to keep evil spirits away from the initiator's home. This ritual is only prepared by men as the orishas takes some of the Santero’s “manly” spirit in the process. [19]

The third ritual, known as the “receiving of the warrior”, is a ritual where the initated receives objects from their babalawo that represents the warriors; Iron tools to represent Oggun, Lord of Iron; an iron bow and arrow to represent Ochosi, the Divine Hunter; and an iron chalice surmounted by a little rooster to represent Ósun, the messenger of Obatalá.[20]This ritual begins a formal and life-long relationship that the initiate will have with these Orishas, as the orisha’s devote their energies to protecting and providing for the initiate on his path.

The last ritual of the initiation process is known as Asiento [ascending the throne],and is the most important and the most secretive ritual in Santeria, as it is the ceremony where the iyamo (bride) becomes “born again” into the faith. This ritual is a culmination of the previous rituals, and cannot be made unless the others have been completed. Prior to the ritual, the individual is considered to be impure and is required to “die” from their old self. Asiento is a process of purification and divination whereby the initiated becomes like a newborn baby and begins a new life of deeper growth within the faith.[21]

Once the initiation is completed; there is a year long waiting period , known as ebo del año [22], in which the newly appointed Priest and Priestess can not perform cleansings and other remedies. It is a time where the Iyawo or Bride of the Orisha must follow a strict regimen of wearing all white and must avoid physical contact with those who have not been initiated. Once the ebo del año has been completed there will be an end of year ceremony, which will enable the Priest or Priestess to consult clients, perform cleansings, provide remedies and perform initiations. And according to Gonzalez : “they are also regarded as royalty in the religion, as they are considered representatives of the Orishas and are vested with the power to work with the forces of those Orishas in full."[23]

With Santeria rituals there are musical ceremonies and prayers which are referred to as bembe, toque de santo, or tambor. It is a celebration dedicated to an Orisha, where the batá drums [set of three drums, known as the [iya (the largest drum), itoltele, and oconcolo] are played in the Orisha’s honor.[24]Through these sacred drums, messages of worshippers reach the orishas and the orishas respond to their devotees. These drums are used only by men and must always be treated with respect. For example: Dancers must never turn their backs towards the drums while dancing, as it is considered disrespectful.[25]

Controversies and criticisms

  • In 1993, the issue of animal sacrifice was taken to the United States Supreme Court in the case of Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah. The Supreme Court ruled that animal cruelty laws targeted specifically at Yoruba were unconstitutional;[26] the Yoruba practice of animal sacrifice has seen no significant legal challenges since then.
  • There have been a few highly publicized cases where injuries allegedly occurred during Lukumi rituals. One such case reported by The New York Times took place on January 18, 1998 in Sayville, New York, where 17-year-old Charity Miranda was suffocated to death with a plastic bag at her home by her mother Vivian, 39, and sister Serena, 20, after attempting an exorcism to free her of demons. Police found the women chanting and praying over the prostrate body. Not long before, the women had embraced Lukumi. However, Lukumi doctrine does not postulate the existence of demons, nor does its liturgy contain exorcism rituals. The mother, Vivian Miranda, was found not guilty due to insanity, and is currently confined in a New York State psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane.[27]
  • There have been some horror thrillers about the religion, such as the 1987 movie, The Believers based on the 1982 novel The Religion, and the 1997 Spanish-Mexican-American movie Perdita Durango, which portray Santería beliefs and practices as sorcery (including mind control) and worship of various deities, encompassing human sacrifice and criminal amorality.

In popular culture

  • The 2008 Victorias Secret Fashion Show Featured Special Musical Guest [Jorge Moreno][2] performing "Babalu".
  • In an episode of the TV show First 48, titled "House of Santeria", the detectives find a doctor murdered in Miami and discover one of his closets contain numerous Santeria items, mainly items related to control/pacification of his gay lover. In another closet, they discover items related to his desire to cast spells to obliterate the lover's existence, which they believe to be a possible motive for his murder.
  • Next Day Air (2009) shows Yasmin Deiz "Chita" performing a ritual for protection.
  • The episode "Double Vision" of the The Flash television series touches on Santería, with the Flash himself being mistaken for an orisha.
  • "Moaning Stones", a third season episode of The Real Ghostbusters involves a Santeria priestess counseling the main characters on their most recent case.
  • In 1996, the band Sublime released a song named "Santeria."
  • The episode "The Gift" of Law & Order: Criminal Intent concerns a Santería cult.
  • The episode "Ritual" of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit touches on the sacrificial aspects of Santería. The episode "Baby Killer" makes a brief reference to the Charity Miranda case.
  • The episode "Curse of the Coffin" of CSI: Miami deals with Santería.
  • In the TV series Third Watch's final season the character Maritza Cruz (played by Tia Texada) seems to embrace the religion after being diagnosed with cancer.
  • In the episode "Days of Wine and D'oh'ses" of The Simpsons Moe gestures to a small altar beneath the bar and thanks Santería for returning Barney to alcoholism.
  • Santería is a central theme in the novel The Devil in Gray by Graham Masterton and the novel The Religion by Nicholas Conde.
  • The novel Casa de juegos (House of Games) by Cuban-American author Daína Chaviano involves the world of Santería. Chaviano creates a surreal universe where human beings and Afro-Cuban gods coexist. The orishas try to explain the island's destiny through strange erotic rituals and playing cat-and-mouse games with the main character.
  • William Gibson's novel Spook Country features a major character (Tito) who combines being "mounted" by the various orisha with a peculiar form of deliberately induced dissociative identity syndrome to achieve impressive feats of concentration and skill.
  • The Hector Lavoe song, "Aguanile", is based on Santería religious beliefs and practices. Scenes of an actual performance of Santería is also displayed in the biopic El Cantante, which is based on Hector's life.
  • UK based Cuban Reggaeton singer Kid Afrika has a song called "Yemayá" in which he sings about her and references more Orishas in the song its self.
  • The episode "Whatever works" of the second season of Miami Vice deals with Santería.
  • The popular Cuban-European Band Orishas has its name from the gods of Santería. They also actually broach the issue of Santería in many of their songs.
  • The most popular song by Cuban-born Desi Arnaz, as "Ricky Ricardo" in the popular 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy, was "Babalu". It was an homage to the orisha Babalu-Aye.
  • The popular progressive rock/Latin band The Mars Volta have credited Santería as an element of their 2008 album, The Bedlam In Goliath.
  • The movie Major League shows Pedro Cerrano practicing Santeria.
  • The Night of the Jaguar is a novel by Michael Gruber featuring many aspects of Santeria.
  • In the novel Stormy Weather by Carl Hiaasen, the character of Avila practices Santeria and asks for protection through Chango.
  • In the novel Notes on a Scandal the narrator Barbara Covett makes a reference to the Santeria cult when discussing a friend's zealous embrace of Catholic ceremony.
  • The film Jarhead features a scene where the soldiers have scorpions fighting each other. When the Cuban soldier's scorpion wins, the others begin to chant Shango, the saint of thunder, and he is wearing both the Chango necklace and orunmila bracelet.
  • The novel Dexter in the Dark has a brief explanation of Santeria, after a series of occult murders.
  • The film The Devil's Advocate makes reference to a Santeria rite during the main character's defense of a man's First Amendment right to protected religion.
  • Isobel Bird's 'Making the Saint' book #10 from the series 'Circle of Three' focuses on three pagan religions, one being Santeria.

See also


  1. ^ Santeria Religions of the World. Retrieved on 4 January 2009.
  2. ^ a b LUCUMI REL'GION New Orleans Mistic. Retrieved on 4 January 2009.
  3. ^ A Tale of Eleguá - Trickster God of Crossroads, Beginnings and Opportunities.
  4. ^ American Religious Identification Survey, 2001.
  5. ^ Perez y Mena, SSSR paper, 2005.
  6. ^
  7. ^ Richard Fausset (2008-08-10). "Santeria priest won't let religious freedom be sacrificed". L. A. Times.,0,7005689,full.story. Retrieved 2008-08-10. 
  8. ^ De La Torre, Miguel. “Chapter 5,” Santeria. Wm.B.Eerdmans, 2004:102
  9. ^ De La Torre, Miguel. “Chapter 5,” 102.
  10. ^ Brown, David H. “Chapter 4,” Santeria Enthroned. The University of Chicago,2003: 168.
  11. ^ Mason, Michael A. “Introduction,” Living Santeria. Smithsonian, 2003:6.
  12. ^ Mason, Michael A. “Chapter 4,” 57.
  13. ^ Brown, David H. “Chapter 4,” 165.
  14. ^ Mason, Michael A. “I Bow My Head to the Ground: The Creation of Bodily Experience in a Cuban America Initiation,” 26-28.
  15. ^ De La Torre, Miguel. “Chapter 4,” 107.
  16. ^ De La Torre, Miguel. “Chapter 4,” 107.
  17. ^ Mason, Michael A. “I Bow My Head to the Ground: The Creation of Bodily Experience in a Cuban America Initiation,” 28.
  18. ^ De La Torre, Miguel. “Chapter 4,” 107
  19. ^ Gonzalez-Wippler, Migene. “Introduction,” Rituals and Spells of Santeria.Original Publications, 2007: xi.
  20. ^ De La Torre, Miguel. “Chapter 4,” 112.
  21. ^ De La Torre, Miguel. “Chapter 4,” 112.
  22. ^ Duncan, Cynthia Ph.D. "University of Washington, Tacoma," 2010
  23. ^ Gonzalez-Wippler, Migene. “Introduction,”xi.
  24. ^ Caudillo, Diane E. “Prayers to the Orishas,”, 2007:11.
  25. ^ De La Torre, Miguel. “Chapter 4,” 118.
  26. ^ 508 U.S. 520 Full text of the opinion courtesy of
  27. ^ John T. McQuiston (January 28, 1998). "Mother who called daughter possessed pleads not guilty to her murder". The New York Times: pp. B/5. Retrieved 2007-07-26. 


Los Secretos de la Santeria e Ifa

Further reading

  • John Mason and Gary Edwards, Black Gods — Orisa Studies in the New World, Yoruba Theological Archministry, 1985. ISBN: 978-1-881244-02-8
  • John Mason. Olokun: Owner of Rivers and Seas ISBN 1-881244-05-9.
  • John Mason. Orin Orisa: Songs for selected Heads ISBN 1-881244-06-7.
  • Baba Eshu Onare, Ifa - Santería: Tratado Enciclopédico de Ifá.
  • Cabrera, Lydia (1995). El Monte: Igbo - Finda, Ewe Orisha/Vititi Nfinda. Ediciones Universal. ISBN 978-0-89729-009-8. 
  • Chief Priest Ifayemi Elebuibon, Apetebii: The Wife of Orunmila ISBN: 09638787-1-9.
  • J. Omosade Awolalu, Yoruba Beliefs & Sacrificial Rites ISBN: 0-9638787-3-5.
  • Baba Ifa Karade, The Handbook of Yoruba Religious Concepts.
  • William Bascom, Sixteen Cowries.
  • David M. O'Brien, Animal Sacrifice and Religious Freedom: Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah.
  • James T. Houk, Spirits, Blood, and Drums: The Orisha Religion of Trinidad. 1995. Temple University Press.
  • Baba Raul Canizares, Cuban Santería.
  • Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit.
  • Miguel A. De La Torre, Santería: The Beliefs and Rituals of a Growing Religion in America.
  • Miguel R. Bances, Santería: El Nuevo Manual del Oba u Oriaté.
  • Baba Esù Onàrè,, Tratado Encilopedico de Ifa.
  • Mozella G. Mitchell, Crucial Issues in Caribbean Religions, Peter Lang Pub, 2006.
  • King Charles Spencer, Nature's Ancient Religion Create Space, 2008" ISBN: 1-4404-1733-7.
  • Andres I. Perez y Mena" Speaking With The Dead: Development of Afro-Latin Religion Among Puerto Ricans in the United States" AMS — Press 1991 ISBN 0-404-19485-0.
  • Anthony M. Stevens Arroyo & Andres I. Perez y Mena, Editors "Enigmatic Powers: Syncretism With African and Indigenous Peoples'Religions Among Latinos" Bildner Center for Western Hemisphere Studies 1995 ISBN 0-929972-11-2 (hbk.) & 0-9657839-1-X (pbk.)
  • Andres I. Perez y Mena, "Understanding Religiosity in Cuba" in Journal of Hispanic/Latino Theology. February 2000. Vol 7 No. 3 Copyright: The Order of St. Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota.
  • Andres I. Perez y Mena, “Cuban Santería, Haitian Vodun, Puerto Rican Spiritualism: A Multicultural Inquiry Into Syncretism.” 1997. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Vol. 37. No.1.
  • Andres I. Perez y Mena, Santería: in "Contemporary American Religion," an encyclopedia. Wade Clark Roof, Editor in Chief. Macmillan Reference, Macmillan Publishing. New York, New York, Fall, 1999.
  • Andres I. Perez y Mena, Animal Sacrifice: in "Contemporary American Religion," an encyclopedia. Wade Clark Roof, Editor in Chief. Macmillan Reference, Macmillan Publishing. New York, New York, Fall, 1999.
  • Andres I. Perez y Mena, Religious Syncretism. 1996. "The Latino Encyclopedia" by Salem Press, Suite 350, 131 North El Molino Avenue, Pasadena, California, 91101.
  • Andres I. Perez y Mena, John Paul II Visits Cuba, in "Great Events of the Twentieth Century." 2000 Edited by Salem Press, Pasadena, California.
  • Andres I. Perez y Mena. 1982. “Socialization by Stages of Development into a ‘Centro Espiritista’ in the South Bronx of New York City.” Special Collections, Gottesman Libraries Archive Historical Dissertations. Teachers College, Columbia University.


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