Santería is an Afro-Caribbean religion that comes to us from Cuba and to this day it is practiced worldwide. Its original form, called Ifa, is an ancient Yoruba religion that comes from West-Africa and is declared by UNESCO as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Santeria itself developed in Cuba with the arrival of the African slaves. When they came they brought their deities, called Orisha¹, with them. The slave masters and the Christian missionaries made them convert to the Christian religion or else. They did so, but they didn’t leave their practices behind. In a clever and successful move, the slaves started making associations between their Orisha and the catholic saints, thus giving their practice the name of Santería. Thus St. Barbara, with her imagery of a sword, red and white tunic and association with thunder, became the disguise for the mighty Shango, male Orisha of thunder and fire, which colors are
also red and white. And Our Lady of Charity, in turn, with her crown and beautiful clothes and the fishermen at her feet, became the disguise of Oshun, the female Orisha of rivers and love, who has a taste for good garments and is a beautiful Queen.
The Lukumí ² religion, as it is also known, is one of the most popular forms or Orisha worship today. It is an initiatory religion, meaning that you have to be initiated by a Priest/Priestess, referred to as Babalorisa /Iyalorisha. The degrees of initiation vary and each has its purpose. One of the most important ceremonies performed is receiving the Orisha that is the devotee’s patron deity. Initiated practitioners perform rituals for healing, protection, abundance, happiness and long life. Each ritual is usually directed towards one of the Orisha, which are thought to be different aspects of the same Creator/Creatix of the Universe, called Olódùmarè. The main Orisha are:
Eshu/Elegbara: Owner of All Roads in Life and Messenger of the Orisha
Oggun: Owner of Iron and Warrior
Oshosi : Owner of the Bow and Arrow and Master Hunter
The latter three are also known as the Warrior Orisha
Obatala: Owner of Peace and Light and Creator of Humanity
Shango: Owner of Fire and Lord of Thunder
Yemoja/Yemaya: Owner of the Sea and Mother of the World
Oshun: Owner of Rivers and Queen of Love
Oya: Owner of the Marketplace and Ruler of the Cemetery
Orunmila/Orula: Owner of Divination and Witness of Destiny
Much like in modern Pagan religions, these African Deities are offered fruits, gifts and feasts that include drumming and traditional music, among them bata drumming and shekere playing, both traditional instruments of the Yoruba and the singing of traditional songs in the ancestral Yoruba language. These songs are sung as praise to the Orisha, their power and to invoke them. The religion also includes Ancestor Reverence and practices ways of communication with Egun or Egungun, as the collective energy of ancestors are known. In fact, some of the Orisha are believed to be deified ancestors (i.e. they became Orisha by achieving en elevated state of consciousness, pretty much like Buddha or the Catholic Saints, another hint to the connection between the two.)
On some occasions, Orisha are offered the blood of animals, which most of the time are eaten later by the community. The idea behind this is that the blood carries the life force and is offered to the Deities as a way of giving thanks and/or for atonement and also as a way of making the food sacred. This is not done on a daily basis, but when called for in divination by the Orisha. There are three main forms of divination done in Santeria:
Coconut divination, called Obi³
Cowry shell divination, called Dilogun⁴
Palm nuts (Ikin Ifá) or divining chain (opele) with divining tray (Opon Ifá), called Ifá or Dá’fá.
The first two are performed by Babalorisa /Iyalorisha, while the latter is performed by a Babalawo⁵, or High Priest. These systems are adapted versions of the traditional forms of divination practiced in Ifá. Each form offers a wealth of knowledge and wisdom as well as a set of stories, known as Itan or Pataki, to explain life and our place in it and learning these systems is a lifetime’s work. The other practiced method of communication with Orisha is possession of the Priest/Priestess. The initiated Babalorisa /Iyalorisha enters a trance-like state, in which the Orisha come through and speaks with the community. The Orisha are believed to communicate with the devotees through these means, offering counsel and solutions to the devotee’s problem. This counseling, paired with the prescribed rituals and followed as directed, is believed to bring transformation in the devotee’s life, thus bringing him or her closer to the divine energies known as
¹ Orisha is the Diaspora spelling of the Yoruba Òrìșà. I have maintained the Diaspora spelling to keep the pronunciation simple. Also, in Yoruba, the word Òrìșà is used for singular and plural, thus you’ll see that I have used the word Orisha, as used in the Diaspora, but have not added an S to the word when talking about multiple Òrìșà.
² The word lukumí is one whose origins have never been defined for sure, but there are at least two known references: The first is the Yoruba word the slaves used to identify as friends "Olukun mi" and the second one is to the name with which the Yoruba region was known "Ulcuim or Ulcumi"
³ The use of coconut substituted the use of kola nuts (obi abata) in this form of divination in the Diaspora.
⁴ Dilogún is the Diaspora word for Mérìndínlógún (sixteen) as a reference to sixteen cowry divination.
⁵ In Santería, the Babalawo is acknowledged to be the only one who can consult Orunmila and only men can become Babalawo. This is not so in Africa, as women can also consult Orunmila and become Iyalawo or Iyanifá. The bias in the Diaspora has its roots on Christian patriarchy. This is changing in the Diaspora, little by little, with the male acceptance of women taking positions of power and importance and the women reclaiming their power.
About the Author:
Chris Lee is an initiated priest of Oshun in the Orisha tradition of the Caribbean who continues to study every aspect of this ancient practice and its sister religions. He loves learning about alternative religions and philosophies and writing about them. He has studied the Wiccan religion in depth as well as folk magickal traditions and practices, including Herbalism, Spiritualims and Hoodoo. He is a Third Degree Reiki Master and has studied and read Tarot for 10 years.
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