The Santeria Religion in Matanzas, Cuba
Santeria is a dynamic example of the perseverance and inventiveness of the West African slaves who were brought to Cuba to work on the sugar plantations. These slaves brought their spiritual traditions with them and, when forced by the slave owners to convert to Catholicism, cunningly hid their religious secrets inside the imagery of their masters' Saints. Santeria, or "the way of the Saints," is the term the slave owners applied to what they perceived as their slaves' primitive worship of the Catholic Saints in preference to the more traditional Catholic focus on Jesus Christ. The slaves themselves referred to their beliefs as Lucumi, "La Regla de Ocha" (the Rule of Ocha), or simply "la religión." Today, what was once a pejorative term is in such common usage that most Cuban practitioners refer to themselves as Santeros, and to the Orishas (the deities of the religion) as Saints.
Santeria is Yoruba in essence. The Yoruba were not a homogeneous people, and their religious practices varied a bit from region to region. Some towns and guilds were dedicated to specific Orishas. Priests knew the secrets of their crowning Orisha but not necessarily of other Orishas, because they only received that one Orisha in their initiation. In Cuba, slaves from different regions were mixed together and they began sharing their practices with each other to ensure that the secrets of specific Orishas did not disappear. So today, a priest is crowned to one Orisha but receives several others during the initiation and may receive even more over time.
Other tribes brought their religions, too. The Dahomean tradition survived in what is today termed "Arara" and the Bantu practices became what is referred to as "Palo," "Palo Monte," or "Palo Mayombe." A fourth religion, from the Caravali tribe, became a men's society known as Abakua.
Matanzas is 90 km east of La Habana. The city is wrapped around one of the largest deep-water bays in Cuba and is an active port. The province was home to some of the biggest sugar plantations in Cuba, so the slave population was quite large. The city and province are considered by many to be the fuente (fountain) or cuna (cradle) of the Afro Cuban religious traditions. Many Santeros in Matanzas practice several of the African religions, which were passed on to them by their parents and grandparents whose ancestors came from different parts of Africa. They see each religion as having its time and place, but ultimately they are worshipping one God, no matter the name or the language used in that worship.
Santeria, and all the Afro-Cuban religions, are oral traditions. Cuban practitioners have their books, usually copied by hand from the hand-written notes of their elders, but most learning takes place through watching and listening during ceremonies. Religious communities are tight-knit families, usually from the same neighborhood. Children of 4 and 5 already know the rudiments of the public rituals and the words to the praise songs. Children who exhibit a talent--whether it is for singing, drumming, the herbs or the rituals themselves--are taken under the wing of an elder and taught. There are no classrooms; the training is "on the job." Because the religion has traditionally been passed on orally, differences in practice have arisen between extended families (known as "ramas" or branches). The comments here are based on the Egwado Rama of Fermina Gomez of Matanzas.
Ashe is the divine or spiritual energy that is the foundation of the universe. Every thing, animal, and person has ashe. Through the power of their ashe, humans have the potential to change themselves and their environment. Song, dance, and ritual increase the level of ashe at the community level, sometimes to the point that the Orishas mount their priests to join the celebration or ceremony (see "Possession" below). Ashe is also "blessing." It is the blessing Santeros ask of every thing--water, herbs, animals, other people, the drums, the Orishas--in everything they do.
Santeros believe in one God, Olodumare (also called Olofi or Olorun), the Creator of the universe. God is so vast, so unknowable, that direct communication is not possible. Humans communicate with God through the Orishas.
The Orishas are the embodiment of all aspects of nature (oceans, rivers, mountains, thunder, rain, iron) and all human attributes (such as intelligence, nurture, love, sexuality, aggressiveness, cunning). This embodiment encompasses both the positive and negative. So, the ocean may be calm or violently stormy. Both are Yemaya. The rain may fall gently, or in torrents during a hurricane. Both are Oya. The intellect may be strong (someone is a "brain") or weak (a mind addled by drink). Both are aspects of Obatala. Aggressiveness may be manifested for good (defending the weak) or evil (killing someone in a fit of anger). Both are aspects of Ogun.
The universe is a composite of all the natural manifestations of the Orishas, and humans are a composite of all their personal traits. Humans generally exhibit more of certain personality traits than others, and so people speak of an intellectual type as a "child of Obatala," or a flirtatious woman as a "child of Ochun."
Ultimately, the goal of life is to be in balance with all aspects of one's personality and of nature, and to fulfill one's personal destiny. Santeros call on all the Orishas at one time or another to help them in this process. Santeros communicate with the Orishas in two major ways: through Ita or consultation with the cowry shells, and through physical possession of a person by his or her Orisha.
The Orishas speak through 16 cowry shells thrown by someone knowledgeable in this sophisticated divination method. Each time the shells are thrown, some land "mouth up" and some "mouth down." Depending on the number that land "mouth up," the Santero marks down the number, called the sign or letter. Each letter has certain phrases and stories associated with it. There are 16 major letters and 246 total combinations. The first time the shells are thrown, they are thrown twice, to mark the sign. Then they are thrown several more times, to delve more deeply into what the Orishas are saying. A talented Santero or Santera can get extremely specific about the issues facing the person seeking the consultation and offers advice as to how to resolve those issues. Consultations may be sought by the initiated or the uninitiated (aleyo). The most important consultation a person receives in his or her life is the consultation with all the major Orishas following initiation into Ocha. This consultation tells the person's past, present, and future, and offers guidance on how to change his or her approach to life in order to fulfill the person's destiny.
Some initiates get possessed by their Orisha. These people are called "horses," because the Orisha mounts them in order to appear before the community. A ceremony, particularly a drumming celebration or an initiation, really isn't complete until one or more Orishas come. Their presence is a verification that the Santeros' prayers have reached God. God sends the Orishas to join in the celebration, to confirm what has occurred and to communicate with the gathered Santeros and aleyos.
The ancestors, called Egun, also play an important part in the cosmology of Santeria. Every ceremony begins with acknowledgement of and prayers to the ancestors, both elders of the religion who have passed away and the individual's ancestors. A person may have several different Egun, not necessarily relatives, who accompany him or her and act as spiritual guides. Some people are also possessed by Egun. As with the Orishas, Egun come to validate what is happening and to communicate with the gathering. Egun most frequently come during spiritual masses. These masses have more to do with Christian Espiritismo than with the African roots of Santeria, and not all Santeros use them, or at least not regularly. Egun also come during drumming celebrations dedicated to them. These celebrations traditionally use either the cajon (a wooden box) or guiro (conga drums and shekeres).
Santeria is a very personal religion. The primary form of worship is the individual's communication with Egun and the Orishas. Community worship takes place during drumming celebrations and initiations. The major form of prayer in these circumstances is singing and dancing, accompanied by the drums which act as the "telephone" to the Orishas and God. The songs generally praise the virtues of each Orisha or communicate to the Orisha what ceremony has just taken place, although if the Orishas don't come, the songs may become taunting and even insulting, as a way to goad them to join the celebration.
The primary way Santeros request the intercession of the Orishas in solving an individual's problems is through ebbo or sacrifice. Ebbo may involve something as simple as a candle, perhaps some flowers, fruits, or sweets; or it may involve animal sacrifice. The blood of animals is generally reserved for important occasions: the birth of new initiates or the resolution of serious problems. The concept behind the sacrifice is one shared by many ancient religions.
Animal sacrifice is the most misunderstood part of Santeria, especially in the United States. Santeros who have the right to use the knife are trained to do so in the most humane way possible. Except in cases where the animal is cleaning sickness or death from the person, parts of it are ritually prepared and presented to the Orishas and the rest is eaten by the community as a way to share in the ashe of the animal that gave its life to the Orishas.
There are several levels of initiation into the religion. The first level consists of receiving one or more beaded necklaces in the colors of the Orishas. The second level involves receiving one or more Orishas, usually the warriors (Elegua, Ogun, Ochosi, Osun) or Olokun (the Orisha of the ocean depths). The third level involves having one's head washed to a particular Orisha. This ceremony is generally a precursor to receiving Ocha.
A person is initiated into the religion as a priest through making or receiving Ocha. The initiate is "crowned" in a complicated series of ceremonies involving an entire community of Santeros. The Ocha is presided over by an Oba or Oba Oriate, the high priest of Santeria who has the knowledge of all the ceremonies and secrets of the religion.
One the third day after the initiation, the newly crowned priest, called a Iyawo, is presented to the sacred bata drums and the community. The initiate is dressed in a traditional satin outfit in the crowning Orisha's colors and circles three times before the community and the drums. Then the akpwon (lead singer) sings a complete cycle of songs to the Orishas to let God know, through the sacred drums, all the ceremonies that the initiate has undergone.
After initiation, the Iyawo dresses in white for one year. For the first three months, women wear a shawl in public and men wear long pants and long sleeves. Meals are eaten on a mat on the floor. The Iyawo's head is always covered, to protect the delicate crown. Iyawos should not drink or be out after dark. The Iyawo's life should be as tranquil as possible. In essence, the Iyawo is a baby and is treated accordingly by the community. He or she is loved and cherished, but also restricted out of concern for her safety and wellbeing.