Santería, also known as Regla de Ochá, La Regla de Ifá, or Lucumí, is an Afro-American religion of Caribbean origin that developed in the Spanish Empire among West African descendants. Santería is a Spanish word that means the "worship of saints". Santería is influenced by and syncretized with Roman Catholicism. Its sacred language is the Lucumí language, a variety of Yoruba.
Santería is a system of beliefs that merges aspects of Yoruba religion brought to the New World by enslaved Yoruba people along with Christianity and the religions of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. The Yoruba people carried with them various religious customs, including a trance and divination system for communicating with their ancestors and deities, animal sacrifice, and sacred drumming and dance. The need to preserve their traditions and belief systems in a hostile cultural environment prompted those enslaved in Cuba, starting from as early as 1515, to merge their customs with aspects of Roman Catholicism.
This religious tradition evolved into what is now recognized as Santería.
The colonial period from the standpoint of enslaved African people can be defined as a time of perseverance. Their world quickly changed. Tribal kings and their families, politicians, business and community leaders all were enslaved and taken to a foreign region of the world. Religious leaders, their relatives and their followers were no longer free people to worship as they saw fit. Colonial laws criminalized 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 have necessitated 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 (and former pejorative) 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 slave owners. 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
In order to preserve and shield (mask) their traditional beliefs, the Lucumí people syncretized their Orichás with Catholic saints. (As a consequence, the terms "saint" and "orichá" are commonly used interchangeably among practitioners.) Spanish colonial planters who saw the enslaved African people celebrating on saints' days did not know that they were actually performing rituals related to Orichás, and assumed that they were showing more interest in Catholic saints than in the Christian God—hence the derisory origin of the term Santería.
The historical veiling of the relationship between Catholic saints and Orichás is compounded by the fact that the vast majority of santeros in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic, are also Roman Catholics, have been baptized, and often require initiates to be baptized in Roman Catholicism as well.
The spread of Santería beyond the Spanish-speaking parts of the Caribbean, including to the United States, was catalyzed by the Cuban Revolution of 1959. In 1974, the Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye became the first Santería church in the United States to become officially incorporated.
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Santería does not use a central creed for its religious practices; though it is understood in terms of its rituals and ceremonies.:102 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 orichás, which creates a space for worship, called an igbodu (altar).:102 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.:168
Each ilé is composed of those who occasionally seek guidance from the orishas, as well as those who are in the process of becoming priests.:6
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 Lucumí culture and religion.:57
To become a Santero or Santera (Priest or Priestess of Santería), the initiator must go through an intensive week-long initiation process:165 in which the teaching of the ritual skills and moral behavior occurs informally and nonverbally. To begin with, the initiator goes through what is called a cleansing ritual. The initiator's 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 Santería for the need of healing, they will undergo the rogación de la cabeza (blessing of the head), in which coconut water and cotton are applied on the head to feed it.:26–28 Once cleansed, there are four major initiation rituals that the initiator will have to undergo: obtaining the elekes (beaded necklace), receiving Los Guerreros (the Warriors), making Ochá (Saint), and Asiento (ascending the throne).:107
The first ritual is known as the acquisition of the beaded necklaces (known as ilekes); according to De La Torre, "the colors and patterns of the beads on the ilekes will be those of the orichá 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 orichá is. The ilekes necklace is bathed in a mixture of herbs, sacrificial blood, and other potent substances and given to the initiated.:107
The initiate most often receives the necklace of the five most powerful and popular oricha, as the multicolored beads of the ilekes are each patterned for the primary Orishás (Eleduá, Obatalá, Yemayá, Changó, and Ochún), and they serve as a sacred point of contact with these Orishás. When the necklace is received, the initiated must bow over a bathtub and have his/her head washed by the olo orichá. The elekes:28 serves as the sacred banners for the Orishás and act as a sign of the Orichá's presence and protection; however, it must never be worn during a woman's menstruation period, nor during sex, nor when bathing.:107
The second important ritual is known as medio asiento, the creation of an image of the orichá Eleguá. 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 path of Eleguá the recipient will receive. Then, based on his findings, he chooses materials that will be used to construct the image of the Eleguá, a sculpture that is used to keep evil spirits away from the initiator's home. This ritual is only prepared by men as the orichás take some of the Santero's "manly" spirit in the process.:xi
The third ritual, known as "receiving the warriors", is a ritual where the initiated receives objects from their padrino that represents the warriors; Iron tools to represent Ogún; an iron bow and arrow to represent Ochosi; and an iron or silver chalice surmounted by a rooster to represent Osún.:112 This ritual begins a formal and lifelong relationship that the initiate will have with these Orichás, as the orichás devote their energies to protecting and providing for the initiate on their 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 Santería, as it is the ceremony where the iyawo (bride of the oricha) 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. 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.:112
Once the initiation is completed, depending on the individuals "house", there is a year-long waiting period, known as iyaboraje, 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 Orichá 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 Orichás and are vested with the power to work with the forces of those Orichás in full.":xi
With Santería rituals there are musical ceremonies and prayers that are referred to as bembé, toque de santo, or tambor. It is a celebration dedicated to an Orichá, where the batá drums (set of three drums known as the iya (the largest drum), itoltele, and okonkolo) are played in the Orichá's honor.:11 Through these sacred drums, messages of worshippers reach the orichás and the orichás 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.:118
Priests are commonly known as Santeros or Olorichas. Once those priests have initiated other priests, they become known as babalorichás, "fathers of orichá" (for men), and as iyalorichás, "mothers of orichá" (for women). Priests can commonly be referred to as Santeros (male) and Santeras (female), and if they function as diviners (using cowrie-shell divination known as Dilogun) of the Orichás they can be considered Italeros, or if they go through training to become leaders of initiations, Obas or Oriates.
Lucumí traditional healing practices are rooted in the spiritual influences of America, Europe, and West Africa. Having a strong spiritual component, these traditional healing practices also use the pathways of the herbalist, psychologist, ethicist, and that of a respected spiritual medium interceding between God and human beings. Du Toit refers to Cuban traditional healing practices as ethnomedicine, which taps on the biodynamic chemical properties of certain plants, from which some commercial drugs were derived, such as the cardiac medications, digitalis, quinine, and curare – chemicals causing neuromuscular paralysis.:19 Du Toit categorizes Cuban ethnomedicine as having health specialists, which are el yerbero (the herbalist), el curandero (the curer), el santero (the religious healer), and el conocedor (the botanist). Du Toit continues, "Cuba is one of the regions in which a great deal of ethnographic and ethnobotanical research has been conducted.":21
Du Toit cites the studies of Lydia Cabrera on the religious and healing role of indigenous medicinal plants, and Jose Gallo on the 900-page compilation of folk medicine, and also mentions that with the 31 herbs prescribed as bronchodilators, only Datura candida was effective, due to its contents of scopolamine and atropine in the leaves. Lemongrass or caña de limón is used for low blood pressure and anti-inflammatory effects. Thyme tea and castor oil are used to speed the delivery of babies and the broomweed (Corchorus siliquosus) induces the quick expulsion of the placenta.:21 Herbs are also used to create a trance possession using the hallucinogenic properties of Datura metel and Datura stramonium (both have scopolamine and atropine, causing amnesia), the psychoactive ingredients from the cane toad (Bufo marinus).:23
Aside from being herbalist, Santería traditional healing practice has a spiritual aspect. Santería has a holistic approach, acknowledging the connection with heart, mind, and body.:50 In Santería, the world flows with the primal life energy called aché or growth, the force toward completeness and divinity. Aché is the current that Santería initiates channel so that it empowers them to fulfill their path in life, because aché is connected to all that has life or exhibits power; aché comprises blood, grace, and power.:12 When a person is sick, the healer thinks, interprets and reacts, considering the illness not just a physical dysfunction but also an interface with suffering and bad luck in life, believed to be brought on by the activity of bad spirits.
Prevalent in Caribbean cultures, espiritismo is a part of the Latin American traditional healing practice. Du Tout reveals that Santería has a "strong element of spiritism.":26 McNeill also concurs that some Santeros have the power to communicate with spirits asking for guidance to improve the situation of a person consulting.:69 However, in general, the Santeros of the Regla de Ochá primarily turn to religion as their practice to address personal challenges and identify means to improve a situation.:77 Many people may go and see espirititas who don't see a Santero. Also, espiritistas may work hand in hand with Santeros.
While psychotherapy tends to use mostly allopathic principles, spiritism uses homeopathic principles that aim to reduce the anxiety, or permit the patient to acknowledge pent-up emotions, unexpressed guilt, or repressed behavior through catharsis meant to release emotions the patient may not even be aware of.:25 It is said that "healing can occur when the spirit medium assists the sufferer to come into harmony with the spirit world so as to change his or her physical condition, emotions, way of life, or destiny.":25
The reputation of espiritistas was tinged with negativity, being accused of witchcraft because they deal with health through the unfamiliar paradigm of the spirit world, which was not understood by either the medical doctors or the Catholic priests. Consequently, espiritistas or traditional healers of Santería and other Latin American cultures working with healing through the spirit world are attacked as "works of the devil" from the pulpits of the Catholic Churches and labeled as "quackery" from the journals of the medical profession. This unique system of knowledge is appreciated as ethnopharmacology or ethnomedicine.:25
Aligning and harmonizing with the forces of nature, practitioners of the Regla de Ochá invoke on the guidance of Orichás. There are three foremost orichás that are predominantly concerned with folk-healing, however, other orichás may be invoked to help a person with a specific problem. These main orichás are: Osaín, the orichá of the herbs; Babalú-Ayé, the orichá of contagious and epidemic diseases; and Inle, the patron of physicians. Osaín is the patron of curanderos or traditional herbal healers, also called Osainistas.:78 According to de la Torre, Osaín is believed to be embodied in the omiero, which is a combination of "blood from sacrifices offered during the ceremony and juices extracted from herbs that are sacred to the Orichás with water (from rain, rivers, or seas) honey, aguardiente, powdered eggshell, corojo, and cocoa butter.":78 The forest has everything that would maintain a robust health and keep a person away from malevolence, thus, Santería practitioners would agree that no spell will be able to work without the sanction of Osaín, the master herbalist commanding the healing secrets of plant life.:50 Osaín is syncretized with Saint Joseph, Saint Benito, or Saint Jerome. Babalú-Ayé is revered by its victims and survivors like smallpox, leprosy, and skin diseases. Babalú-Ayé has become the guardian of those with HIV/AIDS. He is syncretized with Saint Lazarus.:78 Inle is the patron of physicians, known as a healer who favors scientific methods. Inle is ranked as one of the orichás that is approached for very specific health issues. Thus, Inle is also known as the protector of homosexuals and feminosexuals.:82
People go to a consulta for many reasons, mainly for health-related issues. Divination is a means that traditional healers utilize to inquire further on the details of a problem. Divination may articulate the origin/cause of the problem; in addition, it may include prescriptions for solutions/suggestions to certain difficulties.:96 Divination establishes an interpretative frame for the situation a person finds himself in.:97 Hence, the Santeros offer cowrie-shell divination or other appropriate traditional practices. Rituals, or the reading of patakís may be done to clarify a problem, of which sometimes the person consulting may not even be aware. Passed orally from many generations, patakí are parables used by diviners to guide or give insights or moral lessons to a person who came for consultation. The patakí recited by the Santero corresponds to the number that the cowrie shell divination brings.
Aside from the use of herbs and divination, the Santería traditional healing is achieved through rituals that include animal sacrifice, offerings, altar building, music, dance, and possession trance.:108 When the patient is a child, the Santero uses the curative system known as santiguo, which means "to heal by blessing". Perceiving health problems, most Santeros recommend that the client seeks a medical doctor. Parallel to the medical treatment, the patient might be prescribed some herbal teas, cleansing baths, or a special diet from the traditional healing practice. Sometimes, a Santero might advise a client to receive omiero, whose efficacy is widely disputed by many in the medical community. An omiero is claimed by believers to be a sacred mixture that is made for specific Santería ceremonies and to embody the orichá ruler of herbs, Osaín.:108 Most clients who see Santeros would never be told to drink it.
Santería traditional healing is just one of the many traditional healing practices used in Caribbean and Latin American cultures. Traditional healing practices are practiced side by side with mainstream medical practices through the Cuban healthcare system. Traditional healers recognize but do not compete with Western medicine.
Santería is a religion found in Latin America. It is mainly practiced in but not limited to Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Panama, and Colombia. There is also a large population who practice it in the United States.
In 2001, there were an estimated 22,000 practitioners in the US alone, 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 United States, some are fully committed priests and priestesses, others are godchildren or members of a particular house-tradition, and many are non-committal clients seeking help with their everyday problems.
In 1993, the issue of animal sacrifice in Santería was taken to the Supreme Court of the United States in the case of Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah. The court ruled that animal cruelty laws targeted specifically at Santería were unconstitutional.
In 2009, legal and religious issues that related to animal sacrifice, animal rights, and freedom of religion were taken to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in the case of Jose Merced, President Templo Yoruba Omo Orisha Texas, Inc., v. City of Euless. The court ruled that the Merced case of the freedom of exercise of religion was meritorious and prevailing and that Merced was entitled under the Texas Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (TRFRA) to an injunction preventing the city of Euless, Texas, from enforcing its ordinances restricting his religious practices relating to the use of animals, (see Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 110.005(a)(2)) without the court having to reach his claims under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. After the court case was settled, a news article was published in the Dallas Observer documenting the volume and brutality of the animal sacrifices.
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