Santería, religion originating in W Africa, developed by Yoruba slaves in Cuba, and practiced by an estimated one million people in the United States. Blending African beliefs with those of Roman Catholicism, it fuses Christian saints with African deities (orishas). Rites are led by a priest or priestess, and reincarnation is a main belief. One of its most important rituals involves animal sacrifice, which was ruled a constitutional religious practice in a 1993 Supreme Court decision.

Santería, also known as La Regla de Lukumi (Lukumi's Rule), and The Way of the Saints, is an Afro-Cuban religious tradition derived from traditional beliefs of the Yoruba people of Nigeria. The Santería/Yoruba tradition comprises a hierarchical structure according to priesthood level and authority. Orisha "ile" or temples are usually governed by Orisha Priests known as Babalorishas, "fathers of orisha", or 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(as)" 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 Ifa (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" and "Iyanifa" or "Mother of Destiny." Ifa Ile or Temples of Ifa serve as the senior to all Orisha Ile in the Traditional Orisha-Ifa / Santería Community. The Sacred Oracle of Ika-Fun or Ika Ofun serves as confirmation. The "Seven Powers of God" or "Siete Potencia" are; Elegua, Oggun, Oshun, Chango, Obatala', Yemeya and Onrula. These are the most common Orisha names, especially in Cuba.


Santería is one of the syncretic religions created in the New World. It is based on the West African religions brought to the New World by slaves imported to the Caribbean to work the sugar plantations. These slaves carried with them their own religious traditions, including a tradition of trance for communicating with their ancestors and deities, animal sacrifice and the practice of sacred drumming and dance. Those slaves who landed in the Caribbean, Central and South America were nominally converted to Christianity. However, they were able to preserve some of their traditions by fusing together various Dahomean, baKongo (Congo) and Lukumi beliefs and rituals and by syncretizing these with elements from the surrounding Christian culture. 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 USA 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 residing in the USA, 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 Ifá 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 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 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. In Cuba today, the terms "saint" and "orisha" are sometimes used interchangeably. The term Santería (also known as "the Way of the Saints"), 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 but not limited to: the United States, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Argentina, Colombia, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Great Britain, Canada, Venezuela, Panama and other areas with large Latin American populations. A very similar religion called Candomblé is practiced in Brazil, which is home to a rich array of other Afro-American religions. This is now being referred to as "parallel religiosity" (Perez y Mena, SSSR paper 2005) since some believers worship the African variant that has no devil fetish and no baptism or marriage and at the same time they belong to either Catholic churches or mainline Protestant churches, where there is a devil fetish. Lukumi religiosity works toward a balance here 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 the saints and the orishas. , 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 2007, the first Santería church was incorporated in the United States as the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye.

Beliefs and rituals

The sacred belief system of the Lukumi prevent non-adherents from participating in ceremonial rites. Nearly all Lukumi ceremonies are reserved for priests and the newly initiated.

Santería was traditionally transmitted orally, although in the last decade a number of books have been published on the tradition. Practices include dance, sung invocations to the orishas, sprinkling mercury around a home, and animal offering, which is the most controversial ritual. The priests charged with doing the sacrifice are trained in humane ways to perform ritual slaughter, and the animal may be cooked and eaten afterward by the community. [Chicken]]s, a staple food of many African-descended and Creole cultures, are the most common sacrifice; the chicken's blood is offered to the orisha, while the meat may be consumed by all.

Trees are also offered to the orisha. Drum music and dancing are a form of prayer, during which, it is believed, an initiated priest may enter a trance state, become possessed, and channel the orisha, giving the community and individuals information, perform healing, etc. (see Yoruba music). One's ancestors (egun) are held in high esteem in Lukumí. All ceremonies and rituals in the Lukumi religion begin with paying homage to one’s ancestors.

Controversies and criticisms

  • Some animal rights activists take issue with the Yoruba practice of animal sacrifice, claiming that it is cruel. In 1993, this issue 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; 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 as such, nor does its liturgy contain exorcism rituals. The mother in question, Vivian Miranda, was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and is currently confined in a New York State psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane.
  • There have been some exaggerated movies about the religion as well, such as the 1987 movie, The Believers, and the 1997 Spanish-Mexican-American movie Perdita Durango, which depicts a couple who follow fantasized Santería beliefs and practice human sacrifice and the consumption of aborted fetuses.

Allusions in popular culture

  • The episode "Double Vision" of the The Flash television series touches on Santería, with the Flash himself being mistaken for an orisha.
  • 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 "Curse of the Coffin" of CSI: Miami deals with Santería.
  • In 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.
  • Casa de juegos (House of Games) by Cuban-American author Daína Chaviano strongly deals with the world of Santería. In the novel, 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 Spook Country features a major character 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 popular 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.
  • The episode "Whatever works" of the second season of Miami Vice also 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 episode "Murder on the Interstate/House of Santeria" of the A&E series The First 48, a follower of Santeria is murdered and his rituals are exposed while the team investigates his death.
  • The movie Major League shows a player practicing Santeria.
  • "The Night of the Jaguar" is a recent novel by Michael Gruber featuring many aspects of Santeria.

See also


Further reading

External links

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