Santeria Rituals & Experiences In An Afro-Cuban Religion…
Of all the New World societies, Cuba received captives from the greatest mix of African origins. They came from all parts of the coast and interior of western Africa. The size, diversity, and continual replenishment of this population allowed a rich array of African-inspired religions to flourish there, even beyond the end of the slave trade. It has long been common to call Cuban Oricha-Worship “Santería” because of the identification of the Orichas with the Saints. However the term is now being rejected by those who think it overemphasizes the Catholic and syncretistic elements. Increasingly, many within the Afro-Caribbean tradition prefer to call it La Regla de Oricha, “the order of the Orichas.
Is a system of beliefs that merges aspects of Yoruba mythology that were brought to the New World by enslaved Yoruba people, along with Christianity and Indigenous American traditions. 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, to merge their customs with aspects of Roman Catholicism.
This religious tradition evolved into what is now recognized as Santería. In order to preserve and shield their traditional beliefs, the Lukumi people syncretized their Orichás with Roman 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 – Worship of Saints
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.
Rituals and Ceremonies: Santería does not use a central creed for its religious practices; though it is understood in terms of its rituals and ceremonies. These rituals and ceremonies take place in what is known as a House-Temple or casa de Santos, in the homes of the initiated priests and priestesses, to the different Orichás, which creates a space for worship, 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.
To become a Santero or Santera, the Initiator must go through an intensive week-long initiation process in which the teaching of the ritual skills and moral behavior occurs informally and nonverbally. 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. Once cleansed, there are four major initiation rituals that the initiator will have to undergo: obtaining the Ilekes – beaded necklace, receiving Los Guerreros – Warriors, making Ochá – Saint, and Asiento. The first ritual is known as the acquisition of the beaded necklaces Ilekes is bathed in a mixture of herbs, sacrificial blood, and other potent substances and given to the initiated. 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 Orichás -Eleguá, Obatalá, Yemayá, Changó, and Ochún, and they serve as a sacred point of contact with these Orichás. When the necklace is received, the initiated must bow over a bathtub and have his/her head washed by the Olorichá. The Ilekes serves as the sacred banners for the Orichás 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.
Los Guerreros – Warriors: 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. 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.
Asiento = Ascending the throne: The last ritual of the initiation process is known as Asiento, and is the most important and the most secretive ritual in Santería, as it is the ceremony where the Iyawo 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. Once the initiation is completed, depending on the individual’s “house”, there is a year-long waiting period, known as Iyaboraje, in which the newly appointed Priest and Priestess cannot 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. 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.
Priests are commonly known as Santeros or Olorichas. Once those priests have initiated other priests, they become known as Babalorichás, “fathers of Orichá”, and as Iyalorichás, “mothers of Orichá”. Priests can commonly be referred to as Santeros and Santeras, 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.
Santería traditional healing practice has a spiritual aspect. Santería has a holistic approach, acknowledging the connection with heart, mind, and body. 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. 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.
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; Babalúayé, the Orichá of contagious and epidemic diseases; and Inle, the patron of physicians. 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.
Santería is mainly found in the Spanish speaking Americas, including but not limited to Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, and Mexico, as well as in the United States, mainly as a result of migration from these countries, especially Cuba and Puerto Rico. A similar religion of Yoruba origin called Candomblé is practiced in Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay.
**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 are played in the Orichá’s honor.