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Creole Religions of the Caribbean by Olmos et al.


The book under consideration, written by Margarite Fernandez Olmos and Lizabeth Parvisini-Gebert, represents a comprehensive investigation of the diversity of religious practices, beliefs, and traditions that originated in the Caribbean region as well as the current state of these religions. The introduction to the book begins with the description of three different examples of how people in different countries and locations practice Creole religions. These three stories intend to exemplify how widespread Creole religions are, and the tales also emphasize the diversity of people who confess these religious beliefs.

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It is possible to state that one of the purposes that are achieved by the authors is that the book effectively debunks various myths surrounding Creole religions. Fernandez Olmos and Parvisini-Gebert argue that one of the most influencing rationales for the persistence of stereotypes about Vodou, Santeria, Obeah, and Espiritismo is that these religious practices were developed in secrecy, often as a form of protest against official government and religion, who initially were colonizers of the Caribbean region.

One of the major concepts, which is used throughout the book, is the process of creolization. The authors observe that the majority of the population of the Caribbean were either colonized and oppressed by European colonizers, or were forced to move in the region, as it was in the case of Africans. Thus, an immensely diverse social and religious context was created in the Caribbean. Being oppressed by colonial powers, indigenous people of the Caribbean were forced to transform and adapt their religious beliefs to the ones that were implanted by Europeans. This complex process is a fundamental aspect of the concept of creolization. The authors define this term as “the malleability and mutability of various beliefs and practices as they adapt to new understandings of class, race, gender power, labor, and sexuality,” considering it to be the most important phenomenon in Caribbean religious history (p. 4).

It is also essential to mention two related concepts, which are highly important for the understanding of the book’s subject matter. Firstly, it is transculturation, a term that was originally coined by Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz. Essentially, the term refers to a more comprehensive, extended, and balanced-out notion of acculturation. Ortiz argued that the process of colonization was not a one-way, strictly oppressive influence of European newcomers, but instead, it was a creative and complicated ongoing process of transformation, adaptation, revision, and survival, which led to the fusion of and confluence of different cultures and religions. The second concept, which is highly important, is the syncretism. It is possible to state that syncretism largely defined the process of transculturation as Caribbean natives had to reorganize their culture and religion to adapt to new conditions of living.

Even though Creole religions are considerably diverse in terms of theological assumptions and practices, the authors identify several shared characteristics of these religions. Firstly, each of these religions is a combination of monotheism and polytheism. The cult of dead ancestors is the second most shared practice. The belief about the possibility of investing a supernatural power into an object of various origins is also considered common. Accordingly, most Creole religions believe in animalistic spirits found in nature. The fifth shared characteristic is the use of various rituals to connect the human and spirit worlds. It is also possible to mention such aspects as the use of symbols and sacred objects, the significance of dance and music, and the internalization of spiritual powers in particular human beings, who serve as mediums of sacred powers. The authors also mention that magic, witchcraft, and healing practices are also essential aspects of Creole religions, as they were largely based on indigenous spiritual practices.

Historical Background

The first chapter focuses on the historical background that influenced the emergence of various religious beliefs in the Caribbean. It is mentioned that the islands of the Caribbean were the first European colonies in the New World, and thus they very the center of the large multicultural clash as the interests of different metropolitan powers were involved. The author argues that the development of the plantation economy was the primary reason for the Caribbean region to become one of the world’s economic and trade centers. Another highly significant aspect of the sugar plantation economy was the importation of numerous African slaves. African experienced numerous challenges as they arrived in the Caribbean. These challenges included the necessity to adapt to new languages and cultures of their owners, as well as to transform their religious and cultural beliefs and values to resist and survive in such conditions. In general, it is possible to state that Africans and other indigenous nations of the Caribbean strived to preserve their cultural identity through the process of creolization.

The authors mention that African-based religious practices, brought by African slaves to different regions of the Caribbean, influenced the emergence of all major Creole religions discussed in the following chapters. Fernandez Olmos and Parvisini-Gebert also mention that the Haitian Revolution of 1791 was the most important event in terms of Creole religions’ spreading and growing. The 19th century was largely defined by the processes of decolonization and abolition of slavery in the majority of the regions in the Caribbean. The Haitian Revolution had the largest impact on the transformation of Creole religions. In the 20th century, people of the Caribbean started to seek opportunities abroad, and thus Creole religious practices became the subject of the globalization process. Regarding the current state of the Caribbean practices in the world, it is possible to notice that numerous people who share Creole’s beliefs are participating in various environmental sustainability movements.

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The Orisha Tradition in Cuba: Santería/Regla de Ocha

In the second chapter, the authors discuss the Orisha tradition in Cuba, as it is one of the initial forms of creolized religious practices in the Caribbean. The emergence of African-Cuban religions was largely based on the syncretic combination and transformation of traditional African spiritual practices and Roman Catholicism, the only officially permitted religion in Cuba. Santería, or Regla de Ocha, is largely based on worshipping traditional Afro-Cuban god, Olodumare, and orishas, the god’s numerous expressions. For example, one of the most important orishas is Elegua, the ruler of roads and crossroads, or Ogun, the orisha of the war. Another highly important concept is initiation since Afro-Cuban religions are structured as the relationship between devotees (humans) and deities and spirits. Generally, the series of four initiation marks different stages of a person’s spiritual development. It also mentioned that there is a special form of initiation, which is called the Kariocha Initiation, which is essentially a coronation of the saint.

The alliance between humans and orishas, or the spiritual world, also manifests itself in the cult of the dead ancestors. Accordingly, Afro-Cuban religions strive to internalize the spirit world in various objects or living things. This process is referred to as divination. Divination systems are considerably diverse as they include numerous rituals for various purposes. The role of music and dance as essential parts of rituals as well as the overall cultural practice is also highly recognized. Singing and dancing are considered to be efficient means of summoning different orishas since the concept of possession as the way to approach the spirit world are significant in Afro-Cuban religions. The authors also exemplify the importance of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 because it largely influenced the revival of traditional Afro-Cuban religious practices, which were oppressed previously.

The Afro-Cuban Religious Traditions of Regla de Palo and the Abakuá Secret Society

In the third chapter, the authors continue to investigate the diversity of Afro-Cuban religions by discussing the traditions of Regla de Palo and the Abakuá Secret Society. Fernandez Olmos and Parvisini-Gebert point out that the most important difference between Regla de Ocha and Regla de Palo is the following. Regla de Ocha could be summarized as a dedicated and committed relationship with the spiritual world, which includes regular offerings, prayers, and ritual ceremonies. Regla de Palo is slightly different since it implies a “more occasional and intermittent pact with the spirit” (p. 88). Regla de Palo is largely based on religious beliefs and practices originated from Congo, and it includes several branches, such as Regla Biyumba, Regla Musunde, Regla Vrillumba, and several others.

It is also important to notice that Congo religious traditions interact with the spiritual world differently, compared to Yoruba-based religions, such as Regla de Ocha. Primarily, Regla de Palo religions strive to control the spirits of the dead and perform healing practices involving charms and spells. In general, Cuban Congo religions are known for their wide use of magic and witchcraft.

Another highly significant religious and esoteric practice is the Abakuá Secret Society, which is largely based on the traditional culture of Cameroon and Nigeria. This society is exclusively for men, and its members are united mystical secrets, sacred rituals, and commercial interests. The Abakuá is not considered as a religion; instead, its members share the majority of religious beliefs, which are traditional for Afro-Cuban religions. As the Carabalis, the ancestors of the Abakuá tradition were located between the regions of Yoruba and Congo in Africa, they were influenced by both religious approaches.

In the third leg of the chapter, the authors focus on the healing traditions of Afro-Cuban religions. Fernandez Olmos and Parvisini-Gebert argue that, as it was the case with other Creole religions, Afro-Cuban practices largely influenced nearly every aspect of everyday life, such as art and language. Accordingly, physical, emotional, and spiritual healing were also significantly impacted. Primarily, Afro-Cuban healing practices are based on the use of various herbs and rituals as well.

Haitian Vodou

The fourth chapter is dedicated to what is considered to be one of the most distinctive and representative, yet often largely misunderstood Creole religions, the Haitian Vodou. As the authors notice, Haitian Vodou is also largely based on the religious beliefs and practices, which were brought into Haiti by African slaves, and thus it resembles Afro-Cuban religions, especially Regla de Ocha, in the majority of aspect. The term “Vodou” is translated as “spirit,” and it largely describes this religion, as it is based primarily on the alliance between humans and spirits. Vodou is essentially a monotheistic religion, which recognizes one ultimate god, Gran Met. However, as it was with Regla de Ocha, there is also a pantheon of powerful spirits, which is called the Lwa in Haiti. In general, the purpose of the Vodou religion is to create and maintain a spiritual community, in which human life is vastly dependent on the involvement of spirits.

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The parallels between the Haitian Vodou and Afro-Cuban religions also manifest themselves in such aspects as initiation, music and dance, possession, offerings, divination, and service rituals. The result of a successful initiation, which is the process that demands thorough preparation and financial sacrifice, is the possession by one of the Lwa spirits. Dance is the essential aspect of nearly every religious ritual practiced in Haiti, as it is believed that a system of certain movements brings together people and the Law. Divination includes primarily the rituals related to offering various food to spirits.

The authors also emphasize the importance of zombification, as it is arguably the most misunderstood practice in Vodou. The term “zombie,” originated from the Haitian culture, was largely popularized in the modern pop culture, but the original meaning and significance of zombification in Vodou are often overlooked or misinterpreted. According to the authors, zombification is not performed by black magic or witchcraft, but rather it is a specific approach to poisoning and controlling a poisoned person, practiced by Haitian secret societies as a means of ruling the social life in Haiti.

Obeah, Myal, and Quimbois

In the fifth chapter, the authors focus on Obeah, “a set of hybrid or creolized beliefs dependent on ritual invocation, fetishes, and charms,” and its two branches: Myal, the Obeah practiced in Jamaica, and Quimbois, the Obeah variety traditional for French islands of the Caribbean region. Obeah practice is traced to the 17th century, which makes them a slightly newer Creole religion, compared to the ones discussed previously. The authors also point out that Obeah practices, as they originated as the form of protest and resistance of slaves against their masters, included numerous aspects that were intended for harming or killing people. It is also worth mentioning that Obeah is not as centralized as Regla de Ocha of Haitian Vodou. Instead, it represents a considerably heterogeneous set of practices. It started by the authors that Obeahmen do not generally have strong traditions, which involve collective rituals, singing, or dancing. Primarily, Obeah people practice herbal healing and making fetishes. The spiritual world in Obeah is represented primarily by ghosts.

Myal, the Jamaican branch of Obeah, possesses some aspects of African-derived religiosity, which is not practiced in other Creole religions. Even though Myal is largely connected with Obeah (poisoning, witchcraft, and magic), it also promotes such aspects as ecstatic worship of divinity and spiritual possession, manifested in the Myal dance. Quimbois is the Obeah branch, which is practiced in the French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe. In general, quimboiseurs, the proponents of Quimbois, focus on sorcery, as the means of summoning souls of the dead, and herbal healing.


The sixth chapter investigates the case of another largely famous Creole religion, Rastafarianism, which is also often misinterpreted and stereotyped, much like the Haitian Vodou. As the authors state, Rastafarianism is derived from the combination of three cultural and religious perspectives. First of all, it is revivalism confessed by the majority of Jamaican Christians. Secondly, the Pan-Africanist perspective, promoted by Marcus Garvey largely influenced Rastafarianism. Thirdly, the Ethiopian tradition of reading the Old Testament also contributed to the development of the Jamaican religious movement. In general, Rastafarianism is based on the idea of uniting the African diaspora based on common racial and cultural roots. The emergence of Rastafarianism was primarily caused by the crowning of Ras Tafari as a king in Africa, the event which was largely promoted by Marcus Garvey as the sign of redemption of Africans.

Essentially, Rastafarianism is a Bible-based religion, which makes it considerably different from other Creole religions depicted in the book. Also, some of the Rastafarianism’s provisions are derived partially from the Jamaican Myalism. In particular, one of the branches of Myal, the Zion Revivalism, and some of the Obeah practices had a vast impact on Rastafarianism. It is also worth mentioning that the Jamaican religion was also considered to be a political movement, as it originated from the ideas of political activists such as Marcus Garvey. The majority of the Rastafarianism’s principal tenets refer to the neglect of the supremacy and oppression of Africans by Whites. Thus, it is possible to observe that Rastafarians have a considerably strong sense of community. One of the widely known aspects of Rastafarianism is the use of marijuana as a means of sacred spiritual practice. Another highly recognized characteristic of the Jamaican religion is that women are not considered to have a significant role in principal spiritual and healing rituals.

Espiritismo: Creole Spiritism in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the United States

The final chapter of the book is dedicated to the discussion of Espiritismo, as it is the newest addition to the diversity of the Caribbean-based Creole religions since it originated in the mid-19th century. The emergence of Espiritismo was largely based on the developing tendencies of the 19th century’s philosophical and social thought. The authors emphasize that two movements primarily influenced Espiritismo, Firstly, it is Anglo-French Spiritualism. Secondly, it is a Spanish Spiritism. These two movements’ ideas were transported and transmitted to the Caribbean by numerous people migrating from North America and other regions. Espiritismo is primarily based on the combination of spirit-oriented Catholicism and African-based religions. Espiritismo included Cuban and Puerto Rican branches, which respectively include several variations. Cuban Espiritismo was largely based on blending traditional Cuban religious practices with modern ideas of spiritualism. Puerto Rican branch of Espiritismo is considered to have its origins in the resistance of native Puerto Ricans against the Spanish government.

It is apparent that since Espiritismo was vastly based on traditions that derived from African religions, the practices of healing were highly significant for the proponents of the new religious movement. The coexistence of traditional and modern approaches has created a new version of psychotherapy that was practiced in Espiritismo. It is also worth mentioning that the new religion valued women as very important in performing spiritist rituals. Additionally, Espiritismo had a significant impact on contemporary literature and arts as numerous proponents of this religious movement were artists, poets, and writers.

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StudyCorgi. (2020) 'Creole Religions of the Caribbean by Olmos et al'. 6 December.

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