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Santeria and Other Afro-American Religious Expressions

The Santeria in Cuba

The Cuban Santeria provides one of the best examples of a hybrid religious expression that developed in the recent past due to the blending of different cultures and beliefs. Also known as Regla de Ocha and Regla Lucumí, the Santeria is a polytheist religious expression that arose in the 19th century (Adiele 37). Both Yoruba traditional beliefs and Christian worldviews are represented in Santeria. Like the Yoruba traditional religion, Santeria revolves around the “oricha” or deities.

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The deities are many, and each person is believed to have a personal and direct link to a specific oricha. Each person’s oricha shapes and determines their personality. Olodumare created all orichas; the Supreme Being is also believed to have “ache” or the supernatural force that controls the universe. Followers of Santeria venerate their orichas at particular places or alters built in their homes and the temple “casa.” A priest (santero) or priestess (santera) runs the temple and is responsible for the animal sacrifices at an altar.

Becoming a member of the santera belief requires a person to pass through an initiation process. Members must give offerings to the oricha in the form of animal sacrifices and other products such as fruits, flowers, liquor, and food. During ceremonies such as the “toque de Santo,” the followers of Santeria perform rituals and music with strong drum beats while wearing beads of various colors (Adiele 192). During the process, some members are possessed by the orisha; they communicate on behalf of the community. Words and phrases of the Yoruba language are used during the process, such as the “ifa,” which means a process of deciphering messages from the oricha.

In addition to the gods, the spirits of the dead are entitled to appeasing through offerings (Mason 62). the Santeria is characterized by healing rituals, talismans, and herbal medicines to manage and prevent diseases and bad omens.

Various orishas are identified with Christian figures such as saints. Saint Peter is identified with Elegba, a traditional orisha deity in Yorubaland. In the same way, Sait Barbara is recognized with Shango, the god of thunder in Yoruba traditions. Saint Lazarus in the Bible is equated with Shakpana, while Oya, one of the wives of Shango, is identified with Saint Teresita (Adiele 203). Many other Saints in the Christian religion, including those not found in the Bible, are identified with specific orisha deities in the old Yoruba traditional beliefs.

The Vodou in Haiti

Enslaved Africans have had a long history of cultural and social influence on the Island of Hispaniola. The most significant impact of the Africans is seen in the western part of the Island, where the modern state of Haiti is located (Montgomery 11). The majority of the enslaved Africans were the Lemba, Yoruba, Fon, Sininga, Kongo, and other ethnic groups of Africa. Once settled in Hispaniola, these groups combined their traditional beliefs with European Christian faiths, especially the Roman Catholic. As a result, the Vodou merged as a neo-African religion that also borrows from the Christian traditions.

Most of the common gods among African ethnic groups, such as the Fon and the Lemba, are equalized with the names of Saints in the Roman Catholic ideas. The “Iwa” or “Miste” is the traditional deities with different names borrowed from the identities of other ethnic groups (Adiele 88). The Iwa are now identified with several specific Catholic Saints. For example, the Legba is equated with St. Anthony the Hermit or Saint Peter (Roussou and Saraiva 53). Dambala, the Lemba deity, is considered to be Saint Patrick. The Yoruba’s god Ogou Banjo, believed to be the healer, is equated with Saint Joseph, while Obatala is associated with Saint Anne.

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Adherents of the Haitian Vodou believe in the power of sacrifices to appease the gods. Ceremonies and offerings are dedicated to the Iwa to make them happy and, in turn, become generous to the people (Montgomery 13). Small gifts and animal blood are presented to the Iwa as payments one or two times a year. Failure to appease one’s Iwa or neglect them is believed to cause sickness, bad luck and death in a family, crop or business failure, and other misfortunes.

The Candomble in Brazil

In Brazil, the Candomble developed in the 19th century as an African diasporic religion through syncretism between various West African beliefs, particularly the Yoruba and European Christian ways of life and faith. Unlike Santeria and Vodou, Candomble is organized based on each autonomous group and does not have a centralized authority. The religious expression revolves around the veneration of “orixas,” the spirits that derive their names from various West African gods but are equated to saints in Roman Catholic. Like the Santeria, the Candomble’s spirits arise from the powers of Oludumare (Hartikainen 817). In addition, every person is believed to have a personal orixa since birth that controls that individual’s personality.

Initiation into the religion requires attending a ceremony conducted in temples known as the terreiros under the leadership of babalorixas (priests) or ialorixas (priestesses). The ritual must involve singing, drums, and dancing, culminating in the orixa possessing one or few adherents. Once possessed, the individual communicates directly with the spirits on behalf of the people. Fruits, food, and sacrificed animals are offered to the orixas during the ceremony (Hartikainen 818). Furthermore, herbal medicines, charms, amulets, and other symbols are used in the healing rituals. Therefore, it is clear that this religious expression has various similarities with the Santeria and the vodou, which provides evidence of the extent of the influence of African spiritual beliefs on American religion and ways of life.

Works Cited

Adiele, Pius. The popes, the Catholic Church and the transatlantic enslavement of black Africans 1418-1839. Georg Olms Verlag, 2017.

Hartikainen, Elina Inkeri. “Candomblé and the Academic’s Tools: Religious Expertise and the Binds of Recognition in Brazil.” American Anthropologist 121.4 (2019): 815-829.

Mason, Michael Atwood. Living Santería: Rituals and experiences in an Afro-Cuban religion. Smithsonian Institution, 2016.

Montgomery, Eric James. “Gothic” Voodoo” in Africa and Haiti.” eTropic: electronic journal of studies in the Tropics 18.1 (2019).

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Roussou, Eugenia and Clara Saraiva. Expressions of religion: Ethnography, performance and the senses. LIT Verlag Munster, 2019.

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