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Santeria: The Intersection of Catholicism and African Traditional Religions

In history, Santeria has been consistently but incorrectly vilified as witchcraft and demon worship. On multiple occasions, the media in Cuba, where Santeria is most prevalent, has used the religion as a scapegoat for kidnappings and disappearances of prominent or white community members. With references of these religions made in TV shows like Law and Order: SVU and True Blood, and the ever still popular Sublime song, popular culture has maintained this image without accurately portraying these religions. Deeply rooted in African traditions and closely associated with Catholicism and Christianity, Afro-Caribbean religions are anchors in the creole culture of the Caribbean. In The Convert, Jekesai/Ester forsakes the funerary rituals of her traditional Shona culture in favor of Catholicism. As a byproduct of colonialism and slavery, many displaced Africans were forced to adopt Christianity as their religion. While Jekesai chooses Catholicism outright, African slaves in the Americas found ways to appropriate Christian symbols and rituals into their traditional faith practices. The practices of Santeria show the similarities between African traditional religions and Roman Catholicism and the bond that brought together displaces peoples in a new and harsh world.


A Shona N'anga. Picture By Hans Hillewaert (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Like most African traditional religions, the Shona have a monotheistic religion, or what Nathaniel Samuel Murrell calls in Afro-Caribbean Religions: An introduction to their historical, cultural and sacred traditions a “diffused monotheism”. Shona believe in a supreme God, Mwari, however they can only interact with Mwari through their ancestral spirits, vadzimu, who help influence the lives of the Shona. Vadzimu are patrilineal and matrilineal spirits of deceased ancestors. Only full grown adults with children can become vadzimu. After one dies, their spirit is believed to wander around until it is called back to protect its children. This return is initiated through the kurova guva ceremony, around 6 – 12 months after death. Beer is poured over the deceased’s grave and the family invites the spirit to return home, protect its children, and continue its existence through its progeny. It is important to note that sprits remain vadzimu, or singularly mudzimu, so long as their existence is remembered by the descendants. Spirits on non-adult, childless, or forgotten Shona are known as shavi.

Shavi and vudzimu can manifest themselves in living persons to make their wishes known. The person may appear ill or near death and should consult a n’anga, a medium, to learn the wants of the spirit. Sometimes, a spirit will wish to possess the person, occasionally expressing its ego. One may respectfully decline the possession of a shavi but must accept the possession of the ancestral vudzimu. The possessed becomes a medium between the living and the spirit world. Medium and n’anga are used by the community to help discern the ants fo the spirits, explaining hardships and asking for fortune. The Shona religion shows close ties to one’s family and community. In The Convert, we see the introduction of Christianity to the Shona people and debilitating choices given to Jekesai/Ester, concerning her faith. According to the Central Intelligence Agency, Christianity is still prominent in Zimbabwe, however 50% of Zimbabweans practice a syncretic belief system, practicing Christianity and Shona Traditions at the same time.

It is important to point out that while most African traditional religions are “diffused monotheisms”, Santeria is based off of West African cultures. Zimbabwe and the Shona peoples are situated in Southeastern Africa. Geographically, West Africa was accessed to easier by slave-trading Europeans. Thus, the African influences in many Afro-Caribbean religions are based in West African traditions. Most prominently represented is the Yoruba culture located in modern day Nigeria and Benin. Yoruba believe in a pantheon of deities known as orisha. Much like the vudzimu are mediators between the living and the supreme God, Mwari, orisha are mediators between the Yoruba and their supreme God, Olodumare. Orisha are aspects of Olodumare and each represent a different identity and help the Yoruba in different ways. For example, Shango is the orisha of warriors and protection. In addition, the Yoruba use priests and mediums to help speak to orisha. As vudzimu possess members of the Shona community, so can orisha possess the Yoruba. Their religion is deeply involved with ritual and possesion. Santeria similarly worships a pantheon of deities that are mediums between the living and a higher power. It places high importance in drums and possession as ways of communication with the deities. However, the deities themselves are represented differently, along with emphasis on different rituals. Santeria’s tie to Catholicism also uniquely transforms it into its own religion.

Santeria is mostly found in Cuba and Puerto Rico, where a large population of Yoruba people was imported. Thus, the deities in Santeria are known as orisha. While there are over 400 orisha known in the Yoruba religion, only about 20 have survived in Santeria. It is in the images of these deities that we see the influence of Catholicism. Cuba was colonized by Spain, a highly Catholic country, beginning in the early 16th century and Catholicism played a very important role in the lives of early Cuban colonists.  Along with blessing sugar plantations with saints’ names as protectorates, priests were called to bless every aspect of plantation life, from new buildings, mills, factories, machines, livestock to even the slaves themselves.  By the 17th century, the Church has instigated that all plantation owners need to provide a Christian education for all slaves while also condemning the native practices of the Africans. Under a looming fear of an uprising, laws regarding slaves became stricter as they were not allowed to play drums or commune without a Catholic priest present. Under these strictures, Santeria was born as a way to unite the displaced peoples and to maintain their ancestral traditions.

To dissuade their Catholic oppressors, orisha took on the guises, or “cross-dressed”, as Catholic saints. For example, Ogun can be found in images of St. Peter, the keeper of the gates of heaven. Oshun, a female orisha, is seen in Cuba’s patron saint, la Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre. Orisha and saints do not necessarily coincide by gender. The popular male orisha, Shango, cross dresses as St. Barbara and the orisha Obatala is androgynous as both male Obatala and female Oddua. He is most readily represented in Our Lady of Mercy. As the orisha take on the visages of saints, they also adopt their saint’s days as important days of worship.

Depiction of orisha Shango.

Ritual worship is an integral part of Santeria. Through rituals, devotees interact and speak with the orisha, divining their wishes and requesting aid. Devotee offer ebbo, or tributes, to orisha in order to release ashe, “a

n all pervasive cosmic divine energy with which gods endow and empower humans.” Usually, ebbo are something or a sacrifice from the devotee. Animal sacrifices are often used in important ceremonies and offerings for an orisha’s aid. This aspect of the religion often comes under much criticism from the public, especially because organization like PETA and governmental institutions label it as an unsanitary practice and cruel to animals. However, in the U.S, practitioners have argued that their sacrifices are treated better than most animals slotted for slaughter. In addition to using most of the animal and sharing the meat with the community, they have also claimed that restricting animal slaughter violates their first amendment rights. While four-legged animals, ie. bovine and swine, are optimal choices for sacrifice, due to financial constraints most  devotees use poultry.

Interestingly, the Catholic religion also has an intricate ritual worship tradition. While both religions ritualistic cultures are uniquely different, note that in their most basic element, there exists similarities. In both Santeria and Catholicism, there exists a religious hierarchy. In Catholicism, it is very vertical. The pope is the leader of Church, followed by cardinals, then bishops, priests, and finally the laymen and general public. Within each category are even more distinct hierarchal substrata. Catholic communities are known as parishes and are headed by priests. In the same way, Santeria communities, ile, are headed by priests and priestess known as olosha/santeros/santeras. However, while Catholic priesthood is distinctly vertical, olosha can be separated into 9 different categories, each with their own specific rank, responsibility, title, and authority.

Different priests are used for different rituals or need of the devotee. For instance, if one wishes to speak to an orisha or have something, ie. a dream or omen, interpreted, they would go to a babalawo, a divination specialist. Divination, or Ifa, is the most direct way devotees can speak with orisha, usually using painted cowrie shells as a medium. Uniquely to Santeria, babalawo are traditionally male. This has caused a secondary female divination caste, iyanifa, to emerge. In Yoruba culture, babalawos are both genders.

Finally, Santeria is a largely celebrative religion. Ceremonies, known as bembe, gathe the community for feasting, song, and dance in order to honor orisha, celebrate and intiation or birth, dhwo gratitude to the orisha, or recognize an important accomplishment in the community. Drum, music is of high importance, regulating the temp or fo the celbration, calling the orisha to the bemebe and overall providing another outlet of communication with the spiritual world.

As one can see, Santeria is a rich and vibrant religious culture that has survived years of persecution. In fact, the name “Santeria” was originally a derogatory term used by Catholic priests to distance the practice from Catholicism, association it to the worship of saints. While popular culture more readily identifies with the term Santeria, practitioners know it as regal de ocha or Lucumi. Ingrained within the religion are both the Yoruba and Spanish languages, a testament to its history and the important position it holds within the Cuban creole culture.