The Lure of Santeria
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN MEXICO
SANTERIA has been a prominent religion in Cuba for many years. However, this form of worship has been gradually introduced to other countries. For instance, one of the main marketplaces in downtown Mexico City features shops that specialize in Santeria paraphernalia, such as crosses, candles, amulets, and fetishes. Most of these shops are known as botanicas, and they can be found in other large cities of the Americas. In New York City, botanicas are well advertised in the telephone book, having far more listings in the yellow pages than other religious stores.
Many people are attracted by the mysticism and exotic aura of Santeria. Elements of Santeria can be found in some popular Latin music and literature. Santeria is becoming more secular and cultural than religious, and it has been spread through Afro-Caribbean music and cultural events.
Origins in Ancient Africa
Santeria has the basic features and traditions of an ancient African religion practiced among the Yoruba in Nigeria. When Yoruba were taken to the Caribbean islands as slaves between the 1770’s and the 1840’s, they took their religion with them. Once in the New World, these Africans in bondage were forced to accept Catholicism, but they refused to give up their traditions completely. So they created a new form of worship with elements taken from both religions. Such a merging of religious practices is called syncretism.
In an effort to worship according to their ancient beliefs, the slaves gave Catholic saints dual identities, each one corresponding to an African god with particular characteristics and powers. Thus, African gods and goddesses, called orisha, took on the names and forms of Catholic saints. However, the rituals, customs, and beliefs remained the same as those practiced in Africa. A Santeria priest in Cuba explains: “Syncretism allows us to worship the Catholic god on the altar, but what we see is the African god behind it.”
Religions such as voodoo, Obeah, and macumba are also made up of elements from Roman Catholic liturgy, sacraments, and sacred paraphernalia blended with spiritistic practices from Africa. Because from the beginning the Catholic Church in Latin America prohibited African religions, Santeria had to be practiced in secrecy for a long time. Eventually the Catholic Church came to tolerate this syncretism among the slaves.
Characteristics of Santeria
What are the characteristics of this religious worship? Santeros, as the practitioners of Santeria are now called, worship one supreme being and a group of deities, or orisha, that form the Yoruba pantheon. The orisha’s will is interpreted by Santeria priests through divination. It is said that sometimes orisha possess the worshipers in order to voice their counsel. Followers can appeal to the orisha through prayers, music, proper behavior, and offerings. Altars play an important role in the worship; santeros set them up in their homes and put flowers, rum, cake, and cigars on them to keep the deities happy and helpful.
Lizette Alvarez explained in a New York Times article about Santeria philosophy: “The religion emphasizes the here and now rather than the afterlife, and it focuses on natural forces. Each deity represents an aspect of nature, like thunder, and a human characteristic, like power.” Santeria priests help people to resolve day-to-day problems by consulting the orisha. These are not Catholic priests, and their ordinary Santeria rituals are held in homes rather than temples.
People in need of emotional and economic support are especially drawn to Santeria because it offers a sense of community, an extended family. The ones most attracted are the deprived and also immigrants who move to countries where Santeria is practiced. Followers belong to a specific community with a male or female santero serving as godparent, counselor, and priest for the community. New members are initiated by priests in a ceremony that includes music, dances, and animal sacrifices. Animals are also sacrificed to celebrate births, marriages, and deaths. Chickens, goats, doves, pigeons, and turtles are among the animals used.
The Music of Santeria
Music plays an important role as a regular feature of worship in Santeria. Music is used during bembés, or ceremonies in which drums are beaten to invoke the deities. Specific rhythms are played to summon a particular god. The sound is so loud that the insistent rhythm of the drums can be heard blocks away.
Percussion instruments such as drums and xylophones, or marimbas, have been cult instruments in West Africa for centuries. That was their prevailing significance when slaves brought them to America. In Brazil, membranes for sacred drums are made from the skins of ritually sacrificed animals, and new instruments are customarily baptized, preferably with “holy” water from a Catholic Church. Other drums represent a certain deity, such as in the Afro-Caribbean culture of Haiti.
It is not unusual to find on the market compact discs of sacred music for Santeria, openly referred to as such. Drums are the main instrument in the rhythms, and some pieces have titles that are actually names of Santeria deities or of customs of the religion. Over time, these rhythms have also infiltrated some Latin music. Santeria terminology has been included in some musical pieces.
What the Bible Says
Santeria is closely connected with spiritism, a form of worship condemned in the Bible. (Leviticus 19:31) God’s Word lists the “practice of spiritism” among “the works of the flesh,” which bar a person from inheriting God’s Kingdom. (Galatians 5:19-21) The Scriptures also command those desiring God’s approval to “flee from idolatry” and to “worship the Father with spirit and truth.”—1 Corinthians 10:14; John 4:23, 24.
Christians should be alert to the fact that Santeria practices and music are becoming more secular in nature. Various forms of entertainment and some aspects of Latin-American culture are laced with elements of Santeria. These are becoming more popular and are widely regarded as harmless. Nevertheless, Christians do well to avoid anything that is in direct conflict with Bible principles regardless of how popular it is or how harmless it seems to be.—2 Corinthians 6:14-18.
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TERMS USED IN SANTERIA
Babalú-aye: God of healing worshiped as “Saint” Lazaro.
Changó: God of fire, thunder, and lightning and also patron of artillery, worshiped as “Saint” Barbara in the Catholic faith.
Ifa Corpus: System of laws expressed in 256 symbols that represent the Santeria tradition.
Ikole orun: The “heaven” where all humans go when they die. However, bad people live in hell on earth and suffer in ikole orun.
Obatalá: A god who created human life and consciousness out of the substance of the earth.
Ochún: Goddess of rivers, love, marriage, money, joy, and abundance, who doubles as the Virgen de la Caridad, patron saint of Cuba.
Oggún: Patron god of miners and workers, worshiped as “Saint” Peter.
Oloddumare: The supreme being, who created the universe.
Orumila: A god that decides an individual’s fate.
Yemayá, or Xemayá: Goddess of the seas and of fertility, who is identified with the Virgin Mary, or the Virgen de Regla in Cuba.
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Santeria paraphernalia on display in a botanica