Santeria (Santería), or “the way of the saints,” is a syncretic religious practice that combines elements of Catholic and Yoruba faith; the practice originated in Cuba. It is often called La Regla Lucumi or La Regla de Ocha. Santéria was a derogatory term used by the Spanish to describe their slaves’s inappropriate reverence of the saints. Priests of Santeria are called santeros; priestesses are called santeras.
A syncretic religion is one that combines and reconciles different belief systems—or significant elements thereof—into a new whole, quite often as the result of a mingling of two cultures. In the West, syncretic belief systems are more common in folk practice than at the institutional level, often originating among a conquered or enslaved people. In the Caribbean, syncretic religions are sometimes called Creole religions.
Like Santeria, most Creole religions combine elements of Yoruba belief with the Catholicism of the European masters: voodoo in Haiti and Louisiana; Umbanda and Candomble in Brazil; Obeah in the West Indies; Kumina in Jamaica; and Palo Mayombe, Kimbisa, and Santeria in Cuba.
The Yoruba are a large ethnic group in West Africa, the land from which many slaves bound for the Caribbean came. In Cuba, the Spanish built cabildos (social houses organized according to ethnic group) for their slaves. In areas where the Yoruba ethnic groups predominated—and possibly in some where they did not but were an influential minority—the practices of Santeria began to coalesce in the cabildos, where slaves were allowed to gather on holidays and engaged in traditional practices.
They had been forcibly baptized and were ostensibly Christians, but the days in the cabildos were intended to be an occasional outlet for their African culture; they provided a way to burn off steam, so to speak.
In Santeria, the gods of the Yoruba—the Orisha— are associated with, and revered as, Catholic saints. God becomes—or is the “true identity of”—Olodumare or Olorun (specific correlations between Christian and Yoruba elements vary by tradition), and the other deities are redescribed accordingly. Ellegua, a trickster and psychopomp (a manifestation of death) and the god of travel and the crossroads, became Saint Anthony or Saint Michael.
Chango, the god of thunder and ancestor of the Yoruba people, became Saint Barbara. Oshun, the goddess of love and beauty, was associated with Our Lady of Charity, the patron saint of Cuba—and Ogun, the god of war, with Saint Peter. There was no real transformation here, as such; these joint Yoruba-Catholic entities were treated not as new deities or supernatural beings but as newly recognized manifestations.
Much as different apparitions of the Virgin Mary—Our Lady of Fatima, Our Lady of Prompt Succor—are revered as aspects of Mary rather than as independent entities, the Orisha were now venerated as aspects of the saints. Traditional Yoruba prayer could continue—and continue to develop. The Spanish, for their part, would hear only prayers to their own saints.
Traditionally a purely oral faith, Santeria has no official written records and no holy scriptures other than the Christian Bible. Like many Creole religions, its rituals are secretive, open only to the properly initiated. Ritual music and dancing are used in prayer, as they were in the days of the cabildos. Dancing may be used to induce a trance state for the purpose of ritual possession, similar to being “ridden by the loa” in Voodoo.
The veneration of ancestors is the focus of family rituals. In some cases, a santero sacrifices a chicken, the blood of which is given in offering to the Orisha, the meat being consumed separately. These sacrifices have been the subject of lawsuits in the United States, and discussions of the specific protections of freedom of religion.