Santeria has its origins in the religious observances of the Yoruba – a tribe in Southern Nigeria. The slave trade, between the 16th and the 19th centuries, brought the Yoruba as slaves to the shores of Cuba, North America, and South America, and along with them came their religious practices. These religious practices included the tradition of ‘possession trance for communicating with their ancestors and deities, the use of animal sacrifice, and the practice of sacred drumming and dance.’ The Catholic slave traders wanting to suppress their religious beliefs, forcibly converted them to Catholicism, and tried to ban their traditional beliefs.
The slaves were able to preserve their practices by joining them with the Dahomean, and the baKonga beliefs, along with the nominal Catholic beliefs and culture. They hid their gods and deities behind the pictures of the Catholic saints, and their slave masters wondered at their devotion to the saints, much more than to Jesus. Thus, these adherents of the ancient Yoruba rituals and practices came to be known as the Santeria – followers of the Ways of the Saints!
Even today, the adherents of this religious beliefs worship the Orishas – Gods or Spirits – who are still worshiped in the present day Nigeria, too.
The modern Santeria is no longer a purely West African religion, but has amalgamated many of its rituals with the rituals of Catholicism.
The most omnipotent and predominant God is known as Olodumare or Olorun. He is the source of the spiritual energy (ashé) that makes up the entire universe. The adherents of Santeria put their full faith in the Orishas, who interact with humans and attend to their daily needs. Orishas are considered the emissaries of God. Each Orisha has a distinct personality, and the adherents communicate with them through rituals and offerings.
Music is of great importance, along with certain drumbeats during the rituals, and the usage of certain colors and animals, depending on the Orisha they wish to please or placate. These rituals coax the Orisha to possess the priest - through whom the questions are answered, the spirit decrees a command to be obeyed, and the type of animal sacrifice to be made.
Traditionally, the Yoruba recognize around 1,700 Orishas. Each shrine of the Orisha is maintained by either a priest, or a priestess. These priests and priestesses undergo long and careful training in dance styles, prayer songs, and healing, and lead the worship. Of all the Orishas, the most prevalent are Ogun, Oshun, Shango, Obatala, and Ifa. The adherents show their respect and relationship with a particular Orisha through sacrifice, and gifts of slain animals and plants. In return, the Orisha is expected to fulfill their desires.
The Santerian Beliefs
The beliefs and practices vary among the different communities of Santerians, and these beliefs are not openly discussed outside of the faith. Let us see a brief outline of the beliefs:
• The Deities – The supreme deity is known as Olodumare or Olorun, and the lesser ones are called Orishas. Each Orisha has a principle, an important number, color, food, dance posture, and an emblem, in addition to an associated Christian saint.
• Sacrifices – An integral part of the religious practices, the animal’s blood is offered to the Orisha, the most common being the chicken. This sacrifice is considered to bring forgiveness, purification, and good luck.
• Possession – Possession of the individual by the Orisha being invoked is done through rhythmic drumming, music and dances. The individual thus possessed talks on behalf of the Orisha.
• Venerating Ancestors – The names of the ancestors are recited in family gatherings. These ancestors – known as Ara Orun (People of Heaven) – are referred for moral guidance, among other things.