Santeria (The way of the Saints) is an Afro-Caribbean religion based on Yoruba beliefs and traditions. It incorporates elements of several faiths and that is the reason why it is called a ‘syncretic’ religion. It has grown beyond its Yoruba and Catholic origins to become a religion in its own right, and a powerful symbol of the religious creativity of Afro-Cuban culture.
Slaves from West Africa were imported to Cuba in the 18th century, and they brought their religious tradition with them. They were banned from practicing their own religion, so they disguised their gods as Catholic figures and continued to pray to them as they pleased.
The combining of concepts and terminology from different religions, in this case, from Catholicism and the Lucumí religion, which was practiced by the Yoruba tribes of modern-day Benin and Nigeria, is called ‘religious syncretism’.
Santería followers believe that one God created the universe and that the world is cared for by lesser divine beings known as ‘orishas’. Similar to ancient Greek gods, the orishas represent various forces of nature along with certain human characteristics, for example, Yemayá is the orisha of the sea and motherhood.
The followers, however, cannot communicate directly with these divine beings. Santería priests, known as ‘babalawos’, interpret the will of the gods using divination, which involves rituals that often includes rum, drums, cigars, and animal sacrifice. In these rituals the orisha may ‘mount a person’ as a horse rider, and cause that possessed person to perform spectacular dances, and to pass on various messages from the orisha to community members.
Also, Santería priests have a great knowledge of traditional medicine and herbalism, and often play an important role in the health of their community. Santeria healthcare is often combined with conventional medicine.
The orishas are thought to perform miracles for adherents. If an individual has consistently bad luck, they must appease their orisha to achieve harmony and balance in their life.
Cuba is still the religious center of Santería, but the faith has involved many other countries as well, including the U.S. Strolling through the streets of Cuba, you’ll occasionally come across people wearing all white clothing—chances are these people are going through their Santería initiation.
There are lawyers and professors, civil servants and musicians whose homes are filled with altars laden with flowers, rum, cake and cigars to keep the gods happy and helpful.
After centuries of underground existence, Santeria is becoming an open practice, with participation coming from all levels of society. Representing a shared identity, Santeria is a cultural inheritance, a dynamic form of worship, and a uniquely Cuban religion.