Cuban Santeria, also known as La Regla de Ocha or La Religion Lucumí, is an Afro-Cuban spiritual practice with deep roots in the Yoruba traditions of West Africa. This syncretized religion began to take shape in Cuba during the period of the transatlantic slave trade, when Yoruba Africans were brought to the island and were forced to merge their ancestral beliefs with the Catholicism of the Spanish colonizers.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, Santería not only incorporated elements of Catholicism, but was also influenced by the religious practices of other African ethnic groups present in Cuba, such as the Congo and the Carabalí. This mixture of African and Catholic influences gave rise to a unique religious system, characterized by a pantheon of deities or Orishas, each with their own attributes and domains.
Santeria was strengthened as a form of cultural and spiritual resistance among slaves and their descendants, preserving key aspects of their African heritage. With the passage of time and the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, it began to spread beyond Afro-Cuban communities, becoming integrated into the broader Cuban culture.
Origins and Post-Colonial Adaptation
Cuban Santeria, rooted in Yoruba traditions brought to Cuba by African slaves, began to form during the Spanish colonial period. In this environment, the slaves found it necessary to camouflage their indigenous religious practices in order to preserve them, giving rise to a process of religious syncretism. They associated their deities, known as Orishas, with Catholic saints, thus allowing their ancestral beliefs to survive under the guise of imposed Catholicism.
After the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, Santeria began to spread beyond Afro-Cuban communities, gradually integrating into Cuban society in general. This era marked a phase of adaptation and transformation for Santería, in which it began to be practiced by a wider and more diverse public, including people of different racial and social backgrounds.
This post-colonial adaptation not only demonstrated the resilience and flexibility of Santería as a religious practice, but also enhanced its importance as an element of Cuban cultural identity. In this process, Santería retained its spiritual and ritual foundations, while evolving to reflect the experiences and history of its practitioners in a changing Cuban context.
Santería in the 20th Century: Between Repression and Resilience
During the 20th century, Cuban Santería experienced moments of intense repression. In the first half of the century, especially during the era of Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship, and in certain later periods, the practices of Santería and other Afro-Cuban religions were stigmatized and repressed. They were considered superstitions or backward practices, and their practitioners often faced discrimination and persecution. This repression manifested itself in the prohibition of public rituals and the social and political marginalization of its followers.
Despite these challenges, Santería demonstrated remarkable resilience. Practitioners continued to observe their rituals and traditions, often in secret or in private spaces, thus preserving the continuity of their beliefs. This persistence not only protected the religion from extinction, but also strengthened the identity and cohesion of the Afro-Cuban community.
In addition, during the second half of the 20th century, Santería began to be recognized as an important component of Cuban culture. There was a growing interest in its musical, dance and artistic aspects, both inside and outside Cuba. This led to a gradual destigmatization of the religion and greater recognition of its cultural and spiritual value.
Santeria in the 20th century is, therefore, a story of resistance and adaptation. Despite periods of repression, the religion not only survived, but also found new forms of expression and acceptance, reaffirming its place in the social and cultural fabric of Cuba and the Cuban diaspora around the world.
Beginning in the second half of the 20th century, Santería expanded significantly beyond Cuba, mainly due to the emigration of Cubans to other parts of the world, such as the United States, Mexico, and countries in Latin America and Europe. This diaspora took Santería to new geographies, where it began to be practiced by non-Cubans, attracted by its rituals, aesthetics and spiritual philosophy.
The globalization of Santería also implied its adaptation to different cultural and social contexts. In places like the United States, Santería not only merged with elements of other Afro-American and Afro-Caribbean traditions, but also interacted with broader religious and spiritual currents. This led to the creation of new forms of practice and the reinterpretation of some of its elements.
In addition, globalization has increased the visibility of and academic interest in Santería. It has become a subject of study in fields such as anthropology, history of religions and cultural studies, which has helped to increase the understanding and appreciation of this religion globally.
Santeria has also influenced areas such as art, music and dance, leaving its mark on popular culture and contemporary artistic expressions. Its global expansion has led to a wider recognition of its spiritual and cultural richness, as well as to debates on issues such as cultural appropriation and the representation of Afro-Cuban religious practices in the world.
In short, the globalization of Santería represents a dynamic phenomenon of cultural exchange, showing how a religious tradition can evolve and adapt, maintaining its essence while interacting with new cultures and societies.
- Eleggua (or Eleguá): Known as the guardian of roads, gates and crossroads. Eleggua is often invoked first in ceremonies and rituals, as he is believed to open or close the way to the rest of the Orishas. He is represented with the colors red and black and is associated with the number 3.
- Obatalá: Considered the creator of the Earth and humanity, Obatalá is a deity of great wisdom and compassion. He represents purity, peace and morality. His color is white, and he is revered as a powerful and just father or mother to all Orishas and humans.
- Yemayá: Mother of all Orishas and deity of the ocean, Yemayá symbolizes motherhood, fertility and the sea. She is known for her immense compassion and her ability to care for and protect her children. Her colors are blue and white, and she is associated with the full moon.
- Oshún: Deity of the river, Oshún is the orisha of love, beauty, diplomacy and wealth. She is associated with the color yellow or gold and is represented as a young and beautiful woman. Oshún is known for her ability to bring prosperity and resolve conflicts.
- Changó (o Shangó): Orisha del trueno, el rayo y el fuego, Changó es un poderoso guerrero y protector. Es conocido por su valentía, fuerza y habilidad para traer justicia. Sus colores son el rojo y el blanco, y se le asocia con el tambor y el baile.
- Oggún: Deidad del hierro y el trabajo, Oggún representa la fuerza bruta, el trabajo duro y la habilidad para superar obstáculos. Se le asocia con el color verde y con los metales, especialmente el hierro.
- Oloddumare: The Supreme Creator. Oddúa or Oddudúa: The King of the Dead. He participated together with Oloddumare in the Creation of the World. His worship is basic in the Nigerian territory. In Cuba, he is respected in a special way and is taken as a major Orisha.
- Elegguá or Elegbá: Deity responsible for the avatars of destiny. His color is red and black.
- Eshu or Exu: The mysterious side of Elegguá. Its color is black and white.
- Oggún: Owner of all metals and responsible for daily work. Who provides the means to feed us. He is an unorisha that supports all the Basic Oshas.
- Oshosi: Justiciar Deity. He lives in the bush and is generally invoked in the treetops. He is the hunter par excellence. He brings justice to our lives and makes us come out well from surgical operations. With him lives Ogdé, his inseparable companion.
- Ozun: The Watcher or Staff of Obbatalá. Others consider that it is the cane of Orula or Oddúa.
- Obbatalá: Supreme Ambassador between Oloddumare and humans. He always brings peace in the face of disagreements. His throne is found on the tops of all the mountains. He represents the earth element and his color is pure white.
- Oke: The Mountain. Throne of Obbatalá.
- Oggán, Ogbón and Ogboni: Guardians of Obbatalá and of the mystical secrets of the tradition.
- Enú Ayé: Power that accompanies Obbatalá.
- Oyá or Yansá: Owner of the strong winds and the spark. She is the just and loyal protector of the children of Shangó. Her spirituality can be invoked in the Markets. She is the one who develops commerce. The evolution of our finances depends on her. Generally, she is associated as the Gatekeeper of the Cemeteries. She represents the air element and her color is dark brown.
- Ayaó: She functions as the Secretary of Oyá. Some believe and consider her to be his most faithful slave.
- Oshún or Oxún: Deity in charge of transmitting love among humans. Owner of gold and financial evolutions, protector of all women. Her spirituality can be invoked in the rivers. She represents the water element and her color is yellow.
- Ayé or Ajé Shaluga: The Treasurer of the Orishas. He is in charge of keeping the riches of the Planet protected. Some say that he is male and others that he is female, and they also believe that he has no arms.
- Igbá Omí: He is a minor orisha and is the guardian of all the rivers. It is the secret of the Oloshas and is received at the baptism in the river prior to initiation. It is possessed only by the Iworos or Initiates. It has a great power to overcome conflicts with health. It lives next to the guardian angel of the initiate or in a clay vessel with water that remains next to the Altar of the Orishas.
- Olokum: Deity of the deep sea. The one we Oloshas have is female and carries water. The one of the Babalawos is male and is dry and sealed. It was Ferminita Gómez who spread her cult all over the island.
- Brommú and Brosiá: Deities related to Olokum and Oddúa. They represent the dew and the rain.
- Orishaoko: It is the deity of the tillage and the fruits of the earth. She was consecrated to Olokum in marriage.
- Inle and Agbata: Spiritualities related to Yemallá and Oshosi. They can be invoked at the mouths of rivers and are received to receive health for those who need it. Inle Ayayá is considered a great warrior and hunter. Orula respects him and loves him very much since he depended on him and his subjects for his salvation at a time when he was lost in the desert.
- Yemallá: Maternal deity. She represents Mother Nature. Owner of all the oceanic waters, who together with Olokum takes care of the riches of the sea depths. She represents the water element and her color is blue in all its forms.
- Shangó: Represents Fire, Thunder and Lightning. Generally, he can be invoked in the tops of palm trees, a warrior who haughtily maintains justice on earthly planes. He does not like deceit or betrayal and provides radical judgment when a man physically or morally mistreats women. King of all African Religions and Mysticism. He was the first Olúo (Babalawo) that existed in our tradition, but he gave Orula the power of divination through the Até (Sacred Board). He represents the fire element and his color is red, but it is combined with white which appeases his anger.
- Daddá and Agbañile: Sister of Shangó. She was the one who kept him safe from Obbatalá’s curse, until he understood his mistake. It is the Crown of the Olosha and reaffirms with the years the initiation of the Priest who receives it.
- Oggué: The Sorcerer of Shangó. It was he who saved him from the betrayal of his subjects and since then lives with Shangó. Orula: Prophet and Witness of Creation. Supreme Diviner of the Secrets of the Oracle of Ifa. Son of Obbatalá and Yembo. He is the Orisha who guides his representatives or priests of Ifa.
- Beyis: Small spiritualities represented by two children. According to mythology, they were the only ones who could defeat Olosí with their mischief.
- Iddeú or Addeú: From the Beyis family. Some believe it is a girl and others believe it is a boy. It is the lost son (a) fruit of the love between Orula and Oshún.
- Osain: Deity owner of everything intrinsic in nature. Healer par excellence. He knows all the mysteries and powers of the plants, sticks and bugs of the mountain. One day he appeared on earth, so he has no father or mother. He is usually found at night in solitary places. When someone listens to him, he identifies his talk as gangly. He is the Godfather of Shangó and always protected him in his warrior struggles. His power is ample and he is an excellent protector of those who possess it.
- Aggayú: He is the same Volcano and lives with Oroiña (The Depth of the Earth). He is one of Shangó’s tutors.
- Óba: Sister of Oyá, Oshún and Yemallá. Wife of Shangó. Her color is pink, and according to versions, she can be invoked on the banks of rivers, lagoons and inside cemeteries. She takes great care of those who have bone ailments.
- Yewá: Sister of Oyá, Oshún, Yemallá and Óba. Everything virgin is consecrated to her. She is the favorite daughter of Oloddumare. She is the protector of widows and spinsters.
- Babaluayé or Asojano: King of Dahomey. In Cuba very adored by the arará. He represents the earthly epidemics and, therefore, protects from them. It is also an orisha that provides much economic prosperity for those who possess it. Mysterious and just. He does not like the bad living of his children and when they get out of the way, he puts them back in with suggestive proofs. He always appears accompanied by two dogs that take care of him and his broom that he uses to scare away the flies, carriers of diseases.
- Nanú: Sister of Babaluayé. She belongs to the Ayano family.
- Naná Burukú: Some say that she is a way of Yembo. She is the Mother of the Arará. She is very mysterious and powerful. Her energy is usually invoked at night. When she manages to let herself be seen, she manifests as a huge snake.
- Ikú: She is Death. In the Yoruba tradition it is masculine. All the orishas made a pact before Oloddumare to defeat Ikú in his mission to remove men from the earthly plane. When Ikú beats a believer or initiate, the Orishas come to honor that loss, because they were unable to fulfill the celestial undertaking.
- Eggungún: The souls of the ancestors or ancestors.
- Eggun: The souls of the disincarnated. The spirits.
Rituals and Ceremonies
In Santeria, rituals are fundamental to establishing and maintaining a relationship with the spiritual world. These range from simple ceremonies to complex religious celebrations, each with a specific purpose and meaning. The most common rituals include offerings, songs, dances and sacrifices, all intended to honor the Orishas and request their guidance and protection.
Offerings and Sacrifices: Key Elements of Devotion
Offerings are a vital component in Santeria. These can be food, flowers, candles or symbolic items associated with a particular Orisha. Sacrifices, which may be symbolic in nature or, in some cases, involve animals, are performed with great respect and are considered a way of nurturing the relationship with the divine, a practice that has been the subject of debate and misunderstanding.
Songs and Dances: Expressions of Faith and Reverence
Songs and dances in Santería are not only artistic expressions, but profound manifestations of faith and spirituality. Often performed during rituals, these elements help to invoke the Orishas and manifest their presence. Chants, usually in the Yoruba language, are a form of communication with the divine, while dances can be symbolic interpretations of stories and characteristics of the Orishas.
Divination and Spiritual Consultation: Seeking Guidance and Wisdom
Spiritual consultation and divination are common practices in Santeria, where guidance is sought from the Orishas for decision making or to better understand life events. Tools such as diloggún (conch shells) or ikines (kola nut) are commonly used for these purposes, providing practitioners with a deeper understanding of their lives and destiny.
Initiation Ceremonies: A Step Toward Deeper Connection
Initiation ceremonies are fundamental in Santeria, marking the transition from a follower to a more committed practitioner, known as a santero or santera. These ceremonies, which can last several days, include specific rituals and teachings that strengthen the initiate’s bond with his or her tutelary Orisha and the community of practitioners.