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Encyclopedic Treatise on the Odu of Ifa

What is Santeria?

The so-called “Santeria” is the religion resulting from the syncretism carried out by the Africans who arrived in Cuba as a result of the slave trade during the discovery and colonization of the New World. For a long time this ancestral practice has been one of the most important in Cuba, even beyond the religious liturgy, undoubtedly, it has been a considerable influence in the formation of Cubanidad as such.

The origins of what today we call “Santeria” date back to the African continent of antiquity. The culture of the Nigerian region, more specifically in relation to the Yoruba people, who in spite of the process of adaptation to which the individuals were subjected when they found themselves in a different continent, with different characteristics, flora, fauna and other variants, preserved many of the basic characteristics of their ancestral traditions.
Let’s remember that the Yorubas arrived thanks to the slave trade by the Spanish and Portuguese to the Caribbean islands between 1770 and 1840. Bringing with them only their faith and beliefs, after being torn away from their homeland, in a bloody manner, subjected to terrible inhuman conditions during transfers in totally overcrowded ships, where many of them died even during the trip due to the cruelty of the conditions.

Before the indolent gaze of the colonizers and the Catholic religion that instead of ensuring a more humane treatment, took the opportunity to promote their religious culture, causing these individuals were forced to renounce the only thing they had left, their beliefs, seeing the need to adopt another religious dogma. However, the African refused to completely abandon his customs, after all, it was something he had so deeply rooted that not even the cruelest treatment could remove that essence from his heart.

It is necessary to consider that the religious practice for the Yoruba goes beyond a simple belief. Their spiritual development is holistic in nature. Their beliefs govern their thinking, their actions, their social interaction, that is to say, their religious beliefs define their culture and the behavior of their society. It was almost impossible for them to detach themselves from these beliefs.

Thus, syncretism arose, which is nothing more than the fusion of several spiritual cultures that become one, giving rise to a new doctrine or religious practice. The Yoruba in Cuba, for example, created a new cult that remained as close as possible to their ancestral customs, but through a deep search for spiritual elements in common with the Catholic religion, they were able to identify their deities in the Catholic saints. It is from there that several saints and virgins are identified or related to the Yoruba pantheon.

This fusion arises from the need to preserve their ancient religious beliefs, if they were not forced to abandon their faith, they would have kept their customs intact, however, this fact reveals the depth of their beliefs because even at the risk of mistreatment, torture, even at the risk of death, the Yoruba kept their faith intact.

The Yoruba pantheon has the particularity of possessing a great number of deities, evidently this generated the need to find among the catholic saints many spiritualities that shared common characteristics with their spiritualities, in order to continue their worship through them. Thus, their gods and goddesses called Orisha took the name and form of such saints, in appearance but not in essence. On the other hand, the rituals, customs and beliefs that they brought from Africa did not change beyond the cases in which adaptation was necessary due to the lack of certain elements. A Cuban santero used to say: “Syncretism allows us to worship the Catholic saints on the altar, although the one we really see is the African god”.
That is why it is usual to relate the Orisha Orumila with Saint Francis of Assisi; Elegua with Saint Anthony; Oggun with Saint Peter; Oshosi with Saint Norberto; Obatala with the Virgin of Mercy; Oshun with the Virgin of Charity of Cobre; Oya with the Virgin of Candelaria and Yemaya with the Virgin of Regla, among others, which are part of the Yoruba or Santeria syncretism with the Catholic religion.

It is important to point out that since the arrival of the Africans to America, the Catholic Church prohibited in all Latin America the religions that came from Africa, therefore, Santeria was forced to be exercised in secret during a long period of Cuban history, until the Church had no other alternative but to begin to tolerate the religious syncretism of the Afro-Cubans, when understanding that their culture was so deeply rooted that it was practically impossible to extinguish it.

What is Santeria like?

Santeria or the Rule of Osha worships a supreme God (Oloddumare) and a group of deities or Orishas, which make up the Yoruba pantheon. The priests consecrated in this cult are considered Iyawo (during the first year of consecration) and then “Olorisha”, popularly known as santeros. When they have consecrated others they become “Iyalosha or Iyalorishas” (mother of saint or godmother) or “Babalosha or Babalorisha” (father of saint or godfather).

The consecrations of the practitioners respond to a particular Orisha, known as “Guardian Orisha or Guardian Angel” which is determined through a ceremonial known as: Mano de Orula (Awofaka or Ikofafun) where several priests of Ifa or Babalawos through the respective ceremonial thanks to the oracle of Ifa, can know which is the “saint or Orisha” that the person should be consecrated.

The practice of Santeria has nothing to do with witchcraft as many detractors have made believe. Although it has mystical characteristics that can be used for both good and evil, its praxis simply responds to the ethics and values of the performing priest, as it happens in all religions of the world. The essence of this ancestral belief is based on harnessing the energies of the deities that are impregnated in the forces of nature to achieve the objectives for which each human being has come to earth.

Its ideology reveals that: to fulfill the destiny we chose before arriving to the earthly plane is the main mission of each individual, and the Orishas are ready to help us in that journey through certain magical rituals or from the advice provided by the different oracles that the yorubas have at their disposal. That is why Santeria is known as a religion in which ceremonies and sacrifices abound, due to the variety of offerings with which the Orishas are entertained to obtain their positive influence in the development of the lives of their followers.

Santeria in the countries of the Americas

It is important to note that the practice of Santeria has spread to many countries in the world. An example of this is Mexico, where we can find a great variety of followers and initiates. There is also a wide commercial network related to these practices, mainly in the markets of Mexico City where it is common to find stores specialized in the sale of all the paraphernalia used in Santeria, such as tureens, necklaces, bracelets, candles, ornaments and other tools.
These commercial establishments commonly called “botánicas” also exist widely in Venezuela, where Santeria is a religion that enjoys great acceptance, conglomerating a strong number of followers and initiates since the 90’s until today.

In the United States, in New York City or Miami, botanicas are in many places, even offering their services through all advertising media, even standing out more than other types of businesses and offering a wide range of religious articles.

It is evident that people tend to be attracted by the mystical and exotic veil that surrounds Santeria. In spite of the fact that many detractors have tried to discredit these millenary practices originating in primitive Africa, the term “Santeria or Santero” was originally used in a pejorative way to refer to individuals belonging to or descending from the Yoruba people, who practiced the rituals of their ancestral religion. It later became simply an adjective used to refer to the initiates and practitioners of the Afro-Cuban Osha and Ifa Rule.

Even so, its religious legacy managed to survive the ravages of time, beyond the subjugation experienced by its oldest practitioners when they were forced to arrive in America, becoming popular and spreading to unsuspected places, being also a fundamental part of the secular and cultural heritage transmitted and reproduced thanks to the arts, music and Afro-Caribbean culture.

In fact, just as Santeria emerged in Cuba, other spiritual variants inherited from African beliefs developed in Caribbean countries, such as voodoo in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Macumba or Candombe in Brazil and Obeah in Jamaica, among others. Reaffirming once again, the African’s nature of not leaving behind his most deeply rooted essence.

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