Many people use the term Santeria as a general term to describe religions of African origin that exist in Cuba. In fact, Santeria is the popular name for the Yoruba religion, the most visible Afro-Cuban religion on the island. The Congo religion (regla de palo or palo mayombe) is another – said to be equally strong- but is far more secretive and hidden.
Yoruba was already a syncretic religion in Africa – with influences from Islam and other traditions – before many of her people were displaced from west African shores and brought (as slaves) to Cuba.
Original practitioners on the island – then under Spanish rule – incorporated elements of Catholicism in order to both veil their rituals and ensure the survival of these traditional beliefs. Catholics saints were chosen and associated to individual Orishas (gods) and Spanish colonial-era outfits still combine with Yoruba-derived garlands in today’s many colourful ceremonies. Santeria (Way of the Saints) includes complex systems of cosmology, philosophy, initiation, priesthood, divination, sacrifice, praise song repertoire, drumming and dance to name a few. Santeria priests who tend the Orishas can be male or female and are called Santeros. The Babalao on the other hand, is always male and it is he who divines – mainly using a 16 cowrie shell system.
Drumming plays a very central role in Santeria and the sacred, two-headed batá drum is key, taking many years – some say a lifetime – of serious study to master. Santeria embraces divine kinship, worshiping Orishas and their associated Catholic saints such as St. Barbara and St. Lazaro. The Orishas most well-known to outsiders are OBATALÁ – the father of orishas and all human kind, and creator of the world. CHANGO – the great king, healer and warrior, YEMAYA – Seven Seas –the Mother of the World, OCHUN – female nurturer and mediator of relationships, and OGGUN who is characterized by effort, hard work, violence, force and energy.
It is estimated that over 70% of Cubans – including the white population – practice Santeria in one way or another. Many people instinctively sprinkle the first few drops of rum from a newly opened bottle in a corner – por los santos – or place a glass of water by their bedside in order that the spirits of the dead don’t go thirsty. Serious initiates undertake complex ceremonies and rituals in order to fully enter the religion (to ´take´ their Saint) and the many Cubans you will see on the street dressed all in white – showing their religious commitment – are most likely those in their first year of religious initiation.
Santeria Video National Geographic.