Santería: A New World Tradition and Culture


Also known as La Regla Lucumi or Rule of Osha, Santería is an Afro-Caribbean religion rich in symbolism, rituals and ceremonies.  It originated from the traditions and beliefs of the Yoruba people in West Africa and was brought to the Caribbean as a result of the slave trade to Cuba, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Trinidad, among others.  It is thought to have started in Cuba, and then spread through other countries.

This religion developed from the Yoruba’s beliefs into what is known today as Santería pretty quickly, once they arrived in the New World.  Masters forced their slaves to adopt Catholicism as their religion, which gave them no choice but to disguise their traditions behind a façade of Roman Catholicism by matching up their own beliefs to those imposed by the Catholic Church.  Their Orishas (deities) were represented by a correspondent Catholic Saint; also, Olorun –their god- was correspondent to the Catholic God.  This meant that Olorun was worshipped through the image of God and their orishas where worshipped through the images of Saints.  For example: a master would see a slave worshiping Saint Barbara, while in fact that person was worshiping Shangó (Lord of Light), the correspondent deity

The traditions and rituals of Santería are very well-preserved and observed to this day.  Their main practitioners or “priests” are called Santeros, which can be babalorishas (men) or iyalorishas (women).  These santeros must go through an intensive initiation process, including a cleansing ritual.  They are also (usually) Catholics and often use Roman Catholic symbols in their rituals, which are very frequently performed at Botánicas. Also, they perform Animal sacrifices –usually chicken-, as nourishment for their orisha and, these are done for special occasions like marriage or death, or for healing.  On the other hand, Espiritismo (spiritism) has a strong presence in Santería, used by Santeros to communicate with their deities in order to improve the situation of the person they’re consulting; it is believed that healing occurs when the spirit medium (Santero) assists the sufferer to come into harmony with the spirit world.  Divination and Herbology are also important components of this religion.  It is crucial for them to be attuned to the natural and the spiritual worlds, in balance, to be able to act as healers.

Another very important aspect in the rituals and ceremonies of Santería is their music.  Songs are used to maintain their traditions and pass them on from one generation to the next.  In addition, they use song and rhythm to communicate with their orishas.  As a matter of fact, one of the major ceremonies performed in this religion is called Bembé.  This ritual is also known as “Toque de Santo” or “Tambor” (drum in Spanish), for which the Batá drums (iya –largest-, itoltele and oconcolo) are played in the orisha’s honor, as an invitation to this deity to join the community in their singing, dancing and drumming. It is through these sacred drums that messages from the worshippers reach the orishas and also that the orishas respond to their devotees, usually through a “possessed” member of the community.  These drums are to be played by men only and must be treated with utmost respect; for example: while dancing, you must never turn your back towards the drums.  Nowadays, in countries like Puerto Rico and Cuba, the word bembéhas become a synonym of partying, jamming, dancing and having fun.

Santería’s traditions and rituals are many and although very interesting, they are incredibly complex to go into too much detail.  This religion is known for its “magic”, which is based on the person’s ability to interact with the orishas to better their own lives and the lives of those asking for help.  What is important to note is that today, it is a religion in its own right with countless followers –even present in parts of USA- and it is considered an important and influential symbol of the Afro-Caribbean culture and music.  Many of their songs have become part of the folk and popular repertoire of Caribbean countries, still sung to this day; also, heavy in the use of percussion instruments, their rhythms have served as the starting point of many genres we now enjoy like: the Cuban Rumba, the Puerto Rican Bomba the precursor of the Salsa: the Son, and through a series of changes over the years, even Reggae.