“Santería,” The Lucumi Way

Of all the New World societies, Cuba received captives from the greatest mix of African origins. They came from all parts of the coast and interior of western Africa, their numbers dwarfing all reliable estimates of the number of captives brought to the entire United States. Between 500,000 and 700,000 Africans reached Cuba, the majority arriving in the nineteenth century. The size, diversity, and continual replenishment of this population allowed a rich array of African-inspired religions to flourish there, even beyond the end of the slave trade.

The godsThe term god with a small “g” is used to refer to a deity or class of deities whose power is understood to be circumscribed or localized rather than universal, or to refer to a plurality of deities. of West Africa are called orishaAlthough African and Afro-Caribbean religions acknowledge a supreme God, sometimes described as a “high God,” they emphasize the primacy in daily life of multiple spirit beings, called orisha in Yoruba, oricha in the Spanish language of the Cuban Lucu... in YorubaThe Yoruba are a West African people in the area now called Nigeria and Benin. The religious traditions of Yoruba culture formed the foundations of many Afro-Caribbean traditions, includin. Shango in Trinidad, Lucumi or Santería in Cuba, and, to a lesser..., oricha in Spanish. Yoruba people also speak of a supreme being, Olorun or Olodumare, whose power or life-energy, called ashe, becomes manifest through both ancestral spirits and the orisha. In Cuba, as in Haiti, West African gods became paired with Roman Catholic saintsSaints are human beings whose lives have displayed extraordinary holiness and devotion. As such they become examples for others. Indeed some of the faithful may understand them to be intermediaries and seek their help in time of need. Roman Catholics and ... in syncretistic relationships. In Cuba, the ruler of lightning, called Shango in Yoruba and Chango in Spanish, is identified with St. Barbara. OgunOgun or Ogou is the lord of iron, metal-work, and technology and is understood to be a warrior god. As such, he is identified through syncretis. in Haiti with St. James, and in Cuba with St. Peter., the lord of iron and technology, is identified with St. George, Babalu Aye is identified with St. Lazarus, and Yemaya, goddessGoddess is a term used to refer to the female deity, either in the singular as the supreme divine reality, or in the plural as one of many particular or localized feminine deities. In the Hindu tradition, the Goddess refers to the very powerful, even supr... of the sea, with Our Lady of Regla, the patroness of a Havana suburb.

It has long been common to call Cuban oricha-worship “Santería” because of the identification of the orichas with the saints. However the term is now being rejected by those who think it overemphasizes the Catholic and syncretistic elements. Increasingly, many within the Afro-Caribbean tradition prefer to call it La Regla LucumiThe African Yoruba-inspired tradition in Cuba came to be called La Regla Lucumi or Santería, the way of the “saints,” so named because of the correspondence established by worshippers between Yoruba orisha (in Spanish, oricha) and the saints of the R..., “the order of Lucumi,” or La Regla de Ocha, “the order of the orichas.” The term Lucumi is said to derive from a Yoruba greeting meaning, “my friend.”

In the past few decades, Santería, or La Regla Lucumi, has come to the United States with Cuban immigrants: in New York, for instance, some believe the Statue of Liberty embodies the presence of Yemaya. Botanicas selling the religious articles, herbs, candles, and images of the tradition proliferate in Miami, Seattle, and New York. It is estimated that between 250,000 and one million practice Santería in the United States. However there is no visible infrastructure, and most practitioners, if asked, would publicly identify themselves as Catholic.

The practice of Santería is organized in “houses”—loose communities of initiates and aspirants led by a particular priestA priest is the leader of a religious community or congregation, specially trained and often ordained to service, who leads members of the community in the rituals and practice of shared and individual life. Many traditions have forms of priesthood.In the... (babalocha) or a priestessA priestess is a female leader of a religious community, specially trained and often ordained to service, who leads members of the community in the rituals and practice of shared and individual life. Pagan traditions have many forms of priestesses. The ma... (iyalocha). Most members of the house have been initiated by him or her and are therefore called his or her “godchildren.” During initiation, called the asiento, or “seating” of the godGod is a term used to refer to the Divine, the Supreme being, Transcendent deity, or Ultimate reality. in the devotee’s head, the godparent and his or her team shave the initiate’s head and make small incisions, planting sacred and secret substances in them that will link the godThe term god with a small “g” is used to refer to a deity or class of deities whose power is understood to be circumscribed or localized rather than universal, or to refer to a plurality of deities. permanently to the new initiate and strengthen the god’sGod is a term used to refer to the Divine, the Supreme being, Transcendent deity, or Ultimate reality. protection. The initiate is then possessed temporarily by the god, an event that will recur on certain ritual occasions throughout the initiate’s life.

New initiates are called “brides of the god” in the Yoruba-influenced Lucumi language, having made a lifelong commitment to a god who becomes central to the devotee’s life and consciousness. The devotee, from the time of initiation, is committed to offering regular sacrifice to the god ruling his or her head. After a year of ritual seclusion, the new initiate becomes a santero or santera, and in time, may initiate his or her own “godchildren.”

Some male priestsA priest is the leader of a religious community or congregation, specially trained and often ordained to service, who leads members of the community in the rituals and practice of shared and individual life. Many traditions have forms of priesthood.In the... are initiated not to undergo possession, but to conduct divinationDivining or divination is the ancient and pervasive practice of attempting to discern hidden dimensions of present situations or future course of events through sacred techniques, such as casting cowry shells or reading tarot cards., or to discern hidden realities by means of an oracle. These highly prestigious diviners (babalaos) work with individuals and families, casting and reading cowry shells or a sacred chain to determine the spiritual causes of personal problems. The priest may recommend such solutions as “cleansing” fumigations and herb baths or investiture with protective bead necklaces representing the oricha gods. The babalao also plays a critical role in many initiation ceremonies.

On the altarsAn altar is a raised platform or stand which bears the central symbols of a religious tradition—whether in a temple, church, shrine, or home—and at which offerings are made, worship is offered, or prayers are said. of devotees, the oricha are often represented by stones—embodiments of the divine power—placed alongside other sacred emblems inside lidded calabash gourds, bowls, tureens, or jars. Each oricha also has his or her own foods, characteristic mythsMyths are stories human beings tell about the nature of reality: how the order of things we know came to be and by what deep truths the this order operates. Myths may concern the events of creation, the divine dramas of God or the gods, or the discoveries..., numbers, colors, dances, and drum rhythms. At a sacred dance festival held in Miami, for instance, Cubans easily recognize each manifest oricha by means of his or her movements.

On the annual anniversary of a santero/a’s initiation, a sacrifice is made to the particular oricha who possessed the devotee during his or her initiation. There are other annual festivities in the “house” of Santería, including the cycle of tambores, each one honoring a different oricha. Many of these tambores roughly coincide with the Roman Catholic saints’ days—again reflecting the symbiotic relationship between Lucumi and Christian traditions. In America, the Santería tradition has developed through these house communities, which are not ordinarily public places of worship.

Although there are large Cuban immigrant communities, the public profile of Santería has remained very low, in part because of hostility and misunderstanding on the part of the dominant culture. Though animal sacrifice is but one part of the ceremonies of healing and of devotional feasting, it is the aspect most noted by the general public. Conflict over this issue became public in Hialeah, Florida, when the city passed legislation to ban animal sacrifice. The city claimed the legislation was religiously “neutral,” but the ChurchThe term church has come to wide use to refer to the organized and gathered religious community. In the Christian tradition, church refers to the organic, interdependent “body” of Christ’s followers, the community of Christians. Secondarily, church ... of the Lukumi Babalu Aye in Hialeah maintained that the legislation was aimed specifically at Santería practices. Ernesto Pichardo, the priest of the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, took his case to the courts. Eventually, in 1993, the Supreme Court determined that Hialeah had overstepped the bounds of the law by directing such restrictions at the practices of the Santería religion (Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah).


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