Afro-Caribbean Glossary Terms

Afro-Caribbean religions

Afro-Caribbean religions include a wide range of religious traditions that have roots in Africa, came to the islands of the Caribbean with African captives, and developed distinctive forms in this new environment: Santería or the Lucumi tradition in Cuba, Shango in Trinidad, Obeah and Myalism in Jamaica, and Vodou in Haiti.


Danballah is an African deity associated with rain, the serpent, and fecundity. In the Americas, Haiti is his main home. He is also associated with the ancestors and ancestral knowledge. In Haitian Vodou syncretism, he came to be identified with St. Patrick.


Divining 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.


Elegba or Legba is the guardian god of gates and doorways and is thus associated with communication between the Divine and human realms. Often propitiated at the outset of rituals. In Haiti, this important deity is often identified with St. Peter who is also the keeper of keys and guardian of the doorway. In Cuba, he is called Eleggua and is associated with roads and cross-roads, often identified with St. Anthony, the transmigrating soul, or the Child Jesus of Prague.

Haitian Vodou

Vodou refers to the religious traditions of Haiti—a blend of Fon, Yoruba and Kongo traditions of Africa with French Catholicism. While Haitians do use the term Vodou, they more often speak of “serving the spirits,” the lwa, who are honored on altars and in sanctuaries and who are encountered with immediacy in the experience of possession. The term derives from the Fon name for the divinities—vodun.


Kwanzaa is a seven-day African-American festival observed from December 26 to January 1. The festival was started by Maulana Karenga in 1966 and has taken hold as a popular African-American holiday. It celebrates family and community, includes songs and gift-giving, and features the lighting of a seven branched candelabrum, with a candle for each day and each of seven principles: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith.


The 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 Roman Catholic Church. Of late, the term Santería has fallen out of fashion. Ritual communication with the orisha for guidance, well-being, and healing is at the heart of the Lucumi tradition.


A manbo or mambo is a female ritual specialist in the Haitian Vodou tradition. Like her male counterpart, the oungan (or houngan), she performs ceremonies, initiations, healings, and divinations. She is a spiritual guide for those who make contact with the gods through possession. Her symbol is the ason, a rattle that she receives at the time of her acknowledgment as priestess. She uses it both to invoke the gods and to direct rituals.


Ogun 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.


Although 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 Lucumi tradition. In relations of reciprocity with these gods, people enjoy their successes in life, celebrate their rites of passage, and cope with misfortune, illness, and grief. Comparable to the Iwa of the Haitian Vodou tradition.


The Rastafarian tradition arose in the 1930s in Jamaica as an African-identified, anti-colonial religious movement that saw Haile Selassie, the ruler of Ethiopia, as a savior. They took his name—Ras Tafari or Prince of Tafari—as the name of this movement.


The Jamaican Revivalist movement, called Pukumina, is a form of Christian revivalism strongly influenced by African ritual idioms of drumming, dancing, and trance, or spirit possession.

Toque de Egun

Eggun are the spirits of ancestors or the spirits of the dead more generally, especially including the spirits of guides or teachers. Eggun are saluted and honored in many Lucumi ceremonies.

Toque de Santo

A ceremony of drumming and dancing to celebrate the orichas of the Cuban Lucumi tradition.

Yoruba religion

The 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 extent Vodou in Haiti.