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A group of Santería practitioners performing the Cajón de Muertos ceremony in Havana in 2011
A group of Santería practitioners performing the Cajón de Muertos ceremony in Havana in 2011

Santería, also known as Regla de Ocha, Regla Lucumí, or Lucumí, is an Afro-American religion that developed in Cuba between the 16th and 19th centuries. It arose through a process of syncretism between the traditional Yoruba religion of West Africa and the Roman Catholic form of Christianity. There is no central authority in control of the movement, which comprises adherents known as creyente and initiates known as santeros (males) and santeras (females).

Santería is polytheistic, involving the veneration of deities known as oricha. These are often identified both as Yoruban gods as well as Roman Catholic saints. Various myths and stories are told about these oricha, which are regarded as subservient to a transcendent creator deity, Olodumare. Each individual is believed to have a specific oricha who has been connected to them since before birth and who informs their personality. An initiatory tradition, Santería's members usually meet in the homes of santeros or santeras to venerate specific oricha at altars set up for that purpose. A central ritual is the toque de santo, in which practitioners drum, sing, and dance to encourage an oricha to possess one of their members. They believe that through this possessed individual, they can communicate directly with an oricha. Santería uses the Lucumí language, which is derived from Yoruba, for ritual purposes. Offerings to the oricha include fruit and the blood of sacrificed animals, usually birds. Offerings are also given to the spirits of the dead, especially those of ancestors, with some practitioners identifying as spirit mediums. Several forms of divination are utilized, including Ifá, to decipher messages from the oricha. Healing rituals and the preparation of herbal remedies, amulets, and charms, also play a prominent role.

Santería developed among Afro-Cuban communities amid the Atlantic slave trade of the 16th to 19th centuries. It arose through the blending of the traditional religions brought to Cuba by enslaved West Africans, the majority of them Yoruba, and the Roman Catholic teachings of the Spanish colonialists who then controlled the island. After the Cuban War of Independence resulted in a newly independent Cuban state, the constitution enshrined freedom of religion. Santería nevertheless remained marginalized by the Roman Catholic establishment, which typically viewed it as a type of brujería (witchcraft) associated with criminality. Concepts from Spiritism increasingly filtered into Santería from the late 19th century onward. In the 1960s, growing emigration following the Cuban Revolution spread Santería elsewhere in the Americas. The late 20th century saw growing links between Santería and other orisha-worshipping traditions in West Africa and the Americas, such as Haitian Vodou and Brazilian Candomblé. Since the late 20th century, some practitioners have emphasized a "Yorubization" process to remove Roman Catholic influences and create forms of Santería closer to traditional Yoruba religion.

Practitioners of Santería are primarily found in Cuba, although communities exist in other parts of the Americas, especially among the Cuban diasporas of Mexico and the United States. Both in Cuba and abroad it has spread beyond its Afro-Cuban origins and is practiced by individuals of various different ethnicities. Santería has faced much opposition and criticism through its history. The Roman Catholic Church has often seen it as Satanic, Cuba's Marxist–Leninist government perceived it as primitive superstition, while animal welfare groups have criticised its use of animal sacrifice.


The term "Santería" translates into English as the "way of the saints."[1] This is the most popular name for the religion, although some practitioners consider it offensive and avoid it in favor of alternatives.[2] Another commonly used term is Regla de Ocha, meaning "the rule of ocha";[3] the term "ocha" is a truncated form of oricha, the word used for the religion's deities.[4] Some adherents regard this as the "official" name of the religion.[2] In the United States, the tradition has also been referred to as "La Religión Lucumí", a term originally employed in colonial-era Cuba,[5] and in other instances has been called "Regla Lucumi",[6] or simply "Lucumí".[7]

A figure at the Templo Yemalla, a casa (house of worship) devoted to the oricha Yemaja in Trinidad, Cuba
A figure at the Templo Yemalla, a casa (house of worship) devoted to the oricha Yemaja in Trinidad, Cuba

Santería is an Afro-Cuban religion;[8] the Cuban government formally classifies it as being one of the "Cuban religions of African origin".[9] Many insist on viewing as a specially Cuban religion;[10] in Cuba, it is sometimes described as "the national religion".[11] From its Cuban origins, it has also spread to other parts of the Americas like Venezuela, Mexico, and the United States.[12] Santería has its roots in the West African religious systems which were brought to Cuba by enslaved people, the majority of them Yoruba. There, these beliefs mixed with the Roman Catholicism introduced by Spanish colonialists.[13] Through a process of syncretism, Roman Catholic saints were conflated with West African deities;[14] the Hispanic studies scholars Margarite Fernández Olmos and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert defined Santería as "the veneration of the orishas of the Yoruba pantheon as identified with their corresponding Catholic saints".[15] Many practitioners of Santería consider themselves to be Roman Catholics,[16] and there have been examples of practitioners characterising themselves as Jewish,[17] or practising the religion alongside Hinduism.[18] Since the late nineteenth century, Santería has also drawn elements from the religion of Spiritism;[19] the tradition is flexible and eclectic,[20] and lacks any strict orthodoxy.[21]

Although Santería is the best known of the Afro-Cuban religions,[22] as well as being the most popular,[23] it is not the only one.[6] Others include Palo Monte, which derived from practices from the Congo Basin, and Abakuá, which has its origins among the secret male societies practiced among the Efik-Ibibio.[24] Many of those who practice Palo Monte and Abakuá also practice Santería.[25] A fourth Afro-Cuban religion is Arará, which derives from practices among the Ewe and Fon;[26] Arará is sometimes considered a branch of Santería rather than a separate system altogether, although unlike most forms of Santería its origins are not primarily Yoruban.[27] Santería also has commonalities with other West African and West African-derived traditions in the Americas which collectively form the "Orisha religion";[28] the anthropologist Paul Christopher Johnson characterized Santería, Haitian Vodou, and Brazilian Candomblé as "sister religions" due to their shared origins in Yoruba traditional belief systems.[29] These common origins can be seen in the fact that Santería shares much of its theology, including deity names, with Haitian Vodou.[30] There are also cases, such as that of the New York-based Mama Lola, in which individuals have been initiated into both Haitian Vodou and Cuban Santería.[31]

Within the religion there is a range of vocabulary to indicate the level of involvement someone has,[32] with the different terms sometimes reflecting different political and social agendas.[33] Practitioners of both Santería and other Afro-Cuban religions are called creyente ("believers").[34] A non-initiate, including those who may attend public Santería ceremonies, is referred to as an aleyo ("stranger");[35] these non-initiates make up the majority of people who participate in the religion.[36] Some people external to the religion have referred to its practitioners as "santerians" although this is not used by adherents themselves.[33] Those who are initiated are known as santeros if male,[37] and santeras if female,[38] although these two terms have sometimes been used for anyone, initiate or not, who participates in the religion.[33] An alternative term for an initiate is a babalocha or babaloricha if male and an iyalocha or iyaloricha if female.[39] Those who have a sustained engagement with the religion are also referred to as omoricha ("children of the oricha"),[40] or aboricha ("one who worships the oricha").[32] An initiate may also be called an oloricha ("one who belongs to the oricha").[32]


Olodumare and the oricha

One of the most prominent oricha in Santería is Eleguá. He is often depicted as half-black, half-red (left image) and is also represented by small cement heads kept in the home (right)

Santería teaches the existence of an overarching divinity, known as Olodumare, Olofl, or Olorun,[41] representing a monotheistic principle in the religion.[42] Practitioners believe that this creator divinity created the universe but takes little interest in human affairs.[43] Olodumare is thus regarded as being inaccessible to humanity.[44] The three facets of this divinity are understood slightly differently; Olodumare represents the divine essence of all that exists, Olorun is regarded as the creator of all beings, while Olofi dwells in all creation.[45] In taking a triplicate form, this creator deity displays similarities with the Christian idea of the Trinity.[45]

Santeria is a polytheistic religion.[46] Its deities are referred to as oricha or orisha,[47] or alternatively as the ocha,[48] and also as the santos ("saints").[49] The oricha are not gods "in the Western sense",[50] and thus the educational anthropologist Andrés I. Pérez y Mena thought they were best described as "Yoruban ancestor spirits".[51] The term oricha can be both singular and plural, because Lucumí, the ritual language of Santería, lacks plural markers for nouns.[52] Practitioners believe that some oricha were created before humanity, but that others were originally humans who became oricha through some remarkable quality.[53] Some practitioners perceive the oricha as facets of Olodumare, and thus believe that by venerating them they are ultimately worshipping the creator god.[54] The oricha are not regarded as being wholly benevolent,[55] having a mix of emotions, virtues, and vices like humans.[42] The focus of the religion is on creating a reciprocal relationship with them,[48] with adherents believing that oricha can intercede in human affairs and help people if they are appeased.[53]

There are various origin myths and other stories about the oricha, known as patakíes.[56] Each oricha is understood to "rule over" a particular aspect of the universe,[48] and have been described as personifications of different facets of the natural world.[6] They are perceived as living in a realm called orún, which is contrasted with ayé, the realm of humanity.[57] Oricha are identified as each having their own caminos ("roads"),[58] a concept that several scholars of religion have equated with that of the Hindu concept of avatars.[59] The number of caminos an oricha has can vary, with some being believed to have several hundred.[60] Practitioners believe that oricha can physically inhabit certain objects, among them stones and cowrie shells, which are treated as being sacred.[61]

Among the oricha are the "warrior deities", or guerrors.[62] The first of these is Eleguá, viewed as the guardian of the crossroads and thresholds;[63] he is the messenger between humanity and the oricha and most ceremonies start by requesting his permission to continue.[64] He is depicted as being black on one side and red on the other,[65] and although often shown as male is sometimes depicted as being female.[66] Eleguá is believed to be responsible for reporting on humanity to Olodumare.[64] Practitioners will frequently place a cement head decorated with cowrie shells that represents Eleguá behind their front door, guarding the threshold to the street.[64] The second guerro is Ogun, viewed as the oricha of weapons and war,[67] and also of iron and blacksmiths.[68] Another prominent oricha is Yemaja, the deity associated with maternity, fertility, and the sea.[69]

Offerings of coins and a cigar placed before a statue of Saint Lazarus, who represents the oricha Babalú Ayé,[70] in Havana
Offerings of coins and a cigar placed before a statue of Saint Lazarus, who represents the oricha Babalú Ayé,[70] in Havana

Oyá is a female warrior associated with wind, lightning, and death, and is viewed as the guardian of the cemetery,[71] while Ochún is the oricha of rivers and of romantic love.[72] Changó or Shango is associated with lightning and fire;[73] he is perhaps the most popular oricha within the pantheon.[74] Obatalá is the oricha of truth and justice and is deemed responsible for helping to mould humanity.[75] Babalú Ayé is the oricha associated with disease, and is regarded as having the power to both infect and cure.[76] Orula is the oricha of divination, who in Santería's mythology was present at the creation of humanity and thus is aware of everyone's destiny.[77] Some of the oricha are regarded as being antagonistic to one another; Chango and Ogun are for instance described as being enemies.[78]

The oricha are often conflated with particular Roman Catholic saints based on similar attributes between the two.[79] For instance, the Holy Infant of Atocha, who is viewed as Christ as a child, is conflated with Eleguá, who is seen as having a childlike nature.[80] Similarly, Babalú Ayé, who is associated with disease, is often identified with the Catholic Saint Lazarus, who rose from the dead.[70] Changó is typically conflated with Santa Barbara because they both wear red.[79] Ochún is usually equated with Cuba's patron saint, Our Lady of Charity.[81] In many cases, an oricha can be associated with multiple Roman Catholic saints.[82] It has been argued that Yoruban slaves initially linked their traditional deities with Catholic saints as a means of concealing their continued worship of the former from the Roman Catholic authorities,[83] or of helping to facilitate social mobility by assimilating into Roman Catholic social norms.[82] Pérez y Mena thus argued that the saints should be seen only as a "shell" for the oricha.[51] As evidence, he highlighted that some practitioners maintain that the oricha and the saints are distinct.[84] Each oricha is associated with specific songs, rhythms, colors, numbers, animals, and foodstuffs.[85] Ogun for instance is associated with various metal, and especially iron, objects, whereas Changó is associated with wooden objects.[86]

Practitioners believe that each person is "born to" a particular oricha, whether or not they decide to devote themselves to that deity.[87] This is a connection that, adherents believe, has been set before birth.[88] Practitioners refer to this oricha as being that which "rules the head" of an individual;[48] this entity is described as their "head" oricha,[32] and the "owner of the head."[89] If the oricha is male then it is described as the individual's "father", while if the oricha is female then it is understood as the person's "mother".[60] This oricha is believed to influence the personality of the individual, and thus by examining a person's personality traits their associated oricha could be recognised.[90] Practitioners also believe that an individual's particular oricha can also be discerned through divination.[91]

To ensure the protection of a particular oricha, practitioners are encouraged to make offerings to them, sponsor ceremonies in their honor, and live in accordance with their wishes, as determined through divination.[92] Practitioners are concerned at the prospect of offending the oricha.[93] Practitioners of Santería believe that the oricha can communicate with humans through divination, prayers, dreams, music, and dance.[94] Many practitioners also describe how they "read" messages from the oricha in everyday interactions and events.[95] For instance, a practitioner who meets a child at a traffic intersection may interpret this as a message from Eleguá, who is often depicted as a child and who is perceived as the "guardian" of the crossroads. At that point the practitioner may turn to divination to determine the precise meaning of the encounter.[96] The information obtained from these messages may then help practitioners make decisions about their job, residence, or behavior.[97]

Birth and the dead

A selection of offerings that have been placed at the base of a tree in Cuba as part of a Santería rite
A selection of offerings that have been placed at the base of a tree in Cuba as part of a Santería rite

Santería teaches that the essence of a person, their eledá, resides within the head.[98] It holds that before birth, the orí or eledá goes to Olodumare, the creator divinity, and is given its essential character.[99] It is also before Olodumare, this belief holds, that the individual forms their relationship with a specific oricha. This oricha will thenceforth be "the owner of the head" and will influence the individual's character after they are born.[100] This symbolic emphasis on the head led the anthropologist Michael Atwood Mason to describe it as "the bodily center of the spiritual life in Santería",[101] with various rituals giving particular attention to this part of the human anatomy.[32] The concept of the eledá derives from Yoruba traditional religion, where it is seen as the "spiritual double" of a person. In Santería, this idea has syncretised with Roman Catholic beliefs about guardian angels and the idea of the protecciones or protector spirits from Spiritism.[102] There is no strict orthodoxy on this issue and thus there are differences in interpretation.[102]

Ancestor veneration plays an important role in Santería.[103] The religion entails propitiating the spirits of the dead, known as egun,[104] or espíritus.[43] Practitioners believe that the dead can influence the living and must be treated with respect, awe, and kindness.[105] Although the dead are not perceived as being as powerful as the oricha, they are still regarded as having the ability to assist the living,[105] with whom they can communicate through dreams, intuition, and spirit possession.[106] Santería teaches that through practice, a person can learn to both see and communicate with the dead.[105] Practitioners will often leave offerings out to the spirits of the dead to placate and please them, often in the form of seven glasses of water.[105] Especially propitiated are those members of the dead who are deemed to be ancestors;[48] these ancestors are consulted at all ceremonies.[105] Practitioners believe that when a creyente dies, they too become an ancestor.[107] In Santería, the egun are often represented by a carved, figurative cane.[106]

Adherents believe that each individual has a cuadro espiritual ("spiritual portrait" or "spiritual picture") of various egun who protect and bless them.[108] Individuals can have as many as 25 protectores, or protective ancestral spirits.[88] The religion maintains that all people have multiple spirits of the dead that accompany them at all times, and that these can be either benevolent, malevolent, or a mix of both.[105] Practitioners also believe that the number and identities of these spirits can be determined through divination.[105] It draws a distinction between evolved spirits, who can help those they are attached to, and unevolved spirits, who lack the wisdom and skill to be useful and are instead cause havoc.[109] Santería teaches that through offerings and prayers, individuals can help some of their unevolved spirits to become evolved.[109] Some practitioners believe that unevolved spirits lurk in the air and can be distilled by the rain, through which they can attach themselves to individuals who have been rained on.[110] Santería also divides the spirits into categories which each show different traits, reflecting stereotypes about different social groups in Cuban society.[106] The gitano (gypsy) spirits for instance are believed to have the power to warn of impending troubles and diagnose illnesses while the congo spirits of Africa are perceived as strong-willed, powerful, and adept at guiding people through hostile circumstances.[106]


The concept of aché is a major cosmological concept in Yoruba traditional religion and has been transferred to Santería.[111] It is also present in other Yoruba-derived traditions such as Candomblé.[112] Mason called it the "ritual generative power",[54] while Fernández Olmos and Paravisini-Gebert referred to it as "a spiritual-mystical energy or power found in varying degrees and in many forms throughout the universe".[53] The ethnomusicologist Katherine Hagedorn described aché as "the realized and inherent divine potential in all aspects of life, even in apparently inert objects."[111] She added that "Aché is neither good nor bad; rather, aché is motion".[107]

Practitioners believe that aché permeates all aspects of life,[53] but that the creator divinity Olodumare is the ultimate embodiment of it.[53] Santería teaches that all beings possess aché but that initiates gain more of it.[111] It holds that aché can emanate from the human body via speech, song, dance, and drumming,[113] and can be transmitted through such acts as singing praise songs for the oricha or sacrificing an animal.[114] It is seen as having the power to fortify a person's health.[115]

Morality, ethics, and gender roles

Two practitioners of Santería taking part in a Cajon de Muertos ceremony in 2011
Two practitioners of Santería taking part in a Cajon de Muertos ceremony in 2011

Santería has standards for behavior and moral edicts that practitioners are expected to live by,[116] with the religion presenting strict rules regarding how to interact with other people and with the supernatural.[117] Mythological stories about the oricha contribute to the moral and social consciousness of practitioners.[64] In Santería, as in other Afro-Cuban religions, respect for elders and superiors is given great emphasis.[118] A general attitude in Santería is that if an individual maintains good character, the oricha will aid them.[119] It does not polarise good and evil, with all things being perceived as being complementary and relative.[50]

Practitioners often believe that individuals have a specific destiny,[120] usually referred to as destino (destiny) or camino (road).[106] This is considered to be preordained but forgotten at birth;[102] it is not often, however, seen as an absolute predetermination.[106] Many of the ritual practices found in Santería focus on determining the nature of one's destiny.[121]

Many practitioners of Santería characterize their religion as a more life-affirming tradition than Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.[97] Several academics have described Santería as having a "here-and-now" ethos that was distinct from that of Christianity.[122] The social scientist Mercedes C. Sandoval suggested that many Cubans chose to practice Santería rather than either Roman Catholicism or Spiritism because it emphasizes techniques for dealing with pragmatic problems in life.[123] Some African American adherents have contrasted what they regard as the African-derived ethos of Santería with the non-African origins of Christianity.[97] Due to this, some practitioners have linked Santería in with their own black nationalist ideology.[124]

In Santería, there are various restrictions on the tasks that women are permitted to do while menstruating.[125] Many roles were traditionally considered off-limits to homosexual males,[126] however there are many gay men operating as priests in the religion,[127] as well as some lesbian priestesses.[126] There is a stereotype among Cubans and Cuban Americans that all Santería priests are gay men, although this is not true.[18] Many gay male practitioners have expressed strong identification with Chango, a hyper-masculine oricha who nevertheless dressed as a woman to evade capture by his enemies in one of the myths about him.[128] Some gay men have expressed surprise when divination indicates that it is another oricha, and not Chango, who is their personal deity.[128] Pérez y Mena believed that the restrictions on both women and homosexual men in Santería derived from "the Cuban male chauvinist's desire" to maintain control over the religion.[128] He added the view that the movement was generally more progressive on issues of gender and sexuality in the United States than in Cuba.[128]


Santería has an elaborate system of ritual,[20] one which incorporates song, dance, spirit possession, and animal sacrifice.[13] These rituals are known as ceremonias (ceremonies).[129] Much of its focus is on solving the problems of everyday life.[119] Practitioners usually use the term "work" in reference both to secular and ritual activity; thus the words "working ocha" are used to describe religious rites.[130] Santería is an initiatory religion,[131] one which is organized around a structured hierarchy.[132] An ethos of secrecy pervades many of its practices,[133] with initiates often refusing to discuss certain topics with non-initiates.[134] for this reason, Mason thought Santería could be described as a secret society.[135]

For ritual purposes, the Lucumi language, which derives from the Yoruba language, is often used in Santería.[136] This is sometimes referred to as la lengua de los orichas ("the language of the oricha"),[137] with it being regarded as a divine language through which practitioners can contact the oricha.[138] Most initiates know between a few dozen through to hundreds of Lucumi words and phrases,[137] although there are initiates who are not comfortable using it.[139] Most Cubans do not understand the Lucumí language, barring a few words that have filtered into Cuban Spanish,[140] the latter being the daily language spoken by most practitioners.[52] As Yoruba transitioned into Lucumi over the centuries, the Yoruba pronunciations of many words was forgotten,[139] and in the early 21st century some practitioners have made a conscious study of the Yoruba language to better understand the meaning of Lucumi words.[141] For much of the 20th century, initiates have kept libretas, notebooks in which they have written down material relevant to the practice of Santería, such as Lucumi terms or the attributes of specific oricha.[142] They may share the contents of these books with their own initiates; others keep them strictly private.[142]

Houses of worship

A Santería priest with ritual paraphernalia
A Santería priest with ritual paraphernalia

The building in which Santería's rituals are carried out is known as the casa templo ("house of worship"),[143] casa de santos ("house of saints"),[144] casa de religión ("house of religion"),[145] or ilé.[146] These casas are usually the personal home of a santero or santera.[130] The casa will typically have an igbodu ("sacred grove of the festival"), an inner room where the most important rituals take place.[147] There will also be an eyá aránla or sala, often a living room, where semi-private rites can be conducted.[147] Another space, the iban balo, or patio, will be used for public occasions, as well as for the cultivation of plants and the housing of animals due to be sacrificed.[147] Along with spaces to perform ceremonies, the casa will typically include a place to store ritual paraphernalia, kitchen facilities, and space for visiting practitioners to sleep.[130]

In Santería, the concept of the casa ("house") refers not only to the physical building in which ceremonies take place, but also the community of practitioners who meet there.[130] In this sense, many casa trace a lineage back to the nineteenth century, with many santeros and santeras capable of listing the many practitioners who have been initiated into that casa over the decades.[130] In some ceremonies, the names of these individuals, who are regarded as the ancestors of the house, are recited in chronological order.[148]

Most casa are established by a santero or santera who has attracted a following.[149] Those apprentices who follow these initiates are known as their ahijado (godson) or ahijada (goddaughter).[150] They refer to their santero/santera as padrino (godfather) or madrina (godmother).[151] The relationship between santeros/santeras and their 'godchildren' is central to the religion's social organization.[149] The 'godchildren' are expected to contribute both their labor and finances to religious events held at the casa and in return the santero/santera provides assistance for their needs.[149] Within the religion, offending one's godparent is regarded as also offending the oricha that "rules the head."[95] There are nevertheless cases where an initiate falls out with their godparent.[152]

Different casa are largely autonomous, allowing for variation in their ritual practices.[153] There is nevertheless often interaction between the members of different casas.[125] In Cuba, it is common for Santería practitioners to meet with each other regularly,[154] and to regard each other as being akin to a family:[155] the familia de santo.[156] Conversely, in an area like Veracruz in Mexico, many practitioners attend group rituals and then leave, sometimes never seeing their co-practitioners again.[154] A ritual greeting, known as a moforibale, involves lying on the ground and bowing one's head to the floor.[157] The precise form of the moforibale differs depending on whether the individual's personal oricha is male or female.[158] It is performed at various points as a means of expressing respect, often in front of the altar;[159] all practitioners prostrate themselves in this way before the oricha.[160]

Shrines and otanes

An outdoor Cuban altar photographed in 2015
An outdoor Cuban altar photographed in 2015

The igbodu within the casa will typically contain an altar,[161] while individual practitioners will also often have altars to specific oricha in their own homes.[162] Specific items will be placed on the altar that have particular relevance to the oricha it is devoted to.[162] Sacred objects used in Santería are known as fundamentos (foundations);[163] any ritual paraphernalia that is not anointed through the bautismo rite is referred to as judia (Jewish).[164] Necklaces known as collares, representing various oricha, are often placed on the altar.[165] Various artefacts might be selected to represent the oricha; the anthropologist Ysamur Flores found Chinese Taoist figurines being used to represent the oricha on one Cuban altar.[166] A particularly ornate altar used in the ceremonial space is known as a trono ("throne").[167] In an igbodu there is a display of three distinct thrones (draped with royal blue, white, and red satin) that represent the seats of the queens, kings, and the deified warriors.[168] Here, food is often placed as an offering.[169]

Also typically placed on the altar are the sopera porcelain vessels, often tureens, which contain various sacred items, most notably the otán stones (pl. otanes).[170] The otán stones are regarded as both containing and representing the oricha;[171] they have been described as the "primary representation" of the oricha in Santería.[82] They are therefore understood as being alive.[172] Many of the stones will have been collected from the landscape and then divination used to determine which ones contain an oricha and, if so, which oricha it is.[173] Specific otanes sometimes display traits linking them to particular oricha; for example ocean stones are linked with Yemaya, river pebbles with Oshun, and meteorite fragments with Chango.[45] Each oricha is deemed to prefer a particular color and number of otanes in sopera devoted to them; Chango has six or ten black stones, Obatala has eight white stones, while Ochun favors five yellow stones, for instance.[174] Many practitioners place great emphasis on the stones, perceived as being sources of power, something linked to aché.[164] Adherents believe that older stones have more aché than younger ones.[175] Some of the most powerful stones are claimed to have been brought to Cuba from Africa by enslaved persons who concealed them within their stomachs during the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.[164]

A sopera containing otán stones associated with the oricha Yemaya, who is associated with the sea; other items associated with her decorate this altar
A sopera containing otán stones associated with the oricha Yemaya, who is associated with the sea; other items associated with her decorate this altar

The otanes undergo a bautismo (baptism) rite;[164] this allows them to be "born" and involves the being washed in osain, a mixture of herbs and water, after which they are "fed" with animal blood.[175] When a santero or santera receives their stones, they take an oath to protect them at all times and to feed them at least annually.[164] By feeding them, initiates believe that the stones gain the strength to aid people.[107] Also placed within the sopera, alongside the otanes, are a series of cowrie shells; usually 18 are added although the precise number differs depending on which oricha the sopera is devoted to.[175]

In addition to their altar to the oricha, many practitioners also have altars set aside for the spirits of the dead.[176] Such altars typically consist of a white-covered table known as a bóveda,[177] something derived from the White Table of Kardecian Spiritism.[178] These often contain photographs of deceased relatives as well as offerings placed to them.[165] Popular offerings for the spirits of the dead include seven glasses of water,[105] a Cafecito coffee,[179] and the aguardiente liquor.[180] Many practitioners will also enshrine their family ancestors on the floor of the bathroom, under the sink. This location is chosen so that the ancestors are located below the vertical water pipes, allowing the spirits to transition between the realms via water, which is their preferred medium for travel.[178]

Offerings and animal sacrifice

In Santería, offerings to the oricha are referred to as ebbó[181] or ébo.[182] These can consist of fruit, flowers, candles, or animals;[183] Santería thus entails animal sacrifice, an act known as matanza.[184] Initiates are expected to make a sacrifice on a regular basis, and at least once a year.[185] Sometimes, divination is used to determine when a sacrifice should take place.[186] The sacrifice is an offering to the deity; blood is regarded as the food of the oricha.[187] Birds are commonly used for the ritual, including guinea fowl, chickens, and doves. Methods of killing include having their throats slit or their heads twisted and ripped off.[188] Mason recounted a sacrifice as part of an initiaton whereby a chick was slammed against a sink to kill it.[189] In more serious situations, four-legged animals are sacrificed;[60] this includes dogs.[190] Once killed, the animal's severed heads may be placed on top of the vessels containing objects associated with the oricha to which the sacrifice has been directed.[191] After the animal's carcass has been butchered, some of the organs may be cooked and then offered to the oricha.[191]

A chicken being sacrificed at a 2017 Santería ritual in Havana
A chicken being sacrificed at a 2017 Santería ritual in Havana

Practitioners typically believe that by killing an animal in this fashion, its lifeforce is directly transferred to the oricha, thereby strengthening the latter's aché.[192] An animal that struggles to avoid being killed is sometimes understood as having particular strength which will then pass to the oricha.[192] Some practitioners have explained that animal sacrifice is used as an acceptable substitute to human sacrifice.[27] When a sacrifice is made, some of the blood may be mixed with herbs and added to that from previous years. This liquid is called omiero, and is regarded as the most powerful liquid in Santería.[193] This liquid is used for removing malevolent influences, in ceremonies for baptising ritual tools, and for washing the hands of the matador before they carry out a sacrifice.[193]

Santería's animal sacrifice has been a cause of concern for many non-practitioners,[194] and has brought adherents into confrontation with the law.[195] In the U.S., various casas were raided by police and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, leading to groups being more secretive about when their rituals were scheduled.[195] In 1993, the issue of animal sacrifice in Santería was taken to the Supreme Court of the United States in the case of Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah. The court ruled that animal cruelty laws targeted specifically at Santería were unconstitutional.[194][196] In 2009, legal and religious issues that related to animal sacrifice, animal rights, and freedom of religion were taken to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in the case of Jose Merced, President Templo Yoruba Omo Orisha Texas, Inc., v. City of Euless. The court ruled that the city of Euless, Texas was interfering in Merced's right to religious freedom by preventing him from sacrificing animals.[197][198]

Practitioners will often conduct an ébo with the hope of receiving something in return from the oricha. If this fails to materialise, practitioners may resort to several explanations: that the details of the ritual were incorrect, that the priest or priestess carrying out the rite lacked sufficient aché, or thta the wrong ébo was carried out for the situation.[199]


An initiate with ceremonial material in Havana
An initiate with ceremonial material in Havana

Being initiated is known as kariocha,[200] "making ocha",[201] or "making santo".[202] A charge is usually levied for initiation;[203] this varies depending on the status of the practitioner and the wealth of the client,[204] although is typically seen as expensive.[205] In Cuba, it is often the equivalent of a year's wage,[205] or more.[163] In the 1990s, an initiation in Cuba cost roughly US$500 for Cuban nationals and between US$2-3000 for foreigners.[204] In the United States, an initiation was reported as costing as much as $10,000 in 1989,[203] and between $15,000 and $20,000 in 2001, again being close to the average annual wage.[205] This is in keeping with the broader place of financial exchange within the religion; Hagedorn noted that "everything in Santería costs money".[204]

The Santería initiation ceremony derives from that found in Yoruba traditional religion although is almost always carried out for adults, whereas among the Yoruba initiation can often also involve children.[206] Each initiation varies in its details,[207] although practitioners often try to ensure a veil of secrecy around the process, ensuring that the precise details are not discovered by non-initiates.[208] The initiate is known as an iyawó,[209] a term meaning both "slave of the oricha" and "bride of the oricha";[210] at this point, they may still be referred to as an aleyo ("stranger"), meaning a non-initiate.[211] As well as the santero or santera overseeing the initiation ceremony, the event may be attended by an oyubona ("one who witnesses"), who acts as a secondary godparent to the new initiate.[212]

Stages of initiation

The process of initiation takes place over seven days,[213] with an additional two days of preparatory rituals.[163] Before the main seven-day ceremony, usually two days before, a misa espiritual will often take place to gain the blessings of the ancestral egun. During this ritual, it is common for the egun to be invited to possess the initiate.[214] One day before the main events, an ebó de entrada ("opening sacrifice") often takes place, with sacrifices being made to either the oricha or the egun.[214] Next comes the ceremonia del río (ceremony of the initiate), which involves the oyubona and the initiate. It entails honey and the ochinchín omelette being offered to the oricha Ochún, with the oyubona then engaging in divination to determine if Ochún has accepted the sacrifice.[215] In the rompimiento (breaking), the oyubona then takes the initiate to a river. There, the initiate has their clothing ripped off of them before they are washed in the river water, used both as a purification and to gain Ochún's blessing.[216]

A Santería shrine in Trinidad, Cuba
A Santería shrine in Trinidad, Cuba

The rest of the initiation takes place in the igbodu, or inner sanctum of the casa.[147] The igbodu would have been ritually cleansed for the ceremony, having palm fronds hung from the door frame to deter bad influences and a white sheet stretched across the threshold.[147] For the rest of the seven days, the initiate is expected to remain here, sleeping upon a mat on the floor.[217] No one who is not directly involved in the initiation ceremonies is permitted entry.[217] During the prendición (pinning) ritual, a heavy necklace known as the collar de mazo is placed on the initiate.[218] Also taking place here is the lavatorio ("washing");[219] the santero/santera overseeing the procedure washes the initiate in omiero, a type of sacred water that has been infused with various herbs.[220] This is done to rid the initiate of malevolent or harmful spirits of the dead which might have attached themselves.[60] The initiate's head usually receives most attention in this washing;[221] often, their hair will be shaved off.[222] This cleansing of the head is known as the rogación de cabeza.[223]

The new initiate is given beaded necklaces, known as elekes,[224] ilekes,[223] or collares.[225] Historically, many casas maintained that only women should be involved in making the elekes, although this is not universally observed.[126] The necklace will be consecrated using a mix of herbal waters and the blood of sacrificed animals and after that it will be placed around the initiate' neck, at which they will again have their head bathed.[101] Initiates often receive the necklaces of the five most powerful and popular oricha.[101] Each of these necklaces is given a different color associated with a specific deity;[226] those associated with Eleguá are for instance often black and red.[227] As a santero gains further initiations within the Santería system, they receive another collare.[226] Along with the collares, the religion also features colored bracelets known as idés.[228] The wearing of beaded jewellery is seen as keeping the protective power of the oricha close to the practitioner's body.[193] The elekes serve as the sacred banners for the oricha and act as a sign of their presence and protection; however, it must never be worn during a woman's menstruation period, nor during sex, nor when bathing.[229]

As well as the necklaces, the initiate will also receive their own sacred stones.[230] An additional ritual, known as "receiving the warriors", is a ritual where the initiated receives objects from their padrino that represents the warriors; iron tools to represent Ogún; an iron bow and arrow to represent Ochosi; and an iron or silver chalice surmounted by a rooster to represent Osún.[231] At some point during the week, and usually on the third day, the initiate will undergo the itá, a session with a diviner in which the latter will inform them about their strengths, weaknesses, and taboos that they should observe.[232] This is known as the día del itá ("day of history").[233] At this point, the initiate's Lucumí ritual name will be revealed by the diviner;[234] this is a praise name of the oricha which rules their head.[230] It will often incorporate elements which indicate the initiate's tutelary oricha; devotees of Yemajá for instance usually include omí ("water") in their name, while those of Changó often have obá ("king").[235] The diviner's predictions are transcribed in a book, la libreta de itá, which the initiate is expected to keep for the rest of their life.[98] This day also involves the nangareo, an offering of food to Olorun the creator deity.[233]

A cult space for Santería ceremonies in Havana
A cult space for Santería ceremonies in Havana

This next ritual is known as the asiento (seating),[36] or the coronación (coronation),[236] and it is believed that it marks the point when the aché of the tutelary oricha which "rules their head" is literally placed inside the initiate's cranium.[88] The otánes of various oricha are placed to the head of the initiate, culminating in those of their own tutelary oricha.[237] Sometimes, the initiate then feels that they are being possessed by the latter oricha at this point.[238] Some practitioners will make a cruciform incision into the crown of the initiate's head to better facilitate the oricha's penetration;[239] in some cases, small incisions will also have been made on the initiate's tongue to ensure that the oricha will descend into them with the "gift of speech".[240] After this point, practitioners believe that the oricha literally lives within the initiate's head,[241] forming a binding relationship between the two.[36]

A matanza animal sacrifice usually follows, designed to feed all of the major oricha.[242] At least five four-legged animals are usually killed at this point, often accompanied by 25 birds.[243] The initiator may wipe a live chicken over the body of the initiate before killing it. A series of additional birds may then be brought out and killed in the same manner, their carcasses placed next to images of the oricha.[244] The initiate then performs the moforiba by lying on the ground as a sign of respect to the oricha that they have received.[244] Then they rise and are welcomed by their godparent, reflecting that they are now part of their casa.[184] At this point, their relationship becomes that of a godson/mother to a godson/daughter.[245]

The following day is el Día del Medio ("the middle day") and is one of public celebration at the initiation.[246] The initiate is dressed in clothing of the colors associated with their tutelary oricha; this clothing will only ever be worn again when the initiate is buried.[240] They then sit on a throne adjacent to the tureens containing the otánes of their oricha.[240] Guests, who may include the initiate's family and friends, visit them to pay homage.[247] A drumming ceremony takes place, after which the assembled individuals feast on meat from animals killed the day before;[247] it is believed this food is full of aché.[240] On the seventh day of the initiation, which is usually a market or church day in Cuba, the new initiate leaves the casa, dressed in white and with their head covered. The oyugboda takes them to the marketplace, or (if outside Cuba) sometimes to a store run by a sympathizer. There, the oyugboda makes small offerings of food to Eleguá in the four corners of the market. The new initiate is expected to steal something small, which will also be an offering to Eleguá.[248] The duo should then proceed to a Roman Catholic church, where they will light a candle for the new initiate.[248]


The new initiate can finally take their tureen containing their otanes back to their home.[98] They may then undergo a year-long period known as the iyaworaje ("journey of the iyawo") during which they are expected to observe various restrictions.[249] The nature of these restrictions depends on the initiate's tutelary oricha.[98] For instance, Hagedorn related that after her initiation into a Cuban casa, her initiator required her to sleep and eat on the floor for three months, abstain from sexual intercourse for 16 days, and both wear only white and not cut her hair for a year.[250] These actions help to display the initiate's commitment to the religion and demarcate them from non-initiates.[250] At the end of the year, the initiate conducts a ceremony known as ebó del año.[251] It is only once this is done that they are allowed to lead many rituals and to be involved in the initiation of new converts.[251]

The annual celebration of one's initiation into the religion is known as the cumpleaños de santo ("birthday in the saint").[252] As an initiate becomes more deeply involved in the religion, they learn about each of the different deities and make offerings to each of them in exchange for spiritual blessings and aché.[226] They are expected to familiarise themselves with various herbs and their different associations and uses.[193] Santeros and santeras often emphasise this teaching in a non-verbal manner, encouraging their initiate to learn through taking part in the ritual activities.[253] As they gain more knowledge, the initiate is referred to as a serio ("serious"), indicating their greater commitment to the religion.[253]

Toque de santo

Drummers at a Santería ceremony in Havana in 2017
Drummers at a Santería ceremony in Havana in 2017

The main public ritual performance in Santería is a drumming ceremony known as toque de santo,[254] sometimes also called a tambor.[255] Many practitioners consider it to be the religion's most powerful ceremony.[256] The term toque refers to both the verb tocar ("to play") as well as the noun toque ("rhythm").[256] The toque de santo is usually seen as an offering to the oricha, and practitioners may organize one to gain a particular favor from these deities.[94] The toque may last for several hours, although can be shorter than this.[257] The goal of the rhythms and songs is to summon the oricha to earth;[94] it is the collective energy built up by the group that is believed to be necessary in achieving this.[258] In turn, the oricha are believed capable of soothing the grieving, healing the sick, blessing the deserving, and rebuking those who have behaved badly.[94]


The toque de santo is marked out by its use of double-headed drums called batá,[259] which is sometimes regarded as the central symbol of Santería.[260] There are multiple types of batá: the iyá is the largest, the itótele is smaller, and the okónkolo is the smallest.[261] For ceremonial purposes, these drums must be made from wood, with no metal structural elements; adding metal elements could offend Chango, who is associated with wooden artefacts, because of their association with his enemy, Ogun.[86] They may however have brass bells, known as chaworo, affixed to their rim; these bells are associated with Ochún.[262] Before they are used in ceremonies, these drums are typically baptized, after which they are referred to as a tambor de fundamento.[263] This process includes washing the drums in omiero and making sacrifices to Osain.[264] It also included the addition of an afoubo, a small leather bag containing items including a parrot feather and glass beads, to the interior of the drum.[264]

Several types of batá drum, which are used in the toque de santo ritual
Several types of batá drum, which are used in the toque de santo ritual

Practitioners believe that the consecrated batá drums contain a sacred inner substance known as añá.[265] This añá is perceived as an avatar of Ochún.[262] Many drummers avoid referring to the añá in public and may not refer to it by name.[262] Drums which have not been consecrated are not believed to contain añá, and are called tambores judìos ('Jewish drums');[266] a term which Hagedorn attributed to the historic antisemitism of Cuban culture.[86] Each oricha is associated with its own rhythms, which can be played on the drums.[267] Some of the rhythms played on the drums are associated either with a certain group of oricha or all of the oricha.[268]

Those playing the batá are referred to as batáleros.[269] Santería drumming is male dominated;[270] Hagedorn observed that this drum culture was "pervasively macho".[271] Women are discouraged from playing the batá during ceremonies,[272] as it is feared that their menstrual blood would weaken the añá of the drum.[271] Many practitioners believe that the women will be rendered infertile if they do so.[273] Many groups also argue that the men playing these drums must be heterosexual.[264] Hagedorn noted that, during the 1990s, some female practitioners in the United States had started playing the batá at ceremonies, in contradiction with the older taboo.[274]

Singing and dancing

A dance dedicated to the oricha Oshun recorded in Santiago de Cuba in 2013

At these ceremonies, praise songs for the oricha are sung.[275] Each oricha is associated with their own specific songs.[267] The lead singer at such ceremonies is known as an akpwón.[276] Hagedorn characterized the akpwón as a "religious mediator" whose role was to focus on bringing down the oricha.[113] During the opening verse of the song, the akpwón may break into a personal prayer.[277] The akpwón can switch from song to song quickly, with the drummers having to adapt their rhythm accordingly.[111] A chorus of singers will respond to the akpwón, often while swaying back and forth.[113] These choral responses may split into a two or three-part harmony.[277]

Each of the oricha is associated with a particular dance.[267] The dances at the toque de santo are believed to generate aché, strengthening the link between the realms of the oricha and humanity.[258] Dancing either alone or first in front of the drums at the toque de santo is considered a privilege and is usually reserved for the most experienced initiate present.[278] There are specific rules of engagement that are laid out for taking part in the toque de santo.[94] Dancing poorly in the toque de santo is considered an insult to the oricha.[258]


Possession plays an important part in Santería,[88] and the purpose of the toque de santo is to call down an oricha to possess one of the participants.[279] Those possessed may then display gestures that are associated with a particular oricha.[280] For instance, those believing themselves possessed by Ochun may wipe their skirt over other people, representing the waves of the ocean, while those regarding themselves as being possessed by Eleguá may steal items such as hats or jewellery from assembled participants.[281]

During the possession, the possessed individual is referred to as the "horse", with the oricha having "mounted" them.[282] According to practitioners, becoming possessed by an oricha requires an individual giving up their consciousness to the deity.[283] Some have stated that reaching the mental state whereby an individual can become possessed takes much practice.[283] Once an individual is possessed, they may be taken into an adjacent room where they are dressed in the ritual clothing pertaining to the possessing oricha, after which they are returned to the main room.[284] Sometimes a possessed person will reprimand others present, for instance for failing to carry out their ritual obligations, or warn them of something.[97] Possession permits practitioners the opportunity to interact directly with their deity.[97]

Toque de santo are rarely documented with photographs or through audio or visual recording because the religion's practitioners often regard such recordings as being offensive or sacrilegious.[285] However, the toque is also often performed for entertainment purposes, outside of the ritual environment; Hagedorn referred to these non-religious toques as "folkloric performances".[286] These may be performed much the same as those performed at Santería rituals, although will not be conducted with the intent of calling down the oricha.[287] Some drumming groups who perform toque at both religious and non-religious events may omit certain parts from the latter to distinguish them from the former.[288] There have also been cases whereby those attending non-religious toques have still felt themselves to be possessed by an oricha.[289] Various innovations devised for non-religious toques have subsequently filtered back into the performance of Santería rites.[290]

Healing practices

Santeria goods for sale in Havana.
Santeria goods for sale in Havana.

Healing remains an important practice in Santería,[291] with those who engage in healing practices sometimes being termed curanderos,[292] or osainistas.[293] Practitioners believe that there are supernatural factors that cause or exacerbate human ailments.[123] For instance, it is believed that if an oricha is angered it can cause harm to a person until propitiated to stop;[294] it is also believed that a spirit can attach itself to an individual and cause them harm that way.[294] Adherents also often believe that humans can cause one another through supernatural means, either involuntarily, by giving them the evil eye, or deliberately, through the use of brujería (witchcraft).[294]

Herbalism is a major component of Santería healing practices,[295] with plants having an important role in the religion.[296] Practitioners believe that each species of plant has its own aché and that it is this which holds healing power.[115] In Lucumi, such plants are called egwe, a term deriving from the Yoruba word ewe.[115] Practitioners often believe that medicinal plants are more powerful if harvested from the wild rather than being cultivated, for the latter can lack aché.[115] They often also believe that different types of plant have different temperaments and personalities; some are shy or easily frightened and thus need to be approached with the appropriate etiquette.[115] The santero/santera may also prescribe omiero, the infusion of herbs in water which practitioners believe has healing properties.[295] Aside from the use of herbs and divination, Santería traditional healing rituals include animal sacrifice, offerings, altar building, music, dance, and possession trance.[297] Practitioners also believe that certain oricha should be turned to assist the healing of specific ailments; Ochun is for instance usually requested when dealing with genital problems.[123]

Clients meet with santeros or santeras who provide healing treatments.[298] Particular focuses of Santería healing include issues of female reproduction, skin complaints, gastrointestinal and respiratory problems, and sexually transmitted infections such as syphilis and gonorrhoea.[299] Other practitioners have provided concoctions designed to induce abortion.[299] Many santeros and santeros oversee a healing ritual called the santiguo meaning "to bless" or "to heal by blessing"; this is particularly used for children.[295] People who are sick may undergo the rogación de la cabeza (blessing of the head) ritual, in which coconut water and cotton are applied on the head. Practitioners believe that in doing so, they are feeding the head, in which the orí resides.[300] Many practitioners will encourage their clients to seek mainstream medical assistance, either from doctors or psychotherapists, for their problems, arguing that their own techniques should be complementary rather than exclusive.[301]


Divination is a central aspect of Santería ritual,[302] taking place before all major rites and being utilized by devotees at critical moments of their life.[178] Three main divinatory techniques are employed in the religion: Obi, dilogún, and Ifá.[303] Highly skilled diviners are known as oríate,[304] or as italeros.[305] Clients will approach these diviners for a divinatory session, referred to as a consulta (consultation).[306] Some work every day as an oríate.[307] The client will pay the diviner for their services, with the fee referred to as a derecho.[308] Attending a divination ritual in this way is commonly the first time that an individual encounters Santería so directly.[309] During the session, an image of the overseeing oricha is often brought out and offerings of food placed before it.[169] The diviner will then cast small objects onto a board or table and draw interpretations based on the way in which they fall.[169] The diviner asks the client various questions and then seeks to answer them by making multiple throws.[310] The diviner will ultimately determine which oricha will assist the client in dealing with their problems and outline what sacrifices will be appropriate to secure the aid of said oricha.[311]

A Cuban santero in Havana engaging in a form of divination
A Cuban santero in Havana engaging in a form of divination

Obi, which is also known as Biagué, involves the casting of four pieces of a dried coconut shell, with the manner in which they fall being used to fathom an answer to a particular question.[312] Any practitioner can utilise this divinatory technique,[178] which is also utilised by adherents of Palo Monte.[312] Dilogún entails the casting of cowrie shells,[313] and is considered more complex in that it requires a knowledge of the patakie stories.[312] Dilogún typically entails the use of a set of 21 cowrie shells, filed flat on their round side; these are fed with both omiero and blood.[314] Like Obi, dilogún is generally seen as being open to all practitioners of Santería,[178] although some groups hold that only postmenopausal women should hold the role of italeras, a diviner who uses the shells.[126]

Santería involves the use of the Ifá divination system,[315] which is often understood as the most complex and prestigious form of divination used in the religion.[178] The two are closely linked, sharing the same mythology and conception of the universe,[22] although Ifá also has a separate existence from Santería.[316] High priests of Ifá are known as babalawos and although their presence is not essential to Santería ceremonies, they often attend in their capacity as diviners.[317] In Cuba, many individuals are both santeros and babalawos,[27] although it is not uncommon for babalawos to perceive themselves as being superior to most santeros.[318] Unlike the more open policy for Santería initiates, only heterosexual men are traditionally allowed to become babalawos,[319] although homosexual male babalawos have been recorded both in Cuba and the U.S.[126] Women are prohibited from taking on the role,[223] a restriction explained through the story that the oricha Orula was furious that Yemaya, his wife, had used his tabla divining board and subsequently decided to ban women from ever touching it again.[320] Initiation as a babalawo requires a payment to the initiator and is typically regarded as highly expensive.[321]

The oricha of Ifá, Orula or Ọ̀rúnmila, also has a prominent place within Santería.[316] Orula is believed to oversee divination; once an individual is initiated as a babalawo they are given a pot containing various items, including palm nuts, which is believed to be the literal embodiment of Orula.[322] Babalawos provide ebbó offerings to Orula, including animal sacrifices and gifts of money.[323] In Cuba, Ifá typically involves the casting of consecrated palm nuts to answer a specific question. The babalawo then interprets the message of the nuts depending on how they have fallen; there are 256 possible configurations in the Ifá system, which the babalawo is expected to have memorised.[324] Individuals approach the babalawo seeking guidance, often on financial matters, at which the diviner will consult Orula through the established divinatory method.[325] In turn, those visiting the babalawos pay them for their services.[326]

Charms and amulets

Protective charms, known as resguardo, are created using herbs and blood. They are created while in contact with the sacred stones, from which they are believed to gain invisible fluid.[193] The rituals for self-protection have also resulted in Santería being adopted by various groups involved in narcotics trafficking within the U.S.[126]

Espiritismo and the dead

In Santería, funeral rites are called itulu,[178] and are designed to appease the soul of the deceased.[178] As part of this, a funeral mass is held in a Roman Catholic church nine days after the individual has died to ensure that their soul successfully travels to the realm of the spirits.[178] This is followed by a year of additional rites for the deceased individual.[178] This period is then ended with the levantamiento de platos, the breaking of a dish, to symbolise the final departure of the deceased from the realm of the living.[178]

Santería is often intertwined with Espiritismo, a Puerto Rican tradition;[327] this is particularly the case in areas such as New York and New Jersey.[328] This has resulted in references to "Santerismo" as a blend between the two traditions.[328] Various santeros or santeras are believed to have the power to communicate with spirits.[329] Some practitioners whose approach to Santería is influenced by Espiritismo also create cloth dolls for deceased family members and spirit guides.[330] In these instances, the spirit is believed to enter and inhabit the doll;[331] some practitioners state that they can see the spirit within the doll.[332] Sometimes the clothing on these dolls is changed to please the inhabiting spirit,[331] while offerings, such as glasses of water or fruit, are placed before them.[333] These spirit dolls may also be passed down through the generations in a single family.[334]

Parties for the oricha are called güemilere.[335] Some practitioners also engage in seances to communicate with the spirits of the dead, known as misas espirituales ("spiritual masses") which are led by mortevas ("deaders") who are usually women.[105] These are a practice adopted from Espiritismo.[102] They are often included as a part of both initiation and funerary rites.[102]


Enslavement: 1511–1886

Cuba, the Caribbean island from which Santería originates
Cuba, the Caribbean island from which Santería originates

After the Spanish Empire conquered Cuba, the island's indigenous Arawak and Taino people were soon annihilated.[336] The Spanish colonialists established sugar, tobacco, and coffee plantations on Cuba and turned to the purchase of enslaved people sold at West African ports as a new source of labor for these plantations.[336] Enslaved Africans first arrived in Cuba in 1511.[336] Once in Cuba, the enslaved Africans were divided into groups termed naciones (nations), often based on their West African port of embarkation rather than their own ethno-cultural background.[337]

In Spanish Cuba, Roman Catholicism was the only religion that could be practiced legally.[338] The Roman Catholic Church in Cuba made efforts to convert the enslaved Africans to their religion, but the instruction in Roman Catholicism often provided to the latter was typically perfunctory and sporadic.[337] Many Spanish slave-owners were uninterested in having their slaves receive Christian instruction, concerned that allowing the slaves to observe religious holidays or Sunday services would be detrimental to productivity.[337] Most Roman Catholic priests were located in urban areas, away from the majority of the enslaved population who worked on rural plantations.[337]

Most of the enslaved Africans who arrived in Cuba did so in the 19th century.[339] Most of these individuals came from an area of Western Africa stretching between the modern nation-states of Guinea and Angola.[339] The great plurality of them were Yoruba, from the area encompassed by the modern states of Nigeria and Benin.[54] In West Africa, a complex system of belief and ritual, now known as Yoruba traditional religion, had developed among the Yoruba city-states.[340] Much orisha worship was rooted in localised tradition, however certain other orisha were worshipped widely, due in part due to extent and influence of the Oyo Empire.[340] These enslaved West Africans brought their traditional religion with them to Cuba.[54] Many of the Yoruba who were captured, enslaved, and brought to Cuba were members of the priestly class and brought with them knowledge of traditions such as Ifá.[340]

These traditions then had to adapt to meet the new social conditions of the enslaved population.[54] While hundreds of orisha were worshipped across West Africa, fewer than twenty came to play a prominent role in Santería; this may be because many or the orisha were rooted in kin-based cults and thus were lost when traditional kinship networks and families were destroyed through the process of enslavement.[341] Oricha who were associated with the protection of agriculture also ceased to remain part of practices in Cuba, probably because the enslaved Afro-Cubans had little reason to protect the harvests owned by the slave-owners.[50] Many of the myths associated with the oricha were transformed in Cuba, creating kinship relationships between different oricha which were not present in traditional West African mythologies.[64] Over time, the imported traditional African religions transformed into Santería,[54] a Cuban tradition that was evident by the end of the 19th century.[256]

In Cuba, traditional African religions continued to be practiced within clubs and fraternal organizations made up of African migrants and their descendants.[342] The most important of these were the cabildos de nación, associations modelled on Europe's cofradias which were sponsored by the Church and which the establishment regarded as a means of controlling the Afro-Cuban population.[343] These operated as mutual aid societies and organised communal feasts, dances, and carnivals.[342] Cuba's Roman Catholic Church saw these groups as a method for gradual evangelisation, through which they tolerated the practice of some African customs while stamping out those they most fiercely objected to.[342] It was within the cabildos that syncretism between Roman Catholicism and African traditional religions took place.[344] Members identified traditional African deities with Roman Catholic figures such as Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints, believing that these entities would assist people in their daily lives in return for offerings.[344]

From 1790, Cuba's government increased restrictions on the cabildos,[344] however during the nineteenth century their functions and membership expanded.[345] In 1882 a new regulation was passed requiring each cabildo to obtain a new license to operate each year, and in 1884 they were prohibited from practicing on Christmas Eve or January 6.[344] In 1888, the law forbade "old style" cabildos, after which many of these groups went underground, becoming some of the early casas de santo.[344] Over time, various individuals of non-African descent also converted to Santería.[346] Formally, these individuals were considered Roman Catholics, but their involvement in Roman Catholicism rarely extended beyond an initial baptism.[347]

Cuba's involvement in the Atlantic slave trade continued into the 1870s, after both the English-speaking Caribbean and the United States had abolished slavery.[347] The British Empire abolished slavery early in the 19th century and from the 1820s began patrolling the West African coast to prevent further shipments of slaves to the Americas. The trade nevertheless continued clandestinely, with Cuba continuing to receive new slaves until at least 1860.[336] Full emancipation of the slaves only occurred on the island in 1886.[348]

After enslavement: 1887–1959

After slavery was abolished in Cuba there was a renewed push for independence from the Spanish Empire, an idea promoted by Cuban nationalists who emphasized cultural assimilation of the island's various ethnic groups to create a united sense of 'Cuban-ness'.[349] While the country's Creole socio-economic elite sought to fuse different ethnic identities, they still expressed anxieties about the potential Africanisation of Cuba.[350] After independence, Afro-Cubans remained largely excluded from economic and political power.[350] Negative stereotypes about Afro-Cubans remained pervasive throughout the Euro-Cuban population.[351] Afro-Cuban religious practices were often referred to as brujería ('witchcraft') and linked to criminality in the popular imagination.[352]

Although religious freedom was enshrined in the Cuban constitution and Santería was never legislated against, throughout the first half of the twentieth century various campaigns were launched against it.[353] In 1876 a law was passed banning the Abakwá group, which had become widely associated with criminal activity.[354] These were often encouraged by the press, who promoted allegations that white children were being abducted and murdered in Santería rituals;[355] this reached a fever pitch in 1904 after two white children were murdered in Havana in cases that investigators speculated were linked to brujería.[356] The final decades of the 19th century had also seen growing interest in Spiritism, a religion based on the ideas of French writer Allan Kardec, which in Cuba proved particularly popular among the white peasantry, the Creole class, and the small urban middle-class.[357]

One of the first intellectuals to examine Santería was the lawyer and ethnographer Fernando Ortiz, who discussed it in his 1906 book Los negros brujos (The Black Witchdoctors).[358] He saw it as a barrier to the social integration of Afro-Cubans into broader Cuban society and recommended that it be suppressed.[359] In the 1920s, there were efforts to incorporate elements of Afro-Cuban culture into a broader understanding of Cuban culture, such as through the afrocubanismo literary and artistic movement. These often drew upon Afro-Cuban music, dance, and mythology, but typically rejected Santería rituals themselves.[360] In May 1936, Ortiz sponsored the first ethnographic conference on Santería music.[361] In 1942, Rómula Lachatañeré's Manuel de santería was published, representing the first scholarly attempt to understand Santería as a religion;[362] in contrast to Ortiz, he maintained that the tradition should be seen as a religious system as opposed to a form of witchcraft.[363] Lachatañeré was instrumental in promoting the term "Santería" in reference to the phenomenon, deeming it a more neutral description that the pejorative-laden terms such as brujería which were commonly used.[2]

In Marxist–Leninist Cuba: 1959–present

A statue of Santa Barbara on the wall of a home in Mantilla, Havana; this saint is often linked with the oricha Chango
A statue of Santa Barbara on the wall of a home in Mantilla, Havana; this saint is often linked with the oricha Chango

The Cuban Revolution of 1959 resulted in the island becoming a Marxist–Leninist state governed by Fidel Castro's Communist Party of Cuba. Much of the Afro-Cuban population was supportive of Castro's new administration, believing that they had the most to gain from the change.[364] This administration espoused an expressly anti-racist position while retaining previous governments' focus on cultural integration rather than stressing and encouraging cultural difference among Cuba's ethnic groups.[365] Castro's government saw any emphasis on a separate Afro-Cuban identity as being counter-revolutionary.[366] Like other Marxist–Leninist states, it was committed to state atheism and to the ultimate eradication of religion, resulting in the government taking a negative view of Santería.[367] Practitioners continued to experience police harassment through to the 1980s,[368] were denied membership of the Communist Party, and faced limited employment opportunities.[369] Santería practitioners required police permission to perform rituals, permission which was sometimes denied.[370]

In 1982, Cuba's government established the Departmento de Estudios Sociorreligiosos (Department of Socio-Religious Studies, DESR), which investigated Santería from a Marxist perspective, largely portraying the religion as a primitive survival of animism and magic.[366] The DESR research found that while Christianity had declined in Cuba since 1959, Santería had not. Partly this was because the increased employment among Cubans following the revolution had allowed more individuals to afford the initiation fees.[371] While taking a negative view of Santería, the state sought to adopt and promote many of the art forms associated with it in the hope of secularizing them and using them in the promotion of a unified Cuban identity.[366]

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, at which Cuba lost its main source of international support, Castro's government declared that the country was entering a "Special Period" in which new economic measures would be necessary. In these years it selectively supported various traditional Afro-Cuban customs and traditions and legalised certain Santería practices. These measures were partly linked to a desire to boost tourism,[372] with Santería-focused tourism being called santurismo.[373] Afro-Cuban floor shows became common in Cuban hotels.[368] Priests of Santería, Ifá, and Palo Monte all took part in government-sponsored tours for foreigners desiring initiation into such traditions.[368] In 1991, the Cuban Communist Party approved the admission of religious members,[364] and in 1992 the constitution was amended to declare Cuba a secular rather than an atheist state.[364] The government's move away from the state atheism it previously espoused allowed Santería to leave behind the marginalisation it had faced.[371]

Growing Yorubization and transnational activity

The Cuban Revolution generated an exodus of many Cubans, who settled in other parts of the Americas, especially the United States, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Colombia, and Venezuela.[54] Although initial waves of migrants were predominantly white and middle-class, by the Mariel boatlift exodus of the 1980s the migrants included larger numbers of Afro-Cubans.[374] With an increased Cuban presence in the U.S., Santería began to grow in many large U.S. cities, where it was embraced both by Latino Americans but also European Americans and African Americans.[135] For many African Americans, it was seen as a more authentically African religion than others available to them, especially when purged of European-derived Roman Catholic elements.[375] For some of these individuals, it became a religious wing of the Black Power movement.[124] During the mid-1960s, several African American practitioners established the Yoruba Temple of Harlem.[124]

A shop in Havana selling paraphernalia associated with Santería
A shop in Havana selling paraphernalia associated with Santería

In the second half of the twentieth century, there was a growing awareness among santeros/santeras of the trans-national links that their religion had with other orisha-worshipping belief systems in West Africa and the Americas. This was accompanied by growing contact with other orisha-worshippers elsewhere.[347] Collectively, these different movements were increasingly described as the "Orisha Tradition."[376] This process was partly influenced by the 1957 visit to Cuba of the French photographer and ethnographer Pierre Verger, who promoted a pan-Yoruba theology.[10] These transnational links were reinforced when the Ooni of Ife, a prominent Yoruba political and religious leader, visited Cuba in 1987.[9] Cuba's government permitted the formation of the Yoruba Cultural Association, a non-governmental organization, in the early 1990s.[371] In July 2003, Havana hosted the Eighth World Orisha Conference.[371] Various practitioners of Santería made visits to Nigeria to study traditional Yoruban religion there.[377]

The late twentieth century saw a growth in the yorubización ('Yorubization') of Santería, with attempts made to remove Roman Catholic elements from the religion and make it more closely resemble West African religion.[347] This process was promoted at the International Workshop of Yoruba Culture, which was held in Cuba in 1992.[9] Within Cuba, the Yorubization process was often attributed as reflecting the influence of practitioners in the United States.[378] Cuban cultural nationalists were critical of the Yorubization process, viewing Santería's syncretism as a positive trait and arguing that advocates of Yorubization presented homogenous societies as superior to heterogenous ones.[10] Many Santeros who opposed the reforms highlighted that even in West Africa, orisha-worship never foregrounded ideas of purity and exclusivity.[9] The head of the Roman Catholic Church in Cuba, Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, also opposed the Yorubization process, believing that the Roman Catholic elements of Santería were a positive influence within the religion.[379] The close of the twentieth century also saw adherents of Santería increasingly utilise the internet to promote the religion.[380]


Afro-Cuban drummers in Havana performing a toque based on those found in Santería
Afro-Cuban drummers in Havana performing a toque based on those found in Santería

Ascertaining the number of Santería practitioners is complicated by the fact that many individuals do not take part in its rituals but turn to its practitioners for assistance on matters of health and other practical issues.[381] Based on his ethnographic work in New York City during the 1980s, Gregory noted that he did not believe Santería could be seen as a "religion of the poor", observing a disproportionately high percentage of middle-class people such as teachers, social workers, and artists in the movement.[382] Some practitioners grow up in the religion, as the child of initiates, although others only approach the religion as an adult.[383]

Within Cuba, Santería is practiced in both rural and urban areas and has both Afro-Cuban and Euro-Cuban practitioners.[384] On the island, Santería is practiced primarily in the north-west provinces of Havana and Matanzas.[385] There are divergent opinions regarding how many people practice Afro-Cuban religions on the island.[386] In 1991, the Cuban anthropologist López Valdés suggested that about 90 percent of Cuba's population practiced some form of religion and that of that 90 percent, a greater number practiced one of the Afro-Cuban religions than "pure Catholicism".[387] Estimates have been made that, as of the early 21st century, around 8% of Cubans might be initiates of the religion.[383]

Through Cuban emigration to Mexico, Santería established a presence in Veracruz and Mexico City.[388] Among Mexican practitioners, there is a perception that initiates trained in Cuba were more "authentic".[389] Mexican practitioners tried to keep in contact with their Cuban co-religionists via mail and phone.[154] In various cases, initiates have been flown from Cuba to Mexico to perform specific rituals.[154] Cuban emigration also led to Santería establishing a presence in Puerto Rico and in Spain.[20]

Santería was present in the U.S. by the 1940s;[54] there are reports of people from the U.S. traveling to Cuba for initiation during the 1940s and 1950s.[346] However, Santería established a larger presence in the United States during the 1960s as growing numbers of Cuban migrants moved there in the wake of the Cuban Revolution.[390] There, it established a particular presence in Florida, California, New Jersey, and New York.[20] In the U.S., it attracted converts from both the African American and Hispanic American communities.[391] Samuel Gregory suggested that in the U.S., Santería practitioners were more visible than those of Haitian Vodou, in part due to the more insular nature of the Haitian diaspora in the country.[392] He noted that in New York City, the various casas differed in their ethnic makeup, with some houses consisting largely or entirely of Cuban, Puerto Rican, or African American members, and others being highly multi-ethnic.[130] One U.S. Santería group broke from the mainstream approaches to the religion by forming the American Yoruba Movement, based in North Carolina.[378] In the mid-1990s, Murphy suggested that there were hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. who had engaged in Santería in some form, often as clients.[393] In 2001, there were an estimated 22,000 practitioners in the U.S.[394]


The interior of the Templo Yemalla, a Santería temple in Trinidad, Cuba
The interior of the Templo Yemalla, a Santería temple in Trinidad, Cuba

By the late 1980s, Santería had received considerable interest from social scientists, health professionals, and established churches.[395] Some santeros and santeras have noted that they mistrusted academic researchers, and were thus either vague or deliberately misleading in their answers to the latter's questions.[396] The religion was also explored in other media; the Cuban filmmaker Gloria Rolando released the film Oggún in 1992.[397] Various songs have also made reference to Santeria, in particular the names of various oricha; the successful Cuban American singe Celia Cruz for example recorded a version of "Que viva Chango" ("Long Live Chango").[398]

Santería has often faced opposition. In Cuba, there has been much opposition from the Roman Catholic clerical establishment over the centuries.[399] When the International Afro-Caribbean Festival in Veracruz was launched in 1994, it showcased art and ritual by Mexican santeros, although this brought public protests from Catholic organisations, who regarded such rites as Satanic, and animal welfare groups who regarded the sacrifices as inhumane. The festival's organisers relented to the pressure, cutting the Santería elements of the festival by 1998.[400] Various practitioners have also found that their involvement in Santería has strained their relationship with spouses or other family members who are not involved.[95]

See also



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Shapiro Rok, Ester Rebeca (2001). "Santería as a Healing Practice in Diaspora Communities: My Cuban Jewish Journey with Oshun". In Margarite Fernández Olmos and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert (eds.). Healing Cultures: Art and Religion as Curative Practices in the Caribbean and its Diaspora. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 69–88. ISBN 978-0-312-21898-0.CS1 maint: uses editors parameter (link) CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Wedel, Johan (2004). Santería Healing: A Journey into the Afro-Cuban World of Divinities, Spirits, and Sorcery. Gainesville: University Press of Florida. ISBN 978-0-8130-2694-7.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Wexler, Anna (2001). "Dolls and Healing in a Santería House". In Margarite Fernández Olmos and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert (eds.). Healing Cultures: Art and Religion as Curative Practices in the Caribbean and its Diaspora. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 89–114. ISBN 978-0-312-21898-0.CS1 maint: uses editors parameter (link) CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Wirtz, Kristina (2007). "How Diasporic Religious Communities Remember: Learning to Speak the "Tongue of the Oricha" in Santería". American Ethnologist. 34 (1). pp. 108–126.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)

Further reading

Academic sources

Barnet, Miguel (1997). "La Regla de Ocha: The Religious System of Santería". In Fernández Olmos, Margarite; Paravisini-Gebert, Lizabeth (eds.). Sacred Possessions: Vodou, Santería, Obeah, and the Caribbean. Translated by Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. pp. 79–100. ISBN 978-0813523613.CS1 maint: uses editors parameter (link)
Brandon, George (1997). Santeria from Africa to the New World: The Dead Sell Memories. Indiana University Press. ISBN 978-0253211149.
O'Brien, David M. (2004). Animal Sacrifice and Religious Freedom: Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah. University Press of Kansas. ISBN 978-0700-61302-1.
Palmié, Stephan (2013). The Cooking of History: How Not to Study Afro-Cuban Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0226019567.
Pérez y Mena, Andrés I (February 2000). "Understanding Religiosity in Cuba". Journal of Hispanic/Latino Theology. 7 (3): 6–34.
Anthony M Stevens Arroyo and Andrés I Pérez y Mena, eds. (1995). Enigmatic Powers: Syncretism with African and Indigenous Peoples' Religions among Latinos. Bildner Center for Western Hemisphere Studies. ISBN 0-929972-11-2.CS1 maint: uses editors parameter (link)
Thompson, Robert Farris (1983). Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy. Random House. ISBN 978-0394-50515-2.

Primary sources

External links

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