Santeria is practiced throughout Latin America and in the United States, but Cuba is its birthplace. Slaves brought to Cuba from Nigeria and Benin mixed their Yoruba traditions with the Roman Catholicism of the Spanish plantation owners, according to the BBC. While the slave owners insisted that slaves convert to Catholicism, they did allow the slaves to meet in clubs, or cabildos, where they created the new religion that came to be called Santeria, or "veneration of the saints."
Santeria, also known as La Regla Lucumi and the Rule of Osha, according to the BBC, originated with the Yoruba people of West Africa. The Yoruba worshipped Olodumare, or God, and Orishas, the manifestations of God. When they were captured and brought to Cuba, the people tried to hold on to their African traditions and religion. By combining their worship of the Orishas with the Catholic veneration of the saints, they formed a new syncretic belief system. "Santeria is, at its heart, a multicultural religion," according to the Santeria Church of the Orishas website.
Community is central to Santeria. The religion was not intended to be simply a personal experience, but requires the community to work together with the common goal of spiritual growth. Santeria is an initiatory religion, according to the Santeria Church of the Orishas. Some followers, although not all, are chosen to be initiated into deeper levels of spiritual knowledge. The person must have godparents to guide him and a divination that shows initiation will benefit him, and he must pay the godparents a fee to offset the costs of the ceremony.
Initiation may also require a sacrifice. Ebo is the term for ritual sacrifice, or offering, in Santeria. The sacrifice might be fruit, cooked food, or an animal such as a chicken, rooster, goat or sheep. Animal sacrifice is a controversial aspect of Santeria. According to the Santeria Church of the Orishas, the sacrifice is not undertaken lightly. The animals are well cared for prior to the ceremony, and they are killed by cutting the carotid arteries, which causes the animal to lose consciousness and die in the same way animals are killed in Kosher and Halal ceremonies, which are practiced by some Jewish and Muslim believers. Santeria teaches the blood sacrifice signifies birth into new life.
Practitioners of Santeria believe in the Orishas, the manifestations of God who help them achieve their destinies, and the people keep the Orishas alive through their belief in them, according to the BBC. Some of the Orishas' identities are melded with Catholic saints, such as Our Lady of Charity, or Ochún, the Yoruba goddess of the river, and Saint Lazarus, Babalú-Ayé, who is called to help the sick. Other Orishas are firmly rooted in African traditions and have no corresponding Catholic saint. Santeria ceremonies call on the Orishas for help, and the ritual services include liturgies, singing and drumming.
- Martin Poole/Digital Vision/Getty Images