Just what *is* Santeria?....

History of Santeria
The Orishas

What is Santeria?

Just what is santeria? To many it is a cult of animal sacrificing,devilworshipping fanatics. This is how the media has portrayed this most misunderstood religion. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

In reality santeria is an old world religion rich in symbolism that contains a great deal of knowledge, power and beauty.It originally comes from Africa and more precisely the Yoruba people of what is now present day Nigeria. It is also one of the most magically powerful religions in existence today. We would strongly recommend santeria to anyone interested in engaging in the arts and looking for a spiritual religion with a heavy emphasis on participation.

Santeria is a Spanish term that roughly translated means "worship of the saints". There is a strong connection,if only on the surface, with Catholicism. It is a religion where the deities actually descend to earth to help and console their followers. In this respect it actually affords one the privilege of coming into contact with the divine.

Santeria is also a religion of initiation. One must pass through 3 different levels of initiation before one can be called a santero or priest in the religion. The deities or saints in santeria are called orishas. Just as in the catholic faith where there is one god with his emissaries the saints, so too does santeria have one god with his many orishas. The orishas cover every aspect of nature and human behavior and have distinct areas of control in those behaviors. There is also a detailed system of divination affording one the opportunity to confer directly with the orishas in all matters. These consultations are often performed by a babalawo or high priest in the religion.

The subject that has caused the most negative publicity about the religion is animal sacrifice. While it is true that on occasion animals,usually chickens, are sacrificed in a ceremony they are usually eaten by the santeros afterward.. These sacrifices are done on rare occasions only as the orishas would be angered if animals were killed indiscriminately. As santeria is a closed religion the santeros do not come forth to explain the need for animal sacrifices and thus the misconception is perpetuated. On the surface santeria has a seemingly strong connection with Catholicism due to the various images of the Catholic saints. These images are in part due to the history of santeria when the saints were actually the embodiment of the orishas. Those adept in the religion no longer have a need for this imagry.

All santeros are accomplished herbalist, as herbs and flowers make up the majority of ingredients used in magical rituals. The magic would fall under the term of sympathetic magic. The basic premise behind the undertaking of a magic spell is to gain the "ashe" or power of the saints to accomplish ones goal. Everything is based on ashe and the steps one takes to obtain it. Ashe is bestowed on mankind by God and it is the orishas who as the repositories of ashe transfer it to man.This involves a system of sacrifice or offering called ebbo. Here one would make an offering to the orisha in return for the orishas ashe used to solve a problem. Ebbo is also made to the orisha out of respect and love. Each orisha has many facets to his or her being. These are called caminos or paths the orisha takes. Aside from distinct human behaviors attributed to the orisha they also have various items and symbols that belong to them individually. Colors,numbers,herbs,foods and other items are claimed by each orisha as his or her own. So too is everyone claimed by an orisha. In santeria there is no such thing as a birth sign like Taurus or Leo. Everyone born falls under the protection of a certain orisha who claims that person as their own. It is that orisha who is your guardian angel and it is that orisha one receives when one becomes a santero. It is also interesting to note that in santeria there is no black or evil magic as we know it. This is not part of the Yoruba tradition. Any magic falling under the category of evil or black is the work of another tribe called the Bantus or Congos. This type of magic is called palo monte or palo mayombe.

History of Santeria
With the slave trade coming to the new world also came the orishas. The slaves brought with them their gods, customs, music,language and other traditions. These slaves were primarily concentrated in the Caribbean and in south America.The slaves were mostly from western Africa in what today we call Nigeria, and from a tribe called Yoruba. The Yoruba were named Lucumi in Cuba and Macumba in Brazil. Being slaves the Yoruba people were expected to adopt the customs and traditions of their Spanish masters. This involved not only the Spanish language but also Catholicism. This presented a problem to the Yoruba people who insisted on holding on to their traditions. It was this need to hold on to their traditions which became known as what we today call santeria. Being forced to convert to Catholicism forced the the Yoruba to worship catholic saints and a catholic God. It did not take long for the Yoruba to see the similarities between their orishas and the catholic saints. Soon the various orishas were assigned catholic saints to represent them. In this manner when their Spanish masters saw them worshipping say, St.Barbara they were secretly worshipping Chango,the god of thunder. Also the mixture of the Spanish and Yoruba languages is why today santeria is intermixed with both Spanish and African terminology. The language today has been corrupted in such a way as to not being actually either language and would not be identified as Yoruba in Africa. This need to disguise their orishas in the catholic faith is the primary reason why today santeria is ripe with images of catholic saints. When a santero is seen praying to an image of St. Anthony he is actually praying to the orisha which the image of St. Anthony embodies, that being Eleggua or the lord of the crossroads. The Yoruban pantheon is a complex system of the orishas and God. Each orisha,aside from their personal attributes, has their own legend into how they came to be. These legends are called Pataki. The stories serve to make the orisha more human to his followers and also serves to explain why each orisha is assigned the attributes that they are. These Pataki are a beautiful illustration into the culture of the Yoruba people and are rich in symbolism. The patakis tell of how the earth was created,how man came to be and of course how the orishas came into being as well.
While there are many orishas, 7 have gained the most worship and popularity. These are sometimes referred to as the 7 African powers or Siete Potencias. It is generally one of these orishas that one receives when one makes the saint or becomes a priest in the religion,a santero.

The Orishas
While there are many orishas some are more prominent than others in the religion. Each is assigned a particular behavior along with various items that are theirs and theirs alone. In order to accomplish something one needs to offer ebbo to the proper orisha in order to receive that orishas ashe.Also the orishas claim one at birth we do not claim the orishas. For the sake of illustration we can compare them to the catholic saints. Just as certain saints are endowed with certain powers or spheres of influence so to is it with the orisha.

Listed below are some of the more popular orishas along with their corresponding catholic saint,feast day,foods,herbs,attributes and area of influence.

Obatala-Catholic saint is Our Lady of Mercy.
Feast day is Sept. 24. His color is white, his number is 8 and his day of the week is Thursday. Obatala has 24 paths or caminos meaning he has 24 different attributes. His eleke(necklace) is usually made of all white beads. His foods include: all white foods,milk,rice pudding,she goats,doves and white hens. Obatala does not consume alcohol and his children are forbidden to partake of it. Some of Obatala’s herbs are: algodon,maravilla,bledo blanco,cebolla,almendro and tamarindo. Obatala rules all white things as well as the bones and a persons head. Mountains and hills also belong to him. According to legend Obatala was the first orisha created. He is the god of peace and purity and aids all heavy thinkers like doctors and lawyers.

Eleggua-Catholic saint is St. Anthony of Padua
Feast day June 13 or The Lonely Spirit(Anima Sola). Feast day Nov. 2. His colors are red and black,his number is 3 and 21, his day of the week is Monday. Eleggua has the most paths or caminos at 101. His eleke consist of red and black beads. His favorite foods are smoked fish,possum,toasted corn,palm oil,fruits and male chickens. He is especially partial to candies and cakes. Eleggua is also found of cigars and rum. Some of Elegguas herbs are:abre camino,lengua de vaca,pata de gallina,rompezaraguey and hedionda. Eleggua is the messenger of the gods and lord of all the crossroads. After Obatala he is the most powerful orisha. His blessing is required before any magic spell can be executed and he must also be fed or offered sacrifice before any other orisha. He is a master magician and his spells are impossible to break. He merits out justice as only he sees fit. He can also divine the future without the aid of any tools.Eleggua is especially found of children as he himself is often portrayed as a young boy himself. He carries with him many of the characteristics of a young boy in that he is found of playing tricks and is quite mischievous. Eleggua is usually represented as a stone head with eyes ears and mouth made out of cowrie shells and is usually kept behind the front door to guard the household. All the orishas need his permission in order to help any of their children or to carry out any of their magic.

Chango-Catholic saint is St. Barbara
Feast day is Dec.4. His colors are red and white and his numbers are 4 and six. Friday and the 4th of each month are sacred to Chango. Chango has many paths but 14 of them are the best known. His eleke consist of red and white beads. His favorite food is amala which is made with cornmeal and palm oil. Okra is also among his favorite as are bananas and apples. Among the animals sacred to Chango are roosters,rams,turkeys and turtles to name a few. He drinks dry red wine and despises cigars. Herbs belonging to Chango are:rosa de jerico,paraiso,quita caldicion,cedro,zarzaparilla and jobo to name a few. Chango rules over fire and thunder and lightning. He is a master dancer and could be considered the Casanova of the orishas. He is also a master drummer. He carries a mortar with him which is where he mixes his spells. The legend states that Chango traded the gift of divination which was his originally with Orunla whose gift was the gift of dance. Each orisha thought they got the better of the deal as they were both interested in what the other had. Chango is probably the most popular orisha no doubt due to his romantic and flamboyant nature. He embodies passion,virility and power. He also symbolizes war and dance. Chango is also the only orisha worshipped by the mayomberos or evil practitioners from the Congo. Chango is mostly used to dominate a person or overcome ones enemies.

Oggun-Catholic saint is St. Peter
Feast day is Jun. 29th.His colors are green and black and his days are Tuesday and Wednesdays and the 4th of each month. Oggun walks nine paths or caminos. His eleke consist of black and green beads. Among Ogguns favorite foods are:plantains,kola nuts,white beans,palm oil,smoked fish,roosters and toasted corn. His herbs include:pata de gallina,anamu,pimenta negra,gengibre,romerillo and adormidera to name a few.Oggun also enjoys rum and cigars. Oggun symbolizes raw energy,violence and brute force. He is the orisha of the working man.He lives in the woods which he owns and is constantly at war. He also works with iron. He is the brother of Chango,Eleggua and Ochosi and as brothers are prone to do they usually fight. Oggun is the patron orisha of policemen,farmers and surgeons. All metals come under his domain.Oggun also protects against accidents which he causes and aids in surgeries. Oggun’s wife is the beautiful Oya who has and continues to have a love affair with Chango. For this reason Chango and Oggun are always at odds with each other and cannot be in the same room together. Although Eleggua is the first orisha to be propitiated it is Oggun who eats first when an animal is sacrificed as he is the knife used in the killing.

Orunla-Catholic saint is St. Francis of Assisi
Feast day is Oct. 14th.His colors are green and yellow,his number is 16 and all the days of the week are under his influence.Orunla only walks one path. Among his favorite foods are:coconuts,black hens and names. Some or Orunlas herbs are: almorejo,altea,paraiso,albahaca and colonia. Orunla is the patron orisha of the babalawos or high priest of santeria. He is wisdom personified and represents someone always in search of knowledge. He owns the table of Ifa which is the premier instrument used to divine the future. He does not allow women to be his priestesses and only men can be initiated into his mysterious. He is also known as Orunmila and Ifa and aids in curing mental illness. Only the babalawo can perform Orunlas ebbos and only a babalawo can perform marriage ceremonies in the religion. The term babalawo means "father of the mysteries" One does not need to become a santero to receive Orunla as Orunla requires that all other orishas be given up before receiving his mysteries. The first step in becoming a babalawo is to undergo the initiation known as the hand of Orunla.The highest a woman can go in Orunla’ s mysteries is to receive what is called Icofa of Orunla but they may not become babalawos. It was Orunla who originally possessed the gift of dance but gladly traded it to Chango in exchange for the gift of divination.

Yemaya-Catholic saint is Our Lady of Regla
Feast day is on Sept. 7th.Her colors are blue and white and her number is 7 while Saturday is assigned to her. Yemaya has 7 paths which are the most popular. Her eleke consist of blue and crystalline beads. Her favorite fruit is watermelon but she is also partial to pineapples,papayas,apples,grapes,bananas and pears. Probably her favorite offering is sugar cane syrup. Her sacred animals are ducks,rams,roosters,parrots and many types of fish. Those herbs assigned to her are: verbena,lechuga,yerba buena,mejorana,helecho and berro to name a few. Yemaya could arguably be called the greatest of all the orishas because she is the great mother, the giver of life. She rules all the seas and oceans and naturally is the patron of sailors and fishermen. Being the great mother Yemaya also rules women and pregnancies.

Oshun-Catholic saint is Our Lady of La Caridad del CobreFeast day is Sept. 8th. Her colors are coral,aquamarine and yellow while her number is 5 and Saturday is sacred to her. Her eleke is made up of white and yellow beads among other color combinations. Animals sacred to Oshun are roosters,turtles, ducks,canaries and peacocks. Her favorite offering is ochinchin as well as honey,pumpkins,oranges, all yellow fruits,lettuce, spinach and sweet potatoes. Her herbs are: anis, anil, canela, boton de oro, manzanilla, yerba buena , verbena and pomarrosa. She has 5 main paths that she walks. Oshun is the youngest of the orishas and one of the most popular. She controls the river waters as well as love, sexuality and money matters, the arts and human pleasures. She also rules over marriage. Oshun is the happiest of the orishas who enjoys an affair with Chango. She is always eager to help her followers and is slow to anger. However once angered she is the hardest orisha to appease and the most dangerous. When she cries that is a sure sign she will grant whatever request is asked of her. She could be equated with the Venus of the Yoruba pantheon. It was Oshun who using her womanly wiles lured Oggun out of the forest. She has also been the lover of all the male orishas with the exception of Obatala and Eleggua. Because of her many gifts and appealing attributes she is one of the most popular orishas and also one of the most spoiled.

In santeria there are different levels of initiation and one progresses through the religion following these initiations. Santeria is unique in that not everyone is called to actually join the religion. While one may utilize the powerful magic associated with the religion without being an actual member of the religion joining the religion is another matter. As santeria is a rather closed practice,mainly due to the bad press it receives, it requires and introduction into the religion by a practicing member who has actually made the saint or is a priest of the religion. Being brought in by a santero is also not enough. It is the actual orishas who decide if the religion is right for you, if you should join and also what levels of initiation to undergo. Its quite possible for the orishas to allow one to receive the first 2 initiations and prohibit one from becoming a santero. It is for the orishas to decide as they know best. This information is obtained in what is called a registro or consultation. While this consultation can be performed by a santero it is best to have it done by a babalawo. Listed below are the various levels of initiation along with a brief overview of what they entail. As some of the secrets are guarded and available only to the fully initiated it by no means paints a complete picture of the various ceremonies.

Elekes or collares
Collares is a Spanish word meaning necklace. Each orisha has their own necklace that is composed using their colors,number and path or camino taken. The elekes are the first level of initiation into the religion. As with all the initiations it is necessary to consult the orishas themselves to see if one may receive the elekes before undergoing the ceremony. The elekes are simply cotton thread strung with colored glass beads that correspond to the various orishas whose elekes one is receiving.
Prior to receiving the elekes and after the orishas have given permission to proceed it is necessary to determine who the persons ruling orisha is. That aside one then undergoes the ceremony of receiving the elekes. Initally one will receive the elekes of Obatala, Chango, Eleggua, Yemaya and Oshun. Later on if one so desires one may receive the elekes for the remaining orishas.The elekes bestow upon the recipient the protection and blessings of the orishas and protect them from harm. The person must wear them daily and can do whatever they like while wearing the elekes except bathe with them on and engage in sex with them on. The ceremony last several hours and much goes into the preparation of the elekes before they are presented to the recipient. First off the santero must ask the orisha to bless the elekes. This is done in the Yoruba tongue. While the orishas understand all languages they prefer to hear their native tongue spoken as it pleases them more. After the elekes are finished they are stored for 7 days in a special liquid called omiero which is the sacred elixir of santeria. This elixir is made up of many ingredients and includes most of the herbs sacred to the orishas among other things. Once the 7 days are up the santero takes the elekes to a river where he washes them. He sacrifices a chicken and honey to Oshun and asks her blessing. He then takes them back home where he prepares the omiero of the orishas whose elekes are being received. He makes the needed sacrifices which include fruits and candies among other things and puts them in the omiero for an additional 7 days. On the 7th day the elekes are presented to the recipient who must dress totally in white. Every article of clothing from socks to shoes to underwear must be white and they must be brand new.

Eleggua and the Warriors or Los Guerreros
This is the second step in the religion on the way to becoming a full fledged santero and is termed a medio asiento. Eleggua is probably the most important of the orishas as all the other orishas need Eleggua’s permission to carry on their work. This is why he is the first to be honored in any ceremony and the first orisha to "eat" when sacrifices are offered. This initiation is not the same as receiving Ellegua in the ceremony called the asiento when a person becomes a full fledged santero. The recipient receives a detailed registro or consultation from the santero or babalawo who will give the warriors. All aspects of the recipient’s life are covered including past,present and future. During the consultation the santero determines which of the 21 paths of Eleggua the recipient will receive. Also all the ingredients needed in making Eleggua are determined at this time. The preparation of Eleggua and the warriors can only be performed by men as the orishas takes some of the santeros "manly" spirit in the process. Each Eleggua is different in that it is made specifically for each person taking into account that persons life and no two are the same. All the ingredients are formed into a small head shaped object that has eyes, ears and a mouth made out of cowrie shells. The actual image the recipient receives is not just a representation of the orisha but the god himself! The making of Eleggua is one of the most guarded secrets in all of santeria.
Along with the small head of Eleggua the recipient receives the iron cauldron of Oggun which include all of that orishas tools. There are 7 in all and they are: a rake, a spade,a hammer, a knife, a machete, an anvil and a pick. These tools are iron miniatures of the originals and symbolize Oggun’s ownership over all labor and work.
Also inside of Oggun’s cauldron are Ochosi’s tools which consist of a miniature bow and arrow. Ochosi is the orisha of the hunt and also rules over justice and all court related matters.
The last warrior included in the ceremony is Osun. He is represented as a small silver cup with a circle of bells hanging around the cup. There is a lid on the cup with a small rooster on it. Osun is one of the most obscure and mysterious of all the orishas. He is placed generally on a bookshelf or some other place provided it rises above the recipients head. He is the one who alerts the owner if danger is near. If the cup falls over for no apparent reason then the recipient is assured that danger is on the way and he can take the necessary steps to avert it.
These four orishas which comprise the warriors are known to walk together and together they work to protect their owner and strike back at his enemies. Eleggua is always kept near or behind the front door as he protects the home at all times. He is generally put on the floor or in a small cabinet along with his usual plate of goodies consisting mostly of candies and cakes.

Asiento or making of the saint
This is the final step in the initiation process and after completed the initiated will be a full fledged santero.
The actual ceremony is called Kariocha and is the most complicated and costly of all the initiation ceremonies. A large part of the cost is due to all the materials necessary for the ritual including the many animals needed for the ceremony. The ceremony itself last 7 days and at the conclusion he receives a life reading explaining which,if any, of the other initiations he must receive. Once the ceremony is over the newly initiated santero begins a term of apprenticeship that last 1 year and 7 days. During this time the santero dresses exclusively in white and follows the guidance of his padrino or madrina who console him on the religion. The padrino or madrina is the person who brought the initiated into the religion. The person receiving the orisha in the ceremony is called a yawo. Before the actual ceremony takes place the yawo undergoes a ritual cleansing of the had called the roggacion de cabeza. The main purpose for this ritual is to cleanse the head and prepare the yawos mind for the orisha he will soon receive.
The ceremony of Kariocha differs from person to person as each person receives a different orisha. The head of the yawo is completely shaved and various circles drawn on it. The hair is saved by the madrina or padrino until the death of the santero when it is buried with him. Only the yawo, the padrino or madrina and fully initiated santeros may attend the ceremony. The yawo is dressed in the colors of the orisha he is to receive and this is determined by a babalawo. During the ceremony the orisha that is to be received actually comes down to earth and possesses the yawo. This is known as parada. He partakes of various foods and sacrificed animals and remains in the sanctuary for 7 days where he is ritually cleansed by omiero made up of 21 different herbs and various other ingredients. After this the newly initiated santero returns to his home where another ceremony takes place paying homage to the bata or sacred drums of santeria. It is the bata that is used to call the orishas down to earth during a tambor or party for the orishas. This ceremony is called dodobale. About three months after the initial ceremony another cleansing ceremony takes place to rid the yawo of any lingering impurities.
The ceremony now complete the yawo is now considered a full fledged santero. The padrino or madrina of the new santero now presents to him the instruments of the religion and the orishas themselves. While the orishas are often symbolized as Catholic saints they are actually embodied in the sacred otanes or stones. The essence of the orishas reside in several magical stones which are in turned housed in beautiful urns or soperas. Beside the otanes and soperas of his guardian orishas the santero also receives the soperas and otanes of Chango, Yemaya,Obatala and Oshun.
The santero also receives one of its systems of divination known as the caracoles or seashells. The seashells are cowrie shells and number 18. They are the mouthpieces of the orishas and it is through them that the santero and the orishas communicate. The newly initiated santero will study with an expert reader who is called an italero and has mastered the seashells which are refereed to as the diloggun. This is an extremely complex system of divination and requires much study before one is proficient.

Divination is a system by which to fortell the future. Most of the arts employ some method of divining the future and santeria is no exception. In santeria there are four systems of divination available to the santero to help in their quest for knowledge or answers. They are called Obi or the coconut shells, the Diloggun or the cowrie shells, the Okuele and the Table of Ifa which is the highest oracle in the religion and belongs to Orunla. Some systems are more complicated than others and some require that the seeker have attained a certain level of initiation in the religion before employing that particular method.

This system is often referred to as darle coco al santo which translated means "give coconut to the saint". This is the most basic form of divination and one does not have tobe an initiated santero in order to employ this method. It is however advisable that one have received Eleggua and the warriors before consulting the coconut. In this system it is usually Eleggua that is consulted. One needs to be aware that Obi or the coconut is also a god and is to be treated with respect. First a coconut is broken with a hammer and 4 pieces are gathered. They should be about the same size. Once seperated from the shell one notices that the meat of the coconut is white and the skin is brown. The oracle is read by throwing the pieces of coconut on the floor and observing the pattern in which they fall, meaning white side up or brown side up. Five possible patterns can result using this method and each particular pattern has a name and a meaning. The questions posed during this type of reading must be simple direct questions. Anything requiring more detailed answers requires a more precise oracle. Prior to beginning there is a small ritual which must be done. The coconut is washed in water and water is sprinkled in front of the image of the orisha being questioned. Several prayers are said in Yoruba as well. The coconut is examined to make sure the pieces are whole as if a whole piece of coconut breaks during the reading then danger is near. The santero also tears off from each piece of coconut a number of bits that correspond to that particular orisha. These are also placed before the orisha. Several other prayers are said and the reading begins.

This method also called los caracoles or seashells is the most precise method of divination and requires a fully initiated santero or italero to be performed. The oracle consist of 18 cowrie shells of which only 16 are used. The cowerie shells are small shells with one side opened with what resembles a mouth with teeth. These are the mouthpieces of the orishas. The smooth rounded side of the shells are filed down so as to have two open sides,one with a mouth one without. It is the side with the mouth that is used in Diloggun. The sixteen shells are thrown on a straw mat known as estera. Prior to beginning the santero says several prayers in Yoruba and begins the registro or reading. The santero throws the shells on the mat and interprets the patterns that come up. Each pattern is known as an oddun and has a corresponding number and name for them. Each oddun has a story or proverb behind it that relates to the seekers concern. Each pattern pertains to a specific orisha. By continuing to cast the shells and interpreting the oddun that results the santero in able to advise the seeker as to their question. This system has much in common with the Chinese I-Ching in that proverbs or legends are used to answer the seekers questions.

This is a system of divination reserved for the babalawo only. The Okuele is a chain made up of 8 coins or medallions made from coconut shells. The babalawo is able to interprete the manner in which the medallions fall and thus arrive at an answer to the seekers question.

Table of Ifa
This is the highest system in all santeria and it too is reserved only for the babalawo. Orunla owns the table of Ifa and is the patron of the babalawos. This system is only employed during initiation ceremonies, at the death of a babalawo, to determine a persons ruling orisha or for extreme situations. Only men are allowed to use the table of Ifa as only men can be babalawos. The table of Ifa is actually a small wooden tray which contains writing or carvings on it. A powder called yefa is spread on the table and the babalawo draws lines in the powder resulting in patterns which are regarded as the voice or Orunla. One does not need to be a santero to be a babalawo which seems odd since they are the high priest in the religion. This is because when called by Orunla the future babalawo must give up the worship of all the other orishas and follow only Orunla’s call.

To find out more about Santeria & related topics,May I suggest the following links:

Santeria/Hoodoo Candle Interpretations
Santeria - A Practical Guide to Afro-Caribbean Magic
Basics of Ifa
Yoruba Culture,Language & Religion

And the following related reading material:

This page was made using an internet document whose source I could no longer name. I was going to post a note asking the original author to come forward but have since found that the "original" author evidently gleaned this information from Migene Gonzalez-Wippler's book "Rituals & Spells of Santeria", published by Original Publications where it and many other books that are not available at your "average" mall bookstore can be found & purchased.

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