Sara M. Sanchez and Diana G. Kirby
To paraphrase Isabel Castellanos, who described the African legacy in our area of the Americas, "Like old wine poured into new vessels, the traditional spirit of Africa animates the way these modern Cubans or Puerto Ricans" – or other Caribbean peoples, we add "view reality". Products "of intense transculturation, (they) are to be found at the root of many aspects of contemporary society: music, literature, and art." From Africa to the Caribbean, "the process of cultural transformation and synthesis" of all these religious systems "inexorably marches on". 1
The African presence in the Americas has left an indelible imprint not only on the region's economic, social, and ethnic aspects; but even more so in the cultural, artistic, and religious development of this hemisphere. The study of this presence and its influences has gained tremendous significance in the current century, as has the interest in syncretic or juxtaposed religions created by a blending of Christian and African religious beliefs, rites and practices. Hundreds of years ago, slave ships brought thousands of Africans of different cultural backgrounds to the New World in the infamous slave trade, which lasted from the sixteenth almost to the end of the nineteenth century.
As the Africans from diverse ethnic groups were huddled together in their barracones or communal households in the sugar plantations and coexisted in urban centers, their religions became intertwined. Possessing a rich, well-developed, and structured mythology and a complex liturgy and arriving in great numbers in the nineteenth century, the peoples of the Dahomedan, Congolese and Nigerian regions of West Africa contributed predominantly to this syncretism.
Among the many Yoruba-based religious phenomena, such as Candomble and Macumba in Brazil; and Shango or Orisha in Trinidad, the most persistent, expansive and outstanding example in this area is Afro-Cuban Santeria. Also prominent in the Caribbean area is Obeah that originated with the Ashanti-Fanti ethnic groups and is prevalent in the British Caribbean. Vodoun - from the Dahomedan word for spirit or deity - evolved in the Dahomedan, Congolese and also the Fon and Yoruba nations of Western Africa and was syncretized in Haiti with various Catholic influences, particularly in symbolism and liturgy.
The unifying theme and focus of all these African-based systems of worship is the relationship of the individual to the spirit world, the world of their ancestors, who have not gone to a better, distant place but are all around them. Spirits may manifest and control the powers of nature, have power over disease and illness and are patrons of different occupations. People and spirits are bound together in a communal ceremony of music and dance in which a key element is the worship of the deities through veneration and feeding. In some rituals, the spirits manifest themselves by possessing their worshippers, sometimes giving power and healing. The practice of these religions may be for the benefit of the group or community as is seen in Vodoun and Santeria or, as in Obeah, practice may be for the benefit of the individual.
Santeria, more properly called Religion Lucumi (as the Yoruba were called in Cuba) or Regla de Ocha, is based on a system of beliefs, rites and practices which is derived from a merging of Roman Catholicism and other African traditions with the traditions of the Yoruba priests and priestesses who were enslaved in Cuba at the end of the eighteenth and the first decades of the nineteenth centuries. It was a common practice among slaves who shared an ethnolinguistic background to group together in secret societies or "naciones". Those societies which were devoted to the practice of traditional religious beliefs were known as "cabildos". These functioned to maintain traditional beliefs among a people who were simultaneously being exposed to Catholicism, often converting under duress. The Yoruba brought with them an impressive array of gods and goddesses called orishas. Although they are described as supernatural beings of many powers, they are endowed with the character traits of humans. Since Catholicism also venerated their saints and believed in their miraculous powers, it is not surprising that the traditions began to merge. Needing to find different layers of discourse in which to organize and practice their religion, they began to refer to their orishas by the Spanish word "santos", leading outsiders to refer to their religion as "santeria", "the way of the saints".
In Cuba, Santeria functioned under a cloak of secrecy, prior to the official abolition of slavery in colonial Cuba in 1886. The Spanish authorities sought to outlaw the gatherings of black mutual beneficence associations, the cabildos, by passing legislation that would limit the number or frequency of the so-called "drum dances" of the plantations which were, in reality, religious rites.
At the end of the 19th century when spiritualism was a popular secular philosophy, the ideas of French physician, Allan Kardec found a receptive audience in Cuba. White middle class Cubans who wanted to participate in his conception of spiritual trance possession and communicate with their deceased loved ones, began to investigate Santeria. As the religion became more accessible and attractive to this population, it underwent more transformation as it was modified to reflect their background and needs.2
Santeria's transplantation to the United Sates has also caused numerous transformations, becoming blended with Puerto Rican Spiritism in the New York/New Jersey area to beget Santerismo. It has also been adopted by Latin, Anglo and African Americans, all of whom have converted to it in sizable numbers, reflecting a breakdown of geographic and ethnic boundaries with regard to membership in its ranks. Many of the latter have attempted to "purify" Santeria from extraneous influences, returning to its more genuinely African roots and cutting the umbilical chord with Cuba, such as is the case at the Yoruba Temple, Oyotunyi Village, in South Carolina.
Santeria has identified popular Catholic saints with the ancient orishas of the Yoruba pantheon. Whereas in Africa these deities were numbered in the hundreds, in Cuba about sixteen to twenty survived, since many characteristics attributed to various Yoruba gods were merged into one orisha. Each orisha is endowed with different attributes, various manifestations or avatars, its own characteristic colors, dances, offerings of food and sacrificial animals, and artifacts. The principal ones or "Siete Potencias" (Sevens Powers), which are the only ones who seem to be still actively worshipped in the United States are: Olofin (the Cuban name for Olodumare, the Yoruba Supreme god) and secondary or intermediary deities, like Obatala, Yemaya, Chango, Ogun, Ochun, and Babalu-Aye. They each represent the forces of nature and have a counterpart in Catholic sainthood. For example, Chango, the god of fire and thunder, though male, is represented by St. Barbara, the patron saint invoked against fires and thunder. Yemaya, who rules the oceans, has been identified with Our Lady of Regla, patroness of the port town at the entrance of Havana. Ochun, the goddess of rivers and fresh waters has her counterpart in Our Lady of Charity, Cuba's patroness.
The advent of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and its subsequent emphasis on rediscovering Cuba's African roots, led to the "African" underworld receiving intense attention. Although Santeria was labeled "fetishist magic" in the Revolution 's early stages, later the old rites were embraced as cultural, artistic and historical expressions of "the new Cuban State." The Cuban government instituted a tolerant stance towards non-Christian religions, a circumstance that swelled the ranks of Santeria. This can also be construed as a thinly veiled attack against the Catholic Church, which was viewed as a more powerful threat against the state. At that time, Yoruba ancestral dances and songs were stylized and used in ballets and other artistic venues while de-emphasizing their religious context. Furthermore, in the 1970s, Cuba's political aspirations in Africa intensified the government's interest vis-a-vis black culture in Cuba, supporting Africanist art, music, dance, and literature, even if these contained direct references to religious themes. Depicting African religion as a common legacy between Cuba and Africa, Castro sought to strengthen ties with the emerging African nations.
Even today, the Cuban government sponsors many workshops, seminars, and events that are aimed at the tourist market , as evidenced by the numerous brochures and flyers advertising events that are held every year. Weekly dances are offered that highlight the music inspired by traditional African drums, using the archaic Lucumi language that is still spoken today by priests and their followers in modern-day Cuba and South Florida. Santeria has become a major tourist attraction in Cuba.
Once dismissed as mere entertainment for slaves and freed blacks, as superstition or witchcraft, Santeria has become fertile ground for research and artistic inspiration and acquired a huge following among Cuban exiles. It has taken on the role of a support system and a mediating institution both in Cuba and in exile; acting as a coping mechanism for dealing with stress, whether induced by living under a Communist regime or by in exile in a foreign land. As such, it is often used as a psychotherapeutic method and an alternative medical system.
As a reaction to its new, more global membership and its spread not only in this hemisphere but also in Europe, Santeria is experiencing structural changes in its hierarchy and within its rituals, which have been somewhat "streamlined." It is becoming more mainstream, with an increase in educated, upper-middle class santeros. Whereas the religion has been practiced in anonymity and in privacy, generally due to social disapprobation, there has been a willingness to open its practices to public scrutiny. A case in point concerns the temple of Ernesto Pichardo, who is both a santeria priest and an anthropologist. He established the Babalu-Aye Temple in Hialeah, Florida in 1974 but it was shut down in 1987 due to complaints from the community following allegations of animal sacrifice. It was allowed to reopen again after the Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that the laws which banned the ritual sacrifice of animals violated the free exercise of religion clause of the First Amendment. That a Temple was willing to become the center of legal battles and media debates indicates that the followers of Santeria, at least in Miami, are striving to legitimize the religion by casting off its old cloak of secrecy.
A new, interesting outcome of the ever-growing popularity of Santeria is its commercial success. The costs that are associated with initiation rites have skyrocketed and continue to do so. The local book market is saturated with pamphlets and "how to" manuals aimed at the practitioner. Articles have appeared in popular American magazines such as Newsweek and Time, attesting to the popularity and commercialization of Santeria. Botanicas, specialty stores that provide incense, protective amulets, and related items of interest to a believer, proliferate in cities having a large Spanish-Caribbean enclave. Originally, religious items were made under the supervision of a santero or santera, but now they are produced commercially and sold in quantity. The botanicas in their present form are believed to have originated in the New York/New Jersey area and have become popular wherever there is a large Latin community. As a "here and now," practical, crisis-oriented religion, amulets, necklaces, lotions, herbs and other objects are used to achieve its healing or magical purposes. Coconut shells and cowrie shells are commonly used for different types of divination. Whereas clay or iron cauldrons were traditionally used as receptacles for the food offerings, these are being replaced by more modern soup tureens.
In its initiations (asientos), ceremonies to the deities (bembes), and other liturgical events, artfully decorated thrones and altars for the orishas covered with beautifully beaded and sequined cloths are featured. The garments worn to represent the deities are elaborate and colorful, following traditional standards of colors and rich fabrics. Sacred objects have both been made by artists and inspired these artists to depict them in the plastic arts. Brown has noted that object-making for Santeria festivities has been converted into a veritable artform. 3
In sum, the survival of Santeria, as in other African religions has been its malleability that has allowed it to adapt to new environments. Mercedes Cros-Sandoval has stated that it has been Santeria's "intrinsic flexibility, eclecticism, and heterogeneity that have been advantageous in helping ensure functional, dogmatic, and ritual changes, enabling it to meet the needs of its many followers," which in turn have fostered and aided its spread, its current vitality and dynamism as a religious form, its fascination as folklore among researchers worldwide, and the proliferation of its literature.4 This trait of adaptability has been recorded by anthropologists as a genuine characteristic of the Yoruba people, as even in Africa a syncretic effect has been documented between Islam/Christian beliefs and traditional Yoruba practices.5
Other African religious systems or magico-religious associations prominent in Cuba and in the Cuban diaspora are Palo Monte or Palo Mayombe, a cult derived from the Congo of Central Africa. Sometimes accused of practicing "black magic" or witchcraft rites, paleros (priests consecrated to Palo Monte) because of the use of human remains and potent herbs or spells for harmful purposes. The Abakua Secret Societies, very typical of a certain part of Africa, were carried over and established in Cuba by the so-called Carabali, from the Efor and Efik ethnic groups, originally from Calabar, Nigeria. These associations were also prevalent in the nineteenth century and have survived to today. The Regla Ocha (Santeria) and the Reglas de Kongo (one of which is the above-mentioned Palo) coalesced in many ways and are used simultaneously by some santeros (Santeria priests) who are also paleros (followers of Palo Monte). Both seem to complement and not antagonize one another; the former being related to devotion to the higher powers and the later equated with "workings" (trabajos) or magic.
Vodoun (also spelled Vaudun or Voodoo) is a word springing from the Fon tribe of Southern Dahomey meaning spirit, deity or image. It encompasses an exceedingly complex conglomerate of cults and rites of diverse African ethnic groups mixed with Catholic practices. These beliefs, rituals and magical practices with complicated symbols have developed for thousands of years and impregnate the Haitian atmosphere "with a rich, mystical aroma of Africa." 6
Originating in Haiti, Vodoun is also of great importance in Cuba, where its influence is felt in the Easternmost regions of Oriente since a sizable number of French settlers and Africans, both slave and free, migrated during and after the Haitian struggles for independence. It has also achieved considerable influence in the Dominican Republic where it has acquired its own characteristics and is known as Gaga. Concurrent with Santeria, Vodoun was transported to Florida shores by Haitian immigrants and is prevalent in urban centers where the Haitians are numerous such as Miami, New York and Washington D.C.
The Vodoun pantheon of deities is composed of loas (deities) that come from all parts of Africa, dominant among which are Dahomey and Yoruba gods. Others have been identified as Kongo, Ibo or Nago spirits. According to Laguerre, Vodoun incorporates "certain symbolic items, material elements and theological ideas borrowed from Catholicism and Indian religions."7 Though Vodoun consists of different rites, apparently distinct, in agreement with the diverse ethnic groups that developed them, they are all fundamentally related to the others. The prevalence of one rite or another varies with the different geographical areas of Haiti. The rite par excellence is the Rada "the royal rite of the sun" from Dahomey. Another major group is the Petro rite, which worship a family of Creole loas, born in Haiti itself. All cults of Vodoun believe in Gran-Mer, a Supreme Being akin to the Yoruba Odolumare or Cuban Olofin of Santeria.
Like Santeria, Vodoun emerged as a reaction of the oppressed slaves to the religious and political domination of their colonial masters and, as such, it has become inextricably intertwined with the political life of this nation, impacting on the daily lives of the people even to our day. Vodoun meetings and associations, just as the secular cabildos and religious cofradias in Cuba, served as the focus of slave rebellions and political and underground activities. The role of priest, called hougan for the male and mambo for the female, is part priest, part doctor and part counselor.
Vodoun has greatly influenced Haitian arts both in mural paintings and carved statues. Besides these artforms, Haitian voodoo flags are admired for their beauty and symbolism. Drapo vodou is one of the most celebrated genres of Vodoun's sacred arts. Haitian plastic art has also been tremendously influenced by this mysterious and vital religion which is both a religious system and a way of life.
Among other popular African derived religions in the United States, which would be hard to enumerate and examine in a brief essay, the Orisha or Shango religion from Trinidad and Tobago, of similar origin as Santeria, is based on an old established form of worship in Nigeria and its environs. Transported to the New World, its complex amalgam has combined the religious elements of not just two but several traditions: Yoruba, Catholic, Hindu, Protestant and the Jewish Kabbalah, to create an "Afro-American religious complex, a network of religious activities".8 Mirroring Santeria, it has evolved from the primal Yoruba beliefs and practices, syncretizing Catholic saints and rituals and adding Hindu elements. In the majority of cases, Protestant Baptist-derived religion, Hinduism in general, and the Jewish Kabbalah are practiced alongside, in juxtaposition or a parallel fashion. With most adepts being persons of African ancestry, many of them practice more than one and often all of these various forms of religious worship simultaneously, attesting to the proverbial openness and inclusiveness of the African mentality and cosmovision.
This characteristic adaptability in the African mentality springs from a respect for spiritual power wherever it originates and accounts, for the openness of its religions to syncretism, parallelism or simultaneous practice with other traditions and for the continuity of a distinctive religious consciousness.9
According to Frye, Obeah is "a system of beliefs grounded on spirituality and in an acknowledgement of the supernatural and involving aspects of witchcraft, sorcery, magic, spells, and healing. 10
Paralleling Orisha worship, Obeah has two components: one is the casting of spells and the use of magic for diverse purposes such as to protect from harm and attain good fortune; and the second is for healing by using folk remedies and techniques, magical herbs, animal medicine and other concoctions. These healing traditions are practiced in the Commonwealth Caribbean as well as in the United States where these products are brought from the islands to the mainland by friends and relatives to cure or remedy illness.
In Trinidad and Tobago, Obeah is strongly linked to Catholicism, to West African based religions, like Orisha/Shango, to Protestantism and also to some Amerindian traditions and Hindu spirituality. This means that many devotees are apt to resort to any or all of the above-mentioned religious practices at different times in their lives, without any apparent contradiction. Obeah practices have influenced the Hindu and white segments of the population as well.
The existence and practice of several of these healers or Obeahmen and women have been documented in Miami and other areas of the U.S.A., not only in the Caribbean. Many Bahamians in Florida and other Caribbean peoples from the former British colonies throughout the United States use these rites as magical healing and sorcery (defined as the use of power which resides in resources outside the individual). In general, Obeah is perceived as a system of beliefs acknowledging the supernatural and utilizing its power more than as a religion per se.
In reviewing the many African based religious phenomena in the Caribbean, which are a veritable ever-changing kaleidoscope, they emerge as multi-faceted gems, which can be examined from various points of view and diverse approaches, a living tribute to man's and woman's ingenuity, creativeness, and spirit of survival.
1. Castellanos, Isabel, (1996). "From Ulkumi to Lucumi: A Historical Overview of Religious Acculturation in Cuba." In: Santeria Aesthetics in Contemporary Latin American Art. Arturo Lindsey, ed. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, pp. 39-50.
2. Curtis, James R., (1982). "Santeria: Persistence and Change in an Afro-Cuban Cult Religion." In: Objects of Special Devotion: Fetishism in Popular Culture. Ray B. Browne, ed. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Press, 1982, 336-351.
3. Brown, David H., (1996). Toward an Ethnoaesthetics of Santeria Ritual Arts: The Practice of Altar Making and Gift Exchange. In: Santeria Aesthetics in Contemporary Latin American Art. Arturo Lindsey, ed. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, pp. 77-146.
4. Cros-Sandoval, Mercedes, (1986). Mariel and Cuban National Identity. Miami: Editorial SIBI.
5. Laitin, David D. (1986). Hegemony and Culture: Politics and Religious Change among the Yoruba. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 85
6. Rigaud, Milo, (1971). Secrets of Voodoo. Translated from the French by Robert A. Cross. New York : Pocket Books.
7. Laguerre, (1989). Voodoo and Politics in Haiti. New York: St. Martins Press. P.23.
8. Houk, James T., (1995). Spirits, Blood, and Drums : the Orisha Religion in Trinidad. Philadelphia : Temple University Press.
9. Raboteu, Albert J., (1978). Slave Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.
10. Frye, Karla Y. E., (1997). An Article of Faith : Obeah and Hybrid Identities in Elizabeth Nunez-Harrells When Rocks Dance In: Sacred Possessions: Vodou, Santeria, Obeah, and the Caribbean. New Jersey: Rutgers University