Santeria: Cuba’s Worship of the Saints

“All is indeed a Blessing
IF you can just see beyond the veils; for it is ‘all’ an illusion and a test, and one of the greatest Divine Mysteries of this life cycle.”
This IS my constant prayer, my mantra, my affirmation, reverberation, reiteration and my ever-living reality.”
― The Divine Prince Ty Emmecca


While visiting Sandy’s extended Cuban family, we had the honor of meeting the Madrina. The Madrina, or Godmother, is a term of respect used to refer to the person who initiated someone into the Santeria religion.

The Madrina has been through the initiation process and completed all the required rituals to be a priestess in the Santeria religion. I had no idea what the Madrina was talking about, but I discovered after much research that Santeria is a complicated and fascinating religion.

Santeria has its roots in Western Africa and is a recognized religion in Cuba. Although some think it is witchcraft and sorcery, it is nothing like that at all. Santeria promotes a connection between the divine, the human, and the natural world by teaching us how to live in harmony.

The slave trade brought many Africans to Cuba, where they were forced to convert to Catholicism. However, the ingenious slaves found a way to incorporate Santeria into Catholicism secretly so they could continue to practice their religion. A common misconception is that Afro-Cubans blended the two religions into one, but since the Afro-Cubans saw no contradictions between the two religions, they synchronized them.

The Catholics had their saints. The Santeria had their Orishas. There is one supreme God in both religions, who like the Holy Trinity in the Catholic Church has three representations and three names: Olodumare, Olofi, and Olorun. Olodumare is the Supreme Being, the Father, the Creator of all things. Olorun is represented by the sun. Olofi is the one who communicates most directly with the Orishas, teaching them what humans need to know to lead healthful, moral, respectful lives on Earth. The Orishas act as intermediaries between human beings and God.

Most of the Orishas at one time had human form and gained semi-divine status after death, similar to the way many people think about Catholic saints. The Orishas are complex, mystical beings, and their essence can’t be expressed in a single image or form. They exist in the form of divine energy that is all around us and lives within us. Each has a unique personality. And most interesting is that the Orisha claims a person at birth, not the other way around.

The Madrina showed us her Orisha and identified the black Orisha that she held, as the Orisha that chose her when she was born. They are kind of like emissaries of Olodumare or the Almighty God. Each is assigned a particular behavior along with various items that are theirs and theirs alone. Just as the Catholic saints are endowed with special powers or spheres of influence, so it is with the Orishas.

Since we had no Orishas, the Madrina let us shake the maracas and say a prayer to all her Orishas for our families and loved ones. She explained to us that in order to accomplish something one needs to offer a blessing, gift, or sacrifice to the proper Orisha in order to receive the gift and blessing from the Orisha.

Here is an example of one of the most popular Orishas, Oshun, who also has a compatible Catholic saint, Our Lady of La Carded del Cobre.

Oshun-Catholic saint is Our Lady of La Caridad del Cobre whose feast day is Sept. 8th. Her colors are coral,aquamarine, and yellow while her number is 5 and Saturday is sacred to her.

Her necklace 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.

The Orishas are the children of Olodumare, who by the way, is referred to as a she instead of a he. Here is a good site with descriptions of the most important Orishas: Santeria Church of the Orishas

When it was Cindi’s turn to ask a blessing to the Orishas, she unknowingly cursed our U.S. administration and the Madrina wasn’t pleased.

Santeria is carried down through the generations as an oral religion. There are no written words. Santeria, as we know it today grew out of a spirit of resistance. It flourished because the slaves could adapt to changes and new circumstances. Although the slaves were never taught to read or write, they carried their religion in their hearts and spoken words and synchronized it with Catholicism.

The shells in the picture below contains sacred cowrie shells used by a priest or priestess to carry out a sacred divination ritual with the Orishas. Divination is not like fortune-telling. It is a sacred ritual and essential part of Santeria because it’s how humans receive advice and guidance from the Orishas and the spirits of their ancestors.

The photo below shows a Catholic saint surrounded by compatible Orishas.

Sacrifices are also an essential part of Santeria. Orishas have preferences for what they like. Roosters are very popular, as well as goats. If you watch the video below, the priest explains a sacrifice he did to bless his new house in Burbank,California to the horror of his neighbors who called the animal control board.

For those newly initiated into the Santeria religion, their old lives end and their new lives begin. They symbolically die and are reborn as novices called Iyawó ( pronounced ya-BOH). Their initiation period lasts one year. But, their first three months are the most restrictive.

Most Iyawós are immediately recognizable because they dress head to toe in white and cover their heads with a white hat or cloth. They wear beaded necklaces and are usually accompanied by an elder of the religion because their first year is a time of purification, rejuvenation, and rebirth.

I know I have only covered the basics in explaining the Santeria religion. But, the more I study the tenants of different religions, the more similarities I find in them. My favorite part of Santeria is based on their sacred stories and proverbs that have been passed down orally through the generations. They tell the stories of the Orishas’ lives on earth, their interactions with each other, and their relationship with God. The stories explain their relationship with the natural elements of the earth, where their customs come from, the creation of the cosmos, and the trials and tribulations we all face in our human interactions with one another. These stories naturally lead one to deeper reflection and thought.

I enjoyed this documentary with a priest of the Santeria religion. I hope you do, too.

6 thoughts on “Santeria: Cuba’s Worship of the Saints

  1. I’d heard of “Santeria” before (and now I have that song by Sublime going around in my head!) and kind of had it mixed up with voodoo. I’ve always found it interesting how those forced to “convert” to Catholicism managed to blend/hide their religion into their new faith so that they can pass their beliefs through the generations. And the similarities are striking too – a trinity, the saints, a conversion, etc. This was absolutely fascinating, Debbie and you did a great job of tackling a very complicated religion and explaining the basics. Anita

    • At first, I was dumbfounded and tried to keep from laughing at the dolls and odd things on their shrines. But, it began to make sense once I researched this religion. Now, through the photos I took, I can recognize some of their most popular Orishas.

    • Janet, it took me a long time to write this post because it really blew my mind when we met with the Madrina. I couldn’t believe this was a real religion. It seemed so bizarre to me. Now, it makes more sense, but I think I would have to study Santeria for years before I gained a true understanding of it.

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