Santeria means “The Way of the Saints”. It is an African-Hispanic hybrid religion that originated in the Caribbean. Best known for its Latin rhythms, devotee possession, and animal sacrifices, it is considered to be a ‘syncretic’ or hybrid religion because it originated out of a blending of the culture of the Yoruba peoples brought there as slaves and Catholicism. The Yoruba people are from Nigeria, Benin and Togo on the west coast of the African Continent. These peoples were also sent as slaves to South America where they also gave birth to the traditions known as Lucumi, Candomble, and Umbanda. The religion is similar in appearance to Voodoo because it also is a blend of African traditions with Catholicism. However, Santeria has a particularly Caribbean flavor.
To the uninitiated, Santeria would seem like a loosely knit series of superstitions but it is a highly evolved religion and its devotees are very serious in their practices. Because of this it can be very difficult to learn about it first hand.
Santeria, like Voodoo, is a form of ancestor reverence. The deities associated with Santeria are considered ‘ancestors’. The main ancestors have achieved god-like status. They are known as the Orishas. Each devotee is assigned to a patron Orisha, or Saint. The practitioners are known for being possessed by the spirits of their ancestors. This generally occurs during what is known as a “tambour”. Tambour is the root word for tambourine. Tambour is drumming and the cuban beat and calypso rhythms are derived from the influence of Santerian ceremony. The ceremony might seem like a wild party but it is, in fact, a very strict ritual.
Several of the deities associated with Santeria are well known to many people. Babaluye (pronounced Bahbah loo eye) was revealed to Anglo Americans via Ricki Ricardo of “I Love Lucy” fame. Chango was revealed to white culture probably in the movie King Kong. In fact the “congo” jungle is named for him. He is probably the most popular of the Orishas. There are several others including Yemaya, Oya, and Ogun. These five are the ‘Warriors’.
There is one deity who is probably the most popular of all the deity and ancestors. He is considered to be the most powerful of all of them and is consulted first in all matters. He is known as Elegua. He has been synchronized with the “Holy Child of Atocha”.
There are popular candles one can often find in the supermarket. They look like Catholic Candles but they are in fact Santerian candles. They are often mixed in with the Catholic Candles. There is St. Lazarus who is Babaluye, St. Barbara who is Chango, Our Lady of Regla who is Yemaya,. There is a candle with a scene of the crucifixion that also includes a ladder, a rooster, and some tools. This is Olodumare. The chief creator God. There is a candle that has a hand on it that says Siete Potencias which is devoted to the five warriors.
There are two classes of priest in Santeria. There is the Santero and the Babalawo. As far as I know the Santero’s (or Santera, in the case of a woman) learn their art/craft on the American side of the Atlantic, while those who are chosen to be a Babalawo are sent to the African homeland for tutorship.
One does not choose their patron saint or Orisha. The Orisha chooses you. I have heard of some people having more than one but I think it is a rare occurrence. When you are initiated you do receive a necklace, known as ‘eleke’ which has been soaked in a special blend of herbs and such and then blessed. It contains the essence of the five warriors and serves to protect and empower the devotee.
Powers of the Orishas: Santeria and the Worship of Saints by Migene González-Wippler