Name: Santeria (also known as La Regla Lucumi and the Rule of Osha)

Founders: The Yoruba Slaves of the Carribean (from Western Africa -- current day Nigeria and Benin)

Date of Birth: N/A

Birth Place: Western Africa or Cuba

Year Founded: 1517 1

History: Santeria orginated in Cuba as a combination of the Western African Yoruba Religion and Iberian Catholicism 2 . "It is one of the many syncretic religions created by Africans brought to the Caribbean islands as slaves." 56 . It was developed out of necessity for the African slaves in order to continue practicing their native religion in the New World. As in all countries where the African slaves were taken, Cuban slave masters discouraged and sometimes prohibited the practice of their native religions 40 .

The slaves in Cuba were forced to follow the practices of the Catholic Church, which went against the beliefs of their native religions. Noticing the parallels between their native religion and Catholicism, and in order to please their slave-masters and fulfill their own religious needs, they created a secret religion. Santeria uses Catholic saints and personages as fronts for their own god and Orishas (spiritual emissaries). Thus, when a slave prayed to an Orisha, it looked as if they were praying to a saint. 3

After some slaves had been freed in Cuba, "the genre de color (free people of color) created Santeria on the basis of old Yoruba beliefs and practices. African religious traditions were reinvented and fused with elements of the Spanish culture, an example of assimilation -- the fusion, both culturally and socially, of groups with distinctive identities. In the 1880's the syncretism was further embellished by the addition of Kardecian Spiritist traditions brought from France." 57 . These had an influence on Santeria by incorporating the aspect of spirit enlightenment in its practices. This process of seeking light has been incorporated in worshiping the Orisha 41 . Santeria spread quickly in the New World among the slaves who originated from Western Africa. When slave trade was abolished, the practice of Santeria carried on.

The religion was practiced in secret, because people frowned on the bizarre traditions of the African natives. Although today the necessity for keeping the religion secret has mostly vanished, it is practiced today out of a strong sense of tradition. Santeria now lives on in small numbers in many countries around the world: the U.S. (New York, Florida), South American countries, and Europe. It is still mostly practiced in secret, but a few churches have emerged, giving the people a place to practice Santeria freely. One in particular, The Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye , was formed in the early 1970's in Southern Florida. It unites many Cuban Americans in this region, and allows them to practice Santeria freely and publicly. But this did not occur without a struggle. As we shall see below , the church's practice of animal sacrifice was outlawed by the city of Hialeah only to be restored in a landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

There are several other churches in the United States that practice Santeria. The African Theological Archministry, in South Carolina, founded by Walter Eugene King, now has approximately 10,000 members 4 . The Church of Seven African Powers, also in Florida, was founded in the 1980's, and focuses on the ebo (spells) and instructs members how to use them in their lives 5 .

Sacred or Revered Texts: Santeria has no written canon or formal texts of their religion. It is passed on orally to the initiates. This is because of the thick tradition of stories being told to convey the beliefs and ways of worship of the religion.

Cult or Sect: Negative sentiments are typically implied when the concepts "cult" and "sect" are employed in popular discourse. Since the Religious Movements Homepage seeks to promote religious tolerance and appreciation of the positive benefits of pluralism and religious diversity in human cultures, we encourage the use of alternative concepts that do not carry implicit negative stereotypes. For a more detailed discussion of both scholarly and popular usage of the concepts "cult" and "sect," please visit our Conceptualizing "Cult" and "Sect" page, where you will find additional links to related issues.

Size of Group: "It is estimated that the number of practitioners of Lukumi Orisha Worship in the United States surpasses five million." 6 .

Beliefs of the Group

Cosmology Santerians have five different levels of power in the Yoruba cosmology: Olodumare , the Orisha, human beings, human ancestors, and the lowest group (which includes plants, animals, natural entities, and manufactured items) 7 . They believe in one supreme god, Olodumare (also known as Olorun ). He is the supreme source of ashe , the spiritual energy that makes up the universe, all life, and material objects. He coincides with Jesus Christ in the Catholic religion 8 .


Olurun interacts with the world through emissaries called Orisha. Orisha rule over every force of nature and every aspect of human life. They can be approached through prayer, ritual offerings, and trance possession, and can be counted on to come to the aid of followers and guide them to a better life and spirituality. Each Orisha is attributed a special number and color, among other "favorite things," such as a food or day of the week. The member utilizes the colors by making beaded necklaces according to which Orisha they wish to worship. These distinguish the Orisha from one another when someone wants to make an offering to a certain one 9 .

Each Orisha is guardian over a certain aspect of human life. The significant Orisha are listed below, as there are literally thousands of Orisha 10 . The first three Orisha listed - Elegba, Ogun, and Oshosi - are guardians over battle affairs and are called the Guerreros or Warriors 11 .

Elegba (Eleggua) - the owner of the roads and doors in this world. He stands at the crossroads of humanity and the divine, the intermediary between Olorun and the Orisha and humans. When one wants to pray, they call on Elegba first, as he opens the doors of communication between this world and the Orisha 12 . Nothing can be done in either world without his permission. The Catholic saint he represents is Saint Anthony 13 . His colors are red and black and his number is 3 14 . Ogun - the god of iron, war, and labor. He clears the roads with his machette after Elegba opens them. He embodies violence and creativity, yet also integrity. He is the only Orisha with the right to control life and death 15 . He depicts St. Peter 16 . His colors are green and black and his number is 7 17 .

Ochosi - the hunter, scout, and protector of the warriors. He is in a close relationship with Obatala, and is the translator for him. He is the provider of direction to human life -- he advises humans to follow the rules of the social institutions in which they find themselves. He represents St. Norbert. His colors are blue and yellow and his numbers are 3 and 7 18 .

Obatala - father of the Orisha and all humanity. He is the creator of the world and enforces justice in the world. He is the source of all that is pure, wise, peaceful, ethical, moral, and compassionate 19 . The saint he stands for is Our Lady of Mercy. His color is white, as he contains all colors, but is above them all; his number is 8 20 .

Chango - ruler of lightning and thunder. He is also a warrior, like the three above, and is well known for his many wives 21 . He demands involvement in life and living life to its fullest. He deals with the day to day challenges. He is attributed to St. Barbara. His colors are red and white and his numbers are 4 and 6 22 .

Oya - ruler of winds and whirlwinds. She rules over the dead and the gates of the cemeteries. She is a fierce warrior and was once the wife of Chango 23 . She represents Our Lady of the Presentation of Our Lord and St. Theresa 24 . Her colors are maroon and white, and her number is 9 25 .

Oshun - rules over the water of the world -- rivers, streams, and brooks. She embodies love, beauty, and fertility. She represents the blood flowing through and creating human life. She is also associated with culture and the fine arts. She is the youngest of the Orishas and the messenger to the house of Olorun. Her saint is Our Lady of Charity, Cuba's Patron Saint. Her colors are yellow and gold and her number is 5 26 .

Yemaya - rules over seas and lakes. She is the Mother of all and the root of all riches. She is deep and unknowable, like the waters which she rules. She is also the queen of witches and of secrets. She is considered the Orisha of mercy, while she never turns her back on her children. Her saint is Our Lady of Regla, the patron Saint of Havana's port. Her colors are blue and white and her number is 7 27 .

Babalu Aye - associated with disease (specifically smallpox). The sick pray to him in hope of recovery. He has simple tastes and does not expect much 28 . He is associated with St. Lazarus. His colors are white and light blue and his number is 17 29 .

Orishaoco - rules over crops and agriculture. Thus, he is in charge of all the tools of the gardeners. He settles fights among the Orisha, especially those between Chango and his wives. His saint is St.Ysidro. His color is lilac 30 .

Osain - the doctor of the Orishas. He controls all the medicinal and magical herbs. The drums used in ceremonies are consecrated to him. He represents St. John (when in the city) and St. Ambrose (when in the country). His colors are white, red, and yellow 31 .

The Ibeyi - children of Oshun and Chango. They are identical in many ways and are the so-called children of the Orishas. They are associated with the acquisition of material property 32 . Their saints are St. Cosme and St. Damian. They have the same colors as their parents -- yellow and gold (Oshun), red and white (Chango) 33 .

Orunmila - encompasses wisdom and divination; makes our destinies. He is the only Orisha who witnessed the creation of the universe, and is essentially next in line to Olodumare. He is the Orisha of the priests (Babalawos), whom he manifests himself to only intellectually 34 . They abide by the Table of Ifa, where the secrets of the universe and our lives are held. Oshun is knowledge while Orunmila is wisdom. These two must work together for "wisdom without knowledge is useless -- one who has knowledge without wisdom is a danger to themselves and others" 35 . He respresents St. Francis of Assisi. His colors are green and yellow and his number is 16 36 .

Communication with the Orisha is accomplished through several means, including prayer, ritual divination, and offerings (ebo - sacrifice) 37 . Although ebo sometimes refers to the practice of animal sacrifice, it encompasses a larger definition. Animal sacrifice is usually only used in important situations, such as death, sickness, or misfortune. Offerings can be made to the Orisha, with items such as candy, candles, and fruits, to name a few. The individual characteristics of each Orisha are important, as they give the people a way to distinguish how they contact the Orisha they wish to pray to. A person wears a beaded necklace with elaborate patterns of beads of the colors of the Orisha they wish to pray to. The numbers, colors, and also certain animals instruct the person on how to sacrifice to each Orisha. Because each Orisha represents a different aspect of life, a person can selectively pick an Orisha or several Orisha to pray to, depending on their needs. A participant can give up things, such as a Roman Catholic would for the season of Lent. They can also heed advice given by the Orisha in this manner.

Human Beings

After Olodumare created the earth, he created the eleven commandments, and handed them down to Obatala. These he created to ensure that the people would not succumb to evil, and that they would live prosperous lives in union with the Orisha. The eleven commandments are:

1. You will not steal 2. You will not kill, except in self-defense and for your sustenance 3. You will not eat human flesh 4. You will live in peace among yourselves 5. You will not covet your neighbor's properties 6. You will not curse my name 7. You will honor your father and mother 8. You will not ask more than I can give you and you will be content with your fate 9. You will neither fear death nor take your own life 10. You will teach my commandments to your children 11. You will respect and obey my laws 42

Traditions are strictly observed in Santeria. They have been preserved for almost 500 years. Prerequisites to a deep involvement in the religion include full knowledge of the rites, songs, and language. The participants must follow a strict regimen, and answer to Olorun and the Orisha for their actions. When initiated into the religion, the participant becomes a member of their Godparents house (or Ile), and a member of that extended family, as well. These people oversee that the participant is continuing the traditions and wishes of the Orisha. The magic of the religion is based on knowledge of the mysteries of the Orisha and how to interact better with them. This correct interaction helps to better the lives of the participants and those around them. Santerians believe the world is magical, but in a natural sense, rather than the supernatural. "The most basic spell in Santeria will always require a plant, an herb, a stone, a flower, a fruit or an animal. The belief in the power of herbs is an intrinsic part of the religion." 52

Ebo contains many categories of sacrifice and offering to the Orisha. "There are offerings such as addimú which can include candles, fruits, candy, or any number of items oractions that may be appreciated by the deities or orishas in the religion. In divination, the orishas may ask for a favorite fruit or dish, or they may call for the person to heed advice given. At times they may ask that a person give up drinking or other practices that are unwise for that individual. They may request a person to wear certain jewelry, receive initiations or any number of other things. Or they may request an animal, usually a chicken or a dove, so the orisha will come to that person's aid. As a rule, animal sacrifice is called for only in major situations such as sickness or serious misfortune. Animals are also offered when a new priest is consecrated in service of her or his orisha during the birthing process of initiation. In every birth there is blood" 38 . Animal Sacrifices are essential to winning favor with the gods, and must be performed by a santero (priest) 39 .

Trance possession plays an integral part in the religious life. This occurs during a drumming party known as a bembe . "The purpose of a bembe is to honor the Orisha by playing specific drum rhythms, performing specific dance postures, and acting out in pantomime of the behavior of the Orisha." 53 An Orisha may be persuaded to enter the body of a priest, if enticed by the proper drum rhythms associated to that spirit. The songs, rhythms, and dances are calculated to entreat the specific Orisha. "The drum rhythms and the dance postures are not ends in themselves, but are utilized to attain a sacred state of consciousness, manifested as a trance state or spirit possession. Spirit possession is desirable because it opens the channels of ashe as the dancers merge with divine rhythms." 54 This bembe to Elegua demonstrates the typical songs and drum beats utilized for the trance possession.

Santeria and Voudoo

It must be stressed that Santeria and Voudoo are similar, but not the same thing. "Their similarities come from their origins in contiguous parts of West Africa, while the differences stem from their historical developments in the Americas." 55 Both recognize the existence of a higher, supreme being, and the fulfillment of destinies with the help of what Santeria calls Orisha. Both also believe in the trance possession and choosing a specific Orisha to call upon. But, with reference to the Orisha, Santerians believe Catholic saints and Orisha are interchangeable. There is no division between Santeria and Catholicism. Voudoo, on the other hand, worships the same spirits as Santeria, but there is a separateness to Catholicism and Voudoo, thus they are not worshiping the same gods.

Controversy - Animal Sacrifice

Sacrifice, as stated earlier, is a type of Ebo. "Animal sacrifice is one of the most controversial aspects of this religion. Sacrifice, the giving of natural and manufactured items to the Orisha or ancestors, is viewed by practitioners as essential for human well-being. Through sacrifice, it is believed, one restores the positive life processes and acquires general well-being. To fulfill the wants and needs of the Orisha and the ancestors, practitioners make sacrifices to them. In return, the Orisha and ancestors are expected to meet the needs of the practitioners. This is believed to be the mutual exchange of ashe." 43 "When the religion requires the sacrifice of an animal, it is offered to the Orisha or the ancestor with respect. It is killed quickly and with as little pain as possible." 44 The meat is usually eaten by the participants of the sacrifice. "Sometimes an animal is sacrificed as part of a ritual cleansing. It is believed that such animals absorb the problems and negative vibrations of the person being cleansed. In such cases, the animal carcass is disposed of without being eaten." 45

It was on this aspect of the sacrifice that the >The Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye received much criticism from the city of Hialeah. The city was concerned that by disgarding these carcasses from the ritual sacrifices, the church was creating a public health hazard. "In the early 1990's, the city of >Hialeah, Florida , passed a series of ordinances that made it illegal to unnecessarily kill, torment, torture, or mutilate and animal in a public or private ritual or ceremony not for the primary purpose of food consumption." 46 From the onset, it appeared that the ordinance was targeted at the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye for their practice of killing the animals for sacrifice. Other forms of killing animals, such as an owner tiring of caring for the animal, were permissible.

Ernesto Pichardo, founder of the church, decided to fight the ordinances, claiming it was a violation of their First Amendment right to freedom of religion. He claimed that animal sacrifice was an integral part of the religion. 47 The church took the city to the Supreme Court, who ruled in favor of the church. The brief of the case of The Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah explains the proceedings in great detail. A summary of this brief can be found on The Religious Freedom Page . One justice, Justice Anthony Kennedy, was quoted, saying, "Although the practice of animal sacrifice may seem abhorrent to some, religious belief need not be acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible to others in order to merit First Amendment protection." 48

Another concern brought up about the method of sacrifice of Santeria, is presented by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals . "They argue that Santeria is less humane than methods used in licensed slaughterhouses. They note that animals die slowly and painfully and that they are often kept in filthy conditions before ceremonies." 49 "Protection of public health and prevention of cruelty to animals could have been addressed with less sweeping ordinances. General standards for the disposal of organic garbage and for the humane slaughter of animals might have been imposed, but they were not." 51 Practitioners claim that the methods they use during sacrifice are no more cruel than the legal types of slaughter. They die quickly and painlessly and are generally eaten afterwards, like any animal killed for food.

"Despite the oddity of animal sacrifice to most Americans, mainstream religious groups have weighed in to support the Lukumi Babalu Aye church. Jewish organizations feared that Hialeah's law might have ruled out kosher slaughtering. Christian groups like the Presbyterian Church and National Association of Evangelicals want to prevent the Supreme Court from further restricting religious rights." 50