The “Old” Religion and the “New” Religion: Yoruba Orisha Tradition and Santeria

Santería is a syncretic religious practice that originated in Cuba among enslaved Africans. This uniquely formed African-based faith was created in order for the enslaved to surreptitiously maintain forbidden indigenous customs. The construction of Santería was instigated by the Transatlantic Slave Trade which initiated the necessity for an offshoot cultural identity. From the moment Africans were shipped from the shores of West Africa and displaced throughout the Americas, ethnogenesis took place in forming an identity and experience that separated the diaspora from those living on the continent. Disconnecting a people from their ethnic group and land of indigeneity and reassigning them a new identity disassociated with any land assisted in the creation of the American slave and the construction of a divergent cultural identity. The African diaspora is indirectly impelled to maintain two identities; one in relation to the dominant culture and another in relation to one another. In W.E.B. Du Bois’ “The Souls of Black Folks,” he expatiates on a similar sociological phenomenon termed “double consciousness,” which he defines as:

…[the]sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder [Du Bois, 2003: 9].

The dual identity of the African diaspora is especially evident in the formation of religious practices in the New World. Given that the African diaspora was constructed with limited cultural space and secularized remnants of their former culture, they formulated and maintained a covert system in which to bequeath aspects of their native culture to the subsequent generation. Based on this premise, Santería exemplifies the complex duality of the Afro-Latino experience through the intricacy of its syncretism. Therefore, in this essay, I will provide an overview of Santerían religious practices as it relates to traditional Yoruba spirituality.  Moreover, I will examine the duality of the Afro-Cuban identity based on the preservation and transmission of native African customs and the adoption of a newly constructed cubanidad, or national identity.

Traditional Yoruba Religion and the formulation of Santería

Santería is based on “magico-religious” ideologies of traditional Yoruba spirituality and Roman Catholicism (Wippler, 1992: 1). In magico-religious beliefs, magic and religion are distinguishable; however, in practice, they are interdependent (Winkelman, 1986). Magic is utilized to manipulate and/or control the preternatural world and religion is utilized for the purpose of appeasing and supplicating the divine (Winkelman, 1986). Both traditional Yoruba spirituality and Santería focus on ancestral veneration which is based on the idea that death only terminates an individual’s existence in one “world” and begins a new existence in the next (Pradel 2000:9).

Traditional Yoruba spirituality concentrates on a pantheon of ancestral deities originating in precolonial Yorubaland (Appiah and Gates, Jr., 1999: 1463). Unlike, Roman Catholicism, which Santería is structured, traditional Yoruba spirituality is not reliant on “uniform or orthodox systematization” rather it is based on the context in which people live (Brandon, 1993: 11). The hierarchy of semi-independent entities that make up the universe are intrinsically interdependent (Appiah and Gates, Jr., 1999: 1463). Olodumare, the direct ancestor of all things and the creator of the universe, is the equivalent to the monotheistic Christian God (Brandon, 1993). Under Olodumare exists the spirits, or the orisa and the egungun (Brandon,1993:14). The orisa are considered sources of Olodumare’s power, or ashè, which is the essence of all creative potential in traditional Yoruba spirituality (Wippler 1992: 9). Some orisa, like Obatala, Oduduwa, and Orunmila, existed on earth before humankind and are believed to be direct descendants of Olodumare while other orisa were, at some point, human (Brandon, 1993:14). Therefore, human beings are believed to be the descendants of the orisa and the worshippers of a particular orisa would refer to themselves as their children (Brandon, 1993:14) Aside from the orisa, people also venerate their immediate ancestors, the egungun, who are believed to be of influence in various aspects of life (Pradel, 2000:9). The egungun are positioned between the divine and humankind; they are often venerated at personal shrines within one’s own household or compound (Brandon, 1993:15).

Thousands of Africans, also referred to as Lucumí, from Yorubaland were imported from West Africa and enslaved in Cuba (Wippler, 1992:1). From the perspective of the enslaved, this era of colonialization acted as a pivotal point in cultural and religious preservation (Pichardo, 1998). The practice of indigenous Yoruba spirituality was banned and the Lucumí were forced to worship the monotheistic Christian God (Wippler, 1992:1). The only way for the enslaved to continue their cultural rituals was to conceal the orisa with Catholic saints (Wippler, 1992:1). Thus, the orisa were synchronized with the saints, the saints assumed the powers of the orisa (Wippler, 1992). The Spaniards referred to their worship as Santería literally meaning “the way of the saints” (Appiah and Gates Jr., 1999:1669).

The social signification of traditional Yoruba spirituality is preserved in Santería. Like traditional Yoruba spirituality, Olodumare is considered the omnipotent supreme being of the universe (Wippler, 1992:2). Olofi is the personal god of all humankind and an aspect of Olodumare (Wippler, 1992:2). Ashè, or the power of Olodumare, is utilized by the orisa/saints for their own special purpose (Wippler, 1992:2). For instance, the orisa Osh̀un, who is associated with “Our Lady of La Caridad del Cobre,” utilizes her ashè to unify people (Wippler, 1992:2). For the Santería practitioners, obtaining ashè is important because they are able to attain their personal aspirations (Wippler, 1992:2). In order to attain ashè the individual must provide an offering, or ebbò, to the orisa (Wippler, 1992:3). Animal sacrifice, a ritual in which the worshipper slaughters an animal to strengthen their personal relationship with the orisa, is often used as an offering (Wippler, 1992:3). The animal that has been sacrificed is either eaten or utilized in cleansing rituals (Wippler, 1992:3).

In Oyo, Benin, and Dahomey, each “city-kingdom” had an oba with a corresponding orisa in which he was believed to be a direct descendant (Wippler, 2001:14). This is not the case in Santería because during the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the enslaved were captured from various parts of the kingdoms amalgamating a variety of orisa (Wippler, 2001:14). So, whereas there were hundreds of orisa in precolonial Yorubaland, only about 16 were preserved and venerated in Santería (Appiah and Gates Jr., 1999: 1671). Therefore, the formulation of Santerían practices was based on a condensed version of traditional Yoruba spirituality and translated to fit the Roman Catholic structure.

The Duality of the Afro-Cuban Identity

The construction of the Afro-Cuban identity is heavily contingent on the interaction between the deeply rooted “African-ness” of the enslaved and the constricted colonial environment of the New World. It is further defined by the formulation of cubanidad, or Cuban national identity, as the newly formed ethnic group amalgamates their indigenous ethnic customs with their new cultural environment (Ramos, 2013). According to Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. (2015), the Afro-Cuban identity and the concept of “blackness” is superseded by cubanidad which was purposed to consolidate the multifaceted nature of the Cuban experience. However, cubanidad tends to diminish the reality of racism by ignoring the conditions in which Afro-Cubans are subjected (Gates Jr., 2015).

Before cubanidad existed the Afrocubanismo artistic movement which was constructed to acknowledge the strong African presence in Cuban culture (Hawkins, 2016). This movement began in the 1920s; however, it gradually diminished in the 1930s because Cuban society was only willing to accept the stereotypical conceptualization of “blackness” rather than “black” as an essential cultural identity (Gale, 2006). In addition, the “Afro-Cuban” specification was rejected by many affluent middle class Black Cubans because it factionalized the Cuban population making them appear as outsiders (Gale, 2006). The most distinguishing characteristic of the Afrocubanismo movement was its presentment of African derived expression as both prideful and ignominious especially regarding Santerían practices (Gale, 2006).

The complex duality of the Afro-Cuban identity lies in the intersectionality of “blackness” and the formulation of cubanidad. Afro-Cubans have preserved a great amount of their African heritage through covert Europeanized systems while simultaneously maintaining the overall Cuban cultural identity. In “This is what means to be Afro-Latino,” Carolina Moreno (2015) interviews various Afro-Latinos to construct an overall conceptualization of the Afro-Latino experience. One interviewer, Roger Garcia, explains that as an Afro-Cuban he has had to explain his identity to White and Black Americans as well as White Cubans, who often mistake his as Black American (Moreno, 2015) In both scenarios, he is left feeling as though he does not belong to either group (Black or Latino) even though he concurrently belongs to both groups (Moreno, 2015).

Santería represents the duality of the Afro-Cuban experience because it is a syncretic religion constructed by the enslaved on account of their constricted cultural environment. Furthermore, Santería exemplifies the African diaspora’s preservation of traditional African customs through the transmission of “Africanisms” to succeeding generations. Thus, the complexity of the Afro-Cuban identity lies not only in the connection between “African-ness” and cubanidad, but, also, in the systems that permit their interconnectedness.




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