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Santeria, A syncretistic Caribbean religion

Beliefs and practices

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The Orisha:

Santeria includes the worship of the Orisha -- literally "head guardians," and religious beliefs of the Yoruba and Bantu people in Southern Nigeria, Senegal and Guinea Coast. These are combined with elements of Roman Catholicism. 

Arriving as slaves In the Caribbean, Santerians preserved the elements of their religion by equating each Orisha of their traditional religions with a corresponding Christian Saint. Many traditions within the religion recognize different equivalencies. One common example includes:

bullet Babalz Ayi became St. Lazarus (patron of the sick)
bullet Shangs became St. Barbara (controls thunder, lightning, fire...)
bullet Eleggua or Elegba became St. Anthony (controls roads, gates etc)
bullet Obatala became Our Lady of Las Mercedes, and the Resurrected Christ (father of creation; source of spirituality)
bullet Oggzn became St. Peter (patron of war)
bullet Oshzn became Our Lady of Charity (controls money, sensuality...)

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Other Santerian beliefs:

Many Santerian beliefs are not freely discussed outside of the faith. In addition there are many religious leaders whose beliefs and practices differ significantly. The following is a general outline of what is known:

bullet Deities: God is referred to as Olorun, or Olódůmarč, the "owner of heaven". He is the supreme deity, the creator of the universe, and of the lesser guardians, called Orisha. Each of the latter has an associated Christian Saint, a principle, important number, color, food, dance posture and emblem. The Orishas need food in the form of animal sacrifice, and prepared dishes, as well as human praise in order to remain effective.
bullet Ritual Sacrifices: These form an integral part of many Santerian religious rituals. The animal's blood is collected and offered to the Orisha. Chickens are the most common animal used. Their sacrifice is believed to please the Saints, and to bring good luck, purification and forgiveness of sins.
bullet Possession: Rhythmic sounds and feverish dancing during Santerian rituals are believed to lead to possession of the individual by the particular Orisha being invoked. The individual then speaks and acts as the Orisha.
bullet Veneration of Ancestors: Ones ancestors, called Ara Orun (People of Heaven) are referred to for moral guidance and example. Their names are recited at family ceremonies.

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Santerian practices:

The following Santerian practices are known:

bullet Secrecy: Very little information about beliefs, ritual, symbolism, practice are released to the general public. One has to be initiated into the faith before information is freely released.
bullet Tradition: Santeria is not a religion of a book, like Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. Like most Aboriginal religions, it is preserved by an oral tradition.
bullet Ritual: A ritual typically begins with the invocation of Olurun. Drums provide background African rhythms. The Oru or rhythm changes to that associated with a specific Orisha, who is then invoked as well. Animals, most commonly chickens, are sacrificed during many rituals. Dancing is another main component of the ritual.
bullet Priesthood: Priests  are called Santeros or Babalochas. Priestesses are called Santeras or Iyalochas. The term Olorisha can refer to a priest or a priestess. They are trained for many years in the oral traditions of the faith. This is followed by a period of solitude before being initiated. They learn dance, songs and healing methods.
bullet Botanicas: These are stores that specialize in providing Santerian supplies. They sell charms, herbs, potions, musical instruments, and other materials used by believers.

There are many national variations to this religion. This is particularly obvious in places like Los Angeles, CA where the Spanish speaking population has many national origins. Mexican Santeria, for example, emphasizes its Roman Catholic roots; it often includes nationally-based icons, like the Virgin of Guadeloupe. Cuban Santeria tends to emphasizes its African origins.

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Copyright © 1995 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2007-MAR-24
Author: B.A. Robinson

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