Santeria, or the religion of the orishas, is one of the results of slavery in Cuba. Although its main branch comes from the Yoruba culture of western Africa, it also contains elements from other ethnic groups that were enslaved between the 16th and 19th centuries. The Yoruba, who built a powerful African society between the 8th and 11th centuries, were taken to Cuba and northern Brazil as slaves in huge numbers. There, their religious practices survived and developed in the Brazilian Candomblé and Cuban Santeria.
During the forced mixing of various African cultures, and despite the oppressive environment of Spanish and Catholic domination and slavery, the Africans and their descendants were able to pass on their ancestral knowledge and keep their religious practices alive. They disguised their worship of their orishas with the saints and adopted elements of Catholic ceremonies. Changó was disguised as Saint Barbara, Ochún was presented as the Cuban representation of the Virgin Mary known as Caridad del Cobre and Yemayá as the Virgin of Regla.
As Cubans emigrated in the middle of the 20th century, and even more so in the 1960s after the Revolution, they took their beliefs with them. In their new communities, they captured the curiosity of new followers and new santero communities formed in Miami, New York and Puerto Rico, and, in more recent years, in Madrid, Caracas and Mexico City.
As it developed in Cuba, the religion is divided into two branches: the Regla de Ocha —or the worship of the saints — and the Regla de Ifá — which is the worship of the orishas through communication with Orúnmila. Followers believe in an all-powerful force that created the universe and is known as Olodumare, whose power is dispersed throughout creation.
The orishas represent the forces of nature and are associated with human values and concepts. So Changó is linked with fire, eroticism and art. Ochún symbolizes water, rivers, femininity and abundance. Yemayá represents the immense power of the seas and oceans, motherly love, and trade. Orúnmila, meanwhile, is witness to creation of the spirit of every person and thus knows the future of all human beings.
There are various levels of practicing the religion. In the beginning, the aleyo, or uninitiated person, visits the babalawo, the priest for Orúnmila, or the santero for a consultation. Both have their own systems for telling the future. The santero communicates with the orisha using shells. Depending on how the shells fall, they determine which oracle the person must consult. The babalawo does the consultation with an ópele, a chain with eight concave discs. The positions of these discs identify one of the 256 oldun that hold the wisdom of the Ifá. The consultation warns of dangers or setbacks or, on the other hand, of the approach of good fortune or opportunities. The consultation should help the person advance both materially and spiritually.
Author: Pablo Samuel Torres
Published: May 31, 2012.
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