Santeria: From Slavery to Slavery

This chapter is taken from the book written by Kent and Katie Philpott titled: The Soul Journey: How Shamanism, Santeria, Wicca, and Charisma are Connected. It was published by Earthen Vessel Publishing in 2014. 

After publishing a rather brief article dealing with Santería, we received a flood of emails regarding it—some pro but most con. This chapter presents a more in-depth look at Santería, in part to satisfy the requests for more information and also to help answer some of the responses that indicated strong disagreement with our views.1 

1.The history of Santería is quite old, and its intertwining with Catholicism in the Western world is partially what has prompted us to cover it in this book also. 

Santería is also referred to as La Regla de Ocha or The Way of the Saints. In Cuba Santería is known as Lucumi, in Brazil it is Candomblé or Macumba, and in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Trinidad, Mexico, and other Latin American countries, it became known as Santería. In Haiti the magical rites are called Voodoo, Vodou, or Voudun. Other names given the religion or systems associated with it are Espiritismo, Curanderism, and Palero.

We are relying on a number of books about the religion, all written by decided proponents, plus personal discussions with a broad spectrum of people. We have consulted the following sources: (1) Santerίa the Religion, by Migene Gonzalez-Wippler; (2) Santerίa: African Spirits in America, by Joseph M. Murphy; (3) Santerίa: The Beliefs and Rituals of a Growing Religion in America, by Miguel A. De La Torre; (4) Yoruba-Speaking Peoples, by A. B. Ellis; (5) Kingdoms of the Yoruba, 3rd ed., by Robert S. Smith; (6) The Good The Bad and The Beautiful: Discourse about Values in Yoruba Culture, by Barry Hallen; (7) article from Gay Religion edited by Scott Thumma and Edward R. Gray, titled “Sexuality and Gender in Santería: LGBT Identities at the Crossroads of Santería Religious Practices and Beliefs” by Salvador Vidal-Ortiz; and (8) many articles that 204 

came up in a Google search on the term “Santería,” which represented varying points of view. 

The sub-title for the chapter, “From Slavery to Slavery,” did not come easily. While we attempt to be as accepting and tolerant of other belief systems as possible, the conviction retained after our research was one not likely to be appreciated by those who identify with Santería. The religion promises its adherents freedom but succeeds only in bringing them into spiritual, emotional, and mental bondage comparable in some ways to the devastating slavery that first brought West Africans to the New World. Religion can be healthy and good, but it can also be bad – toxic, cultic, and dangerous. The following description of the basic facts and tenets of this religion may enable readers to make a decision for themselves regarding the nature and value of the religion. 

A brief history of the worship of the orishas 

Some say the roots of what came to be called Santería in the New World lie in Egypt, Greece, Rome, or even medieval Europe. But it certainly goes back to West Africa, primarily in what are now the nations of Togo, Benin, and Nigeria. The Yoruba people, who settled in these regions about A.D. 1000, had a belief system that brought together many strains of animistic concepts and which resulted in a coherent religious world view. Animism is the belief that “spirits” inhabit the earth in its rocks, plants, streams, animals, mountains, and valleys – indeed all that is natural – and that these can be appealed to, interfered with, communicated with, defended against, and manipulated. Animism is the foundation for many of the world’s religions, and this is especially true of Santería. 

Olodumare is the name usually given to the one supreme god or “orisha” of Santería. Olodumare is almighty and the source of life. All things are said to come from him, and to him all things are to return. In a way, the doctrine combines monotheism – a belief in one god – and monism – one supreme being who is the all. Various “Patakis” of the orishas (also known as Santos), which are stories of the gods and goddesses of the Yoruba religion, including Olodumare, remind one of the foibles of the ancient Greek deities who combined both divine and human traits.2

2 A Pataki, of which there are thousands, are tales of the gods of Santería, the orishas.

Olodumare is said to be incarnated into the world through “ashé,” a creative force, energy, or power that may be obtained by worship and sacrifice to the orishas. 

African slaves brought to the New World 

In 1511, the first African slaves were brought to Cuba from Hispaniola, which 205 

is present day Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and these African slaves brought the orishas with them. Starting in 1521, African slaves were transported directly to Cuba where they worked producing primarily sugar and coffee. 

Practitioners of Santería who arrived in Cuba were under pressure to hide their Yoruba religious concepts, so they learned to mask or merge their faith with that of the Roman Catholic Church. Already in place in that church was the concept of the immortality of the soul, which led to prayers and offerings made to the dead. The churches were full of carved and painted images of departed people who had been declared saints, but who could, if handled rightly, grant requests. Masking the Yoruba deities with the Catholic saints was a means of keeping the old religion alive, even if it meant attaching names of saints to the orishas. Catholicism was the seedbed for the survival of the orishas. 

The Catholic Church allowed ethnic associations – Cabildos – to form and develop, wherein African dancers worshipped before Catholic images, mostly the Virgin and the older saints. This, combined with the blindness of clergymen who did not understand what they were seeing, made certain that the West African slaves could keep their religious and cultural identity intact. 

It was not exactly a form of syncretism, because the belief systems were not combined or inter-twined; rather Spanish Catholicism was a cover to continue worshipping the old gods and goddesses without upsetting or alarming the Catholic hierarchy. 

The Yoruba practitioners identified each orisha or Santo with a Catholic saint. Obatala became known as Our Lady of Ransom (the virgin Mary); Eleggua with Anthony of Padua, Martin of Porres, Benito, the Holy Infant of Prague, and the Holy Child of Atocha; Orunla with Francis of Assisi, St. Phillip, and St. Joseph; Chango with St. Barbara, St. Mark, St. Jerome, St. Elijah, St. Expeditus, and St. Bartholomew; Ochosi with St. Norbert, St. Albert, St. Hubert, St. James; Oggun with St. Peter, St. James (in Santiago), St. John the Baptist, St. Paul, the Archangel Michael; Babalu-Aye with Lazarus; Yemaya with Our Lady of Regla; Oshun with Our Lady of Charity; Oya with Our Lady of Candelaria, St. Teresita; Osain with St. Sylvester, St. John, St. Ambrose, St. Anthony Abad, St. Joseph, St. Benito; Aganyu with St. Christopher, Archangel Michael (in Santiago), St. Joseph; Oko with St. Isidro; Inle with Angel Raphael; Obba with St. Rita of Casia, St. Catalina of Siena, the Virgin of Carmen; Ibeyi with Sts. Cosmas and Damian, Sts. Crispin and Crispinian, Sts. Justa and Rufina – the heavenly twins.3 

3 The orisha Ibeyi was connected with twins and thus the saints so identified with Ibeyi would be twins as well.Devotion to and worship of the orishas was carried out beneath the images of the Catholic saints, despite the fact that the Church did not endorse or embrace the Yoruba orishas. Sometimes the African religion was opposed; at other times, it was simply ignored. 

The numbers of the orishas are variously reported. In West Africa it is probable the number was in the thousands. In the New World that number shrank considerably to 401 according to some and two or more dozen by others. The list above at least names the most popular of the orishas. 

The Yoruba people became known as the Lucumi in Cuba, and then as the religion was folded into Spanish Catholicism, the new identity was Santería – loosely translated as “that saint thing.” (In Cuba the orisha religion is still known as Lucumi.) 

Even Jesus was brought into the Old World religion, given new definitions, roles, and personhood, and became known as Olofi. The orisha worshippers cleverly, necessarily, adapted to a strange and hostile environment and succeeded in preserving their gods and forms of worship. In this way they were able to resist being completely subsumed by the European majority. 

To survive, then, the Yoruba slaves created a seeming alliance with the dominant religion. The Spanish Catholic Church did not demand doctrinal adherence to or an understanding of its doctrines. Usually the “converts” became so under duress, with hundreds merely sprinkled with holy water – sometimes while still wearing their chains.4 

4 The Church at the time and for a long period afterward did require the slaves to be baptized; but now that Jews, Muslims, and people of other faiths are joining Santería, the requirement to receive Catholic baptism is being abandoned. 

African slaves were dispersed throughout the region – Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti,5 

5 Due to French influences it is known there as Voodoo or Voudun.and to other nations of South America, most notably Brazil (which has a high concentration of those who belong to the orisha religion), Venezuela, and other countries. 

In 1959 and the revolution under Fidel Castro, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled from Cuba to the United States, principally to Miami and New York. In 1980, another flood of orisha worshippers was pushed off the island. Now most American cities with any sizable Hispanic population are host to those who keep the worship of the ancient African deities alive. 

Compared to the Catholics, the Protestants were not as welcoming to the Yoruba orishas. Membership in Protestant churches was more clearly defined and regulated. Mere baptism was not enough. Doctrine mattered, as did a commitment to Scripture, which had a decidedly negative view of idol worship and occult practices. The Protestant denominations presented a narrow gate rather than the wide gate of Catholicism. Catholicism required little of the slaves beyond attendance at the sacraments. Indeed, “the Catholicism of colonial Cuba was perhaps not so terribly unlike the religion of the Yoruba homeland.”6 

6 Joseph M. Murphy, Santería: African Spirits in America, 114. 

The three “ways” of SanterÍa 

Santería has three basic approaches to the world of the spirits: One, the way of values – by honoring ancestors or the “egun;” Two, the way of power – direct relationship with spiritual beings, the orishas; Three, the way of order – by way of fortune telling or divination. 

First is the way of values. Here the spirits of the dead are sought to provide ashé. Ashé gives the worshipper power to accomplish and attain things – health, wealth, and power over circumstances and enemies. The ancestors called egun, the people of heaven, provide moral ashé or right behavior. By speaking to the living through one mounted or possessed by the egun, advice and counsel are given. However, the information communicated from the dead to the living is not moral in the traditional sense in terms of right and wrong behavior. Ashé from ancestors, or orishas for that matter, may be sought for protection in criminal activity – protection from harm from enemies or the police, or for acquittals in criminal court cases. The egun may prescribe means by which opponents or enemies may be overcome or harmed.7 

7 La Santa Muerte – A Spanish phrase used for a subset of Santeríans notably the Hispanic drug cartels – means the holy dead and the rites and rituals are employed to prosper criminal activity. 

Dead ancestors are said to reincarnate and be born into their original families after two generations minimum. For instance, grandparents’ souls might be reincarnated into their grandchildren. 

The concept of the immortality of the soul and its transmigration is central to Santería. The doctrine of humans having an immortal soul, but not the idea of a transmigration of that soul, was borrowed from Spanish Catholicism, a doctrine which entered the Church in the fourth and fifth centuries through the writings of Augustine of Hippo, who was deeply influenced by Greek dualistic philosophy that posited the concept of the pre-existent soul and its transmigration.8 

8 Augustine rejected, however, the pre-existence of the soul and did not embrace reincarnation, but he did retain the idea of an immortal soul, which has remained a core doctrine for many Christians from that day to this. Biblically speaking, people are soul, in that they are created in the image of God and thus have a relationship with Him. Thus, humans are soul rather than having a separate entity identified as the soul.

Second is the way of power through orishas who are personifications of ashé that people who honor them can use. In West Africa the lists of the orishas, or gods and goddesses, number about 1700. In the New World the number shrank to either 400 or 401, depending on one’s source of information, but in practical reality in contemporary Santería there are seventeen orishas that are worshipped:9 

9 Some lists have sixteen orishas, others have eighteen. Obatalá, Elegguá, Orúnla, Changó, Ochosi, Oggún, Babalú-Ayé, Yemayá, Oshún, Oyá, Osain, Ósun, Aganyú, Oko, Inle, Obba, and Ibeyί. The religion teaches that priests and priestesses of Santería learn how to make the orisha’s ashé available for those who consult them, thus helping them with their lives, or so they understand. In a celebration known as “bembe,” the orishas will mount or possess dancers; it is when the dancer is possessed that the power of the orishas is present and may be dispensed to other worshippers. 

Also, the worshipper can obtain ashé by sacrificing to the orisha; the sacrifice is known as an “ebbó.” The proper sacrifice is determined by divination, performed by the priests, priestesses, and high priests of Santería, respectively the santero, santera, or “babalawo.” An orisha may demand an animal sacrifice to obtain the animal’s blood, which when sprinkled or poured on an object – usually a sacred stone called the “otane” – it “feeds” the orisha, who then bestows ashé for performing the wishes of the worshipper. 

Third is the way of order, which has to do with “ifá,” or the oracle, the means of divining the future. This may be done by casting, throwing, or dropping palm nuts, cowrie shells, or pieces of coconut on a special flat surface. The babalawo, a higher level of priest, may use a special necklace-like chain that is thrown and then interpreted. For most of the history of Santería, only the babalawo could perform this pinnacle of divination, but in more recent times this is done more and more by the santeros and santeras.10 

10 The Babalawos, the most respected of all the Santería priests, were called the “fathers of the mysteries.” It is said that it took ten to fifteen years for a babalawo to learn the art of divination.The diviner, through whatever means of divination, receives communication from the orisha that “mounted” or possessed him or her at their initiation ceremony, or “asiento,” then passes on whatever prescription is the necessary action or remedy to be taken by the worshipper. Nearly all the sacrifices of Santería that are offered to the orishas are a result of divination. 

SanterÍa and the cultural anthropologist 

Cultural anthropologists study ethnic groups in order to understand the dynamics of that people group. These scientists do not make value judgments on the political and religious institutions they find. The beliefs and practices of a tribe or culture are merely interesting with no moral evaluation involved; anthropologists do not make a point of assessing the truth or fiction or moral correctness of a religious system.  

The African slaves courageously and ingeniously kept their community intact by various mechanisms, not least of which was their belief and worship of the orishas. We are not cultural anthropologists; thus our evaluation of Santería will not be so sanitized, which should come as no surprise. However, one can admire the history of this religion and its people for their survivability, resistance to extinction, and courage to struggle against the crushing impact of slavery and poverty experienced in the New World. 


Spiritism or Espiritismo, which is primarily the concept that the dead live on and may be contacted, impacted Santería in the nineteenth century through the writings of Hippolyte Leon Denizard Rivail, better known by his pen name, Allan Kardec. Born in 1804 in Lyon, France, he became interested in a strange quasi-scientific phenomenon that was sweeping the upper classes of America and Europe called “spirit-tapping.” In 1848, the Fox sisters of Hydesville, New York, began experiencing what they thought were the sounds and sights of spirits of the dead attempting to communicate with the living. A quest to explain such phenomena ensued, and it later resulted in something akin to séances led by mediums – those with special talent for contacting the dead. 

Santería was ripe to be captured by spiritism. The main tenets of spiritist doctrine are the following: 

There is a God, defined as “The Supreme Intelligence and Primary Cause of everything.” (Easily fits the God concept of Santería.) 

There are spirits, all of whom are created simple and ignorant, but owning the power to gradually perfect themselves. 

The natural method of this perfection process is reincarnation, through which the spirit faces countless different situations, problems, and obstacles, and needs to learn how to deal with them. (The egun of Santería visit the living and pass on knowledge of how to learn and perfect themselves. The living are thought to be able to help the egun to learn, grow, and advance in spiritual knowledge and ability.) 

As part of nature, spirits can naturally communicate with living people, as well as interfere in their lives. Many planets in the universe are inhabited. 

To accomplish contact with spirits, Allan Kardec’s movement, often called Mesa Blanca, began using small groups of mediums to assist in the communicating. This worked perfectly into the thought system of Santerían people. The egun could be contacted by their own mediums, the initiated santeros and santeras, who would be mounted by the orishas. Over time, the old practices from Africa used to contact the egun have been set aside, and the common practices of contemporary mediums have been substituted. The spiritualistic séances, at minimum, have supplemented the way of the orishas. 

Thus, all fell into place: The orisha worship of Africa folded into a Catholic setting and was then impacted by American and European spiritism. 


Santeros and Santeras, The Padrinos and Madrinas – and the Ilé 

More and more women, probably now numbering more than men, act as priestesses of Santería. The santeros and santeras are the ones who conduct the asiento or initiation into the religion. All those who are initiated become a member of that santero’s or santera’s house or “ilé.” The egun, the dead belonging to the members of the ilé, are also a part of that household. 

The priests and priestesses of Santería live for the orishas and help those who seek the aid of the orishas. Santeros, male priests, may be known as Padrinos (godfather) and santeras, female priests, may be known as Madrinas (godmother). 

Some long-standing members of Santería complain about how ill-equipped or uneducated many santeros and santeras are. In times past, the time spent in learning the mysteries was long and complex. Now, some are initiated after only a few months. 

People in need of help come to the santero priests and santera priestesses to seek a solution to a problem – maybe involving health, money, or love – the top three categories. The price or fee is the “derecho,” meaning “right” in Spanish,11 

11 As in English, this Spanish word allows several meanings: straight and upright, right side as opposed to left side, human right, and a right determined by law. Perhaps more than one of these meanings is incorporated in Santería but usually refers to the right price asked by the santero or santera.supposedly limited to covering the price of procuring the items essential for whatever sacrifice might be required by the orisha so that the ashé of the orisha can be secured to resolve the problem. However, apparently prices are going up, and there is a fear that the priests and priestesses are taking advantage of their very powerful place in the life of their ilé. 

There is no actual hierarchy in Santería, no actual organization beyond the ilé. The leader is the santero(a), though the head of all Santería is known as the “Ooni,” who is the spiritual head of the Yoruba of Nigeria and of all who worship the orishas in the Americas. The Ooni is said to be a direct descendant of the original persons who founded the Yoruba nation.  

Increasingly there is talk of abuses of various sorts being perpetrated on the houses by the “oriate,” masters of Santerían ceremonies, the babalawos, and priests and priestesses. These abuses fall into the financial and sexual category. Members of a patrino’s or madrina’s house become dependent on them to perform certain functions, mostly to secure health, wealth, and romantic issues. And these cost money, often considerable amounts of money. 

As a result of the dozens of emails we have personally received from babalawos in particular, in response to YouTube videos we have made or articles on Santería that are published in, we are accused of upsetting their business and costing them money. This is increasingly coming to the attention of the ranks of faithful Santeríans. Initiation into the religion may cost tens of thousands of dollars. 

Sexuality plays no small part in Santería and its offshoots. There is virtually no moral ethic articulated in any literature produced in Santería, with only the values of a particular culture in which Santería may be found informing the conscience. From what we have read and understood by direct contact, homosexuality and other illicit forms of sexuality are practiced but out of sight of the non-believing world. Between the financial and sexual irregularities, the houses and temples of Santería are being tarnished. 

How one enters Santería 

An initiate is referred to as an “iyawo.” The padrinos and madrinas oversee the initiation process. The beginning stage requires one year and seven days, during which time the iyawo wears white clothing, refrains from sexual activity, and learns the way of the saints. The end process is the asiento, when the orisha determined by a babalawo.12 

12 The function of diviner is in more recent times carried out by the padrino (santero) and madrina (santera).by means of divination mounts the head, or possesses, the iyawo. The asiento, or initiation ceremony, is conducted by a babalawo or an oriate, those who are knowledgeable about Santerían ceremonies. (A further description of the initiation follows.) 

There are four requisite roles or steps for a person entering Santería. Each step requires a separate ritual be conducted and results in increasing degrees of protection, power, and knowledge. Full entrance requires reaching all four levels, but a person can stop at any one. The steps or roles are: 

Receiving “elekes” – the beaded necklaces 

Receiving the “elegguá” 

Receiving the “warriors” 

Making saint or “asiento” 212 


Elekes are beaded necklaces made of different colors and patterns that correspond to the preferences of the orisha of the santero or santera who conducts the initiation. 

A babalawo, by the use of a divination ritual called the “bajar a Orunla” determines which orisha(s) will be the initiate’s, or “iyawo’s” ruling head.13 

13 Iyawo means “bride of an orisha.” A spiritual kind of marriage occurs when an initiate goes through the initiation process and is “mounted” by an orisha at the Asiento. The iyawo is usually given four to six necklaces, and removes them only in certain circumstances – bathing, sexual activities, sleeping, and during a woman’s menstruation. Breaking a necklace for any reason is a serious problem, and further rituals must be conducted to ward off evil consequences falling upon the owner of the necklace. 

The necklaces are given by a “madrina,” a santera who officiates or orchestrates the initiation. A derecho or fee is required for this ritual, and it is usually substantial. 

The main purpose of the elekes is for protection against all manner of evil, from curses to illnesses. The ashé of the orishas Eleggua, Obatala, Oshun, Yemaya, Chango, and Oya is in the necklaces and is the means of the protection. 

Receiving or making Eleggua 

Eleggua is a “warrior” orisha and is responsible for determining the destinies of people.14 

14 Santería is fatalistic in the sense that a person’s future is already determined. However, modifications can be made through magical rituals.

A babalawo is consulted, and by using a divining tool like seashells, the initiate’s past, present, and future are revealed. From such divining the babalawo prescribes both the building materials and the method for how an image of the head of the orisha Eleggua is to be constructed. The image, mostly made of stones, is then placed somewhere in the house of the iyawo, as close to the front door of the dwelling as possible, in order to protect the house and those living in it from evil forces. 

If, for example, a particular person is causing trouble, that person’s name is written down on a slip of paper and placed under the image. This assures that the orisha Eleggua will suppress that person from causing evil effects. 

The stone image of Eleggua must then be “fed” periodically to assure that there is enough ashé available. This feeding requires blood from a sacrificed animal be sprinkled on the image. In addition to the blood, the image can be fed with the orisha’s favorite offerings: rum, cigars, coconut, toasted corn, smoked fish, opossum meat, and candy.  

Receiving the Warriors 

The “warriors,” or guerreros in Spanish, are given by a babalawo or padrino.15 

15 The santero and santera, the priest and priestess heads of the ilé, are often now replacing the more honored babalawo’s function. – the santero or priest who officiates and orchestrates the initiations. The warrior orishas are Eleggua, Oggun, Osun, and Oshosi. 

The iyawo now has the protection of Eleggua at this stage, but the protection of the other orishas named above is needed. This overall protection is for battle with enemies, both physical and spiritual. 

A distinction in function and power is made between the elekes and the warriors. The elekes are for defensive protection, while the warriors are offensive and attack any who try to do harm. 

Making saint or Asiento 

Members of Santería will have a pot, a crock, or other receptacle in their house containing the otane stones, collected by means of hearing the voices of the ruling orishas. The stones are, in a sense, the orishas and have within them the ashé of the orishas. The orishas are fed through the stones – they are washed and oiled, and the blood of sacrificed animals is sprinkled on them. The ashé stored in the stones is available for the orishas to then use in assisting those living in the house. 

In the asiento – the “ascending the throne” or “making orisha” – the orisha, the identity of which is determined by the babalawo by means of divination, is seated or mounted on or in the head of the iyawo. When this occurs, after a many days-long elaborate ritual, the iyawo may be said to be “born again” into the faith of Santería. 

Miguel A. De La Torre has this interesting description of what happens in the asiento: 

Prior to the ritual, the individual is considered impure and is therefore required to “die” to their old self. The ritual is a process of purification and divination whereby the convert becomes like a newborn, even to the point of having to be bathed and fed like a baby. They are taught the secrets and rites of their god, they learn how to speak through the oracles, and they are “resurrected” to a new life in which they can unite their consciousness with their god. From the moment of the asiento, the convert begins a new life of deeper growth within the faith. 16 

16 Miguel A. De La Torre, Santería: The Beliefs and Rituals of a Growing Religion in America, 112.

A person’s head is thought to be like a stone, and it is in the otane stones where the orishas live and their ashé is stored. A metaphor may be helpful: the stones are like a bank where deposits and withdrawals are made. 

It is said that the iyawo is crowned with the orisha, meaning that the orisha lives in the actual head of the initiate. What happens as a result of the asiento comes close to the idea of possession, since the orisha is said to be inside the head of the iyawo. 

Again a quote from De La Torre is helpful in making it clear what the asiento is:

The purpose of this ritual is to condition the person’s mind and body so that all of the supernatural powers of their orisha can be invested on the one being ordained, allowing him or her literally to become the orisha. This ceremony, which requires at least sixteen santeros or santeras as witnesses, is also known as an asiento. Asiento, the Spanish word for seat, refers to the way in which an orisha “mounts” the one being ordained. To be mounted by an orisha means to be spiritually possessed.17 

17 Joseph M. Murphy, Santería: African Spirits in America, 89. 

The iyawo or ordained one must observe special conditions for a period of one year, one of which is to abstain from sexual activity for that period. The relationship between human and orisha can be seen as a sexual one – a mystical union in which the orishas are “inside” their brides. They “descend” and “mount” their devotees.18 

18 Though we have not seen it spelled out clearly, we have found scattered references, in our opinion deliberately obscured, to incubi and succubae – demons that assume human form and have sexual intercourse with humans. It is not clear from the literature if this is what is meant by an orisha mounting the iyawo. 

The orisha is said to take over the consciousness of the iyawo, and anything said by the person is now considered to be the direct revelation of the orisha. It is thought that “male orishas spiritually possess female bodies and vice versa.”19 

19 De La Torre, 114. And, “While mounted, the possessed person can predict the future, provide advice, see activities occurring elsewhere, or do anything else capricious gods feel like doing.”20 

20 Ibid., 115.

In addition to the orisha, the iyawo is also said to be inhabited in the head by an “eleda,” said to be a guardian angel. 

Making the saint is neither simple nor inexpensive. The ordination process may require as many as three years, though a more contemporary dumbed down version is far shorter. The fee, or derecho, may be as much as $5,000, and some have paid as much as $45,000.  

During the feast that follows the asiento, the iyawo is said to be possessed for the first time by their orisha, and at that point a guinea hen’s head is removed and the blood is drunk by the iyawo. 

For a year following the ordination or asiento, the iyawo learns from their padrino and madrina the fine points of Santería, including the means of fortune telling and how to communicate with the dead. 


A bembe is a party. 21 

21 Santería has been described as a “dance religion.” sometimes held out of doors for the public to view, but is most often held at the home, house church, or temple of the santero and/or santera. It is a party filled with African style drumming and dancing. 

This is where the heart of the religion takes place. Special dancers and drummers participate. The drums are said to have ashé in them, and that ashé and the praise of the participants – often derisive things said in order to stir up the orishas – make the orishas join the party. The drumming is referred to as “tambor.” 

It is evident when the orishas show up, as the dancers appear to become possessed and take on the individual orishas’ character traits, through styles of dance that are attributed to them. Joseph M. Murphy calls this “a harmony of the human and the divine in dance and joy.”22 

22 Murphy, 99.The drumming assists in calling the orishas to the party to possess the dancers, who will go into a trance when so possessed. 


“Ebbos” are food offerings to the orishas. These may be herbal baths, animal sacrifices, or whatever else may be requested by the orishas through divination. 

Ebbos are not bribes, though some are offered to secure the goodwill of an orisha. Ebbos are predominantly for the creation of ashé, that power of the orishas necessary to “help” the petitioner. There are nine different kinds of ebbos, from food offerings to offerings made to make holy the various objects set aside for offerings. 

Candles are lit and various plants are burned, like tobacco in the form of cigars. These offerings are said to release large quantities of ashé. But the amount of ashé released by these is small in comparison to the ashé obtained by means of the blood from animal sacrifices. 

According to the religion, the orishas themselves will determine what animals are to be sacrificed and what parts of the animal are to be offered, communicated by way of the priests and priestesses using divination. Some of the animals typically offered are rooster, opossum, pigeon, female goat, white dove, white canary, white chicken, male goat, monkey, sheep, oxen, deer, bull, turtle, rabbit, quail, horse, guinea hen, pig, snake, duck, ram, fish, turkey, owl, and more. The orishas have their favorite animals, which are spelled out in charts but always memorized by the santeros and santeras. 

Blood sacrifices are necessary, because the orishas are said to be alive and must therefore eat. The blood of the animals is sprinkled or poured on the stones or otanes, which are the most tangible representation of the orishas on earth. The orishas must be fed, which happens when the blood strikes the stones, thus creating ashé to be used in magic. 

There is increasingly less of this kind of ritual in western countries, because people are offended by the animal sacrifices, especially when dead animal carcasses turn up in neighborhoods and other public places. This is part of the effort by Santería to become more acceptable. 


Spells and curses are common with Voodoo, but are found in Santería as well. The religion is power-based, controlling and using power for the benefit of practitioners of the faith. For example, for those involved in criminal court cases, a special powder is used to obtain the help of an orisha that specializes in such things. The use of the powder is said to either win a not-guilty verdict or to simply have the subject released from custody. This is why those involved in criminal activity are attracted to La Santa Muerte, “The Holy Dead,” a subset of Santería. 

An interesting example of a common spell for women in Santería is the following: 

If a woman wishes to seduce a man, she can take seven earthworms, some of her menstrual blood, a dash of her feces, hair from her head and pubic hair, and place them in the sun to dry. When they are dried, she can grind them into a fine powder and place the powder in the man’s food or drink.23 

23 De La Torre, 128.


“Adura” is the Yoruba word for prayer, but with a twist. Since some orishas have certain powers which others do not, the proper selection of an orisha to pray to is important. For instance, the orisha Babalu-Aye is best for healing, so those wishing to be healed address the adura to Babalu-Aye. 217 


“Ewe” are herbs, and they may be a more important component of offerings than an animal sacrifice. Those who deal with herbs, the herb masters, fill the religion’s most vital office. 

To animists like Santeríans, shamans, Wiccans, and other neo-pagans, plants are alive and have characteristics of personhood, are guarded by certain spiritual entities, and most importantly are loaded with ashé. Herbs are often used as offerings to obtain healing. 

Before an herb is used, prayers must be offered that basically ask permission to “take the life of the plant.”24 

24 Ibid., 131. Once permission is given, the herb can be used in a variety of ways for medicine or casting a spell or a curse, depending on what the santero or santera desires. An interesting spell used for causing someone to fall in love with another person is the following: A person swallows a few kernels of hard, dry corn. That kernel is retrieved from the feces, washed, roasted, and then ground up into a powder. Then the powder is slipped into the food or drink of the intended love target. 

Another fascinating use of ewe, and often employed by practitioners of La Santa Muerte, is the hanging of crabgrass at the four corners of the house where someone wanted by the police is staying. The magic is that the crabgrass somehow disorients the police and no one is found. Our favorite is this one: “Washing one’s eyes with bog onion is meant to promote clairvoyance.”25 

25 Ibid., 133.

Since many of the objects necessary for the rituals of Santería are usually obtained in tropical and jungle lands, they are not common in the large cities of the Americas. But specialty stores exist to meet this need. The main place to find all kinds of articles necessary to life in Santería is the “botánica.” If one types “botánicas,” “pet stores,” or “religious goods” into a search engine or consults the yellow pages using these terms, what is revealed is the presence of Santerían retail outlets. These stores will likely incorporate a saint’s or orisha’s name for easy identification by Santeríans. 


Otanes are stones that are said to carry within them the actual presence of an orisha and are thus full of ashé. Otanes are carefully selected on beaches, in valleys, on mountains, and so on, and “call out” in some mysterious way to the faithful to be collected. 

The stones are kept in crockery, or a jar of some kind, called a “sopera.” The otanes must be fed on a regular basis – with blood at least once a year, periodically refreshed in herbal baths, and oiled with substances as well. 


“Ifa” is the orisha of the oracle, the centerpiece of Santería fortune telling. The babalawo, or more recently the santeros and santeras, “read” the ifa to those who come seeking counsel, healing, and other forms of help. By ifa the priest or priestess of Santería deals with the problems of the community. 

Cowrie shells, coconut pieces (four), and palm nuts are thrown, or a chain called the “opele” is laid down and interpreted. Using a strict formula these are “read,” and the reading will determine what is to be done about the problem. Doing ifa is the most common of Santería’s practices. Essentially, the ifa will reveal if a person is in harmony with his or her destiny, and if not, prescribe what can be done or what offering must be made to bring things back into balance. 

Magic and fortune telling 

What we see when looking at many of the rituals and practices of Santería is simply known as magic. Some of it is fortune telling, and these two, combined with spiritism, make up the three essential branches of the occult. The occult arts are all about acquiring power and knowledge, and knowledge is really power. Some Santeríans will acknowledge this. Others want to disguise it, wanting to give their rituals an identity other than magic and fortune telling, since they are aware that Christianity, including the Catholic Church, declares that occult practices are both non-biblical and dangerous. Christians have always been aware of the power of the occult but ascribe that power to demonic forces. 

It is vital to understand the magical, occult nature of Santería, since the religion must stand as it really is and not on what Santería insiders wish outsiders would not see or know. 

Palo Monte and Palo Mayombe 

The Palo sects of Santería originated in the Congo, and developed primarily, but not exclusively, in Cuba. In Spanish it is known as Las Reglas de Congo. In several Caribbean islands, the Congo based system is known as Kumina. Palo means “stick” and is derived from the materials out of which altars were made. 

The priests of Palo are called “paleros,” and as in the parent body, Santería, they head up houses or temples, which are known as Palo Cristiano. This identification is meant to hide the real nature of the houses and work of the paleros from the dominant Catholicism. 

Kardecian spiritism, or Espiritismo, has center stage in Palo Monte. The paleros become possessed by deities and provide advice for members of the Palo Cristiano. This sect is the “dark side” of Santería and is closely tied to black magic and sorcery. 

On what authority? 

The cultural anthropologist, as previously stated, is not concerned about the authority or truthfulness of a religious system, but many others are, since our interests and concerns go beyond simply describing cultural mores and traits. When one purports to know the will of the supreme deity, others are bound to raise questions and make certain evaluations. 

Religions are in competition with one another; they all cannot be correct, since there are significantly different theological and doctrinal views among them. Some are monotheistic, others are monistic, and some are atheistic. The anthropologist need not, as a professional, be concerned about the differences other than to record them. 

The question of authority must be raised in regard to Santería and the Yoruba religion of the orishas: What is the authority for the veracity of their religious teachings? How is it that the orisha system is the true paradigm and others are not? Is Santería the truth because a large block of people embrace it? Or, is it truth for only those who are their adherents, which makes each and every religious system nothing more than a culturally unique fantasy devised to explain the human dilemma and ease pain and suffering? 

In the Christian Scriptures Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Santería teaches that Olofi, an orisha, is Jesus, and that those who worship Olofi are worshipping Jesus. This notion is adverse to true followers of Jesus and is clearly an inauthentic gimmick meant to deceive the unwary. 

Christianity has a definite and substantial authority base found in the Bible. The ultimate author of the Book is the Creator God who has revealed Himself in His Son, Jesus Christ. Christianity is a revealed faith; it is either right or wrong, true or false. Christianity and Santería are antithetical – they will not stand together, and any attempt to make them do so is fraudulent. 

Who exactly are the orishas and the egun? 

According to Yoruba traditions the orishas are spirits that have a mysterious power called ashé that must be obtained by the use of praise, sacrifices, and other magical means. Egun are said to be spirits of the dead. 

How can we be sure this is all true? 

The orishas’ behavior reminds us of the antics of the Greek gods and goddesses of antiquity who were capricious, unpredictable, often immoral, even murderous. Many ancient Greeks believed in them but most did not. Greek mythology served people by explaining, in the most crude and unscientific ways, how and why the world existed. The Greek gods were part of fables only and had no actual being. Our contention is that this is the same for the orishas and the egun. 

The egun, reincarnating from generation to generation, served to comfort people in the face of the reality of death. Death had some of its sting removed through the concept of the immortal nature of the “soul” and its continuous life and contact with the living. While providing comfort and hope is laudable, living with a fictitious world view is not helpful or desirable. 

Could the orishas and egun be evil spirits? Many major world religions accept the existence of evil spiritual beings, including Christianity. Christianity posits an evil presence called Satan, who has with him an innumerable number of fallen angels called demons. Satan wanted to be worshipped as God was; this was his undoing and the reason for his ejection from God’s presence. Satan craves worship; what a perfect mechanism Santería is for this idol worship! 

Conclusions and Thoughts 

As we studied Santería, the superstitious nature of it jumped out at us. The magical processes that stand at the center of the rituals cannot be ignored by simply taking the cultural anthropologist’s way of observing something interesting without attaching moral value to it. To so many, religion is nothing more than a form of theater with no good or bad labels applied. 

Beyond the magic, even further to the core of the religion of the orishas is possession, the mounting of the iyawo at asiento, a straight-forward acknowledgment, even goal, of the god or goddess to invade the individual and take that person over. The priests and priestesses of Santería are possessed by gods and goddesses and thus direct other people how to live. 

Any slavery is brutal, barbaric, and evil. Evil – the dimensions of evil, the monstrousness of it – will likely only be known to us in some far distant future when its hideous presence has been unmasked and abolished, and the goodness of the Creator God is fully revealed. 

This essay is entitled, “From Slavery to Slavery.” What began with a tribal religion among the West Africans who were transported to the New World and terribly enslaved, morphed into slavery of a different kind, a religion of magic and demonic possession. 

Has Santería been beneficial to its adherents? Santería is the means by which the Yoruba culture survived in the New World, but is maintaining ties to that ancient tribal culture worth the cost of trading one kind of slavery for another? 

Now, in this present era, Santería is changing to meet the challenges of the post-modern world. The ilés are becoming churches. Men’s drumming groups are becoming a means for evangelizing Santería on American college and university campuses. Animal sacrifices are far less common, and the carcasses of dead animals are rarely left for a skeptical public to discover. The wild and implausible stories of the orishas or the patakis are heard and written about much less often. And as De La Torre writes, “The African influences within the religion are minimized as the religion advocates more broadly ‘Christian’ ethical perspectives and principles.”26 

26 Ibid., 223. 

Santería, due to the fact the religion found itself immersed in a Spanish Catholic world, had to go underground; it had to keep its secrets secret. Understood. But now in a different time and place, Santería means to capture its share of all strata of those hungry for a fuller spiritual life. Indeed, as Miguel de La Torre has so well said, “What was once the religion of the uneducated black lower economic class is becoming the religion of educated middle-class whites.”27 

27 Ibid., 224. 

Santería and shamanism are closely linked, as both depend upon the trance state or ecstasy. That the same is found in Wicca was made clear in the chapter of that name. All are also connected by various occult arts, such as fortune telling and numerous forms of magic. In many of the most crucial ways, shamanism, Santería, and Wicca are virtually identical. 

Well-known musical groups today adapt the beautiful and captivating African and Latin drum rhythms and thus open up doors through which new potential converts, largely unsuspecting, are entering. One interesting statistic is that in Brazil, with a population around 190 million people, Santería adherents of various levels may run as high as 90%. 

The future will see the institutionalizing of Santería, which will become immediately apparent by typing Santería into a Google search. Right now, Santería has more people devoted to it than many Christian denominations. In fact, it is being viewed now as a world religion alongside Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Wicca. Murphy sees the emergence of Santería and speculates, “We must wait to see where and when the orishas may emerge to mount America at large.”28 

28 Murphy, 115.

Murphy is confident in Santería’s ability to win acceptance in America. He looks to the religion’s history and sees a story of survival, a miracle in light of the enslavement and removal of a people from the Old to the New World. It is often said that the human tragedy of slavery of the body did not become slavery of the spirit. It is this that we question. Will continued acceptance of Santería bring freedom or another kind of slavery? 

A look at the teachings and practices of the religion lead us to think that slavery is the answer. Santería, for those who faithfully practice it, will dominate and control most every aspect of their lives. This might seem like a virtue, if the religion was not steeped in magic, fortune telling, spiritism, superstition, and idolatry. 

What slavery do we have in mind? Here is a partial list: slavery to a paranoid mindset where spells and curses are cast and need to be protected against; slavery to the spirits of the dead; slavery to the necessity of placating the orishas and meeting their demands; slavery to a class of priests and priestesses whose very words are to be considered the words of a deity; slavery to the spirits, the saints called orishas, those entities who are in fact nothing more than unclean or demonic spirits. 

Finally, practitioners of Santería are determined to display their opposition toward those Christians who challenge their belief systems; we have dozens of emails to substantiate this. Why would this be so? We see their responses to biblically-oriented challenges as fearful, which is because Jesus, and only Jesus Christ of Nazareth, has power and authority over demonic spirits. 

During the earthly ministry of Jesus, He cast out demons, and this troubled and amazed the people of His day, including the religious leaders.29 

29 Reading through the Gospel of Matthew will make this abundantly clear.He also gave His disciples authority to do the same, and they have indeed done so over the centuries. The Apostle John even said, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). And then James said, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7). 

Ultimately the reason for this chapter is to speak a word of grace, peace, and mercy to those entangled in Santería. Our intent is also to caution those drawn to Santería: There is more to it than meets the eye. 

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