Santería is a syncretic religion of West African and Caribbean origin, also known as Regla de Ocha, La Regla Lucumi, or Lukumi.[1][2]


The word "santería", often used by colonial Europeans to describe the religion of Africans whose origins are Yoruba (present-day Nigeria and its surrounding environments), can be loosely translated from Spanish as "way of the saints".


The priests are known as babalorishas, "fathers of orisha", and priestesses as iyalorishas, "mothers of orisha", and serve as the junior Ile or second in the hierarchical religious structure. The Babalorishas and Iyalorishas are referred to as Santeros and Santeras, and if they function as diviners of the Orishas they can be considered Oriates. The highest level of achievement is to become a priest of Ifá (ee-fah). Ifa Priests receive Orunmila who is the Orisha of Prophecy, Wisdom and all Knowledge. Ifa Priests are known by their titles such as Babalawo or "Father Who Knows the Secrets". In the recent years, there have been initiations of Iyanifa or "Mother of Destiny," but their role as Ifa diviners is not generally accepted per the Odu Ifa Irete Intelu which states women cannot be in the presence of Olofin or Igba Iwa Odu and so cannot be initiated as divining priestesses. Instead, women are initiates as Apetebi Ifa and are considered senior in Ifa to all but fully initiated Babalawos. However, since Santeria developed outside its West African origin and acquired various influences of Catholicism, Congolese religion, spiritism and Dahomean influences, the opinions of other side (West African or Cuban) have little relevance for either tradition. There is even West African evidence as well as in Brazil that women in Ifa priesthood, albeit small, may have existed for a number of centuries, especially since some religious houses of the Candomble tradition were founded by iyanifa. There is some regional variation to acceptance of women being initiated to Ifa even in Nigeria, while it is more common than not for women to be accepted in those areas. But the regional practices may have contributed to Cuba's restriction of women in Ifa priesthood, perhaps due to the practices and theological opinions of one group overruling that of another within Yorubaland.


The most well known Orishas are; Eleggua,[3] Oggún, Oshún, Changó, Oyá, Obatalá, Yemaya and Orula. These are the most common Orisha names, especially in Cuba.


Santería is a syncretic religion. It is a system of beliefs that merge the Yoruba religion (brought to the New World by slaves imported to the Caribbean to work the sugar plantations) with Roman Catholic and Native American traditions.[2] These slaves carried with them various religious traditions, including a trance for communicating with their ancestors and deities, animal sacrifice and sacred drumming.

In Cuba, this religious tradition has evolved into what we now recognize as Santería. In 2001, there were an estimated 22,000 practitioners in the US alone,[4] but the number may be higher as some practitioners may be reluctant to disclose their religion on a government census or to an academic researcher.

Of those living in the US, some are fully committed priests and priestesses, others are "godchildren" or members of a particular house-tradition, and many are clients seeking help with their everyday problems. Many are of Hispanic and Caribbean descent but as the religion moves out of the inner cities and into the suburbs, a growing number are of African-American and European-American heritage. As the religion of Africa was recreated in the Americas it was transformed.

"The colonial period from the standpoint of African slaves may be defined as a time of perseverance. Their world quickly changed. Tribal kings and families, politicians, business and community leaders all were enslaved in a foreign region of the world. Religious leaders, their descendants, and the faithful, were now slaves. Colonial laws criminalize their religion. They were forced to become baptized and worship a god their ancestors had not known who was surrounded by a pantheon of saints. The early concerns during this period seem to indicate a need for individual survival under harsh plantation conditions. A sense of hope was sustaining the internal essence of what today is called Santería, a misnomer for the indigenous religion of the Lukumi people of Nigeria.

In the heart of their homeland, they had a complex political and social order. They were a sedentary hoe farming cultural group with specialized labor. Their religion based on the worship of nature was renamed and documented by their masters. Santería, a pejorative term that characterizes deviant Catholic forms of worshiping saints, has become a common name for the religion. The term santero(a) is used to describe a priest or priestess replacing the traditional term Olorisha as an extension of the deities. The orishas became known as the saints in image of the Catholic pantheon." (Ernesto Pichardo, CLBA, Santería in Contemporary Cuba: The individual life and condition of the priesthood)

As mentioned, in order to preserve their authentic ancestral and traditional beliefs, the Lukumi people had no choice but to disguise their orishas as Catholic saints. When the Roman Catholic slave owners observed Africans celebrating a Saint's Day, they were generally unaware that the slaves were actually worshiping their sacred orishas. In Cuba today, the terms "saint" and "orisha" are sometimes used interchangeably.

The term Santería was originally a derisive term applied by the Spanish to mock followers' seeming overdevotion to the saints and their perceived neglect of God. It was later applied to the religion by others. This "veil" characterization of the relationship between Catholic saints and Cuban orisha, however, is somewhat undermined by the fact that the vast majority of santeros in Cuba today also consider themselves to be Catholics, have been baptized, and often require initiates to be baptized. Many hold separate rituals to honor the saints and orisha respectively, even though the disguise of Catholicism is no longer needed.

The traditional Lukumi religion and its Santería counterpart can be found in many parts of the world today, including the United States, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Panama, Nicaragua, Argentina, Colombia, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Great Britain, Canada, Venezuela, and other areas with large Latin American populations. A very similar religion called Candomblé is practiced in Brazil, along with a rich variety of other Afro-American religions. This is now being referred to as "parallel religiosity"[5] because some believers worship the African variant that has no notion of a devil and no baptism or marriage, yet they belong to Catholic or mainline Protestant churches, where these concepts exist.

Lukumi religiosity works toward a balance in life on earth (androcentric) while the European religions work toward the hereafter. Some in Cuban Santería, Haitian Vodou or Puerto Rican spiritualism (Afro-Latin religions) do not view a difference between saints and orishas,[6] the ancestor deities of the Lukumi people's Ifa religion.

There are now individuals who mix the Lukumí practices with traditional practices as they survived in Africa after the deleterious effects of colonialism. Although most of these mixes have not been at the hands of experienced or knowledgeable practitioners of either system, they have gained a certain popularity.

In 1974, the first Santería church in the US was incorporated as the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye.[7]

Controversies and criticisms

  • In 1993, the issue of animal sacrifice was taken to the United States Supreme Court in the case of Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah. The Supreme Court ruled that animal cruelty laws targeted specifically at Yoruba were unconstitutional;[8] the Yoruba practice of animal sacrifice has seen no significant legal challenges since then.
  • There have been a few highly publicized cases where injuries allegedly occurred during Lukumi rituals. One such case reported by The New York Times took place on January 18, 1998 in Sayville, New York, where 17-year-old Charity Miranda was suffocated to death with a plastic bag at her home by her mother Vivian, 39, and sister Serena, 20, after attempting an exorcism to free her of demons. Police found the women chanting and praying over the prostrate body. Not long before, the women had embraced Lukumi. However, Lukumi doctrine does not postulate the existence of demons, nor does its liturgy contain exorcism rituals. The mother, Vivian Miranda, was found not guilty due to insanity, and is currently confined in a New York State psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane.[9]
  • There have been some horror thrillers about the religion, such as the 1987 movie, The Believers based on the 1982 novel The Religion, and the 1997 Spanish-Mexican-American movie Perdita Durango, which portray Santería beliefs and practices as sorcery (including mind control) and worship of various deities, encompassing human sacrifice and criminal amorality.


  1. Santeria Religions of the World. Retrieved on 4 January 2009.
  2. 2.0 2.1 LUCUMI REL'GION New Orleans Mistic. Retrieved on 4 January 2009.
  3. A Tale of Eleguá - Trickster God of Crossroads, Beginnings and Opportunities.
  4. American Religious Identification Survey, 2001.
  5. Perez y Mena, SSSR paper, 2005.
  7. Richard Fausset (2008-08-10). "Santeria priest won't let religious freedom be sacrificed". Los Angeles Times.,0,7005689,full.story. Retrieved 2008-08-10. 
  8. 508 U.S. 520 Full text of the opinion courtesy of
  9. John T. McQuiston (January 28, 1998). "Mother who called daughter possessed pleads not guilty to her murder". The New York Times: pp. B/5. Retrieved 2007-07-26. 

Further reading

  • John Mason and Gary Edwards, Black Gods — Orisa Studies in the New World, Yoruba Theological Archministry, 1985. ISBN: 978-1-881244-02-8
  • John Mason. Olokun: Owner of Rivers and Seas ISBN 1-881244-05-9.
  • John Mason. Orin Orisa: Songs for selected Heads ISBN 1-881244-06-7.
  • Baba Eshu Onare, Ifa - Santería: Tratado Enciclopédico de Ifá.
  • Cabrera, Lydia (1995). El Monte: Igbo - Finda, Ewe Orisha/Vititi Nfinda. Ediciones Universal. ISBN 978-0-89729-009-8. 
  • Chief Priest Ifayemi Elebuibon, Apetebii: The Wife of Orunmila ISBN: 09638787-1-9.
  • J. Omosade Awolalu, Yoruba Beliefs & Sacrificial Rites ISBN: 0-9638787-3-5.
  • Baba Ifa Karade, The Handbook of Yoruba Religious Concepts.
  • William Bascom, Sixteen Cowries.
  • David M. O'Brien, Animal Sacrifice and Religious Freedom: Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah.
  • James T. Houk, Spirits, Blood, and Drums: The Orisha Religion of Trinidad. 1995. Temple University Press.
  • Baba Raul Canizares, Cuban Santería.
  • Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit.
  • Miguel A. De La Torre, Santería: The Beliefs and Rituals of a Growing Religion in America.
  • Miguel R. Bances, Santería: El Nuevo Manual del Oba u Oriaté.
  • Mozella G. Mitchell, Crucial Issues in Caribbean Religions, Peter Lang Pub, 2006.
  • King Charles Spencer, Nature's Ancient Religion Create Space, 2008" ISBN: 1-4404-1733-7.
  • Andres I. Perez y Mena" Speaking With The Dead: Development of Afro-Latin Religion Among Puerto Ricans in the United States" AMS — Press 1991 ISBN 0-404-19485-0.
  • Anthony M. Stevens Arroyo & Andres I. Perez y Mena, Editors "Enigmatic Powers: Syncretism With African and Indigenous Peoples'Religions Among Latinos" Bildner Center for Western Hemisphere Studies 1995 ISBN 0-929972-11-2 (hbk.) & 0-9657839-1-X (pbk.)
  • Andres I. Perez y Mena, "Understanding Religiosity in Cuba" in Journal of Hispanic/Latino Theology. February 2000. Vol 7 No. 3 Copyright: The Order of St. Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota.
  • Andres I. Perez y Mena, “Cuban Santería, Haitian Vodun, Puerto Rican Spiritualism: A Multicultural Inquiry Into Syncretism.” 1997. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Vol. 37. No.1.
  • Andres I. Perez y Mena, Santería: in "Contemporary American Religion," an encyclopedia. Wade Clark Roof, Editor in Chief. Macmillan Reference, Macmillan Publishing. New York, New York, Fall, 1999.
  • Andres I. Perez y Mena, Animal Sacrifice: in "Contemporary American Religion," an encyclopedia. Wade Clark Roof, Editor in Chief. Macmillan Reference, Macmillan Publishing. New York, New York, Fall, 1999.
  • Andres I. Perez y Mena, Religious Syncretism. 1996. "The Latino Encyclopedia" by Salem Press, Suite 350, 131 North El Molino Avenue, Pasadena, California, 91101.
  • Andres I. Perez y Mena, John Paul II Visits Cuba, in "Great Events of the Twentieth Century." 2000 Edited by Salem Press, Pasadena, California.
  • Andres I. Perez y Mena. 1982. “Socialization by Stages of Development into a ‘Centro Espiritista’ in the South Bronx of New York City.” Special Collections, Gottesman Libraries Archive Historical Dissertations. Teachers College, Columbia University.
This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Santería. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.
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