Way of the Saints
Shrouded in secrecy, Santeria is a growing religious practice in areas of the Caribbean with roots in the African slave communities. Passed down over the centuries by means of oral tradition, the religion is emerging from the shadows and gaining acceptance worldwide.
Words by Dr. Mary Ann Clark. Photography by Antonio Baiano.
You hear drumming and chanting behind courtyard walls. You see men and women robed head to toe in white without the slightest touch of colour. You notice strands of brightly coloured beads peeking out from under shirts and blouses. Is it just the exotic Caribbean or is there more here?
Throughout the Caribbean, but especially in the countries of Cuba and Haiti, you can discover a group of African-based religions known as Santería, Vodou, Shango or Orisha. They are New World reconstructions of religious traditions brought here by enslaved Africans during the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. All are related to traditions still practiced in areas of Benin and Nigeria.
The most popular and widespread of these traditions is the Afro-Cuban religion commonly known as Santería, what many practitioners call Lucumi or Orisha religion. This is a faith of many deities (known as the Orisha), rituals shaped around drumming and dancing, and the use of possession trance to aid communication between the visible and invisible worlds. According to mythology, some of the Orisha were present at the creation of the world, some are the personification of natural forces such as rivers, oceans, lightning, and the whirlwind, and some are deified ancestors. All are powerful beings who can be invoked to aid their devotees with the problems of everyday life.
Among the most popular of the Orisha are Yemaya, who is represented by necklaces of blue and white or crystal beads and is said to be the owner of the oceans; her son Shango who is represented by a necklace of alternating red and white beads and is the embodiment of male power and sexuality; and Ochun the beautiful and sensuous young woman who is associated with rivers and whose necklace consists of yellow and gold beads. She is the goddess of honey, wealth and all the good, sweet things of life. A syncretic religion, many of the Orisha are also associated with Catholic saints. Oshun is associated with the Virgen de la Caridad, the patron saint of Cuba whose golden statue is enshrined in the Basilica del Cobre, just west of Santiago de Cuba.
As you travel through the islands you may notice a plate with a sculpture of a humanoid head surrounded by candy, cigars and other offering placed discreetly behind doors and near entrances. This is a shrine to the Orisha known variously as Eleggua, Eshu or Legba. Eleggua is a trickster deity who facilitates communication among people and between devotees and their deities. He is widely worshipped and honoured by all devotees.
The Eleggua figure is one of the few sacred objects that is displayed openly as these religions maintain a tradition of open secrecy – a result of the ruthless oppression they once faced from slave masters and governments who feared their power and practiced religious intolerance. Once you become aware of the ways the Orisha are represented, however you will see hints everywhere—in small displays in shops and homes, in the colours of observers’ clothing, in all types of artwork and, of course, in the music. You may even find cultural events that exhibit folkloric versions of the drumming and dancing that form the core of religious practice. These are only hints of the rituals, ceremonies and daily practices taking place behind the closed doors of devotees’ homes in the Caribbean and beyond.
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