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Santeria Religion: History, Beliefs, and Other Facts

Shreyas Dasharathe Mar 18, 2020
The Santeria religion has been practiced for centuries. It is an interesting syncretization of religions. We talk about the origins and beliefs of the Santeria religion, along with other interesting facts.

Did You Know?

Initiation in Santeria religion takes 1 year and 1 week. This process is not taken lightly, and includes various strict practices that one must follow in order to get initiated.
Santeria is an Afro-Caribbean religion which spread across Cuba during the slave trade. It is also known as Regla de Ocha, Regla de Ifa, or La Regla Lucumí. Santeria is a syncretic religion, i.e., a combination of various other beliefs and rituals with their own.
It has elements mainly of the Yoruba religion and Christianity. The language of this religion is known as Lucumi, and has a dialect of the Yoruba language (which is primarily spoken in regions of West Africa).
In the early 19th century, approximately 1 million slaves were transported to Cuba, which later went on to become the major region where this religion came into practice.
Santeria is a Spanish word which roughly means 'devotion to the saints'. Practitioners mainly worship the 'Orisha', which means 'head guardians'. Santeria was a secret religion for many years, practiced by the slaves who arrived in the Caribbean and Cuba.

History of Santeria Religion

The Santeria religion developed in Cuba, where a majority of slaves were traded in from Nigeria in Africa. Coming purely from the Yoruba religion, the slaves were asked to convert into Christianity. The slaves therefore combined some of the Christian beliefs with Yoruba religion beliefs, giving rise to Santeria.
This is one of the main reasons why Santeria has such a strong presence of Christian elements. Although, there is also a notion that the Santerians never merged the two religions. They simply carried the two in parallel, eventually finding them too similar to distinguish.
The basic premise of the religion is very similar to that of Christianity. As Christians have one God, Santerians too worship one God, whereas the other figures are merely saints.
They realized this and preserved this secrecy of their own religion by equating each of their Orisha deities to a corresponding Christian Saint. So, a Santerian believed to be worshiping a particular Christian saint for their masters, was actually, in secret, worshiping a deity belonging to their own religion.
Just like the practices, a similar thing went with the language too. Most of the masters spoke Spanish, and thus the same was required for the slaves too, whose original language was Yoruba. Over the years, as the religious practices merged, the languages also intermixed. Evidently, the Santerian language contains terminologies from both, Spanish and Yoruba.
All these practices and rituals went on secretly for centuries in Cuba. When they left Cuba, they carried these practices with them to other regions too, like the United States, Canada, Brazil, and Europe.

Gods of the Santeria Religion

There is a common misconception about this religion being polytheistic, i.e., that they believe in more than one God. There is only one God with three manifestations: Olodumare, Olorun, and Olofi. Olodumare, the creator of the universe, is also referred to as The Father or The Supreme Being.
The Sun is the manifestation of Olofi, Olorun is the Owner of the Heavens, and Olifi is the Communicator between the Heavens and the Earth. The Orishas are the emissaries of the supreme God Olodumare.
Each Orisha has a distinct characteristic and behavior. They are also uniquely associated with various items. Given further is a list of some well-known Orishas, with their information in brief.


Feast Day: September 24
Colors: White
Number: 8
Corresponding Catholic Saint: Our Lady of Mercy
Food: White foods; milk, rice pudding, white hens, coconut milk, etc.
Herbs: Algodon, maravilla, blanco, bledo
Obatala is known as the Creator of Human Bodies. It is believed that he was the first Orisha created, and is the father figure of the Orishas. He is also called the King of White Cloth, always dressed in white. He is married to Yemaya. The wise and compassionate Obatala does not consume alcohol at all. For an offering, he should never be served alcohol.


Feast Day: June 13
Colors: Red, black
Number: 3
Corresponding Catholic Saint: St. Anthony
Food: Smoked fish, possum, toasted corn, male chicken
Herbs: Abre camino, lengua de vaca, pata de gallina
Eleggua is associated with crossroads, often addressed as the Lord of all Crossroads. He is believed to be the messenger of Gods. He is the most powerful Orisha after Obatala. He is portrayed as a child, and is particularly fond of children. He loves music, magic, and playing tricks on others.
His magic spells are almost impossible to break. He wants everyone to be in a light mood, and his mischief is intended for the same purpose. He is generally presented as a stone head with facial features like eyes, mouth, and ears. These features are usually made out of cowrie shells.


Feast Day: December 4
Colors: Red, white, gold
Number: 4
Corresponding Catholic Saint: St. Barbara
Food: Chili peppers, corn bread, tamales
Herbs: Rosa de jerico, cedro, paraiso, quita caldicion
Chango is regarded Casanova of the Orishas. He is a skillful dancer and drummer. He is the Master of Fire, Lightning, and Thunder. He is very passionate and loving, and a highly skilled sorcerer. He is known for his vibrant energy and oozing power. He loves alcohol, but despises cigars. For his romantic and energetic nature, he is the most popular Orisha.


Feast Day: September 7
Colors: Blue, white
Number: 7
Corresponding Catholic Saint: Our Lady of Regla
Food: Watermelon, apples, grapes, sugarcane syrup.
Herbs: Verbena, lechuga, yerba, helecho
Yemaya is the Mother Figure and Giver of Life. She is regarded as the greatest Orisha. She is the wife of Obatala, and is very devoted and loyal to him. She is the Ruler of all Seas and Oceans. Being the mother, her area of influence is women and pregnancies.


Feast Day: September 8
Colors: Yellow, gold, amber
Number: 5
Corresponding Catholic Saint: Our Lady del Caridad del Cobre
Food: Honey, pumpkins, spinach, sweet potatoes
Herbs: Anil, canela, anis, manzanilla, pomarrosa
Being the youngest of the Orishas, she is sweet, kind, beautiful, and charismatic. She loves to dance and wishes everyone to be happy. She is the Ruler of Love, Sexuality, Marriage, Arts, Human Pleasures, and Money. She is not angered easily, but very difficult to please once angry.

Beliefs of the Santeria Religion

Santerians believe that the Orishas help people through their daily lives. According to them, each person belongs under a particular Orisha, and he/she must worship that Orisha throughout their life.
The Orishas help people realize their fate and guide them towards achieving their goals. As the Orishas are not considered to be immortal, people must keep on praying to them so their existence is sustained.
They are believers of ritual sacrifices. Chickens being the most common animal to be sacrificed, some practices involve the offering of its blood to the Orishas. These sacrifices are believed to be an act of purification and forgiving of people's sins. They are also believed to bring good luck and fortune.
Santerians believe that the Orishas communicate to the people through priests. A possessed priest during a Santerian ceremony has powers like predicting the future and healing the sick. The process of being possessed is often under the influence rhythmic sounds and dancing.

Rituals and Customs

Any information regarding the beliefs, rituals, and practices is not accessible to the general public. They are careful about not releasing information outside the faith. Practitioners gather themselves in what they refer to as the 'house of saint'. Attires are often white in color, to symbolize purity.
Followers are encouraged to participate in all the rituals to increase their touch with the Orishas. The rituals often consist of dancing, eating, and singing, so as to create the required trance and energy. The ritual of animal sacrifice includes sacrifice of blood to a deity, while the meat is consumed by the humans.
Given the history of the Santeria religion, their traditions and customs are preserved and passed on orally, as opposed to other religions who use books and texts as their medium of preservation. The process of gaining priesthood includes years of learning of oral traditions and other customs like dances, songs, and healing processes.
Santeria religious spells and magic practices mainly focus on solving individual conflicts. The practices are neutral and harmless. They do not allow or promote unethical practices leading to any kind of distress or criminal activity. Though, one should be careful and aware of people carrying out unethical or illegal practices in the name of this religion.
Nearly a million Cubans left the island after the Cuban Revolution of 1959, and spread across various regions, including major parts of America. Many followers have received public recognition for their spiritual accomplishments. As of today, thousands of people follow this religion in the Untied States, with the number only increasing every year.