TWO ARTICLES INTRODUCTING
What follows are two articles I wrote
for Pangaia Magazine several years ago for a column called 'Worldwide
Paganism.' Recently I have experienced both a
positive curiosity about these religions from fellow esotericists as
well as some rude and ignorant comments about these ancient and
beautiful faiths. With the aim of adding to the positive information
available I am reprinting these articles here. I do not claim to be an
initiate in either faith, just a fellow traveller with great and
personal respect for the Loa & Orisha and for their Priests &
Priestesses whom I have been honored to call friends. Ashe!!!
Voodoo: The Path of the Loa
In this 'new age' it has become fashionable to
dabble in different global
traditions without really understanding them. It is never my intention
rip-off any faith or tradition in any way and it is my feeling that
who is drawn to an esoteric tradition that they were not born into
approach it with utmost respect, sincerity and commitment.
With these comments behind us, let us now enter
another world and
experience the power and faith of what has survived as a vital Pagan
even as it adapted to and overcame oppression. This faith is Voudun, or
it is more commonly known, Voodoo.
When black slaves were brutally taken from West
Africa to supply
plantations in South America, the Caribbean and the Southern US, many of
them brought with them complex and well-developed nature-based religions
from their respective tribes. In many places, these religions and
spirit-cults helped unite slaves from very different tribes and so, even
though the white masters tried to brutally supress these religions, they
In Brazil this African-based 'melting pot' religion became Candoble or
Macumba, in Cuba Santeria, in Haiti and Louisiana, it became Voodoo.
The term 'Voodoo' comes from the the word 'Voudun,'
which in the Fon
language of Benin means 'an amazing, invisible mysterious force which
meddle in human lives at any time.' These forces are often forces of
that are important to people. In Voodoo, as in other Pagan religions,
forces were all personifies as particular spirits or gods. As slaves of
different tribes mixed, so too did traditions and gods of different
pantheons mix and meld. Thus, Voodoo ended up with an eclectic but
pantheon of gods and goddesses.
In Haiti, where Voodoo developed under the atrocious
despotism of the French, the different 'lineages ' of Voodoo are still
named after various tribal areas in Africa (Congo, Rada, Guinea cults
etc.). This mixing of different pantheons occurred in the late 1800s in
Haiti, and so this 'new' religion became democratized into the
'nation of spirits.' No longer called Voudun, the gods were called Loa
Miste (mysteries) Zanj (angels) or saints. The later is because Catholic
saints became important images of the African gods because only
was allowed and slaves were murdered for having fetishes or images of
gods. Thus images of Catholic saints became masks for the old gods and
goddesses. So, for example, the Voodoo Goddess Erzulie is even today
honored as the Virgin Mary.
The history of Haiti, how slaves revolted and
founded the first Black
republic in the new World and how Voodoo played a key and crucial role
all of this forms a fascinating story, but one we must skip over for
What we want to explore is the faith, and so let us briefly look at the
gods, rituals and beliefs of this great and very misunderstood religion.
In Voodoo the universe is said to be filled with the
power of the One God,
but God's powers manifest as many spirits or gods, these are called
we have said, they may take many different forms. Loa (meaning
in the Yoruba language) are honored at temples called hounfor and they
served by priests or priestesses called houngan and mambo, respectively.
These priests and priestesses conduct ceremonies and maintain the
and the faith, but they also practice magic, bless, curse, make charms,
help people get money, heal the sick and so on. Their most important
function, however, is to feed and worship the Loa or gods.
These priests and priestesses are as varied as the
Loa they serve. Some
are extremely holy and have practiced their faith for decades devoutly.
Others are less serious and less powerful, but it is said that the
or Priestess must be able to control the Loa, to guide and to
their manifestations through the possessions of followers in controlled
helpful ways. Whoa be it to the inexperienced Priest who loses control
the Loa invoked or who offends a Loa, they punish as well as help and
literally injure or kill an arrogant or errant priest! Remember, Loa are
personified forces of great power.
Priests and Priestesses must also undergo in-depth
initiations. When we
were in New Orleans, Oswan Chamani, who was the Houngan of the Voodoo
Spiritual Temple there, spoke with us about parts of his initiation in
Belize. He was actually buried alive with a corpse for a period of time
then, through a great ritual, was retrieved from 'the spirit world'
empowered and reborn.
Typical Voodoo initiations seem to all have this
element, with initiates cloistered and shut away for 9 days of
Their practices at that time consist of meditation, learning,
and empowering themselves. Before this they undergo a ritual of
or 'lifting' where they are installed as devotees of the temple they
to become a part of.
This article is based on an interview with Santera Jill Howard of
Lecumi. I would like to thank her as well as her husband the Babalawo
Cameron Howard for opening up the world of the Orishas to me. And, of
course, thanks to the Orishas themselves. Ashe!
ABOUT THE RELIGION OF SANTERIA
Santeria (formally called Osha) is a religion born in Africa by way of
Cuba. When the slaves were forced out of Africa and brought to different
parts of the new world they brought their religion with them. In Brazil
this religion became Candomble*, In Cuba it became Santeria, in
became Shango and in Haiti it became Voodoo. All of these
religions can be
considered as sister religions and they are all respected as such.
Santeria believes that everyone has a special destiny. Before each
is born, they come before God. Orumula is also there and Eshu is there.
person then chooses his or her destiny and the Orishas say "So be it."
you come to the earth and of course you forget what was said, but the
Orishas are here to guide you in your destiny because they were there
What are the Orishas? They are High Spirits, forces of Nature. Santeria
believes that there is one God who created the earth and after he
the Earth, he created the Orishas to take care of the people and of the
world. They are Gods, deities, High Spirits; but there is only one God.
Some people refer to them as Guardian Angels because this is easier for
people today to grasp.
The Orisha are both forces of nature and High Spirits and can be
as both. For instance, if someone wanted to offer something to Oshun,
Goddess of wealth, happiness, comfort and so on, they might bring an
offering of five oranges. They can bring them to a Santera to
they can bring them to a river and offer them to the Goddes at her
The Orishas are manifested as Nature. The Orishasa are forces of
but they are more. They are living beings. When you take those five
to Oshun at a river and pray for someone to love, she may bring someone
Why is the religion called Santeria, 'The religion of the Saints?' When
slaves were focably taken to Cuba the masters were Catholics and they
stopped the slaves from practicing their religion. The slaves saw the
statues of the master's religionlike, for eaample, Santa Barbara, and
would see visual similarities as well as similarities in the tales of
Saint herself to one of their Orishas, in this case Shango. And so they
said, 'let's hide Shango behind Santa Barbara so we can worship him.'
Barbara was never melded with Shango, no one believes that she IS
it is just another way of recognizing Shango. When a Santeria worshiper
venerates Santa Barbara he or she is worrshipping Shango. Why are the
Saints images still used, even though slavery is long dead? Because a
Santero or Santera looks at Santa Barbara and is filled with respect for
the Lecumi people who used ingenuity and wisdom to keep their African
religion alive. Without their actions, the religion would have died out.
By using the Saints images in this way we honor this tradition. It is
important to note that it was the Orishas themselves who guided the
in this and so the tradition of masking the Orishas with Saints
Many followers of Santeria are still practicing Catholics and the
Church is not blind to this at all. The more open minded priests see
whatever helps the people to live better lives is not a bad thing. It is
not a problem for most followers to go to church and also practice
Santeria. There is a saying, 'Jesus is nice, but the Orishas are
If a follower of Santeria wants something done, he or she turns to the
Gods and Goddesses, the Orishas.
Santeria is a very practical religion. Say someone comes for a
consultation, divination with the cowrie shells, and we call to Elegua,
God of doors, opportunities and paths and say the god says '"You have to
stay off of street corners." Is this in a metaphysical sense? No! It
really avoid street corners, a car might jump the curb!
There is alot of giving and taking between the Orishas and people. You
to give something to get something, always.
Yet it is important to remember that miracles can happen with just
offerings, like one white candle offered to the Orishas, as long as the
prayer comes from the heart. The spirit of the offering is always more
important than what is offered. A simple offering from a poor person
more than a large offering from a rich person who isn't devout.
All Gods need People and all people need gods The relationship is the
as between parents and children. In the same way a parent needs a child
a child needs a parent, so do we and the Orishas need eachother. It is
Orishas directly contact their children in many ways. Orishas appear to
their children quite frequently in dreams. They appear in ritual
celebrations by sometimes posessing their children. If an Orisha wants
get a message to you, he or she might have a stranger come up to you on
street and say something specific for you. The world is a magical place
the Orishas may manifest in any way they choose.
Usually when anything happens in your life, there is
a reason. Santeria
does not believe in coincidences. Through divination we find out why the
event happened and what we can do about it. The universe is alive, the
Orishas are always doing their work. God put them on the earth to help
to guide us to help us follow our destiny.
There is no 'Bible' in Santeria, but there are many
books out there. Some
good, many not. All the important traditions, as mentioned, are oral but
there are some important writings. Much depends on what level you are.
There are certain books that only the Babalaos read because they contain
the wisdom of Orumula and only the High Priests have the right to
that. Most of them are in Spanish. Santeria initiates use Lucumi
for many prayers, this is passed down orally.
There are no set moral codes or commandments in Santeria. What is good
one person may not be good for another, it is all relative. Some people
like a room full of drinking and dancing people, but for another it is a
bad situation. Everything is different for everyone. That is why you use
divination , to discover what is and is not right for you. This is not
fortune telling, it is wisdom. If you follow your path and do
Orishas tell you to do, you will become a more moral person, you will
become more conscious and aware of how you treat others. You will
be a better person.
Santaria does not believe in Satan per se, Santeria is all about
Without good, there wouldn't be evil and visa versa. Again, what is good
for one person is bad for another. The Orishas are beyond good and evil,
good and bad are what people do, not the Orishas. For example, someone
die in a car accident, a bad thing, and yet Ogun and Exu feed at car
accidents, they may even cause them. This is their nature, it is beyond
understanding. Just as you can not stop a cat from eating mice, the
are above our limited understanding. Death is a part of life and a
necessary part and like the Orishas, it is a force of nature.
When someone does what we would call bad things there is usually a
for it, something that started it all. Through divination and the
we can correct this imbalance, miracles can happen. It is all a matter
correcting imbalance and returning a person th balance and harmony and
this way people can evolve and grow.
Santeria is deeply connected to nature, to Mother Earth. The Orisha of
Earth is Oku*. Everything on the earth has an Orisha and so if you
and love and venerate the Orishas then you have to love and respect the
Earth. Remember, the first places of worship were groves of trees
forest. It goes one had in the other. For exxample,In Santeria
the Orisha of plants and trees, when you cut down all the trees you are
cutting yourself off, you are cutting your own life off really.
by despoiling the environment, show that they do not know what respect
means. Santeria teaches what respect means: You have to respect Orishas,
the Ancestors, the Earth , everything- you really learn what this
means to be humble and not acting out of greed and thoughtlessness.
LIVING AS A SANTERA OR SANTERO
As a Santera you live a life of constant service, to the Orishas first
foremost, to the Ancestors and to anyone the Ancestor or the Orishas
to your door. The religion of Santeria is one of God-families and you
acchieve growth and evolution through initiation and the initiations are
called for by the Orishas. Our religion is taught by word-of-mouth, it
based on oral tradition and the real learning doesnt start until you
In Africa they have the phrase 'Iway tele*' which means "To have good
vharacter." There are no strict rules in Santeria, followers seek to
have good character and this is different for everyone. There are rules
protocol, however, traditions that are important, that must be followed,
and they depend on what initiations you have recieved. When someone is
initiated in a House they are then the Godchildren in the
If they have problems, they can go to her and it is her obligation to
them, but they also have obligations, like providing food and
So Santeria, for a believer is a faith of
responsibility to those above
you and to those below you, and obligation to the Orishas who are above
All the Orishas have colors, numbers, days, attributes, Saints and
things they like within which they recognize themselves. If you are
offerings to the Orishas, it is important to take these things into
consideration. One might give three caramels, for example, to Elegua on
Monday. It is important to remember that the Orishas have many paths and
aspects and these may have slightly different colors and so on. There
many Orishas, many of the most powerful ones are mentioned below. (The
seven main Orishas, sometimes called the '7 African Powers' are: Elegua,
Ogun, Obatala, Shango, Yemaya, and Oshun.)
Elegua- He is the owner of all the doors, paths and opportunities of
He is the trickster. He can turn any situation upside-down in a split
second. He is the smallest and largest all at once. Of all the Orishas,
always have to take care of Elegua first.
Elegua's colors are red and black. The saint that covers him is the Holy
Child of Atocha. His number is three. He likes candy, caramels
rum and cigars. Monday is his special day.
Ogun- He is the Orisha of iron and metals and he is a blacksmith, He is
Orisha of war and technology. He is an orisha of power and he is very
intense. You have to be very careful with Ogun. Ogun is blood and
The saint that covers him is St. Peter or the Angel Michael. His colors
green and black, his number is seven. He also likes rum and cigars. His
Ochosi- He is the Orisha of the hunt and of absolute justice. One of his
animals is the deer. He is called in legal matters, to keep the police
away. He protects people from mishaps in the forest or to hunt animals.
saint that covers him is St, Norbert. His colors are blue and yellow and
his number is also seven. His day is Tuesday.
Osain- He is the Orisha who rules over a person's health and he is
represented by a silver rooster. He warns you if anything is wrong and
protects you from diseases and problems.
He has no particulars colors or numbers, he is a minor Orisha but he is
always prayed to along with the other Warriors. The saint that covers
is St. John. He 'eats' with the other Orishas and he likes honey. His
The four Orishas just mentioned are the Guerrars*, the Warriors. They
manifets together in the second initiation and it is said after this
initiation that one has 'recieved his or her Warriors.'
Obatala is theOrisha who is the Father of the other Orishas. He is the
oldest, he is the King. He is peace, tranquility, purity, calmness of
clarity of action and higher spiritual power. Many children of Obatala
musicians. He is called to resolve disagreements and to help all
The saint that covers him is Our Lady of Mercy.
Obatala likes white candles and pears.
Oya- She is the Orisha who owns the cemetaries. She is the strong gales
winds. She is the only orisha who wears pants and she fights in battle.
only call her very carefully because she is the Orisha of the cemetery
can take you there.The saint that covers her is Our Lady of the
Presentation of Our Lord. Oya recognizes herself in floral
likes eggplants. Her day is Wdnesday
Shango- He is the Orisha of fire and lightening, male virility and
He owns the drums and he is a fierce protector of his children.
are red and white and his number is six. The saint that covers him isSt.
Barbara. He likes apples and banannas. His day is Saturday.
Yemaya- She is the mother of all the Orishas. She is the owner of the
and as such she is the owner of all life because all life started in the
seas. Her personality is that of a mother and she is very mysterious.
would go to her for childbirth and all nourishing things like the
of children. The saint that covers her is Our Lady of Regla. Her number
seven and her colors are blue and white. Her day is Friday.
Orunmila- he is the Orisha of wisdom and Knowledge, he is the Orisha of
Babalaows. Sometimes he is called Orula. One of his titles is 'witness
the creation' because he was there when Odolomare created
the world and
he knows everything. He is approached through Babalowos. You pray to him
and he leads you to a Babalawo for help. The saint that covers
him is St.
Francis. His number is sixteen and his colors are green and yellow. His
Oshun- She is the Orisha of wealth, love, relationships and so on. She
rules all the sweet waters of the world, the lakes and rivers. Yemaya
Oshun are sisters, that's why the rivers always flow to the ocean. She
the Orisha of sexuality and generosity. Her colors are yellow, gold and
orange. The saint that covers her is Our Lady of Charity.
She likes oranges and honey. Her day is Saturday.
It is very likely that a person would have several Orishas in his or her
life that were important, but there is always one main Orisha that they
have, their Santo.
People are drawn into a Botanica (a shop catering to the
Santeria devotees) when they are called to Santeria. They are told to
about the traditions and then maybe have a divination consultation. If
Orishas, through the oracle, indicate the person should be initiated,
this must be considered seriously. It is not a step taken lightly.
The first initiation is one where the aspirant recieves his or her
special beaded necklaces. This marks the person as the godchild of the
initiating Santera or Santero and puts them under the protection of the
Orishas of the Santera. They mark the event that the Orishas Obatala,
Chango, Yemaya and Oshun have been'seated' upon the initiate's head.
One recieves one's Warriors in the second initiation. These are physical
images created by the Babalawo and the Orishas 'seated' on the initiate
Eshu, Ogun, Ochusi and Osain. Once these Orishas are recieved, the
initiate has to take care of them for the rest of his or her life with a
weekly ritual. Certain proscribed prayers are said, and the Warriors are
given offerings like rum or cigars.
A more serious initiation is when one 'takes his or her 'Santo' or
his or her personal Orisha and so becomes a priest or priestess of the
To discover the identity of one's personal Orisha, one must first go to
Plante ceremony where there are three or more Babalawos and a 'table of
Ifa'. They then 'bring down Orumula to the table of ifa and they ask
the petitioner's Orisha is and the answer is given and it is final.They
can then elaborate what Orumula has to say further to the aspirant about
his or her path.
After one discovers one's Orisha one may then be initiated. This is a
secret ceremony involving a rebirth into the family of the Orishas.
are blood sacfifices, many prayers and ceremonies carried out and the
initiate is utterly transformed and it can take several days, requires a
lot of preparation and often is quite expensive.
Getting initiated is a step anyone in the religion must take to
You gain a real new family, you begin to learn directly about the
traditions and about yourself.
If you are initiated, when you 'make your Santo,' the third day is
the 'day of Ita*' and it is the day when all of the Orishas you
recieved, whatever they may be, speak to yoy throught the shells. They
interpreted through an Oba* or High Priest and you are given
akin to an 'owners manual ' to your life. You discover what you can and
can't do, what to wach out for, what will happen, it will tell you about
your past and you path.
Once initiated, you are a member of that 'Ile' or a ' God House'. In the
Santeria Temple or 'House, the Father is a Priest, the Priestess is the
Mother and the god-children are the people who are initiated by and
by the Priest and Priestess. Different Orishas call to different people
choose them. In every House, people have many different Orishas as their
'Santo' or personal god or goddess, as mentioned. In Nigeria, where the
religion began, it is different. The Gods have sacred groves and
people chosen by and initiated into, for example, the Orisha Obatala,
gather in Obatalas's grove. When the religion was brought to the
world, the system of sacred groves was eliminated. There had to be a
keep the religion alive so that part changed. Now, many Orishas are
represented in each House by the initiates who were chosen by them.
The rituals are like parties for the Orisha, big
celebrations where the
celebrants give the orisha all the things that they like.
A Santera or Santero has many obligations in this
regards. Jill, for
example, must honor her Sante or Orisha Oshun with a ritual celebration
'setting up the Orisha's throne' twice a year, once on the anuiversay of
her initiation and once on the feast day of the Saint who masks Oshun.
consists of setting up a special beautiful, colorful and
and placing the container within which the god or goddess dwells. Some
ceramic, some are wooden, it all depends on the traditoions. These
are the Orisha and often contain otanes or sacred stones and Dilogun,
special cowrie shells used in the oracle. When this tureen is on the
throne, then the Orisha is present and special rituals must be observed.
The Orishas that have been recieved (in the form of tureens) are kept at
the priest or priestesses house.
Another common ritual in Santeria which actually has many different
and names is a Cleansing. If someone comes to the Santera and the
after being consulted, call for a cleansing, then one is performed by
priest or priestess. It is very private and it can be anything from an
offering of fruit or rum with the proper prayers and actions to the
offering of the blood of a rooster, it all depends on the situation and
what the Orishas say. There are many names for many different
Rituals are practical, the Orishas tell you what you need to do exactly.
There are a few grand celebration rituals in Santeria. On the first of
year all the followers of Santeria gather to celebrate Elegua, this is
probably the closest thing to a general celebration ceremony for
Rituals to the Orishas do not have to be tied to any specific holiday.
doesnt have to be a special feast day or birthday to hold a celebration
an Orisha, it may be that someone just wants to give thanks for a
success or maybe they asked for something and the Orisha gave it to them
and this is part of the arrangement.
Something must be said about animal sacrifice in the rituals. This is,
even the Supreme Court has now decided, a vital part of the religion. As
Jill says, "Do you need to eat to live? The Orishas also need to eat to
live." The Orishas make the rules, and this is one of them. Blood is
It is an important part of our ceremonies. Blood sacrifice is not used
often. Say someone is very ill, then an animal sacrifice may be called
in a healing ritual, that power may be needed to heal a very sick
An animal is only sacrificed in matters of extreme importance. When any
person or animal is born, there is always blood, this is why blood is
necessary for initiations. A ritual is always done to thank the animal
giving his life and thiose rituals are always observed. Animals are
treated well and with the utmost respect and care because they are food
the Orishas, just as we would not serve unclean or sick meat to your
The Orishas make everything possible, one can not ignore the needs in
case of the Orishas. If you are taking something powerful from the
like an initiation, which often literally saves a person's life, you can
not refuse to offer to them what they ask for.
DEATH AND REBIRTH
After death, Santeria believes that a person's spirit goes to heaven if
has followed the proper path. Sometimes spirits get attached to the
sometimes they get attached to people and they linger here on our
might be because they simply love someone too much.This is one reason
we do cleansings, because there are spirits who are attached and need
let go so they can go on. Some dark Santeros or Santeras can send
earth-bound spirits to afflict others, this is another possible reason
Santeria does believe in reincarnation, the rebirth
of spirits into human
form after death. It is Odomare who determines how or where a spirit
be reborn, he contros everything. Departed ancestors may see a need in
their family on earth and may petition Odomare to return to the family
help and this boon may be granted and so they may reincarnate into the
Like other religions, Saneria believes in evolution
through rebirths, that
one comes back and back again to learn the lessons one needs to learn
then one becomes a High Spirit. High Spirits are not Orishas, these are
made by God, but they can become powerful Ancester Spirits that can
function as protectors or gueardians. There are also evil spirits who
have been evil people in life and after death stay upon the earth to
harm. It is from these that the Orishas and Ancestors protect the
FINAL WORDS ON THE RELIGION
Santeria is one of the fastest growing religions in the USA. As long as
Santeros and Santeras adhere to the traditions, it will be fine.
traditions will harm it and it will go in the wrong directions. The
of the Orishas comes from thousands of years of tradition. As the
grows more and more people are taking notice, it is changing the culture
here. When people find their door and go through it, it helps them and
helps their society. They build better character and lead balanced
this will more and more help society.
A recommended book on Santeria is:
Santeria by Luis Manuel Nunez, Spring Publications, 1992
An excellent contact for all things involving Santeria is: