Updated: Jan 21, 2022
A group of Santería practitioners performing the Cajón de Muertos ceremony in Havana in 2011
Santería, also known as Regla de Ocha, Regla Lucumí, or Lucumí, is an African diasporic religion that developed in Cuba during the late 19th century. It arose through a process of syncretism between the traditional Yoruba religion of West Africa, the Roman Catholic form of Christianity, and Spiritism. Adherents are known as creyente (“believers”). There is no central authority in control of Santería, which is organised through autonomous groups.
Santería is polytheistic and revolves around deities known as oricha. Deriving their names and attributes from traditional Yoruba divinities, they are equated with Roman Catholic saints. Various myths are told about these oricha, who are regarded as subservient to a transcendent creator deity, Olodumare. Every human is believed to connect to a specific oricha who influences their personality. Another key concept is aché, a supernatural power source permeating the universe. An initiatory tradition, practitioners usually venerate the oricha in casa (temples) run by a santero (priest) or santera (priestess). A central ritual is the toque de santo, in which practitioners drum, sing, and dance to encourage an oricha to possess one of their members and thus communicate with them. Offerings to the oricha include fruit, liquor, flowers and sacrificed animals. Offerings are also given to the spirits of the dead, with some practitioners identifying as spirit mediums. Several forms of divination are utilized, including ifá, to decipher messages from the oricha. Healing rituals and the preparation of herbal remedies, amulets, and charms, also play a prominent role.
Santería developed among Afro-Cuban communities following the Atlantic slave trade of the 16th to 19th centuries. It formed through the blending of the traditional religions brought to Cuba by enslaved West Africans, the majority of them Yoruba, and Roman Catholicism, the only religion legally permitted on the island by the Spanish colonial government. In urban areas of West Cuba, these traditions merged with Spiritist ideas to form the earliest casas during the late 19th century. After the Cuban War of Independence resulted in an independent republic in 1898, its new constitution enshrined freedom of religion. Santería nevertheless remained marginalized by Cuba’s Roman Catholic, Euro-Cuban establishment, which typically viewed it as brujería (witchcraft). In the 1960s, growing emigration following the Cuban Revolution spread Santería abroad. The late 20th century saw growing links between Santería and related traditions in West Africa and the Americas, such as Haitian Vodou and Brazilian Candomblé. Since the late 20th century, some practitioners have emphasized a “Yorubization” process to remove Roman Catholic influences and create forms of Santería closer to traditional Yoruba religion.
Practitioners of Santería are primarily found in Cuba’s Havana and Matanzas provinces, although communities exist across the island and abroad, especially among the Cuban diasporas of Mexico and the United States. The religion remains most common among working-class Afro-Cuban communities although is also practiced by individuals of other class and ethnic backgrounds. The number of initiates is estimated to be in the high hundreds of thousands. These initiates serve as diviners and healers for a much larger range of clients, making the precise numbers of those involved in Santería difficult to determine. Many of those involved also identify as practitioners of another religion, especially Roman Catholicism.
The term Santería translates into English as the “way of the saints.” This term was first used by scholarly commentators in the 1930s and later spread among practitioners themselves. It has become the most popular name for the religion, although some practitioners consider it offensive and favor alternatives. Another commonly used term is Regla de Ocha, meaning “the rule of ocha”; the term ocha is a truncated form of oricha, the word used for the religion’s deities. Some adherents regard this as the religion’s “official” name. In the United States, the tradition has also been referred to as “La Religión Lucumí”, a term originally employed in colonial-era Cuba, and in other instances has been called “Regla Lucumi”, or simply “Lucumí”, in reference to the colonial Spanish term for the Yoruba people.
Santería is an Afro-Caribbean religion, and more specifically an Afro-Cuban religion. In Cuba it is sometimes described as “the national religion”, although it has spread abroad. Santería’s roots are in the West African religions brought to Cuba by enslaved people, the majority of them Yoruba, between the 16th and 19th centuries. In Cuba, these religions mixed with the Roman Catholicism introduced by Spanish colonialists. Roman Catholic saints were conflated with West African deities. In the 19th century, elements from Spiritism—a French variant of Spiritualism—were drawn into the mix, with Santería emerging as a distinct religion in western Cuba during the late 19th century.
Although Santería is the best known of the Afro-Cuban religions, and the most popular, it is not the only one. Others include Palo, which derives from practices from the Congo Basin, and Abakuá, which has its origins among the secret male societies practiced among the Efik-Ibibio. Many practitioners of Palo and Abakuá also follow Santería, while the former has also blended with Spiritism to create Muertería. Another Afro-Cuban religion is Arará, which derives from practices among the Ewe and Fon; Arará is sometimes considered a branch of Santería rather than a separate system, although unlike most forms of Santería its origins are not primarily Yoruba. In Cuba, it is common for people to idiosyncratically blend ideas from different religions. Many of Santería’s practitioners also consider themselves to be Roman Catholics—some priests and priestesses of Santería refuse to initiate anyone who is not a baptised Roman Catholic—and some practitioners are also Hindus, Spiritists, or Jews.
Santería has commonalities with other West African and West African-derived traditions in the Americas which collectively form the “Orisha religion”, “Orisha Tradition”, or “Orisha worship.” The anthropologist Paul Christopher Johnson characterized Santería, Haitian Vodou, and Brazilian Candomblé as “sister religions” due to their shared origins in Yoruba traditional belief systems. These common origins can be seen in the fact that Santería shares much of its theology, including deity names, with Haitian Vodou. Haitian migrants have established a form of Vodou in Cuba, and there are also cases, such as that of the New York-based Mama Lola, in which individuals have been initiated into both Haitian Vodou and Cuban Santería. This reflects that Santería is a flexible and eclectic tradition, with considerable variation in how it is practiced. There is no strict orthodoxy, no key sacred text, and no central authority in control of the entire religion.
Different vocabulary indicates the level of a practitioner’s involvement, with the various terms sometimes reflecting different political and social agendas. Practitioners of both Santería and other Afro-Cuban religions are called creyente (“believers”). Some people external to the religion have referred to its practitioners as “santerians” although this is not used by adherents themselves. A non-initiate, including those who may attend public Santería ceremonies, is an aleyo (“stranger”); these non-initiates make up the majority of people involved in the religion. Initiates are known as santero if male, and santera if female, although these two terms have sometimes been used for anyone, initiate or not, who participates in the religion. Alternative terms for an initiate are babalocha or babaloricha (“father-deity”) if male and an iyalocha or iyaloricha (“mother-deity”) if female. Those who have a sustained engagement with the religion are also referred to as omoricha (“children of the oricha”), aboricha (“one who worships the oricha”), and an oloricha (“one who belongs to the oricha”).
Olodumare and the oricha
One of the most prominent oricha in Santería is Eleguá. He is often depicted as half-black, half-red (left image) and is also represented by small cement heads kept in the home (right)
Santería teaches the existence of an overarching divinity, known as Olodumare, Olofl, or Olorun, representing a monotheistic principle in the religion. Practitioners believe that this divinity created the universe but takes little interest in human affairs, thus being inaccessible to humanity. The three facets of this divinity are understood slightly differently; Olodumare represents the divine essence of all that exists, Olorun is regarded as the creator of all beings, while Olofi dwells in all creation. In taking a triplicate form, this deity displays similarities with the Christian Trinity.
Santeria is polytheistic. It features 16 prominent deities, some female and others male. These are varyingly referred to as oricha, ocha, or santos (“saints”). The term oricha can be both singular and plural, because Lucumí, the ritual language of Santería, lacks plural markers for nouns. Practitioners believe that some oricha were created before humanity, but that others were originally humans who became oricha through some remarkable quality. Some practitioners perceive the oricha as facets of Olodumare, and thus think that by venerating them they are ultimately worshipping the creator god. The oricha are not regarded as wholly benevolent, being capable of both harming and helping humans, and having a mix of emotions, virtues, and vices. Santería’s focus is on cultivating a reciprocal relationship with them, with adherents believing that oricha can intercede in human affairs and help people if they are appeased.
Origin myths and other stories about the oricha are called patakíes. Each oricha is understood to “rule over” a particular aspect of the universe, and have been described as personifications of different facets of the natural world. They live in a realm called orún, which is contrasted with ayé, the realm of humanity. Oricha each have their own caminos (“roads”), or manifestations, a concept akin to the Hindu concept of avatars. The number of caminos an oricha has varies, with some having several hundred. Practitioners believe that oricha can physically inhabit certain objects, among them stones and cowrie shells, which are deemed sacred. Each oricha is associated with specific songs, rhythms, colors, numbers, animals, and foodstuffs.
Offerings of coins and a cigar placed before a statue of Saint Lazarus, who represents the oricha Babalú Ayé, in Havana
Among the oricha are the four “warrior deities”, or guerrors: Eleguá, Ogun, Ochosi, and Osun. Eleguá is viewed as the guardian of the crossroads and thresholds; he is the messenger between humanity and the oricha and most ceremonies start by requesting his permission to continue. He is depicted as being black on one side and red on the other, and although often shown as male is sometimes depicted as being female. Eleguá is believed to be responsible for reporting on humanity to Olodumare. Practitioners will frequently place a cement head decorated with cowrie shells that represents Eleguá behind their front door, guarding the threshold to the street. The second guerro is Ogun, viewed as the oricha of weapons and war, and also of iron and blacksmiths. The third, Ochosi, is associated with woods and hunting, while the fourth, Osun, is a protector who warns practitioners when they are in danger.
Perhaps the most popular oricha within the pantheon, Changó or Shango is associated with lightning and fire. Another prominent oricha is Yemaja, the deity associated with maternity, fertility, and the sea. Ochún is the oricha of rivers and of romantic love, while Oyá is a warrior associated with wind, lightning, and death, and is viewed as the guardian of the cemetery. Obatalá is the oricha of truth and justice and is deemed responsible for helping to mould humanity, and Babalú Ayé the oricha associated with disease and its curing. Orula is the oricha of divination, who in Santería’s mythology was present at the creation of humanity and thus is aware of everyone’s destiny. Some oricha are deemed antagonistic to others; Changó and Ogun are for instance described as enemies.
Although in Santería the term santo is regarded as a synonym of oricha and is not a literal reference to Christian saints, the oricha are often conflated with one or more Roman Catholic saints based on similar attributes. For instance, the Holy Infant of Atocha, a depiction of Christ as a child, is conflated with Eleguá, who is seen as having a childlike nature. Babalú Ayé, who is associated with disease, is often identified with the Catholic Saint Lazarus, who rose from the dead, while Changó is conflated with Santa Barbara because they both wear red, and Ochún is equated with Cuba’s patron saint, Our Lady of Charity. It has been argued that Yoruba slaves initially linked their traditional deities with Christian saints as a means of concealing their continued worship of the former from the Spanish authorities, or as a means of facilitating social mobility by assimilating into Roman Catholic social norms.
Practitioners argue that each person is “born to” a particular oricha, whether or not they devote themselves to that deity. This is a connection that, adherents believe, has been set before birth. Practitioners refer to this oricha as one which “rules the head” of an individual; it is their “owner of the head.” If the oricha is male then it is described as the individual’s “father”, while if the oricha is female then it is understood as the person’s “mother”. This oricha is deemed to influence the individual’s personality, and can be recognised through examining the person’s personality traits, or through divination.
To gain the protection of a particular oricha, practitioners are encouraged to make offerings to them, sponsor ceremonies in their honor, and live in accordance with their wishes, as determined through divination. Practitioners are concerned at the prospect of offending the oricha. Creyente believe that the oricha can communicate with humans through divination, prayers, dreams, music, and dance. Many practitioners also describe how they “read” messages from the oricha in everyday interactions and events. For instance, a practitioner who meets a child at a traffic intersection may interpret this as a message from Eleguá, who is often depicted as a child and who is perceived as the “guardian” of the crossroads. At that point the practitioner may turn to divination to determine the precise meaning of the encounter. The information obtained from these messages may then help practitioners make decisions about their life.
Birth and the dead
A Santería shrine in Trinidad, Cuba
Santería teaches that the human head contains a person’s essence, termed their eledá or orí. It maintains that before birth, the eledá goes before Olodumare, where it is given its essential character, and also connected with the oricha who becomes “the owner of the head”. The concept of the eledá derives from Yoruba traditional religion, where it is seen as a person’s “spiritual double”. In Santería, this idea has syncretised with Roman Catholic beliefs about guardian angels and Spiritist notions of the protecciones or protector spirits. There is no strict orthodoxy on this issue and thus differences in interpretation. Practitioners often believe that individuals have a specific destiny, their destino (destiny) or camino (road). This is preordained but forgotten at birth; it is not often, however, seen as an absolute predetermination. Many of the ritual practices found in Santería focus on determining the nature of one’s destiny.
Ancestor veneration is important in Santería. The religion entails propitiating the spirits of the dead, known as egun, espíritus, or muertos, and which are often represented by a cane carved with anthropomorphic faces. Practitioners believe that the dead can influence the living and must be treated with respect, awe, and kindness; they are consulted at all ceremonies. Although the dead are not deemed as powerful as the oricha, they are still thought capable of assisting the living, with whom they can communicate through dreams, intuition, and spirit possession. Santería teaches that a person can learn to both see and communicate with the dead. Practitioners will often provide offerings, typically seven glasses of water, to the egun to placate and please them. Especially propitiated are those egun regarded as ancestors; these ancestors can include both hereditary forebears or past members of one’s congregation, with practitioners believing that a creyente becomes an ancestor when they die.
Adherents believe that everyone has a cuadro espiritual (“spiritual portrait” or “spiritual picture”) of egun who protect and bless them. Individuals can have as many as 25 protectores, or protective ancestral spirits. The religion maintains that all people have multiple egun accompanying them at all times, and that these can be either benevolent, malevolent, or a mix of both. Practitioners also believe that the number and identities of these spirits can be determined through divination. It draws a distinction between evolved spirits, who can help those they are attached to, and unevolved spirits, who lack the wisdom and skill to be useful and instead cause havoc. Santería teaches that through offerings and prayers, individuals can help some of their unevolved spirits to become evolved. Some practitioners believe that unevolved spirits lurk in the air and can be distilled by the rain, through which they can attach themselves to individuals who have been rained on. Santería also divides the spirits into categories which each exhibit different traits, reflecting stereotypes about different social groups, with such spirits often portrayed as African, Haitian, Gypsy, Arab, or Plains Indian. The gitano (gypsy) spirits for instance are believed capable of foreseeing impending troubles and diagnosing illnesses while the congo spirits of Africa are perceived as strong-willed, powerful, and adept at guiding people through hostile circumstances.
Aché is a major cosmological concept in Yoruba traditional religion and has been transferred to Santería. Aché is regarded as the organizing power of the universe; the Hispanic studies scholars Margarite Fernández Olmos and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert referred to it as “a spiritual-mystical energy or power found in varying degrees and in many forms throughout the universe”. The medical anthropologist Johan Wedel described it as “life force” or “divine force”, while the folklorist Michael Atwood Mason called aché the “ritual generative power”. The ethnomusicologist Katherine Hagedorn described aché as “the realized and inherent divine potential in all aspects of life, even in apparently inert objects.” She added that “Aché is neither good nor bad; rather, aché is motion”.
While deeming Olodumare the ultimate embodiment of aché, creyente believe that aché permeates all life, present in both the visible and invisible world. It is nevertheless deemed to sometimes congregate more densely, including in the forces of nature, specific locales, and in certain human individuals. Initiates are for instance believed to attract more of it than other humans. Santería holds that aché can emanate from the human body via speech, song, dance, and drumming, and can be transmitted through such acts as singing praise songs for the oricha or sacrificing an animal. Among practitioners, aché is sometimes described as conveying notions of luck, health, and prosperity, and has the power to fortify a person’s health.
Morality, ethics, and gender roles
Santería has standards for behavior and moral edicts that practitioners are expected to live by. The moral and social consciousness of practitioners is strongly informed by mythological stories about the oricha. The religion presents strict rules regarding how to interact with other people and with the supernatural, for instance placing emphasis on respect for elders and superiors. Practitioners generally take socially conservative stances, having high regard for traditional family structures, marriage, fidelity, and child-rearing; adherents in the United States generally adopted more progressive stances on issues surrounding gender and sexuality than their counterparts in Cuba. A general attitude in Santería is that if an individual maintains good character, the oricha will aid them. According to the scholar of religion Mary Ann Clark, Santería “values the maintenance of balance within one’s life, one’s family, one’s community, the world at large, the fulfilment of each person’s highest and best destiny.”
The religion is non-dualistic and does not view the universe as being divided between good and evil; rather, all things are perceived as being complementary and relative. Many creyente characterize Santería as being more life-affirming than Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Several academics have described Santería as having a “here-and-now” ethos distinct from that of Christianity, and the social scientist Mercedes C. Sandoval suggested that many Cubans chose Santería over Roman Catholicism or Spiritism because it emphasizes techniques for dealing with pragmatic problems in life. In the U.S., some African American adherents have contrasted what they regard as the African-derived ethos of Santería with the non-African origins of Christianity, thus adopting it as a religion that can be combined with a black nationalist ideology.
Clark labelled Santería a “female oriented and female normative” religion, arguing that all of its practitioners, whatever their sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation, are expected to take on “female gender roles” during its rituals. However, Santería places restrictions on the tasks that women are permitted to do while menstruating. Similar restrictions are also placed on homosexual males, traditionally prohibiting them from taking part in certain forms of divination and ritual drumming. Many gay men are nevertheless santeros—and some santeras are lesbians—and Clark thought the religion offered “a haven for women and gay men.” A stereotype exists that all male Santería priests are homosexual, and members of other Afro-Cuban traditions with a more masculinist orientation, such as Palo, have often denigrated it for being dominated by women and men they consider to be “womanly”.
Santería is a practice-oriented religion; ritual correctness is considered more important than correct belief. It has an elaborate system of ritual, with its rites termed ceremonias (ceremonies), or—when parties for the oricha—güemilere. Most of its activities revolve around the oricha, with it also displaying a focus on solving the problems of everyday life. Practitioners usually use the term “work” in reference both to secular and ritual activity; thus the words “working ocha” are used to describe religious rites.
Santería is an initiatory religion, one which is organized around a structured hierarchy. An ethos of secrecy pervades many of its practices, with initiates often refusing to discuss certain topics with non-initiates. For this reason, Mason described Santería as a secret society. Santeros and santeras often emphasise teaching in a non-verbal manner, encouraging their initiate to learn through taking part in the ritual activities. For much of the 20th century, initiates have kept libretas, notebooks in which they have written down material relevant to the practice of Santería. These may be shared with their own initiates or kept private.
For ritual purposes, the Lucumí language is often used in Santería. Sometimes referred to as la lengua de los orichas (“the language of the oricha”), it is regarded as a divine language through which practitioners can contact the oricha. Lucumí derives from the Yoruba language, although has become “increasingly fragmented and unintelligible” since the 19th century. Most initiates know between a few dozen through to hundreds of Lucumí words and phrases, although there are initiates who are not comfortable using it. Most Cubans do not understand the Lucumí language, barring a few words that have filtered into Cuban Spanish, the daily language of most practitioners. As Yoruba transitioned into Lucumí over the centuries, the Yoruba pronunciations of many words were forgotten, and in the early 21st century some practitioners have made a conscious study of the Yoruba language to better understand the original meaning of Lucumí words.
Houses of worship
Rituals take place in a building called the casa templo (“house of worship”), casa de santos (“house of saints”), casa de religión (“house of religion”), or ilé (“house”). This casas (“house”) is usually the personal home of a santero or santera. The casa will typically have an igbodu (“sacred grove of the festival”), an inner room where the most important rituals take place. There will also be an eyá aránla or sala, often a living room, where semi-private rites can be conducted. Another space, the iban balo, or patio, will be used for public occasions, as well as for the cultivation of plants and the housing of animals due to be sacrificed. Along with spaces to perform ceremonies, the casa will typically include a place to store ritual paraphernalia, kitchen facilities, and space for visitors to sleep.
In Santería, the concept of the casa refers not only to the physical building in which ceremonies take place, but also the community of practitioners who meet there. In this sense, many casa trace a lineage back to the 19th century, with some santeros and santeras capable of listing the practitioners who have been initiated into that casa over the decades. In some ceremonies, the names of these individuals, who are regarded as the ancestors of the house, are recited in chronological order. Although members of different houses often interact, each casa is largely autonomous, allowing for variation in their ritual practices. In Cuba, it is common for Santería practitioners to meet with each other regularly, and to regard each other as being akin to a family: the familia de santo. Conversely, in an area like Veracruz in Mexico, many practitioners attend group rituals and then leave, sometimes never seeing their co-practitioners again.
Most casa are established by a santero or santera who has attracted a following. Those apprentices who follow these initiates are known as their ahijado (godson) or ahijada (goddaughter). They refer to their santero/santera as padrino (godfather) or madrina (godmother). The relationship between santeros/santeras and their “godchildren” is central to the religion’s social organization, and practitioners believe that the more “godchildren” a santera or santero has, the greater their aché. The “godchildren” are expected to contribute both their labor and finances to events held at the casa and in return the santero/santera provides assistance for their needs. Within the religion, offending one’s godparent is regarded as also offending the oricha that “rules the head.” There are nevertheless cases where an initiate falls out with their godparent. Practitioners express respect both to their “godparent” and the oricha via a ritual prostration, the moforibale, in which they bow their head to the floor. The precise form of the moforibale differs depending on whether the individual’s personal oricha is male or female.
A sopera containing otanes representing the oricha Yemaya, who is associated with the sea; Yemaya altars often feature seashells and nautical paraphernalia.
Altars or shrines to the oricha are typically found both within the igbodu, and in practitioners’ homes. A particularly ornate altar used in the ceremonial space is known as a trono (“throne”). Central to these altars are sacred objects, termed fundamentos (“fundamentals”), which are contained within porcelain vessels, often tureens, called sopera. The most important of the fundamentos are stones termed otanes (sing. otán), which are regarded as the literal and symbolic representation of the oricha, and thus living entities. They are deemed to be sources of aché, with older otanes having more aché than younger ones. Some of the most powerful otanes are claimed to have been brought to Cuba from Africa by enslaved persons who concealed them within their stomachs.
Practitioners will collect stones from the landscape and then use divination to determine which ones contain an oricha and, if so, which oricha it is. Specific otanes sometimes display traits linking them to particular oricha; for example ocean stones are linked with Yemaya, river pebbles with Ochún, and meteorite fragments with Changó. Each oricha is deemed to prefer a particular color and number of otanes in sopera devoted to them; Changó has six or ten black stones, Obatala has eight white stones, while Ochun favors five yellow stones, for instance. The new otanes undergo a bautismo (“baptism”) rite, entailing them being washed in osain, a mixture of herbs and water, and then “fed” with animal blood. When an initiate receives their stones, they take an oath to protect and to feed them at least annually. By feeding them, initiates believe that the stones gain the strength to aid people.
A bóveda, or white table, set out for the spirits of the dead, in a casa in Trinidad, Cuba
Other material is also placed inside the sopera, including cowrie shells; usually 18 are added although the precise number differs depending on which oricha the sopera is devoted to. The sopera will often be covered by a cloth known as a pañuelo that is colored in accordance with the oricha in question. Often laid over the sopera are necklaces known as collares, again representing a particular oricha. On the altar, the sopera will be arranged in a descending hierarchy depending on which oricha each is dedicated to, with that of Obatala at the top.
Many altars contain few or no anthropomorphic depictions of the oricha, although will often include objects that have particular associations with them; a wooden axe for Changó or a fan for Ochún, for instance. The process of creating these altars is deemed expensive and time-consuming. Material may be selected based on the tastes of the creyente; anthropologists have observed practitioners who have included Chinese Taoist figurines, or statues of wizards, on their altars. Food and flowers are often placed on the altar as offerings. Although rarely included on their altars, practitioners will often have statues of Roman Catholic saints elsewhere in their homes.
In addition to their altar to the oricha, many practitioners have altars set aside for the spirits of the dead. These typically consist of a white-covered table known as a bóveda, something derived from the White Table of Kardecian Spiritism. Bóveda often contain photographs of deceased relatives, to whom offerings are given; popular offerings for the spirits of the dead include seven glasses of water, a cafecito coffee, and the aguardiente liquor. Many practitioners will also enshrine their family ancestors on the floor of the bathroom, under the sink. This location is chosen so that the ancestors are located below the vertical water pipes, allowing the spirits to transition between the realms via water, which is their preferred medium for travel.
Offerings and animal sacrifice
Offerings are given to the oricha, ancestral spirits, to a person’s own obi, and sometimes to the earth; these offerings are called ebbó or ébo. These offerings can consist of foodstuffs like fruit, liquor, flowers, candles, money, or slaughtered animals. Divination is often used to determine the exact nature of the offering; initiates are supposed to provide offerings on a regular basis, and at least once a year. Offerings are given to strengthen the supernatural forces, to thank them, or as a supplication. They create a reciprocal relationship, with practitioners expecting the oricha to give them something in return. If this fails to materialise, practitioners may resort to several explanations: that the details of the ritual were incorrect, that the priest or priestess carrying out the rite lacked sufficient aché, or that the wrong ébbo was carried out for the situation.
In Santería, animal sacrifice is called matanza, and is usually carried out by a male practitioner. Birds—including guinea fowl, chickens, and doves—are commonly sacrificed, usually by having their throats slit or their heads twisted and ripped off, although Mason recounted a sacrifice whereby a chick was slammed against a sink to kill it. For rituals of greater importance, sacrifices are often of four-legged animals, including dogs. Some practitioners describe the killing of animals as an acceptable substitute to human sacrifice, and in Cuba there have been persistent rumours of children being sacrificed in Santería rites. The oricha and spirits are believed to “eat” the blood of the victim; the latter’s lifeforce is deemed to transfer to the oricha, thus strengthening its aché. An animal that struggles to avoid being killed is sometimes understood as having particular strength which will then pass to the oricha.
The remains of a sacrifice conducted in Trinidad, Cuba
Once killed, the animals’ severed heads may be placed on top of the sopera belonging to the oricha to which the sacrifice has been directed. After the animal’s carcass has been butchered, some of the organs—known as acheses—may be cooked and offered to the oricha; other parts will be eaten by practitioners. Due to its links with blood, menstruating women are generally prohibited from involvement in matanza rituals. When a sacrifice is made, some of the blood may be added to omiero, an infusion of herbs and water that is regarded as the most powerful liquid in Santería. Regarded as containing much aché, this liquid is used for removing malevolent influences, in ceremonies for baptising ritual tools, and for washing the hands of the matador before they carry out a sacrifice.
Santería’s animal sacrifice has been a cause of concern for many non-practitioners, and has brought adherents into confrontation with the law. In the U.S., various casas were raided by police and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, leading to groups becoming more secretive. In the 1993 case of Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that animal cruelty laws targeted specifically at Santería were unconstitutional. In 2009, legal and religious issues that related to animal sacrifice, animal rights, and freedom of religion were taken to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in the case of Jose Merced, President Templo Yoruba Omo Orisha Texas, Inc., v. City of Euless. The court ruled that the city of Euless, Texas was interfering in Merced’s right to religious freedom by preventing him from sacrificing animals.
An initiate with ceremonial material in Havana; initiates wear white clothing during the process
Initiation is known as kariocha, “making ocha”, or “making santo”. A charge is levied for initiation; this varies depending on the client, but is often equivalent to a year’s wage. Each initiation varies in its details, although practitioners often conceal many of these from non-initiates. The initiate is known as an iyabó or iyawó, a term meaning both “slave of the oricha” and “bride of the oricha”. As well as the santero or santera overseeing the initiation ceremony, the event may be attended by an oyubona (“one who witnesses”), who acts as a secondary godparent to the new initiate.
The initiation process takes seven days, plus two days of preparatory rituals. During this preparation, a misa espiritual will often take place to gain the blessings of the ancestral egun, often involving the latter being invited to possess the initiate. One day before the main events, an ebó de entrada (“opening sacrifice”) will be made to the oricha or the egun. Next comes the ceremonia del río (ceremony of the initiate), which involves the oyubona and the initiate. It entails honey and the ochinchín omelette being offered to the oricha Ochún, with the oyubona then engaging in divination to determine if Ochún has accepted the sacrifice. In the rompimiento (breaking), the oyubona takes the initiate to wash in a river as a purification.
The rest of the initiation takes place in the igbodu, where the initiate sleeps upon a mat on the floor for the seven days. No one uninvolved in the initiation is permitted entry. The initiate is given their own otanes, and objects representing the warrior oricha. They are also given beaded necklaces, known as elekes, ilekes, or collares. Each has a different color associated with a specific deity. During the prendición (pinning) ritual, a heavy necklace known as the collar de mazo is placed on the initiate. During the lavatorio (“washing”), the initiate’s head is bathed in omiero, designed to rid them of any malevolent spirits attached to them. Often, their hair will be shaved off.
A woman practitioner in Old Havana, Cuba
On the día del itá (“day of history”), usually the third day, the initiate will undergo the itá, a session with a diviner in which the latter will inform them about their strengths, weaknesses, and taboos that they should observe. The diviner will reveal the initiate’s Lucumí ritual name, a praise name of the oricha which rules their head. It often incorporates elements indicating the initiate’s tutelary oricha; devotees of Yemajá for instance usually include omí (“water”) in their name, while those of Changó often have obá (“king”).
Next comes the asiento (seating), or coronación (coronation), which marks the point when the aché of the tutelary oricha is believed to literally enter the initiate’s cranium. The otánes of several oricha are placed to the initiate’s head, culminating in those of their tutelary oricha. An animal sacrifice usually follows, involving at least five four-legged animals and 25 birds. The initiate then performs the moforiba as a sign of respect to the oricha they have received. The following day is el Día del Medio (“the middle day”), when guests—including the initiate’s family and friends—pay homage to them. It includes drumming and a feast. On the seventh day of the initiation, the new initiate leaves the casa and visits the marketplace, where they make offerings to Eleguá and steals something small, also as an offering to Eleguá.
The initiate can finally take their otanes home. They may then undergo a year-long period, the iyaworaje (“journey of the iyawo”), during which they must observe certain restrictions, the nature of which depends on their tutelary oricha. This may for instance include abstaining from sexual intercourse, wearing only white, or not cutting their hair. The iyaworaje ends with the ebó del año ceremony. Once this is done, they may lead rituals and help initiate others. Thenceforth, they will celebrate the annual anniversary of their initiation, their cumpleaños de santo (“birthday in the saint”).
Toque de santo
Several types of batá drum, which are used in the toque de santo ritual
Santería’s main public ritual is a drumming ceremony called the toque de santo, or tambor. Lasting for up to several hours, this is usually seen as an offering to the oricha, performed to gain a favor from these deities. The goal of the rhythms and songs is to summon the oricha to earth, at which point they can possess one of the participants. It is believed that the collective energy built up by the group is necessary in achieving this. In turn, the oricha are believed capable of soothing the grieving, healing the sick, blessing the deserving, and rebuking those who have behaved badly.
The toque de santo uses double-headed drums called batá, which is sometimes regarded as the central symbol of Santería. There are multiple types of batá: the iyá is the largest, the itótele is smaller, and the okónkolo is the smallest. For ceremonial purposes, these drums must be wooden; adding metal elements could offend Changó, who is associated with wooden artefacts, because of their association with his enemy, Ogun. They may however have brass bells associated with Ochún, known as chaworo, affixed to their rim. Before being used in ceremonies, these drums are baptized, after which they are referred to as a tambor de fundamento. This process includes washing the drums in omiero and making sacrifices to Osain. It also involves affixing an afoubo, a small leather bag containing items including a parrot feather and glass beads, to the interior of the drum.
A dance dedicated to the oricha Ochún recorded in Santiago de Cuba in 2013
Practitioners believe that the consecrated batá contain a substance called añá, itself an avatar of Ochún. Many drummers avoid mentioning the añá in public and may not refer to it by name. Drums which have not been consecrated are not viewed as containing añá, and are called tambores judìos (“Jewish drums”). Particular rhythms played on the drums may be associated with a specific oricha, a group of oricha, or all of the oricha. Those playing the batá are called batáleros. Santería drumming is male dominated; women are discouraged from playing the batá during ceremonies, although by the 1990s some women practitioners in the U.S. had taken on the role. Practitioners explain the taboo with the view that menstrual blood can weaken the drum’s añá, and that women playing these drums during ceremonies become infertile.
Praise songs are sung for the oricha, with specific songs associated with particular deities. The lead singer at such ceremonies is known as an akpwón. During the opening verse of the song, the akpwón may break into a personal prayer. The akpwón can switch from song to song quickly, with the drummers having to adapt their rhythm accordingly. A chorus of singers will respond to the akpwón, often while swaying back and forth. These choral responses may split into a two or three-part harmony. Dancing also takes place, with each oricha associated with a particular dance style. The dances at the toque de santo are believed to generate aché, strengthening the link between the realms of the oricha and humanity. Dancing either alone or first in front of the drums at the toque de santo is considered a privilege and is usually reserved for the most experienced initiate present. There are specific rules of engagement that are laid out for taking part in the toque de santo. Dancing poorly in the toque de santo is considered an insult to the oricha.
Possession is important in Santería, and the purpose of the toque de santo is to call down an oricha to possess one of the participants. The possessed individual is referred to as the “horse”, with the oricha having “mounted” them. According to practitioners, becoming possessed by an oricha requires an individual giving up their consciousness to the deity, and accordingly they often claim no memory of the events that occurred during the possession. Some have stated that reaching the mental state whereby an individual can become possessed takes much practice; the onset of the trance is marked by body spasms, termed arullarse.
Once an individual is possessed, they may be taken into an adjacent room where they are dressed in the ritual clothing pertaining to the possessing oricha, after which they are returned to the main room. Those possessed may then display gestures associated with a particular oricha; for instance, those believing themselves possessed by Ochun may wipe their skirt over other people, representing the waves of the ocean, while those regarding themselves as being possessed by Eleguá may steal from assembled participants. The possessed will often speak in the Lucumí language. The possessed individual will then provide healing or dispense advice; sometimes a possessed person will reprimand others present, for instance for failing to carry out their ritual obligations, or warn them of something. Possession permits practitioners the opportunity to interact directly with their deity. Some practitioners have also reported becoming possessed by an oricha in non-ritual contexts, such as while sleeping or walking through the streets, or in some cases during drumming performances carried out for non-religious purposes.
Healing and amuletic practices
A selection of paraphernalia associated with Santería for sale in Havana
Healing is an important practice in Santería, and health problems are the most common reason why people approach a santero or santera for help. Those dispensing healing practices are sometimes termed curanderos, or osainistas. Particular focuses of Santería healing include skin complaints, gastrointestinal and respiratory problems, sexually transmitted infections, and issues of female reproduction; some practitioners provide concoctions to induce abortion. Santería healers will typically use divination to determine the cause of an ailment before prescribing treatment.
Santería teaches that supernatural factors cause or exacerbate ailments. It claims that oricha may make someone sick, either as punishment for transgression or to encourage them to make a change in their life, often to become an initiate. The oricha must then be propitiated to stop, sometimes with the sick individual receiving initiation. Santería also holds that a spirit of the dead may attach itself to an individual and cause them harm that way. Adherents also often believe that humans can harm one another through supernatural means, either involuntarily, by giving them the mal de ojo (evil eye), or deliberately, through brujería (witchcraft). The latter are often perceived as acting out of envy, utilising cursing techniques from Palo, for which they have employed material, such as hair or nail clippings, taken from their victim.
Herbalism is a major component of Santería healing practices, with healing plants, termed egwe, having an important role in the religion. Practitioners believe that each species of plant has its own aché which holds healing power. Practitioners often believe that medicinal plants are more powerful if harvested from the wild rather than being cultivated, for the latter can lack aché. They often also believe that different types of plant have different temperaments and personalities; some are shy or easily frightened and thus need to be approached with the appropriate etiquette.
An outdoor Cuban altar photographed in 2015
To heal a patient, the santero/santera may also prescribe omiero, give them a cleansing bath, or provide them with a collares necklace. They may perform a ritual to transfer the sickness to an animal, sacrifice an animal to a specific oricha to request healing, or encourage an oricha to possess the sick individual and thus heal them. Different oricha are linked to the healing of specific ailments; Ochun is for instance usually requested when dealing with genital problems. People who are sick may undergo the rogación de la cabeza (blessing of the head), in which coconut water and cotton are applied to the head to feed the orí. Many practitioners will also encourage their clients to seek mainstream medical assistance, either from doctors or psychotherapists, for their problems, with Santería healing seem as complementary to medical science.
Santería features the creation of protective charms known as resguardos. These are created using herbs and blood and produced while in contact with the otanes. Resguardos are often given to small children, who are deemed particularly vulnerable to sorcery. Charms and amulets are also used as a general prophylaxis against illness, as for instance with ears of corn which are wrapped in purple ribbon and placed behind a doorway. Other rituals are designed to protect against sorcery, as for instance with the scattering of petals of the gálan de día in the house or the placement of okra by the door. In Cuba, protective rituals from Santería have often been invoked in hospitals to prevent the cambio de vida (life switch), a practice by which the ailments of a sick person are believed to be transferred to another individual, often without the latter’s knowledge. The rituals for self-protection have also resulted in Santería being adopted by various groups involved in narcotics trafficking within the U.S.
Divination is a central aspect of Santería ritual, taking place before all major rites and being utilized by devotees at critical moments of their life. Three main divinatory techniques are employed: obi, dilogún, and Ifá. Highly skilled diviners are known as an oríate or italero/italera (male and female), and sometimes work in this role fulltime. Clients approach these diviners for a divinatory consulta (consultation), usually to ask for advice about their health, family problems, or legal issues, and in doing so will pay the diviner a fee, the derecho. Attending a divination ritual in this way is commonly the first time that an individual encounters Santería so directly. During the session, an image of the overseeing oricha is often brought out and offerings of food placed before it. The diviner will then cast small objects onto a board or table and interpret the way in which they fall. The diviner asks the client questions and seek to answer them by making multiple throws. The diviner will ultimately determine which oricha will assist the client in dealing with their problems and outline what sacrifices will be appropriate to secure the aid of said oricha.
A Cuban santero in Havana engaging in a form of divination
Obi, also known as biagué, involves the casting of four pieces of a dried coconut shell, with the manner in which they fall being used to answer a question. Any practitioner can utilise this technique, which is also used in Palo. Dilogún entails the casting of cowrie shells, and is considered more complex in that it requires a knowledge of the patakie stories. Dilogún typically involves a set of 21 cowrie shells, filed flat on their round side; these are fed with both omiero and blood. Like obi, dilogún is generally seen as being open to all practitioners of Santería, although some groups reserve it for postmenopausal women.
Santería employs Ifá, the most complex and prestigious divinatory system used in the religion. The two are closely linked, sharing the same mythology and conception of the universe, although Ifá also has a separate existence from Santería. High priests of Ifá are known as babalawos and although their presence is not essential to Santería ceremonies, they often attend in their capacity as diviners. Many santeros are also babalawos, although it is not uncommon for babalawos to perceive themselves as being superior to most santeros. Unlike the more open policy for Santería initiates, only heterosexual men are traditionally allowed to become babalawos, although homosexual male babalawos do exist. Women are typically prohibited from taking on the role, a restriction explained through the story that the oricha Orula was furious that Yemaya, his wife, had used his tabla divining board and subsequently decided to ban women from ever touching it again. By the early 21st century, a small number of women had nevertheless been initiated. Initiation as a babalawo requires a payment to the initiator and is typically regarded as highly expensive.
The oricha of Ifá, Orula or Ọ̀rúnmila, also has a prominent place within Santería. He is believed to oversee divination; once an individual is initiated as a babalawo they are given a pot containing various items, including palm nuts, which is believed to be the literal embodiment of Orula. Babalawos provide offerings to Orula, including animal sacrifices and gifts of money. In Cuba, Ifá typically involves the casting of consecrated palm nuts to answer a question. The babalawo then interprets the message of the nuts depending on how they have fallen; there are 256 possible configurations in the Ifá system, which the babalawo is expected to have memorised. Individuals approach the babalawo seeking guidance, often on financial matters, at which the diviner will consult Orula through the established divinatory method. In turn, those visiting the babalawos pay them for their services.
Dealing with the dead
A selection of offerings that have been placed at the base of a tree in Cuba as part of a Santería rite
Funeral rites, called itulu, are designed to appease the soul of the deceased. As part of this, a funeral mass is held in a Roman Catholic church nine days after the individual has died to ensure that their soul successfully travels to the realm of the spirits. A year of additional rites for the deceased follow, a period ended with the levantamiento de platos, the breaking of a dish, to symbolise the deceased’s final departure from the realm of the living.
As well as having been influenced by Spiritism during the 19th century, Santería is often intertwined with Espiritismo, a Puerto Rican tradition focused on contacting the dead; this is particularly the case in areas such as New York and New Jersey. This has resulted in references to “Santerismo” as a blend between the two traditions. Various santeros or santeras are believed to have the power to communicate with spirits. Some practitioners engage in seances to communicate with the spirits of the dead, known as misas espirituales (“spiritual masses”) which are led by mortevas (“deaders”) who are usually women. During these rituals, the medium may be possessed by a spirit of the dead, who then engages in healing practices or offers advice and warning to assembled people. These are a practice adopted from Espiritismo. They are often included as a part of both initiation and funerary rites. An additional ritual found in Santería is the tambor para egún, a drum ceremony for the spirits of the dead.
Some practitioners whose approach to Santería is influenced by Espiritismo also create cloth dolls for deceased family members and spirit guides. The spirit is believed to enter and inhabit the doll, with some practitioners stating that they can see the inhabiting spirit. Sometimes the doll’s clothing is changed to please the spirit, while offerings, such as glasses of water or fruit, are placed before them. These spirit dolls may also be passed down through the generations within a family.
Cuba, the Caribbean island from which Santería originates
After the Spanish Empire conquered Cuba, its Arawak and Ciboney populations dramatically declined. The Spanish then turned to slaves sold at West African ports as a labor source for Cuba’s sugar, tobacco, and coffee plantations. Slavery was widespread in West Africa, where prisoners of war and certain criminals were enslaved. Between 702,000 and 1 million enslaved Africans were brought to Cuba, the earliest in 1511, although the majority in the 19th century. Most came from a stretch of Western Africa between the modern nation-states of Guinea and Angola. The great plurality were Yoruba, from the area encompassed by modern Nigeria and Benin; the Yoruba had a shared language and culture but were divided among different states.
These Yoruba largely adhered to what is now known as Yoruba traditional religion. This incorporated many local orisha cults, although certain orisha were worshipped widely due to the extent and influence of the Yoruba-led Oyo Empire. Enslaved West Africans brought their traditional religions with them to Cuba; some were from the priestly class and possessed knowledge of traditions such as Ifá. In Cuba, slaves were divided into groups termed naciones (nations), often based on their port of embarkation rather than their own ethno-cultural background; those who were Yoruba speakers, as well as Arara and Ibo people, were identified as the “Lucumí nation”. Cuba continued to receive new slaves until at least 1860, with full emancipation occurring in 1886.
While hundreds of orisha were worshipped across West Africa, fewer than twenty became prominent in Santería, perhaps because many kin-based orisha cults were lost when traditional kinship networks were destroyed through enslavement. Orisha associated with agriculture were abandoned, probably because slaves had little reason to protect the harvests of slave-owners. Many myths associated with the oricha were transformed, creating kinship relationships between different oricha which were not present in West African mythologies. As Santería formed, separate West African orisha cults were reconstituted into a single religious system, one which had a newly standardized pantheon of oricha.
In Spanish Cuba, Roman Catholicism was the only religion that could be practiced legally. Cuba’s Roman Catholic Church made efforts to convert the enslaved Africans, but the instruction in Roman Catholicism provided to the latter was typically perfunctory and sporadic. In Cuba, traditional African deities perhaps continued to be venerated within clubs and fraternal organizations made up of African migrants and their descendants. The most important of these were the cabildos de nación, associations which the establishment regarded as a means of controlling the Afro-Cuban population. These operated as mutual aid societies and organised communal feasts, dances, and carnivals. Cuba’s Roman Catholic Church saw these groups as a method for gradual evangelisation, through which they tolerated the practice of some African customs while stamping out those they most fiercely objected to. In the late 18th and early 19th century new laws restricted the cabildos’ activities, although their membership expanded in the 19th century.
Formation and early history
The earliest casa emerged in urban parts of western Cuba during the late 19th century. The final decades of the 19th century had also seen growing interest in Spiritism, a religion based on the ideas of French writer Allan Kardec, which in Cuba proved particularly popular among the white peasantry, the Creole class, and the small urban middle-class. Ideas from Spiritism increasingly filtered into and influenced Santería. From the urban west, Santería then spread into the Cuban countryside through urban-to-rural migration, probably reaching Cuba’s second largest city, Santiago de Cuba, at the eastern end of the country, in the 1930s.
After independence, Afro-Cubans remained largely excluded from economic and political power, while negative stereotypes about them remained pervasive throughout the Euro-Cuban population. Afro-Cuban religious practices were often referred to as brujería (witchcraft) and thought connected to criminality. Although Cuban constitution’s enshrined freedom of religion and Santería was never legislated against, throughout the first half of the 20th century various campaigns were launched against it. These were often encouraged by the press, who promoted allegations that white children were being abducted and murdered in Santería rituals; this reached a fever pitch in 1904 after two white children were murdered in Havana in cases that investigators speculated were linked to brujería.
One of the first intellectuals to examine Santería was the lawyer and ethnographer Fernando Ortiz, who discussed it in his 1906 book Los negros brujos (The Black Witchdoctors). He saw it as a barrier to the social integration of Afro-Cubans into broader Cuban society and recommended that it be suppressed. In the 1920s, there were efforts to incorporate elements of Afro-Cuban culture into a broader understanding of Cuban culture, such as through the afrocubanismo literary and artistic movement. These often drew upon Afro-Cuban music, dance, and mythology, but typically rejected Santería rituals themselves. In 1942, Rómula Lachatañeré’s Manuel de santería was published, representing the first scholarly attempt to understand Santería as a religion; in contrast to Ortiz, he maintained that the tradition should be seen as a religious system as opposed to a form of witchcraft. Lachatañeré was instrumental in promoting the term “Santería” in reference to the phenomenon, deeming it a more neutral description that the pejorative-laden terms such as brujería which were commonly used.
After the Cuban Revolution
A statue of Santa Barbara in a house in Mantilla, Havana; practitioners sometimes have statues of Roman Catholic saints in their homes
The Cuban Revolution of 1959 resulted in the island becoming a Marxist–Leninist state governed by Fidel Castro’s Communist Party of Cuba. Committed to state atheism, Castro’s government took a negative view of Santería. Practitioners experienced police harassment, were denied membership of the Communist Party, and faced limited employment opportunities. Creyente required police permission to perform rituals, which was sometimes denied. The state nevertheless promoted art forms associated with Santería in the hope of using them to promote a unified Cuban identity. While espousing anti-racism, Castro’s government viewed the promotion of a separate Afro-Cuban identity as counter-revolutionary.
Following the Soviet Union’s collapse in the 1990s, Castro’s government declared that Cuba was entering a “Special Period” in which new economic measures would be necessary. As part of this, it selectively supported Afro-Cuban traditions and legalised certain Santería practices, partly out of a desire to boost tourism; this Santería-focused tourism was called santurismo. Priests of Santería, Ifá, and Palo all took part in government-sponsored tours for foreigners desiring initiation into such traditions, while Afro-Cuban floor shows became common in Cuban hotels. In 1991, the Communist Party approved the admission of religious members, and in 1992 the constitution was amended to declare Cuba a secular rather than an atheist state. This liberalisation allowed Santería to leave behind its marginalisation, and throughout the 1990s it began to be practiced more openly.
A shop in Havana selling paraphernalia associated with Santería
The second half of the 20th century saw a growing awareness of Santería’s links with other orisha-worshipping religions in West Africa and the Americas. These transnational links were reinforced when the Ooni of Ife, a prominent Yoruba political and religious leader, visited Cuba in 1987. Cuba’s government permitted the formation of the Yoruba Cultural Association, a non-governmental organization, in the early 1990s, while various practitioners of Santería visited Nigeria to study traditional Yoruba religion. A yorubización (Yorubization) process emerged, with attempts made to remove Roman Catholic elements from Santería. Regarded largely as a U.S. phenomenon rather than a Cuban one, this Yorubization process was criticised by those who saw Santería’s syncretism as a positive trait.
The Cuban Revolution fuelled Cuban emigration, especially to the United States, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Colombia, and Venezuela. With an increased Cuban presence in the U.S., Santería grew in many U.S. cities, being embraced by Latino Americans as well as European Americans and African Americans. Some African Americans regarded it as an authentically African religion, especially when purged of Roman Catholic elements, sometimes perceiving it as a religious wing of the Black Power movement. A prominent exponent of this approach was the black nationalist activist Walter King. After being initiated in Cuba, he established a temple in Harlem before relocating with his followers to a community in Sheldon, South Carolina in 1970: they called this the Yoruba Village of Oyotunji. Having a strained relationship with many other santeros and santeras, who accused him of racism, King gradually came to refer to his tradition not as Santería but as Orisha-Voodoo.
Afro-Cuban drummers in Havana performing a toque based on those found in Santería
Ascertaining the number of Santería practitioners is complicated because Cuba’s government controls access to demographic information on the island. Based on their research, Argüelles Mederos and Hodge Limonta estimated that in the early 21st century around 8% of Cubans were initiates of the religion, which would amount to between 800,000 and 900,000 people. However, there are a greater number of people who are not initiates but turn to santero/santera for assistance on practical matters. In the 1980s, the secretary-general of the Roman Catholic episcopate, Monsignor Carlos de Céspedes estimated that about 85 percent of Cubans practiced an Afro-Cuban religion. In 1991, the Cuban anthropologist López Valdés suggested that about 90 percent of Cuba’s population practiced some form of religion and that of that 90 percent, a greater number practiced one of the Afro-Cuban religions than “pure Catholicism”. In 2004, Wedel suggested that practitioners of Santería “greatly outnumber” those who practiced Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, or Judaism in Cuba.
Santería is practiced in both rural and urban areas of Cuba, although predominates in the north-west provinces of Havana and Matanzas. Although it has both Afro-Cuban and Euro-Cuban followers, Johan Wedel noted from his research in the 1990s that Santería was “more common in working-class, low-income neighborhoods dominated by Afro-Cubans.” Wedel believed that men and women practice in roughly equal numbers. Some practitioners grow up in the religion, as the child of initiates, although others only approach the religion as an adult; it is a non-proselytizing religion.
Emigration has spread Santería across most of Latin America, the United States, and also to Europe. Through Cuban emigration to Mexico, Santería established a presence in Veracruz and Mexico City. Cuban emigration also established Santería’s presence in Puerto Rico, Spain, and Germany. Santería was present in the U.S. by the 1940s, increasing its presence following the Cuban Revolution. Clustering in Florida, California, New Jersey, and New York, it attracted converts from both the African American and Hispanic American communities, with different cases varying in their ethnic makeup. Based on his ethnographic work in New York City during the 1980s, Samuel Gregory noted that there Santería was not a “religion of the poor”, but contained a disproportionately high percentage of middle-class people such as teachers, social workers, and artists. The American Religious Identification Survey of 2001 estimated that there were then approximately 22,000 practitioners in the U.S., although in the mid-1990s the scholar Joseph Murphy suggested that hundreds of thousands of people in the country had engaged with Santería in some form, often as clients.
The interior of the Templo Yemalla, a Santería temple in Trinidad, Cuba
By the late 1980s, Santería had received considerable interest from social scientists, health professionals, and established churches. Some initiates mistrusted academics and were thus either vague or deliberately misleading in their answers to the latter’s questions, although the 1990s saw non-Cuban ethnographers seeking initiation into the religion, thus blurring the distinction between practitioner and anthropological observer. The religion was also explored in other media; the Cuban filmmaker Gloria Rolando released the film Oggún in 1992. Various songs have also referenced Santería, in particular the names of various oricha; the successful Cuban American singer Celia Cruz for example recorded a version of “Que viva Chango” (“Long Live Chango”), while a popular Cuban band called themselves Los Orichas. Santería’s influence can also be seen in the names of the popular Cuban liquor Santero and the state-owned machete factory Ogún.
Christian views of Santería have been largely negative, and in Cuba, there has been much opposition from the Roman Catholic clerical establishment over the centuries. Many Cuban intellectuals and academics also take a dim view of Santería. Opposition to the religion is also evident outside Cuba. When the International Afro-Caribbean Festival in Veracruz was launched in 1994, it showcased art and ritual by Mexican santeros/santeras, although this brought public protests from Roman Catholic organisations, who regarded such rites as Satanic, and animal welfare groups who regarded the sacrifices as inhumane. The festival’s organisers relented to the pressure, cutting the Santería elements of the festival by 1998. Pervasive stereotypes link Santería to criminal activity, while santeros and santeras are often accused of financially exploiting their initiates and clients, including by other practitioners of Santería itself. Various practitioners have also found that their involvement in Santería has strained their relationship with spouses or other family members who are not involved, and in some cases adherents have abandoned Santería to join other religious movements such as Pentecostalism.