Santería is oft one of the most misunderstood religious and spiritual practices. It often faces assumptions that its followers are “evil.” When we see Santería mentioned in the media, we are faced with images of animal sacrifice. That is all we are shown of this historically and culturally rich religion. When practices such as these are facing our dominant Christian culture and its media, that is all we will ever see. Context and perspective are lost because it does not align with our own engrained moral code.
Santería is a polytheistic Afro-Cuban religion. It has become a mix of many cultures over time, but its foundation is from the Yoruba people from South-West Nigeria. These people were enslaved and transported to Cuba. Upon arrival in Cuba, they faced forced conversion of Christianity – which led to a blend of the two faiths.
As a closed faith, it can be difficult to capture the intricacies of how its followers practice and work spiritually with their gods. Initiates receive teachings from their priest or priestess [Babaloches/Santeros or Lyalochas/Santeras]. There is no written book of these original teachings. Centuries of traditions and practices have been passed down orally. These folk stories are often known as Appataki.
We do know that the original deities from the Yoruba’s faith were subsequently identified with their Christian saint counterparts. Their creator-god, Olodumare (also called Olofín or Olorún) is represented by the image of Jesus Christ. The original gods are known as oshiras, or spirits in the Yoruba language.
Olofín is a tired, old god who is concerned with the greater workings of the universe. He is unconcerned by the small needs of humans and is never called to assist in these matters. He is always mentioned before the other gods in ritual, but has no dedicated priests of his own.
Animal sacrifice occurs during ceremony and ritual as a way to provide offerings to the oshiras. Without such offerings, the oshiras will die. Sacrifice occurs for larger life events such as birth, marriage, and death. They can also be used to call the oshiras for support in healing.
These animals are cooked and eaten after all sacrifices except for those used in healing and death rites, as it is believed the sickness enters the body of the animal.
It is important to note that Santeria is a recognized religion and its practices are protected. The US Supreme Court has stated that their ritual sacrifices are constitutional [Court of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. Court of Hialeah, 1993].
I’ve been digging for the best resources to provide for this path. Because it is a closed practice that has evolved due to oral traditions, many works are academic based on anthropological study. You can find these pieces of work in the Recommended Reading for this month.