Santeria is a religion that was created in the Caribbean and is a syncretism of traditional African tribal beliefs, from the Yoruba tribe, and the Roman Catholic beliefs of the European property owners on the islands. Santeria means Way of the Saints, and is also known as La Regla Lucumi or the Rule of Osha. It is a religion that developed entirely out of the slave trade as slaves brought over were forced to give up their traditional religion and adopt that of their owners. While many people believe that Santeria is a combination of the two different religions, it is not. Instead, similarities between the two religions were simply coalesced by the people – for example, similarities between saints meant that in the minds of the people they were close enough to one another that appealing to one was equitable to appealing to the other.
For many years the traditions of Santeria were hidden among practitioners as they faced persecution from other cultures that had neither the understanding nor tolerance of the tribal nature, including the animal sacrifice, sacred dances and sacred drumming. Santeria has no central creed, but does involve communication with a number of saints. These saints are worshiped at altars called igbodu that are built in ilé shrines by the priests or priestesses. Each igbodu contains three thrones draped in royal blue, white and red satin, to represent the queens, kings, and deified soldiers of the religion. Each ‘church’ or ilé is housed most often in the home of the priest or priestess in charge of leading their congregation. Priests and priestesses must go through an intensive week-long initiation which teaches them the skills and behaviors they must know. There are four major initiation rituals that must be experienced after the initiate undergoes a ritual cleansing.
Religious Healing Practices
Santerian healing practices are rooted in spiritual traditions and do more than simply seek to solve the symptoms of a problem. The priests and priestesses, like their counterparts in many tribal religions, act not just as doctors, but also as herbalists, moralists, and psychologists, helping to uncover the deeper root behind an illness rather than just treating the obvious symptoms.
Methods of Divination
Santeria uses divination to determine the cause of an illness, and in the course of treating illnesses a priest or priestess may use not only herbs, but also rituals that could involve animal sacrifice, offerings, building of special altars, music, dance and even trances. All of these activities led it to be declared a form of witchcraft. In the more modern era and in locations where Santeria is common, many healers will try to work side by side with modern medical practices, trying to heal the whole person while the doctor is trying to treat the symptoms.
Most of the people who practice Santeria are found in the countries of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Venezuela, Panama, Colombia, and in the Dominican Republic. There is also a large population of people who practice in the United States, though the numbers are considered to be inaccurate because many people prefer not to declare their religion as Santerian.