They willed, and out of chained wrists, with pained feet and hoarse throat, they danced and cheered, and their voices were heard, proclaiming, exalting their revered Orichás .”
Out of the torment of oppression and shadows of secrecy, followers of Cuba’s Santería religion begin to firmly claim their presence within Cuban society.
Santería, referred to by its practitioners as la Regla de Ocha/Lucumí, is a syncretised religion between Roman Catholicism and West African Yoruba doctrine that developed in the slave social centres known as ‘calbidos’ in the tiny village of Palmira in Western Cuba.
Unlike most other religions, Santería does not have a central creed for its religious practices and is instead understood in terms of its rituals and ceremonies.
With increasing acceptance within contemporary Cuban society, the religion is now more popular than ever with participation from all levels of Cuban society. The religion thrives today with multiple followers in much of Latin America, as well as parts of the United States despite the issue of animal sacrifice causing great concern in the USA.
A common misconception is that la Regla de Ocha blends Yoruba doctrine with Roman Catholicism to create a new religion, however, that is not the case. For the Afro-Cuban people, the two religions existed parallel to one another and they didn’t regard any contradiction between them. Practitioners of Santería often refer to themselves as Catholic, attend Catholic masses, and even baptize their children as Catholics but practice their African-based religion in their ‘ilé’, or Lucumí temple-house, in their own homes or in the homes of religious elders.
While practitioners of la Regla de Ocha acknowledge that the Catholic saints and the Lucumí Orichás are not identical, they embrace the similarities that they find.
Forced to practice their religion in secrecy, slaves syncretized their Yoruba Orichás with Roman Catholic Saints in order to avoid religious prosecution.
Slaves congregated on a weekly basis to worship the Orichás, semi-divine beings whom they believed to be mediums between God and human beings. Each Oricha represents a specific aspect of human existence, such as Obatalá, the creator of earth and the sculptor of mankind; Changó (Shangó) is the owner of fire, lightning, thunder and war, he is also the patron of music, drumming, and dancing; Ochún, the youngest of all the Orichás and the queen of the rivers; and many more.
Some Cuban people may refer to the Orichás as Santos or ‘Saints’ in English, hence the name Santería: ‘worship of saints’.
Related: Once an initiation is complete, the ‘Bride of the Saints’ must adhere to a strict regimen of wearing all white… Read more about The White of Santería.
Each individual Orisha is assigned a day a year dedicated to their honour. Drumming and dancing is performed to honour the Orichás and tempt them into interacting with humans through trance possession.
During a ‘tambor’ or drumming ceremony, the sacred batá drums are played; these are special drums that have been ceremoniously prepared and charged with the drum spirit known as Aña. The batá drums are reserved strictly for religious purposes and are considered sacred objects as they are used to communicate with the Orichás. In traditional Santería communities, the drums are played by only men. Drummers must brave intense training sessions and special ceremonies in order to have the right to play the drums.
Santería is just one of several Cuban syncretic religions with roots in Africa, but it is practised by 13% of the 11 million population, according to a 2015 survey by the Spanish network Univision and Fusion (The Guardian UK, 2015). This would make it the second-most popular religion after Catholicism with 27% – though many believe the two are so intertwined that it is difficult to consider them separately (The Guardian UK, 2015).
The religion has remained somewhat in secret within Cuban society for centuries due to the ruthless punishment of slave masters and imperial governance, as well as the religious intolerance of Castro’s regime.
Santería has survived through centuries of oral tradition due to believers preserving their sacred ceremonies and rituals over generations. By accepting and adopting the beliefs of Cuba’s colonial past and African roots, Santería is neither truly Christian nor Yoruba, but authentically Cuban, representing a shared identity that celebrates Cuba’s rich cultural heritage and unique identity. 🖤
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