«The understanding of death and dying as seen by different religions»



♦The growth of Santeria


Santeria is essentially an African way of worship drawn into a symbiotic relationship with Catholicism.The Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Marcea Eliade
Santería is an amorphous, practical, and oral tradition which promises wisdom and power in dealing with life's hardships.Hector Avalos, Introduction to the U.S. Latina and Latino Religious Experience, 2004

♦Santeria (The way of the Saints) is an Afro-Caribbean religion based on Yoruba beliefs and traditions, with some Roman Catholic elements added. The religion is also known as La Regla Lucumi and the Rule of Osha.

♦Santeria incorporates elements of several faiths and so is what's called a 'syncretic' religion. It has grown beyond its Yoruba and Catholic origins to become a religion in its own right, and a powerful symbol of the religious creativity of Afro-Cuban culture.

♦The centre of the religion is Cuba, but it has spread to the USA and other nearby countries, particularly after the Cuban revolution in 1959.

For a long time Santeria was a secretive underground religion, but it's becoming increasingly visible in the Americas:

Once dismissed as a ghetto religion practiced only by the Caribbean poor and uneducated, Santeria has a growing following among middle-class professionals, including white, black and Asian Americans.

There are police officers in New York who pray to Obatala, the father of all deities, or orishas, before they slip on their gun belts.

There are lawyers and professors, civil servants and musicians whose homes are filled with altars laden with flowers, rum, cake and cigars to keep the gods happy and helpful. Many dress in white to symbolize purity.

Lizette Alvarez, After Years of Secrecy, Santeria Is Suddenly Much More Popular. And Public, New York Times 27/01/1997

Revolutionary Cuba clamped-down on Santeria at first, but over the last 15 years or so the government tolerated it more and more and now allows it to flourish. Cynics say that this is because Santeria brings considerable hard currency to the island.

It's difficult to know how many people follow Santeria, as there's no central organisation, and the religion is often practised in private. Some estimates go as high as a hundred million Santeria believers worldwide.



♦Santeria deities

The religion focuses on building relationships between human beings and powerful, but mortal, spirits, called Orishas. An Orisha is a manifestation of Olodumare (God).

♦Santeria and slavery

Santeria was created in Cuba by the mingling of Yoruba traditions brought by enslaved Africans from Nigeria and Benin with the Roman Catholic faith of the Spanish plantation owners.

Attempts were made to convert the enslaved Africans, but while they accepted much of the missionary teachings, they didn't find that these provided sufficient 'religious fulfilment'.

They continued to practice their own rituals, which they found to be useful and effective, and which, most importantly, filled the spiritual space in lives torn from their original cultural foundations.

What happened next was remarkable:

...in Cuba the Catholic church was tolerant of ethnic traditions and even allowed various African groups to create their own "clubs," which became known as the Cabildos.

The Cabildos were not only ethnic clubs but also religious organizations under the secret leadership of the babalawo - the religious functionary whose patron divinity was Orunmilla, the oracle divinity of the Yoruba.

The contact between African religion and Catholicism in Cuba yielded a synthesis known as Santeria...

... there was a strong symbiosis between the Catholic sacramental system and that of traditional African religion. Under the Yoruba babalawo, the Catholic calendar was wisely utilized for the veneration of African saints. The word santeria itself means veneration of the saints.

Charles H. Lippy and Peter W. Williams, eds, Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience: Studies of Traditions and Movements, 1988

Followers believe that these spirits will give them help in life, if they carry out the appropriate rituals, and enable them to achieve the destiny that God planned for them before they were born.

This is very much a mutual relationship as the Orishas need to be worshipped by human beings if they are to continue to exist.

In a Supreme Court Case in 1993, Justice Kennedy in his decision said:

The Santeria faith teaches that every individual has a destiny from God, a destiny fulfilled with the aid and energy of the orishas.The basis of the Santeria religion is the nurture of a personal relation with the orishas, and one of the principal forms of devotion is an animal sacrifice. According to Santeria teaching, the orishas are powerful but not immortal. They depend for survival on the sacrifice.Justice Kennedy, 1993

Orishas can be perceived in the physical universe by initiates, and the whole community can share in their presence when they possess a priest during some rituals.

♦Influence of Catholicism

The Roman Catholic element in Santeria is most obvious in the way Orishas are associated with Catholic Saints such as:

  • Saint Barbara [Shangó], who embodies justice and strength, and is associated with lightning and fire
  • Our Lady of Charity [Ochún] - the Yoruba goddess of the river, associated with water, yellow, sweets, money, and love
  • Saint Lazarus [Babalú-Ayé] - who is associated with the sick

Followers of Santeria are often (nominal) Roman Catholics as well. Catholic symbols are sometimes used in Santeria rituals.

♦Holy Books

Santeria has no scriptures and is passed on by word-of-mouth.

♦Rituals and customs

Santeria rituals allow human beings to stay in contact with the Orishas - these rituals include dancing, drumming, speaking and eating with the spirits.

Santeria has few buildings devoted to the faith. Rituals often take place in halls rented for the purpose, or privately in Santeria homes which are may be fitted with altars for ritual purposes. During appropriate rituals the Orishas are able to meet believers at these sacred spaces.

Material for use in Santeria rituals can be bought in specialist outlets called botánicas.

These rituals can include Roman Catholic elements:

Lydia Cabrera notes that, in Santería, one ritual against evil eye combines a specially prepared herbal bath with three Our Fathers, Three Credos, and Three Ave Marias.Hector Avalos, Introduction to the U.S. Latina and Latino Religious Experience, 2004


One major ritual is a bembé. This ceremony invites the Orisha to join the community in drumming, singing and dancing.

The Orisha may 'seize the head' of a person (or 'mount them' as if they were a horse), and cause that possessed person to perform 'spectacular dances', and to pass on various messages from the Orisha to community members. 


Animal sacrifice is central to Santeria. The animal is sacrificed as food, rather than for any obscure mystical purpose.

Followers of an Orisha will offer them food and sacrifice animals to them in order to build and maintain a personal relationship with the spirit. The process not only brings the worshipper closer to their Orisha, but makes them more aware of the presence of the Orisha within them.

This is a mutual process; the food is essential for the Orishas, who will die without being fed, and in return the Orishas are able to help the worshippers. Orishas are also nourished by other forms of worship and praise.

Sacrifices are performed for life events such as birth, marriage, and death. They are also used for healing.

Without sacrifice the religion would die out, as sacrifice is essential for initiation into the faith community and the 'ordination' of priests.

The animals are killed by cutting the carotid arteries with a single knife stroke in a similar way to other religious methods of slaughter.

Animals are cooked and eaten following all Santeria rituals (except healing and death rites, where the sickness is believed to pass into the dead animal). Eating the sacrificed animal is considered a sharing with the Orisha, who only consumes the animal's blood, while the worshippers eat the meat.

Sacrificial animals include chickens (the most common), pigeons, doves, ducks, guinea pigs, goats, sheep, and turtles.

The USA Supreme Court has stated (Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah, 1993 - see related links) that it is constitutional for Santeria worshippers to kill animals for such a ritual sacrifice.


There is no central organisation in Santeria.

A vital unit of the Santeria community is the 'house' called a casa or ilé. This is often the house of senior Santeria priest, who heads an extended family:

He, or more often, she, is the head of the ilé in the deeper sense of 'family'. She or he is 'godmother' or 'godfather' to a family of sisters and brothers en santo, in the spirit.

In the minds of its members, the core function of the ilé is to honor the spirits and receive from them in turn guidance and assistance in all of life's endeavours.

The Orishas offer their children spiritual experience and heavenly wisdom which is marked by progress in the initiatory hierarchy of the ilé. The ilé sets out a path of spiritual growth, a road en santo.

Joseph M. Murphy, Working the Spirit: Ceremonies of the African Diaspora, 1994

The members of the ilé relate to each other in much the same way as members of an extended biological family. There may be an elaborate hierarchy based partly on the levels of spiritual development that family members have reached.

An ilé may be large or small. Ilés are independent but may join up for special occasions.

Membership is taken seriously, and members are expected to take part in the life of the ilé. Many people are involved with Santeria to a lesser extent, without becoming members of an ilé.


Members mostly join as adults, usually after feeling that a particular Orisha has called them to do so.

Many testify that it was their experience of a life-threatening illness which first prompted their devotion to an Orisha.

Illness, they say, is a call from the Orisha, a crisis to a waken one to one's destiny as a servant of the Orisha.

Their subsequent pact with the spirit reflects both their respect for the power of the Orisha to claim their lives and their gratitude for the Orisha's agency in effecting a cure.

Joseph M. Murphy, Working the Spirit: Ceremonies of the African Diaspora, 1994

Initiation is a solemn and life-changing event for the follower and unites them with their Orisha, and with other followers of that Orisha.


Santeria has a priesthood that includes both men and women. Priesthood involves training and initiation.

The priest may be a babalorisha (Father in the Spirit) or iyalorisha (Mother or Wife in the Spirit). The Spanish words for these priests are santero or santera.

Priesthood is not a full-time paid job, and is often combined with ordinary work.

A priest has 'made the saint', which means that they have been 'reborn in the spirit' and made a commitment to serve a particular Orisha.

Priests have special powers because they have been 'entered' by an Orisha.

♦Divining the future

These powers are thought to allow them to predict the future.

Divination mediates between earth (aiye) and heaven (orun). It proffers counsel and guidance to believers at all critical junctures and transitional experiences of the life cycle.Eugenio Matibag, Ifá and Interpretation: An Afro-Caribbean Literary Practice, in Sacred Possessions: Vodou, Santería, Obeah and the Caribbean (ed. Margarite Fernandez Olmos and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert), 1997

Divination can be done by casting palm nuts, interpreting the fall of shells, or using a divided coconut.

Santeria also includes the Yoruba divination system called Ifa, which can only be performed by a senior male priest called a babalawo. This ritual involves throwing an ekwele, a chain of 8 shaped pieces. The way in which these pieces fall is used to provide guidance.


Santeria priests have a great knowledge of traditional medicine and herbalism, and often play an important role in the health of their community.

Their healthcare draws on Catholicism as well as African tradition; holy water is an ingredient in many Santeria medicinal formulas.

Santeria healthcare is often combined with conventional medicine.