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Santeria

An Introduction to Santeria for Beginners

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Santeria, like Vodou, is an African Diaspora religion, meaning that it is based on native African religious traditions that were brought to the Americas by African slaves. Native American beliefs, Catholicism and the experiences of slavery merged with these African religions to form what they are today.

Location

Santeria developed in Cuba, although it can be found in many countries today, primarily spread through emigration from Cuba.

It is primarily based on African Yoruba religion, although the beliefs of the Dahomey and Benin people also influence it. These source religions can still be found in Africa today.

Membership

The terms santero and santera are reserved only for full priests of the religion, and priests confer the priesthood upon a person through specific ceremonies after the candidate has met certain requirements.

There is no special term for people who simply believe in Santeria. Santeros provide their services to anyone who asks, regardless of belief.

Beliefs

Santeria honors a number of worldly gods known as orishas. Each has their own myths and command over certain aspects of life. There are also multiple aspects of many of the orishas, with further specialization in terms of interest and influence. In the West there are less than two dozen orishas commonly approached, although in Africa there are hundreds.

Above the orishas is Olodumare, creator of all and the supreme being. Olodumare is a distant, removed being no longer involved in the affairs of mortals. As such, he is not approached as orishas are.

Ashe is the substance of Olodumare and thus the substance of all things created by Olodumare. To appeal to the orishas is to attempt an exchange of ashe. Humans, through their offerings, provide ashe to the orishas, which they need in order to survive. In return, the orishas grant ashe that will assist the petitioner in some specific task.

Christian Influences

Santeria shops commonly carry a wide variety of Christian items such as prayer candles dedicated to particular saints. This practice was originally developed by slaves in order to hide their pagan practices from Christian masters. Today, Cuban communities continue to be strongly Catholic, so the practice continues to have benefit, both in shielding believers from scrutiny but also allowing santeros to assist Catholic members of the community through the use of Catholic language.

Santeros believe the orishas wear a variety of masks that other cultures recognize as their own holy figures. So, for example, when Aganyu is described as St. Christopher, it is understood by the santero that St. Christopher is one of the masks of Aganyu, although a Catholic petitioner would understand this figure only as St. Christopher. In this way santeros do not believe other holy figures are false, merely different perspectives of the orishas. Religious Sacrifices In order for ashe to be provided to orishas, sacrifices must be made. There are a variety of things that the orishas like, but one of the most common and powerful sources of ashe is blood. As such, animal sacrifice is fairly common in Santeria rituals.

Because the orishas primarily want the blood of the animal, the flesh of sacrificial animals are frequently eaten after the ritual is concluded. There are exceptions to this, such as when the sacrifice is part of a ritual to draw away a contaminating influence. In such cases the bodies are discarded as spiritually contaminated and left to rot.

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