Cuban Santeria

Santeria, ‘the worship of saints’, is gaining ground as a popular religious practice in Cuba. Developed in the African slave societies of the island’s sugar plantations, it is a syncretic religion adopting elements of Spanish imposed Catholicism whilst maintaining the central beliefs of Africa’s kidnapped natives, primarily Nigeria’s Yoruba tribe. As a practice rooted within a world of oppression it is shrouded in secrecy, surviving first the ruthless command of slave masters and imperial governance and later the religious intolerance of Castro’s government, it owes its continued existence over the centuries to the prevalence of the oral tradition, with believers preserving and nurturing its secrets through generations. Today, Santeria has emerged from the shadows of a Cuban society now at liberty to practice religion, and is witnessing an increase in both acceptance and popularity. In its earliest days Santeria was an exclusive slave practice – a rejection of the masters’ Catholic saints and the colonial Christian God – and it was the slave social centres (Calbidos) of the tiny village of Palmira that witnessed its first inception. Here, Cuban slaves congregated on a weekly basis in order to worship Oloddumare and the spirits; Orishas with whom they believe mortals communicate with the higher God. The Orishas are semi-divine beings, each expressing a specific aspect of human existence: Ochun is manifested in romantic love and money matters, whilst Oggun represents war; Chango embodies passion and virility, and Babalu Aye, healing. In return, each enjoys one day of the year dedicated to their honour, on which Santeros will summon the Orisha through ceremonial music and dance, in which offerings of food, rum and animal blood are made.

As the religion has evolved, each Orisha has become firmly associated with a specific Catholic saint; Yoruban Chango, for example, is now synonymous with Christianity’s young beheaded Santa Barbara. This form of worship demonstrates the equal faith that many of Santeria’s adherents have placed in both the Orishas and the Catholic saints, and by accepting and adopting the beliefs of both Cuba’s historic oppressor and oppressed, they have formed a religion that can neither be labelled as truly Christian nor Yoruba, but which is uniquely Cuban. Indeed, as with other syncretic religions practiced in Latin America, Santeria offers an outlet through which people can fuse together a ruptured past. After centuries of underground existence, it is becoming an open practice with participation from all levels of society.

San Roke sits in Cabildo Guillermo, in Palmira, regarded as the birthplace of Santeria, Cuba.Santeria singers at Callejon de Hamel, Havana, Cuba.Babalowo and a Santeria adherent practicing a ritual in the Bosque, Havana, Cuba.Outside a Cabildo - secret worship places of Santeria, old Havana, Cuba.Inside a Cabildo - secret worship places of Santeria, Old Havana, Cuba.The chicken is passed over the heads of those involved in the ceremony to extract the bad spirits from them, Santiago, Cuba.Julio preparing herbs for a Santeria ceremony, Old Havana, Cuba.Ceremony inside a cabildo, Santiago, Cuba.Ceremony inside a cabildo, Old Havana, Cuba.Cowry shells are an important part of a Santeria reading, they are using to tell the fortune of those asking the Orishas for guidance. Palmira, Cuba.Israel Endenza is said to be one of the longest practicing Babalawos in Cuba, Palmira, Cuba.Santera Lucia and family in their house which is also a Cabildo, Old Havana, CubaSantiago, Cuba.The ceremonies are complex and involved a variety of elements. Here, a mixture of herbs is made for the adherents to be blessed.Rum is sprayed over the herbal mixture by a Babalawo, as a blessing. Santiago, Cuba.Santeria involves animal sacrifice, it is believed that the animal, in it's death, takes with it the bad spirits. Santiago, Cuba.Santeria involves animal sacrifice, it is believed that the animal, in it's death, takes with it the bad spirits. Santiago, Cuba.After the sacrifice, the animals are eaten in a ceremonial feast. Havana, Cuba.Santeria is a syncretic religion, and therefore mixes iconography from Yoruba (Nigerian) religions and Catholicism. Havana, Cuba.The extensive initiation to become a Santera involves wearing white for a year, and not have any vices. Due to the popularity of Santeria, all white dress is now very fashionable.Ceremony inside a cabildo, Old Havana, Cuba.The pilgrimage of San Lazaro is the largest religious event in Cuba, here, locals take part in a private ceremony, Havana, Cuba.The pilgrimage of San Lazaro is the largest religious event in Cuba, attracting around 15,000 people to a small church on the outskirts of Havana.The pilgrimage of San Lazaro is the largest religious event in Cuba, thousands crawl, walk and drag themselves for repentance, asking the the patron saint of the sick for help.Many elements of Santeria are mixed between Catholicism and Yoruba (African) beliefs. The pilgrimage of San Lazaro is the largest religious event in Cuba. Havana, Cuba.The pilgrimage of San Lazaro is the largest religious event in Cuba, thousands crawl, walk and drag themselves for repentance, asking the the patron saint of the sick for help.
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