Surely the word orishas sounds familiar to you. Yes, it is the name of a Cuban musical group that swept Europe in the early 2000s with their album A lo cubano.
But it is not about the music of this group that we want to talk to you about, but about the orishas of the Yoruba pantheon of the Afro-Cuban religion.
It is almost impossible to travel to Cuba and not delve into its history and culture, and the strong presence of its African traditions. Therefore, today we are going to update you a little on religion in Cuba and on these interesting African cults.
African-based religions, practiced for centuries in Cuba, have merged with myths and beliefs of aborigines and Spaniards to give rise to what is now known as Afro-Cuban religion .
Although statistics indicate that the Cuban population is, for the most part, Catholic, the practice of Santeria and other religions that came from the African continent is strongly rooted.
Santeria: The cult of the orishas grows day by day in Cuba
These religions, imported from Africa on slave ships , brought their own beliefs and rituals to the island, and were seen until very recently as "witchcraft", diseases, aberrations or "obscurantism of blacks" . This is how this interesting and profound system of cultural knowledge and traditions was stigmatized for years.
The work of Cuban intellectuals and artists to make the value of these practices and beliefs visible during the 1990s was fundamental; among them, Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, painter who created the Callejón de Hamel murals, allegorical to the Afro-Cuban religion.
In Cuba, faith in the orishas , who are African saints or deities, is appreciated in the daily worship of the town: some guavas left in the 4 corners for Elegguá to open the ways; a pumpkin offered to the river, where Ochún lives; a bunch of bananas at the foot of a palm, so that Chango can help them win wars and protect them.
In Cuban daily practice, saints solve more problems than doctors or lawyers; They are the divine entities that never let you down so, even without being a practitioner or being initiated in religion, one can go to them for help.
In the Cuban religious field, Santeria and the cult of Ifá enjoy a unique prestige and, since the 1990s, the number of its adherents, both foreign and Cuban, has grown exponentially.
Today, numerous foreign candidates for initiation into Santeria arrive in Cuba: many come from the American continent (Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia), but also from certain European countries (Spain, Italy, and in smaller amount Switzerland, Germany and France).
This phenomenon is of such magnitude that a great majority of Ifá and Santeria priests in Havana currently have a foreign godson in their “religious family”.
Main African-based religions in Cuba
The late flowering of the Cuban sugar industry and the persistence of the smuggling of slaves during the second half of the 19th century caused the variety of African cultural elements in Cuba.
The anthropologist Fernando Ortiz determined that in nineteenth-century Cuba there were more than 100 African ethnic groups, whose essence and identity were preserved in mutual aid associations known as cabildos , societies of free or enslaved blacks whose nucleus is African practices were preserved and Afro-Cuban religions were consolidated.
In the sugar mill or plantation, where thousands of slaves worked and developed their individual and collective religious practices, the four main African religions were represented, as in the town councils: Yoruba, Arará, Abakuá and Congo.
These magical-religious systems of African antecedent bear several similarities :
- They develop through tribal cults.
- Man stands as a carrier of knowledge
- Deep belief in the powers of nature
- Respect for the elders and ancestors
- The belief that you have to give to receive
- They are cultures without texts, in which orality is extremely important
In the Afro-Cuban religions various divinatory systems are used, by means of which the querent can guess the future of the consulted person, or reveal relevant data about his past or present.
Among the most popular are : the biague (the coconut), the diloguín (the shell) and the Ifá board, the mediumistic trance and the glasses of water. As part of divinatory syncretism, the reading of Spanish cards is also used for predictions.
The Ifá board , recognized as Intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO , it is perhaps the divinatory system to which Cubans go the most to know their present and future. Only a babalawo can interpret the signs that appear on the board, when he throws his chain on it. And only he is empowered to advise the consultant and order him to do cleaning work (with animals, fruits or herbs).
Santeria and the phenomenon of religious syncretism
The religions coming from Africa clashed directly with the Catholic beliefs that the Spanish tried to impose in Cuba.
The slaves were punished if they were seen practicing their African rites, so they looked for alternatives to continue to secretly venerate their deities through direct association with Catholic saints.
Thus arises the Santeria or Ocha-Ifá system , a religion that was nucleated around "temple houses" or "ocha houses", in which the saints and beautiful altars are erected to venerate them.
This process is known as religious syncretism , a hybrid in which the different orishas were identified with a Catholic saint, symbolizing elements or phenomena of nature.
In Santeria, the Yoruba religion of Nigeria coexists with elements of Catholicism. Therefore, it is not strange today to find followers of the Afro-Cuban religion celebrating rites in Catholic churches.
Of all the religions with African roots, the most widespread in Cuba to this day is Santeria . The Nigerian Africans of Yoruba origin who arrived on the island outnumbered those of other ethnic groups, and thus they managed to influence Cuban culture more and better.
The influence of the Yoruba ethnic group can be seen in dance, food, music, literature and, obviously very strongly, in religious practice.
Santeria is the union of cultures , of the cult of the orishas, Ifa and Catholic imagery. Each orisha has its own legend, its representation, its colors, its weapons and the control of certain forces of nature that, in moments of crisis, disappeared and aché remained, which is understood as power in state of pure energy, strength or a gift of virtue.
Currently the main religions in Cuba are the Catholic religion and the Yoruba, without having to be exclusive, at least on the part of the practitioners of the African religion.
|Elegua||Niño de Atocha||Roads, chance and death|
|Oggún||San Pedro||The minerals, the tools, the work|
|Ochosi||San Norberto||Justice, hunter, fisherman|
|Yemayá||Virgen de Regla||The sea, fertility, motherhood, union|
|Ochun||Caridad del Cobre||The river, love, femininity, grace.|
|Chango||Santa Bárbara||The fire, the thunder|
|Oyá||Teresa de Ávila||The wind, lightning, storms|
|Orula||San Francisco||The fortune teller|
Santeria and its divination oracles
This religion is considered polytheistic. The fundamental pillars of religion are based on the cult of dead ancestors and the knowledge that there is a unique God (Oloddumare) and is related to human beings through extensions of this, which are also divinities, to which the Yorubas named orishas .
The Orisha pantheon is crowned by Olodumare, unique and omnipresent God, supreme author of the destinies of every living thing, father of all Orishas and of life.
All the other Orishas (saints) are the ministers of Olodumare who watch over life on earth. The power or energy of Olodumare is known as aché or ashé. The expression “have aché ” is common in Cuba as a synonym for “be lucky”.
In Santeria, divination is given through three oracles, which are the religious bonds used to achieve spiritual communication: the Ifá oracle (board), the Diloguín oracle (shells) and the oracle of Biagué (coconut).
Santeria has a priestly hierarchy. All priests are known as santeros , they use shells and coconut in their divination rituals.
The highest hierarchy is held by the " babalawos " or priests of Ifá (father or guardian of secrets), who are the only ones who can use the Ifá board to interpret the advice and opinions of this orisha. The cult of Ifá or the deity Orunmila or Orula , deity of divination, of destiny, of wisdom, plays a fundamental role in Santeria.
In all these cults and rituals, santeros and babalawos advise men to achieve inner peace and spiritual well-being.
Main rites of Santeria
Entering Santeria requires a long process of initiation, whereby the iyawó or initiate is "crowned" with his orisha (saint).
Through the Cuban streets it is usual, in our days, to see initiates in this religion who walk completely dressed in white, who must spend a whole year dressed in this color and wearing their bracelets and necklaces, to complete the purification process, and thus obtain the full protection of your saint.
Among the main ceremonies and rites that take place within Santeria, and which travelers can attend, as spectators, if you want to know better are:
Receive warriors : the holy warriors are Elegguá, Oggún, Ochosi and Osun. The practitioner should have them represented at home, attend to them regularly, blow brandy and tobacco smoke on them, and light a candle. Once a year they should be fed a feathered animal. These saints help those who have received them to make their way, to win wars and to protect themselves from the evil eye.
Receive “hand of Orula” : with this power the initiates can know their guardian angel, or protective orisha. The initiation lasts three days, in which you must refrain from drinking, having intercourse or going out at night.
The last day he/she receives various advice from the babalawos who performed the ceremony, which will be vital for his/her future and that of his/her family. Orula is represented inside a small yellow and green amphora, which the initiate must keep in his/her house, in a high place. To recognize themselves, initiates wear necklaces or bracelets with yellow and green beads as well.
Striking stick : pact of the initiate with the spirit that lives within the nganga or garment, to obtain its protection.
Spiritual Masses : they are strictly performed before crowning with a saint, since they establish guidelines for behavior, offerings to be made or other advice to take into account before receiving the saint.
Spiritual Masses are also celebrated for deceased relatives, or they are made to know the spiritual cord of an individual, which is nothing more than those spirits that accompany and guide him in his life. The santeras or santeros are those who perform these masses, whose dynamics is very similar to that of the Catholic liturgy.
Reception or coronation of the saint or orisha : it is when the practitioner is crowned with his guardian angel or protective orisha. All the ceremonies of this initiation last 7 days and the initiate must remain for 1 whole year dressed in white and submit to strict behavior during this time. From the moment he/she is crowned, the initiate or iyawó becomes a santero or santera.
Colors, herbs, rhythms and celebrations
Colors are an important means of communicating ideas, both in the social sphere and in daily exchange with the supernatural world. They are also regulatory and transforming agents.
Each color represents an orisha (saint), and determines the appearance of the necklaces and bracelets that the practitioner will wear.
Herbs , provided by the yerbero, an important figure in the Afro-Cuban religion, have the power to heal , heal and cleanse. Its purifying and saving action acts on the body or the home of the person to bring peace, harmony, well-being, health and good energies.
Although there are also those who use herbs to make love ties or "bilongos", in order to achieve or perpetuate a relationship.
As in other African religions, music plays a fundamental role in rituals and religious celebrations.
The most sacred instruments are the Batá trio of drums , which house a deity called Añá. The batá are very popular in Cuban music, and on a religious level they are played in initiation rituals, where the initiate "presents" himself to the drum, at funerals or in ceremonies to honor the ancestors.
The drums, violins or güiros are other forms of singing to the saints and they function at the same time as a celebration, and as an offering to the orisha to whom the playing is dedicated. On the day of the touch, an altar or throne is arranged, dedicated to the saint to whom it is offered, and all the participants greet and worship the deity on the throne, either leaving money or some other offering.
These touches are parties that are offered as payment of a promise, to fulfill the saint or simply to entertain him with music. Santeros, practitioners or anyone who is passing through attends. These celebrations take place at open doors, so that anyone who wants to come by, dance, greet the saint and take a little bit of ashé, can do so.
Dare to know Cuba through its religious practices
As part of our thematic guided tours and the experiences as we organize, we will make you discover the most interesting universe of Cuban Santeria, its ancestral ceremonies and its practice in today's Cuba.
We take you to religious areas of Havana, such as Regla and Guanabacoa; We open the doors of a house-temple, we put you in contact with prominent Cuban Santeras or Babalawos, and if you dare, you can even consult yourself, to see what the future holds for you.
CubaUnique will organize your tailor-made trip to Cuba with the best positive energies!
So, if you are thinking of organizing a trip to Cuba, either for travel as a family , with your group of friends or with your classmates , with your partner or even in honeymoon , on your own or in one of our tailor-made trips , be sure to follow our recommendations for travel to Cuba without complications and to know the evolution of the Covid-19 situation in Cuba.
We suggest some of our most popular organized tours , and, if it is not what you were looking for, we will design your personalized trip, and above all, we suggest that you follow our tips to live the authentic Cuban culture ¡Mucho Aché!
Article written by Gabriela Rodríguez, independent Cuban guide.
Video produced and edited by Javier Ernesto Hernández-López.0