Divination plays a major role in the religion, said UH anthropologist Susan Rasmussen. Priestess Perry has been trained to enlist the Orishas in foretelling the future through the casting of sacred cowrie shells. Her husband, Rony, a higher-level priest or babalawo, can employ the Ifa system, relating the patterns of a tossed divination chain to the hundreds of parables he has memorized.
“It’s a lot like binary code,” said Rony Perry, whose college discipline was computer science. “There are 256 possible combinations.”
Rasmussen likened such sessions to “social counseling.”
“A diviner is almost like a consultant, » she said.
Orishas also communicate with their disciples through spirit possession, a process Rasmussen compared to “group therapy.”
In such ceremonies, believers enter a trance state in which the characteristics of their orisha are manifest. The orisha may deliver messages to the group, predict the future, bestow blessings or dance.
Many believers in Santeria, which came to the U.S. with waves of Cuban immigrants fleeing the island’s 1959 communist takeover, said much of the religion’s appeal lies in its ritual and direct contact with the divine.
“It’s a hands-on religion,” said Bernardo Longoria, a Mexican-born Santeria priest who was among recent visitors to Perry’s house-temple. Longoria, 62, was reared as a Catholic but found the church hierarchy and liturgical formality off-putting.
Looking for answers
Although introduced to Santeria as a child, Perry, born in Trinidad, the daughter of a devout Egypt-born Muslim father and a West Indian Hindu mother, actively became involved in 2005. The belief system, she said, was a remedy for a feeling that despite a loving husband and three successful children, something was missing from her life. What she found, she said, was transformative.
“Orishas,” she said, “rule over every force of nature. They guide us to a better life spiritually. Communication between orishas and humans take many forms – meditation, prayers, rituals, divinations, offerings, songs and dance. Its premise is based on iwa pele – good and gentle character – and we’re held to higher standards, expected to always take the high road, to become better people.”
Perry is a “child” of the hypermasculine Ogun, patron of those who work with iron or steel whose purview extends from the lethal results of a metal weapon in a killer’s hands to the life-sparing skills of a scalpel-wielding surgeon. Perry’s duties consist primarily of serving Ogun and overseeing daily activities at her temple, which also is her residence. She oversees the training of future priests and joins her husband in officiating at ceremonies, events that often feature channeling of orishas and occasionally animal sacrifice.
“When you go to a church and a minister gives a sermon to 100 or 200 people, that’s nice. People may take something away from it,” Perry said. “But with (this religion) when you get that message, it’s very specific about what you should be doing.”