The word “santeria” was used by the Spanish to mock the seemingly excessive devotion to the Catholic saints shown by the slaves from Africa. Their masters did not want them to worship their African gods, so they pretended they were practicing Christianity by praying to the saints, while remaining faithful to their animistic beliefs. These slaves were called Lukumis, a word of Yoruba origin used for a native of the Niger river valley, which is why the religion is also called lucumi.
In Cuba there began a process of syncretization between the Yoruba and Catholic religions that created a new system known as Regla de Osha, or Santeria, that spread to Latin America, the United States and Europe.
The fundamental pillars of the religion are the cult of the dead ancestors, or “egun”, and animistic beliefs that all natural beings have a spirit. It is a monotheistic religion that recognizes one God the Creator of all that exists, while it maintains polytheistic practices.
Santeria has a hierarchy of priests. Although Osha and Ifa are considered separate branches, the highest priests of santeria, or Regla de Osha-Ifa, are the babalowos, priests of Ifa. Under them are the babaloshas (santeros) and the iyaloshas (santeras), with their consecrated godchildren; the babalorishas (santeros) and iyalorishas (santeras), who have no godchildren; the iyawos, in their first year of consecration; and finally, the aleyos, who are believers but have not yet been consecrated.
All santeros have gone through specific rites of initiation, including a purification ritual followed by the receiving of the Orisha warriors and the coronation of the saint corresponding to their guardian angel.
Towards the end of the 19th century santeria included many devotees among the Spanish populations of the Caribbean, in particular in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Today the beliefs and customs of santeria are followed in New York and Miami, where it is as widely practiced as in the Caribbean islands.