Santería, (Spanish: “The Way of the Saints”), also called La Regla de Ocha (Spanish: “The Order of the Orishas”) or La Religión Lucumí (Spanish: “The Order of Lucumí”), the most common name given to a religious tradition of African origin that was developed in Cuba and then spread throughout Latin America and the United States.
Santería was brought to Cuba by the people of the Yoruban nations of West Africa, who were enslaved in great numbers in the first decades of the 18th century. The name “Santería” derives from the correspondences and similarities between the Yoruba deities called orishas and the saints (santos) of Roman Catholic piety.
Many contemporary practitioners refer to the tradition as “the religion of the orishas” or the “Lukumi religion,” after the name by which the Yoruba were known in Cuba.Santería is based upon the development of personal relationships through divination, sacrifice, initiation, and mediumship (see medium) between practitioners of the religion and the orisha deities, who provide their devotees with advices, wisdom, and success and who guide devotees through their lives. It is believed that access to the orishas can be achieved through various types of divination. In the Ifá oracle, for example, a trained priest, a babalawo (“father of the mystery”), interprets the fall of consecrated palm nuts to reveal the orishas’ response.
Most Ifá consultations prescribe some form of sacrifice to one or several of the orishas. These offerings may range from simple presentations before home altars to elaborate feasts in the orishas’ honour.
From the Cuban Revolution of 1959 to the early 21st century, nearly one million Cubans left the island, bringing Orisha religion to cities throughout the Americas, particularly Miami and New York. The tradition also spread to other Latino communities, African Americans, and white Americans. Although census data are lacking, it is likely that initiated devotees number in the tens of thousands and that those who consult an orisha at one time or another may be counted in the millions.
Devotees see the Orisha tradition as a world religion and have received public recognition of their spiritual achievements. In 1993 the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld the right of devotees to practice the controversial rite of animal sacrifice in the case Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. Hialeah. The U.S. Army and Federal Bureau of Prisons have incorporated orisha ministries into their chaplaincies. Musicians, painters, sculptors, and writers have found in the Orisha tradition sources of African artistry and pride. It is likely that Orisha traditions will continue to grow and be recognized as one of the principal African contributions to world culture.
The Ifa divination system, which makes use of an extensive corpus of texts and mathematical formulas, is practiced among Yoruba communities and by the African diaspora in the Americas and the Caribbean. The word Ifa refers to the mystical figure Ifa or Orunmila, regarded by the Yoruba as the deity of wisdom and intellectual development.
In contrast to other forms of divination in the region that employ spirit mediumship, Ifa divination does not rely on a person having oracular powers but rather on a system of signs that are interpreted by a diviner, the Ifa priest or babalawo, literally “the priest’s father”. The Ifa divination system is applied whenever an important individual or collective decision has to be made.
The Ifa literary corpus, called odu, consists of 256 parts subdivided into verses called ese, whose exact number is unknown as they are constantly increasing (there are around 800 ese per odu). Each of the 256 odu has its specific divination signature, which is determined by the babalawo using sacred palm-nuts and a divination chain. The ese, considered the most important part of Ifa divination, are chanted by the priests in poetic language. The ese reflect Yoruba history, language, beliefs, cosmovision and contemporary social issues. The knowledge of Ifa has been preserved within Yoruba communities and transmitted among Ifa priests.
Under the influence of colonial rule and religious pressures, traditional beliefs and practices were discriminated against.The Ifa priests, most of whom are quite old, have only modest means to maintain the tradition, transmit their complex knowledge and train future practitioners. As a result, the youth and the Yoruba people are losing interest in practising and consulting Ifa divination, which goes hand-in-hand with growing intolerance towards traditional divination systems in general.
Joseph M. Murphy and Oluwo Ifaladé