Honoring Santeria Orishas

Honoring Santería Orishas

Date Observed: Varies
Location: Santería homes and communities nationwide

Followers of the Santería faith honor several orishas (aw-REE-SHAWS), intermediary deities or spirits, on days that correspond to certain Roman Catholic saints' days.

Historical Background

The Santería religion emerged in Cuba, where, from the 1500s to the late 1800s, many thousands of enslaved Africans were shipped to labor on plantations. Cuba was ruled by Spain, a Roman Catholic country, until 1902. Under Spanish law, slaves were forced to follow the Roman Catholic faith. Yoruba slaves, mainly from Nigeria, noted similarities between their traditional faith and the new religion. Like the Christian god, the Yoruba have a supreme god, Olodumare (oh-low-DOO-may-ray), who created the universe. And like Roman Catholic saints, Yoruba orishas are considered to be spiritual beings who can serve as intermediaries to the supreme god on behalf of humans. By honoring orishas as Roman Catholic saints, slaves found ways to continue their own faith while outwardly appearing to adhere to Roman Catholicism. Thus, the religion became known as Santería, meaning "the way of the saints."

After slavery was abolished, Santería practices continued in Cuba, although they were often suppressed. Devotees carried their belief system with them when they fled Cuba after the revolution of 1959. Thousands of exiled Cubans, many of whom were Santería believers, found refuge in the United States, settling in south Florida, New Jersey, and New York. Some went to Puerto Rico. In the early 1990s, there were an estimated one million adherents of Santería in the United States.

Because Catholic clerics imposed the Santería name on practitioners, some current devotees and scholars prefer to call their religion Lukumí (loo-koo-ME), a word for the Yoruba language and culture. Or they use the term la regla de ocha, meaning "the rule of the orishas."

Creation of the Observances

The honoring of Santería orishas harks back to ancient Yoruba religious practices of worshipping orishas. Various ceremonies and rituals, including prayers, offerings, and divination, are used in honoring orishas.

Santería and its practices frequently have been presented as "idolatrous, dangerous, or a product of a backward people," according to religious scholar Miguel A. De La Torre, who grew up in a Santería household and is a former believer. But in his book on Santería, De La Torre disputes these stereotypes and points out the spirituality and rituals that are part of this faith tradition.

People of west African heritage in the United States also observe Santería rituals. Some of these believers reject the Catholic influence, considering it a vestige of slavery; instead, they follow the religious rituals as practiced in west Africa. Black nationalists in New York City, for example, accepted some aspects of Santería but developed their own form of the religion. The Oyotunji African Village, established in the 1970s in South Carolina, is an attempt to connect to the original Yoruba religious practices (see also Ifa Festival and Yoruba National Convention and Olokun Festival).


Ceremonies to honor Santería orishas take place wherever there are large communities with African-Cuban roots, as well as in places where people of the Yoruba diaspora have settled, such as in the Americas and Caribbean Islands. People may worship in their own homes or gather at the home of a local priest or priestess. Although tributes vary depending on the community and individual adherents, devotees usually set up a shrine or altar for each orisha, who is assigned certain colors, numbers, and objects (see Table). There are many ebbos (offerings) of food also. Praise songs and drummers are part of community ceremonies, as are dancers, who perform movements characteristic of the orisha being honored.

During honoring ceremonies, Santería followers often recall the patakis, or legends, about the orisha being honored. There is no standard text or holy book in the tradition, but legends, poetry, history, and proverbs concerning orishas are now contained in a text known as the Corpus of Ifa. However, the text is never completed; priests and priestesses transcribe their varied experiences in notebooks and these are passed on to followers.

Some major orishas, their patakis, and associated Roman Catholic saints are outlined below.

Babalú-Ayé (bah-bah-LOO-eye-ay) is considered equivalent to St. Lazarus, and both are honored on the saint's day, December 17. Devotees believe that people with broken limbs and many of the poor could be personifications of Babalú-Ayé, and that the orisha will punish those who do not help and respect the unfortunate. One legend about Babalú-Ayé claims he was a promiscuous deity and was punished by contracting a venereal disease. Sometime this story is told to educate people about AIDS and HIV. Another version says that because Babalú-Ayé did not show respect for elder orishas, he was infected with smallpox.

Cuban entertainer Desi Arnaz, who played Ricky Ricardo in the 1950s sitcom "I Love Lucy," frequently sang to Babalú-Ayé while keeping the beat on a drum. Very few viewers were aware that "Ricky Ricardo was singing to Babalú-Ayé," according to author Miguel De La Torre. Ricky "was engaged in a sophisticated choreography that descended from the African civilization of the Yoruba, long before Europe was ever deemed civilized."

Obatala (aw-bah-tah-LAH) is honored at the same time as the Roman Catholic saint, Our Lady of Mercy, also known as Our Lady of Ransom, who is commemorated on September 24. According to legend, Obatala is the chief spirit who descended from heaven on a golden chain to spread soil over a watery earth. Obatala eventually landed on earth at a place that became what is the Nigerian city of Ile-Ife (ee-LAY-ee-FAY), where tradition says creation began. It is said that Obatala created the world and humankind and encompasses both genders. Obatala's creative powers can bring forth a great variety of humans with diverse physical abilities and challenges. This deity also enforces justice and can bring peace, compassion, and intelligence to the world.

Ogun (aw-GOON) is another better known orisha. Ogun's Catholic counterpart is St. Peter the Apostle, whose feast day is June 30. The guiding spirit of iron and metals, Ogun also is characterized as a fierce, fully armed warrior. However, because he oversees all mechanical things, he is responsible for farming tools, surgical instruments, and medicine. In other words, he can destroy as well as rebuild or restore all things.

Oshun is honored along with Our Lady of Charity on September 12, or September 8 in some locations. She is a compassionate goddess of fertility and sexuality and is associated with the arts and creativity. According to centuries-old legends, Oshun is the owner of all rivers and fresh waters. Devotees may toss offerings to her into a river or lake, a practice also followed during a festival that takes place each year in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (see also Odunde Festival).

Oya has power over fire, and is recognized on February 2, which is the feast day of Our Lady of the Presentation of Our Lord (Santa Virgen de la Candelaria; Candelaria means "conflagration" or a huge fire). Oya has power over the winds, storms, tornados, and hurricanes. She also guards the gates of cemeteries. She represents death and rebirth into a new life. The mythical Oya is a warrior queen and the god Shango's favorite wife, fighting alongside him and using thunderbolts to aid him in battle.

Shango (or Chango; shan-GO) is on the feast day of St. Barbara, December 4. Some accounts say that Shango personifies the king of ancient Oyo, Nigeria, and that he experimented with magic, which caused a violent storm. Lightning struck his palace and killed many of his wives and children. As a result, Shango hung himself, and people in Oyo held him in contempt. That brought more storms, which Shango devotees believe was the orisha's revenge.

Oriki Ogun - Praising the Spirit of Iron

This is a traditional prayer offered by devotees to praise Ogun.

Ogun awo, Olumaki, alase a juba. Spirit of the mystery of Iron, Chief of Strength, the owner of power, I salute you.

Ogun ni jo ti ma lana lati ode. Spirit of Iron dances outside to open the road.

Ogun oni're, onile kangun-dangun ode Orun, egbe l'ehin, Spirit of Iron, owner of good fortune, owner of many houses in Heaven, Help those who journey, Pa san bo pon ao lana to. Remove the obstructions from our path.

Imo kimo 'bora, egbe lehin a nle a benge ologbe. Wisdom of the Warrior Spirit, guide us through our spiritual journey with strength.

Ase. So be it.

Contacts and Web Sites

"At the Crossroads: Afro-Cuban Orisha Arts in Miami," online exhibit Historical Museum of Southern Florida 101 W. Flagler St. Miami, FL 33130 305-375-1492

Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye P.O. Box 22627 Hialeah, FL 33002 of the Seven African Powers P.O. Box 453336 Miami, FL 33245

Eleda.org, presented by Miguel Ramos, a Santería/Lukumi oba in Miami, Florida

Further Reading

Barnes, Sandra T. Africa's Ogun: Old World and New. 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997. Bellenir, Karen, ed. Religious Holidays and Calendars: An Encyclopedic Handbook. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Brandon, George. Santería from Africa to the New World: The Dead Sell Memories. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997. Clarke, Kamari Maxine. Mapping Yoruba Networks: Power and Agency in the Making of Transnational Communities . Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004. Curry, Mary Cuthrell. Making the Gods in New York: The Yoruba Religion in the African American Community . New York: Garland, 1997. De La Torre, Miguel A. Santería: The Beliefs and Rituals of a Growing Religion in America . Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004. Degiglio-Bellemare, Mario. "Cuba: Santería, Scarcity, and Survival." Catholic New Times, February 13, 2005. Frohock, Fred M. "Free Exercise of Religion: Lucumi and Animal Sacrifice." Occasional Paper Series, Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami, November 2001. . González-Wippler, Migene. Santería: The Religion. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2004. Murphy, Joseph M. Santería: African Spirits in America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993. Núñez, Luis Manuel. Santería: A Practical Guide to Afro-Caribbean Magic. Dallas, TX: Spring Publications, 1992. O'Brien, David M. Animal Sacrifice and Religious Freedom: Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah . Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004. Sanchez, Sara M. "Afro-Cuban Diasporan Religions: A Comparative Analysis of the Literature and Selected Annotated Bibliography." Occasional Paper Series, Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami, August 2000. .
African-American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2007