Santería is a popular religious movement originating in Cuba that combines African and Roman Catholic themes. Santería, “The Way of the Saints,” developed among African slaves in Cuba, and has spread throughout the Caribbean and the United States.

In it, Catholic SAINTS are identiïŹed with traditional African deities, mainly Yoruba from the area that is now Nigeria and Benin, and worshipped in colorful rites that include vegetable and animal SACRIFICES.

SanterĂ­a ALTARS and costumes are often magniïŹcent works of art. The most impressive ceremonies are those in which the deities, called orishas, “mount” or possess initiated devotees. The possessed one will then speak and act in ways characteristic of that god. The rites by which a devotee becomes an initiate of a particular deity, able to mediate that god through possession, are long and elaborate, involving a lengthy period of isolation and instruction.

On the other hand, many people use simple everyday SanterĂ­a practices for divination and luck. SanterĂ­a has ïŹ‚ourished in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, both in Cuba (despite the revolution of 1959) and in the United States, where Cuban exiles have made it a presence in most major metropolitan areas.

Although it has occasionally been controversial in the United States because of its use of animal sacriïŹ ce and alleged magical practices, it appears to be well established and has drawn some non-Cuban adherents.

Taken from : The Encyclopedia of World Religions – Revised Edition – written by DWJ BOOKS LLC.
General Editor: Robert S. Ellwood – Associate Editor: Gregory D. Alles – Copyright © 2007, 1998 by DWJ BOOKS LLC

Similar in practice to Vodun, SanterĂ­a centers around the worship of the ancient African gods who have been assimilated as Catholic saints.

Santería comes from the Spanish word santo, meaning “saint”; practitioners are called Santeros (female: Santeras). Like Vodun, Santería came to the Americas with the millions of black slaves from West Africa, principally from the Yoruban tribes along the Niger river. Forced to convert to Catholicism, the slaves continued their religion in secret, passing along ancient traditions either orally or in handwritten notebooks that came to be called libretas. Gradually, the Yorubans began to see what they believed were the incarnations of their gods in the Catholic saints and syncretized the two faiths.

The slaves’ Spanish and Portuguese masters eventually grew fascinated with Yoruban magic and began to practice it themselves. Today, any city with a large Hispanic population probably boasts as many Santeros as devout Catholics, since many of the devotees practice both. New York, Miami, Los Angeles and the nations of Cuba and Jamaica all have Santería strongholds.

Brazilians also practice Santería but under the names of Candomblé, Umbanda and Quimbanda (see mACumbA).

The orishas.

In the ancient Yoruban tongue, gods were called orishas, and that is the term still used today. Just like the Vodun loa, the orishas have complex human personalities, with strong desires, preferences and temperaments. When they possess their “children,” the devotees assume the orishas’ supernatural characteristics, performing feats of great strength, eating and drinking huge quantities of food and alcohol and divining the future with great accuracy.

Santeros also believe there was a supreme creator of heaven and earth, but like the Gran met in Vodun, he is unapproachable. In the beginning was Olodumare, a being incomprehensible to mortals, who was composed of three spirits: Nzame, Olofi (also called Olorun) and Baba Nkwa.

Nzame created all the stars, planets, earth, plant and animal life, then made Omo Oba, a man, at the suggestion of the other two, to rule over all creation. Such power went to Omo Oba’s head, causing Olodumare to order Nzalam, the lighting bolt, to destroy the earth in flames. But Omo Oba’s immortality saved him; he hid deep underground, changed his name to Olosi and only resurfaces to tempt men to break Olodumare’s laws—much like the story of Lucifer as a fallen angel.

Afterward, Olodumare took pity on the scorched earth, and so Nzame, Olofi and Baba Nkwa again gave it life, this time creating a mortal man, ObatalĂĄ. At this second creation, Olofitook over provenance of earth, and the other two went off to create life elsewhere. As the first ancestor, ObatalĂĄ is the father of the gods and the first orisha.

Depicted as a white man on horseback, ObatalĂĄ is associated with all things white and represents peace and purity. His wife, OddudĂșa, is a black woman who is usually shown breastfeeding an infant and represents maternity. ObatalĂĄ and OddudĂșa had two children: a son AganyĂș and a daughter YemayĂĄ. AganyĂș and YemayĂĄ married and had a son OrungĂĄn, who was so handsome that AganyĂș died of envy. OrungĂĄn forced himself incestuously upon his mother, a beautiful woman of yellow skin who is the goddess of the moon and womanhood. She cursed him and he died.

Completely overcome with her sorrows, Yemayá climbed a mountain, where she delivered 14 gods conceived by Orungán in a single birth and then died. The waters released when her abdomen burst caused the deluge—the Flood—and the place where she died became the holy city of Ile Ife, the same sacred place worshiped in Vodun.

Tragic YemayĂĄ remains a popular goddess in SanterĂ­a, whose colors are light blue and white. The 14 deities born to YemayĂĄ include ChangĂł, the god of fire, thunder and lightning. Young, virile and handsome, ChangĂł also governs the passions. His colors are red and white, and he is one of the most popular deities in SanterĂ­a. His wife, Oba, is goddess of the Oba river. Continually jealous and suspicious of her philandering husband, she follows him and has him watched. OyĂĄ, goddess of the Niger river, is wife of the god OggĂșn, but also is Changó’s favourite concubine. She gives him power over fire, which is holy to her. OyĂĄ controls memory and is the patroness of justice. She also governs death and cemeteries, and maroon is her favourite color.

Alefi, the wind, is Oyá’s messenger. OshĂșn, the goddess of the OshĂșn river, also enjoys Changó’s favours. She is the goddess of love and marriage and loves fans, mirrors and seashells. Also the goddess of gold and money, OshĂșn prefers the color yellow. Pumpkins are sacred to her. She is a very popular deity.

Ochosi is the god of hunters, birds and wild animals and also watches over jails, perhaps as cages for humans. He likes lavender and black and chooses the bow and arrow as his symbols. Olokun lives on the ocean floor with the mermaids, watching over the seas. He is a hermaphrodite and has very long hair. His favourite mistress is Olosa, who aids fishermen and employs the crocodile as her messenger. Orisha-Oko governs the fields and harvests and brings fertility to land and families. Oke rules over the mountains and protects those who live in high places.

Chankpana, the god of smallpox, appears as an old man nursing a lacerated leg. He uses flies and mosquitoes as his messengers. Dada governs unborn children and gardens. Ayé-Shaluga rules fortune and good luck. The last two of the 14, Orun, god of the Sun, and Ochu, goddess of the moon, have few followers.

Other important orishas include ElegguĂĄ (called LegbA in Vodun), the god of entrances, doorways and roads, who allows the other orishas to enter the sphere of man. All homes keep an image of ElegguĂĄ behind the door as he is the most powerful orisha after ObatalĂĄ. One of Elegguá’s best friends, OggĂșn, governs war and iron, all weapons (including sacrificial knives) and the treatment of tumors and skin diseases. He prefers black dogs as sacrifices (see sACrIFICe) and has many followers in SanterĂ­a. OrĂșnla owns the Table of IfĂĄ, the sacred system of Divination, and also shares great friendship with ElegguĂĄ. Babalu-AyĂ© is patron of the sick. Symbolized by a pair of crutches, he appears as an old man accompanied by two dogs.

Aroni is the god of medicine, while Osachin is the patron god of doctors. AyĂ© or AyĂĄ is the midget goddess of the jungle, and OyĂ© rules storms. Ochumare serves as goddess of the rainbow. Homes come under the protection of Olarosa, while Olimerin guards the entire village. The twin gods Ibeyi watch over infants. IfĂĄ is the patron of impossible things and the god of fertility and palm trees. He was the first owner of the Table of IfĂĄ. Chiyidi controls nightmares and used to be an evil entity (see Nightmare). Iku is the spirit of death. rounding out this partial list is Bacoso, the king and founder of the Yoruba dynasty and the holy city of Ife. Each of the orishas appears in many forms, and only the priest best knows what manifestation to invoke, depending upon the situation. Extremely difficult cases may necessitate calling upon the Seven African Powers, a combination of ObatalĂĄ, ElegguĂĄ, OrĂșnla, ChangĂł, OggĂșn, YemayĂĄ and OshĂșn.

Saints identified with the orishas may be of either sex and not necessarily of the same gender as the orisha. Santeros do not dare question such arrangements, explaining the situation by saying that after the gods’ mystical deaths, they were reincarnated in new bodies.

Rites and practices.

Although all worshipers of SanterĂ­a could be called Santeros, the term usually refers to the priests or priestesses. The highest order of priest is a babalawo, who has power not only to heal the sick and punish the unjust but to divine the future through the Table of IfĂĄ. All babalawos are male, as OrĂșnla, god of the Table of IfĂĄ, is male. Within the order of babalawo are various degrees, ranging from high priest to the one responsible for a particular orisha’s sacrifice. Following the babalawo are the priests of orishas who govern the sick or healing, and the priests or priestesses of Orisha-Oko, the god of agriculture. Priests consecrated to lesser orishas or human deities also fall in this third category. The power of the babalawo is limitless, as he wears the hats of healer, diviner, judge, pastor, matchmaker and magician.

The babalawo’s second-most important duty is sacrificing animals as offerings to the orishas. Common sacrificial animals include all types of fowl—chickens, roosters, pigeons, doves and other birds—goats, pigs and occasionally bulls. In Cuba, Santeros may obtain government meat-ration cards because they have to buy so many live animals. In some parts of the United States, animalrights groups oppose ritual sACrIFICe on the grounds that animals may be tortured and pets may be stolen and slaughtered. The Santeros counter that animal sacrifice, if done humanely, is legal in many states; they deny that cats and dogs are sacrificed. Those practicing black Magic, however, reputedly use cats and dogs as ingredients for evil spells.

Reading the seashells (los caracoles) of the Table of IfĂĄ is the paramount Divination procedure in SanterĂ­a. Santeros who specialize in Table readings are called italeros and are often babalawos consecrated to the service of OrĂșnla. reading the Table is also known as diloggun or mediloggun. The Table has 18 shells, but the italero uses only 16. The shells may be bought in any botĂĄnica (a store where SanterĂ­a and Vodun paraphernalia and herbs are sold) by anyone, but uninitiated users, aleyos, may use only 12. The smooth, unbroken sides of the shell are filed until the serrated sides appear, showing what appears to be a tiny mouth with teeth. As such, the shells are the “mouthpieces” of the orishas.

During a consultation, called a registro, the italero prays to the gods, rubs the 16 shells together, then throws them onto a straw mat (estera). The shells are read according to how many of them fall with their top sides, or “mouths,” uppermost. The italero interprets the pattern in which they fall, called an ordun, then repeats the procedure four times. Each ordun has a name and number and “speaks” for one or more of the orishas. Like the Chinese system of I Ching, the divinations rely on ancient proverbs associated with each ordun and require the italero to interpret for the particular situation.

Very often the babalawo finds the questioner has been put under an evil spell, or bilongo, by an enemy. Such action requires placing an ebbo, or counteracting spell, on the guilty party. If the ebbo does more damage to the enemy than the enemy’s original spell, it only increases the prestige of the babalawo. The greater the babalawo’s accuracy in divination and response, the larger his clientele. remedies range from herbal baths to complicated spells involving various oils, plants and intimate waste products of the intended victim. Babalawos commonly prescribe a resguardo, or protective Talisman. A typical resguardo is a small cloth bag filled with various herbs, spices and other ingredients, dedicated to a certain orisha, which will keep the owner from harm.

Another popular divinatory method, normally used to consult Elegguá, is called darle coco al santo (“give the coconut to the saint”), or reading coconut meat. Coconuts are used in all major Santería ceremonies and form the main ingredient for several spells. To prepare a coconut for divination, the reader must break its shell with a hard object, never cracking the nut on the floor, as that would offend Obi, the coconut’s deity. The meat—white on one side and brown on the other—is then divided into four equal pieces. The pieces are thrown on the floor, and one of five patterns results.

Readings of the Table of Ifá by the babalawo help determine all of the important characteristics of a person’s life and how he or she should deal with each event as it occurs. Upon the birth of a child, the parents consult the babalawo to find the infant’s assigned orisha, plant, birthstone and animal. In Santería, birthstones have no relation to the birth month. Good-talisman animals include goats, elephants and turtles; noxious ones are many reptiles, venomous insects, some types of frogs, all birds of prey, rats, crocodiles, lizards and spiders.

Water has great spiritual powers as a defensive measure for the Santero, as it does in other religions and magical systems. Since evil spirits dissolve in water, all devotees keep a small receptacle of water under their beds to clean away evil influences, which must be changed every 24 hours. The “dirty” water must never fall onto the floor or go down the kitchen sink.

Other protective agents against evil are gArlIC and brown sugar. To be really safe, a Santero burns brown sugar and garlic skins in a small pan over hot coals. The thick smoke, called sahumerio, fills the house, seeping even into closets and corners where evil spirits can hide. Evil beings also dislike black rag dolls.

Healing and magic.

Santeros are accomplished herbalists, since plants, and especially herbs, are sacred to the orishas. most plants serve dual purposes, as curatives and as magic ingredients, and can be obtained in any good botanica. Garlic lowers high blood pressure, coconut water acts as a diuretic, anise seed alleviates indigestion, sarsaparilla cures rheumatism, nerves and syphilis and indigo works on epilepsy. Higuereta, which produces castor oil, has been used by the Santeros on cancerous tumors for centuries with amazing results.

Cuttings from escoba amarga bushes are used in purifying baths and to drive away the abikus, mischievous spirits that reincarnate in a child who dies very young. According to the older Santeros, the only way to drive out an abiku is to beat it with a branch of the bush, usually on a Wednesday. If a child dies young, the Santero makes a mark on its body, often by cutting off a piece of the child’s ear before burial. Following the birth of another child, the Santero searches for the mark, which he claims he often finds. To keep the abiku from taking the second child, the baby is “tied” to the earth by placing a small chain on its wrist or ankle. The chain is not removed until the child is well past puberty.

The bombax ceiba tree, or five-leaf silk-cotton tree, gives the Santero curative or magical powers from almost every part. Sacred to Santería, the ceiba is worshiped as a female saint; worshipers will not even cross the tree’s shadow without first asking permission. Teas from the ceiba’s roots and leaves aid in curing venereal disease and urinary tract infections. The leaves also work on anemia. Ceiba-bark tea helps cure infertility. The tree trunk and the ground around it help cast evil spells; if a Santero wishes harm upon someone, he must walk naked around the ceiba tree several times at midnight and brush the trunk with his fingertips, softly asking the tree to help him against his enemy. Even the shade attracts spirits, giving strength to spells cast there.

SanterĂ­a has been described as African magic adapted for the West and for city life. It is ruled by the laws of similarity (that like produces like) and contact (that things that have been in contact with each other continue to affect one another even after contact has been broken). The magic of similarity is homeopathic, or sympathetic. The Santero can affect situations by acting out the scene beforehand or by using natural objects in alliance with or resembling the intended victim; e.g., a wax doll. Another common sympathetic practice is to take a small stone and name it after the victim, then kick it under a bed and concentrate very hard on the named person.

Magic by contact is contagious. The magician procures items that have been in contact with the victim—clothing, nail parings, hair clippings (see Hair and Nails), even dirt from under the feet (see FootprInts) or air from the victim’s home—and uses them to effect the spell.

The Santero wields enormous power, having knowledge that can change a person’s life either through his own skill or by the help of the orishas. The decision to use that power for good or evil rests with the Santero alone. Santeros fear the Evil Eye, knowing that the eye’s harmful magic can come from anyone. Children wear a tiny jet hand and a bit of coral on a gold bracelet to protect them; adults may be similarly protected or wear a small glass eyeball pinned to the chest (see Amulets).

Black magic.

Most magic in Santería comes under the “white” classification: spells for wayward lovers, good luck, money and cures. Santeros who deal exclusively in black magic—brujería or palo mayombe—come primarily from Congo tribal ancestry and are called mayomberos, or “black witches.” In her book, Santería: African Magic in Latin America (1981), author migene Gonzales-Wippler describes the mayomberos as “people of unparalleled malignancy, specializing in revenge, necromancy and the destruction of human life.” Ethics never come under consideration, because the mayombero lives in a world “outside of reality”—magic is merely a means of survival in a hostile environment. Retribution can be avoided by magic and by “paying” the Demonic forces through offerings of food, liquor, money and animal sacrifice.

Before a novice can become a full-fledged mayombero, he must sleep under a ceiba tree for seven nights. At the end of the week, he takes a new set of clothes and buries them in a previously chosen grave in the cemetery. While his clothes are buried, the novice takes a series of purifying herbal baths; at the end of 21 days, or three successive Fridays, the candidate digs up his clothes, puts them on and goes with his teacher back to the ceiba tree. Other mayomberos join them there as witnesses, invoking the spirits of the dead and that of the ceiba to approve the initiation. The candidate is crowned with ceiba leaves, which represent the spirits of the dead taking possession of the new mayombero. Finally, the mayomberos place a lighted candle in a white dish in the initiate’s hands and give him his scepter, or kisengue: a human tibia bone wrapped in black cloth. He is now ready to call on the powers of darkness.

Making the nganga.

Once the mayombero has been initiated, his next project is the making of the nganga, or CAuldron, that contains all his magical potions and powers. When the moon is right—no Witchcraft can be accomplished during a waning moon, since that period signifies death—the mayombero and an assistant return to the cemetery to a preselected gravesite. The chosen grave is usually fairly recent, since the mayombero desires a corpse with a brain still inside the skull, no matter how decayed. The mayombero also knows the identity of the corpse, called the kiyumba. Choice kiyumbas were violent persons in life, preferably criminals or the insane. The still-extant brain helps the kiyumba to think and better act on the mayombero’s evil purposes. The bodies of whites are also favoured, since some mayomberos believe whites take instruction better than blacks. Other mayomberos hedge their bets by taking a brain from corpses of both races, ensuring that their evil spells will work on either.

The mayombero sprinkles rum in the shape of a cross over the grave, then opens it. The corpse is raised, and the mayombero removes the head, the toes, the fingers, ribs and the tibias of the kiyumba, wrapping them in black cloth and taking them home. Once there, the mayombero lies on the floor, and his assistant covers him with a sheet and lights four tapers around the body as if the mayombero were dead. A knife is placed near the mayombero, and on the blade are seven little heaps of gunpowder called fula. As the kiyumba takes possession of the mayombero, he becomes rigid and then goes into convulsions. The assistant asks the kiyumba if it will do the bidding of the mayombero; if the answer is yes, the gunpowder ignites spontaneously. If no, the body parts must be returned to the cemetery.

If the spirit agrees, the mayombero writes the kiyumba’s name on a piece of paper and places it in the bottom of a big, iron cauldron together with a few coins in payment to the kiyumba. He adds the remains, along with some earth from the gravesite, then cuts a small incision in his arm with a white-handled knife and lets a few drops of blood fall into the cauldron to “refresh” the kiyumba. Some mayomberos sacrifice a rooster to the kiyumba instead, fearing the spirit could become too fond of the mayombero’s blood and turn into a vampire.

To the blood, the mayombero adds wax from a burned candle, a cigar butt, ashes, lime and a piece of bamboo sealed at both ends with wax. The bamboo contains sand, seawater and quicksilver, to give the kiyumba the speed of quicksilver and the persistence of the ever-moving tides. Next, the mayombero puts in the body of a small black dog to help the kiyumba track its victims, along with various herbs and tree barks. The rest of the recipe calls for red pepper, chili, garlic, onions, cinnamon, rue, ants, worms, lizards, termites, bats, frogs, Spanish flies, a tarantula, a centipede, a wasp and a scorpion. If the mayombero plans to create good spells from his nganga, a splash of holy water is added at the end. If the cauldron will be used for both good and evil, no baptism is necessary.

After combining all these ingredients, the mayombero takes the cauldron back to the cemetery, where it is buried and left for three successive Fridays. At that time, the mayombero disinters the cauldron and reburies it beside a ceiba or other magical tree for another three Fridays. At the conclusion of the 42 days, the mayombero hauls the cauldron home, where he adds some rum with pepper, dry wine, Florida water (a popular cologne in the Caribbean) and fresh blood. The nganga is ready.

Occasionally the mayombero does not use a cauldron, choosing instead to place the ingredients, called boumba, in a sheet and then tie it up in a burlap sack. The sack, known as a macuto, then hangs from a ceiling beam in the darkest room of the mayombero’s house. The nganga or macuto forms a small world completely at the bidding of the mayombero, with the kiyumba controlling the animals and plants inside the nganga with it and obeying the orders of the mayombero like a faithful slave, always willing and ready.

The nganga must pass two tests before the mayombero trusts its powers. For the first trial, the mayombero buries the nganga under a tree and tells the kiyumba to dry all the tree’s leaves within a certain length of time. If the nganga passes, then the mayombero orders the kiyumba to kill a specific animal. If the kiyumba succeeds again, the mayombero takes the nganga home.

There are two other types of ngangas: the zarabanda and the ndoki. The mayombero makes a zarabanda in the traditional manner but invokes the spirit of the Congo deity Zarabanda to work directly with the kiyumba. The ndoki ranks as perhaps the most infernal preparation in the mayombero’s repertoire. First, a black CAt is tortured and boiled alive. The mayombero then buries the cat for 24 hours. Upon disinterment, he adds a few of the cat’s bones to seven phalanx bones from the little fingers of seven corpses, along with the dust from seven graves. These ingredients are placed in the cauldron with garlic and pepper; then the mayombero sprinkles rum over the pot and blows cigar smoke over it. The cauldron stays in the woods overnight, and then it is ready. Considered the property of the Devil, the ndoki is used to kill and destroy its victims in the most fearsome and horrible ways.

Santeros fear the nganga’s powers so much that they will not even speak of them except in whispers. making a nganga is illegal, needless to say, punishable with a fine or imprisonment, but few mayomberos worry about trifles like legal codes or police officers. They operate with impunity, wielding death and destruction on behalf of anyone for a price.

See also :  African Witchcraft; gris-gris; Zombie.


  • Gleason, Judith. Oya: In Praise of the Goddess. Boston: Shambhala, 1987.
  • Gonzalez-Wippler. Santeria: African Magic in Latin America. New York: Original Products, 1981.


The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca – written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – Copyright © 1989, 1999, 2008 by Visionary Living, Inc.

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