Santería Animistic religion similar to Vodoun, brought by the West African slaves from Yoruba along the Niger River to the Spanish colonies in North and South America and the Caribbean islands. Similar beliefs and practices also accompanied the slaves taken to Portuguese colonies, principally Brazil, where the faithful practice Candomblé or Umbanda. Other names for Santería are Lukumí and Regla de Ocha.

Although both Vodoun and Santería are based on native African religions, in some communities Santería has merged nearly seamlessly into Catholicism. Santería comes from the Spanish word santo, meaning “saint,” and can be translated as the “way of the saints.” The term was originally a derisive epithet used by the white masters against their overly pious slaves; eventually, however, the slave owners became practicing santeros as well. Today any place with a large Hispanic population—like Miami, New York, or Los Angeles in the United states or Cuba, Jamaica, or the Dominican Republic—boasts as many santeros as Catholics, since many devotees practice both faiths.

The Ways of the Gods and Saints

In the ancient Yoruban tongue, the gods were called orishas, instead of the Fon term loa, and the name remains today. Like the Vodounists, santeros (female: santeras) acknowledge one supreme deity, Olodumare, but his distant greatness renders him incomprehensible. The orishas, with their more human frailties and failings, intercede with Olodumare on the worshipers’ behalf. Or perhaps PRAYERS to the saint who most resembles the designated orisha might gain favours from the Christian God or Jesus. The African orishas have been completely syncretized into the Catholic canon.

Creation stories in Santería recognize Obatalá as the first man and father of the orishas. He married Oddudúa and had two children: a son Aganyú and a daughter Yemayá. The siblings married and had a son Orungán. The young man was so beautiful that his father Aganyú died of envy, at which time Orungán forced himself on his mother. Yemayá delivered 14 deities from their union, and when her waters broke the deluge became the Flood. She cursed her son, and he died; Yemayá died as well.

Although the 14 orishas and other ancestor gods are important, no santero can practice without the good offices of Elegguá (Legba in Vodoun; also called Eshu-Elegbara). Like Legba, he is the messenger, the door to the gods, the one who understands all languages and allows the orishas to descend upon the faithful and possess their hearts, minds, and bodies. Elegguá also governs the sexual side of life; he is quite well endowed and usually portrayed as such. Those possessed by the god exhibit overt male sexual behavior whether they are men or women.

Elegguá the TRICKSTER represents the CROSSROADS: choice and chaos, opportunity and disappointment. Like his Vodoun cousin Legba, he also gave his people the Table of Ifá, or system of Divination, controlled by Orúnla. Only male santeros can aspire to be priests and diviners, called babalawos. A babalawo who specializes in the Table is called an italero and is probably consecrated to the service of Orúnla. To perform a reading, called a registro, the italero throws 16 seashells (caracoles) onto a straw mat. The shells, originally smooth, have been filed until their serrated edges appear, resembling tiny mouths with teeth: the “mouthpieces” of the orishas. The ordun, or pattern, is determined by how many of the shells land with their “mouths” on top. The italero interprets the ordun, repeating the procedure four times. Like the Chinese Yijing (I Ching), the proverbs and PROPHECIES associated with each ordun are vague and mysterious.

Petitioners may also request direct answers from Elegguá through a divination method called darle coco al santo (“give the coconut to the saint”). The diviner carefully breaks the coconut’s shell with a hard object and then divides the meat—white on one side, brown on the other—into four equal pieces. The pieces are then thrown on the floor, yielding one of five patterns.

White and Black Magic

Babalawos wield enormous power. Besides controlling the interpretations of the Ifá, they perform animal SACRIFICE and are masters in the uses of herbs and plants for healing and Magic. If a registro indicates the petitioner is under an evil Spell, or bilongo, the babalawo must place a contravening spell, or ebbo, on the victim’s enemy. If the ebbo causes more damage than the original spell, the babalawo’s prestige rises proportionately. Typical remedies for a spell range from herbal baths to complicated potions (see PHILTRES) of oils, plants, and intimate waste products. A resguardo, or small bag (see Charm BAG; GRIS-GRIS) filled with herbs and Fetishes associated with a certain deity is often prescribed as an AMULET against further bad magic.

Most of these ingredients can be purchased at the local botánica, a shop dedicated to the sale of herbs, CANDLES, fetishes, and other supplies for those who serve the orishas. The herbs serve dual purposes as healing agents and components for spells. Garlic lowers high blood pressure; coconut water acts as a diuretic; anise seed alleviates indigestion; sarsaparilla cures rheumatism, nerves, and syphilis; and indigo helps epilepsy. The higuereta plant, which produces castor oil, has been used on cancerous tumors for centuries.

Cuttings from escoba amarga bushes purify a bath and also drive away the abikus: mischievous spirits that come from a child who has died young and reincarnate in another young child. When the first child dies, the priest makes a mark on the body, which he then claims to find on the next child born as a sign of abiku danger. To keep the abikus from claiming the next child, a small chain is placed on the wrist or ankle to keep the child “tied” to Earth and not at risk of being spirited away.

The five-leaf, silk-cotton TREE, or bombax ceiba, is sacred to santeros and is worshiped as a female saint. Devotees will not even cross the tree’s shadow without permission. Teas made from the tree’s roots and leaves cure venereal disease and urinary tract infections; the leaves help anemia. Tea from the bark helps cure infertility. The tree also aids in the casting of spells; if a santero wishes to cause a victim harm, he must walk naked around the ceiba several times at midnight and brush the trunk with his fingertips, softly asking for help against his enemy.

Followers describe Santería as African magic adapted to city life and to the West. It is a “sympathetic” system governed by the rules of similarity (that like produces like), and also “contagious,” dependent upon contact. The santero can stage the outcome of a spell beforehand by acting out the future events or by substituting an item like a wax doll (see POPPET) to represent the victim and then sticking pins in it. To assure the success of a spell, the santero employs items that have touched the victim: HAIR AND NAIL CLIPPINGS or even dirt from his footprints or air from his home. Even santeros fear the EVIL EYE, however, knowing that the eye’s black magic can come from anyone. Babalawos recommend that children wear a tiny jet hand or piece of coral to ward off the evil eye; adults may choose the same Talismans or wear a small glass eyeball pinned to their chest.

Most of the spells performed by the santeros come under the classification of “white” magic: healings, Incantations to reign in wayward lovers or attract them, tricks to get rich. But some of the santeros choose “black” magic (brujería or palo mayombé) and become mayomberos, a decision that is theirs alone and not connected to any of the orishas.

Becoming a mayombero requires great effort. First the supplicant must sleep under the sacred ceiba tree for seven nights and then take a new suit of clothes and bury it in a previously selected grave. While the clothing is buried, the novice takes a series of purifying herbal baths for 21 days or over three successive Fridays, then retrieves his clothes, puts them on, and returns to the ceiba. The candidate’s teacher and other mayomberos join him there and invoke the spirits of the dead as well as of the ceiba to welcome this new witch into the brotherhood. The candidate receives a crown of ceiba leaves, symbolizing his surrender to the spirits; then the others present him with a lighted candle and his scepter, or kisengue: a human tibia bone wrapped in black cloth. The new mayombero can now call on the powers of darkness to make his nganga, the cauldron or sack that contains all his magical potions and powers.

Making the nganga begins with the new mayombero and an assistant returning to another preselected gravesite, one with a corpse possessing at least some brain matter. The witch sprinkles rum while making the sign of the cross over the grave, then exhumes the body, known to the mayombero and called the kiyumba, and removes whatever brain is left as well as the head, toes, fingers, ribs, and tibias. The mayombero wraps these treasures in black cloth and takes them home. Once there, the witch lies on the floor while his assistant covers him with a sheet and lights four candles, one at each corner, as if the witch were dead. The assistant places a knife near the witch with seven little heaps of gunpowder on the blade. As the kiyumba possesses the mayombero, rigidity sets in and then convulsions. If the kiyumba agrees to bend to the will of the witch, the gunpowder ignites; if the answer is no, it is back to the cemetery. None of these efforts will succeed if the Moon is in its waning phase.

If the kiyumba agrees, the witch places the kiyumba’s name in a large IRON cauldron, along with a few coins for payment and a few drops of fresh Blood from either a rooster or the mayombero’s arm. Further ingredients include wax from a burned candle, a cigar butt, ashes, lime, a piece of bamboo that contains sea water and quicksilver (the water represents the relentless tides and the silver is for speed) and that is sealed at both ends, the body of a small black dog to help the kiyumba stalk its victims, various tree barks, red pepper, chile, garlic, onions, cinnamon, rue, ants, worms, lizards, termites, bats, frogs, Spanish flies, a tarantula, a centipede, a wasp, and a scorpion. Then back to the cemetery, where the witch buries his nganga for 21 days (or again over three successive Fridays), digs it up, then reburies it for yet another 21 days. Finally, at the end of that period, the mayombero disinters the cauldron one last time and returns home. He adds peppered rum, dry wine, some cologne called Florida water, and more blood.

The nganga must pass two tests. The firstone takes place at the sacred ceiba, where the mayombero buries the cauldron and then demands that the kiyumba prove its loyalty by drying all the tree’s leaves within a certain time. If the kiyumba passes that test, it must then kill a specific animal. With that hurdle overcome, the mayombero can finally offer his services as a terrible—and terrifying— magician.

Portuguese Macumba

Santería as practiced among the slaves in the Portuguese colonies, particularly Brazil, split into two different religions: Candomblé and Umbanda. There is no Macumba; the word is an umbrella term for the Africanbased sects. The slaves who came to Brazil in the 16th century found many similarities between their African ways and the spiritual practices of the native Amazonian tribes. Forced to convert to Catholicism like the other slaves, the Brazilian blacks continued to worship secretly, deep in the jungles alongside the natives; by the time of emancipation in 1888, more than 15 generations of Brazilians had seen the magic of the orishas. Today, members of nearly all social classes practice some sort of spirit belief while nevertheless professing their Catholic faith.

Candomblé, the older of the two sects, most resembles the ancient Yoruban religion but with Portuguese spelling: The god Chango is Xango, Yemaya is Yemanja, and Olorún becomes Olorum. The term candomblé probably derives from candombé, a slave dance celebration held on the coffee plantations. The first Candomblé center opened in 1830 in Salvador, capital of the state of Bahia and the old capital of all Brazil. Three former slave women named themselves the high priestesses, claiming their magical skills sharpened their sexual prowess as mistresses to the white masters. These “Mothers of the Saints” trained “Daughters,” excluding the men and ensuring their preeminence as leaders of the sect. Religious practices involve spirit possession and animal sacrifice, although neither Elegguá nor Papa Legba are called upon to open the door to the orishas. Instead the candomblistas call upon the Exus: gods of mischief, communication, crossroads, and chaos—in other words, tricksters.

Umbanda, with roots in Hinduism and Buddhism in addition to African religion, was founded in 1904. The Spiritism movements of the early 20th century also influenced the sect, with the result that much of Umbanda worship includes trance channeling. The most popular spirit guides are the Old Black Man (Preto Velho) and the Old Black Woman (Preta Velha), symbolizing the ancient wisdom of the black slaves and the native peoples along the Amazon River. Umbanda probably derives from the Sanskrit word aum-gandha, which means “divine principle.” Worship focuses on healing, and umbandistas believe no healing of the body can be achieved without healing of the spirit and communion—ecstatic POSSESSION—by the spirit guides. The spirits offer enlightenment; each time a medium channels a spirit guide his mind rises to another level of consciousness.

Both Candomblé and Umbanda view the spirits as agents for good; even the more mischievous ones are merely misguided. But like the mayomberos and bokors of Santería and Vodoun, there are those that wish to ally themselves with the spirits of evil. Such persons practice Quimbanda (also known as Cuimbanda).

Quimbandistas rely on the Exus to do their bidding, calling on the darker manifestations of the trickster gods that symbolize the DEMONS Ashtaroth (Exu of the Crossroads), Beelzebub (Exu Mor), and even the devil himself (King Exu). Exu of the Closed Paths inspires the greatest dread. Victims of this spell find themselves caught with no way out, with “all paths closed”: no job, no friends, no help from family, no relief from pain and illness. Unless the orishas intervene, death is certain.


  • Davis, Erik. “Trickster at the Crossroads: West Africa’s God of Messages, Sex and Deceit.” Originally appeared in Gnosis, Spring 1991. Available online. URL: https://www. Downloaded July 5, 2004.
  • Gonzales-Wippler, Migene. SanterĂ­a: African Magic in Latin America. St. Paul, Minn.: Llewelleyn Publications, 1981.
  • Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft, 2d ed. New York: Facts On File Inc., 1999.


The Encyclopedia of Magic and Alchemy Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley Copyright © 2006 by Visionary Living, Inc.