Santeria, also known as Lukumr, Regla de Ocha, or “the way of the saints,” is an Afro-Cuban and earth-centered religion transmitted primarily in oral fashion. Its main objective is to find solutions to human problems in a world that is simultaneously physical and spiritual. Its origins can be traced to the 19th century or earlier, when the Yoruba (Yoruba in Spanish) people of West Africa were brought as slaves to Cuba. They are also known as Lukumr people. Lukumf means “friends” in the Yoruba language. The term also applies to Yoruba slaves’ descendants, their music and dance, and their dialect.
Santeria is now practiced throughout the Caribbean, Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela, and the United States. The religion was brought to the United States by Cuban exiles. Santeria has been observed in Miami, Tampa, New York City, Newark, Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta, Gary (Indiana), Savannah (Georgia), and several other urban locations. Storefront botanicas provide Santeria figures, incense, and herbs for nearly a million adherents.
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During the colonization of Cuba, Brazil, Haiti, and Trinidad, thousands of Yoruba natives were transported there as slaves. These slaves wanted to remain attached to their religious practices and African traditions but were forced to adjust to the New World. They faced widespread persecution by slave masters who prohibited the practice of African religions within their Roman Catholic society. Thus, the religion was practiced in secret, and its survival was due primarily to the convergence of Yoruba’s religiosity and Catholicism. Many elements from the Catholic religion and their symbols are often present in Santeria rites.
Santeria devotees believe in a creator who is called Olodumare (“owner of the heavens”; also known as Olorun, Oluwa Orun, or Eleda). His power, called Ashe, is the cosmic energy present in everything in the world. He created the universe and the Orishas. According to Santeria devotees, everyone receives a destiny from Olodumare, which can be fulfilled with the aid and energy of the Orishas. The Orishas govern over nature. They are powerful but not immortal. Their human limitations help them understand and assist humans. For these reasons, devotees strive to establish a personal relationship with them.
Because the Orishas need food, animal sacrifice is a principal form of worship. In exchange, the deities protect and visit the houses of devotees, empowering them and dignifying their living conditions. Sacrifices are performed at birth, marriage, initiation of new members and priests, and other major celebrations, as well as for the cure of the sick and for death rites. Sacrificial animals include chickens, pigeons, doves, ducks, guinea pigs, goats, sheep, and turtles. The sacrificed animal is cooked and eaten, except after healing and death rituals.
Each Orisha has an associated Catholic saint, principle, important number, special color, favorite food, dance posture, and emblem. The following 16 Orishas are recognized in Cuba (their corresponding Catholic saint and principles are added in parenthesis): Agayu (Christopher, fatherhood), Babaluaye (Lazarus, illness), Esu/Elegbara/Eleggua/Elegua (Anthony of Padua, fate), Ibeji (twins Cosmus and Damien, children), Inle (Rafael, medicine), Obatala/Orunmila/Ifa (Mercedes, clarity), Ogun/Gun (Peter, labor), Olokun (Regla, profundity), Orula (Francis, wisdom, destiny), Osanyin (Joseph, herbs), Oshosi (Norbert, justice), Oshun/Ochun (Caridad, love), Oya/Yasan (Therese, adversity), Shango/Chango/Obakoso (Barbara, passion), Yemoja/ Yemaya (Regla, womanhood). The religion does not have a devil figure.
Priests are known as Santeros or Santeras, the high priest as Babalawo, and the second highest priest as Italero. Under the priests’ guidance, initiates to the priesthood have to commit to memory the songs, incantations, laws, pharmacopoeia, and actions of all Santeria rituals. Their rituals include the following:
Divination. This ritual is used to deal with everyday problems. Santeria believers go to Santeros to get advice and to seek solutions for their problems of friendship, health, love, money, or work. Santeros manipulate coconuts, seashells, or other devices to get the Orisha to reveal the believers’ needs and to provide solutions to the problem. Santeros use verses, myths, folktales, prayers, and songs to find a suitable prescription for the client’s problem.
Sacrifices and Offering. These rituals are used to respond, express gratitude and praise, and supplicate Orishas to continue their positive work on behalf of people. Specific food offerings are recognized as appropriate for each Orisha. For example, a devotee will offer a rooster to Chango and yellow hen to Oshun.
The practice of animal sacrifice is seen by followers of Santeria as a necessary part of their relationship with their Orishas; it is sometimes seen by others as abhorrent. Legal action to stop the practice of this religion in the United States failed. In 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah that animal cruelty laws targeted specifically at Lukumf were unconstitutional. The court indicated that religious beliefs are protected by the First Amendment even if they are not acceptable or comprehensible to others. Furthermore, the historical association between animal sacrifice and religious worship suggests that animal sacrifice is an integral part of their religion that cannot be deemed bizarre or incredible.
Drum and Dance Festivals. These festivals, also known as bembe, are held in the Santero’s house. The purpose of these rituals is to honor those Orishas that are important in the lives of the participants. A specific drum rhythm and dance posture are associated with each Orisha. For example, the dances for Ochosi, the Orisha of the hunt, include shouts of a hunter and the actions of using a bow and arrow. The drum rhythms and the dance postures bring participants to a sacred state of consciousness, manifested as a spirit possession. The spirit possession is wanted because it opens the channels of Ashe as the dancers merge with the deity. In addition, during this state the Orisha can give other attendants advice, warnings, and admonitions through the devotee.
Implications for Counseling
Given the number of Latinos/as and others who adhere to Santeria, counselors would benefit by becoming familiar with these beliefs. Multiculturally competent counselors are aware of the spiritual perspectives they bring to counseling and of the importance of the role religious beliefs play in the lives of their clients. The explanations clients from culturally diverse backgrounds give when explaining the causes of their psychological concerns provide insights about their worldviews and their belief systems, which affect how they relate to their personal problems and to their counselors. Exploring the spiritual beliefs of clients during intake can facilitate rather than hinder the counseling process.
Furthermore, it is important to note the varied levels of belief in Santeria. Some Latinos/as may have an altar at home dedicated to a specific deity, whereas others may attend Santeria ceremonies and seek guidance from a Santero. Some clients may be seeking help from a Santero while in counseling. They may discuss work-related issues with their counselor but choose to discuss family-related issues with their Santero. For this reason, it is important that the counselor assess the importance of the Santeria belief for their clients as well as their level of participation. It is recommended that counselors inquire about the client’s spiritual beliefs instead of introducing elements of Santeria. The counselor should let the client bring up the subject of Santeria; not all Latinos/as or Cubans embrace such beliefs, and some (e.g., Evangelicals) find them abhorrent or diabolical. If the client reveals his or her beliefs, then the counselor can let the client know that he or she is familiar with Santeria beliefs. This may help the client feel understood and feel more comfortable in therapy.
In addition, it is also important for the counselor to explore the client’s religious interpretations of his or her current problems and not to dismiss the client’s interpretations. The counselor can explore within the sessions the client’s visions, dreams, and religious experiences using a culturally sensitive approach instead of prejudging them as psychopathological symptoms.
Clients who believe in Santeria usually have strong spiritual beliefs and expect that their counselor will treat their beliefs with respect. Some counselors may tailor their counseling to include their client’s spiritual belief as a support system and may invite the Santero to collaborate in the treatment on behalf of the client (if agreeable to the client). Many Santeros are knowledgeable about mental disorders and frequently advise clients to seek more conventional mental health treatments.
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- Eliade, M. (Ed.). (1987). The encyclopedia of religion. London: Macmillan.
- Lefever, H. G. (1996). When the saints go riding in: Santeria in Cuba and the United States. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 35, 318-330.
- Wedel, J. (2004). Santeria healing: A journey into the Afro-Cuban world of divinities, spirits, and sorcerers. Gainesville: University of Florida Press.