The Yoruba religion from Nigeria and Benin was called Santería by the Spanish in Cuba


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Santería dancers in Cuba (Sandra Foyt/Dreamstime)

Santería dancers in Cuba (Sandra Foyt/Dreamstime)

There is Nothing Scary about Santería

The Spanish called the religion “saint worship” because Yorubans in Cuba guarded their heritage religion by blending it with the Catholicism of the slavers. In Cuba, it is completely normal to be a good Catholic and a good Santero at the same time. There is no conflict.

It has to be said that there is nothing scary here. Slavers, politicians, and priests demonized Santería for their own economic and political interests.

Hollywood helped scare us because it makes good theater. All the great religions practiced animal sacrifice in their past. There is no need to get excited about it now. In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the right of Santeros to practice animal sacrifice as part of the religion.

The Yoruba religion is very much like all the other religions. It’s a West African religion, but has roots in East Africa, near the Red Sea. That’s the Eastern Mediterranean where Judaism, Christianity and Islam are from.

We share a common root. The Yoruba religion is monotheistic. It has supporting Orishas who are like angels or saints. The Orishas are very much like the Greek gods in that they have human characteristics. They make mistakes like everyone, but because they are gods, they figure it out in the end.

The concept of Orishas is really interesting. The Orishas combine the Holy Spirit, nature, ancestors and sacred objects. The best description we have found comes from Encyclopedia Britannica:

“‪An orisha may be said to arise when a divine power to command and make things happen converges with a natural force, a deified ancestor, and an object that witnesses and supports that convergence and alignment. An orisha, therefore, is a complex multidimensional unity linking people, objects, and powers.‬

Santería traditions also function as a form of psychotherapy or self-healing. If you have a problem, you talk to the priest. The priest will connect you with an Orisha, one who has the same problem as you. You accept the Orisha into your life to work on your problem. You connect with your Orisha in front of everyone, so the community knows your problem and can support you too. This is traditional healing.

The human nervous system generates similar practices around the world and across time. What stands out from any honest study of humanity is not our differences, but rather our similarities.