Both religions are not technically held to be systems of belief by their adherents, but rather as systems of service or patronage to higher powers. The idea was present in African feudalism, but seems to be enhanced and highlighted in Creole religions by the slave experience. Seeking for a path away from the rule of cruel Europeans, African slaves turned to the rule of benevolent and helpful Orishas and Loas. Practitioners serve the demi-gods, and the demi-gods in turn serve the practitioners. The relationship between god and man is mainly business, although love and respect are also required. However, no true worship -- as a westerner would understand it -- is required; instead the Orishas and Loas are propitiated by sacrifices, and communicate their assistance mainly by oracles. In both Vodou and Santeria each Orisha or Loa is associated with a certain constellation of symbols, fetishes, sacrifices, and drum-rhythms by which that particular Orisha or Loa is invoked in a ceremony. Other ritual components of Vodou and Santeria rites include ritual baths often prescribed by consulted Loas and Orishas, ritual cleansing of living areas, and the use of amulets and charms -- in one Vodou ceremony a congregant receives ceremonial cuts on his upper left arm as a form of protection.
The action de grace of Vodou is typical of a ceremony of either Santeria or Vodou, except for the lack of singing, dancing and drums:
To perform an action de grace, a table is prepared. Statues and images connected with the various lwa are brought out and placed there, along with some of their favored items (Ogou's machete, Zaka's straw bag, etc.). Food is placed there, as well as bottles containing their libations. A lamp will also be "mounted" or lit
Catholic prayers and the priye Gineh begin the ceremony, and then prayers are given in honor of the various spirits… Frequently one or more lwa will arrive through possession, so they can give their personal thanks and offer the appropriate counsel and warnings (Filan, p.203).
In general, possession is a central aspect of Creole religion, akin to possessions by the holy spirit often seen in evangelical Christianity. It is an ecstatic practice, usually achieved by frenzied dancing and supplication, and the practice is much more central to Vodou worship than to Santeria, although Santeria still revolves heavily around it. Possession is a means for the Loa and Orishas to communicate directly with the congregation and occur in the setting of ceremonies where the demi-gods are invoked by rituals as above described, though usually involving much more rhythm, dancing, and singing. In fact, possession may be said to be the ultimate goal of any such ritual.
Divination is the second method by which the Orishas and Loas communicate with the people, though it is indirect and requires the priesthood as an intermediary. Divination is more common in Santeria, wherein four separate, caste-delineated systems of divination are in practice. Santeria tends to more public venues and expressions than Vodou, which is primarily practiced in home and personal settings, perhaps because of the intense poverty endemic to Haiti, compared to which even Cuba is relatively wealthy. As a result, santeros and santeras looking for a more personal audience with the Orisha, need to move outside the ecstatic temple setting and seek out priests able to cast divinations in response to their questions. In Haiti, more commonly, a full-scale private ceremony would be held in the home of a vodouisant, incorporating his close relations in singing, dancing, sacrificing, and ultimately possession as a vehicle for the gods' response to the vodouisant's needs.
Perhaps the best image of the development and evolution of Creole religions comes through a look at the myths of the people themselves. Ochun is the Orisha of love, comparable to Aphrodite and syncretized with Cuba's patron saint, the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre.
One story of the deity tells about the sadness of the goddess of love as she watched her children forced from their home to be taken to a new land named Cuba. Ochun visited her sister, Yemaya, to ask her advice. "It must be this way, Ochun. Our children will now go through the world spreading our wonders and millions will remember us and worship once again." But Ochun wanted to be with her children and asked Yemaya, who had traveled the world over, to describe Cuba to her. "It is much like here: hot days, long nights, calm rivers, abundant vegetation, but not everyone is black like us; there are also many whites." Ochun decided to join her suffering children in Cuba and asked her sister to grant her two favors before leaving: "Please make my hair straighter and my skin lighter so that all Cubans can see some of themselves in me." Her wish was granted and Ochun became Cuba's beloved patron saint (Olmos and Paravisini-Gebert, p.46).
Allegorically, the goddess Ochun, just as her religion and people, were creolized and adapted to a new environment. By a centuries-long process, Creole religions have allowed the descendants of African slaves to retain an African identity in a colonial setting, and to forge new identities and new nations of their own in the lands of their diaspora. The similarities of their religions arise not only from their shared cultural heritage, but from the shared plight of human will beaten but not yet conquered.
1. Olmos, Margarite Fernandez and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert Creole Religions of the Caribbean: An Introduction from Vodou and Santeria to Obeah and Espiritismo. New York: New York University Press. 2003. Print.
2. Filan, Kenaz The Haitian Vodou Handbook: Protocols for Riding with the Lwa. Vermont: Destiny Books. 2007. Print
3. Murphy, Joseph M. Santeria: African Spirits in America. Massachussets: Beacon Press. 1993, Print.
4. Stevens-Arroyo, Anthony M. "The Contribution of Catholic Orthodoxy to Caribbean Syncretism: The Case of La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre in Cuba." Archives de Sciences Sociales des Religions 117 (2002): p.37-58. WesScholar. Web. 10 April 2010