The power of the Orisha guides the santero. Alex told me that the attitude of the priests is very humble, because they don't believe that they are doing anything. All their actions are guided by the Orisha and all the credit belongs with the Orisha too.
I asked Alex to expand on two aspects of Santeria that I was particularly interested in because of their uniqueness. First, I asked about spirit possession. Alex told me that spirit possession is a very important concept because it helps the individual communicate directly with the Orishas. An object as well as a person can become imbued with the spirit of an Orisha. When a person becomes possessed by the Orisha, he or she temporarily acts and even looks like that spirit.
Second, I asked about sacrifices. Alex admitted that animal sacrifices do take place but much less often than they used to because of the stigma. However, it is widely believed that the Orishas need to "eat" the spirit of the animal. Alex also said that unless the animal was used in a healing ritual or a death rite, that it does not go to waste. The people are allowed to eat the animal after it has been used for the ritual. When the animal was used in healing or in a death rite, however, it becomes "infected" with the disease. Otherwise, the people should eat the animal as if they are sitting down to dinner with the Orisha. The Orisha takes the animal's spirit, which is contained symbolically in the blood. The human beings take the animal's flesh, and everyone is happy.
Comparison: Santeria and Pentecostal Christianity
Of all the world's religions, I am most familiar with Christianity. Within Christianity, I am most familiar with the Pentecostal faith because it is the Church in which I was raised. While I expected to find mostly dissimilarities between Santeria and Pentecostal Christianity, I instead found that the two religions shared much in common. For example, Pentecostal Christianity is diverse, and probably as diverse as Santeria is. There are different branches of Pentecostal Christianity, and there are also different types of Santeria or Yoruba-based Afro-Caribbean worship. Practitioners are from diverse backgrounds. Although Pentecostal Christianity was not borne out of slave culture, there are many descendants of slaves who are members of our Church.
Pentecostal Christianity is officially newer than Santeria, although it traces its roots to Christ. The Pentecostal faith started only in the nineteenth century, at which time Santeria had been practiced in the New World for centuries. Both Pentecostal Christianity and Santeria are rooted in traditions older than themselves, though. Santeria traces its roots to the indigenous religions of Western Africa, while Pentecostal Christianity traces its ultimate heritage back to the Middle East.
I was struck by one particular similarity between Pentecostal Christianity and Santeria, which may not be immediately apparent. Pentecostal Christianity is one of the only branches of Christianity that believes in "speaking in tongues." The phenomenon of speaking in tongues is reminiscent of spirit possession, as believed in Santeria. Pentecostal Christians do not attribute speaking in tongues to Orishas. However, they do believe that speaking in tongues is "a necessary indication of a valid religious conversion," (Robinson 2009). Speaking in tongues is viewed as a deep spiritual communion that signals a transformation of the spirit, which is not too dissimilar from the Santeria concept of communing with the Orishas. Pentecostal Christians also believe in spiritual healing, which is practiced often in Santeria.
Another similarity between the two religions is the successive stages of personal spiritual development. In Pentecostal Christianity, various levels of faith profession lead up to the ultimate Pentecostal experience and baptism in the Holy Spirit. Santeria practitioners also undergo a series of personal spiritual experiences in their faith, albeit radically different ones from those in Pentecostal Christianity. The process by which a practitioner becomes a santero or santera is different in Pentecostal Christianity than it is in Santeria. Yet both religions do mandate a formal and lengthy period of study and practice that the faithful must go through before ordination. Neither religion is very hierarchical, although there are levels.
Santeria is much more colorful than Pentecostal Christianity, as I learned from my meeting with Alex. There are no Botanicas or anything remotely resembling the elaborate rituals that comprise Santeria. Unlike Santeria, and indeed unlike Catholicism too, Pentecostal worshippers do worship or even believe in the power of the saints. In the Pentecostal Church, God and Jesus are the only religious figureheads. The Pentecostal faith does not even believe in the Holy Trinity, as Catholics do. According to Pentecostal Christianity, God cannot be divided and therefore it is sacrilegious to conceive of God as being anything other than One. For this reason among others, Pentecostal Christians would have a serious problem with Santeria.
Both Santeria and Pentecostal Christianity believe in one God. The major theological difference between Santeria and Pentecostal Christianity is that the former also allows people to commune with and pray to the Orishas. The Orishas are either like manifestations of God or messengers of God. Pentecostal Christianity does not even view Jesus Christ as being fully divine and therefore has a more strictly monotheistic point-of-view.
Another major difference between Santeria and Pentecostal Christianity is that the former does not have any churches or formal places of worship. Worship takes place at personal alters and in people's homes. However, Pentecostal Christians do believe that each person develops a direct personal relationship with God just as Santeria practitioners do.
Santeria seems like a mystical, foreign faith that on the surface shares nothing in common with Christianity. The religion has been stigmatized in the press because it differs significantly from mainstream Western religions and also because it is traditionally the faith of the poor and the oppressed. However, Christianity was also once the religion of the poor and the repressed. Santeria is growing fast, and remains relevant in the modern world just like Christianity.
Based on the Yoruba religion of West Africa, Santeria evolved because of Christianity. The Yoruba Orishas were easily disguised as Catholic saints sharing their qualities. Belief in Santeria can peacefully coexist with a belief in Christianity, and especially Catholicism.
Santeria is not much different from any other religion. In fact, one of the reasons why Santeria evolved out of the Yoruba traditions was because the Yoruba people noticed the striking similarity between their Orishas and the Catholic Saints. When they were punished for practicing Iba, the Yoruba slaves pretended to be praying to the saint that most resembled the intended Orisha.
Although Santeria and Pentecostal Christianity diverse on theological grounds, they share some key features in common. Both support a personal relationship with God and both value the role of mystical spiritual experiences like speaking in tongues. Pentecostal Christianity shares almost as much in common with Catholicism as it does with Santeria.
De La Torre, M.A. (2004). Santeria: The Beliefs and Rituals of a Growing Religion in America. Grand Rapids: Eerdman's.
Leonidas, C. (nd). Introduction to Santeria. Exploring the Culture of Little Havana. Retrieved online: http://www.education.miami.edu/ep/littlehavana/Santeria/Leonidas_1/leonidas_1.html
Leonidas, C. (nd). Santeria and South Florida. Exploring the Culture of Little Havana. Retrieved online: http://www.education.miami.edu/ep/littlehavana/Santeria/Leonidas_1/Leonidas_2/leonidas_2.html
Robinson, B.A. (2009). Christian meta-groups: The Pentecostal group of denominations. Religious Tolerance.org. Retrieved online: http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_pent.htm
Robinson, B.A. (2009). Santeria: a syncretistic African/Roman Catholic religion. Religious Tolerance.org. Retrieved online: http://www.religioustolerance.org/santeri.htm
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