Most people probably only know Santeria from the Sublime song of the same name, but it's more than just a song lyric. What is Santeria? Sometimes called Regla de Ocha, it's a religion that millions of people practice throughout Mexico, Panama, the US, Cuba, and the Caribbean. It combines elements of Roman Catholicism with African Yoruba mythology and Indigenous American traditions, and it grew out of the slave trade during the Spanish Empire.
The need for secrecy during colonial times and again during Castro's Marxist revolution in Cuba prevented any formal central creed from developing; instead, Santeros and Santeras are joined by the practice of common rituals and ceremonies, many of which outsiders find disturbing. Unlike other lesser-known religions that are considered bizarre, or mystical hexes that need to be broken, Santeria is recognized around the world - even by the US Supreme Court.
There are likely plenty of interesting things you didn't know about Santeria - despite having a bad reputation, Santeria rituals are fascinating, somewhat mystical, and often misunderstood.
Practitioners of Santeria often adorn their mantles and altars with many items familiar to Catholic worshippers, such as candles, incense, prayer beads, and statues of saints. However, amidst these items, and depending upon the practitioner in question, one might also find animal remains and fresh blood, as well as human skulls and bones.
While it is legal to own human remains in most cases, the difficulty in acquiring those items has led some practitioners to acquire them through other means, such as pilfering them from mausoleums or even digging up graves.
Lt. Ed Calatayud - a police officer in Pasadena, CA - was involved in a case in which human skulls were found in a Santeria altar. He said,
Having human bones is a little disconcerting. We respect everyone's religious right to practice. Our focus is on the bones.
These instances of stolen bones may be extreme fringe cases that in no way represent the average practitioner of Santeria.
Santeria communities are loosely organized around a priest (babalocha) or priestess (iyalocha), who is responsible for bringing initiates into the community or "house." Once initiated, devotees are considered the "godchildren" of the priest or priestess, but the initiation process is long, complex, and a bit strange to outsiders.
During the first phase, called asiento, the godparent shaves the initiate's head and makes small cuts in their scalp. Then, sacred substances are planted in the cuts to invite or "seat" a demigod into the initiate and bond them with that demigod forever.
Blood sacrifice is an important part of many rites and rituals in Santeria. It's also a practice that sometimes runs devotees afoul of the law. Sacrificial blood is used in all initiations as a way of connecting initiates to spirits, or orishas, by appeasing the demigods' appetite for blood. It is also as a symbol of birth into a new life as a Santero or Santera.
These sacrifices are said to invoke orishas and appeal to them for aid or guidance in ceremonies and rituals. Santeria worshippers have a constitutional right to use animal sacrifice in their ceremonies, and the animals are usually well cared for prior to sacrifice. They are consumed by the community afterward.
The rare cases of cruel treatment of animals are punishable by law. Chickens are the most commonly used animal, but practitioners often use other types of birds, goats, sheep, and even turtles.
Practitioners of Santeria believe in one supreme god named Olodumare, who created the natural world, as well as a variety of ancestral spirits or divinities called orishas through the power of life-energy or ache. In Cuba, these West African spirits or demigods became paired with Catholic saints because they were not allowed to openly worship their pagan gods without persecution.
The Yoruba god of lightning, Shango (Chango in Spanish), became paired with St. Barbara, Babalu Aye with St. Lazarus, and so on. An altar of a Santero or Santera, therefore, might include pictures or idols of both the Yoruba demigods or Catholic saints, depending upon what sort of assistance the devotee requires.