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.
Some Claim That Santerian Curses Can Have Real Consequences
If you speak with anyone involved in the practice of Santeria, they will likely tell you it is only a force for good, a way for the community to connect with their ancestors by carrying on ancient traditions and by invoking the orishas for guidance.
One of those traditions is the ritual of using herbs, incantations, and blood to cast spells on people. Typically, the spells cast are positive - to find love, good fortune, or protection - but curses are also used to punish the enemies of the community with sickness, bad luck, or even death.
These spells and curses may seem effective simply because the people involved in Santeria believe they work. However, even those who don't believe in Santeria or curses have reported negatively effects.
Ray Quintanilla, a former columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, wrote about one such event happening to him. He identifies as Catholic, and he reported crossing a Santera in San Juan, Puerto Rico. According to Quintanilla, the Santera invoked Chango, the demigod of fire, thunder, and war to curse him with 30 days of bad luck. He goes on to claim that he experienced one "awful" misfortune after another, such as both of his front tires popping, two laptops breaking, losing $250 from his checking account, and a coconut denting the roof of his car.
Initiates Must Get Possessed By A Spirit In Order To Join
In Western culture, possession by a spirit or entity is generally something to avoid. In Santeria, if you don't get possessed by an orisha, you've done something wrong - possession is the intent of the initiation ceremony for Santeros and Santeras.
After the sacred substances are implanted in the initiate's head, they are now considered in direct communication with an orisha. The initiate allows their body to be used by the demigod to communicate with the rest of the community, though they typically have no memory of the experience afterwards.
Initiates Must Only Wear White And Remain Celibate For One Year
After undergoing the typically week-long initiation ritual, the initiate is considered a "bride of god" (regardless of their gender) and must adhere to many strict practices during a year-long waiting period. This is designed to cleanse their body and spirit and prepare them for their new life as a Santero or Santera.
The initiate (iyawo) must dress completely in white and use only a single white cup and white dish when eating and drinking for this entire year. They are also forbidden from eating with a knife and fork and may only use a spoon.
Initiates can't look in a mirror, wear jewelry or perfume, drink alcohol, or go out at night. Additionally, they must avoid all physical contact with everyone except close family members and their godparent. They also must abstain from sex for the full year, as they are considered to be reborn as children.
Extreme Fringe Practitioners May Occasionally Use Infant Remains In Spells
One of Santeria's practices involves the use of infant remains or stillborn fetuses to invoke spirits - or orishas - and to cast spells and curses. Few practitioner will comment on the subject, and most will tell you Santeria is generally a positive practice; however police recovered from the New Jersey River the body of a 2-year-old girl stolen from a grave and used in a ritual. Customs agents also stopped a pair of women attempting to smuggle human fetuses into the US from Cuba in their luggage. The fetuses were given to them by a Santeria priest.
More than likely, these cases are the extreme fringe of the religion and in no way represent the average Santeria practitioner.