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 living in Mexico, Panama, the United States, Cuba, and throughout the Caribbean practice. It combines elements of Roman Catholicism with African Yoruba mythology and Indigenous American traditions, and 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 are disturbing and even terrifying to outsiders. Unlike other lesser known religious that are considered bizarre, Santeria is recognized around the world - even by the US Supreme Court.
There are plenty of crazy things you didn't know about Santeria, but don't be scared. Despite having a bad reputation, Santeria rituals are interesting, somewhat spooky, and often misunderstood. Continue on if you want to separate fact from fiction - and maybe even get a little spooked out.
One of the more gruesome practices found in Santeria involves the use of baby corpses or stillborn fetuses to invoke the spirits or orichas and to cast spells and curses. You won't find a practitioner who is willing to comment on the subject, and most will tell you Santeria is generally a positive practice, but police recovered from the New Jersey River the body of a two-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 United States from Cuba in their luggage. The fetuses were given to them by a Santeria priest.
In the defense of those who practice Santeria without involving fetuses and baby corpses, it's possible these cases are the extreme fringe of the religion, and in no way represent your average practitioner. In the same way most Catholics don't commit genocide in the name of god and most Muslims aren't suicide bombers, most who practice Santeria probably aren't casting hexes using dead babies.
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 carcasses and fresh blood, as well as human skulls and bones. While it is legal to own human remains in most cases, the difficulty acquiring those items has led some practitioners to acquire them illegally, by stealing them from mausoleums or digging up graves to find them.
Pasadena Lt. Ed Calatayud, a police officer involved in a case of human skulls found in a Santeria altar, said "Having human bones is a little disconcerting. We respect everyone's religious right to practice. Our focus is on the bones."
Again, it's best to bear in mind these might be extreme fringe cases that in no way represent the average practitioner of Santeria.
Blood sacrifice is an important part of many rites and rituals in Santeria. It's also a practice that runs devotees afoul of the law (sometimes, at least). Sacrificial blood is used in all initiations as a way of connecting initiates to spirits, or orichas, by appeasing the demigods's appetite for blood. It is also as a symbol of birth into a new life as a Santero or Santera.
Animals are sacrificed to invoke or appeal to orichas for aid or guidance 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 and consumed by the community afterward.
In rare cases, the treatment of animals has been found to be cruel, and is punishable by law. Chickens are the most commonly used animal, but often practitioners use other types of birds, goats, sheep, and even turtles. Punishing those practicing such rituals is perhaps somewhat ironic, given the endless brutality visited upon animals in perfectly legal factory farms. Yay capitalism!
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 orichas 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 being persecuted.
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.