11 Macabre And Fascinating Things You Probably Didn't Know About The Santeria Religion

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.

Photo: Ji-Elle / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 4.0

  • Rituals Often Involve Skulls And Other Bones
    Photo: Anonymous / Piqsels / Public Domain

    Rituals Often Involve Skulls And Other Bones

    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. 

  • Sacred Substances Are Planted In Initiates' Heads

    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.

  • Animal Blood Sacrifice Is Sometimes Used To Commune With Spirits

    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.

  • Catholic Saints And Pagan Demigods Share The Same Altar
    Video: YouTube

    Catholic Saints And Pagan Demigods Share The Same Altar

    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.

  • 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.