When I began to explore Wicca, I wondered how Santeria, saint worship, would fit into what I was learning about the Craft. Seeking clarification for this dilemma, I consulted an online Wicca blog. I wanted discussion, instead I received admonition, and warning that traditions should not be mixed because the Gods and Goddesses would not like it. I listened and considered, but continued to seek feedback because I knew I was on the track of something powerful. Then I found a diagram in Higginbotham (2012), placing Santeria under the umbrella of paganism, which also included Wicca, Druidism, and eclectic traditions. I was delighted. Here was inclusion of different traditions and perhaps there was room for a looser more accepting interpretation of paganism! Reading Cunningham (1996), he seemed to imply one could blend traditions but the protocol for Wicca rituals needed to be respected. Things were now starting to fall into place. As I continued to read, study, explore and learn, my solitary practice evolved to intertwine the tradition of Santeria with those of the Craft.
My experience with Santeria
Growing up in a NYC working class neighborhood of Catholics and mixed ethnicities I was surrounded by saint statues and candles in the homes of friends and neighbors, Puertoriqueños, Dominicanos, Cubanos, Italians, Irish. My friends were first and second generation Americans, the grandmothers and some of the parents still spoke their ethnic language and played their old- country music. It was an interesting way to grow up. At that time Catholicism was all I knew, seeing it practiced in various ways.
My parents, from Mexico were not outwardly religious. My paternal grandmother however, maintained what I interpreted as an ancestral altar, with offerings of flowers, candles, candy bars, glasses of water, sometimes food, given to the santos, saints, like Santa Clara, and to my grandmother’s deceased sister, Celia. Some of my mother’s Puertoriqueña and Cubana friends also kept elaborate altars that included fruit, sometimes cigars, shot glasses of rum, and statues of Catholic saints and African Orishas, deities. I was fascinated by these altars.
Sometimes, during a walk through the more wooded areas of Central Park, I would see remnants of what appeared as ritual animal sacrifices and offerings. And, while I experienced simultaneous fear and attraction to what I was seeing, until I began to read about Santeria, I was not sure what I was observing.
The trappings of Santeria were not uncommon when I was growing up. There were a number of botanicas, herbal shops, in my neighborhood; an essential part of Santeria rituals is the use of herbs, roots, flowers and plants. Santos and Deities, both Catholic and African were displayed in the shop windows, along with collares/elekes, necklaces. The inside of some botanicas had a strong energy felt from the moment one stepped inside. One thing that always attracted me though, were the statues of African Deities, dressed for battle or emerging from the water with dolphins swimming about. My favorite, was la sirena, the mermaid, later I learned that she was Yemaya, Goddess of the oceans, and my special Goddess as I am a Pisces.
During my high school years, I traveled around the city, learning more about Santeria, the Orishas, the use of the elements in healing rituals, different types of magick, and the role of the Santero, the shaman, to whom I could go should I need a problem resolved.
Many years later in San Francisco, as I browsed in a bookshop, I came across a book on Santeria, written in Spanish by Migene Gonzalez-Wippler (1973). It was meant to be on that shelf for me, and for years I would read it many times, practicing what I had learned. I had become a solo Santeria adherent with no formal training. Just Migene’s book and continued research. My altar grew with Catholic saints and African Gods. Little did I know that I was now on the pagan path.
So what is Santeria?
The Orishas venerated in Santeria are of West African and Congo basin origin, specifically from the Yoruba culture of southwestern Nigeria. Yoruba speaking slaves were brought to the isles of the Caribbean in the 16th century by the Spanish to work the plantations. Slaves were forced to convert to Christianity and their beliefs in Yoruba Deities were forbidden by the Spanish. But as conquered people will do to ensure cultural survival, the slaves superimposed the Catholic Saints on their Yoruba Deities, and in this way continued to honor for example, Shango under the guise of Santa Barbara, Saint Barbara.
Santeria, is an Afro-Caribbean religious cult, a blend of African religion and Christianity, a tradition handed down verbally from generation to generation. Santeria developed through descendants of Yoruba African slaves, and today the cult has adherents throughout the Americans, in particular the Caribbean. One could say that because of the number of slaves brought to Cuba, a former colony of Spain, and the high numbers of Afro-Cubans on the island, Santeria is more prevalent than Catholicism, remaining the primary religion of mestizos – products of intermarriage between the colonizers, Africans, and the indigenous who remained on the island — and black working class Cubans (Clark, 2007). Santeria is also very much alive in areas in the U.S. with large populations of Puertoriqueños and Cubanos, in for example, New York City, and Miami.
Santeria is part of the pagan world, and anyone observing or practicing Santeria rituals can see the overlap with other pagan traditions — honoring of pre-Christian Deities, the use of the elements in its rituals, and solitary practice with each person discovering his or her personal Orisha. So, my persistence paid off, I have added Orishas to the pantheon of Saints, Gods and Goddesses that are very much part of my daily life, worship, and protection. I am also fortunate in being part of a Coven that accepts diversity, without admonishment.
Clark, M.A. (2007). Santeria: Correcting the myths and uncovering the realities of a growing religion. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Cunningham, S. (1996). Wicca: A guide for the solitary practitioner. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn.
Gonzalez-Wippler, M. (1973). Santeria: Magia Africana en Latinoamerica. Bronx, NY: Original Publications
Higginbotham, J. & R. (2012). Paganism: An introduction to earth centered religions. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn.
Luna Llena is a writer and eclectic solitary practitioner residing in New Mexico.