By Briana Lionetti
Callejon de Hamel, Cuba – At the House of Santeria in Callejon de Hamel, Cuba, one will find statues of Navajo Native Americans, Chinese Buddhists, and Jesus Christ on the cross. There are also gifts to the gods of the Santeria believers – including a cup of animal blood.
The Way of the Saints, another name for Santeria, is a syncretic religion, meaning it has several elements all tied together, including Roman Catholicism and Yoruban beliefs, which have origins in Nigeria.
Elias Aseff, a Sanatoria priest, explained that every person who practices Santeria has an Orisha – a semi-divine being.
“We try to identify everyone’s Orisha and develop a relationship between energy and Orisha to solve problems here and now,” said Elias.
In 1959, Castro and the Communist Party allowed for the freedom of religion but they closed churches and even closed down the Jesuit high school he and his brother Raul attended. Over 400 Catholic schools were closed throughout the small Caribbean island. As a religion, Santeria also fell victim to the dogmatic atheism of the island’s communist regime.
One of the main ways for a Santeria believer to identify and connect with his or her own Orisha is animal sacrifice.
“Blood is a symbol of the pact of life,” said Aseff.
In the corner of the room, next to the decomposing fruits and vegetables was a cup of
blood. People who practice Santeria see animals as a complement to humanity and they sacrifice animals to save a person needing salvation. Aseff explained that reincarnation is a big factor in Santeria and that believers try to minimize the suffering of the sacrificed animals. The animal doesn’t go to waste either; adherents eat the meat after the ceremony.
Roman Catholicism and Santeria are most similar in the way Orishas are associated with the Catholic Saints. For example, Saint Barbara (Shango), embodies justice and strength. Shango is also associated with lighting and fire. Our Lady of Charity (Ochun), is the Yoruba goddess of the river, associated with sweets, money, water and love and Saint Lazarus (Babalu-Aye), is associated with the sick.
Santeria doesn’t have a holy book, but it has been spread by the word of mouth through countless generations since at least the 18th century.
With Catholicism at its core, Santeria is part of a syncretic belief system that is uniquely Cuban.