Colourful symbolic structures at Santeria centre in Havana.
Like its Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico neighbours Cuba is a fusion of races and cultures, an exotic mix of the descendants of Spanish colonisers, West African slaves and indigenous Taino-Arawak Indians. Out of this melange has come a religion particular to the West African descendant of the Caribbean, especially Cuba, known as Santeria .
Vibrant artwork welcomes visitors to Santeria centre in Havana.
In Spanish Santeria means “worship of saints” and reflects the way in which the religion’s adherents, many tracing back to the Yoruba people from Nigeria, masked their beliefs by adopting the worship of Roman Catholic saints to represent their own gods, or orishas, to preserve their traditions in the face of enforced baptism. Customs brought from Africa included trance states and divination to make contact with ancestors; animal sacrifice; and sacred drumming and dance. Aspects of the indigenous Taino people’s beliefs that included ideas of ancestor worship and an afterlife also went into the mix.
Ellegua – an Orisha, or god – of Santeria, whose saintly alternative is St Michael.
Santeria initiates, notoriously camera-shy, are easy to spot around town as they must dress in all-white garb, for purity, for at least their first year. There are also ceremonial occasions when white must be worn. In Havana we visited a Santeria centre in Vedado, near the historical old city centre, which promotes understanding of the religion and offers tours to nearby locations of religious significance. They included a park with a ancient tree used in ceremonies and a old two-storied colonial building where religious services are held. Our guide was a young man immaculately dressed in white who told us how Santeria had saved his life by putting him on the right track when he was headed for a future of drugs and crime.
Santeria initiate in her white attire emphasising purity.
The experience was fascinating, but challenging for us squeamish Westerners with the sounds of strangled chicken squawks emanating from various rooms in the house and corner shrines displaying obvious signs of dried blood and feathers. It reminded me a bit of the priestess Minerva and her mysterious voodoo practices in John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
Saintly connections in the Santeria House.
Altars in the Santeria house – not for the squeamish.