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Santeria Religion: History and Rituals Term Paper

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Updated: Jun 9th, 2020


Santeria is a religion that originated in West Africa and carried to other parts of the world by slaves during the height of slave trade in the 19th century (De La Torre, 2004). The religion is highly influenced by teachings of Catholicism, and the two have several similarities. Santeria is also referred to as Lucumi and is practiced in different parts of the world. The word Santeria was coined from the word “saints” because of the religion’s belief in the worship of saints (De La Torre, 2004).

It has many beliefs, rituals, and practices that are similar to those practiced by Catholics. Examples of Santeria’s rituals and ceremonies include initiation, medio asiento, los guerreros, and acquisition of elekes (Murrell, 2010). In addition, it includes several healing practices that combine techniques used by psychologists, herbalists, and ethicists. Sacrifices and veneration of saints are important aspects of Santeria. Saints connect followers to their creator and offer divine intervention. On the other hand, sacrifices are offered to saints in order to appease them and ask for favors (Brown, 2003).

History of Santeria

Santeria originated in West Africa and spread to other parts of the world through slave trade in the 19th Century. Many slaves from West African countries were sold to countries such as Haiti, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Trinidad, Cuba and Southern America (Murrell, 2010). Upon arrival in foreign countries, majority of the slaves were forced to convert to Catholicism. However, few of them continued to practice their indigenous religions. The two religions (Christianity and Santeria) were practiced by the slaves concurrently because they had many similarities and could therefore not be distinguished easily. Santeria was practiced secretly because adherents feared for their lives.

In the 19th century, there was widespread persecution on the basis of religion (De La Torre, 2004). On the other hand, the followers feared the social stigma that was associated with slaves from West African countries. The religion was passed from one generation to another through oral traditions, cultural practices and rituals (Brown, 2003). As people moved to other places such as Canada and Europe, they carried the religion with them and introduced it to the people that they found in the new places. The religion combines aspects of Yoruba mythology and Christianity (Murrell, 2010).


Unlike Christianity, Santeria does not include a standard creed that followers base their faith and beliefs on. However, its religious practices comprise several rituals and ceremonies that are performed at different times and for diverse reasons. These rituals and ceremonies are conducted in special places referred to as casa de santos or the house of saints, which are located in the homesteads of priests and priestesses (De La Torre, 2004). In order for a follower to become a priests or a priestess, they must undergo a special initiation process that lasts for seven days. Examples of rituals include the acquisition of elekes, medio asiento, and los guerreros, and asiento (Murrell, 2010).

Acquisition of elekes (beaded necklaces) is performed in order to cleanse an individual or initiate them into the Santeria faith. First, an individual’s head is washed using coconut water in order to bestow blessings upon them. Afterwards, the initiate is given a beaded necklace that has been washed in a mixture of different substances such as herbs and blood (Brown, 2003).

Some of the beads in the necklace represent certain saints who are very important. The colored beads of the necklace represent the five most important saints and they are added to the necklace to serve as a point of communication between a follower who receives the necklace and the saints. After reception of the necklace, a follower’s head is then washed using a special liquid. Followers of Santeria believe that the beaded necklaces connect them to saints and provide protection (De La Torre, 2004). The adorning of the necklaces has very strict rules. For instance, they are not worn during sexual intercourse or during other activities that are not related to the practice of the religion’s faith.

Medio asiento is another ritual that involves the creation of the image of an important saint known as Elegua (Murrell, 2010). This ritual starts with an interaction session between a priest and a follower. During the session, reviews various aspects of the individual’s life. The information retrieved form the consultation determines the path of the saint that the individual will adopt (Brown, 2003). The priest then chooses the most appropriate materials for constructing the portrait of the saint, which is used to dispel evil spirits and stop them from invading the home of the individual (Murrell, 2010). Another Santeria’s ritual is known as los guerreros or the receiving of the warriors.

It involves the awarding of warrior objects to individuals during the initiation ceremony. The objects given include an iron chalice, an iron bow, and iron tools. These objects represent different warriors who are revered by the followers of Santeria.

The final ritual is known as asiento. This is the most important initiation ceremony among. In addition, it is the most secretive. During the ritual, the iyawo is fully initiated into the religion’s faith. This ritual is a result of the other three rituals. Therefore, it is done last and can only be performed after the other three have been done. Asiento is a ritual that purifies an individual and makes them divine. New initiates become born again into the religion and start new lives that are guided by the teachings of Santeria (Brown, 2003). The religion has other rituals that allow followers to connect with saints. For instance, a ritual known as bembe allows followers to invoke the company of saints through drumming, dancing, and singing.


Santeria has several customs that make up its beliefs and religious practices. One of the most important customs that followers of the religion adhere to is secrecy (Brown, 2003). In order to be privy to the teachings, beliefs, rituals, and practices of Santeria, it is imperative for an individual to be initiated fully into the religion. This practice started during the development stage of the religion because of the widespread religious persecution and social stigma associated with followers of the religion. Another custom is the passage of the religion from one generation to another through oral traditions (Murrell, 2010).

The teachings of Santeria are not recorded on nay material. It is an aboriginal religion and therefore, its teachings are preserved and passed on orally through generations. The religion comprises several rituals that cleanse followers and initiate new members into the faith. Such rituals include drumming, dancing, singing, invocation of saints, and offering of sacrifices (Clark, 2007). Santeria’s teachings are propagated by priests and priestesses who are referred to as Santeros and Santeras respectively. In order to become a Santero or a Santera, an individual must undergo several years of training in the religion’s faith, a certain period of solitude, and an initiation ceremony (Murrell, 2010).

It is mandatory for them to learn specific dance routines, healing methods, and invocation songs. One of the most important aspects of Santeria is its botanicas. These are special places that provide specific supplies that used by priests and priestesses in their work. These supplies include herbs, musical instruments, sacrificial animals, and potions.


Initiation is an important practice of Santeria. In order for an individual to be fully accepted into the religion, he/she must undergo an initiation ceremony. In many places where the religion is practiced, many people seek the services of its priests and priestesses even though they are followers. Some individuals make consultations based on factors such as curiosity or desperation due to life’s pressing challenges. Santeros and Santeras are fully initiated members of the religion who have undergone several rituals and ceremonies (Clark, 2007).

Initiation involves serious commitment to the faith, beliefs, and practices of Santeria. The main purpose of initiation is to help individuals acquire the powers of the saints in order to bring success in certain areas of their lives (Murrell, 2010). Initiation occurs at several levels and each level represents a different type of commitment to Santeria. The lowest level involves the acquisition of beaded necklaces or the objects of warriors. The second level involves the acquisition of the Hand of Orula. The final level involves a full initiation as a Santeria or Santero. The highest level of initiation is the Babalawo or the father of the secrets. Babalawos serve as High Priests and are important people who play critical roles. Initiation is an important custom because it is suggested through divine communication from the saints (Clark, 2007).

The initiation of the warriors involves the awarding of several portraits of saints that are kept on the front door and cared for by the initiates according to the recommendations of priests and priestesses. An increase in knowledge regarding the religion’s faith allows the initiates to communicate with the saints and receive answers to some of their questions. An initiate receives ilekes in order to get protection and blessings from the religion’s saints. The beaded necklaces are sacred and comprise colored beads that represent different saints. The ceremony is performed by priests and priestesses and makes an initiate a follower of Santeria’s saints. The Hand of Orula is a ceremony that puts an initiate under the protection of Orula (Clark, 2007).

It is a very important ceremony that takes three days to complete. Making Ocha is a ceremony that initiates an individual into a Santera or Santero. During the ceremony, an initiate is connected to the Orisha through special rituals that give them the power to perform consultations and cleanse other people. Finally, making ifa is a ritual in which an individual is initiated as a Babalawo (Clark, 2007).


The phrase Santeria means “the worship of saints” and expresses one of the major beliefs and practices of the religion (Clark, 2007). Followers of Santeria refer to saints as Orisha. The saints connect followers to their creator, offer protection, and bless them in different ways. According to the teachings of Santeria, the saints characterize different natural forces and represent the creator in different capacities. Saints are an important aspect of Santeria because they are invoked in several rituals that form the foundation of the religion’s faith and belief system (Clark, 2007). For instance, the saints are an important part of worship ceremonies. Portraits or images of different saints are placed on the altar during worship for divine intervention. Saints are important during ceremonies such as worship, initiation, healing, and birth. They connect followers to their creator and grant divine intervention. There are different saints that serve various purposes based on the needs of the people. For instance, some saints are offered sacrifices during death, birth, thanksgiving, healing, and veneration.


Sacrifice is an important part of worship that serves several roles. Sacrifices are usually offered to appease saints in order for them to grant followers divine intervention (Clark, 2007). Each saint plays a different role that is directly linked to the lives of the people. During an offering, different things are offered to different saints based on their preferences. Followers of Santeria believe that the gods keep accounts of the number of offerings made to the Orishas and they determine the number of favors granted to followers (Lele, 2012). Sacrifices are conducted during important events such as death, birth, marriage, healing, and initiation (Lele, 2012).

Sacrifice is an important aspect of Santeria because it is a vital part of initiation ceremonies that welcome initiates into the religion’s faith. During a sacrifice ceremony, the offered animals are cooked and consumed by the people. This is done during ceremonies that involve happiness. However, during ceremonies such as healing and death, the sacrificed animals are not eaten because it is believed that they absorb the bad omen from the death or disease (Lele, 2012). The meat of the offered animals is consumed by the people taking part in the sacrifice in order to connect them to the saints. Chicken, sheep, and goats are commonly used in sacrifice ceremonies. This ritual is so important that the Supreme Court of the United States allows members of the religion to slaughter animals for purposes of offering sacrifices (Lele, 2012).


Santeria is an aboriginal religion that originated in West Africa and spread to other parts of the world during the 19th Century. It was spread to other parts of the world by slaves. Slaves who were transported to foreign countries carried their religious practices and beliefs and continued practicing them even though they were introduced to other religions. Santeria is a secretive religion because it does not have records of its beliefs and practices. It is passed from one generation to the next through oral traditions. Examples of its core customs include sacrifices, initiation, veneration of saints, and secrecy. Individuals receive extensive information about the religion after full initiation into its faith.

Sacrifices are offered during worship and other important ceremonies in order to seek divine favors from the saints. Sacrifices are very important because followers believe that the gods keep accounts of the number of sacrifices made to the saints. The gods grant favors based on these sacrifices. Initiation is an important custom because it introduces an individual fully to the religion’s faith. There are several initiation levels that represent different degrees of commitment to the religion’s faith. Santeria is practiced in different parts of the world and comprises several rituals and beliefs that make it similar to Catholicism.


Brown, D. H. (2003). Santeria Enthroned: Art, Ritual, and Innovation in an Afro-Cuban Religion. New York: University of Chicago Press. Web.

Clark, M. A. (2007). Santeria: Correcting Myths and Uncovering the Realities of a Growing Religion. New York: Greenwood Publishing Group. Web.

De La Torre, M. A. (2004). Santeria: The Beliefs and Rituals of a Growing Religion in America. New York: Wm. B. Edermans Publishing. Web.

Lele, O. (2012). Sacrificial Ceremonies of Santeria: A Complete Guide to the Rituals and Practices. New York: Inner Traditions/Bear & Co. Web.

Murrell, N. S. (2010). Afro-Caribbean Religions: An Introduction to their Historical, Cultural, and Sacred Traditions. New York: Temple University Press. Web.

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