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The Cuban Religion Yemaya Beach Tote Bag

In addition to the worship of one God, named Olodumare, the Yoruba worship dozens of deities known as "Orishas" who are personified aspects of nature and spirit. The principal orishas include Eleggua, Oggun, Ochosi, Obatala, Yemaya, Oshun, Shango, Oya, Babalu Aiye, and Orula.

Orisha worship was spread to the new world through the slave trade. In order to preserve their religious traditions against Catholic repression, the African slaves syncretized the orishas with Catholic saints. Thus Shango came to be depicted as Sta. Barbara; Obatala as Our Lady of Mercy, etc. The religion took deep hold in African communities in Brazil and Cuba especially, and eventually spread to mixed race and European-American communities in these countries. After the Cuban revolution of 1959 the religion, known in Spanish as Santeria or La Regla de Ocha, spread to the United States (especially New York City and Florida), Puerto Rico and Venezuela.

Central features of the religion are its drumming and dancing celebrations known as tambors. At the tambors elaborate altars are created, and then food is offered to the Orishas. Depending on the nature of the celebration, percussionists and drummers (often playing the sacred 3-piece bata drums) play precise rhythms directed to specific Orishas while those present sing call-and-response songs in archaic Yoruba (called Lucumi in Cuba), causing the Orishas to descend and possess initiated priests and priestesses of the religion. The rhythms and forms of Yoruba religion are said to be fundamental to the development of many forms of African American music from gospel to blues and jazz, and to musical forms such as Salsa and Latin Jazz.

An excellent resource documenting the roots of African-American culture in Yoruba and other African religions is "The Flash Of The Spirit" by Robert Farris Thompson, available in paperback. Many well-known Latin musicians are devotees of Santeria. Carlos Santana, for example, has incorporated Orisha-themes and rhythms into several songs, including "Hannibal," which includes a Yoruba chant to Shango.

Ironically, while in the New World Yoruba religion is in a period of modest ascendency, in Nigeria itself it is being eclipsed by forms of Islam and Christianity, especially evangelical protestantism.


Beliefs of the Group


Cosmology
Santerians have five different levels of power in the Yoruba cosmology: Olodumare , the Orisha, human beings, human ancestors, and the lowest group (which includes plants, animals, natural entities, and manufactured items) They believe in one supreme god, Olodumare (also known as Olorun ).

He is the supreme source of ashe , the spiritual energy that makes up the universe, all life, and material objects. He coincides with Jesus Christ in the Catholic religion


Orishas

Olurun interacts with the world through emissaries called Orisha. Orisha rule over every force of nature and every aspect of human life. They can be approached through prayer, ritual offerings, and trance possession, and can be counted on to come to the aid of followers and guide them to a better life and spirituality. Each Orisha is attributed a special number and color, among other "favorite things," such as a food or day of the week. The member utilizes the colors by making beaded necklaces according to which Orisha they wish to worship. These distinguish the Orisha from one another when someone wants to make an offering to a certain one.

Each Orisha is guardian over a certain aspect of human life. The significant Orisha are listed below, as there are literally thousands of Orisha 10 . The first three Orisha listed - Elegba, Ogun, and Oshosi - are guardians over battle affairs and are called the Guerreros or Warriors.

Eleggua

The Orisha of the Crossroads.

Elegba (Eleggua) - the owner of the roads and doors in this world. He stands at the crossroads of humanity and the divine, the intermediary between Olorun and the Orisha and humans. When one wants to pray, they call on Elegba first, as he opens the doors of communication between this world and the Orisha.

Nothing can be done in either world without his permission. The Catholic saint he represents is Saint Anthony.
His colors are red and black and his number is 3

 

Ogun
The god of iron, war, and labor.

He clears the roads with his machette after Elegba opens them. He embodies violence and creativity, yet also integrity. He is the only Orisha with the right to control life and death. He depicts St. Peter.
His colors are green and black and his number is 7

Ochosi
The hunter, scout, and protector of the warriors.

He is in a close relationship with Obatala, and is the translator for him. He is the provider of direction to human life -- he advises humans to follow the rules of the social institutions in which they find themselves. He represents St. Norbert.
His colors are blue and yellow and his numbers are 3 and 7

Obatala
Father of the Orisha and all humanity.

He is the creator of the world and enforces justice in the world. He is the source of all that is pure, wise, peaceful, ethical, moral, and compassionate. The saint he stands for is Our Lady of Mercy.
His color is white, as he contains all colors, but is above them all; his number is 8

Chango
Ruler of lightning and thunder.

He is also a warrior, like the three above, and is well known for his many wives. He demands involvement in life and living life to its fullest. He deals with the day to day challenges. He is attributed to St. Barbara.
His colors are red and white and his numbers are 4 and 6

Oya
Ruler of winds and whirlwinds.

She rules over the dead and the gates of the cemeteries. She is a fierce warrior and was once the wife of Chango. She represents Our Lady of the Presentation of Our Lord and St. Theresa.
Her colors are maroon and white, and her number is 9

Oshun
Rules over the water of the world -- rivers, streams, and brooks.

She embodies love, beauty, and fertility. She represents the blood flowing through and creating human life. She is also associated with culture and the fine arts. She is the youngest of the Orishas and the messenger to the house of Olorun. Her saint is Our Lady of Charity, Cuba's Patron Saint.
Her colors are yellow and gold and her number is 5

Yemaya
Rules over seas and lakes.

She is the Mother of all and the root of all riches. She is deep and unknowable, like the waters which she rules. She is also the queen of witches and of secrets. She is considered the Orisha of mercy, while she never turns her back on her children. Her saint is Our Lady of Regla, the patron Saint of Havana's port.
Her colors are blue and white and her number is 7

Babalu Aye
Associated with disease (specifically smallpox).

The sick pray to him in hope of recovery. He has simple tastes and does not expect much. He is associated with St. Lazarus.
His colors are white and light blue and his number is 17

 

Orishaoco
Rules over crops and agriculture.

Thus, he is in charge of all the tools of the gardeners. He settles fights among the Orisha, especially those between Chango and his wives.
His saint is St.Ysidro. His color is lilac

 

Osain
The doctor of the Orishas.

He controls all the medicinal and magical herbs. The drums used in ceremonies are consecrated to him. He represents St. John (when in the city) and St. Ambrose (when in the country). His colors are white, red, and yellow

 

The Ibeyi
Children of Oshun and Chango.

They are identical in many ways and are the so-called children of the Orishas. They are associated with the acquisition of material property. Their saints are St. Cosme and St. Damian.
They have the same colors as their parents -- yellow and gold (Oshun), red and white (Chango)

 

Orunmila
Encompasses wisdom and divination; makes our destinies.

He is the only Orisha who witnessed the creation of the universe, and is essentially next in line to Olodumare. He is the Orisha of the priests (Babalawos), whom he manifests himself to only intellectually.

They abide by the Table of Ifa, where the secrets of the universe and our lives are held. Oshun is knowledge while Orunmila is wisdom. These two must work together for "wisdom without knowledge is useless -- one who has knowledge without wisdom is a danger to themselves and others".
He respresents St. Francis of Assisi. His colors are green and yellow and his number is 16

Communication with the Orisha is accomplished through several means, including prayer, ritual divination, and offerings (ebo - sacrifice). Although ebo sometimes refers to the practice of animal sacrifice, it encompasses a larger definition. Animal sacrifice is usually only used in important situations, such as death, sickness, or misfortune. Offerings can be made to the Orisha, with items such as candy, candles, and fruits, to name a few. The individual characteristics of each Orisha are important, as they give the people a way to distinguish how they contact the Orisha they wish to pray to. A person wears a beaded necklace with elaborate patterns of beads of the colors of the Orisha they wish to pray to. The numbers, colors, and also certain animals instruct the person on how to sacrifice to each Orisha. Because each Orisha represents a different aspect of life, a person can selectively pick an Orisha or several Orisha to pray to, depending on their needs. A participant can give up things, such as a Roman Catholic would for the season of Lent. They can also heed advice given by the Orisha in this manner


Human Beings

After Olodumare created the earth, he created the eleven commandments, and handed them down to Obatala. These he created to ensure that the people would not succumb to evil, and that they would live prosperous lives in union with the Orisha. The eleven commandments are:

  • 1. You will not steal
  • 2. You will not kill, except in self-defense and for your sustenance
  • 3. You will not eat human flesh
  • 4. You will live in peace among yourselves
  • 5. You will not covet your neighbor's properties
  • 6. You will not curse my name
  • 7. You will honor your father and mother
  • 8. You will not ask more than I can give you and you will be content with your fate
  • 9. You will neither fear death nor take your own life
  • 10. You will teach my commandments to your children
  • 11. You will respect and obey my laws

Traditions are strictly observed in Santeria. They have been preserved for almost 500 years. Prerequisites to a deep involvement in the religion include full knowledge of the rites, songs, and language. The participants must follow a strict regimen, and answer to Olorun and the Orisha for their actions. When initiated into the religion, the participant becomes a member of their Godparents house (or Ile), and a member of that extended family, as well. These people oversee that the participant is continuing the traditions and wishes of the Orisha.
The magic of the religion is based on knowledge of the mysteries of the Orisha and how to interact better with them. This correct interaction helps to better the lives of the participants and those around them. Santerians believe the world is magical, but in a natural sense, rather than the supernatural. "The most basic spell in Santeria will always require a plant, an herb, a stone, a flower, a fruit or an animal. The belief in the power of herbs is an intrinsic part of the religion."

Ebo contains many categories of sacrifice and offering to the Orisha. "There are offerings such as addimú which can include candles, fruits, candy, or any number of items oractions that may be appreciated by the deities or orishas in the religion. In divination, the orishas may ask for a favorite fruit or dish, or they may call for the person to heed advice given. At times they may ask that a person give up drinking or other practices that are unwise for that individual. They may request a person to wear certain jewelry, receive initiations or any number of other things. Or they may request an animal, usually a chicken or a dove, so the orisha will come to that person's aid. As a rule, animal sacrifice is called for only in major situations such as sickness or serious misfortune. Animals are also offered when a new priest is consecrated in service of her or his orisha during the birthing process of initiation. In every birth there is blood". Animal Sacrifices are essential to winning favor with the gods, and must be performed by a santero (priest).

Trance possession plays an integral part in the religious life. This occurs during a drumming party known as a bembe . "The purpose of a bembe is to honor the Orisha by playing specific drum rhythms, performing specific dance postures, and acting out in pantomime of the behavior of the Orisha." An Orisha may be persuaded to enter the body of a priest, if enticed by the proper drum rhythms associated to that spirit. The songs, rhythms, and dances are calculated to entreat the specific Orisha. "The drum rhythms and the dance postures are not ends in themselves, but are utilized to attain a sacred state of consciousness, manifested as a trance state or spirit possession. Spirit possession is desirable because it opens the channels of ashe as the dancers merge with divine rhythms." This bembe to Elegua demonstrates the typical songs and drum beats utilized for the trance possession.


Santeria and Voodoo

It must be stressed that Santeria and Voodoo are similar, but not the same thing. "Their similarities come from their origins in contiguous parts of West Africa, while the differences stem from their historical developments in the Americas." Both recognize the existence of a higher, supreme being, and the fulfillment of destinies with the help of what Santeria calls Orisha. Both also believe in the trance possession and choosing a specific Orisha to call upon. But, with reference to the Orisha, Santerians believe Catholic saints and Orisha are interchangeable. There is no division between Santeria and Catholicism. Voudoo, on the other hand, worships the same spirits as Santeria, but there is a separateness to Catholicism and Voudoo, thus they are not worshiping the same gods.


Controversy - Animal Sacrifice

Sacrifice, as stated earlier, is a type of Ebo. "Animal sacrifice is one of the most controversial aspects of this religion. Sacrifice, the giving of natural and manufactured items to the Orisha or ancestors, is viewed by practitioners as essential for human well-being. Through sacrifice, it is believed, one restores the positive life processes and acquires general well-being. To fulfill the wants and needs of the Orisha and the ancestors, practitioners make sacrifices to them. In return, the Orisha and ancestors are expected to meet the needs of the practitioners. This is believed to be the mutual exchange of ashe."
"When the religion requires the sacrifice of an animal, it is offered to the Orisha or the ancestor with respect. It is killed quickly and with as little pain as possible." The meat is usually eaten by the participants of the sacrifice. "Sometimes an animal is sacrificed as part of a ritual cleansing. It is believed that such animals absorb the problems and negative vibrations of the person being cleansed. In such cases, the animal carcass is disposed of without being eaten."

It was on this aspect of the sacrifice that the >The Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye received much criticism from the city of Hialeah. The city was concerned that by disgarding these carcasses from the ritual sacrifices, the church was creating a public health hazard. "In the early 1990's, the city of >Hialeah, Florida , passed a series of ordinances that made it illegal to unnecessarily kill, torment, torture, or mutilate and animal in a public or private ritual or ceremony not for the primary purpose of food consumption." From the onset, it appeared that the ordinance was targeted at the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye for their practice of killing the animals for sacrifice. Other forms of killing animals, such as an owner tiring of caring for the animal, were permissible.

Ernesto Pichardo, founder of the church, decided to fight the ordinances, claiming it was a violation of their First Amendment right to freedom of religion. He claimed that animal sacrifice was an integral part of the religion. The church took the city to the Supreme Court, who ruled in favor of the church. The brief of the case of The Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah explains the proceedings in great detail. A summary of this brief can be found on The Religious Freedom Page . One justice, Justice Anthony Kennedy, was quoted, saying, "Although the practice of animal sacrifice may seem abhorrent to some, religious belief need not be acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible to others in order to merit First Amendment protection."

Another concern brought up about the method of sacrifice of Santeria, is presented by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals . "They argue that Santeria is less humane than methods used in licensed slaughterhouses. They note that animals die slowly and painfully and that they are often kept in filthy conditions before ceremonies." "Protection of public health and prevention of cruelty to animals could have been addressed with less sweeping ordinances. General standards for the disposal of organic garbage and for the humane slaughter of animals might have been imposed, but they were not." Practitioners claim that the methods they use during sacrifice are no more cruel than the legal types of slaughter. They die quickly and painlessly and are generally eaten afterwards, like any animal killed for food.

"Despite the oddity of animal sacrifice to most Americans, mainstream religious groups have weighed in to support the Lukumi Babalu Aye church. Jewish organizations feared that Hialeah's law might have ruled out kosher slaughtering. Christian groups like the Presbyterian Church and National Association of Evangelicals want to prevent the Supreme Court from further restricting religious rights."


How to Judge a Babalao

If a Babalao asks the wrong questions, he will get the wrong answers! "How can this be," you might ask, "isn't it Orunmila talking?" The answer is that yes, Orunmila is talking, but he demands an intelligent conversation!

Just as there are incompetent lawyers, plumbers or physicians, there are incompetent Babalawo. Simply because you have been initiated, doesn't make you competent or wise. That may be a heretical thing for a Babalawo to say, but it is not only true, it is way past time someone said it. And, the danger of being guided by someone who doesn't know what they are doing, or, equally frightening, has their own agenda, primary to yours, can be absolutely catastrophic.

The ancient Yoruba were a very wise people. In the cultural context of their time, they created a system that tended to weed out the incompetent, unintelligent and those of questionable character and dedication before they could be unleashed on the populace with the title of Babalawo. The arduous apprenticeship period, where the would be Awo was asked to do menial labor to assist the Babalawo, extended for years. The strict disciplines of having to learn and memorize hundreds of pataki as they applied to specific Odu, to learn the sacrifices, herbs and medicine, went on for an equally long period of time. In the end, ONLY the word, or approval, of the Babalawo, based on judging the knowledge, character and dedication of the apprentice determined if they would go on to practice. While surely, some rogues, dolts and incompetents undoubtedly slipped through the net, they were by far the minority.

In our culture, no such safeguards exist. With the exception of the Ifa Foundation, which grants scholarships to those deemed worthwhile, but who lack the financial where with all for initiation, the office of Babalawo has become a strictly cash business. If you can afford it, someone will initiate you. Worse yet, for the most part, the individuals leave their initiations with no real training, or foundation, for future learning. This is not an indictment of all those doing initiations. Many, such as the Ifa Foundation, try and work with those of good character, offer the follow up training and growth.but the singular truth in our culture of short term gratification, is that too many use their initiation as a stepping stone for personal power, enrichment or control, rather than as a never ending journey of wisdom and knowledge.

The Yoruba expression: "It is easier to change a man's destiny then his character," might well have been constructed to highlight this danger.

When it is a question of character, there is little that can be done. Those that use their power for their own personal short-term gratification ultimately do themselves and the philosophy no good. Yet, they leave a host of victims in their wake. Honest, needy and trusting individuals who have come for the universal guidance and wisdom of Orunmila are stripped of their dignity and dollars by the unscrupulous.

When it is a question of competence, something can be done.both for them and to protect you. In order to understand this, you must understand the power and meaning of divination.

Too many individuals have taken the paternalistic view of Western Religion, and attempted to transfer it to Ifa. They would like the Babalawo to magically cast, magically fix, and magically protect them. It does not work that way.and anyone trying to tell you, or sell you, that it does, is either fooling them or you. Ifa is about personal empowerment, and the Babalawo's role is to ascertain how you can reach the balance in your life to achieve it. While it is true that the changes can be magical, they can only be consistently achieved through your personal growth and development. The Babalawo that attempts to infantalize you, through the use of fear, dependence, or power, is denying you your basic rights of growth, wisdom and development.and generally doing so for his personal gratification and desires.

So, you must go to the Babalawo looking for growth as well as solutions. Looking for personal development and fulfillment is as important as looking to fix whatever is troubling you.

There is still another area that can cause individuals grief. That has to do with the training and modality of the Babalawo. Another incredibly profound Yoruba saying is: " A Babalawo is as good as the questions they ask."

If a Babalawo asks the wrong questions, he will get the wrong answers! "How can this be," you might ask, "isn't it Orunmila talking?" The answer is that yes, Orunmila is talking, but he demands an intelligent conversation! If a Babalawo asks that that they already know, or if they go to illogical extremes of questions and specificity, the answers will not only be suspect, they will generally be totally wrong!

Divination is designed to help the individual achieve balance in their life, not to select between the red or yellow blouse. It is the assumption, and a correct one, that once your life is in balance, the specifics will tend to fall into place. Yet, young, or uneducated, Babalawo after Babalawo become so fascinated with the concept of being able to ask questions of the Opele or Ikin, that they turn a profound communication with a divine energy into a chat room gossip exchange. When they do this, the perfection of the information evaporates and becomes as silly and meaningless as the questions they ask.

A Babalawo can go down this road for two reasons.each, equally destructive to the client. First, they may do so because the client wants (and believes) the Babalawo can fine-tune their universe for them. This occurs most often when the client wants to go beyond the overall advice and wisdom of the reading. For example, if they have come because a monetary issue is troubling them, they find it not enough that the Babalawo casts and finds them on path, with good monetary implications. They hear the answer to their problem, but they insist on fine tuning the advice. They want to go on to see, " is my sales call to ABC Corp. going to be successful? " will I get the $4500 raise?" can I re-finance my house?" When you bring this kind of specificity to the table, after having received the critical information that "you are on path and money will be favorable," you are making two critical mistakes. Initially, you are confining your view to those areas that you know about.while Orunmila is looking at a much bigger picture. You may win the lottery, your great Aunt Nellie may die and leave you a fortune, you may have a new job offer coming, yet you want to know how the next 20 minutes on YOUR agenda is going to go. Well, that's not what divination is about. Also, in some way you are questioning Orunmila. He has just told you money will be fine, but you know want to "make sure." That is insulting to Orunmila, and may well be rewarded with wrong answers. The wise Babalawo should attempt to dissuade the client from this questioning, but too often simply lets the client run amuck in their desire for absolute certainty.

That is not to suggest that there are no issues where specificity of questioning isn't appropriate. What it is saying is that if a competent and well-trained Babalawo looks at the overall energy of your Odu, and ascertains your path, that 90% of the time the solution to your specific questions will be contained in the advice given. The advice is designed to bring your spiritual and temporal energy matrixes in balance. The specifics will fall into their proper place once this balance has been achieved. The untrained Western Babalawo, who has grown up believing that our world is a result of accumulating things, will unwittingly follow this worldview to the detriment of the client.

The second, and more frightening reason, is because they are attempting to gain power, control or influence over the client. In this case, by continuing down the path of asking enough questions (which they "know" are not true) they will eventually be able to show the client that Orunmila has supported their contentions. This occurs as a result of Orunmila providing the wrong answers to questions for which the trained Babalawo should have known better than to ask, or to which they already knew the answers. The Truth of Orunmila is not available to the untruthful behavior and bad character of those whose primary interest is their own personal satisfaction rather than improving the client's life. The number of Babalawo who have bedded clients, slandered other professionals, and generally used the assumed power and accuracy of divination for their own enrichment, anger or self gratification is astonishing. It is also reprehensible. . In a universe constructed by an all-knowing and powerful God, it would be logical that one of the primary tools He provided for our guidance would function only when treated with, and used with, the respect, knowledge and good character that benefits all. So, quite simply, Babalawo of bad character or improper training will not receive the clarity and accuracy of Orunmila's wisdom

How do you protect yourself from this? How can you make a judgement about the individual in whom you place your trust? Just as you would, or should, not go to a doctor, attorney or stockbroker without carefully examining their background, you should do the same with the Babalawo you deal with. Talk to some of their clients, ask those who have dealt with them what their results have been. And, you should go one step further. You should examine their lives. If their lives do not reflect meaningful and loving relationships, general success and happiness, then you are at the very least dealing with someone who has not yet learned the proper use of Orisa energy.. And, at very worst, misuses it. Look, if they can't make their own lives good, how in the world can they help you?

Hopefully, as the Ifa Foundation and others organizations and individuals of good character continue to bring our work proudly to a public forum, as opposed to hiding in secrecy, more and more people will see that objective judgments regarding talent, training and character can, and must, be made if our use of this divine energy is to lead us to fulfillment and wisdom.


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