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Santeria, still misunderstood

This post was written by Elysia
on January 5, 2010 | Comments (16)

Santeria is a Caribbean tradition that originated with certain African slaves revering their deities in the Christian framework that was imposed on them once they were forced from their homelands. Thus the deities of the Western African Yoruba pantheon, or orishas, became “saints” by association and Santeria is the worship of those saints. It is practiced today in the United States (and elsewhere, obviously), mostly by Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Venezuelans, Colombians, Dominicans, and other people of Latin American extraction, both black and white. As is the case with syncretistic religions, it is no longer the same faith as that practiced by the Yoruba people in Africa, but a unique melding of it with Catholicism, the slavery experience, the new environments in which it came to be, and many other factors. That’s it in a very teensy nutshell.

Though Santeria differs from Wiccan and other Neopagan faiths greatly, being what Isaac Bonewits would term a “Mesopagan” religion, their plight in the US today is of great interest to the wider Pagan community. They share many commonalities with Pagans – their religion is misunderstood, they are of a minority faith, they are polytheistic, they are engaged in legal battles on many fronts to protect their faith and practices, and they are often made into a scapegoat. In fact, Santeros often have it worse than Wiccans as they have routinely been blamed (along with Satanists) whenever any gruesome animal remains turn up because animal sacrifice is a living part of their tradition. However, animal sacrifice is a way of honoring deity, and does not mean mutilation or torture, which almost always is the work of disturbed teenagers rather than any truly spiritual ritual.

Recently a prominent babalawo, or high priest of Santeria, named Ramon Cruz has been accused of animal abuse and neglect for whatever has been going on in his home while he’s been away in Mexico for a year. You can read the very interesting debate about this case in Philadelphia over at the Wild Hunt blog, but to summarize, nobody at this point really knows what happened. On the one hand, authorities and media alike may be over-reacting and sensationalizing the story – on the other hand, Cruz’s friend who was supposed to be taking care of the house may have let things get this bad (or perhaps Cruz himself had left things in such a state, which remains to be seen). As Jason Pitzl-Waters summed it up in his latest post on the situation:

So we have two competing narratives. One, is that Ramon Cruz, and possibly some others, have been engaged in a twisted orgy of animal sacrifice. Leaving an offal and blood-encrusted house that simply confounds local animal welfare officers. The other narrative is that Cruz’s house has long been a target of the PSPCA, and that the malnourished dogs were the casus belli they were looking for in order to take down a known center of Santeria worship. So we have to decide, bloody death-pit, or anti-Santeria vendetta by biased officials? Perhaps the truth is somewhere in between?

Until we know all the facts in the case, it isn’t our place to speculate needlessly or pass judgments on things we have not seen or experienced first-hand. The news stories do make it sound incredibly filthy and cruel, but then, we’ve all seen what happens when even a good-intentioned reporter files an article on Wicca. Things quickly get twisted and distorted in their limited framework.

Compare this current scandal to an account of a raid three decades ago:

In the spring of 1980 the ASPCA, apparently acting on a neighbor’s tip, raided an apartment in the Bronx where an asiento was about to take place. According to an article in The New York Times (May 24,1980), ASPCA agents came upon “a scene of blood-spattered confusion.” Several chickens and hamsters and a goat had already been sacrificed, and the raiders confiscated eighteen chickens, three goats, and several hamsters.

This report gave Santeria a few months of adverse and much sensationalized publicity, and a great deal of speculation took place as to the purpose of the sacrifices. The press, obviously unfamiliar with Santeria, commonly used terms like “satanic cults” and “bizarre ritualistic activities.” (Santeria, González-Wippler.)

Interesting that these phrases are almost perfectly mimicked in today’s reporting.

The reason I’m bringing this up is because everyone – both in our community and in the US at large – could stand to learn more about Santeria and other minority faiths. And this situation is anything but new. I recently came across an old issue of Gnostica, a New Age magazine formerly published by Llewellyn owner Carl L. Weschcke. In the “letters” section, one letter came from a practitioner of Santeria (signed anonymously, so I don’t know if this is a Santero or Santera), complaining bitterly about how this faith was misunderstood by Wiccans. I would like to share a short excerpt:

In the Santeria Pantheon there is a God/Father form, a Goddess/Mother form, and a Pantheon very similar to the Welsh Wiccan, Scottish and Irish Druidic, and most other Celtic-oriented traditions in the Earth religions and Pagan communities. But while visiting a certain Gardnerian High Priest and Priestess, I have been forbidden to practice even my Santeria morning and evening devotions. I find it impossible to comprehend how this “devoted” High Priestess finds it within her to forbid a person of another segment of the Wiccan community, with roots probably much more fresh, to practice his/her religion.

(Note how interesting it is that this letter writer referred to himself or herself as part of the Wiccan community! This has surely faded from fashion.)

Please, Mr. Weschcke, may we have some assistance from your writers/editors, to help inform our sister-traditions of our “acceptable form” of worshipping the  Mother Goddess? I was deeply hurt by this instance with my Gardnerian friends; and how many more of my brother and sister Santero(a)s will be hurt by just such other misinformed Wiccans?

Carl responded to this letter, writing in the same issue:

While it’s true that Santeria is only lately receiving fairly widespread publicity, and its details are still generally unknown, prejudice is always ugly. So let’s redress the balance. Santeria is fine by us, and we’d certainly welcome well-written articles on this, and of course on any other less-known, less-accepted traditions of Paganism.

Now, let me tell you when this was published – it was the May/June issue (#51) of Gnostica from 1979! (If I could capitalize numbers, believe me, I would be doing so in this case.) Yes, 1979. We have come 31 years and Santeria is still misunderstood, although one could argue it is less misunderstood in the general Pagan community these days than in the public.

Llewellyn eventually went on to publish several books on Santeria by author Migene González-Wippler, including the book I quoted from above, Santeria: The Religion, originally published in 1989. Although we do have a quite few books in Spanish, this is the only English book we still have in print on the religion. That said, I would highly encourage any experienced practitioners with a fresh voice and a modern perspective to contact me with their book proposals. This is something we could use here at Llewellyn – and something that, it seems, the public at large could use as well.

Reader Comments

Written By David
on January 5th, 2010 @ 1:13 pm

I disagree with the first section. I don’t care what tradition, animal sacrifice IS torture and is not a way to honor deity. When teenagers do it, they emulate these traditions in the first place. We must use our traditions to reflect positive values if we hope for the public to follow. Tradition is no excuse for cruelty.

Written By Elysia
on January 5th, 2010 @ 2:52 pm

I think if you’ve never witnessed an animal sacrifice, you can’t really tell say that it is torture or not – torture means inflicting unnecessary suffering on a live creature while prolonging its life. In my understanding, and from what many people have written in the comments at the Wild Hunt, the slaughter of the animal is done quickly and humanely in ritual sacrifice, without cruelty. And often under better conditions than the wholesale slaughter of the animals that eventually fill the grocery store shelves every day.

This all comes back to the Wiccan Rede’s words: “harm none.” Everyone takes that differently when it comes to animals being killed for food. Some become vegetarians; other vegans, to prevent any harm from occurring whatsoever. Yet others see it as more of a balance, and will hunt humanely for their family’s own food, or buy their meat from local farmers who treat the animals with dignity and respect. However you slice it, “harm none” is pretty hard to swallow if you’re eating factory-farmed meat. Given the choice between that and a ritual sacrifice which is then prepared and consumed by the practitioners (with a portion going to deity), I would say the latter comes closer to “harm none” as long as the animal is slaughtered quickly and without suffering. But that’s just my two cents…and I’m vegetarian, so I’d really prefer neither!

In the end, I believe it’s everyone’s own choice whether they eat meat or not, even if I personally wouldn’t do it. Similarly, animal sacrifice rightfully holds a place in religious freedom rights, even if I personally would never do it. After all, if you’re going to allow for kosher and halal slaughter of animals, which are both particular ways of ritualistically killing an animal for food, then how can you disallow Santeros to do the same?

However, I do concede the point about the disturbed individuals who torture animals in an unholy emulation of a holy act. Perhaps they think, “hey, this is what those spooky religions do, I want to do it too.” So I agree that we should always try to question the ethics involved in sacrifice and limit it in our own communities, but I don’t think we should force other faiths to adhere to our code of ethics. (As I’m sure you wouldn’t want to be subjected to another religion’s ethics on judging your actions.)

Written By Brandi Palechek
on January 5th, 2010 @ 5:09 pm

As Elysia says in the post, I don’t think it is our place to pass judgments.

I may not personally agree with animal sacrifice, but I understand and respect that it is an part of the practices of some spiritual traditions.

I did a little research and found a few things I think you should know –

• The animals are killed in a humane manner.
• They are generally eaten later, just as the many of millions of animals slaughtered daily in North American commercial establishments.
• Ritual sacrifice of animals was extensively practiced in ancient Israel and was only discontinued after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in the eighth decade CE.
• They feel that the sacrifices must continue because their Orisha require the food. (The Orisha are various manifestations of God).
• Animal sacrifices have formed a part of their religion for over one millennium.
• The constitutions of the United States and Canada guarantee freedom of religious expression.
• They have won a number of court cases; one went all the way to the US Supreme Court.

(Religious Tolerance.org/Santeria, a syncretistic Caribbean religion: Conflicts concerning Santeria sacrifices: animal and human; real and imaginary)

I think it is a little harsh to say that teenagers are emulating these traditions when they torture and mutilate animals. It is more likely the teens (or even adults) who perform these heinous acts are disturbed, violent individuals with little or no knowledge of Santeria.

As a student of life and a spiritual explorer, I would love to learn more about Santeria. I would like to gain a better understanding of its traditions and the use of ritual animal sacrifice.

Written By Teri
on January 6th, 2010 @ 11:57 am

I’ve been a practitioner of Santeria for nearly a decade. The debate on animal sacrifice is really tiresome at this point. Elysia and Brandi thank you for making well thought out and accurate points. It seems like people imagine us as blood thirsty zombie types, completely out of our mind with blood lust for animals. This is not the case. Those who have personal relationships with nature are often portrayed as irrational zealots. Some of the ways we express our relationship is not what people are comfortable with but please educate yourself before making declarations on the legitimacy of a culture and tradition!

Written By lada
on January 7th, 2010 @ 9:49 am

when I was in school, (in the 80s…so long ago)
a student at a sister school was kidnapped and murdered. The skull, found among others across the border, had been used in rituals attributed to Santeria by drug smugglers invoking protection.
I struggle, as I read these entries, to cast aside the horror that has been in my mind for many years. I know that ‘true’ Santeria does not sacrifice humans. As I am not a vegan, and too well acquainted with the cruelties of the killing floor, hypocrisy awaits me.
I have read, but not attended, voudou rites in which goats are also routinely sacrificed. Still, the unease. Is it just cultural? Racist prejuidice? I hope not.
I found a site of ritual sacrifice once, perhaps led to it by a feeling of deep unease. I fled on finding the cats’ corpse dangling. The black and white tom haunted my dreams for nights, until I returned, cut him down and buried him. I know I interfered with someone elses’ intention. and gladly accept whatever retribution accrued.

Written By Elysia
on January 7th, 2010 @ 9:51 am

Thanks for speaking up, Teri!
Also, if I may ask – from a professional point of view – you say you’ve been a practitioner of Santeria for nearly a decade, so I assume it wasn’t your birth religion. : ) Could you tell us how you got involved, where you learned it from? Were any books particularly important on your path, or did you learn it solely under the tutelage of a babalawo or similar? Thanks in advance for any insight you can share here.

Written By Queen Auset
on January 8th, 2010 @ 2:45 pm

Our faith is monotheistic!!! We do not like to be called pagan. The orisha did not “become” the saints inadvertently. Just as Oshun (Yoruba spelling) is not the black Aphrodite/Venus. My ancestors did what was necessary to preserve their faith and practices in the West. Please confer with a reliable source of your information as it is imperative to learn and understand the truth. One could start by reading anthropological resources. One could also learn about the Maafa, you know, the Middle Passage, and what it did to many Afrikan nations. Learn something about these and you may learn something about ATR. But I understand that it is easier to rely on the sensationalism of Hollywood and the rest of the media, and a few books for your information and then pass judgement. Visit your local grocers for a poignant view of animal sacrifice. How about your restaurants or lunch cafeterias? McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s, Outback, Red Lobster, Pizza Hut, Dominos, you name it, technically should be out of business. The slaughtering of animals to feed the masses who ritualistically attend those establishments to be fed is monumental and appalling. Before passing judgement, please try to make point to learn the truth about who we are and our faith.

Written By Kathy Cobb
on April 17th, 2010 @ 9:20 pm

First of all, I saw several news reports where a reporter went undercover and filmed various animal sacrifices. It was anything but peaceful and anything but humane.

So, please do not try to make it seem as if all Santerians treat animals with respect and kill them humanely.

Second, there have been many cases where 100s of animals were rescued from the homes of Santerian priests due to their lack of following the requirements listed in the Supreme Court ruling. People incorrectly think that the Supreme Court ruling is a blanketed acceptance of Santeria. It is not. The reason many Animal Control officers were able to go into these people’s homes and take the animals were because of the deplorable and filthy conditions in which the animals were living. The smell permeated the entire neighborhood, carcasses were left rotting, and animals were crammed together into tiny cages. Just because animals are meant to be sacrificed does not mean that it is ok to make their lives miserable.

This says to me that:

1. Not all Santerians honor the animals that they sacrifice. If they did, they would not treat them as nothing more than props for their “religious shows.”

2. They are many times, not eating the animals.

All religions are man-made; they are not sanctioned by God.

People have and will continue to commit the most heinous acts in the name of religion.

So, no, I do not accept Santeria and I am not going to be a hypocrite and act as if this is just an intellectual discussion.

People who blindly accept this just because it is someone’s religion are not more sophisticated than the rest of us. They are simply indifferent and part of the problem.

Someone has to stand up and say “this is NOT ok.”

God does not require or ask this of us. People do these things because a. they want or have a need to hurt something b. they want or need some type of status.

Written By Raul
on May 15th, 2010 @ 12:59 pm

this has nothing to do with santeria and more with what people think is acceptable practices for religion .. freedom of religion regardless of rituals. they should fight it all the way up to the supreme court i find it funny that people can make videos on you tube about killing dogs and its under freedom of speech but you cant practice your religion. and im not even santero. this is catholics tryingto impose there crap on others. god does not live in a palace full of gold. he sat out in dirt patches .. all these bible thumpers are fake!!! remeber teh devil was an angel too.

Written By Ochani Lele
on June 4th, 2010 @ 12:58 am

Dear Elysia:

My pen name is Ochani Lele; my real name is Stuart Myers, and at one time I was an author with Llewellyn Publications (Between the Worlds, 1995).

I found this article VERY refreshing.

I am a santero, and under my pen name have written 3 wonderful books about the religion. My 4th book, a collection of short stories based on Santeria/Lucumi myths, comes out August 15.
It is titled “Teachings of the Santeria Gods.”

I just wanted to weigh in here and say I think it’s wonderful that Llewellyn is attempting to expand its catalogue of titles on “The Religion.” As an expert in my field, if I can be of any help, let me know.

Stuart Myers/Ochani Lele

Written By Ochani Lele
on June 4th, 2010 @ 7:29 am

I left a response early this morning, but for some reason it didn’t seem to post. I thought I’d try one more time before I gave up!

I am a santero. I have been involved in this religion since 1989, and, after many years of practice and study, became initiated as a priest. I have written several books under the pen name Ochani Lele: “The Secrets of Afro-Cuban Divination”, “Obi, Oracle of Cuban Santeria”, “The Diloggun”, and a forthcoming book titled “Teachings of the Santeria Gods”. It is a collection of short stories based on the Afro-Cuban myths.

I find the varied opinions in this blog interesting. I, too, began my magickal life as a witch trained in the Gardnerian tradition as it was handed down to us by Lady Sheba; and in 1995 I wrote a book for Llewellyn titled “Between the Worlds.” I still practice witchcraft, by the way.

I’m writing this response to applaud Llewellyn for wanting to publish more books on what is, in my opinion, one of the oldest living, pagan faiths. It has survived centuries — and is an unbroken lineage to a pagan past.

Those who want to read good books about this faith can do more than read Gonzalez-Wippler. There are books written by Michael Atwood Mason (Living Santeria); there are books by Dr. David Brown (Santeria Enthroned); and there are many master’s thesis and PhD dissertations available on microfilm and in digital archives on this subject. It is a wide-open field of study in which not enough work has been done.

If the editors at Llewellyn are looking for good articles on various aspects of this religion, I am more than happy to help. Contact me at bstuartmyers@gmail.com and let me know what you are looking for. I specialize in diloggun — which actually encompasses a lot. It is our oral holy book, and it is more vast than even the vedas of the Hindu faith.

I daresay that a lifetime spent working with this material will still not reveal all that it contains.

Ochani Lele/Stuart Myers

Written By sylvia
on June 24th, 2010 @ 11:21 pm

frist of all,i have my saints and the them so much and you donot have to give them all that,you can give them other foods i say ,but if i had too i would, and about chickens,we eat them all the time come on where do the come from and the small birds,and hens and come on lets not forgett thankgiving,pork also…….its just you donot have to do it or see them do it befor they take it too the stores….

Written By Oyalenu
on July 20th, 2010 @ 7:49 pm

I am a santera, crowned Oya for 3 years now. I’ve been involved in the Religion for about 6 years. I investigated Wicca for many years, practicing as a solitary.
I am also an academic, and have done a lot of research on Pagan/Wiccan faiths in the US and abroad. There are more books available today on Santeria than Migene Gonzalez-Whippler, who has been somewhat discredited, as she is not an initiate, and was given false information (similar to what happened to Margaret Mead!)
Just a few…

The Altar of My Soul: The Living Traditions of Santeria by Marta Moreno Vega- Autobiographical, but well written.
Santeria: Correcting the Myths and Uncovering the Realities of a Growing Religion by Mary Ann Clark (I believe this was written as a dissertation)
The Accidental Santera: A Novel by Irete Lazo (semi-autobiographical, written by a PhD and santera)

I’m willing to answer questions, and discuss. Thanks for listening.

Written By enrique
on March 14th, 2011 @ 11:15 am

i am hoping everyone here that is preaching against animal sacrifice is a vegetarian.

Written By Marilyn
on June 11th, 2012 @ 10:27 pm

Recently new neighbors moved in accross the street, my daughter went to the mailbox and saw that there was a dead rabbit in their mailbox. I assume this is some sort of animal sacrifice with a meaning. What does this mean? I’ve been researching but have been unable to find anything.

Written By Ramey
on April 16th, 2014 @ 6:37 pm

I truly believe someone has put something on me. I had a friend do an egg on me and the results were terrifying to me. I have decided to fight back and I am seriously, after many years of going back and fourth, I ve decided that I want to learn and practice SERIOUSLY. I need a godparent near me to apprentice and guide me in CORRECT practice and worship. I am in Arlington Texas. Please someone contact me at Eight one seven- nine nine five – 6632. Serious inquires only I know the difference.

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