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Cult of the Saints: An Introduction to Santeria

This article was written by Lily Gardner
posted under Santeria & Brujeria

Ever wonder why statues of Catholic saints are sold in the same shop next to mandrake roots and Eleggua candles? How the saints joined forces with the African pantheon that would become Santería or Voodoo is a story dating back to the late 1600s.

Huge populations of African prisoners of war, mainly from the kingdoms of Benin and Yoruba in western Africa, were enslaved and shipped to the Caribbean to work in mines and on cane plantations. The plantation owners baptized their slaves as Roman Catholics and prevented them from practicing their Pagan faith. But, recognizing similarities between the saints and their old gods, the slaves simply renamed their gods using the saints’ names and continued with their old worship. The blending of these two religions became known as Voodoo in Haiti and the islands to the south and as Santería in Cuba and the islands to the north of Haiti.

Santería means “worship of the saints.” Just as the saints serve as emissaries to the creator god in the Catholic religion, so Santería has a creator god and a huge number of lesser deities, or saints, known as orishas. The orishas rule over every aspect of nature and human endeavor. And like the saints, you can find an orisha for anything that ails you.

Santería is a decentralized religion with no template for ritual, symbol, or doctrine. The rituals and even the some of the saints will vary from house temple to house temple depending on the santeros or santeras (priests or priestesses). Worship takes place in a casa de santos (house of the saints). Central to the worship in Santería is dance, trance, and divination.

Worship of the orishas is pragmatic. When you have any sort of need, you entreat the orisha whose province fits your problem. You dress your altar much the same way we are familiar with, using the colors and symbols appropriate to the orisha. Be sure to use images of the saints on your altar. You can find statues and pictures of saints at Catholic stores or you can download images from the Web.

An important component is the sacrifice or offering made to the orisha. Sacrifice is the energy that fuels the magical working. Each individual orisha has his or her preferences for food, smoke, and drink. It is respectful to remember the orisha’s feast day and to make an additional offering. It is said that the gods keep strict accounts of offerings made and favors granted.

Everyone is invited to worship the orishas, but it is strongly advised that the seeker enters into communication with gods with the utmost respect and care. Any sloppiness could result in your prayer being ignored.

Many people see Santería as the reconciliation between the Pagan African worship and Catholicism. Others feel the old Yoruba faith was maintained intact with only a superficial sheen of the saints overlaid to pacify the slave owners and later the Christian government and culture. Regardless of whether the devotee is in her heart praying to the saint and the deity, or only to the deity, images of the saints remain a vital part of the practice of Santería and Voodoo.

Yemaya/Mary, Star of the Sea

Yemaya is the African Mother Goddess, one aspect of the Divine Trinity. She rules over the oceans, the moon, women and children, fishermen and sailors, Witches, and secrets. All life comes from Yemaya the sea, and Yemaya never betrays her children. She is associated with the Virgin Mary in two of her aspects: Our Lady of Rule and Mary, Star of the Sea. Although little is known of Mary from the New Testament, early Christians recognized her as the Mother Goddess. They prayed to her, saw her in visions, and experienced miracles when they invoked her. Finally, the Catholic Church was forced to give her more prominence. Mary is known and worshipped under many titles and is the corresponding saint for a number of African gods.

Both Mary and Yemaya’s colors are blue and white. Their day is Saturday. Pray to them for a safe journey on the sea, fertility issues, a healthy pregnancy, and healthy children.

If you wish Yemaya’s protection, make a necklace with blue and crystal beads in the following pattern: seven crystal beads, seven blue beads, one crystal bead, and one blue bead. Repeat this pattern six times (for a total of seven sequences, 112 beads).

If you wish to ask a boon of Yemaya, leave her an assortment of grapes, pineapple, watermelon, and bananas in seashells or shell-shaped dishes at the edge of the sea or the banks of a river or lake. Make a circle around your offering with seven coins, a representation of the number of days between the phases of the moon. As you face the water, say a number of Pagan Hail Marys. A Pagan Hail Mary would go like this:

Hail Mary, full of grace,
Enlightenment is in thee
Blessed are thee among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.
Holy Mary, mother of us all, bless us mortals
Now and throughout our life.
Amen.

If you feel comfortable, you may wish to use rosary beads and say an entire rosary of Hail Marys. This form of prayer works in the same way a mantra works in meditation. When you’re finished, tell the Goddess your problems and ask for her intercession.

Obatala/Our Lady of Mercy

Obatala is another aspect of the Divine Trinity. Like Yemaya, he is associated with the Virgin Mary, this time in the aspect of Mercy. As the first-born of the gods, Obatala is regal and wise. He blows away negative energies and resolves ethical issues. As Yemaya is the patron of mothers, Obatala is the patron of fathers. He has dominion over all white things, from bones to the clouds in the sky. Your offerings to Obatala must be white foods: white hens, rice, milk, etc. Unlike the other gods, Obatala abhors alcohol. Leave your offering to Obatala at the base of a tree.

To cleanse your aura, make a bath into which you have poured a cup of milk, seven white carnations, seven teaspoons of sugar, and seven drops of holy water. Light a white candle and slip into the bath. As you immerse yourself in this bath, say seven Our Fathers (The Lord’s Prayer).

Chango/Saint Barbara

Chango is the third member of the Divine Trinity. He is the god of transformations, the god of thunder and lightning, and he should be prayed to when you need to strengthen your will. Perhaps the most startling pairing between saint and god is Saint Barbara with Chango. As a fire god, Chango is a passionate womanizer, whereas Saint Barbara was a chaste young woman. The connection becomes apparent when we discover that Chango is invoked when a person seeks revenge on his enemies, and Saint Barbara is patron of wrongful death. Barbara suffered death at her father’s hands when he discovered she had converted to Christianity. At the moment her father beheaded her with his sword, he was struck down by lightning. Lightning is a potent symbol for both the Catholic saint and the Santería god, and both Chango and Saint Barbara are prayed to for protection in storms.

How does one reconcile revenge with Chango on the one hand and victimhood with Saint Barbara on the other? I would pair these two when seeking to reclaim one’s own power. Because we are invoking fire gods, a candle spell would be most advantageous.

Make a ring of prayer beads to use in tandem with affirmations. The prayer beads should be red and white in this pattern: six red, six white, one red bead, and one white bead. The pattern should be repeated six times more for a total of ninety-eight beads. Say your affirmation once for each bead. The affirmations, however many you write, should be written as positive, present-tense statements of how you wish to see your life.

How you move from dream to plans to actuality is will, the special province of Chango and Barbara. Begin by decorating your altar using red and white cloths, symbols of machetes or swords, lightning bolts, towers, a cup, and images of Saint Barbara.

Burn a red candle beginning on a Friday night and say your affirmations using your special prayer beads. Repeat this ritual every night for a total of twenty-four nights. Each Friday during this period, leave an offering of dry red wine, apples, and bananas at the foot of a tree.

Eleggua/Saint Anthony

It was said that when Saint Anthony preached at a river, the fish stood on their tails so as not to miss a word. After hearing a sermon from Saint Anthony, people who hadn’t spoken to each other in years became friends again and estranged family members were reunited. It probably is this eloquence that links Saint Anthony to Eleggua, the African Hermes, messenger to all the gods.

Eleggua is known as Legba in the Haitian faith, and sometimes as Eshu. He must be invoked before you can pray to any of the other gods. Say:

Eleggua, remove the barrier for me
Papa Legba, remove the barrier
So I may pass through
When I come back, I will salute the gods.

Eleggua is often portrayed as a large clay or cement head with cowrie shells positioned for eyes, nose, and mouth. As patron of doorways, Eleggua’s place in the home is by the door to protect the home from any negativity. You could also string a special necklace to hang over the door: three red beads followed by three black beads, repeated until you have a necklace with twenty-one beads. Offer Eleggua rum and sweets on Mondays, his sacred day.

To protect yourself from violence, carry on your person a red-and-black bag. Into the bag, place coffee beans and a whistle. Purify the whistle with the four elements of fire, water, earth, and air and anoint it with coconut oil.

If you’re in need of a miracle, light a brown candle before the likeness of Saint Anthony. Say:

Holy Saint Anthony, gentlest of saints. Miracles waited on your word, which you were ever ready to speak for those in trouble. I implore you to obtain for me [state your request]. The answer to my prayer may require a miracle. Even so, you are the saint of miracles. Please grant my miracle, Saint Anthony.

Imagine your prayers being lifted on the candle smoke up to Saint Anthony. Let the candle burn out. Then take a bag of canned food and bring it immediately to your local food bank as an offering.

Saint Anthony is most famous as the finder of lost things. Next time you can’t locate something say:

Dear Saint Anthony, I pray
Bring it back without delay.

Osain/Saint Joseph

When the African slaves glimpsed depictions of Saint Joseph, an older man leaning on a crutch, they recognized their nature god, Osain. Saint Joseph as the husband of Mary, the Blessed Virgin, was known as “The Divine Cuckold” in the Middle Ages. According to the story, it was the Holy Ghost who impregnated Mary. In religious art, the crutch represented Joseph’s alleged impotence. Despite the lack of respect paid to him, Saint Joseph is a powerful ally. It is said that he answers all prayers said from the heart. Saint Joseph is patron of fathers, foster parents, carpenters, laborers, houses, and a happy death.

Osain is the god of the forest. All wild plants are under his domain and he is the patron of all healers and herbalists. His creed is: The woods have everything the santero needs to preserve his health and to defend himself from evil. But he must remember to ask the woods permission before removing a stone, or a leaf on a tree. Osain oversees the safety of all sanctuaries. The protection of houses is where his domain intersects with Saint Joseph.

Go to any religious store and buy a statue of Saint Joseph. The clerk may ask you if you’re selling a house—burying a statue of Saint Joseph is said to help bring a buyer to the home. This spell has worked for me and for several of my friends over the years!

Light a yellow candle and burn a stick of pine incense before your statue of Saint Joseph. Pass Saint Joseph through the incense smoke three times and say:

Smoke of pine and candle’s fire
Bring to my house a qualified buyer.
Let the sale be quick and fair
Oh Saint Joseph, hear my prayer.

Visualize a “Sold” sign in your front yard. Your possessions are safely packed in a moving van. You’re happy and the people moving into your house are happy.

Bury Saint Joseph on his head facing your house. Leave his statue in the ground after you move as a blessing for the new occupants.

Osain and Saint Joseph can also be invoked to protect your home. By the light of a yellow candle, string a necklace made with one white bead, followed with nine red beads, followed by eight yellow beads. Continue in this fashion until you’ve strung a necklace twenty-eight inches long. As you string the beads, pray to Osain:

Osain grows, grows,
All green things grow.
Osain heals, heals,
Osain’s plants heal.
Osain guards, guards,
Osain, protect us.

Gather blackberry thorns, a piece of ash bark, cedar needles, eucalyptus leaves, and/or acorns. Any of these plants will do, so long as you find them in the forest and you humbly ask permission before gathering them. Tie a pouch full of these protective herbs with your necklace and complete this spell with a prayer to Saint Joseph to keep your house safe from theft and calamity:

My loving protector, Saint Joseph,
That no one had recourse to your protection or asked your aid,
Without obtaining relief.
I come before you and humbly implore you,
Protect this house from all evil.

Leave an offering of tobacco at the base of a tree.

Oshun/Our Lady of la Caridad del Cobre (Our Lady of Charity)

Oshun is another goddess worshipped under the umbrella of the Virgin Mary—in this instance, Our Lady of la Caridad del Cobre, patroness of Cuba. As the love goddess, Oshun predictably rules pleasure and sexuality, marriage and the arts, but she also oversees all money matters. Oshun’s famous generosity may be why she’s paired with Our Lady of Charity. Her feast day is September 8.

As you would expect from a goddess who rules both love and money, Oshun is very popular with the other orishas and thus very spoiled. Though slow to anger, once Oshun loses her temper, she is extremely dangerous. She is often pictured dressed in gold or yellow, her arms encircled with many gold bracelets, her hair held back with tortoise-shell combs.

To attract love into your life, you must choose a gift for Oshun. If at all possible, give her a piece of gold jewelry. Place the jewelry in a dish of honey on a Friday night. Light a yellow or gold candle next to the honey and meditate on what you desire in a lover. Be as specific as possible.

The following morning, wrap the gold in a small square of yellow cloth and drive to the river. Throw your offering into the water with a prayer to Oshun. When you get back home, write all the traits you desire in a lover on a white sheet of paper with a pen that’s never been used before. Fold the paper five times and tuck it beneath the yellow candle you used the night before in your meditation.

Light the candle and pray to Oshun. Tell her about your experiences; tell her why you want this lover. Tell her what you can offer such a lover. Continue this prayer as long as it feels right. When you’re finished praying, snuff out the candle.

Repeat this prayer for a total of five days. At the end of that time, burn the paper containing your lover’s traits in the candle’s flame and bury the remains of the candle by your front door. Be sure to thank Oshun when your lover materializes. Make an offering of oranges and honey and leave it on the bank of the same river that you used for your first offering.

Oggun/Saint Peter

Perhaps it’s because Oggun champions the working man that his saintly counterpart is Saint Peter. As the god of war, Oggun is belligerent and combative, but he also is hard-working and the patron of human effort. Likewise, Saint Peter, though not a warrior, has a reputation for being rough around the edges and is petitioned for success and employment.

To petition for a better job or for success in a new business venture, make your offering on a Tuesday. Construct an altar using images of Saint Peter and an iron cauldron in which you’ve inserted two keys (emblems for both Oggun and Saint Peter) and seven other pieces of iron, such as nails or other tools. Use black and green altar cloths. Make a circlet of prayer beads using this pattern: seven green beads, seven black beads, one green bead, one black bead. Repeat this pattern six more times (112 beads). Your offering to Oggun should be a glass of rum, some smoked fish, and a cigar.

Write your request on a piece of paper and place it beneath a green candle. Light the candle and finger the prayer beads while visualizing your goal. Stay with this visualization as long as you can.

Oggun is an earth deity, so bury your offering at the end of the ritual.

 

There are hundreds of gods in the Santería pantheon to discover and possibly connect with. It’s important to stress the respect and follow-through necessary when petitioning these gods. If working with the orishas resonates with you, you may wish to take the next step and approach a santeros or santeras. The closer you move toward the orishas, the more understanding you’ll have of the deeper truths of Santería. May all your prayers be answered.

From Llewellyn's 2010 Magical Almanac. For current-year calendars and almanacs, click here.


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