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Santería, The Ones Who Worship Saints

Deteriorating skull in a tomb
Photography by Melanie Martin

Santería is another religion that is shrouded in secrecy and often regarded with fear—some deem the practice to be Satanic, but it’s really just Santería. Truth be told, there are a lot of aspects of this religion that may rub people the wrong way—animal sacrifice is not as high on the list as things such as the use of human bones or even dead fetuses during a ritual, but the latter two are considered a rarity among fringe practitioners. Suffice it to say, these practitioners would be less than forthcoming about their uses for ingredients that might label them as evil. Nevertheless, seeing as it’s associated with even a few of the practitioners it’s definitely worth mentioning here.

Another African-rooted religion, Santería is typically combined with Catholicism, as are many religions that made the journey from Africa to America during the days of slavery. Like voodoo and hoodoo, enslaved Africans were forced to convert to a western religion—in this case, Catholicism. Santeras saw the similarities of the Catholic saints to the Orishas which were the deities that they had worshipped before being taken from their own lands. Aside from the Catholic influences that are found within the religion, Santeras believe in only one god, Olodumare, but the Orishas are the deities that represent different aspects of nature, there are said to be over 400 orishas within the religion.

Much like voodoo, ancestor veneration is a huge facet of the religion, this is done to honor those who have passed on and recognize them as guides that can help influence their lives for the good or for the bad. During traditional rituals, there is an abundance of drumming, dancing, and interacting with spirits. Unlike traditional western religions, these rituals are not confined within the walls of a church or temple, they can occur nearly anywhere.

What’s with the Animal Sacrifice?

Rooster, potential animal sacrifice
Photography by Kazi Faiz Ahmed Jeem

Animal Sacrifice is actually a common theme within Santería, but it’s not just about killing for the sake of killing. Santeras use animal sacrifice as an offering to the Orishas during major ceremonies. The blood is considered an important offering to the Orishas, where the actual animal is eaten after the ritual—so while some may consider it awful, it actually serves a purpose to them in their religious activities. It’s definitely a sore subject for those who may not understand the practice and indeed caused quite a stir when a man in Texas decided to fight for his freedom to practice his religion without undue burden from the law.

Is Santería Dangerous?

Mural, Santeria the worship of Saints
Photography by Gerhard Lipold

It really depends on who you ask, as can be expected, Santeras would likely not agree which is fair. They’re a federally recognized religion as of 1993 after a case to ban animal sacrifice was overturned as it was said to specifically target Santeras and their religious practices. There are however some aspects of the religion that some may construe as dangerous—as well as other practices that are indeed dangerous to the health of those who partake. One of these dangerous aspects of Santería is that at one time it was considered a fairly common practice to use liquid Mercury in ritual, which as can be expected led to Mercury poisoning and has since become a less frequent ritual substance.

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Horror Mystery and Lore

Spirits Within Voodoo: Ancestors, and the Loa

Practitioners standing in Voodoo Alley
Artwork by Wesness

Voodoo in New Orleans is quite distinguishable from the practice in other parts of the world, it grew to be more inclusive of the spiritualism that sprang up within the nineteenth century. Within the voodoo religion, powerful spirits called loa—also called mystères, or the invisibles—unlike saints and angels that are housed within the Judeo-Christian religions, they are not prayed to, they are served. Contrary to popular belief, the loa are not deities. They are considered spiritual guides, who communicate with the one supreme creator, Bondye, in order to manifest the petitions for family, love, money, happiness, wealth, and of course revenge.  The loa preside over daily life, since Bondye doesn’t interfere with personal matters, and depending upon way in which they are called upon, the spirits can be sympathetic or impish.

The Role of Deceased Ancestors

Within the voodoo religion, it’s a common belief that those who have passed away remain on the earthly plane—this is because it is the responsibility of the living to care for their passed loved ones to help them shed the baggage of their life and get them closer to Bondye. In order to care for ancestors, vodouisants light a candle and leave offerings of food and drink—as thanks, ancestors bless their loved ones with health, wealth, and fortune.

The Loa: Contacting the Spirits

Voodoo Altar in New Orleans
Photography by Greg Willis

Conducting voodoo rituals don’t always require a practitioner to petition the loa, but it’s more frequent for them to be a part of the ritual than not. Contacting the spirits can be achieved through dance, music, singing, and the use of snakes—a symbol of Papa Legba, who is the conduit to contacting the rest. In organized practice, there are houngans (priests) and mambos (priestesses), as well as bokors (sorcerers) and caplatas (witches) who lead the rituals, take requests, and receive offerings. These ritualists act as hosts to the possessing loa, which can be quite a violent sight, where the participant thrash and shake, then fall to the ground. Being a host to a loa requires those around to know how to sufficiently provide for the spirit, as they can become stubborn and demand more.

Vèvè: Symbolic Representations of the Loa

A vèvè is a religious symbol which serves to represent a loa during ritualistic practice, whereupon sacrifices and offerings are placed. Every loa has their own individual vèvè, which is typically drawn on the floor using a powder—the type of powder used depended on the type of ritual being performed.

Main Loa of the Voodoo Religion

The loa are a diverse group of spirits, too many to name without going too in depth, but these are a couple of the most well-known of the bunch.

Papa Legba: The Spirit of the Crossroads

Among one of the most important spirits within voodoo, in order for there to be any ritual regarding any other loa, Papa Legba must be contacted first. As the spirit of the crossroads, he is the origin of life, the old man who guards the crossroads, the contact between the realms of life and death—Legba must give his permission in order to communicate any other loa.

Veve, symbolic representations of Voodoo Spirits, the Loa

The poor soul who happens to offend Papa Legba will be virtually deprived of the protection of the spirit world. Guardian of voodoo temples, courtyards, plantations, and crossroads, he also protects the home—if a practitioner is planning on going traveling, they pray to Legba for protection and petition him to safely return them home. A small, crooked old man with a broken body covered in sores, he insists on walking barefoot so he has continuous contact with the earth below him—Legba is a polite and caring spirit, one that all practitioners consider to be lovable.

Papa Ghede and Baron Samedi

Papa Ghede, despite being the spirit of death, is not as forbidding as he may appear in popular imagery—he is dressed in black, with a top hat, with a cigar in his mouth, and controls the souls of those who have passed on. Although the other loa fear and avoid him, he is the one people petition when children are poor of health, as he very much loves children.

Veve, Symbolic representation of Voodoo Spirits, the Loa

There is conflicting information about the relationship between Papa Ghede and Baron Samedi—where some sources claim they are one in the same, where Papa Ghede is the lighter aspect concerning life and Baron Samedi is the dark aspect concerning death. Other sources speak of them being separate entities, where Papa Ghede does the bidding of Baron Samedi. When it comes to magic that deals with death, you can be sure whose power is actually behind it, especially since he has a special interest in those who meet their death as a result of magic.