Voodoo and Santería: Definition, Background and Elements of the Tradition

Voodoo and Santería: Definition, Background and Elements of the Tradition

This paper argues that the creolization of African religious traditions – resulting in religions such as Voodoo and Santería – was the manner through which the African-American people, brought as slaves to the Americas and to the Caribbean islands, managed to cope with the abrupt tearing of them from freedom, language, family, friends, and land. The Atlantic Slave Trade was responsible for the spread of African religions to the New World. Through the 16th and 19th centuries, the Triangular Slave Trade (West Africa, Americas and Caribbean, and Europe) forced native people from West Africa into slavery in the Americas and in the Caribbean – a fact in history known as African Diaspora.

In order to cope with the suffering of being torn apart from everything they that was familiar to them, the enslaved people turned to their religious beliefs. Thus since Yoruba people, from Dahomey (now: Nigeria, Benin and Tongo), were one of the peoples taken as slaves, the Yoruba religion was the one practiced in the new land.

Healing religions, Voodoo and Santería were the manner through which enslaved people managed to resist the physical and psychological suffering that came with slavery, racism, and oppression. These traditions have to do with the colonizing nation: in the Spanish colonies, the Yoruba religion was called Santería; and in Haiti, a French one, Voodoo. Both “branches” are Muslim-based (influenced by the spread of Islam in Africa) and Catholic-based. This blending is called creolization: “the malleability and mutability of various beliefs and practices as they adapt to new understandings of class, race, gender, power, labor, and sexuality.” Creolization is not to be mistaken for syncretism, which is “the active transformation through renegotiation, reorganization, and redefinition of clashing belief systems.” According to Doctor Julia M. Robinson, syncretism implies a complete overtaken of the diverse characteristics, so that it is not possible (or easy) to tell whether an aspect is from one culture/religion or another. Creolization, however, allows the distinction.

In the case of Voodoo and Santería, the creolization was motivated: by the need to cope with a new life in a new and threatening place, by the imposition of the Catholic culture (intertwined with the prohibition of African religious practices by the colonists, who feared slave insurrection supported by the ideological strengthening of their ideas), and by the similarity of Yoruba religion with Catholic elements , which facilitated the mixing. In order to hide their true beliefs from the slave-owners, the slaves would go to the church in the morning and practice Voodoo in the afternoon or at night, renewing the traditions with the regular arriving of new slaves arriving on the coast.

Shared elements included the belief in souls, life after death (ancestors coming back to communicate with the living ones through possession; and the Catholic idea that, when people die, their souls go somewhere else); the belief in a supreme being that rules the universe and is distant from people; the similarities between the loas (Voodoo) and orishas (Santería) to the Catholic saints (linking humans to the supreme being); and blood sacrifice (Communion in Catholicism is a symbolic blood and body sacrifice; in Voodoo and Santería, rituals require animal sacrifices). This re-interpretation of other religious traditions was how they maintained their home/ancestral African roots.

Voodoo’s and Santería’s aspects include offerings to the loas and orishas (fruits, sacrifices – chickens’ and goats’ blood –, cornmeal). Plus, in the rituals, music and dance work as to call the orishas to possess the devotees. Although “[t]here is no ritual choreography other than the general movement of dancers counterclockwise,” once the loas “mount” their “horses” (the ones possessed), dancing (along with other gestures) helps the practitioners to distinguish which loa is in charge. In this process, the drums are considered sacred, for they induce “the surrender of the ‘horse’ to the lwa.” Those possessions are called zombifications. When a loa enters a devotee, it is said that this loa is “mounting”/“rinding” her/him. The term “mount” relates to the fact that the subdivinity controls the devotee’s body – whose soul has temporarily left to make room for the spirit. In fact, “spirit” (or “sacred energy”) is the translation for the word voodoo (and, similarly, “way of the saints” is what santería means). Orishas and loas are “pure forms” that can become perceptible only through possession.

Examples of orishas include Changó and Yemayá. Both are associated with fertility. However, While Changó is the god of fire, lighting and thunder, Yemayá is said to be the sea and the essence of maternity. When related to Catholicism, she is the black saint La Virgen de Regla, and he is widely associated with Saint Barbara. Examples of loas are Legba and Ezili Freda. The former is the guardian of crossroads and entrances. Because of that, he is related to Saint Peter, keeper of the keys to heaven.” Ezili Freda is the “goddess of love and luxury,” “personification of feminine beauty and grace.” Her Catholic counterpart is Mater Dolorosa.

As it was possible to notice, the enslavement caused a specific type of suffering to the African people taken as slaves. Voodoo and Santería, creolized religions, worked as healing methods for those people. The blending and creolization of Yoruba religion with Catholicism (orishas, loas, and saints; sacrifices) was the way found to resist physical and psychological sufferings, oppression, and also – and perhaps mainly – to maintain African roots – “home” roots. It was how they could recreate their identity as human beings. Having resisted slavery, prejudice, and racism, Voodoo and Santería are symbols of resistance and identity for their devotees.

Olmos, Margarite Fernández, and Paravisini-Gebert, Lizabeth. Creole Religions of the Caribbean: An Introduction from Vodou and Santería to Obeah and Espiritismo. New York: New York University Press, 2003.

Robinson, Julia M.. Course Intro: The Academic Study of Religion the African American Experience. Class lecture, Religions in the African Experience from UNC Charlotte, Charlotte, NC, August 20, 2012. Introduction to Voodoo. Class lecture, Religions in the African Experience from UNC Charlotte, Charlotte, NC, September 10, 2012.

Williams, Juan, and Dixie, Quinton. This Far by Faith: Stories from the African American Religious Experience. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003.