Documents Cited in the Supreme Court Ruling - 21
The Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol. 13
The Encyclopedia of Religion
Marcea Eliade, ed.

SANTERIA is a religious tradition of African origin that developed in Cuba and that was spread throughout the Caribbean and the United States by exiles from the revolution of 1959. Santeria began in the nineteenth century when hundreds of thousands of men and women of the Yoruba people, from what are now Nigeria and Benin, were brought to Cuba to work in the island's booming sugar industry. Despite brutal conditions, some were able to reconstruct their religious lives through a fusing of the traditions remembered from their homeland and from their encounter with the folk piety of the Roman Catholic church.

    The Cuban Yoruba often used the iconography of Catholic saints to express their devotions to Yoruba spirits called orishas. The name Santeria, "the way of the saints," is the most common Spanish word used to describe these practices, and the word santero (m.) or santera (f.) indicates an initiated devotee. Later generations of santeros would construct elaborate systems of correspondences between orishas and saints, leading observers to see this Caribbean religion as a model for understanding religious syncretism and cultural change. Despite the frequent presence of Catholic symbols in Santeria rites and the attendance of santeros at Catholic sacraments, Santeria is essentially an African way of worship drawn into a symbiotic relationship with Catholicism.

    Santeros believe that every individual, before he or she is born, is given a destiny, or road in life, by the Almighty. It is the responsibility of the individual to understand his or her destiny and to grow with it rather than to be a victim of it. Santeros recognize a pantheon of orishas whose aid and energy can bring devotees to a complete fulfillment of their destinies. The basis of Santeria is the development of a deep personal relationship with the orishas, a relationship that will bring the santero worldly success and heavenly wisdom. Devotion to the orishas takes four principal forms: divination, sacrifice, spirit mediumship, and initiation.

    For the ordinary devotee, Santeria serves as a means for resolving the problems of everyday life, including problems of health, money, and love. Divination can reveal the sources of these problems, and it points the way to their resolution. Santeria has preserved several Yoruba systems of divination in a hierarchical ranking according to their reliability and the amount of training required to master them. The most complex system of divination in Santeria, Ifa, can be "read" only by male priests called babalawos. In response to a querent's problem, a babalawo will throw a small chain (ekwele) that has eight pieces of shell, bone, or other material affixed to it. Each piece is shaped so that, when thrown, it lands either concave or convex side up. This arrangement results in 256 possible combinations, each representing a basic situation in life. The combination that falls at any particular time is the purest expression of fate, and thus of the God-given destiny of the querent. Most of the patterns refer to stories that tell of the problems faced by the orishas and heroes in the past, and that relate the solutions that were found. These solutions become the archetypes used by the querent to resolve the problem that he or she has brought to Ifa.

    Nearly all problems are resolved by deepening the devotee's relationship with the orishas. There is no firmer way for the devotee to show this relationship than through the symbolism of shared foodóthat is, through sacrifice. The orishas, like all living things, must eat in order to live. Although they are immensely powerful, they are by no means immortal, and for continued life they depend on the sacrifice and praise of human beings. Each orisha enjoys certain special foods, ranging from cakes to stews, fruits, or drinks. If an orisha requests, santeros will sacrifice fowl, sheep, or other animals. The slaughter is always performed quickly and cleanly according to ritual rules, and the flesh is nearly always cooked and consumed by the congregation as part of the orisha's feast.

    The most dramatic form of devotion to the orishas is ceremonial spirit mediumship. At certain ceremonies called bembes, guemileres, or tambores, a battery of drums calls the orishas to join the devotees in dance and song. If an orisha so chooses, he or she will "descend" and "seize the head" of an initiate. In this state the incarnated orisha may perform spectacular dances that the human medium would be hard put to imitate in ordinary consciousness. More important, an incarnated orisha will deliver messages, admonitions, and advice to individual members of the community, bringing their heavenly wisdom to bear on their devotees' earthly problems.

    As a devotee grows in these ways of devotion, one particular orisha may begin to assert itself as the devotee's patron, and the love of this orisha will provide the devotee with his or her basic orientation in life. When this orisha calls for it, the devotee will undergo a demanding and irrevocable initiation into the mysteries of the patron orisha. The initiation ceremony is carried out with great solemnity and care in the home of an initiate of long experience. During a lengthy period of isolation and instruction, the devotee is brought to a spiritual rebirth as a true child of the orisha. During this ceremony the orisha is "enthroned in the head" of the devotee and is "sealed" as a permanent part of the devotee's personality.

    As the initiate grows in this new level of devotion, his or her relationship with the seated orisha becomes in[13 Encyclopedia of Religion 67] creasingly fluid. The sacrificial exchange between them comes to be seen as the outward manifestation of an inner process. Thus Santeria culminates in a mysticism of identity between human and divine, where the road of life is the way of the orishas.

    Santeria continues to grow in the late twentieth century. Its popularity in Cuba seems to have been little affected by the socialist revolution, and thanks to nearly one million Cuban exiles, it is thriving in Venezuela, Puerto Rico, and the United States. The number of full initiates is difficult to determine because of the tradition of secrecy that santeros have maintained in order to survive a history of oppression and misunderstanding. The presence of Santeria in a given neighborhood may be gauged by the profusion of botanicas, small retail stores that sell the herbs and ritual paraphernalia of Santeria ceremonies. In 1981, there were at least eighty botanicas in Miami, Florida, and more than a hundred in New York City.

    [See also Afro-Brazilian Cults; Voodoo; and Yoruba Religion. An analysis of the treatment of Santeria devotees in the American press is presented in Journalism and Religion.]


    A limited literature exists on Santeria in English. The finest presentation of the symbolism of the orishas is Robert F. Thompson's Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy (New York, 1981). Migene Gonzalez-Wippler has written three books on the subject. Santeria: African Magic in Latin America (Garden City, N.Y., 1975) is a disorganized introduction that borrows freely from Spanish sources. The Santeria Experience (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1982) is a detailed, well-written, first-person account of the author's experience with Santeria in New York. Rituals and Spells of Santeria (New York, 1984) presents source materials on Santeria liturgy and magic. William R. Bascom has written two articles on Santeria in Cuba; reflecting his wide experience as an anthropologist among the Yoruba in Nigeria, these articles are "The Focus of Cuban Santeria," Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 6 (Spring 1950): 64-68, and "Two Forms of Afro-Cuban Divination," in Acculturation in the Americas, edited by Sol Tax (Chicago, 1952), pp. 169-184.

    Among Spanish sources, pride of place belongs to the works of Fernando Ortiz. Between 1906 and his death in 1969, he published hundreds of pieces on all aspects of Afro-Cuban culture. The work that deals most directly with Santeria is perhaps Los bailes y el teatro de los negros en el folklore de Cuba (Havana, 1951). The most widely available works in Spanish in the United States are those of the great exiled folklorist Lydia Cabrera. Among her many books in print on Afro-Cuban themes, El monte (Miami, 1968) and Koeko iyawo: Pequeno tratado de regla Lucumi (Miami, 1980) are considered authoritative by practitioners and observers alike. Two books by anthropologically trained scholars provide excellent surveys of the tradition: Julio Sanchez's La religion de los orichas (Hato Rey, Puerto Rico, 1978) and Mercedes Cros Sandoval's La religion afrocubana (Madrid, 1975). Sandoval's book makes use of Pierre Verger's classic Notes sur le culte des Orisa et Vodun a Bahia (Dakar, 1957), which traces the connections between the religion of the orishas in Africa and that in Brazil and includes invaluable texts of prayers to the orishas as well as excellent photographs.

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