by Selene Silverwind
Santerían practices are much more ordered than Vodoun practices. The priesthood is elaborate and hierarchal; several initiations are required to reach the highest level of the priesthood. In addition, several methods of divination and magic are available.
The first level of the priesthood is the madrina or padrino, the godmother or godfather. They teach new initiates and advise those who have been practicing for some time. The next level of the priesthood is the santero and santera, priests and priestesses. Priestesses are also sometimes called iyalorishas. They lead rituals of all forms and can offer herbal cures and do magic. They are also skilled at divination. A babalao has achieved the highest level of priesthood possible. Babalaos are exclusively male in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the United States, but Brazil has female babalaos. In addition to the priesthood are brujas, witches, and curanderos, healers.
Whether or not a person becomes a santero or santera is determined by his or her fate. Babies born with a caul, or birth remnant, on their faces are said to be born with special abilities. The seventh daughter of a seventh sister is also especially gifted.
Santeras and santeros receive at least two initiations, and possibly more. The first initiation is the Catholic baptism, usually given at birth. All Santeríans receive this initiation, whether or not they will become santeras or santeros. If the Santerían’s fate dictates it, he or she undergoes a kariocha at some later point, possibly in childhood, but there is no set time. To receive the kariocha, a Santerían must complete training that lasts up to three years, although in the United States it is often condensed down to three months. At the kariocha, the ashé of one of the initiate’s eledá is embedded into his or her head. After the kariocha, the person is officially a santero or santera. Later, a santero or santera can have kariochas to the other orishas of the Siete Potencias, if it is fated to be so.
Santeros and santeras are considered novitiates for the first year after their initation. During this time, they wear white, perform numerous rituals, and obey taboos as required by their orisha. Santeros also receive additional training in magic, ritual, and divination. Following initiation, santeros wear the collares, or beaded necklaces. The colors of each necklace represent certain orishas, and santeros wear one for each orisha to whom they are a santero or santera; for example, a santero to Shangó would wear a red and white beaded necklace.
Methods of Divination
Santeríans use several methods to divine fate, the needs of the orishas, or the cause of personal imbalance. Practitioners interpret the arrangement of ikins (palm nuts), obi (four pieces of coconut), or diloggún (sixteen cowrie shells). In addition, Santeríans examine an oguelo, a divining chain, for guidance. Charada is a system for determining lucky numbers, but it is very complicated.
Divination is often used to determine when initiation is appropriate and who a practitioner’s first orisha will be. Santeríans divine their itá at their first initiation. The itá comprises the rules, taboos, and predictions for the rest of the person’s life. For example, a practitioner might be told to stop eating meat and that he cannot earn a lot of money from his services as a santero. Divination is also used to determine the sacrifices and offerings required to appease an orisha. If an individual is suffering some ill, she, her santero, or a healer can divine the reason and the cure.
Magic and Ritual
As with Vodoun, balance is key to Santería, and imbalances must be corrected through rituals and magic. Ritual is more common to Santería than magic, but both have their places. Santeríans hold several types of rituals in addition to kariochas. Pembés are feasts held in honor of an orisha. These feasts often feature oru, sacred music that is drummed and sung. Each orisha is associated with a specific beat. When played properly, the oru will entice the orisha into possessing a santero and conveying beneficial messages. Santeros also hold funeral rites and rituals to honor ancestors.
Rituals sometimes feature sacrifices. Sacrifices may be required to give thanks to or appease an orisha, to prevent an orisha from getting angry or some action from taking place. Sacrifices are also a part of every initiation. The sacrifices made in thanks or at initiations are cooked and eaten by the guests. Regardless of the purpose of the sacrifice, the animal is killed humanely. The sacrifices signify that everything a person receives must also be returned and helps keep balance. Only babalaos may sacrifice four-footed animals, and this is rare. Chickens are the most common choice. The number associated with the orisha determines the number of animals sacrificed, or other offerings made. Orishas are also associated with colors. Santeríans often decorate their altars and choose the color of the candles they offer based on the colors associated with their orishas.
Magic rarely takes a negative form. It is more common for it to be used to correct an ill or an imbalance, and is often based in herbs. Santeros prepare omieros, magical herbal infusions that heal people or prepare them to be healed by a medical doctor. The selection of the herbs is guided by the orishas, and permission must be received from the orisha that rules the herb before it can be cut. A despojo ritual is a ritual herbal cleansing.