Santeria orginated in Cuba as a combination of the Western African Yoruba Religion and Iberian Catholicism 2 . "It is one of the many syncretic religions created by Africans brought to the Caribbean islands as slaves." 56 . It was developed out of necessity for the African slaves in order to continue practicing their native religion in the New World. As in all countries where the African slaves were taken, Cuban slave masters discouraged and sometimes prohibited the practice of their native religions 40 .
The slaves in Cuba were forced to follow the practices of the Catholic Church, which went against the beliefs of their native religions. Noticing the parallels between their native religion and Catholicism, and in order to please their slave-masters and fulfill their own religious needs, they created a secret religion. Santeria uses Catholic saints and personages as fronts for their own god and Orishas (spiritual emissaries). Thus, when a slave prayed to an Orisha, it looked as if they were praying to a saint. 3
After some slaves had been freed in Cuba, "the genre de color (free people of color) created Santeria on the basis of old Yoruba beliefs and practices. African religious traditions were reinvented and fused with elements of the Spanish culture, an example of assimilation -- the fusion, both culturally and socially, of groups with distinctive identities. In the 1880's the syncretism was further embellished by the addition of Kardecian Spiritist traditions brought from France." 57 . These had an influence on Santeria by incorporating the aspect of spirit enlightenment in its practices. This process of seeking light has been incorporated in worshiping the Orisha 41 . Santeria spread quickly in the New World among the slaves who originated from Western Africa. When slave trade was abolished, the practice of Santeria carried on.
The religion was practiced in secret, because people frowned on the bizarre traditions of the African natives. Although today the necessity for keeping the religion secret has mostly vanished, it is practiced today out of a strong sense of tradition. Santeria now lives on in small numbers in many countries around the world: the U.S. (New York, Florida), South American countries, and Europe. It is still mostly practiced in secret, but a few churches have emerged, giving the people a place to practice Santeria freely. One in particular, The Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye , was formed in the early 1970's in Southern Florida. It unites many Cuban Americans in this region, and allows them to practice Santeria freely and publicly. But this did not occur without a struggle. As we shall see below , the church's practice of animal sacrifice was outlawed by the city of Hialeah only to be restored in a landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.
There are several other churches in the United States that practice Santeria. The African Theological Archministry, in South Carolina, founded by Walter Eugene King, now has approximately 10,000 members 4 . The Church of Seven African Powers, also in Florida, was founded in the 1980's, and focuses on the ebo (spells) and instructs members how to use them in their lives 5 .
Sacred or Revered Texts: Santeria has no written canon or formal texts of their religion. It is passed on orally to the initiates. This is because of the thick tradition of stories being told to convey the beliefs and ways of worship of the religion.
Cult or Sect: Negative sentiments are typically implied when the concepts "cult" and "sect" are employed in popular discourse. Since the Religious Movements Homepage seeks to promote religious tolerance and appreciation of the positive benefits of pluralism and religious diversity in human cultures, we encourage the use of alternative concepts that do not carry implicit negative stereotypes. For a more detailed discussion of both scholarly and popular usage of the concepts "cult" and "sect," please visit our Conceptualizing "Cult" and "Sect" page, where you will find additional links to related issues.