Santeria: The Way of the Saints

The Voodoo-related spiritual paths of Macumba and Santeria.

"I greet the Ways of Umbanda, Sarava Ogum, Iemanja, Sarava Oxossi, Xango and Oxala!"

. . . the Master of Ceremonies cries, raising his arms to the sky.

This prayer to the gods is the first stage of a ritual held before a large congregation of devotees to the Brazilian religion of Macumba (also known as "Umbanda" outside of Rio de Janeiro). When the prayer is over everyone applauds and the ceremonial drums begin to pound.

The MC, a middle-aged man with greying moustache, then begins a series of calls, intended to attract the gods down to earth. As he is doing this, intricate symbols representing the gods of Macumba (known as "Orixas") are traced on the earthen floor. Finally, a candle is placed inside each one.

In the centre of the large room, staring into space, stands Maria Jose, the temple priestess, known as the Mother of the Gods. She is a stately middle-aged black woman who oversees and controls the whole event. After a while, a group of dancers, who are mainly women, surround her. They move gracefully to the beat of the drums, and bow down low each time they pass the sacred symbols on the floor.

Suddenly, one of the dancers lets out a sharp cry, throws herself onto one of the symbols on the floor, and writhes and moans in ecstasy. Another dancer lights up a pipe, then doubles over and leans on a cane. When she talks, her voice is broken like that of an old man.

A male dancer throws his head back, laughs maniacally, and gesticulates like a disjointed puppet. Then a large black woman lights up a thick cigar, puffs heavily on it, and slugs back a bottle of cachaca, 50% sugar-cane liquor.

All of them are possessed by various gods of the Macumban pantheon.

Given life by the mediums, the "gods" proceed to hug each other and then sit down on the floor to minister to their devotees - some of whom have come to receive healing, to improve their luck, or have come simply for general advice.

Eventually, when all those seeking help have been seen to, the ceremony winds down. And the effects of trance completely leave the mediums.

Mother of the gods

This was one of the ceremonies witnessed by the French writer Serge Bramly, who befriended Maria Jose, Mother of the Gods, when researching Macumba in Brazil during the 1970s.

His book "Macumba" (City Lights 1994) consists of a series of interviews with Maria Jose. In one of them she explains that the gods mount the mediums much as a rider would mount a horse.

"At that moment", she says, "the head of the medium exists only as a vessel, a simple vase offered to the god. The medium has no will, no memory, no personality. The god enters the medium and makes herself or himself at home. It's the god you see and hear. Once the god is gone the medium can't remember anything that happened during the trance."

When asked why it was necessary for the mediums - particularly the women - to drink huge amounts of strong alcohol and smoke big, black cigars, Maria Jose replied: "When they drink and smoke, the daughters of the gods are no longer themselves. It is the gods who are drinking and smoking."

Once the ceremony is over, she told Bramly, the mediums are "no more drunk than you or I."

African roots

Macumba, like its sister religions of Voodoo and Santeria, has its roots in Africa. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, many of the Yoruba and other West African tribes were taken by Portuguese slave traders to Brazil, where they were put to work on the plantations.

Although their masters tried to suppress their native beliefs, the slaves preserved their religious heritage by disguising their gods as Catholic saints and worshipped them in secret. The slaves also incorporated elements of South American Indian shamanism into their magical and religious rites. Even today Macumba practitioners speak of "Caboclos," or Indian Spirits, who live in the forests and know the secrets of plants and herbs.

Around the time the slaves won their freedom in 1888, they were assimilating an even greater range of spiritual influences into their religion, including various magical traditions and the Spiritism of Allan Kardec.

The Way of the Saints

Like Macumba, the religion of Santeria (The Way of the Saints) is a synthesis of West African folk religion and Roman Catholicism. It's origins can be traced back to the first slave importations into Cuba, Puerto Rico, Trinidad and the Gulf of Mexico islands. The slaves in these countries, like those in Brazil, retained their religious heritage by hiding their pagan beliefs behind the symbolism of Catholicism, the religion of their Spanish masters.

Today the religion of Santeria remains concentrated in Cuba and the surrounding Caribbean islands. But it is rapidly spreading elsewhere too. Estimates suggest there are some five million adherents to the religion in the USA, particularly amongst Hispanics in Florida, New York City, and Los Angeles. Growing numbers of middle class whites are also becoming initiated into Santeria, and the religion has even migrated as far as France and the Netherlands.

Blood sacrifice

Although a pagan religion, Santeria does have a supreme deity, called "Olorun," the "owner of heaven." Below him are numerous gods known as Orishas (the same as the Macumban "Orixas"). Each of these has specific powers and characteristics. They each also have an associated saint, sacred number and colour, food, dance posture, and emblem.

In order to remain effective in the world, however, the Orishas need human praise, a central part of which is the ritual sacrifice of animals, most commonly chickens. Blood sacrifices are believed to please the Orishas who, in return, bestow good luck and other favours on their devotees.

Legal precedent

As might be expected, there has been considerable friction between Santerians and animal welfare groups over this. But Santerians defend their practises by pointing out that the animals are always killed in a humane manner.

Nevertheless, there have been a number of high profile court battles over the issue of animal sacrifice.

One case - the Church of Lucumi vs the city of Hialeah in Florida - went to the U.S. Supreme Court. On 11 June 1993, the court unanimously ruled that the city of Hialeah's prohibition of ritual animal sacrifice violated the American Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religious expression.

As part of his summation, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy stated that "given the historical association between animal sacrifices and religious worship, petitioners' assertion that animal sacrifice is an integral part of their religion cannot be deemed bizarre or incredible."

A legal precedent was set by the Supreme Court. Consequently, it is unlikely that Santerians will encounter any new legal problems regarding their sacrificial practises.

Living traditions

While animal sacrifice may seem primitive, if not abhorrent to most Westerners, it should be noted that religions like Macumba and Santeria have very sophisticated cosmologies and systems of thought.

But as these have always been handed down orally, from initiate to initiate, this is not widely recognised. Now, however, due to the appearance in English of scholarly works on Afro-Caribbean/American culture, increasing numbers of people are realising that the living traditions of Macumba and Santeria could well have a good deal to offer us in the West.

Doktor Snake©2004

Author of “Doktor Snake’s Voodoo Spellbook”
(St Martin’s Press/Connections)



Palo Mayombe - Dark Path of Santeria

"Palo Mayombe" is the dark path of Santerian magic, which has its roots in the Congo region of Africa. Its initiated practitioners are called "paleros" or "tata n'kisi" (meaning "father of the spirits").

In Cuba, aspiring sorcerers perform a gruesome initiation ceremony. It involves digging up a corpse from a graveyard, taking the skull and other bones to a ritual chamber, and then conjuring up the spirit of the dead person.

If the spirit consents to serve the sorcerer during his lifetime, a cauldron - called a "nganga" or "prenda" - is prepared with graveyard dust and other ingredients to serve as a "home" for the spirit and its bones.

Many paleros work as professional black magicians, putting hexes on people for a fee, or using their magic to provide spiritual "luck" for cocaine traffickers. But not all paleros follow the dark path; some concentrate on working more benevolent magic, such as healing the sick.

High level hexing

When U.S. forces invaded Panama in 1989, resulting in the imprisonment of General Noriega, they found some unusual items in his mansion. These included a large table covered with glass-cased candles, strange-looking statues, and little cloth bags containing various powders, which were assumed to be drugs.

When analysed, however, the powders were found to be a mixture of herbs and incenses.

Later it was discovered that General Noriega had in his employ one or more sorcerers of Brazilian, Cuban or Puerto Rican extraction, who it was said had been performing hexes against the Americans on behalf of the General.

The late Idi Amin of Uganda was also known to have extensively employed black magicians, working in the African sorcery tradition. One account claims that Amin abducted someone who had offended him, and that one of the most powerful sorcerers for hire in Africa slowly skinned the abductee alive in a ritual to capture his soul, in order to make it a slave for Idi Amin.

More recently, many Santeria and Voodoo practitioners have speculated that the mysterious and elusive "Gulf War Syndrome" was the result of a massive hexing performed by Saddam Hussein.


Mandrake Press Ltd. stocks the herbs, essences, oils and incenses needed in the practise of Santeria, Macumba and Voodoo. They also sell books on magic, statues of saints, talismans, magic roots, coloured candles, magic soaps and bath oils - the list is enormous.

Positive side of possession

While the Christian religion tends to regard spirit possession as an inherently evil phenomenon, other religions see it as a form of divine inspiration. In Macumba, the spiritist religion of Brazil, for instance, devotees regularly become possessed by their gods while in trance, and this is seen as both a healthy and positive event.

During the 1970s Maria Jose, a Macumban priestess, explained to French writer Serge Bramly that it is "a great honour to receive a god. I think that once the trance is over the mediums think only of their luck in having lent their bodies to the gods."

Devotees of Macumba also see possession as being of great benefit to the community. "The mediums lend their bodies to the gods in order for them to become incarnate; so that they can be with us, speak to us, answer our questions, give us strength," continued Maria Jose. "It's a kind of exchange. We give life to the gods, and they in return agree to help us."

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