I don’t really understand santeria. I have experienced it possibly four times; I go with the flow and do what I’m told but I don’t understand. I have discovered though, that very few people do. Joel James Figarola asks:
‘Is there in Cuban culture, specifically in popular tradition, any sort of practice which, consciously or not, is meant to diminish the fear of death? If it were so, does such practice imply that sort of feeble religiosity or limited capacity for abstract thinking which some authors have attributed to the Cuban individual?’
I think I know what he means by ‘the limited capacity for abstract thinking’; the Cubans that I know live very much in the present moment; history, which is yesterday, or one hour ago, is just forgotten, and one moves on with whomever happens to be around at that time. The only permanence seems to be family, perhaps some friends, but friends are quickly forgotten when they disappear (which is very common here), but they are remembered if and when they reappear. Figarola continues:
‘…that thick syncretic interweave which the ordinary Cuban individual is. The magical-religious systems created among us, are an attempt to achieve conciliation and serenity, to subdue chaos by integrating death as a domestic, everyday presence.’
Figarola believes that aspects of santeria
‘…are most probably acting as channels between transcendental aboriginal conceptions and those derived in the past century, from African populations brought into the Island as slave force, or from Antillean immigrant labourers…both black and white, in various ways and from different places, bring to the Island a traumatic experience interwoven with broken memories, projects and nostalgia: a broken inner world to be inserted in a new world in a perennial state of rupture.’
‘Transcendental aboriginal conceptions’ – I have often wondered about this. The native Indian population was quickly wiped out by the Spanish. Apparently the Indians were incredibly innocent, naive (and small); they did not know how to fight and apparently were extinguished quickly and completely. I would like to discover more about them but that will have to wait for another time. Were they all wiped out; every single one of them? I suppose if some survived, there is very little or no influence from them now. Then came the slaves, from all parts of Africa, and with them came their beliefs and stories and rituals. Cuba has also (apart from the last fifty years) been in a constant state of revolution:
‘…in a perennial state of rupture’;
this, in very simple terms, must be the basis for santeria – Where are we from? What are our stories? Who are we?
Santeria makes Cubans unique:
‘… a spiritual environment where life is lived as if one would die the following day – which is to say as if one would never die -, where the dead are not expelled from the everyday world of the living nor ostracised from the family.’
Most black people here are descended from slaves and many, many in-betweens too.
‘Slavery is collective death. The newly arrived African slave loses his own environment, his emotional references, his memory; on the other hand, the criollo slave, born without an environment of his own, surrounded by emotional references inimical to him, inherits no memory at all.’
‘…the barracks, the whip, and the stocks, in the sense of cultural projection; and the wealth resulting from such efforts is contained in the foundations of each one of our major magical-religious systems.’
‘A certain detachment prevails in the social mind, disrupting the citizen’s accommodation in the general body and generating a diffuse yet exact there is no place for me sort of feeling.’
‘In the last fifty years the Island has been immersed in the urgent task of drawing new circumstantial limits; hence, death has recovered the sympathetic and fertile connotations it possessed when the nation was born in la manigua (the wilderness). Death in revolutionary Cuba is not an act of solitude but a unanimous communion of hopes; and in face of the usual enemies and occasional hardships, the words of the Gospel come to us: “O Death, where is thy sting? O Grave, where is thy victory?”’
‘Even if much has been written on the subject, I do not think that we Cubans have yet been able to fully comprehend the extent to which slavery and the plantation system conditioned social behaviour and values, either in material or spiritual matters, either in immediate or prospective terms.’
I was quite relieved to read the above. My first experience of santeria, several years ago, involved, basically: ‘nobody really understands it’. I believe that is still the case. Santeria involves countless rituals. They are not made up; every one is recorded from previous experience, written down and referred to. Also involved is percussion, lots of it and for very long periods, chanting, singing and dancing. It always involves at least two people and the subject (usually many more than two, sometimes as many as will fit into a space). I will explain no more.
For what it is worth, I believe that santeria is a response to chaos, the chaos of many centuries of Cuban life, followed by the revolution, hope, brief comparative prosperity, hardship again and now perhaps hope – although none of that is acknowledged – Cubans live for the moment, don’t worry about much else and express themselves through santeria.
Cuban magical religious systems cannot be analysed as independent structures; not one of them, despite their isolation or liturgical complexity, exists without a functional reference to the others.
Rómulo Lachañtarés believes that santeria is a system of local cults. In relation to santeria there are five fundamental reglas (cults). If we were to go any deeper inside any of them, we would run, like it or not, into the others. Each system, thus, inhabits its own recognisable space, while it steps into the territories of the others.
The orisha cult or Regla de Ocha is expressed in a total subduing of the dead in favour of the orishas (Yoruban deities).
Other systems include Oggunismo, Espirito de Cordón, Regla Muetera and Regla de Palo Monte. We are concerned here only with Regla de Ocha or santeria: Yoruban origin.
1 – Ridden by orishas: The repertory of gestures is quite conventional. Theatricality and stereotypes are the obvious frame for a wavering personality.
2 – Ridden by anonymous or unknown muertos: Possession is weak and superficial. There is no prearranges code for gesture except for closed eyes. No sounds are produced and no attempt is made to establish communication.
3 – Ridden by orishas as mortal spirits: Strong, violent states offering no possible communication. The orisha rides following the mortal, earthly avatar he enjoyed before death and ulterior deification. Possession acquires a tragic mood, as if the orisha was intuitively and wildly searching for whatever has been lost. This is specially so in the case of warrior gods.
None of the above sufficiently explains any of my experiences. This was just the best, short explanation I could find. Joel James Figarola believes that:
‘trance or possession is a quality, talent or capability of human psychic nature, regulated by cultural determinations which are closer to ethnic – not to mistake for racial – heritage rather than to immediate social or educational circumstances. Trance and possession are thus part of the reservoir of human potentialities, and much as, for example, feelings and emotions, they are tones of the mnemonic range of the species. Mystic crises of communication involving forces believed to be transcendental are part of the foundations of every religion and are easily traceable throughout the planet. Both the Old and the New Testament, to name but two instances, contain clear references to this matter.’
Although he believes that ‘fraudulent imitation is far from rare’, he finds that the most convincing example of possession is the third in santeria: orishas in their avatar as dead individuals:
‘in santeria they attempt to achieve a fair enough communion with the orishas’.
I found the examples of possession fairly convincing.