Santeria – part three

 

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?

redcar-001

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.

DSC00553

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.

DSC00554Santeria – part one

Santeria – part two

Advertisements

Santeria – part two

In Yuri’s eight day absence, her mother will come to the flat and cook for me. Tomorrow I go the santeria myself. At the flat I make do against the heat (33˚), which is not too bad; there is a mostly constant breeze and it rains on many days, mostly the evening. I can look after myself but Yuri has taken care of everything; my Spanish is awful, I can’t protest, so I’m happy to let things be as they are. I am considered useless and happy to be so.

 

Tomorrow at ten in the morning Yuri’s mother and sister will call for me.

 

They came at ten on the dot and we walked the half-mile or so to the place of santeria. Yuri had been there for two days. Her head had been shaved and she wore a white dress. The room was full of every type of paraphernalia to do with santeria: fruit, herbs, crusts of bread, myriad objects, tassels and objects of clothing. She sat in one corner of the room on a mat, above her a triangular canopy of yellow. We were soon joined by about eight other people, some to do with Yuri, others about their own business. For an hour they just talked and laughed. Three of the women were the same as we had seen the week before, but in a different place. This was the real thing.

DSC00553

After about an hour and a half I was taken aside. My hair was washed with something strange, doused with coconut juice and dried slightly, while the woman chanted in Yoruba. Then I was taken to a separate room where desiccated coconut was placed on my feet, knees hands, chest, neck and finally the top of my head, all the while as chanting took place. Then the largest pile of coconut (on my head) was covered with a cap, and left.

 

The santeria man has a nice house, a very wide screen TV and several women working for him. He’s very sociable and everybody likes him.

 

I went to see Yuri on Sunday, still dressed in white although there are yellow dresses she changes into at other times. She is tired. She sits on a mat in the corner of the room. She must sleep there too. I drank a coffee and talked for a while, but soon exhausted my limited Spanish and what I had been doing (very little) and left after about an hour. I hated the time Yuri was away. Although my Spanish is extremely limited and her English almost non-existent, we seem to communicate well. Much of the time she isn’t here, but I know she will be back and that makes all the difference. The eight days she was away, apart from writing and the occasional film, I did not know what to do. I have been to Havana so many times that walking held little attraction, and it is over 30˚. A woman comes to clean every few days, Yuri’s mother and sister come to cook, but I find I’m rarely hungry. I go and collect cash when I need it. I went to watch the beginning of the English football season on Sunday, but it appears that ESPN have lost the English games to BT, so I just waited until I knew the score and left.

 

After eight days, Yuri returned. Her head has been shaved. She wears a quite substantial pair of drawers, tights, socks, a white dress and a white head dress. She must wear this stuff every time she goes out, and she must go out and walk around every day. She must not have the sun on her, so she carries a white umbrella. In the house she can wear a white shift and remove the tights but everything else remains. She must eat while sitting on a mat and somebody else must wash her empty plate. She must wear this stuff and behave like this for three months, all the time remaining in Havana. After three months she can return to Bahia Honda, but must continue to wear the outfit for a year.

133

I had noticed people wearing all white, but it was not until Yuri had her treatment that I realised why. Walking around Havana, one day you might see two or three people all in white, their hair at various stages of growth; on another day you might see ten or more. This is not scientific, but of the people I saw, perhaps 30% or 40% were white. Whatever Yuri had done, it is very popular (for those who can afford it). I have been to perhaps four places that practice santeria. There are many, many other places and hundreds of shops supplying trinkets and many secret places providing animals for sacrifice. I would imagine that Cubans do get conned, but not often; tourists are fair game and I would expect the gullible to be fleeced. This eight day treatment is the first time I’ve spent any substantial amount on santeria – and it does involve a lot of expense.

 

The first Friday after Yuri had completed she returned for a final ritual on her Padrino’s birthday. Free food, loads of it was available for everybody. Some people were drinking, but not many. Yuri’s ritual lasted an hour or two, involved lots of percussion and people dancing and chanting around her. Two or three others had similar rituals; one black man seemed to be possessed and was taken into another room, where he continued to speak in a voice of possession for a couple of hours. The Padrino listened to every word. If there is anything suspect about santeria, it is still very, very hard work.

 

I’m not disillusioned with santeria; I’m just a bit bored with it all. Not understanding the language doesn’t help. But this is something that means a great deal to Yuri and I’m happy to provide it. In future though, I won’t have much to do with it. It can be fun, it can be a spectacle – but I’ve just about seen enough….

 

 

The third and final installment of my Santeria experience will be posted on Monday.

 Santeria – part one

Santeria – part one

On arrival in Cuba, Yuri, my woman, asked if I remembered that I would consider paying quite a lot of money for a massive santeria campaign for her, involving over one week’s intensive treatment: clothes, occupation and all the paraphernalia that went with it. I remembered the email conversation of six months before but there had been no discussion since, and I had forgotten about it. Yuri hadn’t. I quickly calculated the reliability of the request, the chances of her staying faithful to me and agreed to finance the santeria. It would mean less money to spend on whatever, but I hadn’t intended much in the way of entertainment anyway.

DSC00196

The santeria involved two afternoon preparatory sessions. I was persuaded to attend the first one. I was not a stranger to santeria, having undergone sessions in 2001, 2009 and 2012. I was not a believer – well, certainly a sceptic – but as my experience grew I realised just how firmly entrenched the religion was in Cuban culture. My 2001 experience, though extensive, paled in comparison to late experiences. In 2009 I encountered, more closely, the thoroughness of operations, undergoing a two hour session involving the sacrifice of a young goat, a chicken and a goose. Although the sacrifices took up only a small part of the operation, most of which involved two santeria practitioners repeating from the book of Yoruba, a series of litanies. I had no idea what was being said; I was ordered to bow, touch, speak, perform strange rituals, and touch objects, symbols, dust, powders and liquids. I kissed the severed neck of the young goat. At the end I was told that I was capricious and would need to be careful of my health. I didn’t need santeria to tell me that. Yuri could have told them that. But one of the practitioners told me several times that I was crazy, which may or may not be true, and also I didn’t understand ninety per cent of what they told me. My Spanish is very, very basic. Yuri speaks little English. Despite both of us taking lessons in each other’s language we have so far failed to learn much beyond the absolute basics, although we communicate between each other pretty well, mainly using my rudimentary Spanish.

DSC00553

The next occasion entailed santeria for Yuri. We visited a spacious and airy building where a man began preparations for her ritual. He was impressed by my book on Cuba, Caliente; at least he appeared to be. He was accompanied by at least two women who seemed to be there permanently. While we were there he was visited by several other people; there seemed to be a constant flow of people, mainly white Cuban, during the time I was there. Some spoke English, some did not; the age and occupation varied but I was left with the impression that santeria was not a minority interest, but that practically all Cubans followed it to some extent.

123We took two bicycle taxis, first to a nondescript building where a few people waited outside. The man knocked several times and we waited several minutes before someone opened the double-doors. A very sleepy, attractive young woman opened the doors, very reluctantly allowed us access. The interior was completely dark with three walls lined with cages. The cages contained goats, chickens, cockerels, geese, and other varieties of bird. For reasons of which I know not, perhaps price, we didn’t stay long, and rejected what was on offer. Off in the two bicycle taxis again, for about a mile where Yuri, the main man and an assistant, much older, found another place. I was told to wait in the taxi. After about thirty minutes they arrived back with two chickens and a goose. A motor taxi was hailed, the animals, tied by the feet were thrust into the boot and we set off elsewhere.

Elsewhere turned out to be about fifteen miles away, on a beach, although not facing the sea. A small lake adjoining the beach was chosen and preparations made. One of the chickens immediately escaped. I thought this funny, but just watched with amusement as they tried to catch it. They didn’t. I was secretly pleased. I have no particular fondness for chickens but I was happy to see it make its burst for freedom. Perhaps it’s still there or thereabouts. I hope so. No such luck for the remaining chicken and goose, both had their heads removed, the blood sprayed over Yuri’s legs among the usual chants and exhortations. The ceremony lasted about thirty minutes. I have no idea what it was about or what it was supposed to achieve.

We later stopped at one of the several little shops or holes in the wall (one at least on every street) to renew my bracelet, a yellow and green beaded effort that I had been wearing for three years, to protect me from I know not what.  The shop contained every trinket imaginable. We also visited, by taking the harbour ferry to its other side, the Catholic Church where Yuri lit candles for my book and briefly prayed at the altar. The santeria religion is a mixture of the Catholic faith and the beliefs that countless slaves bought with them from Africa. As far as I can tell the religion is perhaps twenty percent Catholicism and eighty per cent an unfathomable mixture of African beliefs, but be sure, it is widespread and inseparable from the rest of Cuban culture.

121

Fast forward to today and the preparation for Yuri’s week long santeria initiation. I hadn’t intended to go, not knowing what to expect. First we visited the top flat of an overweight young woman, her Madrina. I was given coffee and there was much talk about what was to come. After about thirty minutes we moved to another top floor flat, the stairs to which would have been condemned anywhere else, wooden and rickety and only vaguely attached to whatever they were supposed to be attached to. The last leg of the journey upwards involved a spiral staircase covering three floors. We finally settled into a small room where the young woman and one female, very attractive assistant, prepared for whatever was to come. Although the size of the room made it impossible, I sat as far away from the action as I could. The two women were later joined by two others – so four practitioners and one subject, with me sitting in the corner with my book and cigarettes trying to pretend that nothing was happening.

What followed was three to four hours of intense chanting and activity. The overweight woman seemed to go into a trance of some sort for at least two hours. Whether she became people from the past (the dead), one person or several people, I don’t know. I was trying to avoid involvement. The other three women and Yuri followed many of the chants and vague suggestions. They all knew exactly what was going on and how to respond. The overweight woman inhabited other personalities. She shouted, screamed, had minor fits and seemed very much to be genuine. If it was at all fraudulent then it was exhaustingly so. She involved me a couple of times but I tried to remain invisible and take no part at all.

Three days later at twelve o’clock, Yuri left. Eight days were to follow of intensive treatment. She left on Tuesday. I was to join, reluctantly, on Thursday. Alone in the flat was both pleasant and unpleasant. I missed Yuri but I also enjoy being alone. Every provision had been made. I had food to last. Yuri’s mother, who had come from Bahia Honda to assist with the santeria, would come in every day and cook.

083

Santeria – part two