DOCUMENT  0234-35

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[GENTE Magazine, Vol. 1, Havana, January 5, 1958, No. 1, American Edition]

PHOTO CAPTION - One of Cuba's strongest African customs is that of visiting the famed ceiba tree at the Template on Saint Christopher's day.  This African Custom is complied with by Havana residents on the appointed date of every year.


It is impossible to find in Cuba even a small segment of art, custom and tradition which does not contain a vestige of Africa.  The integration of the country has been in progress for centuries; the contributions of the two races have been equally vigorous.  On the one hand the Spanish blood, mixed with that of the Arabs and the Moors; on the other the African blood of former Negro slaves.  The mixture of the two blood strains is evident in all Cubans.  The following report will attempt to show as exactly as possible the type of culture in formation in Cuba today under the influences of modern civilization which play a large role in the nation's development.

Suffice it to say that the religious customs and beliefs of the Afro-Cubans as practiced on the island today contain no remnants of cannibalism or witchcraft.  The only "human sacrifice" entailed is the payment of "fees" as demanded by the Babalao.  The rites, therefore, are as highly respected as any other religious belief which has developed over the centuries in peace and harmony with the Christian moral.

The photographs used to illustrate this report are forbidden by the laws of Santeria.  GENTE has gone to great lengths information and entertainment.


Santería - The religious belief of the Negro Lucumis or Yorubas after their arrival in Cuba and other islands of the Antilles group.
Changó - The god of war of the Lucumi belief, identified with the Catholic's Saint Barbara; his color is red.
Ochosí - The god of the hunt, also representing justice.
Elegguá - The god of the highways. Elegguá is really three gods in one– Echú, Laroyé and Elegguá.
Ochá - The name given to the African belief which preaches goodness, or Santería.
Babalú - Ayé - A warrior god and a leper, who was expelled from the land of the Yorubas and later reigned in Congo land.  He is the brother of Changó and is identified with the Catholics' Saint Lazarus.
Yemayá - Goddess of the seas, owner and creator of the world.  Her color is blue.  She was Changó's first lover and in turn was his adopted mother.
Ebbó - The name for a practice in Santería whereby evil influences are cast out of the worshipper's body and spirit.
Güije - A type of gnome who dwells under bridges in the rivers.  He is a mischievous and diabolic spirit.  A poe describes Güijes as "dwarfs with enormous navels' and speaks of "their short and twisted legs their large straight ears".  The Güije has the power of changing shapes and being ubiquitous.
Oggún - The god of iron, owner of arms and machinery.  A warrior, his color purple.
Babalao - The supreme priest of Santería.  His name means wise man.  He is a protege of Orula.

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PHOTO CAPTION - The Santero put his question to the Snails of the Diloggun, the scared book which contains the answers to any question put to it by a worshipper.  The position of the snails when they fall into place provides the Santero with his answer.

Orula - The wizard owner of the divination board and necklace.
Bembé - The great feast of Santería (described in text)
Ifá - The necklace used by Babalao for his divinations.
Ekuele - The divining board on which Babalao throws the necklace of Ifá, the position of the necklace indicating the answers to questions put to it by the worshipers.
Aleph - God, the supreme creator.
Ilé - Home, domicile, residence.
Obatalá - Goddess of purity and representative of Olofi.  She is "owner of all the heads" and the only one able to communicate directly with Olofi when he comes down "the road of Osán Guiriñán".  Obatalá is the equivalent of Our Lady of Mercy.
Osán Guiriñán - A road known only to Obatalá and leading to the "ilé" of Olofi atop an inaccessible mountain.
Oyá - Goddess of cemeteries, identified with the Catholics' Candelaria.
Aché - The gift and power granted by Aleph.
Agallú - Solá - The boatman appointed by Aleph, identified with Saint Christopher.
Icú - Death, works for "Oyá" who presides over the cemeteries.
Gangulero - A priest who practices evil, a witch.
Amalá - A food of cornflower and mutton and preferred by Changó.
Iyalochá - Priest, or initiated woman, minor official of the Lucumí religion.
Apesteví - The priest's helper, a kind of waitress who cares for the "prendas" or saints.  Pure and chaste at the outset, she later becomes the concubine of the priest whom she assists.
Jícara - A typical Cuban cup made of a half-empty güira.  The güira is used in making "maracas".
Batas - Sacred drums used in the festivities.  Their name are Okonkoló, Iyá and Bata.

Since 1515, when the firs cargo of African slaves arrived in Cuba, the religious customs of the Negroes have played a large part in the beliefs or the Cuban people.  The fusing of the Christian ritual of the Spaniards' and the pagan ritual of the primitive people has resulted in a true religious sincretism.  Today the mixture of African fetishism and the refinements of Western religious forms the bread basis for a large segment of the Cuban people.

It is not strange, therefore, to meet an elegantly dressed woman with aristocratic bearing on t he streets of Havana and note somewhere on her person evidences of primitive beliefs known throughout Cuba as "santeria".  You may see among her gold jewelry and adornments –pure gold pins and decorations are not uncommon in Cuba today– a golden sword, a bow and arrow or a bracelet of knitted leather with a core of gold or coral.  You may notice that she is wearing seven bracelets, or that she has a small chain on her ankle. All are symbols of beliey [belief] in some African god...

The "Sons of Changó" exhibit their war sword on their chests and their lapels.  The "Sons of Ochosí" display the bow an arrow.  Bracelets are the symbol of Ochún the Venus of those of the Lucumí sect.

If you visit a Cuban home you may not see any inmmediate [immediate] indications of santeria beliefs.  But perhaps you will later note a small cabinet behind the door.  This is the "home" of Elegguá, in African credo the custodian of roads and highways and who, according to the laws of Ochoa, is trusted with the safety of the home.  Behind the door you may also find the "bread" of Babalú Ayé.  You may also notice a duck which is permitted complete freedom in the house.  Or you may notice that the dog of the house is treated as

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PHOTO CAPTION - Santero Felipe Montes de Oca demonstrates a devil fish while in the background can be seen the "canastillero" where the saints live.  On top of the "canastillero" are visible the African "Orishas", or symbols of Catholic saints, mainly the "Caridad del Cobre", showing the mixture of African and Catholic religious figures.

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though he were the owner instead, and all because it is so decreed by Babalú.

Sometimes, at high noon as you walk through the neighborhood streets, you will see someone throw a bucket of water out on the sidewalk, or a woman will intentionally drop a bottle of clear, clean water in the middle of the streets...

And then at dawn some day you will find the "refuse of Ebbó" or at street corners.  It was left there by believers to drive away the evil spirits...And if you pass under two crossed palm leaves, you may find on the ground nearby apples, bananas and red handkerchiefs –all dear to the warrior Changó de Imá...

And in the country there are still Cubans who will not whistle inside empty houses because it serves to summon the "güijes".  And there are also those who, before stitching a piece of clothing worn by another person, will prick the wearer slightly to prevent the god Ogún from forcing a slip of the needle.  And there are still people who prick their fingers with a new

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knife before using it for the first time.

Until very recently believers in these truely [truly] African customs offered a "bembé" to Ogún in the sugar mill before starting the refining process.  And a dark-colored dog was placed on the railroad tracks to appease the god who presides over iron, machinery and armaments and thus prevent serious accidents during the milling.

All of these practices are "trabajos" and are santeria ritual.  They are explained by the racial integration of Cuba where Negro traditions and beliefs, brought from Africa, has fused with those of the Spanish "conquistadores".

Cuba today is full of santeria beliefs as well as persons who, unknowingly perhaps, still carry on traditions passed on from their grandfathers and which had their origins in the jungles and flat lands of Africa.

The true believer who visits the "babalao" places his faith and hope in the rites conducted by the pagan priest.  The latter recites and esoteric dialogue between the gods while the necklace of Ifá is thrown on he Ekuele board by an unseen hand.  The believer knows that the "registro" or advice which he receives from babalao is the true word of God, for babalao, which means "wise man", knows all.  Babalao is the representative of Orula, the god to whom Aleph, the Supreme Creator, entrusted the divining board when it was abandoned by undisciplined Changó.

And because its law is the law of God, the believer does not hesitate to heed and obey its commands, regardless of the effort or consequences it may entail.


One must understand that primitive peoples select their gods from among their better known neighbors.  Legend tells us, for instance, that Aleph, weary of ruling the world with its endless problems, decided to divide his powers among the saints of the Lucumí pantheon and retire to an isolated and inaccessible hilltop, to the top of which only Obatalá and the mischievous Eleguá knew the route.

So Aleph gathered around him the saints and explained his decision.  He called forth Yemayá and placed all the seas in her lap.  Then Saramagua shook her skirt and separated the oceans and the continents, giving the world the configuration that is has today.  To Changó, Olifí gave the lightning, the thunder and the thunderbolts; to Ochún he gave the rivers and the honey and the waters of the sweetest springs; to Ogún he gave the iron; to Elegguá he gave the roads and highways; and to Oyá he gave the cemeteries.  And so it went.

Each of the gods thus sanctified retained his particular characteristics.

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PHOTO CAPTION - The Santero officiates before the "canastillero" in which the African gods dwell.  Here the practices of Santeria are conducted.  This is the room of the saints.  Seen on top are Obatalá, Ochosí and Ochún.  In the center are Yemayá and Changó, and underneath Ogún and Oyá.  On the floor are the Obeyes or twins.

Ochún continued to be lascivious; Yemayá, maternal; Obatalá, austere and pure; Changó, mischievous, fickle, voluble and astute; Ochosí; Agallu Sola, rigid and severe.

Thus the African saints retained all the humans traits, both good and bad.  And that is why they love, hate, envy, argue, fight and, despite the fact that they are gods, that they are occasionally deceived by those who believe in them.


When a persons is seriously ill and Icú, the god of death, demands their life, the santero or priest of voodoo is permitted to "change the head".

This ritual consists of offering up prayers in the wizard's room in which the priest officiates at his mystic ceremonies.  The prayers result in the transfer of the illness from the sick person to another person, be he healthy or sick.   And if this other person does not, in the same manner, have the sickness transferred to still another person, he will surely die.

The wizard explains the ritual thusly, that Icú demands a dead body and that his desire must be granted; and that as it is immaterial what body be given up to the god of death, the body of another will serve the purpose as well.

And this is the ritual which is called  "changing the head".

Crying for the Sic Person

Unfortunately there are times when it is next to impossible to convince Icú that another body will serve as a worthy substitute for that of the sick man over whom the priest is praying.

Then the work cut out for the priest is more difficult.  He must apply stronger and more dramatic measures.  So a

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PHOTO CAPTION - A head of roughly-carved stone of singular primitive beauty represents the god Elegguá dwells in the pan of clay in which are embedded the 21 snails which represent "the roads" of the god.  It is identified with the Catholics' Baptist.  In many Cubans houses Elegguá is found behind the door for protection of the home.

close relative of the patient, usually his mother or his wife, will dress a puppet made by the wizard in some of the sick man's clothes.  The puppet will then be taken to a cemetery at midnight and buried.  Then the mourner will weep by the tomb so disconsolately that Icú will be convinced that the sick man has in fact died.

Sometimes these extreme measures are not necessary.  Powdered egg shell or some coloring may be applied to the sick's man face and will so disguise him that Icú will believe him already had died...

The same practice is also used to deceives enemies when they try to inflict serious injury on a person.


Before the altars of their gods, believers place their deities' favorite dishes.  For Ochún there are fried green bananas; to Obatalá they serve popped corn; for Changó there is "Amala" and bananas, while tobacco and brandy are served to the demanding warrior gods...

Sumptuous banquets are served, however, on the occasion of large-scale celebration in honor of the gods, Babalao officiates at these feasts, assisted by Iyalocha, the Apestevi and their "godchildren".

Animals are slaughtered for the feast in large quantities and in each case the rigid laws of the beliefs are scrupulously observed.  Babalao is the only god to whom four-legged animals can be sacrificed, for example.  Bipeds may be sacrificed to the Santera, or Iyalocha.  But each rite demands the attedance [attendance] of the worshipper who is preparing the feast.  All sacrifices must be made in his presence.  Each piece of the quartered animal is placed in front of him after he has been touched on the head, palms, knees and ankles with the dead flesh.

While this is being done the worshipper invokes the gods and makes the offering in the Lucumí tongue.

The blood of the animals is collected in "jícaras" or in porcelain cups, mean while, and is offered later to such gods as Oggún, who usually demands it.


The main ceremony of Santeria is the Bembé or "toque de Santos" as it is also known.  The rite both begins and ends with prays to Elegguá

The ceremony resounds to the sound of the "atabales".  The "batas" drums beat incessantly.  The "güiros" provide further background for the choir of voices which raises its chant to the dwelling place of the "orishas".  The faces of the worshipers seem transformed by the esoteric summons to possession.  The gong of the atabales sounds louder.  The odor of the jungle invades the place of worship.  The chant grows louder on the Lucumí tongue:

     "Ilá mi ilé oro...
     "Ilá mi ilé oro...
     "Iyá mi.
     "Iyá mi, Saramawooooo
     "Iyá mi ilé oro...

The sweating bodies shake in a frenzy with each beat of the drums.  Legs, shoulders and bodies tremble as if reacting to an electric shock.  A strange feeling of well-being invades every heart; it is visible in he emotion-twisted faces and the bleary eyes of the dancers.  Their temples pound.   At last –a body becomes possessed.  A woman falls to the floor, her body jumping savagely, while from hundreds of throats the cry resounds.

    "Gecua, Gey..."

This signifies the arrival of the saint.  He has entered the body of a believer.  He is among them and preparing to speak with the tongue of his "horse" and to dance in the physical form of his "instrument".

If you were to ask the santero what happening, he would tell you that

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the saint has displaced the soul of the worshipper and occupied his body, to be able to communicate with men here on earth.  The saint, he would tell you, is of spirit and space and lacks the physical attributes of a human...

Now the saint dances frenetically to the beat of the drums which incite him to further frenzied motion.

The Bembé has entered its moments of climax.  Now everything is jungle –primitive, vigorous, fringed with omens and deep fears...

Before "departing", the god will speak to the men, will advise hem on ways to preserve their health, to avoid "troubles", to help others find employment.  The god will also ask his due; he will demand a feat; he will even threaten his naughty "children".

And when the saint has left the body of the "aleyo", faith and belief will be stronger, and the body of the possessed will be sore in the aftermath of its frenzied contortions.

These are the origins of the diverse African belief still found in Cuba.  They are everywhere on the island.  A traces of Africanism remains in every Cuban, giving rise to a popular tune which goes:

"He who does not wear yellow (the color of Ochún).

"Covers himself with blue cloth (the color of Yemayá).

"Or red (belonging to Changó)".

That is also the thought behind the proverb: "There are those who remember Saint Barbara when it thunders".

For the same reason a politician once noted that "in Cuba the man who does not have an ancestor from the Congo has one from Carabalí..."

Article by columnist:

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