CUBAN RELIGIOUS BELIEFS
OF AFRICAN ORIGIN
Magazine, Vol. 1, Havana, January 5, 1958, No. 1, American
of Cuba's strongest African customs is that of visiting
the famed ceiba
tree at the Template on Saint Christopher's day.
Custom is complied with by Havana residents on the
appointed date of
RELIGIOUS BELIEFS OF
It is impossible to find in Cuba even a small segment of
and tradition which does not contain a vestige of
integration of the country has been in progress for
contributions of the two races have been equally
vigorous. On the
one hand the Spanish blood, mixed with that of the Arabs and
on the other the African blood of former Negro slaves.
mixture of the two blood strains is evident in all
following report will attempt to show as exactly as possible
of culture in formation in Cuba today under the influences
civilization which play a large role in the nation's
Suffice it to say that the religious customs and beliefs of
Afro-Cubans as practiced on the island today contain no
cannibalism or witchcraft. The only "human sacrifice"
the payment of "fees" as demanded by the Babalao. The
therefore, are as highly respected as any other religious
has developed over the centuries in peace and harmony with
The photographs used to illustrate this report are forbidden
laws of Santeria. GENTE has gone to great lengths
Santería - The religious belief of the Negro Lucumis or
after their arrival in Cuba and other islands of the
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
land. He is the brother of Changó and is identified
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.
describes Güijes as "dwarfs with enormous navels' and speaks
"their short and twisted legs their large straight
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.
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
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
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
She is "owner of all the heads" and the only one able to
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
Oyá - Goddess of cemeteries, identified with the Catholics'
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
Gangulero - A priest who practices evil, a witch.
Amalá - A food of cornflower and mutton and preferred by
Iyalochá - Priest, or initiated woman, minor official of the
Apesteví - The priest's helper, a kind of waitress who cares
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
religious customs of the Negroes have played a large part in
beliefs or the Cuban people. The fusing of the
of the Spaniards' and the pagan ritual of the primitive
resulted in a true religious sincretism. Today the
African fetishism and the refinements of Western religious
bread basis for a large segment of the Cuban people.
It is not strange, therefore, to meet an elegantly dressed
aristocratic bearing on t he streets of Havana and note
her person evidences of primitive beliefs known throughout
"santeria". You may see among her gold jewelry and
–pure gold pins and decorations are not uncommon in Cuba
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
bracelets, or that she has a small chain on her ankle. All
of beliey [belief] in some African god...
The "Sons of Changó" exhibit their war sword on their chests
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
indications of santeria beliefs. But perhaps you will
a small cabinet behind the door. This is the "home" of
Elegguá, in African credo the custodian of roads and
and who, according to the laws of Ochoa, is trusted with the
the home. Behind the door you may also find the
Babalú Ayé. You may also notice a duck which is
permitted complete freedom in the house. Or you may
the dog of the house is treated as
CAPTION - Santero
Montes de Oca demonstrates a devil fish while in the
can be seen the "canastillero" where the saints
live. On top of
the "canastillero" are visible the African "Orishas", or
Catholic saints, mainly the "Caridad del Cobre", showing
the mixture of
African and Catholic religious figures.
- Hotel Copacabana
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
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
middle of the streets...
And then at dawn some day you will find the "refuse of Ebbó"
at street corners. It was left there by believers to
the evil spirits...And if you pass under two crossed palm
may find on the ground nearby apples, bananas and red
–all dear to the warrior Changó de Imá...
And in the country there are still Cubans who will not
empty houses because it serves to summon the "güijes".
there are also those who, before stitching a piece of
clothing worn by
another person, will prick the wearer slightly to prevent
Ogún from forcing a slip of the needle. And there are
still people who prick their fingers with a new
- El Carmelo Restaurants and Stores
knife before using it for the first time.
Until very recently believers in these truely [truly]
offered a "bembé" to Ogún in the sugar mill before
starting the refining process. And a dark-colored dog
on the railroad tracks to appease the god who presides over
machinery and armaments and thus prevent serious accidents
All of these practices are "trabajos" and are santeria
They are explained by the racial integration of Cuba where
traditions and beliefs, brought from Africa, has fused with
the Spanish "conquistadores".
Cuba today is full of santeria beliefs as well as persons
unknowingly perhaps, still carry on traditions passed on
grandfathers and which had their origins in the jungles and
The true believer who visits the "babalao" places his faith
and hope in
the rites conducted by the pagan priest. The latter
esoteric dialogue between the gods while the necklace of Ifá
thrown on he Ekuele board by an unseen hand. The
that the "registro" or advice which he receives from babalao
true word of God, for babalao, which means "wise man", knows
Babalao is the representative of Orula, the god to whom
Supreme Creator, entrusted the divining board when it was
And because its law is the law of God, the believer does not
to heed and obey its commands, regardless of the effort or
it may entail.
HUMAN ASPECTS OF THE GODS
One must understand that primitive peoples select their gods
their better known neighbors. Legend tells us, for
Aleph, weary of ruling the world with its endless problems,
divide his powers among the saints of the Lucumí pantheon
retire to an isolated and inaccessible hilltop, to the top
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
in her lap. Then Saramagua shook her skirt and
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
the honey and the waters of the sweetest springs; to Ogún he
gave the iron; to Elegguá he gave the roads and highways;
Oyá he gave the cemeteries. And so it went.
Each of the gods thus sanctified retained his particular
Santero officiates before the "canastillero" in which the
dwell. Here the practices of Santeria are
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
bad. And that is why they love, hate, envy, argue,
despite the fact that they are gods, that they are
deceived by those who believe in them.
"CHANGING THE HEAD"
When a persons is seriously ill and Icú, the god of death,
demands their life, the santero or priest of voodoo is
"change the head".
This ritual consists of offering up prayers in the wizard's
which the priest officiates at his mystic ceremonies.
result in the transfer of the illness from the sick person
person, be he healthy or sick. And if this other
does not, in the same manner, have the sickness transferred
another person, he will surely die.
The wizard explains the ritual thusly, that Icú demands a
body and that his desire must be granted; and that as it is
what body be given up to the god of death, the body of
serve the purpose as well.
And this is the ritual which is called "changing the
Crying for the Sic Person
Unfortunately there are times when it is next to impossible
Icú that another body will serve as a worthy substitute for
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
- A head of
roughly-carved stone of singular primitive beauty
represents the god
Elegguá dwells in the pan of clay in which are embedded
snails which represent "the roads" of the god. It
with the Catholics' Baptist. In many Cubans houses
is found behind the door for protection of the home.
close relative of the patient, usually his mother or his
dress a puppet made by the wizard in some of the sick man's
clothes. The puppet will then be taken to a cemetery
and buried. Then the mourner will weep by the tomb so
disconsolately that Icú will be convinced that the sick man
in fact died.
Sometimes these extreme measures are not necessary.
shell or some coloring may be applied to the sick's man face
so disguise him that Icú will believe him already had
The same practice is also used to deceives enemies when they
try to inflict serious injury on a person.
THE FOOD OF THE SAINTS
Before the altars of their gods, believers place their
favorite dishes. For Ochún there are fried green
to Obatalá they serve popped corn; for Changó there is
"Amala" and bananas, while tobacco and brandy are served to
demanding warrior gods...
Sumptuous banquets are served, however, on the occasion of
celebration in honor of the gods, Babalao officiates at
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
Babalao is the only god to whom four-legged animals can be
for example. Bipeds may be sacrificed to the Santera,
Iyalocha. But each rite demands the attedance
[attendance] of the
worshipper who is preparing the feast. All sacrifices
made in his presence. Each piece of the quartered
placed in front of him after he has been touched on the
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
Oggún, who usually demands it.
The main ceremony of Santeria is the Bembé or "toque de
as it is also known. The rite both begins and ends
with prays to
The ceremony resounds to the sound of the "atabales".
drums beat incessantly. The "güiros" provide further
background for the choir of voices which raises its chant to
dwelling place of the "orishas". The faces of the
transformed by the esoteric summons to possession. The
the atabales sounds louder. The odor of the jungle
place of worship. The chant grows louder on the Lucumí
"Ilá mi ilé oro...
"Ilá mi ilé oro...
"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
heart; it is visible in he emotion-twisted faces and the
bleary eyes of
the dancers. Their temples pound. At last
becomes possessed. A woman falls to the floor, her
savagely, while from hundreds of throats the cry resounds.
This signifies the arrival of the saint. He has
entered the body
of a believer. He is among them and preparing to speak
tongue of his "horse" and to dance in the physical form of
If you were to ask the santero what happening, he would tell
- Gran Hotel de Santa Clara
the saint has displaced the soul of the worshipper and
body, to be able to communicate with men here on
saint, he would tell you, is of spirit and space and lacks
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
Before "departing", the god will speak to the men, will
advise hem on
ways to preserve their health, to avoid "troubles", to help
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
will be stronger, and the body of the possessed will be sore
aftermath of its frenzied contortions.
These are the origins of the diverse African belief still
Cuba. They are everywhere on the island. A
Africanism remains in every Cuban, giving rise to a popular
"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
Article by columnist:
End of Page
1998-2013 Cuban Information Archives. All Rights