The Baptist’s recently made the acquaintance of Eduardo Hayes, a direct lineage initiate of Cuban Santeria, Palo Mayombe, Haitian Voodoo and Southern USA Root Working or Hoodoo. With a severe lack of accurate information in the West regarding the African Diaspora, and its usual misrepresentation as a result, the opportunity to gain a real insider’s view of these traditions seemed just too good to pass up. What follows is the resulting dialogue between Alan and Eduardo.
Back in ’98, Eduardo wrote his masters degree on Santeria, and so in a number of places he has provided quite extensive notes that provide a basic introduction to the elements of his tradition and its historical development. A bibliography can be found at the end of the article.
ALAN: One of my favourite divinatory techniques for communicating with my HGA is the Obi. My use of the Obi is taken from the Urban Voodoo handbook by Dr. Hyatt, which I'm fully aware is not Voodoo by a long shot. I first saw the Obi being used when I met the spirits of a Quimbanda house here in the UK, and I was impressed by its efficiency as a divinatory tool. I find the possible outcomes deep enough to give a useful answer (rather than just ‘Yes’ and ‘No’), but not so deep as to require years of study (I've got the tarot for that). Can you tell me a little more about it?
EDUARDO: In both the Santeria and Palo Mayombe traditions, the coconut/cowrie shell divination system without a chain connecting the pieces is called Obi. High initiates of Santeria, the ‘babalawo’, use Obi with a chain connecting the pieces and this is called the Opele or Ikin. I have never seen it used in Haitian Voodoo or Root Working. Rune stones were once my favorite technique of divination, but now, however, my main methods are tarot and I-Ching, and when I am performing my Taoist practices I also use something called the Poe, which are two pieces of wood (usually bamboo roots) which are thrown like the Obi, and oddly enough there are some interesting similarities in the interpretations, but with such a small combination of throws, there is likely to be similarities.
ALAN: My experience of the African Diaspora is very limited – I had the misfortune of spending some time with a Quimbanda house (the only one in the UK) and I've met with a practitioner of Voodoo a few times. I do not believe that the Quimbanda house was a representative of the entire tradition, but I was told in no uncertain terms that magical revelation, or mystical experiences, were to be ignored, and that my primary concern should be pleasing the spirits, acquiring material wealth and following my 'destiny'. The members of the house were egotistical, sadistic bullies.
EDUARDO: From what I know, Quimbanda is an African tradition brought to South America and found mainly in Brazil. The terminology of ‘house’ is also used in Palo and Santeria. These ‘houses’ are not elements from the African tradition; the ‘house’ concept was added in the Americas originally as a type of ‘social club’.
NOTE: Santería utilizes a system of fictitious kinship. The creation of new kinship relations among its initiates further strengthens the social cohesion Santería creates. Brandon (1993: 75), illustrates that from ancestral lineages of priests:
Blood kinship became ritual kinship after the manner of the catholic institution of compadrazo. The sons and daughters of the Orisha became the ajihados and ajihadas (godchildren) of the priests. All the godchildren constituted a religious family of brothers and sisters.
The madrina and padrino, who serve as teachers, initiators, or sponsor in Santería, are akin to ‘godmother’ and ‘godfather’ (Murphy 1993: 181). Thus, initiates of Santeria become a part of an extended affinial kin group, complete with ‘mothers,’ ‘fathers,’ and ‘siblings.’ The relationship between godparent and godchild is of utmost importance. This relationship is what fosters the spiritual growth of godchildren. The “godparents” help direct and regulate their study and application of religious beliefs until they are ready to practice without the supervision (Brandon 1993: 149-150). This complex of ritually created kin additionally enables the practices and beliefs of Santería to be transmitted to the next generation.
The second institution that contributed to the formation of Santería was the religious social clubs called cabildos. The Spanish population of Cuba came from many different parts of Spain. Each had its own customs and regional dialect. The members of each cultural group created the cabildos to promote mutual aid to its members as well as continue the traditions of their homeland (Canizares 1993: 24-25).
At first, the cabildos acted as town councils that delegated civil control to the level of the local property owners. The cabildos were in charge of legal arrangements in matters of the welfare and interests of the people in the community. During the periods when Spain attempted to gain more control over the colonies, the cabildos lost much of their legal power. But they were still a popular place for the many Spanish ethnic groups to gather, and eventually they became mutual aid societies and social clubs (Rogozinski 1992: 118). These types of ‘clubs’ were adopted by the slaves divided by tribal groups, likewise serving as a place for them to socialize and carry on native customs. In later years, the African cabildos were open to all ethnic groups. As new Africans slaves were brought to America, they, too, joined these types of groups, adding to the cultural memories and knowledge of the group. Membership in cabildos was even encouraged by the slave owners, because it added to the competitive spirit of the slaves, as groups tried to outwork each other. In this way, tribal and cultural groups kept together in such social settings and were able to maintain their native traditions (Canizares 1993: 24-25).
The Catholic Church also influenced the cabildos and ‘sponsored’ dances and religious processions. At such functions African elements were added to the European rites. Cabi
ldos often adopted patron saints and symbolic colors. The Church and State extended more and more control and restrictions over the cabilidos during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Brandon 1993: 70-72). There were greater limitations placed upon the Afro-Cuban practices occurring in the cabildos. In the late 1800s to early 1900 cabildos were transformed into reglas (Murphy 1993: 33).
Researchers have proposed that the greater survival of Africanisms in the circum-Caribbean area is a result of the slaving techniques. In the United States, African tribal members and even families were commonly separated from each other. Less contact with their own cultural groups resulted in a tendency among slaves to keep only the most basic or common elements of their cultures. However, the colonial techniques of handling slaves in the Spanish parts of the Americas not only fostered a close-knit association of peoples of the same tribal groups, it provided a culturally acceptable way to continue traditional practices. Additionally complemented by the adaptable popular religiosity of the Spanish Catholic Church, African slaves were allowed much flexibility in their style of worship. This clearly resulted in a greater retention of Africanisms (Simpson 1978: 12-14; Canizares 1993: 24-25).
EDUARDO (Cont.): You will find some very interesting groups in Mexico that operate in conjunction with the church. These clubs where formed by slaves and later continued like Masonic clubs after slavery days. Interesting note, there is actually a great deal derived from masonry in these traditions especially Palo-Mayombe and Umbanda (very Masonic meetings and organization, secret hand shakes or grips, passwords, and initiations which draw directly from lower level Masonic Traditions). There is even Masonic symbolism in Haitian voodoo.
NOTE: Santeria is perceived as “a Cuban occult practice.” Adefumi stated, “there was some resentment among certain white Cubans when informed that the religion was of African origin. They had come to regard it as a Cuban form of freemasonry (Ibid. 117).” Ortiz (1943:3), the Cuban anthropologist, also referred to Santería in Cuba as “Negro Masonry” upon his first encounters with it.
EDUARDO (Cont.): In Africa, traditional practitioners of these systems were very much like ‘shamans’, but in the Americas they have became more like priests (in the Catholic and Anglican sense). In Africa, everyone practices rituals and can perform spells and magic, although some people may be more gifted with divination, or good at calling spirits. In general, the religious tradition was one where everyone took an active and empowering role. In the Americas, however, the “priests” and initiates perform magic on behalf of people. So the common man lost much of his ability to practice magic, because the priest now does most of the magic for him.
NOTE: The Catholic saints, whom Spaniards believed acted as intermediaries between humanity and God, were quickly adopted as ‘equivalent’ or ‘parallel’ to the Africans’ traditional deities, the Orisha. It is this very mixture of Catholicism and traditional West African religion that provides Santería with its particular beliefs. In the New World, the Yoruba’s social and religious hierarchy was disrupted, and so they established a new modified system of priests and initiations based upon the traditional West-African beliefs and Catholicism. They adopted the Spanish language, therefore, a priest or priestess became known as a santero or santera respectively. The priest or priestess had the power to induct other people into the religion through secret ceremonies brought from Africa. (Filipowicz 1998:27)
The religion is eclectic by nature absorbing appealing ideas and beliefs into the religion. For example, Buddha statues, Egyptian symbols, astrology, and even Chinese number and dream charts can be found in botanicas, attesting to the versatility of the religion. Foreign ideas are often adopted and placed within the belief system, “without compromising identity and origins” (Canazares 1993: 110).
EDUARDO (Cont.): Furthermore, based on my own experience, the African traditions in the Americas have gone another step further to become a type of religious ‘pyramid scheme’, where people have to pay lots of money for initiations, and levels of initiation have been developed and subdivided to maximize the amount of control a head of a house has over his or her ‘children.’ I was lucky in this regard – I was involved in this not just for personal reasons but for my university degree. Practitioners I worked with gained respect by having me with them. They often said things to clients like "you see Eduardo is learning from me, he is in University and I am his teacher. He is writing a book about my power…” So, because of my unusual status, several priests and practitioners helped me learn, because helping me learn meant I went to rituals with them and helped them with clients. I got a good education, and in return they got a free helper and could also declare they were teaching someone getting a masters degree. You say the Quimbanda people were egotistical, and from my experiences most of the Santeria and Palo Mayombe people where very egotistical, everything revolved around money, and controlling clients and lower initiates. There were constant criticisms of other houses – if I ever learned something from another house, it was always criticized, as “the wrong way,” or they implied the other practitioners told me wrong “just to make trouble for you.” Behavior like this was encouraged in the system itself. When other houses are in competition for clients and money, there is always going to be a problem. I find this approach to magic very "unenlightening".
NOTE: Santeria utilizes an elaborate system of initiations, which induct Santeriá devotees into the mysteries of the religion. Through divination and devotion, the adherents may learn through which ceremonies the Orisha require them to pass. These ceremonies establish a person’s rank within the religion as well as increase a devotee’s knowledge and skill. Additionally, these rites forge a link between the devotee and the Orisha (Murphy 1987: 66-67). After reaching a high level of initiation an adherent may take his place in the community as a santero, or priest of the religion. There is another type of priest, higher in authority, called a babalao, meaning “father of the cult” or “father versed in mystery”. He is a priest of Orisha Orunla the deity of divination and destiny. The babalao is especially important because of his expertise as a diviner, versed in the Ifa oracle (Idowu 1995: 6,76). His services are sought for all important undertakings and phases of life in general. The roles of the Santero and Babalao are complementary. This religious structure, together with the lower-level initiates, comprises Santería families or houses and thus the Santería community (Canizares 1993: 28-35).
ALAN: Can you tell me a little bit about your experience with Voodoo?
EDUARDO: I was very pleased with my experience of Voodoo, these people were more "down to earth" and they did not keep secrets like the Palo and Santeria people did. They were a smaller community and they openly discussed anything I wanted to know about Voodoo. I spent hours in a few Haitian "botanicas" in Central Florida, just talking and sharing. They were very interested in my knowledge of Santeria,
and even in things I had read about Haitian voodoo! I shared with them; in return they taught me anything I asked about. Root working was also very much this way, I learned most of my root working from a man who operated a hair salon in Tallahassee Florida (Mr Chapman [ALAN: What are the chances?]). Once he knew I was serious about learning, he openly shared his methods with me. I think that Voodoo is and Root Working are more “well-rounded” religions, and not just systems of magic.
ALAN: As someone initiated into genuine lineages of the African Diaspora, can you tell me if there are any teachings that deal specifically with the process of experiencing enlightenment/magical development? Does mysticism play a part?
EDUARDO: I think that in general the African traditions as found in the Americas lack any "spiritual" or "personal growth factors." I think that most of the hard core practitioners are actually "unenlightening" themselves, as explained earlier. In fact, they are not "spiritual" in the Western sense, although they attempt to use, control, and propitiate spirits. In general, I believe these traditions (at least as they are practiced outside their original environment of Africa) lack any emphasis on looking inward or seeking gnosis. I believe this is because of the time and place they came from. Only in the West and Far East have we enjoyed almost nonstop civilization (in the historical sense i.e. cities, writing systems, food technologies which create a surplus, metal smithing…). For over 2000+ years we Europeans have enjoyed an environment that has afforded some of our most "learned" people the time and luxury to explore inner space. I think that traditions such as Buddhism and Taoism are a great example of this, as they are the product of Chinese and other Asian cultures with a much older continuous civilization than our own. In Africa, people are mostly concerned with survival. We in the West have had wars, but we did not have to contend with the constant battling that traditional African peoples encountered. Additionally, their lack of technologies made life very unsure and unstable. How could anyone develop deep systems of enlightenment in such conditions? Just using magic, rough and ready, something to get you through an uncertain day was enough work. Think of it this way: In parts of the world with formal/academic systems of philosophy, there are religious and magical traditions that deal with enlightenment. Areas without formal/academic philosophies seem to be void of this type of inner tradition. I cannot think of any culture which does not fit into this paradigm.
ALAN: Despite the behaviour you’ve witnessed, are there any teachings within these traditions that resemble the mysticism of the West?
EDUARDO: They are not mystical in the sense of the Sufi or the Western mystic. I have never heard any mention of enlightenment or anything that I could interpret as enlightenment within these traditions.
In Santeria, everyone has what they call the head orisha, or guardian angel. This is a guiding spiritual father or mother depending on the gender of the orisha/deity. The term ‘head orisha’ has a double meaning: it is the deity which presides over you like a “head” master, and the orisha is said to reside in the crown of the skull. The term guardian angel is used among people who have a more catholic take on the system; it is also a simpler way to explain something to non-initiates, and safer depending on their religious outlook.
NOTE: The Yoruba believe that every person has been given a specific destiny. The fate of each individual was selected before birth while in the presence of Olorun. Also chosen at this time is the ‘guardian angel’ Orisha who helps the person understand and live according to what was preordained. When a person is born, all memory of the selected destiny is forgotten and once assigned the destiny cannot be changed. As a result, each person’s task in life is to find his or her destiny and acknowledge it. (Idowu 1995: 177, 179-184)
Each person is believed to have a destiny. To fulfill your destiny is to make the best of your life. I learned from several priests, that to follow one’s destiny to the fullest is to ‘flow with life.’ When you understand this, everything becomes easy. The destinies are often called caminos (roads). Initiates of Santería are better equipped to be ‘in tune’ with the ‘road.’ As one finds their path in life, àché becomes easier to balance and control, and therefore, the believer advances effortlessly through life (Murphy 1993:130-131). Adherents of Santería believed that every person has a following, a ‘profession.’ Likewise, a study of African-Americans found a similarity in this idea of destiny. It is essential for one to find this ‘road’, which may be one of good or evil. Only in this way can one secure their course through life in the world (Whitten 1962:319).
The Orisha have been compared to the Olympian gods of Greek mythology as they presided over various realms of nature and humanity. Unlike the Greek deities, the Orisha are a part of a living religion, and some are explained in their mythology or patakí, as human, like Shango, the third king of the city-state of Oyo (Gonzalez-Whippler 1994: 6; Nunez 1992: 43). The superficial missionary work of slave owners and clergy only helped entrench the syncretic religion by leaving gaps in the Catholic belief system to be filled by the slaves with their own traditional ideology.
When one becomes a devotee of the Santeriá religion, he identifies with a specific Orisha who serves as a ‘protector,’ often called a “guardian angel.” The Orisha are worshiped through a combination of ceremonies and festivals comprised of dancing, animal sacrifice, music, and ritual. The religion also has an elaborate system of ‘magic’ which is exercised to gain the favor of the Orisha, allowing practitioners to manipulate nature for specific ends. Trance, divination, and honoring the ancestors are other important components of Santeriá rites and practices (Nunez 1992: 7-17).
Because the Orisha are thought to guide their initiates, and even to reside in the head or ori of his priests, the attributes which characterize the Orisha are thought to transfer to the initiate, thus, explaining specific dispositions and behaviors of these initiates. Orisha help to shape the religious communities’ understanding of themselves as embodiments of the Orisha’s archetypal personality (Pemberton 1987: 537; Ojo 1966:158-159).
ALAN: Isn’t there a deity in Santeria that embodies primordial consciousness?
EDUARDO: There is a deity called Olodumare. He is like the Gnostic view of god. He is ultimately the creator of everything, and the source of all energies and life, but he is too far removed from people, too distant, for us to ask him for help – he does not hear us… The Orisha are but different manifestations of this one god, and they can act as intermediaries from people to Olodumare. This idea might be why the African traditions worked so well in the Americas, because Catholic saints also act as a kind of intermediary between people and God, and so they coulkd easily stand in for the traditional Orisha. Some religious academics actually call the West African traditions "Diffuse-Monotheism", meaning that they recognise only one God, but that one God interacts with people indirectly through emanations of himself – he is diffused into many forms.
NOTE: Theologically, the Yoruba spiritual world is divided into levels of hierarchy. The uppermost point is Olodumare, also called Olorun. He is believed to be omniscient and all-powerful, equivalent in many ways to the European concept of a Supreme Being (Murray 1989:38). The level below is occupied by the Orisha, the lesser deities who, varying by region, are ranked according to their importance. These divinities originated from a division of the prominent characteristics of Olodumare. The Orisha are various aspects of Olodumare seen as separate entities independent, yet springing from him (Idowu 1995: 57-58). Under the Orisha are the ancestors, who have established houses/families to carry on their lineage and to recognize and honor the continuous ancestral existence (Ibid. 134,207-208). Finally, at the bottom of the hierarchy are various nature spirits, which inhabit animate creatures, inanimate objects, and even places (Ojo 1966: 159-160,184).
There are no temples or shrines built for Olodumare in spite of his status. Yoruba believe that this supreme God is too far separated from the events and happenings of humanity to be addressed directly. Instead, when people need to call upon the highest power to intercede in their lives, they invoke the deities below him, the Orisha, who act as emissaries between humans and the almighty. Each Orisha has dominion over distinct aspects of the ‘material world’ (Drewal, Pemberton, and Abiodun 1989: 14-16).
ALAN: If you don't mind me asking, why do you feel the need to practice Thelema or Taoism whilst also being an initiate of Santeria/Palo Mayombe/Voodoo/Root work?
EDUARDO: Why do I want to practice Western Ceremonial magick and Thelema? For many of the reasons stated, I don’t feel the West African traditions are conducive to experiencing enlightenment. Although I could adjust the systems or only use the magical aspects of my lineages, I personally don’t feel right mixing these traditions up. I would rather practice the African Diaspora as I was originally taught. If I mixed them all together I feel I could up end up like some neo-pagan, running sky-clad in the woods waving a crystal wand, blessing everyone with light and love (although that may not be a bad idea…).
Part Two of the interview can be found here.
Brandon, George – Santería from Africa to the New World: The Dead Sell Memories, Indiana University Press: Bloomington, Indiana. 1993
Canizares, Raul – Walking with the Night: The Afro-Cuban World of Santeria, Destiny Books: Rochester, Vermont.1993
Drewal, Henry John, John Pemerton III, and Rowland Abiodun – The Yoruba World in Yoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought, Edited by Allen Wardwell. The Center for African Art, Harry N. Abrams Inc. Publishers: New York, New York. pp. 13-44. 1989
Filipowicz, Eugene B. – Santería As Revitalization Among African-Americans, MA Thesis. Department of Anthropology, Florida State University 1998
González-Wippler, Migene – Legends of Santería, Llewellyn Publications: St. Paul, Minnesota 1994
Idowu, E. Bolaji – Olóldùmarè: God in Yorùbá Belief, Original Publications: New York, New York. 1995
Murphy, Joseph M. – Santería in The Encyclopedia of Religion, Edited by Mircea Eliade, MacMillan Publishing Company: New York, New York. Vol. 13, pp. 66-67. 1987
Santería: African Spirits in America, Beacon Press: Boston, Massachusetts. 1993
Murray, Jocelyn (Editor) – Yoruba Traditional Religion, in Cultural Atlas of Africa, Equinox: Oxford, Ohio. 1989
Nunez, Luis Manuel – Santeria: A Practical Guide to Afro-Caribbean Magic, Dallas, Texas: Spring Publications. 1992
Ojo, G. I. Afolabi – Yoruba Culture: A Geographical Analysis. London, England: University of London Press Ltd. 1966
Ortiz, Fernando – On the Relations Between Whites and Blacks in Points of View, Division of Intellectual Cooperation, Pan American Union: Washington D.C. 7: 1-12. 1943
Pemberton, John III – Yoruba Religion, in The Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Eliade, Mircea. McMillian Publishing Co.: New York, New York. Vol. 15, pp. 535-538. 1987
Rogozinski, Jan – A Brief History of the Caribbean: From the Arawak and the Carib to the Present, Facts on File Inc.: New York, New York 1992
Simpson, George Eaton – Black Religions in the New World, Columbia University Press: New York, New York. 1978
Whitten, Norman E. Jr. – Contemporary Patterns of Malign Occultism among Negros in North Carolina, Journal of American Folklore. 75: 311-325. 1962