Vodou and Santeria: Cultural Hegemony and Disparity of the Afro-Caribbean Diaspora
During the 16th century, widespread raiding took place on the continent of Africa by
France and Spain. A vast influx of slaves from various African countries poured into
the Caribbean islands; those bound for Haiti were mainly from the Ewe-Fon, Dahomean and
Congo Empires enslaved by the French, while those from Yoruba land were transported to Cuba by the Spaniards.
The Ewe-Fon brought Vodun to Haiti, while the Yoruba brought Ifa to Cuba. With no intention of abandoning their faiths, the serfs on both islands hid the identity of their gods behind the
imagery of catholic saints. As a result, the religion of Vodou evolved from Vodun in Haiti and
Santeria sprung from Ifa in Cuba. Though Cuba and Haiti share the historical commonality of
slavery, there are several marked disparities in both faiths caused by cultural hegemony.
In 1492, Christopher Columbus charted the islands of the Caribbean and landed on
Hispaniola which would later be named Haiti. Originally, the native population of Hispaniola
consisted of Taino and Arawak Indians that exceeded three million. In less than twenty two years, the natives of the island were decimated to around 27,000. Enslavement, murdering, and exposure to new diseases, led to a rapid decline of the native population. The rapid decline in
native populations led to a gap in agricultural labor workers. To meet the demand of producing indigo, sugar and tobacco, the French began the rapid importation of African Slaves (Ramsey).
With the Treaty of Ryswick, Spain formally recognized that France had gained control of the Tortugas islands and the western half of Hispaniola (Shen). It was then that the island of Haiti was formally born. While islands were divided by the countries of France and Spain, hundreds of
slaves were being ritually baptized, renamed with "Christian names", and forced to toil under the humid Caribbean sun with very little to no food or water. Despite the urgency to convert the slaves to Catholicism, a fracture occurred within
Vodun because of the enslavement by the French. The slaves of Hispaniola were taught French, which they mixed with their own language and Haitian Creole was born. This was just one of several evolutions that the Fon/Dahomean people would experience in their culture and language.
Originally in Dahomey
the Lwa, or gods of Vodun, were known as “Arada” or cool, beneficent and stable, but because of the pressures of
slavery and new found understanding of concepts like petroleum kept in casks for lighting lamps, an aggressive expression of these gods were born. These became known as “Petwo” or Petrol. For
each cool and benevolent archetype of a Lwa, there would be an equivalent and fiery version.
Erzulie Freda, the goddess of love developed a duality named Erzulie Dantor, the defiant
feminist mother. The revered sacred twins, called the Marasa became honored as Marasa Nan
Petro and so forth. The revolution also saw the emergence of several new Lwas, like Marinette, Baron Samedi, and a mixture of some of the Orishas of the Yoruba Ifa tradition made themselves present in the new Vodou pantheon. An example is Ogou Batala. Ogun being the name of one Orisha in Ifa, Obatala being another. There was a gently and sometimes violent hand shaking between several energies. In this case, creating a new Lwa all together.Each peaceful aspect of spirit would be co-worshipped by a dynamic alternate expression.
fracture continues, although Haiti was freed from slavery in 1806. It is important to point out that
the sharper and fiery expressions of the Lwas are not to be confused with being of a negative nature. The
Petwo Lwa is situated as an alerted form to defend the Creole mulattos from external forces previously unknown.. to them. The effects of slavery began to spread out to other areas of daily Haitian life.
The slaves learned how to cook French Cuisine for their slave masters;
eventually these dishes would be offered to their deities. Another example of French culture inthe development of Haitian Vodun is how bokors or sorcerers began using the playing cards of their French masters for cartomancy which had become popular in the Caribbean. (Josiah 2011)
This became one of the only “formal” forms of divination within the Vodou religion.
The pervasive nature of both French culture and the aggression of slavery would remain
with the Haitians until present time; one strong example of this is the Haitian flag. According to history and Haitian folk lore, the Haitian revolution reached frenzy when Jean-Jacques Desallines, possessed by the Lwa, Ogou Feraille (God of War and Iron), ripped the white out of the French flag. The blue and the red strips of fabric were sewn together by Desallines god daughter, Catherine Flon; a bold statement that the whites who ruled them no longer had control over the slaves of Haiti. The two colors, red and blue, became emblematic as the colors attributed to Ogou Feraille. This is the flag that represents the island of Haiti today. The red on the flag became representative of the blood of the people, and the blue sewn together, as a
reminder of the colored slaves that worked the indigo fields. (Evans) Such power was attributed to the flag that each Haitian peristyle or temple has their own flag to represent their domain.
Carefully sewn and sequined flags called drapos are also used to represent individual Lwas. In an interview with Vodou priestess, and set consultant for American Horror Story: Coven, Sallie Ann Glassman relayed to me some examples of French influence in Hatian Vodou: Segwelo the small pirouette turns performed in ceremony to orient ritual items and offerings were trace elements of the elegant French minuet dance, and came to represent the way the visible world reflects the invisible world, in a glass darkly.
The Priye Guinen (guinea prayers) are Catholic prayers sung in French and the litanies of the saints, followed by the litany of Lwa that begins Haitian Vodou ceremonies (Glassman).
Within Vodou, there are songs that address both the Lwa, and the issues of slavery; these songs are used occasionally in ceremonies. An example of this is “Ogou O Wa Da Zanj” which was popularized by Mimerose Beaubrun:
"Ogou O, wa de zanj
Le m sonje pitit an mwen chwal an mwe
Chwal an mwe parenn Ogou chwal an mwe
Le m sonje pitit an mwen chwal an mwe
Ogou O, djab-la di lap manje mwen si sre vre?
Se pa fout vre?
Ogou Papa, djab-la di lap manje mwen si sre vre?
Se pa vre ti moun-yo se pa vre
Sa se jwet ti moun-yo sa se blag
Men gen Bondje O gen lesen-yo
Djab-la di lap manje mwen se pa vre"
Ogou O, King of the Angels
I miss my child, I miss my horse
My horse, father Ogou, I miss my horse
I miss my child, I miss my horse
Ogou O, the djab says he'll eat me, is this true?
it's not true
Ogou O, the djab says he'll eat me, is this true?
It's not true, children, it's not true
this a game that children play, it’s not true
But we have God, Oh we have the Saints
the djab says he'll eat me, it's not true (Beaubrun)
This song is the lament of servant who is reminiscing of her home in Africa and her fears
of the djab coming to get her. A djab is a spirit that can cause harm or protect the adherent. The djab is juxtaposed
against the serfs yearning for her homeland to imply that the French slave drivers are djabs. Her faith is put into the Lwa Ogou and she dismisses her fears as a game that children play. While these events were taking place on the island of Haiti, the influence by the Spaniards in Cuba was
quickly changing the Ifa religion of the slaves from Yoruba land.
Cuba was colonized by the Spaniards in the mid 1500’s. The tight grip that Spain
maintained on the island of Cuba similarly decimated the Siboney and Taino Arawak Indians in a span of 40 years. J.A. Sierra states in his compilation of Cuban history:
…In 1512 Most of the Indians (Siboneys and Taíno Arawaks) that inhabit the island
were eventually wiped out, and Cuba would remain under Spanish rule for the next four
centuries…December 12, 1512, King Ferdinand of Spain thanks Diego Velásquez for the occupation of Cuba and for his "humane treatment of the natives”… by 1557, It was
estimated that only about 2,000 Tainos were left in all of Cuba (out of a population about
3,000,000 before Spanish arrival). (Sierra)
In order to keep up with the growing production of sugar in Cuba, the Spaniards began to
import as many as one million African slaves from Nigeria. Cuban vassals were taught Spanish, baptized and their diets were substituted with Spanish cuisine. As the serfs began the process of
synchronization, the slave owners began to call them “Santeros” or worshipers of saints. The religion of the Yoruba quickly became known as Santeria. The Spaniards in response was restrictions and penalties. One of the most common was forms to punish was pringado, which was the pouring of hot, melted lard over open wounds after administering a series of lashes
(Rodriguez). Unlike in Haiti where their deities are called Lwa, the gods of the Yoruba are Orishas. However, just like in Haitian Vodou, The Orishas were synchronized with Catholic saints. The difference between Vodou and Santeria in synchronization lay in the bias that Santeria had towards the synchronization of catholic virgins for female Orishas as opposed
to female saints. Masculine Orishas were synchronized not only with male saints, but also with female saints, since the Spaniards brought with them limited images that were popular to their region of Europe. Two examples of this are the Orishas Obatala, god of peace and all things pure
and white, which is a male Orisha. He would be synchronized with Our Lady of Mercy who appears as a virgin dressed in all white. The Orisha Shango, god of fire and lightning, was collocated with Saint Barbara. Saint Barbara is adorned in red and white and Shango’s colors being similar gave a window for the Yoruba slaves to venerate their god. Though it may be argued that several diplo-orishas came into existence post Spanish colonialism in Cuba; there are
no direct centrally worshipped deities like in Haiti which experienced the emergence of
Marinette and Baron Samedi. The emphasis on reproduction by Spanish slave owners favored female slaves, who in Yoruba Land, were the well-versed practitioners of traditional Ifa. As a result, women were the driving force behind the development of Santeria in Cuba.
There was no fracture or duality formed for each Orishas in the way that the Haitian Lwa
had been divided; most of the traditional aspects of the Orishas remained constant. Instead there were "paths" or expressions of the Orishas that were individually observed. Par Example, Yemaya the goddess of the ocean has the aspect of the foam of the Ocean, "Asesu" or the harbor "Achaba" etc.. The differences found between traditional Ifa worship and Santeria was found in the unification of regional deities into a set group of centralized worship gods. In Nigeria, a person could be born into a town that venerated the river goddess of love Oshun and would only be a priest or priestess of her. In the new world, all regional deities were worshipped equally side by side.
The diet of the Spaniards influenced the ritual offerings of the Santeria community.
Dishes like Amala-ila (yam or cassava tubers cooked with okra), which were not only a staple diet, but were also used for the reverence of their gods, was changed to corn meal and okra. This dish is still ritually called Amala-ila. Substitutions became common place with other staple
dishes and new ritual offerings were born. Some of those dishes, like a potage of roots, tubers, meats, and vegetables, named Ajiaco, were offered to ancestors. Many of the viandas or roots that were previously unknown in parts of Nigeria were found bountifully in Cuba. Other ritual ingredients that were substituted were shea butter, which was replaced with cocoa butter, a
sacred powder for effun was exchanged with eggshells to make cascarilla, and several ritual plants were used as alternatives to plants found in Nigeria (Funke). Another example of Spain’s
influence is found in ceremonial clothing used during the grand ceremony of Kariocha which defines a person as an initiated priest or priestess. These elaborately beaded garments with
crowns were modeled after Spanish kings and dignitaries. (Brown 2003)
One marked difference in how the Yoruba slaves evolved their faith in comparison to the Ewe Fon slaves lies in the modification of divination in Cuba. Unlike Haitians who resorted to cartomancy, the Yoruba slaves maintained their Ifa oracle and erindiloggun shell divination systems; both, easily replicable in the new world. A third divination system called Obi Bata
divination consisting of casting kola nuts, was replaced with the coconut casting system since kola nuts were not indigenous to the island of Cuba. Although slavery no longer exists in Cuba, diviners still use coconuts to cast instead of kola nuts which could be easily imported today.
(Lee). This creates a bit of controversy as to the need for substitutions now that the religions of the ancestors could be practiced freely without the oppression of slave masters. As a result, there is disparity between the traditional Ifa practitioners of Yorubaland and those found in the states and Cuba. It can be argued that the substitutions are valid since they gave birth to a new religion and to do away with certain evolutions in the tradition do disservice to the toil that made the content of Santeria in its current state.
The Cuban flag has no story directly attributed to the Santeria community in Cuba the
way that it does in Haiti. Instead it is a symbol brought to the island by Narciso López, a
Venezuelan supporter of slavery whose expeditionary banner was adopted after his attempt to free Cuba from Spain failed. López attempted to hand Cuba to the United States as an additional southern slave state to strengthen the south. Though he was captured and killed, his flag became
the symbol of Cuba. The banner itself would not have a religious symbolism attributed to it; however, the deep root of support for slavery still flies over the capital of Cuba as the banner of the island. Flags as a rudimentary signaling device in religious contexts within Santeria were
used to represent a specific ile or house of worship. Also, once a year, priests would gather together to divine the specific pattern that should be flown over practitioner’s house to give
reverence to the years ruling deity. This practice continues today (Sierra).
Within Santeria, there is the practice of the espiritismo or spiritualism that is practiced
along with Santeria. Cuban spiritualism was brought by the Spaniards to Cuba during the 18th and
19th centuries after several influential authors in the movement began to have their books circulate throughout the colonized islands. Because Espiritismo appeared as catholic liturgy but
serviced spirits, the slaves found this to be an ideal extension of their already transformed practices. Unlike the table tippers of 19th century Europe, espiritismo is carried out by practitioners seated as mass where Spanish prayers and songs are sung in reverence for their spirit guides and ancestors. As in the sacred songs of Vodou, there are several songs that speak
of the pressures of enslavement. One of the songs that are sung in espritismo mass illustrates
"Siento una voz que me llama, de lo profundo del mar
Es la voz de una Africana, que viene a laborer
Llamo mama y no viene, llamo papa y tampoco
Yo llamo a lo seres guia, que vengan poquito a poco"
I sense a voice that calls me from the deepest part of the sea
It’s the voice of an African, who comes to assist me
I call my mother and she does not respond, I call my father and he does not either
I call guiding spirits that come little by little (Funke)
Though slavery is a commonality found within the development of Vodou and Santeria.
The culture of the slave’s masters was a significant component to the reordering that occurred
religiously in Haiti and Cuba. The social impact that the Franco-Caribbean and Hispano-Caribbean populations experienced forced two separate groups of people to evolve differently.
Despair, adaptation, perseverance, uncertainty and struggle are just some of the shared themes
between Vodou and Santeria. Although Vodou and Santeria appear similar to many bystanders
and outsiders, they are two completely different religious systems with their own rites and
practices. The ancestors who preserved the practices that evolved, on both islands, treasured their
native practices and found the commonality of synchronization with Catholicism to preserve
their traditions. In order to do this they had to embrace the cultures of their captors. Vodou adapted by implementing the culture of the French while Santeria amended their practices with influences by the Spaniards. Though both islands have been liberated by slavery, they share the commonality that neither religious group has regressed to their parent root practices by
abandoning the cultures that enslaved them. Instead the Haitians and Cubans found ways to compare and contrast their beliefs with their enslavers; because even in their differences, there
were enough commonalities to ensure preservation and survival of their traditions and faiths.
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