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THE

SANTERIA
EXPERIENCE

Migene Gonzalez-Wippler
Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey 07632
For my mother and father and Marfa

The Santeri'a Experience, by Migene GonzaIez-Wippler


Copyright 1982 by Migene GonzaIez-Wippler
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any
means, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in a review, without permission
in writing from the publisher. Address inquiries to Prentice-Hall, Inc., Engle-
wood Cliffs, N.J. 07632
Printed in the United States of America
Prentice-Hall International, Inc., London I Prentice-Hall of Australia, Pty. Ltd.,
Sydney I Prentice-Hall of Canada, Ltd., Toronto I Prentice-Hall of India Private
Ltd., New Delhi I Prentice-Hall of Japan, Inc., Tokyo I Prentice-Hall of Southeast
Asia Pt. Ltd., Singapore I Whitehall Books Limited, Wellington, New Zealand
10987654321

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data


GonzaIez-Wippler, Migene.
The Santeria experience.
Bibliography: p.
Includes index.
1. Santeria (Cultus) I. Title.
BL2532.S3G67 299'.67 81-13989
AACR2
ISBN 0-13-791079-7
ISBN 0-13-791087-8 {PBK}
Contents
Foreword by Andres I. Perez y Mena v
Introduction vii

1. YORUBA 1
2. THE ORISHAS 14
3. THE SANTERO 22
4. COCONUTS AND COWRIE SHELLS 35
5. OF LIFE AND DEATH 54
6. FIRE AND LIGHTNING 70
7. RITUALS AND CEREMONIES 82
8. BLOOD AND HONEY 101
9. FIESTA DE SANTO ill
10. POSSESSION 124
11. THE BABALAWO 146
12. ELEGGUA AND THE WARRIORS 158
13. MAKING THE SAINT 171
14. !TUTU-DEATH OF A SANTERO 187
15. ACHE-POWER OF THE SAINTS 199
Bibliography 210
Glossary 214
Index 225
BOOKS BY MIG ENE GONZALEZ-WIPPLER

Santeria: African Magic in Latin America (1973)


A Kabbalah for the Modern World (1974)
The Complete Book of Spells, Ceremonies and Magic (1978)
The Santeria Experience (1982)

I wish to thank all the santeros and santeras who have given me
their protection and instructed me in the mysteries and practices
of Santeria, especially my madrina and my ayugbona.
I also wish to thank Arthur Ceppos, my first editor and
publisher, who started me on the way, and Tam Mossman, my
editor at Prentice-Hall, whose vision and expertise proved in-
valuable in the preparation of the manuscript.
Foreword
The Santena Experience is an autobiographical account of child-
hood initiation into a clandestinely practiced religion. Ms.
Gonzcilez-Wippler pointedly ignores the dense and often entan-
gling obscurantism invariably employed by most writers of San-
teria. Instead, she rewards her readers with the raw, emotional
impact of her personal experiences with a religion which is
perhaps one of the most significant influences on the Hispanic
peoples of the Caribbean.
Santeria, like other ancient religions, is passed on
through oral tradition from one generation to the next. It contains
not only the history of a people determined to survive against
overwhelming odds, but also their ritual behavior, forcibly in-
scribed in their consciousness through constant suffering and
persecution.
GrOwing academic interest in the social and psychologi-
cal benefits to be gained through the practice of Santeria has
resulted in many research projects, mostly sponsored by the
departments of psychiatry of many medical schools. Among the
most notable researchers are Dr. Vivian Garrison of the New
Jersey Medical School and Dr. Mercedes Sandoval of the Univer-
sity of Miami School of Medicine. Present research is mostly
directed to better understanding the practice of Santeria's effects
on its believers and how it helps them cope with problems of
adjustment. Increasing numbers of North Americans, both black
and white, are becoming adherents of Santeria and are also the
subject of much academic interest and speculation.
Santeria emerged as a struggle for cultural and ideologi-
cal survival between the enslaved West African Yoruba people
and the Roman Catholic Church in union with the Spanish Em-
v
vi
FOREWORD

pire. Slaves transformed the enforced worship of the Catholic


saints into the veiled worship of their spirit ancestors. For centu-
ries, the resulting magico-religious system remained an enigma
to the Christian world. Only recently have some of Santeria's
traditional practices come to light. The first important study was
Los Negros Brujos, written ,by Fernando Ortiz in Cuba circa 1902
and available only in Spanish. The next major work, EI Monte,
also available in Spanish only and regarded as the definitive
study of Santeria, was written in Cuba by Lydia Cabrera, Ortiz'
niece.
Unlike Ortiz and Cabrera, who describe Santeria in ob-
jective terms, Gonzcilez-Wippler reports her own encounters
with the religion as both a researcher and an initiate. She is the
first writer to present to an English-speaking audience the full
emotional impact and ritual complexities of Santeria.
It should be noted that Santeria is not confined to the
Caribbean and to South America. As a result of the migration of
large amounts of Caribbean people, it is now practiced in the
great cities of the United States and Canada, inevitably winning
converts among many North Americans of varied ethnic back-
grounds. These cross-currents of recent migration have kindled
new interest in America's African and Hispanic cultural heritage.
According to Dr. Mercedes Sandoval, "The reason why
Santeria has emerged so powerfully resides precisely in the in-
trinsic essence of this religiOUS complex. Santeria is the result of a
three-hundred-year process of acculturation which is not yet
complete. Since it is always open to new beliefs, new gods, and
new rituals, it is well equipped to deal with new situations and
make the best of them."
The Santeria Experience provides a particularly valuable
personal insight lnto Santeria's "ability" to make the best of any
situation. Also of great value are Ms. Gonzcilez-Wippler' s per-
sonal interpretations of the powers of the orishas and their im-
portant role in the development of the human mind.

Andres I. Perez y Mena


Rutgers University at New Brunswick
Introduetlon
On New York's 115th Street near Park Avenue stands a reli-
gious-goods store called Otto Chicas, owned by a Guatemalan of
the same name. His store features large statues of Catholic saints,
some of them exquisitely carved in wood and ornamented in gold
leaf. It also sells a huge variety of candles in all colors and sizes,
exotic herbs and roots, special incenses, magical oils and pow-
ders, bead necklaces, all sorts of amulets and talismans, and other
magical paraphernalia. These stores, known as botEmicas in the
Hispanic communities, cater mostly to the basic needs of the
santeros, or practitioners of Santeria, an African-based cult very
popular in Latin America.
Understandably, the owner of the botaruca must be well
acquainted with his customers' magical beliefs and practices.
Often called upon to provide solutions for a variety of problems,
he usually has a keen understanding of human nature. Otto
Chicas is no exception. A competent herbalist and spiritualist and
a shrewd self-styled psychologist, he is quite well known in the
community, and his name is a household word to most Hispanic
families throughout New York. In fact, one could say that Otto is
something of a celebrity. He and his family have been the subject
of several articles in The New York Times." The Museum of
Natural History has produced a film about Santeria, featuring

"See The New York Times; About New York, p. B20, September 11, 1979.

vii
viii
INTRODUCTION

Otto prominently in it. It The late Margaret Mead also expressed


an interest in Otto's rare talents, and was preparing to make a
study of his work before she died. Even mayor Ed Koch of New
York City has visited Otto on several occasions, as have a large
number of other political and entertainment personalities.
The reason for Otto's popularity is not difficult to under-
stand, considering his reputed abilities to make herbal cures and
solve practically any problem that is haunting an individual, no
matter how complicated and unsolvable it may seem. Best of all,
Otto does not charge any fees for a "consultation." The only
expenses his clients incur are the prices of the herbs and other
ingredients that may be part of a magic spell or herbal cure. But
for all of Otto's well-deserved fame and his undeniable talents, he
is not an initiated santero. In comparison with the knowledge and
wisdom of a santero, Otto's magical expertise is like a drop of
water in a vast ocean. And Otto is the first one to admit this truth.
Just who are these "miracle workers" known as santeros?
And what'is Santeria? These questions have been asked of me
many times since I first wrote about the cult. I am still looking for
the conclusive, axiomatic answers. I doubt I will ever find them,
for Santeria is a mystery religion, and mystery religions are not
meant to be wholly understood. One can only grasp their es-
sence. Their true meaning is forever hidden, iceberg style, in the
depths of the human unconscious.
The mysteries of Santeria are deeply rooted in African
soil, in the country of Nigeria, the homeland of the Yoruba
people. With the slave trade, thousands of Yo rub as were brought
to the New World over the past four centuries. With them they
brought the colorful mythology and magical practices of their
religion, known in Cuba as Lucumi and in Brazil as Macumba.
In Latin America, the Yorubas were deeply influenced by
the Catholic faith and particularly by the Catholic saints, which

"See Nature, "Botanicas: Puerto Rican Folk Pharmacies," May, 1978, p.


65.
ix

INTRODUCTION

they identified with their gods and goddesses. This syncretism,


or spontaneous combination of the Catholic and Yoruba reli-
gions, gave birth to Santeria-a Spanish word that means literally
the worship of saints. The Yoruba gods, or orishas, became
known by both their Catholic and their African appellations.
Sometimes a male orisha became identified with a female saint. A
typical case is that of Chango, the god of fire, thunder, and
lightning, who became known as St. Barbara, the Virgin Martyr
of the Middle Ages.
The orishas are the very soul of Santeria. The central aim
of the santero is to worship the saints, to observe their feasts,
obey their commands, and conduct their rituals. In exchange for
this absolute submission, he gains great supernatural powers,
protection against evil, and the ability to foresee the future and
even to shape that future according to his will.
With all these fringe benefits as enticements, Santeria has
no problem with public relations. In the past two hundred years,
hundreds of millions in Latin America (and more recently in the
United States) have been initiated into the cult. But in spite of
Santeria's ever-growing popularity, it is not easy to break
through into its inner ranks.
The reason why the santero is so reluctant to accept new
converts is precisely his seal and devotion to his faith. Deeply
aware of the curiosity and greed that the orishas' powers can
awake in the human heart, the santero cautiously shies away
from the public eye and practices his religion in the utmost
secrecy. You have to be very warmly recommended by someone a
santero trusts implicitly before he will even allow you in the
privacy of his home. At this point he will probably conduct a
registro, or speCial divination process, to find out exactly who you
are, what your intentions are, and if you are worthy of being
allowed into the secrets of his faith.
If you pass that initial test, your journey has just begun.
For he will then put you through a most harrowing and severe
waiting period, during which he will further test your character
x

INTRODUCTION

and inner strength. Only after he is thoroughly satisfied that your


intentions are honorable and your faith unshakable will he in-
itiate you into the mysteries of SanterIa.
And there are many initiations. During the first initia-
tion, one receives the five callares, or bead necklaces, known as el
fundamenta, the foundation, of SanterIa. Each necklace is made of
different-colored beads and is consecrated to one of the five most
powerful of the saints. The last initiation is known as the asiento,
or "making the saint," and during the ceremony the saint who is
believed to be the initiate's "mother" or "father" takes full pos-
session of him, investing him at this time with all of the saint's
supernatural powers. Indeed, the intention of the ceremony is to
condition (asentar) the initiate's mind and body so that he may
literally become the saint who presides over the initiation. In a
sense, the ceremony of the asiento is a form of rebirth, and the
personality that emerges after the initiation is an entirely new
one, spiritually and psychologically.
After the ceremony of the asiento, the santero is invested
with the supernatural potential of the saint into whose mysteries
he was initiated. This means that the powers are in him to the
extent to which he develops them. The greater the santero's
dedication and devotion to his saint, the greater his supernatural
powers will become. A fully developed santero is able to divine
the future with uncanny accuracy, and his feats of magic can
stagger the imagination.
Inextricably linked to each initiation are the oaths of
secrecy that attend any mystery religion. These vows are severely
observed in Santeria, and are another reason why the santero is
so reticent with strangers to the cUlt, so reluctant to discuss his
religious beliefs. When I wrote my first book on Santeria, I in-
curred the anger of many santeros, who claimed that I had re-
vealed many of their initiation secrets and magical practices to the
general public. Although several other writers had lifted the
cult's veil of secrecy, I was the first one to write about Santeria in
the English language, awakening a great deal of interest in
English-speaking persons from all walks of life. As a result,
xi

INTRODUCTION

numerous Santeria study groups were formed throughout the


United States, particularly in New York and California. In Eng-
land, Cambridge University lauded the book and initiated a series
of studies of the cult. This example was followed by Iowa State
College, the University of California, and several other American
universities.
Naturally the santeros took a dim view of all this interest
in their private affairs, and the blame was dutifully laid at my feet.
At the time, however, I had not yet been initiated into any of the
mysteries of the cult, and therefore I was not under any oath of
secrecy that would forbid me to reveal the secrets of Santeria.
Being an aleyo, or noninitiate, I could not be chastized for my
indiscretions. This was lucky for me because it is hardly enviable
to be on the receiving end of a santero's wrath. Several years
later, when I underwent my first initiation (the collares) into the
cult, my madrina, or godmother-the santera who initiated
me-warned me against revealing any of the details of this
breathtaking ceremony. "You got away with it once because you
were an aleyo," she told me with her very special wry smile, "but
you wouldn't get away with it now." Needless to say, this is one
ceremony that I will not describe in detail.
In the course of this book, you will meet some extraordi-
nary people and witness some extraordinary occurrences. All are
part of my lifelong experience with Santeria. I will not waste your
time or mine trying to provide a logical explanation for the extra-
ordinary phenomena of Santeria. I have done this elsewhere, but
it was not really necessary. Santeria does not need any form of
apolOgia. It is strong and it is real. Experience it, revel in it, and
you will never be the same again.
I
YORUBA
Arecibo, tucked in a fold of Puerto Rico's northeastern coast, is
one of the oldest towns in the western hemisphere. Originally an
Indian village ruled by a Taino chieftain called Aracibo, it was
founded by the Conquistadores in 1616.
In the late nineteen-forties, when I was three years old,
my mother hired Marfa, a black woman of mammoth propor-
tions, to be my nanny. Mana's skin was like shiny mahogany
with almost iridescent tones, and her smile was radiant. I never
saw Maria angry or sad, and if she was ever prey to these dismal
human moods, she was quite adept at hiding them from me. I
thought her very beautiful, and soon I would take my meals only
if Maria ate with me and would not fall asleep unless Maria sat by
my side.
Maria took me everywhere she went. To the marketplace
where she did our daily shopping, and to the shantytown where
her numerous family lived. To daily mass, for she was a devout
Catholic, and to the neighborhood store where she placed her
occasional bets with the numbers. My mother took a dim view of
these escapades, but I was so healthy and so happy in Maria's
care that my mother eventually relented and let her take full
charge of me.
Each morning Maria would put me in a frothy sundress
with a matching sunbonnet, white sandals, and socks which she
bleached daily to ensure their whiteness. Underneath the bon-
net, my long black hair would be meticulously braided and tied
with silk ribbons matching the color of my dress. Maria was

1
2
YORUBA

partial to the scent of Parma violets, and all my clothes exuded a


faint violet fragrance.
Once my morning toilet was finished, Maria would
march me proudly into our dining room, where my parents and
grandparents would make proper sounds of praise and admira-
tion at my dazzling pulchritude. Then, under Maria's watchful
eyes, I would sit to breakfast without wrinkling my skirts or
soiling my ruffles. After a substantial breakfast, Maria sailed
majestically out of the house with me in tow, her long, immacu-
late skirts crackling with starch. On her shoulder was a huge
parasol to protect us from the fiery Caribbean sun, while from her
wrist dangled a fan to bring us relief from the stifling heat. Since
air conditioning had barely made its appearance on the island,
the fan was more than an ornament. But female vanity had long
turned a necessary instrument into a thing of beauty, and fans
had become the objects of both pride and delight, some of them
made of fine sandalwood and hand-painted with exquisite land-
scapes by renowned artists. Others were of peacock or ostrich
features, or of Chantilly lace embroidered with seed pearls. Maria
had purchased her fan from a merchant marine sailor who had
brought it from Spain. Its unusually wide span was of ebony,
carved with intricate flowery designs and highlighted with deli-
cate touches of color that made the flower patterns dance with
light.
It was Maria who first taught me that with a flick of the
wrist and the opening and closing of a fan, a woman can tell an
admirer that she is angry or jealous, that she welcomes his ad-
vances or finds him a crashing bore. Marfa taught me all this and
more during the twelve years I remained in her care.
I was thrilled at the idea of going to school, which opened
the day after I turned five, and talked about it incessantly with
Maria. My mother had promised me an especially nice party to
celebrate my birthday, and my grandfather had a famous de-
signer in San Juan make a special dress of pink organdy, hand-
embroidered with tiny flowers and musical notes. The shoes and
socks were also pink, as were the silk ribbons for my hair. But
3
YORUBA

early in the morning, Maria dressed me in an old white dress and


took me to mass. She did not take me in to my family and have
breakfast with them. I kept questioning the departure from our
daily routine, but Maria said to be silent and do as I was told.
After mass was over, Maria brought me to an altar over
which stood a statue of the Virgin Mary. While I knelt down
before the image, Maria pulled from her capacious handbag a
large wooden rosary, and proceeded to pass the beads. She stood
behind me, praying in muted tones, with her hand on my shoul-
der as if she were introducing me to the Virgin.
Even if you don't pray the litanies, a compilation of
fifty-three Hail Marys and seven Paternosters is a lengthy busi-
ness if you are a child of five. My stomach was empty. My knees
ached and throbbed and threatened to buckle, and I had to keep
balancing my weight first on one knee, then on the other. I must
have presented a most unhappy picture to Our Blessed Lady. But
not once did I think to complain to Maria. One did not question
her orders, one simply did what one was told.
It was already midmorning when we left the church. My
knees were functioning again after Maria rubbed them briskly
with her handkerchief, but my stomach was grumbling louder
than ever.
"Maria, are we going to the market place or back home?"
"I know you're tired and hungry," she said evasively,
opening her parasol and pulling me under it. "But you must
never let your body tell you what to do. It must obey you, not the
other way around."
I trotted obediently by her side. "But how does my body
tell me what to do?"
"By making you feel things," she answered. "It makes
you feel hungry, so you eat. Tired, so you sit down. Sleepy, so
you go to bed. Sometimes it makes you feel angry, so you scream
and yell and stomp your feet."
My face colored, remembering my occasional temper
tantrums.
"But, Maria, then my body isn't good."
4
YORUBA

"Oh yes it is, florecita llittle flower]. Because of your body,


you can see the sky and the sun and the sea. You can smell the
perfume of the flowers and sing and play, and love your mother
and father."
"And you," I added, drawing closer to her.
"And me," she laughed her great throaty laugh. "But
you see, lorecita, your body is like a little child. It must be taught
good habits and to obey. It must learn we can't always eat when
we're hungry or sit down when we're tired or sleep when we're
sleepy. And the best way to teach your body these things is by
sometimes not doing the things it wants you to do. Not always,"
she emphasized. "Only sometimes."
"Like now?" I asked.
"Like now."
We reached the bus stop. With delight, I thought we
were going home, where I could eat some breakfast and play
before my party in the afternoon.
"But I will only eat a little," I promised myself, remem-
bering Maria's words, "and I will play with only one doll."
. But I was not to eat a little breakfast or play with any dolls
that morning.
The bus chugged along the country road to our home.
Palm trees and banana plants heavy with fruit grew profusely on
both sides of the road, as did the brilliant blossoms of the hibis-
cus, the poinciana, and the bougainvillaea. To our left, gently
sloping hills alternated with narrow valleys carpeted in a dazzling
variety of greens. To our right, the Atlantic melted with the sky in
a majestic display of aquamarine and gold. A few peasant huts,
known as boh{os, were scattered on the hillside, while on the
ocean side rose elegant, luxurious quintas of white stucco or-
namented with costly mosaics and Spanish ironwork.
We were still about ten minutes from home when Maria
pulled the cord to get off. Before I knew what was happening I
found myself standing by the road, watching the bus disappear in
the distance. Maria opened her parasol and gathered her parcels
together.
5
YORUBA

Directly in front of us was a rough path, largely over-


grown with vegetation. Marla and I trudged along this path until
we emerged directly onto a part of the beach hidden from the
main road by a series of large boUlders imbedded in the sand.
Among the dunes grew a profusion of tropical sea grapes, their
hard, bitter fruit shining like amethysts among their harsh round
leaves. Some palm trees bent their trunks so close to the sand one
could easily grab the clusters of coconut growing among the
fan-shaped leaves.
We stopped under the shadow of a palm while Marla
removed my shoes and socks, her own heavy brogans, and the
thick cotton stockings she always wore. Thus barefoot we tram-
pled through the warm sand.
I did not bother to ask Maria the reason for our detour,
used as I was to be taken along on all her outings. I had the vague
feeling this surprise visit to the beach I had always admired from a
distance, but never had walked on before, was Maria's birthday
present to me. Intoxicated by the sharp, tangy smell of the sea,
I wanted to stay on the shore for the rest of my life.
When we finally arrived at the water's edge, Marla set her
parcels down, closed her parasol, and then calmly proceeded to
tear the clothes from my body.
I felt no shame. Maria washed and dressed me every day
and put me to sleep every night. I had stood naked in front of her
many times before. I had not yet learned to be ashamed of my
own body. But her action had a certain ominous authority that
made me feel destitute and vulnerable beyond description. De-
prived of more than myoId clothes, I felt stripped of identity, of a
sense of being. It was as if I had died somehow, standing there on
the golden sand, with the sun like a halo around me and the taste
of salt water on my lips. I stood there in shock and utter humilia-
tion, tears rolling steadily down my cheeks. I did not understand
Marfa's actions, but I knew there was always a reason for every-
thing she did. (Many years later I would find an echo of Maria's
teachings, in the philosophies of some of the world's greatest
religions, especially Zen Buddhism. When Marla tore my clothes
6

YORUBA

and left me naked faCing the sea, without any sense of ego or
identity, she was echoing Zen's concept of the perfect Initiate,
who must be "devoid of selfhood, devoid of personality, devoid
of identity, and devoid of separate identity.")
Out of her handbag's unfathomable depths, Marfa ex-
tracted a bottle of sugarcane syrup and the red handkerchief, tied
in a knot, where she kept all her loose change. Only then did she
turn to look at me, all at once the picture of consternation.
"Ah, my little flower, don't cry. You afraid of Marfa? You
think Maria can hurt you?" She rocked me gently against her
bosom as she spoke her soothing words. "Why, mi florecita,
Maria would cut out her heart for you. Marfa could never hurt
you."
Slowly my tears stopped flowing. I lifted my wet face
from her shoulder. I felt I could question her now.
"Why, Marfa?" I asked, with still trembling lips. "Why
did you do that?"
"Because I want you to be protected from all harm. Now
that you're going to school, you'll be alone, florecita, without
Marfa to watch over you. You need protection, and only God and
the Blessed Lady can give it to you. That's why I bring you to the
Lady in church, so she can know you and give you her bleSSings.
And now I bring you to the Lady and her true power, the sea."
As she spoke, Maria opened the bottle of sugarcane
syrup. Tasting it with her forefinger, she anointed my temples,
lips, wrists, and ankles with the thick liquid. I automatically
licked the heavy, cloying syrup on my lips.
"It's too sweet," I grimaced. "I don't like it."
"It has to be sweet for the Lady, as sweet as possible.
Nothing can be too sweet for her."
Maria undid the knot of her red handkerchief. Counting
seven pennies, she pressed them in my hand.
"Here, florecita," she said, closing my fingers around the
coins. "This is the payment, el derecho, of the Lady. I give you
seven pennies because seven is her number. You remember that.
Seven is the number of the Lady, of Yemaya."
7
YORUBA

"Of who?" I asked, staring at the pennies. "What Lady


are you talking about, Maria? The Blessed Lady is in the church
and in heaven."
"Yes, florecita, but her true power is in the sea and the
seawater. She stands in heaven, but where the bottom of her
mantle touches the earth, it turns into the ocean. The waves and
the sea foam are her ruffles and her lace. And here, in the sea, her
name is Yemaya."
She enunciated the strange name carefully so that I could
grasp its melodious rhythm, "Say it, florecita. Ye-ma-ya."
I repeated it after her. "It is the prettiest name I ever
heard, Maria!"
"The prettiest name in the whole world," Maria laughed
delightedly. "It is the name of the Lady in African, in Yoruba. My
mammy taught it to me. And now, my little flower, your black
mammy teaches it to you." She took my hand gently and guided
me to the water. "Come, let me show you how to salute
Yemaya."
Lifting her voluminous skirts so that the waves would
not wet them, she turned her body to the left and forced me to do
the same. We both stood ankle-deep in the water, our bodies at
right angles to the sea.
"See, florecita, you never enter into the ocean faCing
front. To do so is a challenge to Yemaya, it's like saying, 'I'm here,
come get me.' So then maybe she does. Always, always enter on
your side, better the right side. Then you say, 'Hekua, Yemaya,
hekua.' Say it, little flower."
I looked dubiously at the water, then at Maria. Like most
Puerto Rican children I had been raised as a very strict Catholic,
and I had the vague feeling that our parish priest would not
approve of what Maria was saying. But my trust in her had been
firmly reestablished and I did not want to offend her. "Hekua,
Yemaya, hekua," I repeated.
As soon as I repeated these words, I felt relieved and
relaxed, as if an unseen link had been established between the sea
and myself. My soul was overwhelmed by a great love for the sea
8
YORUBA

that has never stopped growing within me. I have never bathed
in the sea again without remembering that incredible feeling of
love illuminating my entire being.
"See, florecita," Maria said joyously. "Yemaya blesses
you, she accepts you. She will always protect you now./I
I looked up at her with wondering eyes. "Is that what
hekua means?"
"Yes, hekua means bleSSings. And see how Yemaya
blesses you?"
Maria pointed to the water frothing softly around my
feet. Small whirlpools of foam enveloped my ankles, then my
knees. Then suddenly an unexpectedly huge wave rose from the
sea like a great green arm. As the wall of water collapsed over my
head, I heard Maria cry out, liThe coins! The coins! . . . Let go
the coins!"
I felt myself being drawn out to sea inside a glimmering
cocoon, with the rushing sound of a thousand crystal bells. I
opened my arms to embrace the sea, and the seven pennies fell
from my fingers. Almost immediately, the water receded and the
waves resumed their usual gentle motion. I stood as before,
ankle-deep in foamy water, blinking at the morning sunshine.
I recall little of what happened inside the water. The
lingering memory is one of silky green depths, of sun rays shin-
ing through the water; of softness, warmth and safety. It was
almost as if I had returned to the womb of the world, and felt
reluctant to be born anew. This episode at the beach was my first
initiation in the Yoruba cult known as Santeria.
Maria used to tell me that the presence of Yemaya is
always much stronger in very deep waters. Off the north coast of
Puerto Rico, in an area known as Bronson's Deep, the ocean floor
plunges down to 27,000 feet. Measured from this depth, the
mountains of Puerto Rico would be among the highest in the
world, with an approximate height of 31,500 feet. Anything that
falls within these waters is lost forever-says the legend-unless
Yemaya is offered a prize in exchange for her bounty. Truly, her
9
YORUBA

demands are modest. Seven shiny copper pennies, a bit of sugar-


cane syrup, and sometimes a few candles are enough to please
her. Perhaps it is not the value of the gift that Yemaya really
wants, but the faith with which it is given.
In these same waters, on August 16, 1977, off the coast of
Sanjuan, an incident took place which was fully reported in the
San Juan Star. For several weeks I had been in one of the hotels
lining El Condado Avenue, working against a deadline on one of
my books. One afternoon, a friend went snorkeling in the deep
waters off the San Juan coast. When he returned several hours
later, he had a tragic story to tell.
A family from nearby Santo Domingo had come to visit
Puerto Rico for the first time. Their thirteen-year-old son dis-
regarded the warnings of the dangerous undercurrents sur-
rounding the coast of San Juan, and the great depths of the
waters, and he swam out far from shore. Probably too weak to
fight against the currents, the boy suddenly sank under the water
and did not surface again. Locallieguards and members of the
Police Rescue Squad tried to locate his body, but all their efforts
proved fruitless.
The story spread throughout El Condado, and all the
hotels sent out search parties to find the body. The boy's mother
was determined not to leave her son's body in the sea, as she
wanted to bring it back to Santo Domingo for proper burial. But
late in the afternoon of the following day, the authorities called
off the search. All the desperate entreaties of the boy's mother fell
on deaf ears. The police were sure the powerful undercurrents in
these waters had driven the body toward the ocean floor or
wedged it in one of the reefs many underwater crevices. But the
mother asked to go along with a search party-the very last one,
she pleaded. If the body was not found during this last search,
she would not insist any further.
After some consideration, the authorities agreed. As the
story unfolded in the San Juan Star, she brought along with her
four white candles. When the boat had gone sufficiently out to
10
YORUBA

sea, she asked the officers to stop the engines. Here, she felt, they
would find her son's body. More to humor her than for any other
reason, the Rescue Squad officers stopped the boat's engines.
The mother then approached the boat's gunwale and
began an impassioned plea to the sea. Kneeling on deck, her
hands linked together in prayer, tears streaming down her face,
she called out to the sea to return her son's body to her. Remind-
ing the sea that the boy was dead, she proposed that it exchange
his body for the candles she had brought along. Since four
candles are burned around a coffin, these also represented her
dead son.
As she spoke, she pulled the candles from her handbag
and threw them overboard. A few minutes later, the Rescue
Squad officers aboard the boat watched, aghast, as the boy's body
surfaced on the same spot where the candles had sunk into the
water.
Had Maria been aboard that boat, she would not have
been at all surprised. Without any doubts she would have stated
that Yemaya, the Great Supernal Mother, had taken pity on
another mother and had accepted the exchange willingly, and
with her blessing. As to the apparent cruelty of the sea in taking
the boy's life, Maria would have probably answered that the sea
had been kind, saving him from a life of suffering and giving him
eternal life instead.
Maria held the view that life was an illusion. So, for that
matter, was death.
"It's just another way of life, florecita," she would say.
"A far better way of life."
I would wrinkle my forehead. "But, Maria, then why do
we live this life? Wouldn't it be better to die and live a better life in
the other world instead?"
"No, florecita, we're here for a reason. We're here to
learn, to become better so that we can enjoy that other, better life.
If we're bad here, we don't go to the better life after this one.
Instead, we have to come back, again and again, until we learn to
be good."
11

YORUBA

This simple explanation is exactly the same as the theory


of reincarnation expressed by Buddha to his disciple Subhuti in
the Diamond Sutra:
"Furthermore, Subhuti, if it be that good men and good
women. . . are downtrodden, their evil destiny is the inevitable
retributive result of sins committed in their mortal lives. By virtue
of their present misfortunes, the reacting effects of their past will
be thereby worked out, and they will be in a position to attain the
Consummation of Incomparable Enlightenment."
The Consummation of Incomparable Enlightenment was
the same concept expressed by Maria as a ''better life in the other
world."

After she took me out of the water, Maria dried me,


braided my hair and tied it with pink silk ribbons, and then
dressed me with the pink organdy dress my grandfather had
given me for my birthday. She seemed in very high spirits and
hummed a popular tune. When I told her I was happy to have
come to the sea and hoped that she would bring me back again,
she laughed and hugged me.
"We'll see, fiorecita, we'll see," she said, putting the
finishing touches on a satin bow. "But I'm happy that Yemaya
has accepted you. Now you can go to school without Maria and
no harm can come to you."
To my lips came a question that was burning in my mind.
"Maria, why did you tear my clothes?"
She looked at me briefly. Her smile widened, and she
returned her attention to my hair.
"Why? Because you had to be presented to Yemaya
without clothes, like a newborn baby. I tore the clothes to tell
Yemaya you gave up your old life and wanted to start living again
with her as your mother."
"And now my mother is not my mother anymore?" I
asked in alarm, my eyes filling with tears.
12

YORUBA

Marla hugged me again, brushing away my tears with


expert fingers.
"Of course she is, lorecita. But she's your mother on
earth, while Yemaya is your mother in heaven and in the sea."
"But who is Yemaya, the sea?" I asked, still confused.
"Yemaya is the Yoruba name of the Virgin Mary,
lorecita," explained Marla patiently. "She's the mother of all, of
whites and blacks, of yellows and greens; of everybody. But in
Africa she's always black because the people there are black, and
she wants them to know she's black too."
''But Marla, the Virgin is not black, she's white. I've seen
her in the church."
"No, lorecita, the Virgin is like your ribbons. She has
many colors. Sometimes she's white, sometimes yellow, some-
times she's red, sometimes black. It depends on the color of the
people who adore her. She does this to tell the world she loves
everybody the same, no matter what their color is. To the Yorubas
she's always black because they're black."
"Who are the Yorubas, Marla?"
Marla paused in the middle of a braid, her eyes lost in
reverie.
"The Yorubas were a great black people." She continued
her braiding. "My mammy was Yoruba," she said, with evident
pride. "She come to Puerto Rico in 1872, year before abolition.""
When she spoke of her mother, which was often, Marla
reverted to broken Spanish, with African words interspersed.
"She come with two hundred fifty Yorubas from He, that's the
name of Yoruba land in black country," she added. "Come from
Africa, they did, in them slave boats. In chains they brought
them, the mean slave merchants-los negreros. Many of the black
people die on boat, of hunger and sickness, but mostly of broken
heart. Yorubas is proud people. Don't like white man."
"I'm white, Marla," I reminded her sadly.

"Slavery was abolished in Puerto Rico on March 22, 1873.


13
YORUBA

"No you aren't, florecita," Marfa cried, holding me tight


against her. "You aren't white, and you aren't black. You're like
the sun and the stars-all light, no color."
She finished tying the last ribbon and stood up with great
effort from her stooped position. Her usually immaculate clothes
were drenched with seawater and covered with sand, but she
paid no attention to them.
"Old Marfa is not as strong as she used to be," she
grunted, flexing her back. "Not like my mammy. My mammy real
strong," she said with relish. "She only ten when she come to
island. But white man leave my mammy alone. She knew how to
talk to the orishas."
"What is orisha, Marfa?" I asked.
"Orisha?" she mused. "Yemaya is orisha. Eleggua is
orisha. Chang6 is orisha. Orisha is a saint, a force of the good
God. But come," she added, taking me by the hand. "It's no good
to ask too many questions all at once. Later, I tell you more."
"But, Marfa," I insisted. "Are there many. . . orishas?"
"As many as the grains of sand on the beach. But I only
know a dozen or two. There are too many. Someday you'll know
them too. But now is time to get back home, florecita, or your
mammy will be really worried. And then your cake will be eaten,
your presents gone, and the ice cream melted."
The thought of the promised birthday party came rush-
ing back to my five-year-old mind, erasing all thoughts about the
shadowy orishas, the Yorubas, and even the black Virgin known
as Yemaya.
The pink shoes and socks remained in Marfa's handbag
until we emerged from the sand into the path that led back to the
road. Free from their confinement, I ran ahead of Marfa toward
the bus stop, oblivious of my fine embroidered dress, pigtails
dancing in the sun, my small feet encrusted with wet sand. She
followed behind me slowly, dragging her heavy brogans, her
parcels, and her parasol, tired but always smiling.
z
THE
ORISHAS
Every day, after returning from the little school where I was
attending first grade, I would reluctantly get ready for the after-
noon siesta.
"Olonin-OlofiisPapa Dios-God the Father," Marla used
to tell me. "Olofimade the whole world and the sun and the stars.
Then he made the orishas, to take care of things here on earth,
while he carried on with his business elsewhere in the universe."
"How did he make the orishas, Maria?" I would ask,
sitting up in bed. Maria would push me gently back against the
pillows and start the well-known tale all over again.
"Nobody knows for sure," she would say, settling her-
self comfortably on a corner of the bed with her sewing basket.
"What we do know is that the first orisha made by Olofi was
Obatala, who is the father of all the other orishas and of all of us as
well. Obatala always dresses in white because he's a very pure
spirit."
"What is pure, Maria?"
"Pure is clean, something that is never dirty or soiled or
bad. Pure is always good and beautiful."
''Like you, Maria?" I would ask gravely, for I wanted very
much to learn the meanings of things. Maria would laugh her
inimitable gurgling laugh and hug me closely. "No, florecita, like
you."
14
15
THE ORISHAS

In those lazy afternoons, while I rested from the suffocat-


ing tropical heat, the tale of the orishas grew and expanded and
took on multiple dimensions.
Obatala-said Maria-was in charge of the human mind.
Olorun-Olofi had given him a beautiful wife called Oddudua.
Their daughter Yemaya-the Blessed Lady of the Sea Waters, as
Marfa used to call her-was the mother of fourteen of the most
important orishas.
"Chang6-Cabio SiZe-is one of her favorites," Maria told
me. "He's a great king, Oba Kosso. Fire is his weapon, as are
thunder and lightning."
"Is Chang6 also in the church, Maria?"
"All the orishas are in the church. But always remember,
florecita, when you say Chango's name, you must always say
'Cabio Sile' afterward, and lift yourself a little in your seat if
you're sitting down."
"Why?"
"Out of respect. Remember, he's a king. 'Cabio Sile' is an
African saying that means 'Hail the King.' And you lift yourself
from your seat because in front of a king, nobody sits down."
"I never saw Chango in church," I said, and added has-
tily, "Cabio Sile," squirming self-consciously in bed.
Maria, her eyes and hands busy with her sewing, did not
seem to notice. But I knew she was pleased with my show of
respect for Chango, and I settled more comfortably against the
pillows, feeling very much at ease with the orisha.
"Chang6 appears in church as St. Barbara, the patron
saint of thunder and lightning. She's also the protector of soldiers
and of miners, and everyone knows Chango is the greatest war-
rior who ever lived . . . Cabio Sile." With some effort, Maria
lifted her notable bulk from her place on the bed, and continued
her sewing.
I knitted my forehead in an effort to recall the familiar
statues of Catholic saints I saw almost daily in our parish church.
But my memory failed me.
"I never saw Saint Barbara in church, Maria," I said with
16
THE ORISHAS

a frown. Besides, how can Chango be St. Barbara? How can a


warrior have a lady's name?"
Marfa put her sewing down for a moment and looked at
me with grave eyes. "It is all part of a mystery, lorecita," she
said. "We must never question the mysteries of God and the
saints. It is part of believing. Remember what the Sisters of Mercy
taught you during catechism in Sunday school? There are three
persons in the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. They
are all God. We don't know why or how, and we are not sup-
posed to question the mystery. We just accept what we are told.
So it is with the orishas."
I pondered this for some minutes. I did not want to risk
offending Marfa, but my curiosity was stronger than my still
undeveloped sense of prudence.
"1 still don't understand," I said after some time. "1 know
what the sisters say about the Holy Trinity. But I still don't know
how a warrior can be a lady saint."
I looked up with worried eyes, not wanting to incur her
displeasure. But Marfa appeared undisturbed. "It's like a cos-
tume party," she smiled. "When the Yorubas came to the New
World, the orishas followed them here, disguised as different
Catholic saints. This was so that black people could worship the
orishas in church without getting in trouble with the white man."
"But how could they tell which orisha was disguised as
which saint?" I asked.
''Very simple," Marfa said. "Each orisha-as well as each
saint-has certain qualities and does certain things. Chango, for
example, is a warrior and a king. So he's never too far away from
his castle or his sword. But he also knows a lot of magic and for
that reason he always carries a pil6n-a mortar-with him."
"What does he do with the mortar?" I asked, mesmerized
by the tale of the multitalented orisha.
"Work his magic, of course," said Marfa. ''That's where
he prepares all his ebbOs and his bilongos-magic spells."
"And St. Barbara," I asked wide-eyed, "does she also
carry a mortar?"
17
THE ORISHAS

"She sure does. Well, not a mortar exactly, but a sort of


goblet which she carries in her right hand. And in her left she
holds a sword, and there's always a castle by her side."
"Then she is Chango," I said, openmouthed.
"Of course she is," MarIa smiled, gratified that I finally
understood the syncretism of the orisha and the saint. "And
that's not all. Like Chang6, St. Barbara controls thunder and
lightning. Chang6-Cabio Sile-is the owner of fire. St. Barbara
is dressed in a red mantle, the color of fire . So you see, it was
easy for the Yorubas to know St. Barbara was really Chang6
disguised as a lady saint. It was the same with each of the other
orishas."
"Like the Day of the Innocents!" I cried, delighted to
understand at last.
"Like the Day of the Innocents," Maria agreed, laughing
contentedly at my obvious satisfaction.
On December 28, the Catholic Church commemorates
the slaughter of thousands of infants by King Herod. In many
Latin-American countries, with inexplicable black humor, el dia de
los inocentes is a sort of April Fools' Day. Typically, people wear
mascaras, or elaborate costumes, characterized by colorful masks
made of meshed wire that make the wearer almost impossible to
identify. People so disguised roam the streets, engaging in all
types of innocent pranks and challenging friends and relatives to
recognize them.
The similarities between the costumes worn on the Day
of the Innocents and the personalities of the orishas hidden
behind those of the Catholic saints illuminated my under-
standing of the syncretism between the orishas and the saints.
This was how I first learned of the concept of reincarnation-a
belief central to SanterIa, as well as to some of the world's major
religions. The gods of the Yorubas, like those of Nordic mythol-
ogy, die mythical deaths and return to life in new bodies to
replenish the earth. To the Yorubas in the New World, the
Catholic saints were the "new bodies," or reincarnations, of their
orishas.
18
THE ORISHAS

The most important of the orishas, Marfa told me firmly,


is Eleggua, the redoubtable messenger of the orishas.
"He's the guardian of the doors and the roads," she said.
"Without his goodwill, all the other orishas can do nothing."
"Why, Marfa?"
"Because once, when Olofi was very sick, Eleggua was
the only orisha who knew how to cure Papa Dios. Olofi was so
pleased that he immediately gave Eleggua the key to all the doors
and roads and told the other orishas that from that time onward
they all had to pay foribale-homage-to' Eleggua before any
party, and ask his permission before starting any work."
"And how did Eleggua cure Olofi?"
"With ewe."
"What's ewe, Marfa?"
"That's Yoruba word my mammy taught me. Ewe is
herbs, plants, leaves, and all things that come from the good
earth. Eleggua was born in el monte, the woods, and he knows all
about ewe. That's how he knew which one to use to cure Olofi."
"Do you also know about ewe, Marfa?"
She nodded. "Not as much as Eleggua, but I know a
little. Someday I take you to the woods and teach you about ewe.
But don't tell your mammy," she added with a conspiratorial
smile. "She don't like I take you to woods."
''No, Marfa," I assured her gravely. '1 never tell anyone
the things you tell me."
This assurance, given with all the respectability and hon-
esty of a five-year-old, was of the utmost importance, for my
mother would have been quite distressed to learn of my
apprenticeship in Yoruba lore, and most likely would have taken
me away from Marfa's care. (As it was, she did not find out until
many years later, long after Marfa had died.)
The mischievous Eleggua, obviously one of Marfa's fa-
vorite orishas, was the topic of many of our conversations. A
great herbalist, he was also a great sorcerer, like Chang6, and
knew how to prepare ebb6s for all purposes. "Mostly for good,
florecita," Marfa would hasten to add, as if the orisha might be
19
THE ORISHAS

listening behind the door. "But sometimes, when someone does


something burucu-bad-that Eleggua does not like, he will
punish that person. So it's important to keep him happy."
"How do you keep Eleggua happy, Maria?"
"Well, in many ways he's like a little child. Some of the
patak(s-the legends-describe him as a very young boy who
loves candies and cakes. If you give him candies, he will be happy
and be nice to you. But the patakis say he also likes rum and cigars
and smokesjutia-possum. That's because there are many Eleg-
guas, say the patakis, twenty-one in all, and each likes different
things to eat."
"How can there be twenty-one Elegguas, Maria?"
"That's part of the mystery, florecita," Maria said seri-
ously. "Think ofit as if Eleggua had many identical twins who all
looked alike but had different names, and liked and did different
things."
"Who is Eleggua in the church?"
"Some say he's St. Anthony of Padua, and others say
he's the Holy Infant of Prague."
''But, Maria," I said, openly scandalized. "Neither St.
Anthony nor the Infant of Prague smokes cigars or drinks rum."
"They don't, but Eleggua does. Remember the costume
party we talked about? Eleggua and St. Anthony are the same
spirit. You pray to St. Anthony as a saint and to Eleggua as an
orisha. You give each one his proper treatment in his proper
place. The important thing to remember is that no matter which
name you're using, you're praying to the same spirit, a force of
the good God." I accepted this explanation at face value, like all of
Maria's teaching.
Unlike Chang6 and most of the other orishas, Eleggua
was not a son of Yemaya. He was said to be the son of
Alabbgwanna, also known as the "Lonely Spirit," who is said to
be the patron of desperate causes. According to a pataki, as soon
as Eleggua was old enough to walk, he chained Alabbgwanna's
hands and ran away to grow up alone in the woods. Later he
met and made friends with OggUn, another orisha, who is the
20
THE ORISHAS

patron of iron and all workers, and who is syncretized with St.
Peter.
Eleggua, Oggun, Ochosi (the Divine Archer), and Osun,
who warns the santeros when danger is near, are known as los
guerreros, the Warriors, and have wonderful adventures together.
They also work together against the enemies of the santeros,
creating the most powerful and hair-rising ebbos.
Santerfa, according to Marfa, was the name given in
Spanish to the Yoruba religion. The orishas, Marfa told me, were
emanations from Olofi, papa Dios. The worship of the orishas as
santos gave birth to Santerfa, which means literally "the worship
of saints."
"It's not pure Yoruba, florecita," she used to tell me. "It's
a kind of mixture of theYoruba faith and the Catholic faith. Which
is pretty much the same thing," she added, shrugging her shoul-
ders. "It don't make no difference how you worship God, in
church or in the woods, as long as you worship him."
Because she took such a great care to uphold the belief of
the church, Marfa's teachings never interfered with my Catholic
upbringing. I never found any discernible differences between
the essential beliefs of either faith. Both taught the existence of
One God, omnipotent and just, who, for the benefit of mankind,
delegated some of his power to highly favored and exalted spirits.
Both faiths believed in the power of prayer to these spirits, and in
the reward of good and the punishment of evil. Therefore I
embraced both with equal fervor.
The patakfs, as Marfa called them, told fascinating stories
about the orishas. Love, jealousy, hatred, deceit, and many other
touching human frailties often surfaced in the orishas. Oggtin's
fabled struggles with Chango, Chango'S weakness for women,
the rivalry between Chango's wife Oba and OshUn, goddess of
river waters. "They are not like us," Marfa told me many times.
"We are like them. Remember what the Good Book says: Man
was created in God's image."
According to Marfa, the orishas have two aspects. Under
one aspect, they control a variety of human endeavors; under the
21
THE ORISHAS

other, they represent various natural forces. One could say that
certain natural forces have power over certain human endeavors.
And if we observe natural forces at play, we can learn how to
control and influence other human lives.
Chango, for example, represents fire, thunder, and
lightning, but also controls passions, strength, and all difficulties.
If we observe the elemental forces Chango represents, we im-
mediately notice that thunder and lightning move swiftly and
unexpectedly, and that fire can be of service to man only when it
is kept under complete control. A simple analogy teaches us that
passions must be kept under strict control, while any actions
intended to overcome difficulties must be undertaken swiftly and
when our adversary least expects them. The element of surprise,
like Chango, has won many a battle.
As a child, the tales of the orishas simply enthralled me. I
did not understand any of these deeper meanings until I grew
older; then, somehow, they all fell into place.
Marfa instilled in me a healthy respect for the forces of
nature. Fire, water, wind, earth, sun, moon, and other natural
phenomena all had alogura powers, and had to be respected since
they represented the different orishas. Nor did Marfa forget to
teach me about ewe. At least once a week during that first year,
she took me to a wooded area not too far from our house and
showed me how to recognize various herbs and use them for
cures and simple spells. By the time I graduated from first grade, I
could easily identify several dozen varieties of plants and recite
their most important uses.
To this day I will use aloe vera for cuts, abrasions, and
irritated eyes. My favorite remedy for an unsettled stomach is
spearmint, marjoram, and sage in a tea; but I will also use them in
a bath to dispel negative vibrations. For me, a bunch of rue tied
with a red string still keeps evil at bay, and in my mind, myrtle
and vervain will be forever associated with love.
THE
SANTERO
Santeria's most basic belief is that destiny begins before birth in
Ilk-aloft, the house of God, heaven. Like the ancient Babylonians,
the Yorubas believed that we are the children of the gods. Race,
language, and place of birth are of no importance to the orishas,
who encompass the entire world with their divine powers and
claim all human beings as their children.
Long before Obatala has finished his work of shaping the
child in the womb, that child's life has been preordained by
Olorun-Olofi and the other orishas. Also determined before birth
is the orisha who is going to be the iya-Oro or baM-Oro, the
newborn's heavenly mother or father. Sometimes (as, when a
person does not believe in the Yoruba faith) the child never learns
he is the offspring of an orisha. Nevertheless, the orisha who
claims that person as his omo-mi-one of his children-will guide
and protect him all through his life. Of course, should the omo get
out of hand and offend his orisha with his bad behavior, the
orisha will withdraw his protection and unleash heavenly rage
upon his omo-mi. The punishment may sometimes be slow in
coming, but it will come inexorably.
In some Latin-American countries where Santeria is
practiced assiduously, the babalawo, or high priest of Santeria, can
foretell the protecting orisha of a child long before the child is
born.
22
23
THE SANTERO

The babalawo is the son of Orunla, also known as Orlin-


mila and Ifa. Only men can claim the privilege of becoming
babalawos since Orunla is a male orisha and demands that only
men should serve him. Orunla owns the Table of Ifa, the main
divination system of Santeria. The babalawo, the supreme di-
viner of the Table of Ifa, can foretell an individual's future with
astonishing accuracy. As high priest, he must be consulted before
any major ceremonies and only he can determine a person's
protecting orisha with absolute certainty.
When a woman desires to learn which orisha will preside
over her unborn child's destiny, she visits a babalawo so that he
may provide her with this vital information. This lets her pray to
that orisha for her safe delivery and teach her child to honor and
serve his heavenly protector from an early age. The child will
often be dressed in the colors his orisha favors and will not be
allowed to eat the foods sacred to his protector.
Upon reading the Table of Ifa, the babalawo sometimes
ascertains that the gods have chosen an unborn child to be an
alacha, a santero or santera. This causes a minor commotion, for
the child must be initiated into the mysteries of Santeria while still
in his mother's womb. The ritual involved, known as media
asienta, or half initiation, is conducted over the mother's abdo-
men. When a child is born, he is immediately presented to the
atanes, or sacred stones which represent the orishas in Santeria.
The newborn is then washed in an amiera, a ritual liquid prepared
with the favorite ewe, or herbs of the orishas. The remnants of the
bath are thrown under a large tree that casts ample shadow. The
correlation is simple: as the liquid falls under the tree's shadow,
so will the child always be under his orisha's protecting shadow.
When the child reaches a certain level of maturity, the other half
of the initiation is conducted, and he is then a full-fledged san-
tero.
There are several categories of santeros. An iyalacha is a
female santerai the term means mother (iyil) of an orisha (acha).
Likewise, babaacha means father (babil) of an orisha. How do we
explain the extraordinary fact of a santero suddenly becoming the
24
mE SANTERO

father or mother of an orisha? Santeria believes that upon ini-


tiation into the faith, the initiate becomes his deity's physical
counterpart. Since he then has the power to initiate others in the
religion, he is said to "give birth" to other santeros, providing the
orishas with new channels of manifestation. This belief is sus-
tained by the central purpose of the initiation, which is to be born
anew. In this sense, Santeria is very much a "born again" reli-
gion.
There are other orders of priests in Santeria. The
babalawo, as we have seen, is the high priest of the cult. The oriate
is the master of ceremonies during all the rituals, while the
ayugbona is an assistant to the principal iyalocha or babaocha
during a rite.
It is interesting to note that in Bhakti, or devotional yoga,
there are five different possible relationships with Krishna, or the
Godhead. One may adore Krishna as a lover, as a friend, as one's
owner, as the Supreme Being, or as a son. To love Krishna as a
son is far more important than to love him as a father, because the
son always expects help and care from the father, while the father
always wants to do something for his son. When the yogi sees
himself as a father to Krishna, his only desire is to serve the
Godhead for as long as the yogi lives. Likewise, the santero's only
true concern during his life is to serve the orishas, to whom he is
both father and son.
The santeros believe that some children are possessed by
a transient spirit known as an abikU, a "traveling being" who
comes to the world for a short time only.
The abiku chooses a certain womb for his birth, dies
soon, and when he leaves takes the child with him. Perversely, he
returns to the same womb over and over, destroying all the
children born under his evil star. In Santeria, naturally, young
children are anxiously observed to see if they show any of the
dreaded signs traditionally associated with the hated abiku.
Firstborns are notOriously susceptible to the spirit's evil influence
and they are more carefully watched than other children. Very
serious or precocious children, those who never cry or who cry
25
THE SANTERO

too much, or who have unusual marks on their bodies, are im-
mediately suspected to be possible preys of an abiku.
But not always does the abiku succeed in his villainous
intentions. If discovered in time, he can be "chained" to this life,
making it impossible for him to leave with his innocent host. This
amarre, or chaining, is done very swiftly by an iyalocha or
babaocha. The child suspected to be under the influence of an
abiku is conscientiously spanked seven times with a small broom
to which are tied several branches of the plant known as escoba
amarga (Partenium hysterophorus). Then a small iron anklet is
locked around the child's left ankle. Thus beaten and chained, the
abiku is forced into submission and is not able to destroy the
child's life.
Although I showed no real signs of being an abiku's
unwitting hostess, I was rather serious and precocious. This
obviously worried Marfa, who was not an iyalocha and therefore
could not determine with any certainty whether I was the poten-
tial victim of the abiku-who had been credited with her younger
brother's early demise. Finally, she decided to bring me to a
santero's house, an action she might not have undertaken had
she not lived in eternal dread of the spirit and been so concerned
about my safety.
Marfa carefully coordinated the visit to coincide with the
celebration of a tambor or toque de santo, a ceremony often con-
ducted to thank an orisha for granting a favor to one of his
followers. The tambor is also one of the many rituals that com-
prise the asiento, when a believer becomes a santero.
Maria brought me to a tambor in honor of Chango, the
mighty owner of lightning and thunder, the orisha who spouts
fire from his mouth and nostrils when his wrath has been
aroused. The iyalocha offering the tambor was an initiate of
Chango and wanted to repay the orisha for many past favors.
For Maria, the days immediately preceding the tambor
were very busy ones. With her own money she bought a piece of
white linen from which she made me a dainty dress, with a great
many frothy ruffles and a wide fluffy skirt. She could not afford to
26
THESANTERO

buy me a new pair of shoes, so she scrubbed one of myoId pairs of


sandals until the leather was almost completely discolored. Then
she painstakingly covered the sandals with white shoe polish,
leaving them almost as good as new.
As she labored with the sandals, I sat at her feet, asking
her innumerable questions, which she answered with her usual
patience.
"Why did you wash the sandals, Maria? They looked
clean to me."
"Because I'm presenting you to the orishas, florecita,"
she answered. "Nothing can be too clean for them."
"Why, Marfa?"
"Because they are very pure spirits. Do you remember
what pure is?"
"Pure is clean, something that is never dirty or bad."
"That's right, florecita, and that's why the sandals must
be very clean for the orishas." She looked up at the sky and
frowned. "Looks like rain," she said, putting aside the finished
sandals. "I hope we get a good day for the tambor tomorrow."
The orishas must have heard this expressed hope be-
cause the next day dawned splendid and luminous, with that
hazy radiance that permeates all sunny days in the tropics. The
sun's rays, shining through the polished fronds of the palm trees,
cast multiple reflections on my mirror, forcing me to look away
from the faSCinating image of a pretty young girl dressed in a
swirling white dress and spotless white sandals. Around my
head was a white handkerchief tied with a knot in front, African
style. Around my throat was a necklace of alternating white and
red beads. I swung my body around, and the wide skirt billowed
gracefully around me. I was seven years old, and slowly be-
coming aware that I was a woman.
As I danced in front of the mirror, Maria walked into the
room. She stood just within the doorframe, and stared at me. Her
face was serene as always, but there was an almost imperceptible
hardening to her mouth. The laughing lines around her eyes had
disappeared.
27
THE SANTERO

"Do you know why you're wearing those clothes?" she


asked gravely.
I stopped dancing and lowered my head. "To go to the
tambor," I answered.
"Yes, but why?"
"Because it's a party."
"What kind of a party, florecita?"
"A party for Chang6," I said, shuffling my feet self-
consciously.
"And why are you wearing that white-and-red neck-
lace?" she insisted.
''Because they're Chang6's colors, Maria."
"And what is Chang6, florecita?"
"Chang6 is an orisha, a saint."
"That's right. And the tambor is a party, but a party for a
saint. The clothes you're wearing are not for pleasure or vanity.
They're meant to please him and the other orishas. Vanity," she
added grimly, "is an offense to Olofi and the orishas. Vanity
makes you forget you're human and mortal and equal to all other
people, who are also the children of God and the saints."
My eyes slowly filled with tears. "But I just wanted to see
myself in the mirror, Maria," I said, with trembling lips. "I did not
mean to be vain."
As usual when she saw me crying, Maria softened. Com-
ing closer to me, she knelt down by my side. "I know, florecita,"
she said, wiping away my tears. "But I have nothing else to give
you but the things I know, and someday these things will be very
good for you, you'll see. There's nothing wrong in looking at
yourself in the mirror," she added with a smile, "as long as you
remember to be humble."
"What's humble?" I asked, comforted to be back in her
good graces.
"Humble, florecita, is remembering always you're God's
creation, and thanking him for his blessings." She stood up with
a grimace, as her back always gave her trouble. "And remember
something else," she said as an afterthought. "When you dress
28
THESANTERO

for the orishas, you must never look at yourself in the mir-
ror."
"But, Marfa, if I don't look at myself in the mirror, how
can I know if I look all right?"
"By letting somebody else's eyes be your mirrors. For
now, florecita, I'll be your mirror en el santo, and you'll be mine.
Maybe someday some other people will also be your mirrors and
you'll be theirs." She looked down at me and her smile illumi-
nated her face. "Your mirror says you look beautiful, florecita.
What does my mirror say?"
She spread out her white cotton skirt, revealing several
inches of immaculate petticoat trimmed with yards of ruffled
cotton lace. Many colored-bead necklaces glimmered on her
pleated shirtfront and the white handkerchief on her head con-
trasted agreeably with her dark skin.
I clasped my hands on my chest and smiled delightedly.
''You look wonderful, Marfa. You look like a queen."
Marfa gurgled with laughter. "If I do, florecita, I must
have lost my crown somewhere. But now we better hurry, or
we'll be late for the tambor. And that is displeasing to the
orishas."
She hurried me out of the house and off to the shan-
tytown where the tambor was being held, but when we arrived
the ceremony was well on its way. Over the years, I have for-
gotten many of the details of that day. But during that unforget-
table first tambor I met Chang6 for the first time. ,
The small bohfo where the tambor was held was packed
closely with many people, most of them of African descent.
Marfa's late arrival, with me in tow, caused a little commotion.
With her typical sangfroid, Marfa pushed her considerable bulk
through the throngs of people, forcing them to let us pass. She
pointedly ignored the unkind remarks and continued to press on
until we arrived at the center of the room where the people had
formed a wide, circular space. In a corner of this room sat three
black men, each behind a large drum. Many years later I learned
that these drums were the bata, the instruments used by the
29
THESANTERO

santeros to call down the saints; their names are Iya, Itotele, and
Okonkolo. The drums are not played simultaneously, but in a
certain order, curiously like a three-sided conversation. Okon-
kolo's sound never varies, for it is the base upon which Iya and
Itotele speak to each other.
The sound of the drums was echoed by the drummer's
plaintive singing. Although I had never heard African chants
before, Maria used Yoruba words very often and I was familiar
with the musical sound of the language. Those present answered
the singing with a resonant chorus while they swayed and shuf-
fled their feet in time with the drumbeat.
Seated on a low stool in the center of the circle was an
elderly woman, her light-brown face deeply etched with furrows,
magnificently attired in bright red taffeta trimmed with white
lace. A red handkerchief covered her hair, while colored beads
dangled from her neck, wrists, and ankles. To her headdress
were pinned four brightly colored feathers. She was the omo-
Chango who was offering the tambor.
Maria approached the old woman resolutely, while I
followed shyly behind. Once in front of the iyalocha, Maria lay
facedown on the floor, holding her stretched arms close to her
body. "Your bleSSings, madrina," she said humbly, her lips
against the hard-packed earth of the floor.
The iyalocha bent forward and placed her hands on
Maria's shoulders. The African words she uttered were com-
pletely unintelligible to me. She helped Marfa stand up and stood
up herself, with much clinking of beads. Maria crossed her arms
in front of her chest. Then she and the iyalocha embraced, press-
ing their cheeks together first on the left, then on the right side,
in the traditional embrace of Santeria. When the two women
separated, Maria quickly took me by the hand and pulled me
forward.
"Madrina, this is the little mundele [white person] I told
you about. Please give her your blessing." As she spoke, Maria
pushed me down on the floor in the same position she had
assumed before.
30
THE SANTERO

The iyalocha repeated her previous actions, putting her


hands on my shoulders and muttering the same cryptic words in
Yoruba. Then she stood me up, crossed my arms over my chest,
and embraced me in the same fashion as she had embraced
Marfa. She looked at me long and hard with her ancient hooded
eyes. Finally, seemingly satisfied with the prolonged inspection,
she grunted and gently pushed me aside.
"Little abini not abiku, Marfa," she said in a deep, hoarse
voice. "Eyes bright, skin clear, breath sweet, didim. No sign
abiku. Abiku hands atutu, ice-cold. The ara, the body, always
sick, aron. " The iyalocha's voice was final in her pronouncement.
"Little obini daradara, lalafia [strong, healthy], not abiku."
Marfa thanked her profusely and moved me to a side of
the circle. I looked up at her with dubious eyes. The dark room
was very warm, and the sounds of the drums and echoing voices
made me frightened and uneasy.
"Are we leaving now?" I asked hopefully.
"Daque! You're not to speak one word, florecita! Besides,
we just arrived. How can we leave now?"
She stood behind me, her hands protectively on my
shoulders. Within a few minutes she was singing and swaying to
the beat of the drums. From my vantage position I saw several
people come within the circle to pay their foribale to the old
iyalocha. Some of the people lay down first on the right side, then
on the left, the free hand on the hip in a typically feminine
gesture. Those, I learned many years later, were the children of
female orishas, such as Yemaya, OshUn, and Oya. The ones who
saluted face down were the children of male orishas such as
Chang6, Eleggua and Obatala, Marfa's own baba-oro. Because
she did not know who was my patron saint, Marfa had me salute
the iyalocha as she herself did.
After some time, the circle closed once more. The
iyalocha stood up and set the stool aside. It was obvious that
everyone she expected had arrived, and the tambor could now
take place without any further interruptions. The iyalocha joined
the circle. Turning toward the drums, she yelled out in a stento-
rian voice, "Cabio Sile pa Chang6!"
31
TIIESANTERO

They all responded simultaneously, with one voice,


"Cabio Sile," lifting themselves a few inches from the floor on the
balls of their feet. Almost at once the drumbeat changed. The
main singer started an impassioned invocation to Chang6. The
drum increased in tempo, and so did the dancing of the people.
Standing next to us was a tall black man dressed in white
with a red sash tied around his waist. His legs and feet were bare,
as was his head, and he was swaying heavily from side to side.
Losing his balance for a moment, he stumbled clumsily into the
middle of the circle. The iyalocha stepped out from the throng of
people and started to push them back.
"Abrir paso!" she cried loudly. "Give way! Chang6's
here! Chango's here!"
At her cries, the drums doubled their intensity. As the
people fell back from the center of the circle, the man began to
spin faster and faster, his body shaking uncontrollably, his
mouth lax, his eyes rolling. The iyalocha stood by the side of the
circle, calling down the orisha to the beat of the drums.
For some time, the man continued to spin around. Then
he stopped suddenly, straightening his body with an obvious
effort. His eyes were open but unfocused, and he kept working
his mouth from side to side in a terrible grimace. Terrified at the
sight, I shut my eyes tightly. But soon my curiosity won out and
I opened them again, cautiously peering over the edge of the
circle.
Someone handed the iyalocha a pair of huge double-
edged axes with white handles trimmed with red-the traditional
weapons of Chang6. The iyalocha offered them to the man. He
stared at her with his terrible unfocused eyes, mouth still work-
ing, but made no effort to take the axes.
"Baba-mi, Chang6, you take ax, my father, you fight to
burucu, all that's bad, t61'ota de tu omodere, all the enemies of your
children," the iyalocha insisted. Behind her, the beat of the
drums increased to a frenzy, as did the singing and swaying of
the bodies around us.
Suddenly and quite unexpectedly, the man reached out
and grabbed both axes from the iyalocha's hands. With a wild yell
32

THE SANTERO

he swirled both weapons high over his head and started the
dangerous dance known as aluya, Chango's typical dance, per-
formed by the orisha brandishing a sword or ax in each hand.
The transformation was extraordinary. One moment the
possessed man was swaying uncertainly to the beat of the drums,
and the next he stood towering over us, awesomely powerful, his
body rippling with superhuman strength, his face an inscrutable
ebony mask.
Maria's fingers tightened on my shoulders and I could
feel a tremor go through her wide frame. "It's Chango, florecita,"
she whispered in my ear. "It's Chango."
Terrified beyond expression, I stared at the gigantic black
man. Behind us, the throngs of people pressed forward, all call-
ing on the orisha, chanting in Yoruba and clapping their hands.
The possessed omo-orisha continued to dance, swirling the axes
over his head, first with one hand and then with the other with
terrifying speed. The weapons' burnished steel glinted dully in
the candlelit room, and in spite of the drums and the singing, the
swishing sound of the blades as they cut through the air was
plainly audible.
Suddenly the ritual dance stopped. At the same time, the
drums fell silent. The sudden and unexpected silence was far
more ominous than the music and the danCing.
Chango, now in total possession of the omo-orisha, hung
the axes from the red sash at his waist and turned to survey his
audience.
The iyalocha came forward to throw herself at the feet of
the orisha. He smiled, not unkindly. Picking her up bodily from
her prostrate position, he held her up in the air over the sea of
astonished faces.
"Omo-mi," he cried out with a loud, infectious laugh.
"Omo-mi. Chango happy, lalafia."
He put down the iyalocha, who seemed delighted with
the orisha's playfulness and clung to him with undisguised affec-
tion. "Baba-mi, Chango," she kept repeating, laughing and cry-
ing at the same time.
33
THESANTERO

The orisha looked down at her with a smile. "0mo -mi,"


he said, "you love Chang6?"
"Oh yes, my father, baba-mi," the iyalocha cried, tears
streaming down her smiling face.
"Then why you not feed Chang6 ase? Chang6 hungry.
Chang6 wants eat amalil and drink chekete."
The food the orisha demanded, prepared with okra and
cornmeal, was soon presented to him in a jicara, or hollowed
gourd. The chekete, the saints' traditional drink, was also offered
to him in a second jicara.
The orisha, surrounded by tenderly ministering iya-
lochas and babaochas, used his fingers to bring the sticky
amala to his mouth. After some time, he pushed away the san-
teros, and stood alone in the middle of the circle, a jicara filled
with amala in his right hand.
"Ah," he said, with a smile of satisfaction, "amalidara-
dara, very good, alogu6." He held out the jicara filled with the
unappetizing concoction to the people who formed the circle.
"Who want eat amala with Chang6?"
Although the taste of the amala is less than palatable, the
ache, the blessing, that is received when one eats of Chang6's
food is so great that everyone is willing to partake of this food
when the orisha offers it. Still, it is better to wait for the orisha to
offer the amala to each person individually than to beg for it. The
people within the circle eyed the amala with anticipation, but did
not come forward at the orisha's call.
Chang6, who knew the reason for their reticence, smiled
mischievously and held the jicara against his chest. His eyes,
burning brighUy with his own hidden fires, moved thoughtfully
over the eager crowd. Almost imperceptibly, they stopped on
me, and I flinched at their intensity. A moment later he was
standing in front of me, the jicara right under my nose.
"Omo-mi, my child, Chang6 wants you eat amala with
him," he said softly. He dipped his hand into the food and
offered me a fistful.
I looked at the slippery okra shining through the com-
34
THE SANTERO

meal and my stomach turned. But when I lifted my eyes to the


orisha, there was such love and tenderness in his face that my
heart was filled to overflowing with affection. Obediently, I took
his hand in mine and ate all of the amala he had offered me.
My spontaneous action seemed to please the orisha, for
he took me by the hand. No longer afraid of him, I followed him
unhesitantly to the center of the circle.
He squatted down by my side and took my face in his
hands. As he looked into my eyes, little flames seemed to dance
in front of me, making his face shimmer in the darkness.
"Omo-mi," he said. "Never fear no one, no thing. I,
Chango, always be with you. I, Chango, touch my heart for you."
He emphasized his words by placing his hand over his
chest. "When you need Chango, you call. Chango answer with
fire, with thunder. If someone hurt you, call Chango. I come and
burn them all with fire. I rain thunder and lightning on their
heads."
He stood up and smiled sadly.
"You be not really omo-mi," he said regretfully. "You
omo another orisha, orisha Oshun, who own the river waters and
is beautiful as Oru, the sun, and Ochu, the moon. Oshlin be my
akpeteb(, my favorite sweetheart, and she be your mother, your
iya. But I love you and protect you like you be omo-mi. Now I give
you rain and fire power. You stop rain. You stop fire. I, Chango,
say you do."
He stepped back and his eyes closed. The great body
started to shake convulsively. The orisha was about to leave. I
moved toward him instinctively, but Maria's protective hands
held me back. I felt a great sadness at his departure, but I also
knew he would never be too far away from me and that I would
see him again.
His promises of power and protection, which astounded
those present at the tambor, I did not fully understood until much
later. But by the time I was eight, I could stop rain at will and, with
little effort, was able to keep fires under control.
4
COCONUTS
ANDCOWRIE
SHELLS
It is much easier to bring on the rain than to stop it, Marfa used to
tell me.
" All you need are five oranges and a few small branches
from the same orange tree. Then you locate a cloud-large or
small, depending on the amount of rain you want-and say your
invocation to Yemaya and OshUn. Rain comes soon."
"But Marfa, if Chang6 stops the rain, how come he
doesn't bring it?"
"Chango stops rain because he's fire and thunder," said
Maria, shaking her head. "You don't understand orishas,
florecita. Fire evaporates water, makes it unsara, disappear. But
fire can't make water. For that, you need Yemaya and OshUn
because Yemaya owns the seas, and Oshun owns the rivers.
Together they own all the waters in the whole world."
According to Marfa, this identification of the orlshas with
natural forces and the proper observance of natural laws was the
greatest power of Santeria.
"If you know the orishas, you know everything," she
told me many times. "The earth teach you everything, but you

35
36
COCONUTS AND COWRIE SHELLS

must pay your respects to her always, do foribale, so she will give
you all her secrets. And always remember, the secrets of the earth
are the secrets of the orishas."
She shook a finger at me admonishingly, and said with a
sigh, "1 ask too much of you, florecita. You be patient with old
Marfa. I try to teach you too much too fast." She smiled at me and
straightened out one of my ribbons with her usual meticulous
care. "This is all I have to give you. I want you to learn it because it
is more precious than all the gold in the world. And you want to
learn, don't you?"
"Of course I do," I said, hugging her affectionately. "But
tell me, Maria. How do you bring on the rain with five oranges?"
"You need formula, florecita, an invocation to the orishas
Yemaya and OshUn in Yoruba. It's very long. You forget."
"Then write it for me," I cried. I ran over to my desk and
handed her a pencil and a piece of paper.
Marfa looked down at the paper with an amused smile
and pushed my hand away gently.
"Yo no se na' de letras, florecita. I don't know how to read or
write."
I looked at her in utter consternation. Suddenly I remem-
bered that in all the years Maria had been in charge of me, I had
never seen her reading or writing. Since my father always super-
vised my schoolwork personally, I had never asked Maria for
help with my homework.
I did not know what to say to Maria. I was only twelve
years old, but I was already a voracious reader and could not
imagine life without books. In spite of my youth, I felt a deep
sense of outrage and shame. I knew that Maria's poverty and her
status as a black woman had kept her away from school.
"Let me teach you, Maria," I cried impulsively.
"What's the matter, florecita?" Maria lifted my face and
peered suspiciously into my eyes. "Oh, please don't cry. Of
course you can teach me letters if you want, but old Marfa is much
too old. I don't learn so good anymore."
This episode marked the start of an unusual double ap-
37
COCONUTS AND COWRIE SHELLS

prenticeship. Every day after my return from school I instructed


Maria "in the letters," while she continued to teach me the lore
and ritual of Santeria. I used the same books and methods my
first-grade teacher had used, and contrary to her self-deprecating
ideas, Marfa proved to be a very good pupil. Within a year she
could read simple sentences; by the end of two years, she could
understand most of the newspaper. But writing was never her
forte. She learned to write only a few words besides her name.
Around this time, Marfa taught me the legend of Obi, the
coconut, and how to read the coconut rinds. This system of
divination, the basic tool of the santero, is known as dar coco al
santo, giving coconut to the saint. Although the coconut is em-
ployed usually to consult with Eleggua, all the other orishas can
also be questioned by the same means.
According to Marfa, the coconut is also a saint: "His
name is Obi, and at one time he was a very powerful orisha. But
he was reduced to his present circumstances because of his
pride."
This patakf is one of the oldest of Yoruba lore. At one time
Olofi esteemed Obi very highly for his purity and sincerity. In
appreciation, Olofi made Obi white as snow both inside and out
and placed him high on the top of the palm tree. But when Obi
found himself in such an exalted position, he became arrogant
and conceited and would not condescend to speak with people
on a lesser footing than himself.
One day Obi decided to give a party; the first person he
invited was Eleggua, one of his closest friends. But Eleggua,
noticing the sad change that had taken place in Obi, decided to
play him a trick to test his good faith. Since Obi had asked him to
invite several of their mutual friends to the party, Eleggua
gathered together all the worst derelicts he could find.
"They were really dirty and smelly," Marfa told me.
"They were ain{, och{, eburegua aim6, alakisa, alegbo-just awful."
When Obi saw his exquisite palace invaded by riffraff, he
went into transports of rage and, without a word of apology,
mercilessly booted the entire unkempt lot into the street. This
38
COCONUTS AND COWRIE SHELLS

action confirmed Eleggua's suspicions and filled him with great


sadness. He did not express his disappointment, but left Obi's
house and did not return.
Several days later Olofi asked Eleggua to bring a special
message to Obi's palace. Eleggua refused and told the father of
the gods what Obi had done. To verify the story, Olofi disguised
himself as a beggar and went to knock on Obi's door. As soon as
Obi saw the poor mendicant standing there, he slammed the door
in Olofi's face.
Olofi turned his back to the house. "Obi," he cried out
loudly. "See who I really am. Obi meye lori emi ofe."
When Obi saw that the beggar was really Olofi, he trem-
bled with terror, and begged with Olofi to forgive him. But Ol<;>fi,
seriously offended and disappointed, would not listen to Obi's
pleas. He immediately decreed that from that moment onward
Obi would fall from his high place to the ground, where anyone
could pick him up. He also changed Obi's color, making his shell
black (to symbolize Obi's sin of pride) and his outer cortex green
(to express the hope that someday Obi would regain his former
purity, which he hides in his heart). Olofi also condemned Obi
to foretell the future. Ever since, a dry coconut-obi giii gui-is
placed at Eleggua' s feet.
The ceremony of initiation with the coconut is used by
the santeros in all their major ceremonies. The coconutis used not
only to divine an individual's future but also to inquire if a saint is
pleased with a particular offering.
Although not a santera, Marfa was a devout practitioner
of Santerfa and had received the cult's first two initiations-the
necklaces, or elekes, and the Warriors. This latter initiation, also
known as taking or receiving Eleggua, invests the initiate with the
powers and the protection of Eleggua and three other Warrior
orishas-Oggu.n, Ochosi, and Osun.
When a person has received Eleggua and the Warriors,
he or she is entitled to use the coconut rinds to ask questions of
Eleggua and any of the other Warriors, but not of the rest of the
39
COCONUTS AND COWRIE SHELLS

orishas. This is because that individual has not been initiated into
the mysteries of the other saints.
Marla kept her Warriors in a small cabinet in her room.
Whenever she wanted to question any of these saints, she
opened the door of the cabinet so they could hear her, and
proceeded with the divination ceremony. During one session,
she asked me to write down the ritual in detail. "So that you don't
forget later," she said with a smile. "But after a while, you learn it
so well, you never again forget."
When I was ready with pencil and paper, she took a
coconut from a shelf, broke the hard shell with a small hammer,
and used the blade of a kitchen knife to dislodge the brown rind
from the shell. Gathering the coconut's milk in a glass, she set it
aside and cut five pieces of the rind into uneven squares about
three by four inches in diameter.
"Coconut milk is good for many things," Marla told me.
"Don't throw it away. You can use it for kidney trouble, to make
hair grow strong. But best of all, you can use it to get rid offibu and
everything burucu, ororo. It brings good luck, oroOO. Bathe your
forehead with it and it clears your mind. Then throw the rest on
your doorstep and you'll be healthy and happy, aran(."
She filled a small clay vessel with water and placed it in
front of the cabinet where Eleggua and the Warriors were kept.
"Water is important," she explained, "because Obi-the
coconut-must be refreshed all the time. Otherwise he gets
heated and his answers are not good."
She opened the door of the cabinet and pulled out the
clay vessel where the stone head representing Eleggua was repos-
ing. The head had small cowrie shells for its eyes and mouth, and
from the top of its skull protruded a small metal ornament in the
shape of a feather. Coins, stones and other attributes of Eleggua
surrounded the orisha's head. AlongSide Eleggua stood a small
cauldron with all the metal implements of the other Warriors.
Marla sprinkled water three times in front of Eleggua and
started an invocation in Yoruba:
40
COCONUTS AND COWRIE SHELLS

"Omi tutu a Eleggua, omi tutu a mi ileis, Olodumare modupue.


Boguo yguoro iyalocha babalocha babalawo oluo iku embelese ybae baye
tonu . . . Boguo yguoro ache semilenu, cosi iku, cosi ano, cosi allo, cosi
010, ariku BaM aw6 ... "
I translated this prayer many years later-with much
difficulty due to the increasingly corrupted spelling and pronun-
ciation of the Yoruba language in the New World.
"1 give some water to refresh Eleggua, I give you some
water to refresh my home, and I thank you, 0 great Lord of the
Universe. I salute all the faithful santeras, santeros, babalawos,
and great seers who have died and are at the feet of eternity. May
they all rest in peace. . . I salute all the santeros and I ask their
blessing, so that I will be safe from death, from illness, from
tragedy, from shame. Greetings, holy father .. . "
This invocation, known as moyubar in Santeria, is some-
times much longer. Some santeros believe it is better to name
individually all the dead santeros mayo res-the oldest and most
famous santeros-to ensure their blessing. The bleSSings of the
santeros' madrina or padrino (godmother or godfather) are also
requested in absentia.
After she finished the invocation, Maria picked up four of
the five pieces of coconut and washed them with some water. The
fifth piece, kept in reserve, is used in case one of the other four
pieces breaks during the consultation.
"Remember, florecita, you must always tear off three
small bits of each rind and sprinkle them on Eleggua's image. But
that's only because three is Eleggua's number. If you were speak-
ing with Chango, Cabio Sile, you'd use four or six bits because
those are Chango'S numbers. For other orishas, you'd use their
individual numbers instead."
"How do you tear off the bits of coconut?" I asked,
inspecting the rinds curiously.
"With your nails, of course,'" she answered, taking the
rinds from my hands. She sprinkled the bits over Eleggua and
resumed her invocation.
"Obinu iku, Obinu ano, Obinu allo, Obinu ofo," she said,
41
COCONUTS AND COWRIE SHELLS

continuing to exorcise death and destruction. Holding the rinds


in her left hand, she touched the floor and Eleggua's image three
times with her right hand. "Eleggua mocueo mocueo unlle obo obi
mocueo," she prayed, then turned to look at me. "Now you say
acuelle, florecita, to get Eleggua's blessing."
"Acuelle," I responded obediently, without the slightest
idea of what I was saying.
"Acuelle oguo acuelle ono, arikU baM aw6," said Maria,
touching her left hand with her right and touching the floor in
front of Eleggua. She joined her hands in front of her chest and
made the sign of the cross.
"Unlle obi a Eleggua," she said and turned to me once
more. "Sayasona, florecita, it means amen."
"Asona," I repeated, scribbling down all the strange
words as fast as I could. I had no way of knowing that my little
notebook was the beginning of my libreta, the traditional journal
where all the santeros and their followers write down the cult's
various rituals. Like the modem witches' Book of Shadows, the
libreta is a journey into the human soul, and its intimacies are
zealously guarded from the curiosity of noninitiates.
During this first session of giving coconut to the saint,
Maria wanted to ask Eleggua if I could receive the necklaces,
known in Spanish as collares and in Yoruba as elekes.
"You'd be so well protected with the elekes, florecita,"
she often said, a worried look in her eyes. "Specially now when
you go to big school."
I was not to attend high school for another two years, but
to Maria's mind, the "big school" was a sinister place full of
dangers. The necklaces, therefore, were the ideal answer to the
problem-if only Eleggua agreed.
I put my notebook aside and stood respectfully by
Maria's side. She held the rinds against her chest and began to
question the orisha.
"Eleggua, my father, baba awo, please tell me if this little
obini should receive the elekes for her protection."
As she finished speaking, Maria threw the coconut rinds
42
COCONUTS AND COWRIE SHELLS

on the floor in front of the orisha's image. The white sides of all
four rinds came face up, in the pattern known as alafia.
"Alafia, alafia omo, alafia ago, alafia osi, alafia arikU babEl awo,"
Marfa exclaimed joyfully. "Kiss the floor, florecita! That is alafia
and it means Eleggua gives you his blessing."
I obeyed and kissed the floor in front of Eleggua.
"Does that mean I can have the elekes?" I asked hope-
fully.
"Alafia is not a sure answer," said Marfa. '1t means the
saint gives you his blessing, but that's all. I must ask the same
question again."
She repeated the question and again threw the coconut.
This time, only one of the white sides came up, making the
pattern known as Ocana sode.
Marfa's face was a study of consternation.
"Ocana sode," she said with dismay, "means no. And
sometimes it also means there's something bad coming."
She picked up the coconut rinds, refreshed them with
water, and made the sign of the cross. "Eleggua, baba
please tell me, is there something wrong-some danger for the
little obini?"
She threw the rinds on the floor and watched anxiously
as they rolled around and finally settled in a pattern-alafia
again. But this time, one of the rinds fell on top of another.
Marfa's face relaxed. "Alafia with ire," she exclaimed
with a sigh of relief. "It's all right, there's no danger. Eleggua just
don't think you should have elekes-at least not now."
As she spoke, she poured a few drops of water on top of
the two rinds that had fallen together, and offered them to me.
"Drink," she smiled. "That way you receive the ire of
Eleggua. And if you want, you can make a wish and he'll grant
it."
I drank the water and looked at her dubiously. "What I
want is the necklaces, Marfa. When can I have them?"
"I don't know, florecita. Maybe later on, when you grow
43
COCONUTS AND COWRIE SHELLS

up. You don't need them now. There's no danger for you. Eleg-
gua said so, and he knows. But let me ask him to be sure."
She picked the rinds again, refreshed them, and faced
the orisha once more. "Eleggua, my father," she asked respect-
fully. "Can the little obini receive the elekes when she grows up?"
This time the resulting pattern was made of two dark and
two white sides.
Maria smiled. "That's ellife, florecita, the strongest of the
answers, and it means yes. Be patient, and someday you'll have
your elekes."
The fourth pattern, itagua, where three white sides and
one dark come up, is a tentative yes and the orisha must be
consulted again for a definite answer. When I remember that day
I sometimes wonder what Maria' s reaction would have been if the
dreaded pattern oyekun, with four dark sides, had fallen during
her consultation. For Oyekun predicts death and destruction and
all sorts of protective measures have to be undertaken to dispel its
evil influence.
Although I was present during many of Maria' s consulta-
tions with Eleggua, I was never again the subject of her queries.
Not until many years later, when I was fully grown up and living
in New York, did someone consult Eleggua again on my behalf.
Though I knew the ritual by heart, I was not able to perform it
myself because I was not yet in possession of the Warriors.
The woman who did the questioning was not a santera,
but had received several of Santeria's preliminary initiations,
including that of the Warriors. She did not charge for her consul-
tations, other than the derecho, or token fee given the orishas for
their help. This derecho varies in accordance with the help ren-
dered, but is minimal and consists usually of $3.15 for a coconut
reading and $5.25 for the cowrie shells, orcaracoles. These consul-
tations are known as registros, or searches. Indeed, a competent
practitioner of Santeria can make such a thorough search into a
person's life that hardly anything will be left uncovered. The
derecho, or "right," of the orisha is usually placed in front of the
44
COCONUTS AND COWRIE SHELLS

sopera, or soup tureen, where the otanes are kept. The money,
sacred to the orisha, is used to buy candles, flowers, herbs, and
sometimes sacrificial animals. My madrina, a santera from the
Bronx who was initiated into the mysteries of OshUn, always
keeps behind OshUn's sopera several thousand dollars, all
earned by the orisha in countless registros, ebbos, and initiations.
My madrina would never dare to spend this sacred money.
"I'd sooner hold up a bank," she told me once, puffing on
a cigar, a staple in Santeria. "You have a better chance of escaping
from the FBI than of escaping from OshUn. And when she catches
you. . . it's better not to talk about it."
Naturally there are exceptions to every rule, and many
santeros try to use their religion for their personal gain. The
annals of Santeria are full of stories of these foolhardy people and
the hair-raising punishments rained on their heads by the en-
raged orishas. But most practitioners of Santeria live in such
preternatural awe of the orishas that they simply do not dare
offend them. This fear of the orishas' powers has kept Santeria
largely free of abuse and corruption.
Of course it is difficult for those unfamiliar with the
phenomena of Santeria to understand the basis of the fear and the
respect which the santeros feel for the saints or orishas. These
phenomena have to be experienced to be understood. I have
recounted the problem that brought me back to Eleggua's feet in
full in my first book on Santeria, but so extraordinary is the
experience that it deserves to be told once more.
At the time of the second consultation with Eleggua, a
very attractive business proposal had been made to me, but it
required that I moved to Denmark. I was in severe doubt as to
what I should do, and a little talk with Eleggua seemed eminently
desirable.
Dona Pepita is the name of the woman who gave coconut
to Eleggua that day. Although she now lives in San Juan, I still
keep in close contact with her. A retired schoolteacher, Dona
Pepita is a blue-eyed strawberry blonde who in her early youth
must have been an extraordinary beauty. There are still traces of
45
COCONUTS AND COWRIE SHELLS

this beauty in her smooth skin and fine eyes, and it is obvious that
she makes every effort to preserve her attractive appearance.
Although she is not an iyalocha, her talents in the in-
terpretation of the coconut are extraordinary. When I called her to
ask for a registro, she set up an appointment and asked me to
bring $3.15 for the derecho, tightly wrapped in a piece of brown
paper (a procedure followed for all derechos given to the saints),
and two fresh coconuts. (This fruit goes rancid very quickly.
Bringing two coconuts increases the chances that at least one will
be fresh.)
On the day appointed I showed up with the coconuts and
the derecho and was quickly brought to her workroom, where
she kept the small cabinet with Eleggua's image.
Breaking one of the coconuts, Dona Pepita found it was
fresh, and proceeded to prepare the four pieces traditionally used
for the reading, and the one in reserve. When she opened Eleg-
gua's cabinet, I noticed that the head of the orisha was encased in
a large seashell.
"That is Simply the path my Eleggua walks," she
explained. "You know there are twenty-one Elegguas. Before
you receive the Warriors, the babalawo or the oriate-who are the
only ones who can give you that initiation-find out which of the
twenty-one Elegguas walks with you. The image will then be
prepared accordingly. Mine calls for a seashell, maybe because
I'm a daughter of Yemaya, and she's the owner of the sea wa-
ters."
She filled an empty jicara with fesh water and started the
process of divination. Although the procedure she followed was
similar to the one Maria had taught me, I noticed the prayers she
used were different-and considerably longer.
"The prayers to Eleggua are innumerable," she said
when I commented on this difference. "1 know many, and I vary
them all the time. I don't want to bore Eleggua with the same
litanies day in and day out."
She poured three sprinklings of water in front of Eleg-
gua's image, threw the traditional bits of coconut on the image l
46
COCONUTS AND COWRIE SHELLS

and asked the orisha what the outcome of my planned trip would
be. Eleggua answered with oyekun. As I already explained, this
pattern, composed of four dark sides, is the most evil oracle,
predicting death and bad luck.
Dona Pepita did not seem disturbed by the answer. She
simply presented the orisha with another question. Should I
accept the offer I had been made and move to Denmark? Again,
oyekun. Undaunted by Eleggua's negative answers, Dona
Pepita started a barrage of questions. Was there any danger
connected with the actual flight? Was the offer unsound? Was I
threatened with bodily harm? Immutable and stubborn, the
orisha persisted in the same answer: oyekun.
Each time, Dona Pepita bent down to refresh the
coconut, threw some water in front of the orisha, and then
straightened up to continue the questioning. Finally she turned
to look at me. There were fine beads of moisture on her carefully
made-up face, and her eyes were dark with concern.
"Eleggua says the offer is no good," she told me. "There
is only disappointment in it. You should forget about it. Further-
more, the trip itself is hazardous. If you make the trip, your life is
in danger."
I was filled with dismay. I had been planning the trip for
weeks. My contacts in Denmark were expecting me, and a series
of meetings had been arranged on my behalf with some very
important people. I simply had to make the trip. I asked Dona
Pepita if anything could be done to dispel the dangers and the bad
luck that Eleggua had foreseen.
"Let's ask him," she replied.
This time, Eleggua's response was an alafia (blessing)
followed by ellife (yes). Pressed by Dona Pepita, the orisha told us
that he would protect me against death and other dangers if I
made him an offer of a small chicken and a large basket of fruit.
But he warned me that nevertheless, the trip would be a complete
waste of time and money, and that I would do better staying in
New York where I belonged.
Upon hearing that Eleggua was willing to help, both
47
COCONUTS AND COWRIE SHELLS

Dona Pepita and I heaved deep sighs of relief. We closed the


consultation without any further questions.
Several days later I returned to her house with the baske1
of fruits and the young chicken that Eleggua had requested. This
was the first time that I saw an animal sacrifice, and my knees and
my teeth knocked together all during the ceremony.
In an animal sacrifice there is something primeval,
deeply connected with the collective unconscious of the race. It is
all so simple. A quick twist of the hand, the chicken's head is
gone, and a thick stream of dark-red, hot blood is steaming from
the severed neck. But it is not the beheading of the animal that is
so earth-shaking. It is the giving of the blood, the acceptance that
blood is the life, the spirit; and that it is being returned to the
divine source from where it came.
I saw the blood fall on the stone head representing Eleg-
gua and fill the small lips formed by the cowrie shells. The blood
flowed thickly over the stone and the seashell that encased it, and
the image seemed to pulsate momentarily, as if it were alive.
Dona Pepita added fresh honey to the blood-to sweeten Eleg-
II

gua," she told me-and soon the image was hardly visible be-
neath the viscous mixture.
She pulled some of the chicken's feathers and placed
them over the orisha's image until it completely disappeared
under a downy mound. Dona Pepita guided my hand to gather
feathers that had fallen in front of the image and had been
dampened by the water and the blood on the floor. This action
represented my gathering together all the evil around me. She
instructed me to squeeze the liquid out of the feathers in front of
EIeggua and to leave the bundle of wet feathers there, together
with the inevitable derecho.
When this last part of the ceremony was concluded,
Dona Pepita took again the coconut rinds and asked Eleggua if he
was pleased with the offer. The answer was a rotund ellife-yes!
Further questioning elucidated where Eleggua wanted the body
of the chicken to be disposed of-an extremely important part of
the ritual, for the orishas are very particular as to the disposal of
48

COCONUTS AND COWRIE SHELLS

animal sacrifices. These remains are as sacred as the blood of-


fered, since they represent the will of the orishas. Most of the
time, the animal flesh is consumed by the santeros and their
families. But sometimes, especially during cleansing ceremonies
such as the one I underwent, the sacrificed animal takes on all the
dangers and bad luck threatening an individual, and therefore
cannot be eaten. It must be taken where the orisha who has
partaken of the blood decides. Since Eleggua is the owner of all
roads, animals are often brought to a crossroads, to the woods, or
simply to the garbage, as this also belongs to him.
The chicken sacrificed in my name was to be brought to
the woods, the manigiia-egg6-as Maria called it. This egg6 is
alive, say the santeros, and is full of countless spirits, most of
whom have died in the woods. "Never go to woods alone,
florecita," Maria used to tell me. "Anything can happen there.
Sometimes in the woods people talk to you who are not alive.
They seem to be, but they are not. It's all eggo, big mystery, no
one knows what it is."
I left Dona Pepita's house feeling more relaxed than I had
in a long time, almost as if all my heavy worries and problems had
been left at Eleggua's feet. I still felt uneasy about my trip, since
the orisha had warned me against it. But now I felt confident that
at least no physical harm could befall me.
A few weeks later I flew to Copenhagen. I was not at all
surprised when, mostly due to a language barrier, the business
offer fell through. I spent less than a week in Denmark, when I
had planned to stay several months. Upon my return to the
United States, the connecting flight to Frankfurt developed en-
gine trouble. We had to return to Copenhagen after twenty min-
utes of flight. The transatlantic flight also developed technical
difficulties, and circled the airport for several hours with faulty
landing gear. When it finally landed, we stepped out of the plane
with blanched faces and shaking knees to see the landing strip
covered with foam. Ambulances and fire engines were nearby,
obviously anticipating a major disaster. Later on I learned that the
49
COCONUTS AND COWRIE SHELLS

police, fearing the plane would fall in the vicinity, had evacuated
all the major highways leading to the airport.
Perhaps it was all a coincidence. Carl Gustav Jung would
have probably called it a case of synchronicity. But I believe, quite
strongly, that Eleggua and the blood of a chicken saved me and
more than three hundred other people from almost certain death.
In Santeria, the coconut is not restricted to divination
purposes. It is also used for a variety of medical cures, as I
mentioned earlier, and also for dispelling negative vibrations.
Many santeros recommend that their disciples bathe their heads
with coconut milk every time they have a headache or feel tired
and confused. Coconut milk is believed to clear the mind and to
bring peace and stability to the spirit.
But perhaps the most important use of the coconut, after
divination, is the cleansing ceremony known as rogaci6n de cabeza,
or prayer for the head. This ritual is always undertaken before
any initiation and when an individual finds himself beset with
difficulties. Only a competent santero can conduct the rogaci6n,
which is performed to refresh a person'seleda, or guardian angel.
The santeros believe that when a person falls down easily, gets hit
on the head, feels depressed, or is plagued by misfortunes and
aCcidents, his eleda has become heated and needs to be re-
freshed. <;:oconut milk can help alleviate matters, but the ideal
cure is a rogaci6n de cabeza.
When I received the necklaces of Santeria, my madrina
performed the rogaci6n for me in front of her canastillero, the
cabinet where a santero keeps the soperas with the otanes of the
saints. The canastillero usually has four shelves, each of which
houses the sopera and speCial attributes of one of four major
orishas. The first shelf belongs to Obatala, the owner of the
heads, whose color is white and whose most important attribute
is a white dove. The second shelf belongs to Osh{m, the orisha of
liver waters, who owns love, marriage, and money. Osh{m's
color is yellow, her metal is gold, and among her attributes she
counts fans, perfumes, corals, honey, and c.a noes. Osh{m's sis-
50
COCONUTS AND COWRIE SHELLS

ter, Yemaya, owns the third shelf, adorned with her favorite
color, blue. As the owner of ocean waters, Yemaya owns sea-
shells, pearls, oysters, ships, sirens, and all sea creatures. Her
shelf always has small representations of her attributes, often
including beautiful jewelry encrusted with pearls. Directly below
is the canastillero's fourth and last shelf, devoted to Oya, the
owner of the cemetery and of the flame-one of the most power-
ful and respected of the female orishas. Oya's colors are a mixture
of nine shades or a flowery background where purple predomi-
nates. Some santeros believe her to be the rightful owner of
lightning and fire, which she gave to Chango because she loves
him.
Other orishas live in their own special cabinets. Obatala,
OshUn, Yemaya, and Oya are the only orishas who live together
in the canastillero.
These four orishas, together with Chango, Eleggua, and
the Warriors, are the foundation of Santeria. OrUnla, who is the
patron of the babalawos and cannot be invoked ritualistically by
anyone but a babalawo, is also of great importance to the cult as
the supreme oracle.
All the santeros receive the soperas of these orishas (ex-
cept OrUnla), with the respective otanes, on the day of the
asiento, when they are initiated into the cult. Having a saint's
otanes means that a santero can "work" with that particular
orisha and get his or her special bleSSings.
When an ahijado, or godchild, of the santero visits his
house, his first act, after embraCing his padrino, is to pay foribale
to the orishas in front of the canastillero. Foribale is done by lying
face down on the floor if the person is the" child" ofa male orisha,
and first on one side and then on the other if the orisha is a female.
The santero hovers watchfully to ensure that the ahijado does not
make any mistakes. Then he mutters a few words in Yoruba, taps
the ahijado lightly on the shoulders, and helps him up. Both
ahijado and padrino salute each other, arms crossed on their
chest, touching cheeks, first on one side of the face, then on the
other.
51
COCONUTS AND COWRIE SHELLS

The day of my rogacion, my madrina told me to bring


with me two coconuts, two white candles, and a roll of cotton.
One coconut was intended for reading, the other for the ritual
cleansing of the head.
She sat me in front of the open canastillero on a low stool,
barefoot and legs uncovered, my hands resting on my knees,
palms upward. She then brought out two large dinner plates. On
one she placed the five pieces of coconut used in divination, and
on the other the ingredients of the cleansing, which consisted of
bits of coconut, cocoa butter, and the substance known as cas-
carilla (ejUn), made of finely pulverized eggshells. The food of
Eleggua-toasted corn and bits of smoked fish and dried
possum-which is offered to the orisha after the rogacion, was
also reposing on the plate.
The madrina placed the dishes in front of the soperas and
poured three sprinklings of water on the floor. She then began to
moyubar, to ask the permission and the blessing of the dead
santeros mayores-are ikU, igbOn-and of the orishas. The first
prayer was to Olodumare, the other name of God in Yoruba.
"01 0 dumare ayuba. Boguo embelese Olodumare ayuba bai ye
baye tonu. . . God almighty, we ask your bleSSing; we are at your
feet. We do this with your permission and the permission of the
faithful dead. Drive away all evil, God almighty . . ."
She continued her prayers, calling again to the spirits of
the dead iyalochas and babalochas for help, saluting her own
madrina and padrino, and invoking the aid of the orishas. Finish-
ing her prayers, she picked up the two plates, faced me, and
announced her intentions to the orishas.
"Emfborf . .. I now cleanse this head," she continued,
this time exorcising evil and destruction. "Cosi ikU, cosi aro, cosi
eye, cosi of6 . . . ariku baM aw6."
She carefully enumerated all the ingredients in the
plates, and touched the plates to my feet, knees, hands, shoul-
ders, forehead, and the back of my neck, praying in Yo rub a all the
while. When she finished this presentation, she anointed those
same parts with water, then with cocoa butter. When she bent
52
COCONUTS AND COWRIE SHELLS

down to pick up the coconut rinds to ask for the orishas' blessing,
I timidly interrupted her.
"Madrina," I said. "Could I ask a question of the orishas
through the coconut?"
She turned to look at me,. and transfixed me with a cold,
severe glance.
''We are here to cleanse your head," she said, as if speak-
ing to a small, spoiled child, "not to ask personal questions. There
is a time for that, and that time is not now."
Thoroughly chastened, I lowered my head and said noth-
ing. Where is Marfa? I pondered sadly. She would have never
answered me so. Patiently, gently, without hurting my feelings,
she would have explained why I could not ask questions of the
orishas during a rogaci6n. But Marfa had been dead a long time.
Maybe she was among the are iku, the faithful dead whom the
madrina had invoked before. Maybe her beloved presence was
here now, watching as always over me, making sure that I was
well protected. I felt strangely comforted by this thought and less
hurt by the madrina's words.
The questioning of the orishas through the coconut gave
us alafia, followed by ellife, indicating the orishas were well
pleased with the ceremony. Satisfied with the result, the madrina
put some bit of cocoa butter and coconut in her mouth, chewed
them up, and placed the resulting paste on the top of my head,
the back of my neck, the inside of my elbows, my throat, and my
temples. She also placed some of the paste on my knees, the
palms of my hands, and my feet. She sprinkled some of the
cascarilla on top of this paste, covering it with clean balls of
cotton.
The madrina then lit the two candles, placed them on the
palms of my hands, and closed my fingers around them.
"You sit here quietly for some time," she instructed me,
"and ask the orishas, especially Obatala, to rid you of all the evil
influences in your life. I'll also be praying for you."
Her voice was gentle, and I found myself warming again
toward her. In my long association with her, I was to learn that
her affection for me was deep and real. The severity that some-
53
COCONUTS AND COWRIE SHELLS

times surfaced in her relationships with her ahijados appeared


when SanterIa's strict protocol was breached. After twenty-five
years as an iyalocha, she lived only to serve the orishas and to
help her ahijados. She was a devoted daughter of o shUn, and the
orisha had given her wealth that she shared generously with her
ahijados, often herself paying for some of the most costly initia-
tions of the cult. Her only demand was that proper respect and
tribute be paid to her orisha and to her.
The rogaci6n ended with the feeding of Eleggua. Pleased
with the food offering, he gave us his blessing with ire. Then the
madrina tied a white handkerchief around my head and told me
not to remove it until the next morning.
"To ensure Obatala's blessing and protection," she told
me. "Tomorrow you remove the paste from your head carefully
and bring it back to me. I will then have someone take it to the
manigua to complete the rite."
"What about the paste on my neck and the rest of my
body?" I asked her.
"That can be taken off now," she said, and she proceeded
to remove it.
"Madrina, why did you chew the coconut and cocoa
butter?"
"Because the saliva has ache, power. Some santeros will
not do it because they don't want to give of their strength to their
ahijados. But that's an offense to the orishas, and those santeros
will reap their own rewards."
I heard her utter many pronouncements on the improper
behavior of many iyalochas and babalochas, and yes, even some
babalawos who, in her opinion, were a disgrace to Santeria.
"This is an earth religion," she often told me, "which is
the closest we can come to God. Because of that, it must be kept
pure. There's no place for personal gain in Santeria. Its purpose is
simply to worship God and the orishas."
Maria would have echoed this sentiment with her own
special grace: "Olofi and orisha son to, florecita, you know orisha,
you know all. Na rna irnpo'ta, nothing else matters . . . "
5
OF LIFE
ANDDEATH
When I was fifteen, Maria's oldest brother, who was also her
favorite, became severely crippled by arthritis. She decided to
leave and take care of him. The following year, I would be starting
college in the university town of Rio Piedras, where she could not
accompany me. I was devastated by her leaving, but consoled
myself with the knowledge that I could visit her as often as I liked.
I missed Maria most during the late afternoon, after my
return from school, when we had had long conversations to
instruct me in the complicated business of growing up. Around
this time my father bought me an old Buick convertible, and I
spent most of my free time roaming the countryside in the car. I
had been driving since I was twelve, but this was the first time I
was allowed to drive alone. The experience seemed like an excit-
ing prelude to my forthcoming university stay.
Very soon I started driving to Maria's house after school.
She was always happy to see me and invariably had a small feast
waiting for me usually consisting of surullitos de ma{z (com fritters
prepared with coconut milk), bacalaitos (dried fish fritters), and
sometimes, as a special treat, a batch of her famed alcapurrias
(green banana patties stuffed with spiced pork). Occasionally one
of her nephews would go fishing in the river basin at the edge of
town, where the ocean and river joined at high tide. He would
54
55
OF LIFE AND DEATH

return balancing on his shoulders a long wooden pole with a large


tin can hanging from each end. Both cans would be filled with
set(, a highly prized half-inch fish which could only be found in
that particular river basin. He would sell his valuable cargo in the
food market at a considerable profit, but he would always save a
large portion of the catch for Marfa, who would use the rare fish to
prepare one of Puerto Rico's most delectable native specialties,
empanadas de setf. She grated the yucca root and prepared a savory
paste with it, stuffed the paste with the sen, which had been
stewed in a rich sauce, and wrapped each empanada, or
croquette, in banana leaves. The wrapped empanada was then
roasted on live coals until the leaves were burned through, at
which point it was ready to eat. The great talent of making the
empanadas lies not only in the spicy fish sauce but also in timing
the empanadas on the burning coals and the amount of banana
leaves used for the wrapping. Properly made, the empanada de set{
is a gourmet's dream come true, and Maria was an accomplished
dream maker.
I always knew when Maria had made the empanadas
because the anafres (large tin cans filled with live coals) would be
out cooling in the yard. Inside the tiny, spotless house, Marfa and
Don Flor, her brother, would be sitting behind a heavy wooden
table blackened by many years of use. A large plate of steaming
empanadas would grace the center of the table, which also held
three empty coconut shells polished to a high shine. These
coquitos would later be filled with sweet hot milk and delicious
coffee whipped to a high froth. Marfa, Don Flor, and I would sit
for many hours at this table, sipping coffee from the coquitos and
eating empanadas.
Because I knew Maria eked a meager living from her
work as a seamstress, I always brought her milk, eggs, and butter
from our house. My mother always sent her money, which I took
care to emphasize was for Don Flor' s medicines. This way, I knew
Maria would accept the money without embarassment.
Often, as we sat eating the empanadas, Maria would
comment on the magical properties of the seti, which she claimed
56
OF LIFE AND DEATH

were the result of the union of the ocean and river waters at high
tide.
"Yemaya is the ocean waters, and Oshun is the river,"
she would say, munching on an empanada. "The two orishas are
sisters, and when they meet, they overflow with joy. The setf is
born out of this happiness . When you eat setf, you receive
Yemaya's and Oshu.n's blessings."
Don Flor, who shared Maria's beliefs in Santeria, nodded
his white head in agreement.
"And that's why set! so hard to find," he added gravely.
"Only those the orishas want to bless can find them."
"Then your nephew Ramon must have many blessings,"
I said, a twinkle in my eye. "He always finds the setl."
"Ram6n is Yemaya's son," Maria answered, ignoring my
flippancy. "And he sure has her blessings. There's always plenty
of food and clothing for him and his family, and all his children
are going to school. His oldest son will start college next year, like
you."
I felt suddenly ashamed of my light words. "I'm sorry," I
said with a deep sigh. "I still have much to learn. But it's just that
the seti is only a fish. You make it seem as if everything had
special reasons for being, as if the orishas were behind everything
that exists."
"But they are, florecita," said Marfa with a wide smile.
"Everything that exists has its own special ache, a certain power
that's up to us to find." She offered me another empanada.
"Here, have some more blessings," she said, with her happy,
gurgling laugh.
Some afternoons, when her workload was lighter and
Don Flor was resting comfortably, Maria agreed to accompany
me on a long drive. Often we visited the beach which extended
the whole length of the town. One of our favorite haunts was el
faro, a picturesque lighthouse on a rocky promontory on the edge
of the ocean. We would sit on the rocks overlooking the water at
the foot of the lighthouse and feed the gaviotas-seagulls-with
pieces of dried bread Maria kept in her handbag for that purpose.
57
OF LIFE AND DEATH

"The gaviotas are Olocun's messengers," Marfa told me.


" Olocun be Yemaya at the bottom of the sea. She most powerful
orisha. When you say her name, touch floor and kiss dust off your
fingers."
She threw another piece of bread to the seagulls milling
around us and continued her tale. "Many old Yorubas say 010-
cun is a mermaid, others say she is half man and half woman. My
mammy told me that in the beginning, there was only Olorun-
Olofi and Olocun. Olofi owned the skies and Olocun the oceans,
but Olocun was so powerful and dangerous that as soon as
Obatala took over the earth, he chained Olocun with seven chains
at the bottom of the sea, so Olocun would not cover the earth in a
fit of rage. Chained like that, she can cause so much trouble when
she gets angry. Imagine, florecita, what would happen if she be
free."
I was pensive for some time. "Marfa," I said finally, "we
were taught in school that gravitation is what holds the ocean
waters in their place and keeps them from covering the rest of the
earth."
"Gravedad-gravitation," said Maria thoughtfully. "That
be very good name for Obatala' s chains, florecita."
According to Marfa, Olocun's main attributes were a
maja-a tropical snake-and a mask. The orisha loves to dance
with one of these snakes wrapped around her body. The mask
symbolizes the one used-very rarely-by the babalawos who
dare to perform Olocun's ritual dance. This sacred mask, one of
seven belonging to the orisha, is kept zealously by her children.
Olocun must receive her sacrifices on a boat far from the coast,
and invariably one of those in the boat is taken by the orisha. For
this reason most santeros are terrified of Olocun and very seldom
dare to "feed" her.
Yemaya "begins" in Olocun, Maria told me. There's only
one Yemaya, but she has seven paths. On each path she has a
different name and does a different thing. The oldest, the most
important, is Yemaya Awoye, who wears seven skirts to fight for
her children and crowns herself with Ochumare, the rainbow.
58
OF LIFE AND DEATH

Yemaya Ayawa wears a silver anklet and listens to her children


only with her back toward them. She's wise and haughty, and
even Orunla, to whom she was once married, listens to her
advice. Yemaya Okuti is a warrior and in this path was married to
Oggun, the iron god. She's violent, does not forget an offense,
and when she fights she carries Ogglin's knife and other
weapons hanging from her belt. Yemaya Konla lives in the sea
foam and often goes to sleep curled around the prow of a ship.
Yemaya Mayalewo lives in the forests in a saltwater pool where
she works the most powerful spells. Yemaya Asesu lives in the
sewers and other unclean waters. A messenger of Olocun, she
eats with the dead and is very slow in listening to prayers, which
she always answers very late. Lastly, Yemaya Akuara lives in two
waters, where the ocean meets the river. She's happy and loves
to dance, but will not cast any spells. It was this Yemaya, accord-
ing to Maria, who lived in the river basin where the set{ could be
found.
"Yemaya Akuara very good for the sick," Maria told me.
"She takes care of them and heals them. That's why sen so good.
Make my brother feel better."
"Seti would make anybody feel better, Maria," I said,
smiling up at her.
" 'Specially in Maria's empanadas, eh, florecita?" she
said, returning the smile. I laughed and she joined me, her
laughter rippling joyfully in the midst of the startled seagull's
cries.
Sometimes we would drive deep into the karst country,
near the remote village of Esperanza, where the Arecibo Ionos-
pheric Observatory would be built many years later. The
countryside there was rugged and forbidding, thickly wooded
and mountainous. Some parts of the terrain were crisscrossed by
large sinkholes and underground rivers whose dull rumble could
at times be heard above the ground. One of these underground
currents emptied into a cave which I had never seen, but which
Maria mentioned often. Although the countryside was the prop-
59
OF LIFE AND DEATH

erty of Osain, the owner of all woods, the cave and the under-
ground river belong to Oshlin.
"Oshlin has many paths-caminos-like Yemaya," Marla
told me. "Here en el monte her name is Oshlin Niwe. Sometimes,
when she lives in the bottom of the river, she calls herself Oshfut
Ololodi. She sews and knits down there surrounded by the fish.
My mammy told me Ololodi is half woman, half fish. There's a
name for that."
"You mean a mermaid?" I said.
"That's right, florecita," said Marla. "That's the reason
she don't leave river. She sits down there all the time with a star
and a half moon to give her light for her knitting. Ololodi very
deaf. When you ask for a favor, she takes a long time to answer.
You need to call her with the agog6 [a ritual bellJ."
"Who is the Oshfut that likes to dance at parties?" I
asked.
"That be Oshlin Yeye Moro," Maria said. "Sometimes
they also call her Yeye Carl. She loves to dance and to paint
herself. She's always looking at herself in the mirror and loves
perfumes and pretty clothes. Men are crazy about her, and she
plays with them all the time and makes them do whatever she
wants." Here Marla rolled her eyes and heaved a great sigh.
"There are many mysteries with the saints, florecita. With Oshfut
'specially. She be many women and still be herself only."
"I like Oshfut very much," I said. "She's such a happy
orisha."
"That she be, florecita, that she be," Marla said gravely.
"But she can be very serious when she has to. And it's very
dangerous to make her angry. She don't forgive as easy as
Yemaya."
Many santeros have confirmed Marla's pronouncement
on the dangers of offending the usually happy and charming
Oshfut. A now-famous story illustrating this orisha's delicate
sensibilities has been reported by many iyalochas.
It seems that at a guemilere given in Havana in honor of
60
OF LIFE AND DEATH

OshUn, one of her children became possessed by the saint, who


very promptly wrapped herself in a yellow-silk mantle and began
to circulate among the guests. Never had Yeye Cari been happier
and more flirtatious. She laughed and joked and swung the
fringes of her mantle from side to side with her inimitable sauci-
ness. No one could have been more feminine and seductive, even
though she was occupying a man's body. One of those at the
party reached out an irreverent hand and slapped the backside of
the possessed omo-OshUn and jeeringly accused him of being an
invertida, a homosexual. His action froze everyone in the room,
which became cold and silent. OshUn stopped in her tracks. Very
slowly she turned to face the man who had insulted her. Looking
at him hard and long, she said, "Five irale for you and five irale for
my omo-orisha."
Irale means day in Yoruba. Five is Oshun's adjudicated
number in Santerfa. None of those present at the giiemilere was
unduly surprised when both OshUn's son and the man who had
offended her died five days later of the same intestinal trouble.
(The entire abdominal region is sacred to Oshun.)
Perhaps the most frightening part of the story is that both
men were buried the same day. Their graves, coincidentally,
were side by side. Twenty-five iyalochas, all daughters of o shUn
and all possessed by the .orisha, showed up at the burial. All
during the services they stood by the graveside laughing in low
and tenebrous tones, with a curiously mirthless and contemptu-
ous laughter.
Many other stories about the dangers of offending the
Venus of the Yorubas are told by the santeros, who say that
OshUn is most frightening when she laughs.
"It be better when she cries, florecita," Marfa used to tell
me. "Anytime she cries, she's happy with you and will give you
what you want."
"But why, Marfa?"
"OshUn be very sentimental, very passionate. Feelings
very strong, alagura. She cries when she be happy, and laughs
when she be sad."
61
OF LIFE AND DEATH

"But she also laughs at the parties when she's not an-
gry," I argued.
"That be different," smiled Marfa, patting my hand.
"Nothing deep there, no feeling involved. You still have much to
learn, florecita, but you learn."
I looked at Maria with understanding awakening in my
mind.
"Marfa . . . Is Oshlin love?"
Her smile deepened. "Among other things, florecita,
among other things." She tilted her head sideways in a familiar
gesture and looked thoughtful for some moments. "Oshlin be
life, earth, nature; like life, she sometimes happy, sometimes sad,
sometimes good, sometimes bad . . . Not bad, bad," she has-
tened to add, as if afraid to offend the orisha, "but bad when life's
sad because there's no love. Oshun's love realized, that's why
she's marriage, but she's also other kinds of love-love that's not
pure," she added delicately. "In that path, that camino, she's
Oshlin Kayode or Oshlin Miwa. She protects those women who
'lead the happy life,' mujeres de vida alegre, prostitutes, who wor-
ship her by offering her five egg yolks sprinkled with cinnamon
on a deep white plate."
"How can Oshlin help these women?" I asked. Like most
adolescents, I knew more about the shadier sides of life than I was
given credit for. But Marfa, like most overly protective adults,
was always very cautious when we spoke about "wordly" mat-
ters, casas del mundo.
"Because they're businesswomen in a way," she said
carefully. "And Oshlin owns all the gold, all the money in the
world. You can't make money without her help."
''Looks like Oshlin owns everything, Marfa," I smiled.
"Not everything," said Maria seriously, "but she's what
makes life worth living . . ."
According to Marfa, Oshun owned marriage because she
had been married more than any of the other orishas. Those male
orishas she has not married, she has had" adventures" with. The
most important of her affairs is Chango, whom she loves pas-
62
OF LIFE AND DEATH

sionately. But the tempestuous god of fire, thunder, and light-


ning has a "legal" wife, the orisha Oba, patron of the Nigerian
river of the same name. Oba is very serious and ladylike, and
suffers in dignified silence all of Chango's extramarital dalliances.
Of all his akpetebfs-mistresses-Chango is said to pre-
fer two, the irresistible Oshlin and Oya, the mighty owner of the
cemetery. Oya is not as beautiful as Oshlin, but her fiery temper
fascinates Chango, who often takes her along during his most
ferocious battles. Some santeros claim that it was Oya, the owner
of the flame, who gave to Chango the power of fire. Although
Oya and Oshlin often quarrel over Chango's favors, they are
good friends and "ea t" together during the ritual sacrifices. Oya's
friendship is not extended to Yemaya, who she has never for-
given for tricking her into exchanging the ownership of the ocean
waters, which originally belong to Oya, for that of the cemetery,
previously owned by Yemaya. Ever since that time, the two
orishas detest each other and the santeros are very careful not to
"feed" them at the same time, as they refuse to "eat" together.
Oninla, the heavenly diviner; Ochosi, the hunter; Babalu,
the patron of the sick; AganyU, the powerful father of Chango;
Inle, the divine physician; and OggUn, the iron forger, have all
been at one time or another Oshlin's husbands or lovers. Only
Obatala, her father, and her "confidant" Eleggua have not been
linked romantically with the voluptuous orisha.
Oshlin's power over men is deeply connected with her
ownership of honey, a covert symbol of her sexuality. In a well-
known patak!, Ogglin was living in the woods, egg6. Without iron
there can be no progress, and as long as Ogglin, who owns the
metal, stayed in the woods, mankind's evolution was at a stand-
still. Olofi, very worried about this state of affairs, sent Eleggua to
Ogglin with an order to come out into civilization. But Ogglin
refused to leave the woods. All the other orishas also tried to
convince the savage Ogglin to join them, but Ogglin would not
even let them into his house. Finally Oshlin filled a gourd with
honey, tied five silk handkerchiefs around her waist, and went
into the woods in pursuit of the wild and irascible Ogglin.
63
OF LIFE AND DEATH

As soon as Oggun saw Oshu.n, he hid under some


bushes. The goddess pretended she had not seen Oggun al1.d
began to dance, swinging her body voluptuously from side to
side. As she danced, she sang one of her most beautiful love
melodies and fanned the air with her five handkerchiefs. The five
gold manillas-bracelets-that she constantly wears jingled
agreeably on her slim wrists.
Fascinated with Oshlin's beauty and her music, Ogglin
forgot his determination to hide from human eyes, and lifted his
head from behind the bushes. Swift as lightning, Oshu.n dipped
her fingers into the gourd and spread a handful of honey over
Oggun's mouth. The unsociable orisha licked the honey with
delight and, like a timid deer, ventured a few steps out from the
bushes. Oshun made believe she had not noticed Oggu.n's ac-
tions. Very nonchalantly, she swung her skirts and hand-
kerchiefs and, continuing with her dancing and singing, moved
away from Oggu.n. The love-struck orisha followed her like a
lamb, without realizing she was leading him out of the woods.
Every so often, Oshu.n would turn around and anoint Oggu.n's
lips with honey.
The process took her five days, but finally she came out of
the woods with 0 ggu.n blindly in tow. There was a great party in
the city of Ife, where all the orishas lived, for the iron forger's
return meant the continued advancement of civilization. But
according to the legend, Oggu.n did not really change. Though he
did not return to the woods, he continued to be the same blood-
thirsty, ill-tempered, violent deity. From time to time, when the
mood suits him, he will cause a train derailment or car accident,
often helped by Eshu Ogguanilebbe, his inseparable companion.
But Oshu.n remains forever his favorite akpetebl, and for her he
will do anything.
In another patakf, it is Chang6 who decides to turn his
back on humanity, climbs up to the top of his favorite palm tree,
and refuses to come down again. Once more Oshu.n entices the
orisha down by standing at the foot of the palm tree and very
slowly removing her upper garment. When Chango sees Oshu.n
64
OF LIFE AND DEATH

naked to the waist and smiling seductively at him, he slides off


the tree with the speed of lightning, and follows OshUn out of the
woods and back to the city of lie.
The stories about OshUn and her love adventures are
many, but santeros remind us that it is quite wrong to think of
OshUn always as a flirtatious, frivolous deity. She has many
serious aspects as well, enough to make one suspect that her
apparent flightiness is a pose she adopts when it suits her pur-
poses. Yeye-Cari abeberiye moroladde codyu alamadde otto:-the
powers of Oshun are unlimited.
OshUn's always be tested when it is
offered to her. The legend says that someone tried to poison her
once by introducing a deadly philter into her honey. Ever since
then the orisha demands that her oiiibe tested in her presence to
ensure that it is not poisoned.
Marfa believed that the Oshun who lived in the hidden
cave in La Esperanza was very old and very wise.
"OshUn Funke knows all the secrets of the universe. She
teaches. That whole egg6 is hers. She runs underneath and
controls everything. When you stand out there, you can feel her
near. All your hair stand on end."
And indeed, every time I went to the karst country with
Maria, I felt uneasy, as if I were in the presence of something vast
and indescribable. Anyone who visits that brooding and mysteri-
ous part of the island is left with the same impression of extraor-
dinary power. Today the presence of the observatory, with its
giant radar where scientists hope they will someday receive an
extraterrestrial message, makes the area twice as awesome. Maria
would undoubtedly place the entire project at OshUn Funke's
feet, instead of those of Cornell University, which sponsors it.
"It's OshUn Funke," she would say, "teaching the world
some of the things she knows about the universe . . ."
Sometimes, after leaving La Esperanza, Maria and I
would go the Central Cambalache, a sugarcane refinery on the
other side of town, where we could drink a tall, icy glass of melao
de cana-molasses-diluted in water. This drink and tamarind
65
OF LIFE AND DEATIi

were Marfa's favorite refreshments, and I tried to indulge her as


often as possible.
On our way to the Central we passed first a large pineap-
ple field. When the pineapples were ready to be picked, the field
resembled an immense checkerboard dotted with intricately
carved topazes. The golden fruit glistened under the sun,
crowned by the emerald thatch of its spikes. During harvest
times, we would stop by the roadside and talk with the pineapple
pickers. We would invariably end up with the back of the car
filled with delicious fruit, for which the pickers would accept no
payment.
Farther on we would come to the sugar fields, which
were still cut by the jfbaro with the machete. Most of the cutting
was done early during the day in order to avoid the blistering rays
of the tropical sun; but in the middle of the zafra, the height of the
sugarcane season, cutting sometimes extended until dusk. The
men worked in gangs, with the best five or six cutters-the "front
train"-opening the row of cane. The most skillful cutter was first
in front and was appropriately called la puerta. In the jibaro
community, it conferred status to be a member of the "front
train," because some ofthese men could cut over two tons of cane
a day. Even today, the importance of a skilled cutter cannot be
minimized because there art! many fields where the curving of the
ground precludes the use of sophisticated machinery.
Because the poisonous centipede abounds among cane,
the men tied a piece of cord around their pants' bottoms, securing
them to their ankles. Many of them worked naked from the waist
up, in a futile effort to get relief from the scorching heat. The
copious sweat that was the result of their l:1bor acted as a natural
protection against the sun's rays. Most of the men wore the pava,
a large straw hat which is a traditional symboi of the jibaro and
of Puerto Rico.
The men worked in shifts, alternating their work and rest
periods. On the other side of the road, the otherwise empty
landscape was interrupted by an occasional blaze of color. Brazen
and irrepressible, like a sudden burst of flame, the flamboyim-
66
OF LIFE AND DEATH

Puerto Rico's national tree, known commonly as the royal


poinciana-invaded one's senses almost to the exclusion of
everything else. There, under the generous scarlet canopy of the
great 1amboy{m, gently cushioned by the vivid carpet of fallen
blossoms, the jfbaro took his well-deserved rest. Like a modern-
day Omar Khayyam seated under his tent of 1amboyim blos-
soms, he weaved the fantasy of his hopes and dreams in the form
of multiple stanzas which he called decimas. These, later set to
music, became the ultimate expression of Puerto Rican ideals.
The pineapple and sugarcane fields, the weary jibaro and
his rude implements of labor, were all, according to Maria, the
concern of still another Yoruba deity, Orisha-Oko. This saint,
syncretized in Santeria as St. Isidro Labrador, is the patron of
agriculture and is symbolized by a pair of oxen pulling a plow.
"Without Orisha-Oko nobody eats," Marfa used to tell
me. "He gives good crops or takes them away. When earth is dry
or it's too hot or too cold and nothing grows or grows bad, it's
time to pray to Orisha-Oko."
This deity, said to give great stability to those who receive
him, is a very powerful orisha whose mysteries can be given only
to initiated santeros. Naturally I am not familiar with this cere-
mony, said to be extremely beautiful. I have, however, seen the
small silver oxen and plow, topped by a tiny umbrella, which is
the amulet representing the orisha. The otan, or stone, where the
orisha "lives" must be found on a recently tilled field. Orisha-
Oko is not "crowned" on the head of a person, like most of the
other orishas. Like Olocun, who is the depths of the ocean,
Orisha-Oko, who represents the earth, is too vast to fit in a
human head. Only those olochas who are told during their initia-
tion that they must receive the god of agriculture are allowed to
enter into his mysteries.
The spring before I started college, my circle of friends
started growing and I was allowed to go out alone more often.
The week of Easter I went to Spain with one of my aunts to see the
Holy Week observance in Seville. Perhaps because I was at such a
67
OF LIFE AND DEATH

sensitive age, the vivid re-creation of Christ' s sufferings, espe-


cially during the magnificent Good Friday procession, tormented
me deeply. Lifelike statues of Roman soldiers scourged and
crucified Jesus all over again, the Virgin Mary cried tears of
diamonds, and the body of Jesus was paraded in a glass sepulchre
with a carved wooden base overlaid in gold leaf. His recumbent
figure seemed to lie in uneasy slumber, the pallid cheeks over-
shadowed in grief. Marching behind this dolorous splendor, the
hooded figures of the priests added a grim touch to the spectacle.
Jesus died again in front of my eyes that week, and I found the
sight devastatingly cruel.
Upon our return from Spain, we found my father waiting
for us at the airport. He was unusually quiet. While we were
waiting for our luggage, he took my aunt aside and spoke to her
alone for a few minutes. When they finally rejoined me, I could
see my aunt making a visible effort not to cry. My first thought
was that something had happened to my mother, but when I
questioned my father, he shook his head silently. Suddenly,
inexplicably, I knew it was Maria. My father and I do not always
need words to communicate with each other. Now he moved
forward immediately and held me close for a few moments, then
walked away abruptly and went to pick up our luggage.
Our return trip is still clear in my mind. I sat huddled in a
corner of the car, lost in a pain I had never known before. My
father explained briefly that soon after we had left for Spain,
Marfa had caught a sudden chill that developed into pneumonia.
She had been buried the day before. He tried to console me with
the knowledge that she had soon lapsed into unconsciousness
and had not suffered a painful death, but I kept torturing myself
with the irrational thought that perhaps she might not have died
had I been there. Grief is the least rational of all feelings, and I
simply felt I had somehow failed Marfa.
Her death plunged our house into deep mourning. Dur-
ing nine consecutive evenings my parents and I went to the little
house she had shared with Don Flor, to join her friends and
68
OF LIFE AND DEATH

family in the rosaries said in her memory. Don Flor bore his loss
with characteristic fortitude, and the resignation I saw in his face
was the last lesson I was to receive from him. Six months later, he
died in his sleep.
The school term in Puerto Rico ends in May and begins
again in August. Concerning my forthcoming university stay, I
still had to register, choose my first-year program, and find a
respectable place to live. These activities plus my regular school-
work helped me adjust to Marfa's permanent absence. I found
that talking about Marfa was extremely painful and I began to
avoid any reminiscing about her with anyone who had known
her. She, who had been such a happy person, would not have
wanted me to think of her in sorrow. Whenever thoughts of her
came to me they were invariably joyful ones. Sometimes, when I
was alone, I thought I heard her laughter or felt her light touch
upon my shoulders. I'd turn around expecting her to be standing
by my side, and was always disappointed to find she wasn't. But
the fleeting sadness never lasted because somehow I knew she
was always near, even though I could not see her. Often I had the
feeling that a part of her was still with me and would remain with
me forever.
One day in late July, my mother packed my new white
suitcase with my new clothes and one of the linen sets Marfa had
sewn and embroidered for me. She had painstakingly hand-
sewn six sets of fine linen in white and various pastel colors; the
sheets, pillowcases and towels all ended in matching lace which
she had crocheted, and they were all embroidered with my ini-
tials. My mother had bought the materials for Marfa, who could ill
afford the expense, but she had refused to accept any payment for
her prolonged labors.
A few days before the beginning of my first term, my
father drove me to the girls' student hall that had been chosen as
my home on campus. Since he was not allowed upstairs into the
students' quarters, he sat with me for some time in the reception
room, and proceeded to repeat once more the long list of warn-
69
OF LIFE AND DEATH

ings and admonitions I had been hearing for the past year. Fi
nally, with obvious reluctance, he stood up and we embraced for
a long time. When he drove away, I watched him from my
upstairs window until the car was lost in the distance.
For the first time in my life, I was completely on my own.
6
FIRE AND
LIGHTNING
During my freshman year, I became deeply interested in the
humanities. My professor of philosophy was a persuasive orator
who worshiped Hume, Kant, and Schopenhauer, and taught his
students that the existence of God and other supernatural beings
was not only unprovable but unknowable. He navigated the
chasm between Spinoza's rationalism and Hume's empirical
skepticism with remarkable smoothness, thereby avoiding a
head-on collision with the religious sensibilities of his students,
most of whom were practicing Catholics.
Although the course was a general overview of Western
philosophy, Professor Machado's brilliant rhetoric made it a per-
fect working mold for the reshaping of his young students'
minds. We soon learned to assert-with Hume-that all thinking
or imagining is made of ideas, which in turn are the product of
perceptions received by our senses.
"To Hume there was no such thing as mind," the profes-
sor told us, waving a fist in the air to emphasize his words. "To
him, 'mind' was simply a collection of ideas and not an entity in
itself. He even denied the connection between cause and effect, a
concept upon which rationalism and the entire edifice of scientific
thought had been built. And he did it with such unassailable logic
that the shocked orthodox world had to stand up and listen."

70
71

FIRE AND LIGHTNING

Here Professor Machado stopped, fist on hip, and twirled his


mustache with great satisfaction, as if Hume's achievement had
been his own. He waited a little to make sure the class had
assimilated his words, and continued.
"And how did he do it? By correctly stating that we never
perceive causes, only effects. We simply infer the cause from the
effect, which Hume said was wrong because we cannot experi-
ence causes. But most important, Hume asserted that whatever
we can 'picture' in thinking can be experienced. Conversely,
what cannot be imagined cannot be experienced. This means that
it is not- I repea t, it is not possible"-here the professor pounded
his righ t fist on his left palm-" to have an idea or concept of self,
mind, or soul because there are no impressions about them, and
therefore no experiences upon which to base them. Anything
that cannot be experienced cannot be imagined, and therefore
cannot exist. And who can experience what the soul is, what the
world of the spirit must be like, what God in his infinite essence
must be? Since no one can-Hume argued-then none of these
things exist."
The impeccable reasoning behind Hume's arguments-
and Professor Machado's colorful but effective delivery-found a
reluctant echo in my mind. For the first time in my life I had come
face to face with logic, faith's most implacable enemy.
Fortunately, Professor Machado also admired the works
of Kant and Schopenhauer, both of whom had been Christians
and had accepted the existence of God. Although I soon grew to
detest Schopenhauer's unbearable arrogance and misogynist
tendencies, I welcomed Kant's ideas as a drowning person wel-
comes a floating tree branch. I strongly suspect that the orthodox
of Hume's times must have felt the same sense of relief at Kant's
efforts to slay the dragon of skepticism. But Hume would not be
dismissed so easily. During one of our biweekly sessions, Profes-
sor Machado explained why.
"Kant," he said, "accepted Hume's belief that all knowl-
edge arises from experience, but he contended that we must
distinguish between what gives us knowledge and how that
72
FIRE AND UGHTNING

knowledge is manifested. This was important because it differed


from Hume's notion that all experience, and therefore all knowl-
edge, must come from outside. Kant believed that we have ideas
that come from within. This is knowledge independent of experi-
ence, and he called it a priori. What is derived sensorially, through
experience, is knowledge a posteriori. Experience is therefore
shaped by a priori concepts, which can be likened to under-
standing and intuition, among other qualities of mind. This
sounds more difficult than it really is, and if you use your brains
as you're supposed to, you'll understand."
Nobody dared ask him to clarify his statement because
we knew he would go over it many times until he was sure we
understood his meaning. He walked around the room several
times, puffing on his pipe, hands behind his back, waiting once
more for his words to sink in. After a few minutes he continued
his dissertation.
"Kant also asserted that there are 'things outside the
mind,' what he called 'things in themselves,' which affect and
influence the causes of our experience. He called them noumena,
as opposed to phenomena, which was the name he gave to the
appearances of things. But-and here is the important part of this
argument-once Kant had staged this careful scenario and had his
audience ready for the performance, he presented the world with
his magnum opus, the great thesis that states that, contrary to
what Locke, Hume, and empiricism in general believed, the mind
of man is not an empty clay tablet upon which outer experiences
write their whimsical tales, nor an abstract name for a series of
connected ideas. Rather, the mind is an organ that classifies the
multitude of sensorial experiences into ideas and gives them sig-
nificance through coherent thoughts. What all this means is that
man is capable of independent reasoning, of intuition, and that
there is room for believing that there are things outside our realm
of experience which are beyond our grasp and understanding,
but which are real nevertheless. These truths are derived from the
way our minds operate. This is indeed brilliant, and Kant ap-
parently accomplished what he set out to do, namely to quench
73
FIRE AND UGHTNING

Hume's skepticism. Furthermore, his thinking presupposed the


existence of God, even though his existence in Kant's view could
not be proven by reason. But one part of Hume's argument was
still unassailable-namely that anything that could not be tested,
proven through experience, simply could not exist."
At this point I raised a timid hand.
"Professor?" I said. When he nodded encouragingly, I
went on, feeling a bit more reassured. "Hume claimed that all the
ideas in our minds are the result of experience through percep-
tions of the outside world. Well, it occurs to me that God is an
idea in our minds, as are the concepts of soul and self. The fact
that we have these ideas must mean that they must be the result
of some sort of perception-which in turn means they must
exist."
Professor Machado smiled and nodded approvingly.
"Well thought," he said, "in a truly Kantian way. What you have
said is profound, but not new. You have discovered the one weak
link in Hume's armor, which means you will forever stand by
Kant's side in this dilemma."
"1 do prefer Kant to Hume," I said quietly. "Kant is more
humane, has a greater vision. Hume is too arrogant, he's too sure
he has all the answers-like Schopenhauer," I added impul-
Sively, immediately regretting the unnecessary comment.
Professor Machado pounced on my remark. He wel-
comed and encouraged controversy in his class. "Why don't you
like Schopenhauer?" he asked, hiding a smile behind his handle-
bar mustache. "He also liked Kant and believed in God."
"Maybe," I said, just a touch of defiance in my voice.
"But he was still a horrible man. Since he couldn't be happy-
because of his rotten character-he went around insisting that the
whole world had to be miserable like him."
Professor Machado laughed at this uncharitable, if accu-
rate, version of the philosophy of the unfortunate Schopenhauer,
and the rest of the class laughed with him. When the laughter had
subsided, the professor resumed once more his usual gravity.
"It seems you are a young person with some strong ideas
74
FIRE AND LIGHTNING

of your own. Which is fine," he added with a smile, "because it


means you're doing your homework. Butit's importantthat all of
you understand the significance of Schopenhauer's contribution
to human thought."
He relit his pipe and continued. "Schopenhauer was
indeed an unhappy man," he said thoughtfully, "and had every
reason to be because by the time he was twenty-one, his father
had died, his mother-who hated him-had disowned him, and
he was all alone in the world. Naturally his philosophy reflects his
inner torment, but it also reflects his great genius. True, he was
vain and conceited and believed himself to be the greatest intel-
lect of his time, but his claims do not offend people so much as
knowing he was probably right. As we have already seen from
previous discussions, Schopenhauer agreed with Kant that the
experienced world consists of phenomena. But unlike Kant, he
equated the noumena-the causes of the phenomena-with
man's will. This will is evil and is to be blamed for all the suffer-
ing in the world. Knowledge, which is acquired through will, is
also evil because it informs us of the terrible conditions under
which we live in this world. But this pessimism-born of
Schopenhauer's unhappy life-did not succeed in destroying his
idealism. Part of his great legacy is that he revealed that thought is
not an abstract concept, but a useful instrument through which
we can control our actions. Most important, he taught us that it
is vital for man to recognize the force of his instincts and that he's
motivated by his desires to pursue each course of action. In spite
of his desperate loneliness, he saw the value of art and recognized
that beauty is the ultimate good. Schopenhauer was an unpopu-
lar hero, an antihero if you will, but a hero nevertheless because
he dared tell the world some very unwelcome but undeniable
truths. And for that we have to respect him."
But Professor Machado's defense of the much-maligned
German philosopher did not succeed in endearing Schopen-
hauer to me in the slightest. Not until many years later, when I
reread The World as Will and Idea did I fully comprehend Schopen-
hauer's message and see what Machado had tried in vain to teach
75
FIRE AND LIGHTNING

me. Much of my latter interest in oriental mysticism, especially


Zen Buddhism, was sparked by Schopenhauer's belief in the
Hindu concept of Nirvana as the ultimate goal of all personal
development. But at the age of sixteen, my romantic idealism did
not take kindly to pessimistic or negative pronouncements. I
wanted too much to live, to knaw, and Schopenhauer's
philosophy denied me all that.
Even so, Professor Machado's erudition exacted a heavy
toll upon my faith. Prodded by his vigorous dialectic, I slowly
shed some of my most basic religious beliefs. With Kant and
Spinoza, I came to accept that the existence of God cannot be
proven by reason and can only be accepted through faith. By the
end of my first year in college, I had concluded that logic super-
sedes all other values. Religion and superstition-as I now called
Marfa's teachings-were not based on logical foundations and
therefore had to be discarded.
The decision to give up all my religious upbringing was
not an easy one, and I felt as if I were uprooting my soul together
with my beliefs. I spent the better part of that first year crying
bitterly over my self-imposed renunciation. But I also felt that my
decision was necessary. Eventually I outgrew the pain and broke
away from religion. Had Marfa still been with me, perhaps I
might have had difficulty in abandoning her teachings. But her
death had been a turning point in my life. I felt that a part of me
had died with her, and the rebirth in my personality demanded a
completely new direction. My mother's Catholic beliefs were not
strong enough to withstand the onslaught of incipient existen-
tialism. I was left alone to face the world with nothing stronger
than my youth and my idealism.
The next two years passed with hardly any changes.
Then something happened that forced me to reassess my values
all over again.
During my junior year, one of my friends invited me to a
party located a few miles from the university. Her brother agreed
to pick me up at the student hall where I was lodging, and bring
me back when the party was over.
76
FIRE AND LIGHTNING

Unfortunately, the day of the party was damp and


stormy. Hurricane alerts were posted throughout the island.
Undaunted, I went ahead with my preparations for the party, but
by the time my escort arrived, it was raining heavily and visibility
was poor.
We drove for nearly an hour through nearly total dark-
ness and torrential rain. Several times we took a wrong turn and
had to stop the car to get back on the road. During one of those
wrong turns, the car skidded on the wet asphalt and plunged
down a ravine.
The final impact left me momentarily dazed but unhurt.
When I recovered myself, I saw my friend's brother was uncon-
scious and possibly badly injured. I had no idea where we were.
The darkness was absolute. But I knew we needed help as soon as
possible. Groping for the door handle, I finally managed to get
out of the car.
The instant I stepped into the night, I was drenched in icy
rain. The wind was so strong I could hardly manage to stand, and
I had to remove my shoes to avoid slipping in the mud. I ventured
a few steps forward, but the wind made me lose balance, pitching
me head first on to the ground. The rain was so heavy I could
hardly keep my eyes open. I made several attempts to get up, but
the slippery mud prevented me from getting back on my feet.
Shivering with cold, I huddled on the ground, too tired to perse-
vere. I could see no way out as long as the rain and the darkness
continued.
In my growing despair, my thoughts went back to the
safety of my childhood. During heavy storms, Marfa would hover
around me, always with the same request: "Go ahead, fiorecita.
Ask Chango to stop the rain. He'll do it for you."
I would laugh and callout at the top of my lungs for
Chango to stop the rain. For me it was a game, and when the rain
stopped shortly after my request, I was never surprised. But now,
as I sat in the midst of the slashing rain and the darkness, I
realized it was no longer a game.
Would it still work? Could I still conjure the Simple,
77

FIRE AND UGHTNlNG

innocent childhood faith that I had abandoned in my search for


reality? How could I make something happen if I didn't believe in
it? Unless. . . unless that something was part of an independent
reality that existed whether or not I believed in it!
I had nothing to lose by trying. If I failed, I would Simply
be back where I started from. If I succeeded, I would save myself
and my companion-and also find proof of a reality entirely
independent of my own.
With great effort I stood up, using both arms to protect
my face from the violence of the rain. Struggling to keep my
balance, I looked up to the sky, half drowned in the unending
waters.
"Chango," I cried out with all my remaining strength,
"can you hear me? Once you told me to call if I ever needed you. I
need you now. Stop the rain. Show me the way to safety.
Chango, can you hear me? Chango!"
In the distance, I heard a soft peal of thunder. I listened
anxiously, and the thunder reverberated once more, this time
closer. My heart started to beat faster in my chest, and suddenly I
caught myself wishing that my call would go unanswered. I
simply did not know if I could face an answer.
The thunder continued to grow closer. Suddenly a blind-
ing flash crossed the sky. I watched aghast as a lightning bolt
slashed through the darkness and fell directly in front of me.
Small pools of water sizzled at the contact and the wet grass was
burned to the ground. Almost simultaneously, the rain and the
wind diminished in intensity, until only a few drops were falling
softly over me.
The deafening roar that followed the lightning gave way
in me to a strange composure. All my fears and misgivings
seemed to disappear, and I felt a great serenity. When a second
bolt of lightning fell, a little farther away, I was neither shocked
nor frightened. I simply followed its direction.
In this fashion I walked out of the dark ravine, following
the fiery path, as lightning bolt upon lightning bolt guided my
steps.
78
FIRE AND LIGHTNING

Several hours later, my companion and I were both re-


ceiving proper medical attention. For him, the adventure was
over. For me, it was only beginning.
Many years passed after I met Chango in the ravine, and
my life underwent many natural changes. I finished my studies at
the University of Puerto Rico, specializing in psychology and
anthropology, and soon thereafter I moved to New York to do
postgraduate work at Columbia University. I never again re-
turned to live in Puerto Rico. New York helped me survive a
stormy marriage, the birth of two children, and an inevitable
divorce. Then, in the early nineteen-seventies, I accepted a post
as an associate English editor with the United Nations in Vienna,
where I lived for several years. Through it all I continued to delve
into the mysteries of Santeria, as well as into other phases of the
occult. At this time, I was not an active follower of Santeria,
merely an interested observer, but I did experiment-quite
successfully-with some of the cult's magical practices. I soon
discovered that I had a natural talent to "make things happen"
through concentration and other simple rituals. Sometimes I
used natural objects such as herbs, roots, fruits, and flowers for
my magical experiments. Colored candles, incenses, and natural
oils were also quite effective in helping me alter the natural course
of things.
So successful was I with my magical practices that I soon
graduated to more complicated rituals, some based on the prac-
tices of Santeria and others on kabbalistic symbolism. Through
my researches into the occult I had learned that the Jewish magic
based on the Kabbalah has very strong links with the practices of
Santeria. These links could be traced to the fact that both systems
had African roots, particularly in Egypt, where both the Jews and
the Yorubas had sojourned in ancient times. The results of these
researches were published in my first three books, Santeria: Afri-
can Magic in Latin America, A Kabbalah for the Modern World; and The
Complete Book of Spells, Ceremonies and Magic.
In all my books, I have tried to present psychic phe-
nomena as fact instead of fiction, and to divest "the occult" of
79
FIRE AND LIGHTNING

its tarnished image of mere superstition and ignorance. I believe


we function on a variety of mental "planes," and that psychic
abilities are an intrinsic part of our human nature, which is now
barely beginning to be developed.
Interestingly enough, in 1980, the American Journal of
Psychiatry published the results of a survey that indicate that 58
percent of the deans and psychiatry professors at medical schools
believe that courses in psychic phenomena should be taught to
their students. Dr. Stanley Dean, clinical professor of psychiatry
at the University of Miami Medical School and president of the
American Association for Social Psychiatry, conducted the sur-
vey. He found that of 228 of those polled, 42 percent believe in the
existence of psychic phenomena, 44 percent believe psychic fac-
tors are important in healing, and 35 percent said they had
undergone a psychic or paranormal experience or knew someone
who had. Dr. Dean concluded that the professors ''believe in
psychic phenomena and want it included in medical school cur-
ricula.""
Throughout my experimentations I was always aware of
the risks inherent in such practices, particularly of the danger of
depending exclusively on "supranormal" activities to bring about
changes in the material world. I knew I was really tapping the
hidden forces of the unconscious mind; the rituals and other
"magical aids" simply focused my concentration on specific ob-
jectives. Through this concentration I was releasing vast amounts
of psychic energy, which I was then consciously channeling to
achieve a given purpose. But in the hands of a human being, such
power is a dangerous weapon. Unconscious and spontaneous
energy is not always easy to manipulate. Controlled and well
directed, such energies can transform the world; uncontrolled
and misdirected, they can destroy it. The best way to control this
energy is to find the perfect channel through which to direct it. In
the orishas, the santeros have found the perfect channels.

"Dean, Stanley R., et al. American Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 137, pp.
1247-1249. October 1980.
80
FIRE AND LIGHTNING

I believe that in reality, the orishas are certain points of


contact which the Yorubas (and later on, the santeros) were able
to establish within the collective unconscious. Each orisha seems
to be what Carl Gustav Jung called an archetype or autonomous
complex within the human personality. Because each archetype
is independent from the rest of the personality and exhibits
intensely individualistic characteristics, it often behaves as if it
were a separate, supernatural entity.
Jung believed that each archetype controls a different
aspect of the personality and/or a different human endeavor-a
definition that could just as well describe the functions of the
orishas. For the perfect balance of the personality (and therefore
for mental health), it is vital that each archetype be well de-
veloped and also well assimilated by the individual. When one
archetype is allowed to overpower the rest of the personality (as
in the case of Nietzsche's Zarathustra), the end result can be a
mental disturbance or dissociation of personality-a leading
symptom of psychosis.
Each orisha is an archetype or autonomous complex
which has been perfectly developed and balanced into the per-
sonality of the santero. Because each human individual has
specific characteristics that set him apart from others, he is said to
be under the "protection" of the orisha who shares those same
characteristics.
When an orisha descends to take possession of a santero
or a believer, that particular archetype's overpowering psychic
energies are temporarily unleashed within the conscious person-
ality. That person then displays strange powers and unusual
precognitive abilities, the natural attributes of an archetype
formed of pure psychiC energy directed into a specific channel.
The current of deep affection and sympathy established
between the orisha Chang6 and myself was the result of a great
many similarities between us. Chang6's fiery temper, mischiev-
oussense of humor, and tenderness hidden under a cool exterior
are all characteristics I share. The love he showed for me was a
recognition that I was a part of him, and he a part of me.
81
FIRE AND LIGHTNING

The powers Chango vested in me are natural attributes


which are part of his particular differentiated energies. There is
nothing unnatural about my being able to stop the rain or control
fire. These (and many other powers which I do not possess) are
simply part of the autonomous complex known as Chang6.
Still, it is easier to ignore the psychological implications
of the Santerfa phenomena and accept them at face value. Per-
sonally, I prefer to think of Chango as an orisha, a saint, or, in
Marfa's words, "a force of the good God."
7
RITUALSAND
CEREMONIES
The aura of secrecy surrounding Santeria's initiatory rites does
not exist in Nigeria, the country of origin of the Yoruba people.
Modern-day Yorubas quite openly practice their ancient religion,
which is often mixed with Christian beliefs.
Many santeros believe that the mystery which is such an
intrinsic part of Santeria is the result of the religious intransigence
the African slaves met in the New World. Faced with constant
persecution, they were forced to shroud their rituals in secrecy for
their religion to survive. As if the santeros were still haunted by
religious intolerance, all the major initiations of Santeria still
demand the greatest secrecy on the part of the initiate.
When I received the elekes, or necklaces, of Santeria, I
became part of this secret tradition.
"What you're going to witness now is for your eyes and
your eyes only," my madrina told me. "Don't ever tell anyone the
details of this ceremony, or you will have the orishas to answer
to."
"What can happen to me if I divulge the secret of the
necklaces, madrina?"
"1 really couldn'ttell you," she said. "But if you break the
oath, you'll find out soon enough."
The initiation took place several years ago, and I have

82
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never broken that oath. Nor do I intend to do so here. All I can say
is that the ceremony was one of the most beautiful experiences of
my life, and that it gave me an inner strength I did not have before
and which has never abandoned me.
The necklaces I received that day were those of Eleggua,
Obatala, Chango, Yemaya, and Oshun. Red and black beads
comprised Eleggua's necklace, all white beads Obatala's, red and
white beads Chango's, blue and crystal beads Yemaya's, and red
and yellow beads Oshun's. The color of the beads sometimes
varies, depending on the aspect or "path" of the orisha which
pertains to the initiate. This can be ascertained only by means of
the cowrie shells, which can also determine which orisha claims
the initiate's head. This is only a preliminary finding, however, as
only the babalawo can say without any doubt which orisha is any
given person's guardian angel.
The caracoles, Or cowrie shells, are Santeria's most impor-
tant divination system. At one time they belonged to Oninla. But
when Yemaya showed that she could read them better than he,
OrUnIa refused to read them again. All the orishas can read the
caracoles, and when the santero is initiated into the religion, he
receives eighteen shells for every orisha-except Eleggua, who
receives twenty-one shells, one for each of his aspects. Learning
how to read the caracoles is a long process, and only those
santeros who receive permission from the orishas are allowed
this privilege.
Though there are eighteen cowrie shells in the oracle, the
santeros use only sixteen for divination. To aid in divination,
several other elements are added: a small dark stone called ota, a
longish white shell called aye, a small seed called ewe ayo, a small
doll's head called era aworan, and a small ball of cascarilla or ejUn.
These five elements are collectively known as igbo.
The santeros file the cowrie shells specially so that they
are open on one side and on the other display a narrow ridge of
tiny serrated teeth very much resembling a small mouth-the
part of the shell that is said to "speak" during the consulta-
tion.
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RITUALS AND CEREMONIES

When the santero throws down the shells to read them,


some fall "mouth" side up, others facedown. Each pattern, or
ordun, has a name, like those of the coconut, and also a story or
pataki attached to it. Several orishas always "speak" through
each pattern. Who speaks and what he says depends on the
consultant himself, because the santero gives that person two
igbo and asks him to hold one in each hand, without revealing
which hand holds which element. Depending upon the pattern,
the santero will choose the consultant's left or right hand, which
will then reveal the igbo that will decipher the oracle's message. It
is a very coinplicated and lengthy procedure requiring a prodi-
gious memory, for the interpreter must remember not only which
igbo to use, but also which oris has are speaking, and which
pataki corresponds to which pattern. Because each pattern de-
pends on the igbo held by either left or right hand, and there are
five igbos, the oracle's possibilities are innumerable.
Because of OrUnla's mishap with Yemaya, the babalawos
(who are the sons of OrUnla) do not read the cowrie shells.
Instead, they use the okuele, a chain connected by eight uneven
medallions that are made sometimes of metal, sometimes of
tortoise or coconut shells. As the supreme oracle in Santeria, the
babalawo must be consulted for all major ceremonies, but he is
also available for regular consultations, as long as one is recom-
mended by a santero.
A santera of my acquaintance once told me how a baba-
lawo saved her life.
"He started by describing my place of work in every
detail as if he had seen it," she told me. "Then he went on to say
that it was on a twelfth floor and that in the back there was an old
elevator used to transport heavy packages. I told him I was quite
familiar with the elevator, as I sometimes used it when the regular
elevators were too busy. He shook his head and warned me
against using it again. Within a few days it was going to fall and I
could get killed.
"I was impressed with the reading and decided to follow
his advice. But force of habit was so strong that I soon forgot
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about his warning. A few days later, I was in a hurry to get home
and decided to use the back elevator. As I stood waiting for it, I
remembered the babalawo's words and decided not to take it
after all. Just then, I heard it clanking its way up. The doors
opened in front of me. I swear, instead of the elevator's door, I
saw the jaws of death! I stepped back with a shiver and started to
turn away. At that moment a delivery boy came running down
the corridor, yelling at me to hold the elevator for him. As he was
going inside the cage, I stopped him. The doors closed within
inches of his face. He stared at me as if I were crazy. But just at
that moment we felt a powerful vibration. Seconds later, we
heard a loud crash as the elevator plummeted to the ground from
the twelfth floor. I wish you could have seen the face of that
delivery boy. He looked like death, and so did I."
Although my madrina cannot claim the knowledgeability
of the babalawo, her registros with the cowrie shells are almost as
impressive. I remember the first day she read the shells for me.
"You ate pumpkin for lunch today, didn't you?" she
asked, puffing lazily on her cigar.
I stared at her in disbelief. "How do you know that?" I
asked.
She shrugged her shoulders and pointed at the cowrie
shells. "Personally, I don't know anything," she said. "Oshtln
told me that. She says you must never eat pumpkin in any form
because you're her daughter and pumpkins belong to her. That is
where she keeps her gold and where she prepares her spells, her
bilongos. If you eat pumpkin, she'll make sure you will never
have any money, and love will flee from your life. Do you want
that to happen?"
"Of course not," I said, with a twinge of uneasiness. "But
what about the pumpkin pie I ate today?"
"You didn't know, so that doesn't count," she said. "Just
don't eat it from now on."
"You say I'm Oshun's daughter," I said. "I remember
that when I was a little girl, Chango told me the same thing."
My madrina looked up at me. Her hands went still over
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RITUALS AND CEREMONIES

the cowrie shells. "How did this happen?" she asked with a
frown.
I told her the story of the first tambor I had attended with
Maria and what Chang6 had said that day.
"This Maria. . . was she a santera?"
"No, she just believed very much in Santeria, and she
had the collares and the Warriors."
"Who gave her these initiations?" insisted my madrina.
"Her own madrina, a Cuban santera who was a descen-
dant of the Lucumis, the Cuban Yorubas."
"I see," said my madrina, nodding her head. ''There are
still descendants of African slaves in Puerto Rico, aren't there?"
"Yes, mostly in the little town of LOlza Aldea. Maria
herself had some family in Lolza. Her mother was Yoruba."
"That explains a lot," said my madrina. "00 you know
which orisha claimed Maria as a daughter?"
I recalled Maria's preference for the color white.
"Obatala," I said.
"That explains the strong link between you and her.
Obatala is also your father," said my madrina.
"But I thought you said I was the daughter of OshUn."
"OshUn is your mother and your guardian angel-the
one in charge of your destiny. But Obatala is your father," she
explained. "We all have a father and a mother among the
orishas."
"And what about Chango?" I asked her. "What is the
link with him?"
"You are the daughter of o shUn, " she answered. "And
Chango loves her very much. He favors all her children. But for
you he obviously has special affection. Pray to him always, and
buy him apples and bananas, his favorite fruits. That way he will
always protect you."
I told her of my experiences with Chango in Vienna.
"Once," I told her, "after asking him for a special favor, I
came face to face with a black soldier in the comer of a Viennese
street. The soldier was dressed in green fatigues, which soldiers
87

RITUALS AND CEREMONIES

wear only within their camps. He looked directly at me with a


wide, knowing smile, and I just knew that was no ordinary
soldier. There are no American army camps in Austria, and there
are no black soldiers in the Austrian army. I know this sounds
irrational, but could that have been Chang6?"
"Why do you call it irrational?" she asked, looking at me
askance. "Every day we see and do irrational things and think
nothing of it. Don't you think radio waves and television are
irrational? Or do you think seeing people and buildings and wild
animals moving inside a box is natural?"
"But that's part of science technology," I said. "It's all
based on natural laws."
"So are the orishas based on natural laws," she
answered. "God-Olofi.-is in nature. So are the orishas. And
there are laws, mysteries in nature, which we know nothing
about. The only thing we know for sure in this world is that
everything is possible. Of course that could have been Chang6.
Why not? He chose to show himself to you as a soldier because he
is a Warrior. He was dressed in fatigues because he was at war,
working for you. That was his message. He had heard your
prayer and he wanted you to know he was working for you. Did
you get what you asked him for?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact I did," I said. "But it happened in
such a natural way that I never even connected him with it. I
thought it was a coincidence; that it would have happened that
way anyway."
"There are no coincidences in this world," she said
firmly. "Everything that happens has already been preor-
dained."
"But that precludes free will," I said dubiously. "Didn't
God make us free to choose what we want in life?"
"Of course," she smiled.
"Then how can everything be preordained?"
"Because he already knows what we're going to choose.
He wouldn't be God otherwise."
This belief is not the exclusive property of SanterIa. Jung
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RITUALS AND CEREMONIES

once stated that man only believes he wills and chooses, and does
not notice that he is already possessed by the autonomous com-
plex which he calls God. This complex is an expression of the life
energy in the psyche. Jung also theorized that the phenomena we
call coincidences are in reality the result of the interrelation of
cosmic forces in the space-time continuum, where past, present,
and future blend into eternity. Jung called these "coincidences"
synchrOnized events that are preplanned by the deep uncon-
scious.
Several months after giving me the necklaces, my ma-
drina telephoned me and asked me to come to her house. Al-
though I had not yet received the Warriors, I possessed a stone
image of Eleggua that I had purchased on impulse some years
before. My madrina believed that because this image "had never
been fed," it had no powers and could only cause me trouble.
(Santeros insist that keeping any unconsecrated image or fetish in
a house will create psychic disturbances for its owner.)
When I arrived at my madrina's house, she was already
dressed and waiting for me. After we greeted each other and I
paid foribale in front of her canastillero, we went to her kitchen
for some tea.
"Are you busy today?" she asked, stirring her tea ab-
sently.
"Not particularly," I said. "Why?"
"Because I would like to feed your Eleggua today."
I put down my tea mug and looked at her inquiringly.
"Madrina," I said, "that Eleggua has no foundation. It's just an
image I bought because I liked it. How can you 'feed' it?"
She continued to sip her tea, but the frown creasing her
forehead told me she wasn't as calm as she seemed. Finally, she
pushed her mug away with a sign and lit a cigar. I watched her
silently, waiting for her to speak.
Dona Pepita, who had introduced us, had warned me
several times never to press or contradict her. "She's an old
santera," Dona Pepita told me. "She has more than twenty-
five years as an iyalocha. That means she lives by the old Yoruba
89
RITUALS AND CmmMONrnS

traditions. I have seen her slap one of her ahijados, a fifty-year-


old man, because he broke one of the regulations of the religion.
And the ahijado fell down on his knees and started to cry, asking
her forgiveness. So remember, this is one of the oldest, most
famous, and most respected san teras mayores. You don't ques-
tion, you don't argue. You just do. In Santeria, if you don't obey
and you don't respect, you have no protection-from the san-
teros or from the orishas."
"You always question what I tell you," my madrina said
finally. "Why? Don't you trust me?"
Her cigar had gone out. She frowned and relit it with an
embossed gold lighter. I always found it difficult to associate her
pale slender hands, with the exquisitely manicured nails, with
the often strenuous tasks of Santeria. Her face, finely creased
with the care and toil of many years, had the same delicate
fragility. But behind it lay enormous courage and willpower.
"You know I trust you, madrina," I smiled. "But how can
I learn if I don't ask questions?"
She snorted, but her face relaxed, and I knew she was not
so upset anymore.
"How do you propose to feed my Eleggua?" I ventured
cautiously. "The image is in my house. If you had told me over
the telephone you planned to feed it, I would have brought it with
me."
"I didn't tell you to bring it," she said, "because he must
be fed in your house. I know this Eleggua has no foundation, but
it belongs to you. Someday, when you receive the Warriors, this
same image can be used to contain Eleggua's secrets. Wouldn't
you like to consecrate it now, so Eleggua can begin to help you
right away?"
Though I did not dare tell her, I wasn't sure I would ever
receive the Warriors. I was not sure I wanted to make the total
commitment that Santeria demands of its practitioners. But I
knew my madrina would have never been able to understand my
hesitation.
"If Eleggua has to be fed, I'd prefer to do it here," I said
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RITUALS AND CEREMONIES

evasively. "Besides, I have made no preparation for this sort of


thing."
"There's no need for special preparations," she said. A
certain ring of finality in her voice told me her mind was made up.
"Where do you keep this image?"
"In my bedroom," I said, feeling decidedly uncomforta-
ble at the idea of an animal sacrifice taking place in my house. "1
only keep it there out of devotion to Eleggua. It's not the most
comfortable place in the world to sacrifice to him."
"Any place is the proper place to show respect to a saint,"
she said severely. "What I want to know is if you're willing to do
as you're told."
"Of course I'll do what you tell me, madrina. I know you
know best."
I was still full of misgivings, but did not want to stop my
apprenticeship with her. After all, what difference could it make
to "feed" Eleggua in my house rather than hers? But there was a
difference-as I was soon to find out. .
Apparently pleased, my madrina stood up and began to
clear the table. I tried to help her, but she motioned me away with
a gesture. "Wait for me outside," she said. "I'll join you pres-
ently."
By "outside," she meant the hall where the canastillero
was kept. While I waited for her, I walked around looking at the
orishas' various implements. Close to the front door was the
cabinet where she kept her Warriors and Eleggua. Next to that
was another, enclosing the attributes and otanes of Babalu-Aye,
syncretized as St. Lazarus, patron of the sick. The batea, or large
wooden bowl with Chango'S otanes, sat squarely over a large
drum painted in red and white-a symbol of Chango'S love of
music and dancing. Draped loosely over the drum was Chango's
collar de mazo, one of the large, multiple-strand necklaces the
santero receives the day of the asiento. Next to the batea were a
tiny pair of shoes, a small car, a pair of maracas, and several large
wooden axes painted in red and white, all attributes of the god of
lightning.
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To the left of Chango's batea was a large urn in blue and


silver shades, draped in a thin fishnet, all embroidered with fine
cultured pearls. A large starfish and an extensive variety of sea
shells and huge corals surrounded this urn, the symbol of 010-
cun, the aspect of Yemaya that represents the depths of the
ocean. Olocun sometimes appears in dreams as a beautiful black
woman, with a round face and very long, straight eyelashes. On
each of her cheeks are painted the yeza, the three horizontal lines
distinctive of Yoruba females.
Olocun is sometimes represented as a male and other
times as a female orisha; some santeros say that this saint is a
hermaphrodite. She is much feared and respected, and only a
few old santeros dare to dance her special rhythms, with their
faces covered with a mask so that she will not kill them. The
acquisition of Olocun's urn, one of the most beautiful initiations
of Santeria, is said to give the recipient great stability. But not just
anyone can have her; only those who receive her specialletra (a
special pattern in the babalawo's okuele) are allowed to be in-
itiated into her mysteries.
Maria thought it foolhardy to dance to Olocun: '1t's like
trying to fit all ocean water in human head," she used to tell me.
"But head's too small, Olocun don't fit. Then she gets angry, and
tears head off!" Every time she mentioned this formidable orisha,
Maria touched her fingers to the floor and kissed the dust she
gathered. "To show respect, florecita," she would say. "Very bad
to offend Olocun. She can kill."
I had completed the circuit of the long hall, going past the
canastillero with the soperas of Obatala, OshUn, Yemaya, and
Oya, and was standing once more in front of the door. On a small
shelf in a corner near the ceiling stood a small silver rooster
balanced atop a silver chalice. I was curiously inspecting it when
my madrina joined me, ready to leave.
"What is the meaning of this rooster, madrina?" I asked.
"That is Osun," she said, opening the door. "He's the
guardian of the house and of my life. Whenever danger is near,
Osun falls from the shelf to the floor, or simply turns over. This
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RITUALSANDCIDrnMONrnS

gives me time to find out through the caracoles what the danger is
and take the appropriate measures."
Something in my eyes must have betrayed my disbelief.
She smiled and shrugged her shoulders.
"When you have lived as long as I have," she said, "and
have had the experiences I've had with the saints, you will have
no more doubts." She pushed me gently out of the house, and
closed the door behind her.
"I've been thinking," she said as I helped her into the car.
"Maybe I should give you a palo today. It's a beautiful day, perfect
for that kind of thing."
I looked at her inquiringly. "What's a palo, madrina?"
"That's a piece of branch you pick up in the woods and
consecrate it to the iku, the dead," she said. "In Santeria, one
must pay respect to the dead before the saints. The iku are all the
dead people in your family, your ancestors. If you pray to your
iku and make sure they are all well advanced in the spiritual
world, they will give you their protection and provide the foun-
dation upon which you can receive Santeria's initiations. If you
do this, you will see how all your personal affairs will straighten
themselves out, and you will accomplish everything you set out
to do."
I had never been able to reconcile myself with ancestor
worship, one of Santeria's most important aspects. I believed in
praying to the dead, and had often had masses said for deceased
members of my family. But asking the dead for help smacked to
me of necromancy, and sent shivers down my spine.
"I'm not sure I want the palo, madrina," I said cau-
tiously, not wanting to offend her. "Can't I just work with the
orishas without involving myself with the dead?"
She sighed impatiently. "But you are involved with the
dead. We all are, whether we believe in Santeria or not," she said.
"That's what people don't understand. The souls of the dead
gravitate naturally to the members of their families on earth,
hoping they will receive help in the form of candles and prayers.
When this help is not forthcoming, the souls become earth-
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RITUALS AND CEREMONIES

bound, inflicting unconscious harm on their former relatives. A


great deal of mankind's problems and tragedies could be al-
leviated if people took better care of their dead. When you asked
me to be your madrina," she added quietly, "you promised you
would trust me and follow my advice, no matter what. If you
refuse to do this, I will consider your apprenticeship ended, and
you will be free to leave my house."
I knew the house she was referring to was not the place
where she lived, but rather the large conglomeration of iyalochas
and babalochas of which she was the center.
"But I don't want to leave your house," I said.
"It's not a question of what you want," she answered.
"You must learn to work with the dead and lose your fear of
them, or you cannot remain in Santeria. Now if you don't want to
receive the palo, please take me back home, and we will not
discuss it any further."
"We're closer to my house than yours," I told her. ''Let's
go there instead."
"Will you accept the palo?" she insisted.
"Yes, madrina, I will."
"Then first let's drive to a chicken farm, where we can
buy two chickens-one for Eleggua and one to consecrate the
palo," she said, settling herself more comfortably in her seat.
Obediently I drove to a place near my house where live
poultry could be bought and watched as she carefully chose two
small, very young male chickens with black-and-white mottled
feathers.
"This is the type of chicken one sacrifices to Eleggua,"
she explained. "Remember, they must be male; never offer Eleg-
gua female chickens. He will not accept them."
We drove on to a wooded park nearby that was, as I
mentioned to my madrina, very popular with joggers and cy-
clists.
"Don't worry," she said with quiet assurance. "They will
not see us. Once we are in the woods, Osain, the owner of the
forests, will protect us from human eyes."
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"I really hope so, madrina," I said. "Woods in New York


can be very dangerous for women."
We parked the car on one of the park's lanes and walked
to the edge of the woods. The month was November, and the
ground was richly carpeted with dry leaves in a fantastic array
of colors. Burnt sienna, bright ochre, magenta, vermillion,
russet-all the magical hues of the artist's palette rustled under
our feet. My madrina opened her capacious handbag and took
out two pennies.
"This is Osain's derecho," she explained. "Remember,
each time you come to the woods to do any work, you must pay
him his dues."
She placed the money on the damp grass and said a short
prayer in Yoruba.
"Osain awaniye elese ka ewe lere miye ayare abe biye . . .
Powerful Osain, who heals with his herbs, we pray that your
herbs be favorable to us, and bring us good health and many
blessings . . ."
I did not tell my madrina that when I was a child, Maria
had taught me this same prayer, or one very similar. She had also
taught me of the derecho one must always leave at the edge of the
woods, and how to recognize the various ewe, or herbs, of Osain.
This one-eyed, one-armed, one-legged saint, without
whom Santeria could not exist, was left in this incomplete con-
dition after a fiery struggle with another orisha. Some santeros
believe that Chango, angered by Osain's interest in Oya (one of
Chango'S paramours), blasted Osain with a bolt of lightning,
leaving him lame and blind forever. But another legend claims
that Chango and Osain are very good friends who would never
hurt each other; and that it was Orunla, the owner of the Table of
Ha, who maimed Osain. According to this second version,
Chango taught Orunla how to prepare an ebbo with twelve fire
torches and twelve flints tones (adduaras). This spell resulted in a
bolt of lightning that set fire to the woods, trapping Osain within.
Whenever there is a forest fire, santeros say that Osain and
Oninla are at each other's throats all over again.
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In the woods, we immediately came to a small hill, thinly


covered with trees.
"Whenever you see a hill in the woods, remember it is
sacred to Olofi," said my madrina. "All mountains and hills are
his, but those in the woods are particularly blessed."
She bent down and picked up a round, smooth stone.
"How beautiful!" she exclaimed. " See how perfectly smooth and
sculptured it is. Such stones are not common, but here they are
plentiful. " She bent down again, dislodged several other stones
with some difficulty, and handed them over to me. "These are the
true jewels of the earth, untouched by human hands," she said.
"More precious than diamonds and emeralds because they have
the strength of the orishas. With these you can build empires, if
you only know how to use them." She paused for a moment,
then added, "And if you listen to me, I'll tell you how."
"What should I do with them, madrina?" I asked her.
"Keep them until it is time to consecrate them to
Chang6," she answered. "I'll tell you when."
Opening her handbag again, she pulled out a small bottle
of rum and a plastic bag filled with a mixture of popcorn, toasted
corn, and bits of smoked fish and dried possum. She handed both
to me, and paused momentarily to light a fresh cigar.
"I will walk in front of you now," she told me. "But when
we return, you must walk in front of me. Follow me, throwing
handfuls of the corn mixture to both sides of the woods as we
move along. The food is for Osain and the iku who live in the
forest, so the earth will be richer and more fertile with our offer-
ing. As you walk along, keep looking at the ground until you see a
broken branch that appeals to you. When you do, pick it up at
once. It is your palo."
She took the rum from my hands and started to walk into
the woods. Every once in a while, she would take a mouthful of
rum, pursing her lips tightly and forCing the liquid out, to spray
the trees and the shrubbery with a fine mist. (This technique is
harder than it sounds, and took me a long time to perfect.)
As she walked, smoking and spraying, my madrina
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chanted to the woods in Yoruba, ancient songs which had been


heard by the earth since primordial times. Very slowly, but un-
mistakably, the atmosphere around us began to change. The light
breeze that had been running through the trees suddenly
stopped. The air seemed heavy and motionless, as if it had a
form. The leaves were immobile, as if frozen in time, and I could
see dozens of birds among the tree branches, all curiously silent
and observant, listening intently to the plaintive singing in the
ancient, primeval tongue.
Following my madrina's admonition, I walked behind
her, dispersing the com mixture to the left and to the right of our
trail, looking for a suitable tree branch. Among the bright leaves,
the dull glint of silver suddenly caught my eye. I stirred the leaves
with the tip of my boot and uncovered a natural crook, formed by
a twisted tree branch, weathered to a silver patina. I picked it up
and called out to my madrina that I had found the palo we were
searching for.
She waited for me to join her and reached out for the
crook.
"That's a real beauty," she said admiringly, "and it has
the blessing of Osain because it is a twisted tree branch with a
handle-his traditional symbol in Santeria."
"What do we do now?" I asked.
"We thank Osain for his blessings and leave nine pennies
where you found the branch as a derecho for the dead, for whom
it is intended." She took the nine pennies from her handbag and
gave them to me. While I deposited them among the leaves, she
said the last prayer to Osain.
We returned the same way we came, this time with me in
the lead.
"Use the palo as a shepherd's staff," my madrina told
me. "Lean on it, get used to its feel, for it will always be yours,
and it will always provide you with strength and comfort, espe-
cially when things look darkest."
We left the park, drove directly to my house, and had a
late lunch. Then my madrina sat in my study and proceeded to
97
RITUALSANDCIDmMONrnS

adorn the palo with nbbons and tiny bells she had brought from
her house. She refused to accept any payment for them or for the
chickens, which she had bought with her own money.
"You just pay the derecho," she said. "That's three-
fifteen for Eleggua and two dollars for the dead. That sacred
money must always be paid for the ebbO to be successful."
She had brought nine different shades of ribbons, about
half an inch in width. These she tied laboriously to the palo, one
after the other, forming a silky row that reached nearly to the
ground. She attached the bells to the ends of the ribbons and
when she was finished jingled the crook by tapping it lightly
against the floor. She then handed it to me.
"Here's your palo," she said, with a smile. "May it bring
you many blessings."
"Thank you, madrina," I said, hugging her warmly. lilt
looks so pretty, I think I will keep it in my study."
"But it isn't meant for the study," she said. lilt's meant
for the bathroom, where one prays to and feeds the dead."
I was familiar with this custom of Santeria, but had never
been able to understand it.
"Why the bathroom?"
"Because it is the coldest and darkest room in a house,
not unlike a tomb. And because it is the place where one cleanses
the body of all its impurities."
She stood up with some effort and picked up her hand-
bag and the palo. "Bring one of the chickens and come with me to
the bathroom," she said.
This was the part I dreaded the most, but I opened the
box with the chickens, picked up one at random, and followed
my madrina. She leaned the palo against one of the bathroom
walls, and out of her seemingly bottomless handbag pulled a box
of candles, a small candlestick, a small bottle of rum, a package of
panatelas, a jar of honey, another jar with the familiar corn
mixture, and matches, lining them all up carefully on the floor.
She stood up, asked me to stand by the bathroom door, and took
the chicken from my hand. Holding the animal by its legs, she
98
RITUALS AND CEREMONIES

quickly passed it all over my body, starting from the top of my


head and ending at the feet.
"Do you know why I'm doing this?" she asked me.
"To transfer any negative vibrations around me to the
chicken," she answered.
She snorted and nodded. "Right. Now hold the chicken
for me while I consecrate it."
I took the chicken from her hands and watched her as she
lit the eternal cigar, turned it around, and inserted the lit part
inside her mouth. I winced instinctively, expecting it to burn her
tongue and lips. But she simply blew thick clouds of smoke
through the unlit end of the cigar, which acted in every way as an
open spout. When the bathroom was heavy with smoke, she put
the cigar aside, and took a generous mouthful of rum and sprayed
the chicken with a fine mist. She then took the chicken from my
hands and held it right over the palo.
At this point she began to moyubar, invoking the dead in
Yoniba.
"IkU la tigwa aya un bai bai, an6 la tigwa aya un bai bai, eye la
tigwa aya un bai bai, oJ6la tigwa aya un bai bai. . . owe, owe, lasak6 owe
aya un bai bai. . ."
She began to name all the dead santeros mayores, one by
one, as her own madrina had taught her. She then turned to me
and asked me to mention all the people in my family who had
died, starting with my great-great-grandparents and moving on
to the present. This took some thought, but I finally accomplished
it.
As soon as the lengthy prayers were over, she flipped her
wrist so quickly I only caught the glint of her gold bracelets as
they danced on her wrist, tearing the chicken's head with one
swift motion. And then there was a stream of blood falling di-
rectly on to the crook's silvery bark and many-colored ribbons.
"Quickly, open the jar of honey and pour some of it over
the palo." As she spoke, she moved the chicken's body all over
the crook, to make sure it was thoroughly sprinkled with blood.
99
RITUALS AND CEREMONIES

As I poured the honey over the palo, I automatically


tasted it with a forefinger, following the old tradition of Santerfa
that says that honey belongs to Oshtm. Since she was once
pOisoned with honey, this liquid must always be tasted during an
ebb6 so the orisha knows the honey is free of impurities.
After sprinkling the palo with blood, my madrina placed
the chicken's body on the floor next to the palo and began pulling
feathers from the bird, which she then placed over the palo. The
blood and honey caused the feathers to stick to the branch,
covering some but not all of the ribbons. The palo's final appear-
ance was curiously attractive. Contrary to my worst fears, I did
not recoil from it in horror but felt rather dose to it, as if it
embodied much positive strength.
My madrina told me to place a glass of (:001 water by the
palo, and set a lighted candle on the candlestick next to the
water. From her handbag she pulled out four pieces of coconut,
refreshed them with cool water, and asked the iku where they
wished the body of the chicken to be disposed of. The answer was
the woods, where the remains of the chicken would be dutifully
buried the next day.
Now it was time to " feed" the dead. My madrina placed
on the floor a small dish with the com mixture and some of the
remnants of our lunch.
"Remember, the dead don't eat like we do," she warned
me. "But food is energy, and it is this energy that we are offering
to our ancestors. Since the food you are offering is part of your
own, it is as if you were offering them a part of your own energy
supply."
"But it is all so primitive, madrina," I said doubtfully. "It
is as if I were renouncing all civilized thought."
" You're not doing anything of the sort," she said, shak-
ing her head. "You haven't renounced anything. You're still very
much the same person you were before the ceremony. What you
have done is to acknowledge the existence of a spiritual reality
parallel to your physical body, and to accept the dose identifica-
100
RITUALS AND CEREMONIES

tion between all natural things. The journey you have embarked
on is a journey within, and because of it, you will emerge a better
human being."
"But what about the chicken?" 1insisted. "Isn't it cruel to
deprive it of its life?"
"Do you believe in reincarnation and spiritual evolu-
tion?" she asked.
"Yes, 1 do," 1 said. "These are beliefs held by most of the
world's major religions."
"Well, then, think that its sacrifice for a spiritual cause
will vastly advance this chicken's spiritual evolution. Do you
think it would have advanced as much-or suffered less-if it had
died to grace your table and satisfy your hunger?"
"1 never thought ofitthat way," 1said. 1was to remember
these words many times. As I grew closer to the mysteries of
Santerfa, I often watched ritual sacrifices and wondered at the
ultimate destiny of the energies that made up the animal's
spiritual essence.
"There's no cruelty in anything we do in Santeria," said
my madrina softly. "Our only concern is to serve God and the
orishas by observing certain natural laws. SaCrifice is sometimes
necessary because it too is a natural law . You will learn more as
time goes on. But now it's time to feed Eleggua. He has waited
long enough."
As she offered the second chicken to Eleggua, I found
myself thinking of the orisha instead of the chicken. 1 visualized
him as a pulsating energy that absorbed the animal sacrifice,
transmuting it to radiant, etemallife. 1 knew then why the ma-
drina wanted to sacrifice to Eleggua in my house. She wanted his
essence to permeate all that surrounded me. I felt his powerful
emanation touch me momentarily, filling me with a great seren-
ity. Feeling that, 1 understood at last the meaning of sacrifice and
the unity of things.
8
BLOOD
ANDRONEY
In the spring of 1980, the ASPCA, apparently acting on a
neighbor's tip, raided an apartment in the Bronx where an asiento
was about to take place. According to an article in The New York
Times, It ASPCA agents came upon "a scene of blood-spattered
confusion." Several chickens and hamsters and a goat had al-
ready been sacrificed, and the raiders confiscated eighteen chick-
ens, three goats, and several hamsters.
This report gave Santeria a few months of adverse and
much sensationalized publicity, when a great deal of speculation
took place on the purpose of the sacrifices. The press, obviously
unfamiliar with Santeria, commonly used terms like "satanic
cults" and "bizarre ritualistic activities.".... This near-hysteria was
quite understandable. Ritualistic killings and "blood sacrifices"
are supposed to be the exclusive realm of horror stories and
B-grade films, and are not supposed to happen in real life. It
compounded the santeros' plight when a young boy was found
hanging upside down from a tree in a Bronx park, with his throat
cut and a bottle filled with his blood at the roots of the tree. When
two bodies showed up in Manhattan, completely drained of

"See The New York Times, May 24,1980, p. 27 .


....See the New York Post, April 9, 1980.

101
102
BLOOD AND HONEY

blood and showing all the signs of ritualistic murder, again San-
teria was momentarily suspect.
The santeros withstood all these suspicions with their
proverbial equanimity. "It will be all right," my madrina com-
mented. "It's all in the hands of God and the orishas. This
religion did not come all the way from Africa to fall prey to
religious discrimination."
Oddly enough, this statement found echoes in the atti-
tudes of the ASPCA, who publicly expressed the sentiment that
there was a "great deal of good in this religion,"" and that they
were not trying to persecute people for their religious beliefs. A
high official of the ASPCA went so far as saying in the same
newspaper interview that he only wished that "we could get
together with the babalawos and talk. Maybe we could straighten
this thing out.""
Around the same time these articles appeared, a high
official of a well-known civic organization had been creating a
great deal of legal difficulties for the santeros. Finally tired of his
relentless persecution, a group of olochas gathered together in
Upper Manhattan to discuss the situation. What their final deci-
sion was I do not know, but one of the iyalochas who had
attended the meeting expressed the feelings of the olochas during
a tambor shortly afterwards.
"We do not wish to break the law in any way," she told
me, "and would be willing to pay a license fee for the animal
sacrifices to the proper authorities, or do whatever is necessary to
comply with the law. We can understand people's curiosity and
concern, and we would welcome the opportunity to show the
world that our religion is pure and beautiful. What we will not
tolerate is the abuse and constant persecution being inflicted
upon us by this particular official." She paused for some mo-
ments, then went on grimly. And we are going to do something
1/

about it. We don't believe in putting out contracts on someone's


life like the Mafia does. But we have our ways. II

"See the Sunday News Magazine, August 10, 1980.


103
BLOOD AND HONEY

Several weeks later I met the official in question, and he


offered to drive me home. Our route took us through one of New
York's major highways. All during the trip, his brand new car
chugged reluctantly along the highway, threatening to stop at
every turn of the road. When we finally arrived at my house, the
official turned to me and said, '''Please, Miss Wippler, tell the
santeros to get off my back!"
I looked at him curiously.
"What do you mean?" I asked. "What have the santeros
done to you?"
He covered his face with trembling hands. "Everything,"
he said hoarsely. "I've lost my job. My finances are a disaster, my
home life is collapsing, my health is deterioriating, even my car is
giving up on me. I don't know what to do anymore." He uncov-
ered his face, and I could see the desperation in his eyes. His hand
reached out and touched mine. "Please tell them to layoff me. I
won't bother them anymore. I promise. Just tell them to leave me
alone!"
"But how do you know the santeros have anything to do
with this?" I asked him. "It could all be a coincidence." I did not
believe my own words, but I wanted to allay his fears.
"It's no coincidence," he insisted. "It's them. I know!
Please promise me you'll speak to them."
I remembered the iyalocha's words at the tambor and
shivered a little. "I'll convey your message to the santeros," I told
him. "I can't make any promises, but I'll speak with them."
When I spoke to the same iyalocha who had made the
veiled threat, she shrugged her shoulders. "He'll be all right
now," she told me. "We won't cause him any trouble as long as
he leaves us in peace."
I do not know what happened after this, because I never
heard from the man again. But the santeros, the ASPCA, and the
Department of Health are at present discussing the legal prob-
lems of animal sacrifices and are reportedly making progress.
Blood sacrifice is not new. The Bible is full of instances
where the Hebrews offered blood sacrifices to God. The ritual of
104
BLOOD AND HONEY

circumcision and Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his only son


are only two examples of the importance of blood to establish a
covenant with the Deity. "For blood is the life," say the scrip-
tures. In the first chapter of Leviticus, God speaks to Moses out of
the tabernacle about how a burnt offering must be presented to
him:
"And he shall kill the bullock before the Lord: and the
priests, Aaron's sons, shall bring the blood, and sprinkle the
blood round about the altar that is by the door of the tabernacle of
the congregation . . . " (Leviticus 1:5)
The book of Numbers relates that when Moses had fully
set up the tabernacle and anointed and sanctified it, the twelve
princes who represented the twelve tribes of Israel came to bring
their offerings to honor the Lord.
"And the Lord said to Moses, They shall offer their offer-
ing, each prince on his day, for the dedication of the altar . . .
And he that offered his offering the first day was Nahshon the
son of Amminadab, of the tribe of Judah:
"And his offering was one silver charger, the weight
thereof was a hundred and thirty shekels, one silver bowl of
seventy shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary: both of them
were full of fine flour mingled with oil for a meat offering:
"One spoon of ten shekels of gold, full of incense:
"One young bullock, one ram, one lamb of the first year,
for a burnt offering:
"And for a sacrifice of peace offerings, two oxen, five
rams, five he-goats, five lambs of the first year: this was the
offering of Nahshon, the son of Amminadab . . ." (Numbers
7:11-17)
When Jesus was born, his mother Mary, unable to bring
the required lamb of the first year for her ritual cleansing, brought
instead two young pigeons to the priest, one for the burnt offer-
ing and the other for a sin offering (Luke 2:22-24). These instruc-
tions are clearly delineated in Chapter 12 of Leviticus.
Jesus himself underlined the importance of blood sac-
rifice during the Last Supper, when he raised a goblet of wine
105
BLOOD AND HONEY

and said to his disciples: "Drink ye all of it. For this is my blood of
the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of
sins" (Matthew 26:27-28). This "blood sacrifice" of Jesus is still
enacted in the Catholic mass.
To ensure proper observance of the ancient laws, modern
rabbis have acquired special permits that allow them to sacrifice
the animals that are going to be consumed by their congregations.
These animals are still slaughtered in strict accordance with the
Mosaic laws.
Most of the animals sacrificed in Santeria are also con-
sumed by the santeros and their families. This meat, consecrated
to the orishas, is believed to have great healing powers, and
members of the religion consider themselves lucky when they
can partake of it. But when an animal has been sacrificed during a
ritual cleansing, it is believed to have absorbed the problems,
dangers, and negative vibrations of the person who underwent
the cleanSing, and is disposed of without being eaten.
"Animals are being slaughtered by the millions every day
for meat consumption," said my madrina, puffing as always on
her cigar. "Why can't God and the orishas have a few?" She
shook her head and blew out a thick cloud of smoke. "It's the
hypocrisy I don't like," she added. "Those same people who cry
out because the santeros give a few animals to the orishas don't
shed any tears over their roast lamb or chicken cacciatore. And
those animals suffer when they die. Have you ever been to a
slaughterhouse? Well, I have. The stench of decaying blood is so
terrible the animals sense their fate long before they are killed.
The animals that are sacrificed to the orishas are killed swiftly,
gently, out of respect for the saints. They don't suffer half as
much."
"But they do suffer, madrina," I said quietly.
"Don't you?" she answered bluntly. "Doesn't everyone?
Would you rather have spared the life of the chicken you gave to
Eleggua and died instead with over three hundred people on
your way back from Denmark?"
"Of course not," I said, with an uncomfortable smile.
106
BLOOD AND HONEY

"And what do you think the people on that plane would


have said?" she insisted. "What do you think their choice would
have been?"
"Most of them might not have believed it," I said.
"That's not true," my madrina said firmly. "People be-
lieve anything when they are facing death."
Another time, upon my querying her on her constant
smoking of a cigar, she returned to the question of sacrifice.
"Everything in nature is full of energy, ache, life," she
said. "When you give some of this energy to the orishas, it is
returned to you a thousandfold in whichever form you prefer.
Blood is the highest concentration of energy, but not the only
one. Candles, for instance, give out a great deal of energy because
of the wax they're made of. When you light a candle, the energies
which are part of the wax are released into the atmosphere. If the
candle is dedicated to God or to one of the orishas, who are
manifestations of God, the wax's energy is absorbed by the force
to whom it is dedicated."
"Like the burnt sacrifices of the ancient Hebrews," I
interposed.
"Yes," said my madrina approvingly. "It's the same
thing with a cigar. Tobacco is a very potent plant. It has a lot of
power. When you smoke a strong cigar, you are releasing a great
deal of energy. If you're consciously directing the smoke to work
for you, it will. A lot of other weeds do the same thing, but some,
like marijuana and mescal, are bad because they cannot be di-
rected or controlled. They usually control you."
" Are cigarettes potent enough to be used like the cigar?"
"No," she said, "because you inhale a cigarette's smoke.
That way, you're not releasing any energies."
"A few years ago," I said, "Barbara Walters went to Cuba
to interview Fidel Castro. When I saw the film in New York I
noticed that all during their conversation, Fidel kept on smoking
long havanas and blowing out large clouds of smoke which kept
the room in a kind of haze. When I started watching the inter-
view, I was decidedly anti-Castro, but by the time it was over I
107
BLOOD AND HONEY

was thinking Fidel sounded very intelligent and amiable and not
half the ogre I thought he was. Later on, several friends who had
watched the interview expressed the same sentiment. We were
still against everything he stood for, and yet were fascinated by
the man. I now wonder if that cigar had anything to do with it."
My madrina had "made the saint" in Havana and her
great love for Cuba did not extend to Fidel Castro.
"I saw that interview," she said. "He doesn't need to
moyubar with a cigar to control people. He's got something better
than that."
She then proceeded to tell me a story which I have since
then heard from other sources. The story concerns Cuba's deep
involvement with Santeria, an involvement which has extended
to Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo, New York, Miami, Chicago, and
all the places where large groups of exiled Cubans are found.
Many Yorubas were brought to the Caribbean islands
and to South America. Because their religion required the use of
herbs, plants, and trees, the jungle areas of Cuba and Brazil were
ideally suited to the Yorubas and their orishas. In Brazil, the
Yoruba religion became known as Macumba, Candomble, and
Santuario. In Cuba it became known as Santeria and Lucumf. In
both countries, the African beliefs became a very important part
of the people's cultural and spiritual development. Santeria is an
intrinsic part of Cuban music, religious practices, and social struc-
ture. Our Lady of La Caridad del Cobre, the patron saint of Cuba,
is syncretized as OshUn, one of the Yorubas' most powerful
orishas. Every year, on or around September 8, there is a high
mass in her honor in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City.
This day, marked as her day in the Catholic calendar of saints, is
also observed by the santeros with special ceremonies in her
honor. Even those Cubans who do not practice the religion are
aware of its tremendous impact on other Cubans.
The 1958 revolution created many difficulties for Santeria
in Cuba. There are many rumors of persecution and abuse. One
highly unlikely story claims that Fidel dressed a famed statue of
Oshtin with combat clothes similar to the ones he always wears.
108
BLOOD AND HONEY

Another story says that he appropriated the considerable trea-


sures of the sanctuary of another popular orisha, Babalu-Aye,
syncretized as St. Lazarus and immortalized by Desi Arnaz with
drum and song in I Love Lucy. *
One santero who arrived from Cuba in the "freedom
flotilla," told me that Fidel always wears two wristwatches, re-
portedly to hide his initiation bracelet from curious eyes. To this
santero and to many others like him, Fidel is an initiated olocha of
great powers. It is also said that during Fidel's stay in the Cuban
manigua, as he prepared for the revolution, he and his followers
worshipped Eleggua, who lives in the woods and is the first
warrior of the Yoruba pantheon. According to this story, all the
attacks against the santeros in Cuba are a smokescreen created by
Fidel to hide the fact that he himself is an avid practitioner of
Santeria.
Another santera who -has lived in New York for many
years claims to have witnessed a grand ritual during which Fidel
was immersed in a bathtub filled with the blood of sacrificial
animals to make him invulnerable against harm and give him
total control over his enemies.
According to many santeros, the battle between Fidel
Castro and former Cuban President Fulgencio Batista was fought
on two levels: the physical world and the world of the orishas.
Fidel won the war, but could not destroy Batista, who escaped
from Cuba with millions of dollars and retired to Spain where he
died of natural causes many years later. Batista, said to have been
a devoted believer of Santeria, allegedly owed his miraculous
escape from Havana to the protection of the orishas.
A well-known story tells how the defeated Batista waited
alone in the Presidential Palace after Fidel's victorious entrance
into Havana. He held a loaded pistol close to his head, ready to

*This famous chant to Babalu-Aye was recorded by Cuban singer


Miguelito Valdes under the Columbia label many years before Desi sang
it.
109

BLOOD AND HONEY

pull the trigger the moment Fidel's soldiers burst into his office.
But the soldiers stopped in front of the locked door and did not
break it down. Inside his office Batista could hear them breathing
agitatedly, as if paralyzed by unknown forces. Their hesitation
saved his life. A few minutes later, his own soldiers burst into the
room through one of the windows and rushed him to a waiting
helicopter, which flew him out of Havana and into safety. As to
Fidel, he is said to have won the war because of his devotion to
the immensely powerful Eleggua.
"If he's got Eleggua happy," said my madrina, "he can
play with both the Kremlin and the Pentagon. In fact, I believe
that is what he has been doing all these years."
"But how can Eleggua help Fidel," I interposed, "after all
the death and destruction he has brought to Cuba?"
"Because he's sincere in his belief he has actually helped
Cuba," she said. "Fidel is not acting out of greed or thirst for
power, but out of a sort of misguided patriotism. Eleggua isn't
interested in political ideologies, but he's not indifferent to sincer-
ity and courage-both of which Fidel has in great measure, even
if he has used them for destructive purposes."
I was still unconvinced by this explanation, but rather
than express my doubts I decided to change the subject.
"Madrina," I said. "Why is honey mixed in with the
blood during a sacrifice?"
"To sweeten the offer to the orishas," she answered.
"Honey-onf-belongs to Oshtin. But all the other orishas love it
and ask her to share it with them."
Many years before, Marfa had handed me a piece of
honeycomb.
"Oshun sekese efigueremo-the beautiful Oshun of the
rivers-loves honey because honey is sweet like love," Maria had
said. "When you give honey to Oshlin, you give her love, like I
give you now," she added with a smile.
Suddenly I realized that blood alone is only life; honey
alone, only love. But the two of them together are an offer of life
110
BLOOD AND HONEY

given with love, the perfect "sacrifice as a sweet savor unto the
Lord," spoken of in the scriptures.
"It's all the same thing, florecita," Marfa would have
said. "The same ways, and the same God. We just think it's
different, but it's the same thing."
For some inexplicable reason, I found the familiar
thought deeply moving.
9
FIESTA
DESANTO
Like the original Yoruba religion, Santeria is a mixture of ani-
mism, pantheism, and ancestor worship. One of the first lessons
one learns in Santeria is that the dead always come first. The ikti
are our ancestors, to whom we must pay our respects at all times.
Like my madrina, Maria believed that in order to receive their
protection it is important to keep the dead happy by means of
prayers, candles, flowers, water, and sometimes food.
"Candle and water on the floor of the bathroom or the
backyard," Maria used to tell me. "And once a week, a small cup
of black coffee and a bit of your own food. Keeps iku happy and
you protected."
After the offerings, one asks the blessings of all the dead
iyalochas and babaochas, mentions each dead individual of one's
family, and blesses them all, including ancestors not known by
name. Finally one asks for the blessings of the orishas, who must
also be mentioned individually.
The thought of invoking the dead has always filled me
with dread, so while I was under Maria's care I always ignored
this aspect of Santeria. A child was not expected to observe any
of these practices. But when I returned to Santeria as an adult, I
found that I could not dissociate myself from ancestor worship
and still practice the religion. But I have never felt quite com-

111
112
FIESTA DE SANTO

fortable with the idea of praying and making offerings to my


ancestors-which the santeros insist is central to the practices of
the religion.
The fiestas de santo (when santeros get together to honor
a specific orisha) always begin, like all other San teria rituals, with
food offerings and prayers to the dead. Even Eleggua, the first
orisha to be honored in all ceremonies, must wait until the offer-
ings and prayers to the iku are completed.
There are several types of fiestas, also known as guemi-
leres. A fiesta will take place on the anniversary of the day when a
santero or santera made the saint. The birthday of an orisha,
usually observed on the day assigned to the corresponding saint
on the Catholic calendar, is also celebrated with a fiesta, which is
often supplemented by a Catholic mass said in honor of the
saint. Some major orishas whose birthdays are celebrated on
assigned Catholic days include Chang6 (St. Barbara) on De-
cember 4, Osht1n (Our Lady of Caridad del Cobre) and Yemaya
(Our Lady of Regia), both on September 8, Babalu-Aye (St.
Lazarus) on December 17, and Obatala (Our Lady of Mercy) on
September 24.
All the practitioners of Santeria observe the birthday of
a very popular orisha such as Chang6, but the children of each
orisha always make special preparations for the birthday of their
saint. The festivities always began at midnight of the day before
the birthday and extend until the following day. An orisha's
devotees will always visit the house of a santero initiated in the
mysteries of that orisha, at or around midnight of the orisha's
birthday. This is calledesperar al santo, or waiting for the saint. A
person who cannot go to a santero's house at midnight of the day
before the birthday willI/await" the saint in his own house-
simply by placing two candlesticks on the floor near where the
orisha's image is kept and lighting them at the stroke of midnight.
Usually some fruits and foods favored by the orisha are also
offered to him, as well as flowers and cigars.
Several years ago, at my request, my madrina took me to
pay my respects to Chang6 at two different houses. We started
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FIESTA DE SANTO

our pilgrimage around nine o'clock in the evening of December 3,


visiting the home of an old iyalocha who had been initiated into
Chang6' s mysteries for more than thirty years.
When we arrived, the iyalocha was alone with one of her
godchildren. She welcomed us graciously and brought us to the
main room of the house, where she had prepared Chango's
"throne"-a sort of an altar or pedestal where Chang6's "se-
crets," including his otanes, are hidden. On this altar stood a
large statue of St. Barbara surrounded by large masses of red and
white flowers. On both sides of this statue reposed two golden
candlesticks which would be lit at the stroke of midnight. At the
foot of the altar stood a large red and white drum, together with
Chang6' s batea, several red and white wooden axes and his large
collar de mazo. On slightly smaller pedestals were other soperas,
or tureens, containing the otanes of some of the major orishas,
resting on pieces of silk or brocade embroidered in each orisha's
colors. I recognized the soperas of Obatala, Yemaya, and Oshtin,
flanked by those of Oya and the formidable Aganyti, said to be
Chang6's father.
In front of the soperas, spread out on the floor on esteras
(grass mats), were offerings to Chango and the other orishas.
There were large baskets of exotic tropical fruits, with a profusion
of Chang6' s favorite bananas, and innumerable trays of exquisite
Spanish pastries made of coconut, guava, sweet potatoes, milk,
eggs, and honey. There was a dazzling variety of puddings,
custards, and the indescribable "drunken" panatela-a small
round cake drenched in honey, which is a standard attribute of
Oshu.n. In the midst of this succulent feast reposed a large ornate
birthday cake decorated in red and white, and inscribed simply
"Happy Birthday Barbara." This food would remain untouched
until the following day, when Chang6's birthday would be cele-
brated in earnest.
Because the orishas love to dance, many santeros have
special tapes of African or Latin-American rhythms which they
play during these fiestas de santo. On the birthdays of very
popular orishas, the Spanish radio stations play special Afro-
114
FIESTA DE SANTO

Cuban music. But santeros always prefer live music, and they
make every effort to secure well-known orchestras to play on
these festivities. A babalawo of my acquaintance once told me
that he always hired the famed Sonora Matancera orchestra to
celebrate his saint's birthday. This legendary Cuban orchestra is
not so easily available these days, but several new groups, such as
the well-known orchestra of Tito Puente, have followed in its
musical footsteps. Like many other Latin-American musicians,
Tito Puente is an initiated santero.
As soon as we entered the room, my madrina lay down
on the floor in front of the altar to pay foribale to Chango. I waited
respectfully beside her, and as soon as she stood up I also lay
down and paid my respects to the orisha. My madrina hovered
attentively over me and, when I finished, touched my shoulders
lightly, asking o shUn' s blessing for me in Yoruba. She then
helped me stand up, and we embraced in the traditional Santeria
way: touching opposite cheeks, arms crossed over the chest. She
repeated the ritual embrace with the iyalocha, who then em-
braced me.
Once the formalities were over, the iyalocha invited us to
sit down next to her. She eyed me curiously for some time, then
turned to my madrina.
"Did I hear you give this girl OshUn's blessing?" she
asked.
"Yes," said my madrina. "Why do you ask?"
The iyalocha looked at me thoughtfully. "Are you really
OshUn's daughter?" she asked me, her lip curling doubtfully.
"That's what I've been told since I was a small child," I
said. "Why? Whose daughter do you think I am?"
"Chang6," she said firmly. "I'd stake my life on it. He's
standing right by your side. I can feel him."
"But he's always by my side," I smiled. "He's been by my
side ever since I can remember, but I'm not his daughter. He told
me so himself." I went on to tell her of my experience with the
orisha when I was seven years old.
"That was a long time ago," said the iyalocha. "There are
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FIESTA DE SANTO

such things as cambios de cabeza, head exchanges between the


orishas. During these exchanges, the ownership of someone's
head-or what is the same, his destiny----can transfer from one
orisha to another. It's quite possible Oshlin transferred her
ownership of you to Chango. In fact, I'm almost sure of it. After
thirty-four years of working with Chango, I know him very well.
And I'm telling you now he's with you. He's your father."
I looked at my madrina, expecting her to make one of her
usual sharp retorts. Several years before she had confirmed
Chango's pronouncement when the seashells had told her I was a
daughter of Oshun. But my madrina chewed pensively at her lip
for some time, then abruptly changed the subject. We chatted for
a while about the iyalocha's plans for the next day, and she
invited us to return and partake of the elaborate dinner and
entertainment.
When my madrina stood up and prepared to leave, the
iyalocha made no effort to detain us. She patted me lightly on the
shoulders and smiled affably at my madrina.
"You very well know the seashells can't tell for sure if
she's Oshlin's daughter," she said, her eyes twinkling mischiev-
ously. "Only a babalawo can determine that. Why don't you take
her to see one? I bet he finds she's Chango'S daughter."
"All in due time," snapped my madrina. "There's no
need for her to see a babalawo now. She'll see one when she
receives Eleggua and the Warriors."
As she hurried me down the stairs, I questioned her
about the iyalocha's suggestion that I see a babalawo. My ma-
drlna did not answer right away.
"Actually, she's right," she said finally when we were
back in the car and well on our way to the next house. " Only a
babalawo can find out for sure whose daughter you are. I still
think you are Oshlin's daughter, but Chango touches his heart
for you . . . Well, no sense speculating like this. I'll take you to
see a babalawo soon, and then we'll know."
"How can a babalawo tell whose daughter I am?" I asked
her.
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FIESTA DE SANTO

"It's very complicated," said the madrina. "First, he'll


read the okuele for you. But to tell you whose daughter you are,
he'll ask you to return on a special day, when he and several other
babalawos get together to bring down Orunla, the greatest au-
thority among the orishas, and the one who makes all the major
decisions in Santeria. In the Catholic Church, he's St. Francis of
Assisi."
"How often do the babalawos get together for this cere-
mony?" I asked.
"It's hard to say. Sometimes they meet once a month or
every other month. It depends on how busy they are. All the
santeros who consult those babalawos and their godchildren
attend the ceremony and they ask Oninla many questions, espe-
cially about initiations. Also at this time, the babalawos deter-
mine which orisha is in charge of a person's destiny. Sometimes
many people are waiting to find out who their father or mother is.
You'll be just one more."
"How do the babalawos bring down OrUnIa?" I asked.
"Wait a bit," my madrina laughed. "And you'll find out
all by yourself."
By this time, we had arrived at Manolito's, the other
house we had planned to visit. It was almost eleven. The base-
ment, where the altar to Chang6 had been placed, was full of
people.
Most of those sitting along the walls were dressed in the
white clothes favored by the santeros. One tall, heavyset man in
his mid-twenties, spotlessly arrayed in immaculate white trou-
sers, sweater, and sneakers, wore the telltale white cap of the
yagu6, or initiate. He had the pink, healthy, happy, and well-
scrubbed look of the spoiled child. All the santeros and santeras
joked gently with the yaguo, accusing him laughingly of listening
behind closed doors to learn their secrets. They hovered around
him, affectionately plying him with fruits, candies, and other
light snacks, as one would with a small child. The yagu6 basked
happily in this attention. He circulated petulantly around the
room, smiling contentedly and munching all the time. For a year
117
FIESTA DE SANTO

and seven days-the duration of his initiation-he would be


treated with special attentions and loving care, instructed in the
mysteries of Santeria-and watched like a hawk. His every
movement and decision, even his food and clothing, would be
carefully monitored by his padrino and his madrina.
My madrina's entrance caused a bit of a commotion. She
was obviously well known and respected in this house because
several younger santeras immediately came forward to salute her
and do foribale at her feet. To see someone genuflecting or even
lying flat on his face on the floor at the feet of an ordinary human
being is rather disconcerting the first time one witnesses it. This,
however, is part of an old tradition. A person salutes at a san-
tero's feet to honor the santero's orisha and to acknowledge that
the santero is his elder in the religion. One must also do foribale at
one's madrina's or padrino's feet when meeting her or him unex-
pectedly in someone's house.
For a while, my madrina was kept busy blessing the
santeras, helping them to their feet, and embracing them. There
was much swishing of wide white skirts and ruffled petticoats.
Then the yagu6 timidly approached my madrina and asked her
permission to salute her. She motioned him to the floor with a
smile, and he did foribale at her feet as the santeras had done. She
helped him to his feet-with some effort, as he was conSiderably
taller and heavier than she-and then, embraCing him warmly,
kissed him soundly on both cheeks. They moved together into
the room, her arm affectionately wrapped around his waist.
I followed quietly behind, feeling a little lost and ill at
ease. After a while, my madrina turned to me and, taking my
hand, introduced me to the other santeros as her ahijada, or
godchild. I was immediately accepted by everyone I met. Very
soon I began feeling more relaxed.
An old black man was sitting quietly in a corner, sur-
rounded by various santeros, and my madrina firmly steered me
toward him. Arriving at his side, she paid foribale at his feet and
motioned me to do the same.
"This is my padrino," she said, helping me to my feet.
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FIESTA DE SANTO

"He's also the padrino of several people here, which makes him
an elder. Remember his face and always salute him when you
meet him, for whatever you received from me originated in him."
The old man looked at me with wise, smiling eyes. His
gentle serenity reminded me of Marfa and suddenly my eyes
filled with tears. I lowered my eyes to hide my emotion, and he
pressed me gently against his chest, touching his creased cheeks
to mine in the San terfa embrace. He then turned and looked at my
madrina.
"This child mustn't keep her orisha waiting," he said.
"She must receive her collar de mazo soon."
"But she doesn't even have the Warriors yet," my ma-
drina replied.
"Nevertheless," said the old man, "she must be initiated
as soon as possible. There are many orishas waiting for her."
He returned to his seat in the corner and paid us no
further attention. My madrina moved away with a thoughtful
look in her face.
"What did he mean about the collar de mazo, madrina?" I
asked curiously.
"The collar de mazo," she told me, "is the necklace you
receive when you're initiated. He means you should make the
saint as soon as possible."
"But I'm not ready for that yet, madrina," I told her. "I'm
not even sure I'll ever make the saint./I
"I know," she said vaguely. "We'll talk about it another
e. "
tim
For some time we stood in front of the altar with Chan-
g6's offerings, admiring the plaza with all the fruits, cakes, and
flowers. When I asked my madrina why she made no foribale in
front of the altar, she said she was waiting for Manolito, the
house's owner, to come down to the basement. As Chang6's
initiate, he had to be present when she paid foribale to the orisha.
Shortly before midnight, three women and one man
arrived, bringing with them two small children, a girl around
seven years and a boy not much older than three. The adults were
119
FIESTA DE SANTO

all obviously santeros of some importance, and for a while the


younger santeras paid foribale to the newcomers, including the
little girl (who had been initiated at birth, giving her seniority
over many of those present). She displayed the same self-
assurance and coolness of the older santeros, blessing and help-
ing lift from the floor those saluting at her feet. The little boy
moved away into the center of the room, surveying all those
present with a curiously searching glance. I felt his eyes stop on
me fleetingly, but his faint interest in me faded as soon as he
caught sight of my madrina. He made a beeline toward her and
paid foribale at her feet.
My madrina accepted his homage with the same gravity
and respect she had shown the older santeras.
"Who is your saint?" she asked the child, poising her
hands on his shoulders.
"Chang6," replied the small voice.
She tapped his shoulders lightly, pronounced Chang6's
blessing for him in Yoruba, and helped him up. They embraced
lightly and parted.
I looked around, expecting to see people astonished at
the boy's actions, but no one seemed to see anything extraor-
dinary in his behavior. He was simply paying his respects to an
elder, as he was supposed to do.
After the boy separated from my madrina, he saluted
several other santeros in the same fashion, including my madri-
na's own padrino. The boy's parents, aunt, and young sister
exchanged more greetings with the older santeros in the room.
The yagu6-who, I later discovered, was the son of both Chango
and Obatala-also saluted at the boy's feet, since the latter was an
older initiate of Chang6, having been initiated at birth.
It was now nearly midnight. Finally the owner of the
house made his appearance, dressed in white, with a white-and-
red checkered cap on his head. Greeting his guests graCiously, he
invited them to partake of the light dinner and snacks prepared
for them. For some time we all circulated around the tables, filling
and refilling our plates with food, eating and chatting amiably.
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FIESTA DE SANTO

The yaguo wound up sitting by my side, and we were soon


exchanging information about santeros and Santeria in general.
He told me he had not seen himself in a mirror since the day
before the asiento two months earlier, and had to keep looking at
photographs of himself to remember what he looked like.
"How long do you have to stay away from a mirror?" I
asked, shocked at the idea.
"Three months," he said.
"But how do you shave? And how about combing your
hair?"
"Either my madrina or my wife shaves me," he ex-
plained. "As for my hair, it doesn't much matter, considering I
must keep my head covered all the time."
"Three months without looking at yourself in the mir-
ror?" I asked, growing more alarmed by the minute. "Does this
also apply to women?"
"With women it's worse," he said smugly. "They are also
forbidden facial makeup, depilation, eyebrow plucking, curling
or coloring their hair. They must be dressed in white the whole
year, with a white handkerchief wrapped around their heads.
About the only jewelry they can wear is the necklaces and
bracelets of the orishas."
"I guess that clinches it," I said. "Now I know I'll never
make the saint."
"Oh yes you will," he said gravely. "A few female van-
ities are a small price to pay for all the benefits you receive when
you are initiated in Santeria."
"Just what are the benefits?" I asked him.
"It's a question of belief and faith," he answered. "Per-
sonally I think that the protection of the orishas is worth all the
sacrifices in the world. How many people do you know who can
actually speak with their own guardian angels, ask them favors,
and see those favors granted?"
"Can you speak with your own guardian angel?" I asked.
"Actually, two orishas guard my destiny," he said.
"Chango rules me from the waist down and Obatalci from the
121
FIESTA DE SANTO

waist up. That's why my initiation bracelet is made of red and


white beads."
He pulled up his sweater sleeve to show me a bracelet of
elaborately entwined white and red beads, thickly braided to
form a wide band. It was beautiful and I told him so.
"Does that mean that you can speak freely with both
Chang6 and Obatala, as you do with me?"
"Not quite," he smiled. "They speak to me right inside
my head, mostly to warn me of oncoming danger or to advise me
on any given situation. They answer questions I ask them and tell
me what I should or should not do. Of course, I can also use the
coconut to ask them questions."
"If they can talk to you directly, why use the coconut?"
"Because it is more definite-espedally if another person
present is asking the questions," he said. "But as an initiate,
that's not the only benefit you receive. There's the knowledge of
spiritual things, of herbal cures and spells, and espedally there
are the powers. . ."
I was familiar with the stories about the santeros' alleged
powers which included telepathy, clairvoyance, healing, and the
gift of prophecy. But I was equally familiar with the santeros'
reluctance to acknowledge these powers to uninitiated aleyos.
Even my madrina rushed me out of the room anytime she was
going to talk about her psychic abilities with another santera.
"What powers?" I asked the yagu6, thrilled to find an
initiate willing to discuss the subject. But he seemed to realize he
had spoken too much and stood up quickly, with a swift glance at
his watch.
"It's seven minutes after midnight," he said, ignoring my
question. "Aren't we going to greet Chang6?"
Manolito, who was going by at that moment, heard the
yagu6's question.
"We'll greet him now," he said. "We never salute an
orisha at the stroke of midnight. It's always best to wait a few
minutes after the hour to make sure the proper forces are in
control."
U2
FIESTA DE SANTO

He walked over to the altar and knelt on one knee in front


of Chango's batea. We all stood behind him in respectful silence,
and watched him as he picked up Chango's maraca and started to
shake it with his right hand, pressing the knuckles of his left to
the floor. Manolito then started an impassioned invocation to
Chango, calling on the orisha to bless and protect all those pres-
ent and to save the world from war, fire, and destruction. He
called on the orisha to come down to earth and witness the evil
machinations of depraved and godless men against mankind,
and to shower his just wrath upon their heads. He asked for
peace, he asked for health, he asked for love and prosperity, he
asked for goodwill among men. He asked the orisha to protect
home and country from the ravages of war, famine, and pesti-
lence, and he ended by pledging his and our undying love and
devotion to Chango.
As the invocation ended, Manolito lit the two candles on
both sides of the altar, and then everyone filed in order of senior-
ity to pay foribale to Chango in front of his altar.
Each person lay on the floor according to the fashion of
his own orisha-facedown for the male orishas, sideways for the
females. Each shook the maraca while saluting Chango, asking
for help in his or her individual needs.
Not being an initiate, I was one of the last persons to
salute the orisha. As I stood up from my recumbent position, I
was greeted by the tiny omo-Chango, who had been way ahead
of me in line.
"Cabio Sile pa' Chango, he said, with a mischievous
1/

smile.
"T6 los dlas," I answered, in the traditionally broken
Spanish, and the child laughed. His clear, bell-like laughter re-
minded me of my first tambor, when I had heard the quite similar
laughter of Chango as he possessed his omo-orisha.
Still moved by the memory, I looked up to see the child's
mother staring at me.
"Is your son .. . ?" I asked.
"No," she said, "he's not possessed. But Chango
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FIESTA DE SANTO

touches him all the time. That's what you felt. Pero cuando 10
monta, when he possesses the child, it' s quite a sight. You should
have seen him during the last ceremony of his initiation, when he
was one year and a half. Suddenly Chang6 took him, and there
was the boy, jumping up and down, singing and laughing and
dancing Chang6' s ritual dance. Nobody dared to touch him until
he rolled away on the floor in a dead faint."
Aghast, I wanted to find out more, but my madrina
joined us at that moment and took me away. We left the house
shortly afterward, though we knew most of the people would
remain to participate in an all-night vigil in Chang6's honor.
"You don't have to stay because you are not yet in-
itiated," said my madrina.
When I mentioned the story of the boy's possession at the
age of eighteen months, she shrugged her shoulders.
"1 don't know why you're so shocked." she told me.
''You yourself were introduced to the orishas when you were
five."
"Yes, madrina, but I was never possessed," I countered.
She gave me one of her wry smiles. "There's always a
first time," she said.
10
POSSESSION
On December 4, santeros assert it is wise to take special pre-
cautions. Chango is very active on this his day and usually makes
his influence felt with fire. Indeed, December 4 is invariably be-
set by many fires and fire-related deaths. On this day, in 1980,
thirty-seven fires were reported in New York City.
For me, the day following our visits to the iyalocha and to
Manolito was very busy, and I was unable to accompany my
madrina to the big dinners and entertainment that both santeros
had planned in Chango's honor. But a week later, I returned with
my madrina to Manolito's house to honor Babalu-Aye, syncre-
tized as St. Lazarus, the patron of the sick, whose birthday is
celebrated on December 17. On and around this date many fes-
tivities take place in honor of this orisha, whose kindness and
compassion have made him beloved by the santeros.
Manolito had been deathly ill several months earlier, and
doctors had despaired of saving his life. But the babaocha was too
fond of living to give up so easily, and when medicine could no
longer help him he turned to Babalu. The orisha promptly healed
Manolito, who promised to thank him with a tambor.
This was the first tambor I had attended since Marfa had
brought me to meet her madrina when I was seven, and I was
very excited about it. I carefully dressed in a white fluffy dress
with a wide skirt, and wore my necklaces and a white silk hand-
kerchief tied around my head in the African style. As I stood in
front of a mirror, admiring myself, I remembered Marfa's words

124
125

POSSESSION

about vanity. The same sense of shame and embarrassment came


rushing down upon me, and I moved away from my mirror
feeling a little guilty. Let other people's eyes be my mirrors, I told
myself.
When we arrived, Manolito's house was already full of
people. My madrina went directly to a small room at the back of
the basement, built to resemble a chapel, where Babahi's plaza
had been set out. The room was empty of furniture except for
some benches along the walls. In one comer, in the center of an
exquisite altar, stood a large and ornate statue of St. Lazarus,
flanked by two heavy golden candlesticks upon which burned
two tall white candles. On both sides of the altar, two large
porcelain urns, laboriously embossed in gold and purple, over-
flowed with masses of flowers. Directly over the altar, and ex-
tending to the sides, was a pallium formed of intertwined flowers
and masses of cundiamor (an herb used to cure diabetes and sacred
to Babalu). Among the flowers one could distinguish irises, or-
chids, lavender, and other purple-hued blossoms, purple being
Babalu's favored color. Purple silk handkerchiefs embroidered in
gold were draped loosely around the altar, behind which hung a
rich brocade curtain embroidered in the same colors.
A pair of crutches, a symbol of Babalu's infirmity, and
several aiforjas (shoulder bags) made of sackcloth trimmed with
purple hung from the wall to the left of the altar. The alforja is one
of Babalu's attributes, where he keeps his favorite food, toasted
com, and is usually made of sackcloth, as a reminder that
Babalu-St. Lazarus was a beggar during his life on earth.
It is important to remember that the scriptures speak of
two different men called Lazarus. One was the brother of Martha
and Mary, whom Jesus brought back from the dead. The other
appears in a parable Jesus told the Pharisees in Luke 16:20: a
leprous beggar whose sores were licked by dogs and who barely
sustained himself with the scraps from the rich man's table.
When the beggar died he went to heaven, while the rich man
went to hell for not sharing his possessions with the beggar. It is
this beggar Lazarus who has been syncretized as Babalu-Aye.
126
POSSESSION

Directly in front of the altar was the plaza with all the
fruits, cakes, and foods the orisha favors. The grass mat known as
an estera was spread out on the floor faCing the altar, for the
comfort of those who wished to pay foribale to Babalu. A small
basket next to the estera waited to receive the money offerings-
usually of one dollar each-that devotees of the orisha would
give. Next to the altar, in a special chair, carefully overseeing all
that went on in the room, sat Manolito's old padrino. All the
visitors saluted first at his feet, then at the feet of the orisha.
When we came into the room, I stopped in front of the
altar, overwhelmed by the brilliance and beauty of the arrange-
ment.
"Thatisel trona of Babalu," saidmymadrina. "Inside that
altar are hidden Babalu's secrets, like Chango'S altar in the house
of Marta the iyalocha. But come, we must pay our respects to
Manolito's padrino."
We moved away from the altar and paid foribale at the
feet of the old babaocha. For some minutes the old man and my
madrina exchanged greetings and pleasantries. Then we re-
turned to the altar where we saluted Babalu, each dropping a
dollar in the small basket.
"What is the money for, madrina?" I asked.
"For candles, flowers, or whatever Babalu requires. It is
his derecho," she said.
"Is there a derecho for everything?" I insisted.
"Yes," said the madrina, "there is. With the derecho we
buy candles, herbs, food, and many other things for the orishas.
These things are energy in various forms. So what you're really
doing with the derecho is give the orisha an energy source, which
he or she will give you back a thousandfold in the form of many
bleSSings. "
As we spoke we left the room and crossed into the base-
ment, where the tambor would be held. There were already
several hundred people inside, all loosely clustered around the
small kitchen built at one end. From this kitchen was issuing plate
after plate of typically Cuban and Puerto Rican fare . Three pink-
127
POSSESSION

faced and harassed-looking young santeras were serving the


food-rice with pigeon peas, roast pork, stewed potatoes, and a
lettuce-and-avocado salad-on sturdy white china plates. Every
santero's house has a closet where literally hundreds of these
plates are kept, for tambors and other fiestas de santo.
I noticed that although all the three women were serving,
they passed each plate to an elderly, slightly balding man stand-
ing next to the kitchen. He then passed the plates of food on to the
guests. After my madrina and I had received our food from him, I
asked her about the man.
"That's the omo-Babalu that will dance to the orisha,"
said my madrina. "He represents Babalu here today. That's why
the food must pass through his hands."
"Does someone always dance to the orisha to whom a
tambor is offered?" I asked.
"Yes," said my madrina, "but only a santero who has
been initiated into the mysteries of that orisha." She looked up
from her plate, and seeing the curiosity in my eyes, she smiled.
"When someone wants to give a tambor to an orisha for whatever
reason, he must first find a santero or santera who's a child of that
orisha, and who knows how to dance to the batao If the omo-
orisha agrees to dance in the tambor, then the person offering the
tambor must pay him a derecho of two hundred dollars for the
service and have a beautiful costume made, in the colors and style
worn by the orisha, for the omo-orisha to wear. But he's not
allowed to wear it until after he's danced to the orisha and been
possessed by the saint. Then some of the other santeros take him
to another room and dress him in the orisha's costume. When he
returns to the main room, the orisha occupying his body blesses
those present at the tambor."
"How about the batas?" I asked. "How much is their
derecho?"
"Also two hundred dollars," said my madrina. "But re-
member, the three drummers must play those drums and sing in
Yoruba all night long. They don't do it for the money, which is
minimal, but for the orishas."
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II A tambor must be a very expensive proposition," I said.


IIBetween the derechos, the plaza, the flowers, and the food to
feed all these people, Manolito must have spent more than a
thousand dollars."
IIYes," said my madrina, "tambors like this one cost
much more, others a little less, but a thousand is the average
cost."
When we finished eating, we returned our empty plates
to the omo-Babalu. He passed them on to one of the santeras,
who washed them swiftly and set them aside. The small kitchen
was run so smoothly that there was little indication that hundreds
of people were being fed. When I mentioned this to my madrina,
she smiled. "Practice," she said. "We do this so often we can do it
with our eyes dosed. Incidentally, those santeras are also paid a
derecho for cooking and serving."
Moving to the center of the large, L-shaped room, we
joined several other santeras. One, an attractive ebony-faced
woman, wore a large headdress made of feathers. Her name, she
told us, was Mencha and she was also a daughter of Osht:m..
"Are you Cuban?" she asked me, eyeing me Curiously.
When I told her I was Puerto Rican, she waved her hand.
"It's the same thing," she said. "We eat the same things,
believe the same things, do the same things. An old poet said it
best, 'Cuba and Puerto Rico are the two wings of one bird.' "
"Yes," I said with a grin. "And Cuba is the left wing."
Mencha roared with laughter and all the other santeras
joined in.
"That's a good one," said Mencha, still laughing. "Tell
me, when did you make the saint?"
III haven't yet." I laughed a little self-consciously, with
the slight embarrassment I always felt whenever a santero asked
me that question.
Mencha looked astonished. "You're not asentada? I
would've thought . . . You look . . ."
"Everyone thinks she has made the saint," interposed
my madrina. "I think it's because she has been a part of Santeria
since she was a child."
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POSSESSION

"Then why haven't you made the saint?" Mencha asked


me.
"I guess the time hasn't come yet," I told her.
"Who's your guardian angel?" she asked.
"I've been told it's Oshlin."
"0shun?" Mencha frowned. "You look more like-"
"Like Chango?"
"No, Eleggua," said Mencha, surprisingly. "You have
those laughing eyes, as if you enjoyed a good joke."
"I do," I laughed. "And I get along fine with Eleggua. He
once saved my life."
At that precise moment, the three bata at the other end of
the room began to play, interrupting the conversation. Everyone
began gravitating toward the players; my madrina and I found a
place faCing the drums. The sound made by the bata is deafening
and can be quite disturbing after a while, especially for a person
unfamiliar with African rhythms.
At first, the drummers did not sing, and simply beat the
bata in a special rhythm, resembling a three-sided conversation.
This drum music, I learned later, is called the oro, and is played to
Oloron-Olofi.
After the oro, the drummers began to play to all the
various orishas, starting naturally with the redoubtable Eleggua.
The head drummer, who was also the akonrin, or ritual singer and
caller of the orishas, was a young Afro-Cuban who had recently
flown in from Havana. He spoke Yoruba fluently and knew all the
tribal songs traditionally associated with the orishas. He sang the
songs while the other two drummers answered in chorus.
N ext to the drummers stood a young man holding a large
gourd painted in bright colors and covered by a net oflarge beads.
The young man kept turning the beaded gourd in his hands,
producing a sound similar to that of a pair of maracas. The gourd
was used to accentuate the drumbeat and call the orishas down to
earth. All the players were initiated santeros.
On the floor next to the drums was the small basket for
the bata's derecho. As the drummers played each orisha's fa-
vored songs, the omo-orishas of that particular saint moved
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POSSESSION

forward and kissed a folded dollar bill, blessed themselves with


it, and deposited it in the basket. Then they danced to their orisha
using the special movements associated with the saint.
Although most of the dancing in Santeria is done by
stamping the feet to the drumbeat and shuffling back and forth,
the upper body movements usually indicate which saint is being
"danced." Also, male orishas tend to be more violent in their
motions. Eleggua, for instance, likes to hop happily on one foot,
while Babalti slides to the side to underline his infirmity. Chang6
stomps mightily up and down, fists clenched in front of his chest
like a boxer. Oggun, the ironworker, moves his arms around as if
he were working his forge. Female orishas, on the other hand,
like to swing their skirts with their hands in rhythm with the
drumbeat, but each beats her skirt in a different way. Yemaya's
movements undulate like the sea waves, while Oya, the mighty
owner of the cemetery, waves one hand in the air as she fans her
skirt with the other.
My madrina and I waited respectfully as those present
danced to the music of their orishas. When the bata changed their
beat to play Oshun's favorite songs, we both moved forward to
pay the bata's derecho. As I bent down to deposit my dollar, my
madrina held me back and showed me two santeras behind me,
including Mencha, who, according to Santeria's strict protocol,
had to honor Oshlin before me. A little embarrassed, I moved
aside to let them pass and returned Mencha's friendly smile.
After paying the derecho, I joined the other santeras and santeros
on the dancing floor, to dance in honor of Oshlin.
This was not the first time I had danced for the orisha, but
I was still unsure of the ritual dance steps. I watched the other
santeros as I danced, carefully following their movements. Very
soon, however, the rhythm of the drums and the plaintive Afri-
can singing struck a chord within me, and I began to dance
spontaneously, with abandon. My skirts frothed high over my
ankles, and I felt my spirits soar with an elation that was almost
sensual in nature. The drumbeat and singing moved in waves
through my body, and I followed the motion until I was one with
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POSSESSION

the music. Then the baht's rhythm changed again, and suddenly
the akonrfn was singing to another orisha. I moved a way from the
dance floor, feeling a little light-headed.
Mencha smiled as I passed her. "That was quite good,"
she said. "Maybe you're Oshun's daughter after all."
I was about to answer her when a new group of people
surged between us to dance to the next orisha.
With the scrupulous courtesy of Santeria, Babalu-Aye,
who was the true host of the tambor, was the last to be danced.
Then there came an hour's intermission during which the drum-
mers rested and everyone exchanged comments on the excel-
lence of the tambor. Manolito circulated among his guests,
dressed in sackcloth to honor Babalu and wearing a round sack-
cloth cap to which had been sewn four parrot feathers, similar to
the ones worn by the iyalocha during my first tambor-a symbol
of the initiated santero.
During the intermission, several iyalochas went through
the room carrying large trays heaped with Cuban pastries which
they offered to the guests. My madrina urged me to partake of all
the sweets offered, as they were full of ache, the blessing of the
saints.
"If you can't eat them all, put them in your handbag and
take them home with you," she said. "And share them with your
friends and family. A small piece of one of those cakes will bring
anyone good health and plenty of good luck."
I procured a large napkin from the kitchen, wrapped the
pastries in it, and stuffed the whole lot into my shoulder bag. One
of the persons for whom I gathered the pastries was my neighbor,
an elderly Jewish widow who had been nursing a broken hip for
months. Several days after I gave her one of Babalu' s cakes, I was
surprised to find her walking sprightly down the street, without
her cane. When I congratulated her on her improved health, her
answer was even more surprising:
"I think it was something in that delicious cake you
brought me," she said, with a twinkle in her eye. "I've been
feeling better ever since."
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POSSESSION

"Maybe it was, Mrs. Rosenberg," I laughed. "Maybe it


was."
My neighbor's sudden recovery was only one of the
many cases I have witnessed where an orisha's food has healed
someone. The meat of sacrificed animals is said to be particularly
powerful in this respect.
After the refreshments had been eaten and the drum-
mers were well rested, the playing of the bata resumed. But this
time no one came forward to dance to the orishas. Instead every-
one swayed and shuffled his or her feet in rhythm with the
drumbeat, but without changing places. The beating of the
drums and the singing pulsated through the room in huge waves
of sound. I found the music faScinating, yet deeply disturbing. It
made me want to laugh and cry; it made me thirsty and hungry. It
filled me with urges I found difficult to define.
Suddenly I realized I was becoming mildly hysterical.
Struggling to regain my self-control, I noticed that a girl standing
nearby was shaking from head to foot. She was leaning against a
wood column, the fingers of one hand digging so strongly into
the wood that she had broken one fingernail. Slowly she mas-
tered herself, and the shaking subsided. The color flowed back
into her bloodless cheeks. She sighed deeply as her body relaxed.
She smiled shyly at me, obviously embarrassed at her momen-
tary lapse, and moved farther into the room, away from the batao
But she had not walked more than a few steps when she swung
heavily to one side, lost her balance, and fell against some of her
neighbors. Her head snapped back audibly, and again she began
to shake, this time uncontrollably. Her mouth was lax and her
eyes open but unfocused.
Only those, like me, who were standing nearby paid any
attention to the girl's trance. And even people next to me did not
seem very impressed with what was going on in their vicinity.
Their only concern was with the bata, the danCing, and the
orishas.
Some of the women on the rim of the circle, obviously not
santeras, saw the girl's clothes had become disarranged and
133
POSSESSION

reached toward her to straighten them. One of the santeras


across the room yelled to them not to touch the girl. Nevertheless,
one of the women ignored the santera's command and, obviously
thinking she was doing the girl a favor, helped her regain her
balance and rearranged her clothing. For a few minutes she held
on to the girl, fanning her with a handkerchief to bring her back to
consciousness. The santera the woman had ignored eyed her
with silent contempt but made no movement.
Slowly, the girl regained her self-control and stopped
shaking. But surprisingly, she did not seem to appreciate having
been brought out of her trance.
"Why didn't you leave me alone?" she asked the woman.
"Don't you know it's not good to touch someone who's being
mounted by a saint?"
"I only wanted to help you," said the woman, obviously
angered by the girl's reaction.
"Well you didn't," said the girl bluntly. "An incomplete
possession is very dangerous. Now I'll be feeling sick for days.
Next time you see someone being mounted, please leave them
alone."
Turning away from the woman, she went to sit in one of
the empty benches at the far end of the room, her body showing
signs of great fatigue. Two santeros broke away from the rest of
the people and went to minister to the girl.
The omo-Babalu chosen to dance to the orisha now came
forward. His air of authority and self-assurance immediately set
him apart from those around him. When he started Babalu's
dance, this dignified air added to the impact of his performance as
the orisha's alter ego.
He limped and shuffled his feet, stomped with one foot,
then with another, brandishing an invisible crutch in the air. As
his dancing became more violent, I suddenly realized I was in the
actual presence of the orisha. The possession was so gradual and
yet so total that I was not aware at what point Babalu mounted the
babaocha. The omo-Babalu began to tremble convulsively, his
eyes rolling in his head, his body weaving back and forth. But at
134
POSSESSION

no time did he miss the rhythm of the drumbeat nor stop the
ritual danCing.
The akonrin, seeing that Babah.i was in complete posses-
sion of his omo-orisha, stood immediately and signaled to the
man with the gourd to take his place behind the drum. Taking the
gourd away from the man's hands, he approached the omo-
Babahi. Face to face with the orisha, he began to taunt him in
Yoruba, calling him to come forward and speak to the audience,
shaking the gourd dose to the omo's face.
A sudden movement behind me made me tum around.
Another santero, also an omo-Babalu, became possessed by the
orisha. Later on I asked my madrina how a saint could possess
two people at the same time. She replied that the human body
was too weak and imperfect to house an orisha's full energy.
Only a small atom of that divine energy could enter in, which is
why multiple possessions are possible.
The second omo-Babalu, a tall slim man in his mid-
twenties, was doubled up close to the floor, his body convulsing
in the grip of possession. The akonrin approached him also and
spoke to him in Yoruba. He was still teasing Babalu gently when
another man, this time a son of Obatala, became possessed on the
other side of the room. That possession was followed by another,
and another, until seven different persons were possessed. The
orishas in possession were, in order of appearance, Babalu
(twice), Obatala, Aganyu, Yemaya, Oggun, and Oya.
No one touched any of the omo-orishas as the posses-
sions took place. The akonrin went from one to the other singing
and speaking in Yoruba, but always in rhythm with the tireless
drums.
The omo-Obatala, a good-looking man in his mid-thir-
ties, with very fair skin and prematurely gray hair, seemed reluc-
tant to be possessed. (Later I learned it was Obatala who was
reluctant to come down to earth.) He kept turning away from the
akonrin, who followed him relentlessly wherever he moved,
always calling out to the orisha in Yoruba and shaking the gourd
in his face. Finally, the bata and the akofuin seemed to overpower
135

POSSESSION

the omo-orisha. He suddenly convulsed and became rigid, his


face draining of color. Satisfied, the akofuin continued to move
from one omo-orisha to the next, chanting all the time in Yoruba
and shaking the gourd.
While the other possessions were taking place, Manolito
and another santero steered the first omo-Babalu, still possessed,
out of the room, gently coaxing the orisha in Yoruba, and asking
him to come with them.
"They're going to dress him in his own sackcloth," my
madrina whispered. "Then they'll bring him back to give the
people his blessing."
"I thought they were not supposed to touch him," I
whispered back. "Then how are they going to dress him?"
"It's all right to touch someone once the possession is
complete," she answered. "Beforehand, the orisha's energies can
be dispersed. That's why we don't disturb the omo during the
beginning of a possession."
While we waited for Babalu to return in full regalia, I
watched the other omo-orishas complete their possessions.
Yemaya had mounted one of her daughters, an iyalocha in her
late thirties wearing a deep turquoise dress. The woman circled
the room, pressing gently against the people, Yemaya's gentle
smile illuminating her face. The powerful Oggun had taken pos-
session of a very dark woman with coarse features and a heavyset
figure. Her possession was most impressive, for she shed her
personality completely to become a rough, virile man. She went
through the room in Oggun's swaggering stride, picking up
several of the small children present and tossing them up in the
air. Someone handed the orisha a lighted cigar; he took it im-
mediately and began to smoke it with relish. He continued lifting
terrified children, throwing them up and catching them in one
hand without even looking. The children's screams were
drowned by the drums and ignored by Oggun, who at one time
seemed to be juggling several children in midair. I expected a
child to drop to the floor at any moment, but none did. The
parents eyed Oggun's prowess with dismay, but no one dared
136
POSSESSION

ask the orisha to stop. After a while he seemed to become bored


and moved away to play heavy pranks on some of the older
people.
In the meantime, the second omo-Babalu was cleansing
one of the men present. He puffed on a cigar and blew the smoke
in the man's ears and face and on the back of his neck. Several
times he moved his hands swiftly over the man's body, from his
chest down to his feet, then from his back down again to his feet.
Then, quite unexpectedly, he grabbed the man by the waist with
both hands and lifted him high over his head. For a few minutes
he held the man aloft, shaking him all the while. Then he put the
man roughly down on the floor and moved away, signifying that
the healing was complete.
As the orishas descended, the santeros began to crowd
around them in the hopes of getting a question answered or a
problem solved. No one, however, dared to calIon or touch any
orisha. Everyone simply pressed close to the saint of his choice
and waited for the orishas to decide whom they wanted to help.
I looked at the iyalocha possessed by Yemaya with great
longing, wanting very much to pay foribale at the orisha's feet
and ask her bleSSing. Since Marfa had brought me to the sea to
meet the power ofYemaya in the foaming waters, I had felt very
close to the lovely orisha and I knew I could always count on her
protection. But the saint was popular, the throngs of people
surrounding her far too great. Knowing it would be difficult to
reach her, I remained close to the bata and did not attempt to
move.
An elderly iyalocha, her gray hair streaming wildly
around her face, came in from the back of the room, possessed of
Oya. In her hands she carried a large basket full of popcorn which
she gave by the handful to a chosen few. Standing at the outer
edge of the circle, I saw her approach. I saw her bright restless
eyes single me out among the rest of the people. Soon she was by
my side offering me a fistful of popcorn. I lowered my eyes,
unable to withstand the orisha's persistent, unwavering glance,
and extended my hands. I felt the soft light touch of the popcorn,
137
POSSESSION

then the hands of the orisha closed around mine. The feeling of
unearthly power exuding from those glacial iron hands was so
extraordinary I felt my arms tingle all the way up to the elbow.
Her touch terrified me, but I made an effort to control my fear-
and looked up to find her smiling cagily.
"Don't be afraid, my daughter," the orisha said. "Take of
Oya's strength. Don't fear her. She be good to you always."
She let go of my hands and walked away, without offer-
ing popcorn to anyone else in the vicinity. My madrina touched
my shoulder to catch my attention.
"Not very often does Oya show preference for someone
who's not her child," she told me. "You must remember to honor
her from now on, and she will always protect you. It's not a bad
thing to be in the good graces of the owner of the cemetery. She's
tremendously powerful, and can keep death from your door."
"How do I honor her?" I asked, more than willing to keep
death at bay.
"Get an image of Our Lady of La Candelaria, the flame
keeper," said my madrina. "She's Oya in the Catholic Church.
Place the image high over the bedroom door, and Oya will always
protect you. Also, whenever you pass by a cemetery lift up your
hand in salute and say, 'Hekua hey Yansa, we don't want to go to
your big house.' The 'big house' is the cemetery. And on windy
days, remember to greet her silently on a street corner, for she
also controls the winds."
Our conversation was interrupted by a small commotion
at the room's entrance. I craned my neck to see the cause of the
excitement, but a sea of people obstructed my vision. Pressing
forward through the circle, I saw the first omo-Babalu walking
toward the bata, dressed in the orisha's traditional costume-
knee breeches and a close-fitting tunic reaching just to his hips.
Both garments were of sackcloth, trimmed in purple braid with
gold designs along the sleeves and legs. A wide purple band
circled the omo-orisha's forehead and two purple alforjas were
crisscrossed over his chest; in one shoulder bag he carried toasted
corn and in the other he kept his beggar's alms. Bare-legged and
138
POSSESSION

barefoot, he carried a large sheaf of herbs tied with a purple


ribbon on his right hand and a long staff on his left. The people
offered him alms as he went by, and he humbly accepted them.
As the orisha made his way into the room, a wide path
opened in front of him so he could walk easily. He shuffled
slightly like an ailing old man who has preserved his dignity in
the face of calamity. There was something intensely moving
about the frail, stately figure and the mild eyes full of pain. On
sudden impulse, I pressed through the people to the edge of
Babalu's path. Without uttering a word, I lay down in front of the
orisha, and paid him foribale.
Babalu leaned over. Tapping me lightly over the shoul-
ders with his sheaf of herbs, he helped me to stand up and
embraced me warmly. Silently, from the depths of his alforja he
brought out a few grains of toasted com and offered them to me. I
took them, also in silence, and gave him alms in return. He put
them into his alforja and with a grateful nod moved away.
Now several other people came forward and paid their
respects at the feet of the orisha. He then continued his laborious
walk until he reached the batao The akonrin stood up imme-
diately, as one does on an important guest's arrival, and began
to sing one of Babalu's traditional songs. The other orishas, who
had spread out during the early part of the tambor, came now to
salute Babalu. For some time they stood in front of the bata,
embracing and greeting each other vociferously in Yoruba. There
was much joyous laughter, and then they all joined arms and
began to dance together in time with the drumbeat. Everyone
present joined in the laughter and dance.
A few minutes later, Manolito came into the room carry-
ing a large basket of fruits upon his head. On top of the fruits
rested two dainty white doves, their legs tied securely with white
satin ribbons. Manolito's wife, also an iyalocha, came right be-
hind him, throwing fistfuls of toasted corn to both sides of the
room in a cleansing ritual. When Manolito came to the bata, the
orishas stopped dancing and surrounded the babaocha, embrac-
ing him affectionately and thanking him for offering the tambor.
139
POSSESSION

Then most of them moved aside, and only the two omo-Babahis
and the omo-Obatalci remained next to Manolito.
Then the three orishas began an extraordinary cleansing
ritual. One omo-Babalu took the basket off Manolito' s head and
began a classical example of a purifying rite, or despojo, done by
raining the fruits over Manolito's head and then rubbing them
down over his body. As Manolito stood motionless, the second
Babalu ripped open the pants legs and the sackcloth tunic the
omo-orisha was wearing. Then all three orishas proceeded to lick
every part of Manolito' s body that was free of clothing-his face,
neck, arms, legs. All during the cleansing, the bata went on
playing. The orishas kept on dancing in their peculiar jerking
motion, eyes glazed, bodies tensed like wires.
Suddenly the omo-Obatala bent down and in one swift
motion picked up the two doves, which had been lying on the
floor next to the batao With eager hands he untied the ribbons
around the doves' legs and then, holding a bird in each hand,
passed them all over Manolito' s body. The doves fanned the air
with their wings, which seemed to shimmer in the dim lights of
the room. Their wings formed a momentary arch over Manolito's
head before they dipped suddenly to his feet in the fast grip of the
orisha.
Not wanting to miss any details of the ceremony, I leaned
eagerly over the circle and saw the orisha switch both doves to his
left hand. For one moment their wings fluttered over his clenched
fist, then his right hand moved swiftly. Suddenly the two doves
hung limp over his wrist, both heads torn neatly from their necks.
From the severed necks spurted twin fountains of blood, spotting
the immaculate white clothes of the omo-Obatala. Fast as an
eagle, his massive head bent sharply forward and caught the
crimson stream in his mouth. For some minutes he drank thirs-
tily, then lifted his head, lips bright red, eyes sparkling, and
extended the doves in silent invitation to the other two orishas,
who came forward willingly to partake of the blood offering.
For a while the three orishas joined their heads frater-
nally over the doves and consumed their sacrifice. Then once
140
POSSESSION

more they turned their attention to Manolito, who had stood in


their midst all the time, waiting for them to finish. The omo-
Obatala dripped some of the blood over Manolito's head and
body. All three orishas tore handfuls of feathers off the doves'
bodies and rubbed them over the babaocha's body, spreading the
blood over his skin. Then they placed the doves and crushed
fruits on a large sackcloth handkerchief and tied it in a bundle,
and marched Manolito out of the room to the incessant playing of
the batao
I had often been present during animal sacrifices and
been the subject of innumerable despojos, but never had I wit-
nessed a ritual where the orishas actually drank the blood of the
sacrifice. The ceremony had shaken me, perhaps because the
actions were so instinctive, so far beyond the scope of anything
human. Once, during an African safari, I had seen a lion pride
feeding upon a felled zebra; the animals had huddled over their
kill in the same close camaraderie the three orishas had displayed
as they consumed the doves' blood. Somewhere deep within, I
felt suddenly tormented and assailed in my most basic beliefs.
"For the blood is the life," say the scriptures. But they
also say that blood is God's alone, and that man must never
consume it or else risk the wrath of the Deity. How then did the
santeros dare to drink blood? I expressed my doubts to my ma-
drina.
"But the santeros don't drink blood," she said, blowing
out a large cloud of cigar smoke, "the orishas do. You'll never see
a santero drink blood when he's not possessed by an orisha. The
blood of sacrificed animals is either poured directly upon the
otanes of the saints, who can drink it that way, or else it is drunk
directly by the orishas when they are mounted upon their chil-
dren. And remember," she added, "the orishas are manifesta-
tions of God. And as such, blood also belongs to them."
She took me affectionately by the arm and guided me out
of the room. "What you need is to meet Obatala in person," she
told me as we walked toward the small chapel.
"What do you mean, madrina?" I asked.
141
POSSESSION

"Obatala," she answered cryptically, "the orisha who


drank the doves' blood before. Doves belong to him, incidentally,
so he was only partaking of his own food."
She directed me up the stairs leading to the small chapel.
Entering the room, we saw that three orishas were holding con-
sultations within. On a small bench, directly to the left of the
altar, sat the first Babalu, surrounded by a small group of de-
votees. Obatala, also surrounded by his followers, was seated on
the far end of the room. In the center of the room stood the
formidable Oggun, sturdy legs wide apart, a thick cigar in his
mouth, rubbing his belly contentedly, totally oblivious to the fact
that he was inhabiting the body of a female.
The throng did not permit us to cross to where Obatala
was sitting, so my madrina and I waited patiently for a few
minutes in the group surrounding OggUn. The orisha singled out
a young girl in the group and motioned her to come closer.
"Omo-mi, come to OggUn," he said, gesturing with his
hand. "You much talaca [poor]. Ar6n [illness], irora [sorrow],
always surround you. Ife [love] always run away from you.
How's your leg?"
The unexpected question took the girl by surprise, and
she looked at the orisha with questioning eyes. "What leg, my
father?" she asked.
"The one you broke last year, omo-mi," said the orisha,
pointing with his cigar to the girl's right leg.
. The girl gasped audibly and instinctively touched her
thigh. "Well, I-it's all right, my father," she stammered, "but
sometimes it hurts me."
"Leg no heal well, omo-mi," said the orisha, shaking his
head. "Need operation. But come near, Oggtin rub leg for you,
then you be daradara [well] again." He motioned to one of the
santeras nearby, who returned in a few moments with a small jar
of yellow grease known as manteca de corojo. The orisha knelt on
the floor in front of the girl, took off her right shoe, and mas-
saged her leg with the corojo. Every once in a while he spat on the
palm of his hand, mixed the spittle with the grease, and con-
142
POSSESSION

tinued rubbing. When he had finished, he stood up swiftly and


embraced the girl.
"You need many baths with white flowers and oni
[honey]," he said, "and add efun [powdered eggshell] to the aja
[water]. That way your way clear, didun [sweet], and ife can come
to your life." He winked at her and laughed delightedly, rubbing
his belly with evident pleasure. The girl moved away from the
orisha, her face flushed with happiness, and he called someone
else to his side.
Now some of the people surrounding Obatala left the
room. My madrina pushed through until she was by the orisha's
side and waited. Obatala greeted a little girl brought to him by her
mother, blessed the child, and sent her away. As soon as the
orisha was momentarily free, my madrina moved forward and
lay down on the floor to pay him foribale.
Smiling, the orisha reached down to touch her shoulders
and blessed her in Yoruba. He then helped her up again and
stood up to embrace her. She motioned me to come closer and
turned to address the orisha.
"Obatala, my father," she said, "I want you to bless my
godchild. She has not yet been initiated in ocha, but she has the
elekes, and loves the religion." She moved a little aside and
pushed me toward the orisha.
Obatala turned his dark, luminous eyes upon me,
opened his arms, and gently, with infinite tenderness, pressed
me against his chest. Suddenly I was flooded with love. I leaned
my head on his shoulder and his touch was bliss. I never before
knew or felt such softness and warmth. I wanted to remain in his
embrace forever. But the very next moment I was back in the
small chapel and the orisha was smiling down at me.
"Omo-mi," he said, speaking to my madrina, but still
looking at me, "I want you to make a new eleke for my child, the
eleke of Eshu Alabbgwanna, who's the master of all roads. He'll
see that she's always protected wherever she goes."
"Yes, my father," said my madrina, bowing her head
respectfully. "I'll do so as soon as possible."
143
POSSESSION

"Good," he said with a sigh, and pushed me toward her


gently.
I moved away from him reluctantly. The tenderness of
his smile told me he understood my feelings. A little hurriedly
now, my madrina rushed me out of the room, as many other
people were waiting to speak to the orisha. But when I turned to
look back at him from the door, he was still smiling at me.
Shortly after this we left the tambor and I drove my
madrina home. I did not comment to her about the ceremony we
had witnessed, nor about my extraordinary experience with
Obatala. She told me she was going to work at once on the eleke
the orisha had ordered, and would call me as soon as it was ready.
Several days passed, but I could not get the omo-Obatala
from my mind. Over and over I relived every moment of the
tambor and every action I had seen him undertake. I thought of
him constantly and I saw his face in front of my eyes all the time.
One day I realized I was infatuated with a man whose name I
didn't even know and whom I might never see again.
I was quite aware that it was the aura of Obatala that I
loved in his son, but it was the son's face and the son's body that
kept surfacing in my mind. I could not help identifying the
omo-orisha with the saint because the omo-orisha was the only
phYSical contact I had with Obatala.
About a week after the tambor, my madrina called me to
say the eleke was finished. She wanted me to come and get it that
afternoon. A few hours later I was at her house, where she
invested me with the necklace in a much simpler and shorter
ceremony than the one used for the first five necklaces.
Before questioning her about the omo-orisha, I waited
until the ritual was over and we were sitting in her kitchen,
sipping tea from the familiar mugs. Knowing my question was
delicate, I decided to be devious about it.
"Madrina," I said, swirling the tea within the mug, "how
is it that a santero becomes so possessed of his orisha that he
becomes the orisha himself?"
"That's one of the secrets of Santeria," she said, lighting
144
POSSESSION

a fresh cigar and puffing atit delicately. "You'll have to wait to be


initiated to learn that one."
"Take that omo-Obatala, for instance," I went on casu-
ally. "His possession was so thorough I seemed to be speaking to
Obatala himself."
"You were speaking to Obatala himself," my madrina
replied.
"I know," I said, pouring myself some more tea, "but he
was still using a human body."
My madrina picked up a magazine from the table and
began to turn its pages idly. "It doesn't matter," she said. "It was
still him, not the omo-orisha who was speaking."
"By the way, madrina, who was that santero?" I asked
lightly. "Do you know how many years he has been in the saint?"
"By the way," said my madrina, continuing to flip the
pages of the magazine, "it is none of your business."
I was completely taken aback. "Why don't you want to
tell me?"
"You better get him out of your mind," she answered
softly, putting her magazine aside. "I know what's going on
inside you, and you're wrong. It is not him you want, it is
Obatalci. And Obatalci is a spirit, pure and bright, far beyond our
human weaknesses."
My face colored. "Madrina," I muttered, embarrassed
beyond words, "you don't know what you're saying."
"Yes, I do," she said gently. Her hand reached out and
touched mine softly. "This happens very often, especially when
you meet an orisha face to face. You're only human. It's not
possible to look perfect peace and love in the face and not fall in
love with it. And that's what Obatala is."
"But it's the man I'm thinking about," I finally blurted,
"the man-"
"No it isn't," she said kindly. " I assure you, if you saw
that man now, you wouldn't want him. You wouldn't even
recognize him, because he would be empty of the spark of light
you really love. He would be empty of Obatala."
145
POSSESSION

,iBut how come I never felt this way about Eleggua and
Chang6? I love them too, " I argued.
"Eleggua and Chango are what you are," she smiled.
"Obatala is what you want to be."
I looked up at her and her smile softened the edge of my
doubt. "Oh, madrina," I said, cupping my face in my hands. "It is
true I want peace and love and light and wisdom above all.
Obatalci is all those things."
"Of course," she said. ''Because you're human, you
wanted to express your love the only way a human can. Obatala
understands that. Someday he'll give you the wisdom to love him
the way he should be loved, and you will find that love infinitely
sweeter and more satisfying than human love can ever be."
My madrina and I never discussed this subject again, but
after this we were much closer. I often wondered if she'd had a
similar experience of her own, but I never dared ask her. After
this conversation with my madrina, I did not think so much about
the omo-Obatala, and his face seemed to recede into the past. But
my love and understanding of the orisha grew, and with it an
ever-growing sense of peace.
II
THE
BABALAWO
The babalawo's office is largely judicial. He makes some of the
most important decisions of the cult, especially those concerning
which saint should be "crowned" on a person's head the day of
the asiento, when the saint is made. The babalawo must also be
present during the matanza, the ritual killing of the large sacrificial
animals offered to the orishas during the asiento or any other
time.
Though unquestionably the high priest of Santeria, the
babalawo is not a santero. He is not empowered to conduct the
asiento, to make a saint, or to give necklaces. The only initiations
he can officiate in are the making of his own patron saint, OrUnla,
during which a man only becomes a babalawo, and the giving of
Elegga and the Warriors. Sometimes, when the letra-the mes-
sage from the oracle-allows, he can also give to a person the cofa
de OrUnla, a special initiation of the orisha which includes a
beaded bracelet with Oninla's special colors. Only women can
receive the cofa de On1nla, but the actual initiation of Oninla with
all his mysteries can only be received by a man. Some babalawos
have also received the initiations of the five orishas-Obatala,
Chango, Yemaya, Oshtin, and Oya-who with Eleggua and the
Warriors, are the foundation of Santeria. But this is not manda-
tory, and many babalawos do not have these initiations.

146
147
THE BABALAWO

A babalawo solves any disputes or doubts among the


santeros by means of the okuele. At the beginning of each year, a
conclave ofbabalawos gets together to determine which orisha or
orishas will rule the year, and the world happenings that will take
place during the coming twelve months. This divination proce-
dure with its extensive prognostications is known as an ita. It is
also conducted at the time of the asiento to determine the initi-
ate's future life.
Some santeros resent the iron authority of the babalawos
and avoid consulting them. But when a problem becomes insur-
mountable or there is doubt about what to do in any given
situation, even the most reluctant santero will swallow his pride
and come to consult the babalawo a los pies de OmnIa-at the feet
of OrUnla.
Perhaps the most heated controversy between baba-
lawos and santeros is the question of who should confer the initi-
ation of Eleggua and the Warriors. Both santeros and babalawos
can conduct this ceremony, and so can another member of the
priesthood in Santeria known as the oriate, who is the master of
ceremonies of the cult.
There is a definite difference between the Eleggua given
by the babalawos and the one given by the oriate or the santero.
The force of the orisha is always the same, but while the babalawo
initiates him on the back of the believer, the oriate and the santero
do so upon the head. Another difference-which the san-
teros emphasize strongly-is that the babalawo's Eleggua is
"ready made," one of many which the babalawo has already
prepared. These Elegguas have their own individual names, but
unlike the one given by the santeros and the oriates, do not have
the personal secrets of the individual hidden within their hollow
images. There are other basic differences, but these are the most
important. Very often, when a santero or santera is not sure about
the preparation of the Eleggua, he or she will consult an oriate to
clear any doubts. But some of the older santeros prefer to take
their ahijados to a babalawo for the initiation of Eleggua.
Although my madrina always reprimands me for it, I
148
THE BABALAWO

constantly ask the older santeros about the cult. I know they
dislike being questioned, especially by someone who is not even
initiated, but the only way one learns anything in Santeria is by
asking and straining the ears to catch any "juicy" bits of conversa-
tion that may take place between initiated olochas. If one does not
ask questions and eavesdrop, one simply does not learn because
santeros do not like to teach their secrets to anyone, including
their ahijados. This seems to be a tradition of Santeria. Since all
santeros have experienced the same paucity of teaching on the
part of their padrinos and madrinas, they toss the ball right back
to their own ahijados. Therefore, at the risk of being considered
an ill-mannered pest-a reputation which I am sure I enjoy
among some santeros-I am always asking questions. Some are
contemptuously ignored, others are guardedly answered; only
rarely will someone advance any information voluntarily. One
such rare occurrence took place the next time I met the iyalocha
Mencha at another tambor.
I had just finished eating before the tambor began, and
was sitting with my madrina, Mencha, and a yagu6, a girl who
had been recently initiated into the mysteries of Obatala. Notic-
ing the many bracelets adorning the yagu6' s arms, I asked her if
they were part of the initiation. A frown began to form in my
madrina's face, but I studiously avoided her eyes. The yagu6
looked at her bracelets with a proud smile.
"Yes," she said, stretching out her arms to show them
better. "The five golden ones belong to Oshun, the seven silver
ones belong to Yemaya, and these nine bronze ones on my left
arm belong to Oya." She pointed to a single silver bracelet she
was wearing above the bronze ones. "This one," she said, "be-
longs to Obatala, my father. It is the only one I must wear at all
times. The other ones I wear only when I choose."
I pointed to a lovely bracelet made of entwined crystal
and white beads and curiously terminated in a white button
attached to a dainty buttonhole. "How about this white beaded
one?" I asked.
"That is the brazalete de mazo," she answered, fondling it
149
THE BABALAWO

affectionately. "It is white because I'm Obatala's initiate, and his


color is white."
"That is enough, yaguo," said my madrina authorita-
tively. "You're not supposed to discuss the details of your initia-
tion with anyone, especially an aleyo."
The yaguo blushed and lowered her eyes.
"I'm sorry, madrina," I said. "It is really my fault. I
shouldn't have asked her."
"You're always asking questions," said my madrina se-
verely. "Even though I'm always telling you not to."
Mencha had been following the exchange with an
amused smile. "Actually, what she asked and what the yaguo
answered are no secrets," she interposed.
I smiled gratefully at Mencha. "How long have you been
a santera?" I asked.
"Thirty years and two months," she answered, her smile
deepening. ''It's a pity, but you just missed my birthday as an
iyalocha. You come next year. You'll learn a lot."
"You must have been initiated very young," I said. "I
would have never thought you had spent that many years in the
saint."
"I was twelve when I made the saint. Seems like I've
always been a santera. But when are you going to take the
plunge?"
"I don't really know," I said, with a swift look at my
madrina. "I still have to get the Warriors."
"You haven't got the Warriors yet? Well, you should get
them as soon as possible. And," she said, instinctively lowering
her voice, "be sure you get them with a babalawo so you do
things right."
Mencha's comment caused my madrina to intervene
quickly in the conversation.
"I don't agree with you," she told Mencha firmly. "An
oriate can give as good or even better an Eleggua foundation than
a babalawo. I personally prefer the oriate because he prepares
Eleggua and the Warriors specially for each person, with real
150
THE BABALAWO

secrets inside, and doesn't hand out something out of a shelf like
the babalawo does."
liThe Eleggua given by the oriate is good, I don't deny it,"
said Mencha in placating tones. " In fact, a person can have both
the babalawo and the oriate give them an Eleggua. I have two
Elegguas myself, each one for a different path. The more the
merrier. And the more power and protection you get from the
Warriors. What I mean is that the babalawo should be the one to
give Eleggua first because he's the voice of OrUnla, who knows
everything. When a babalawo gives you an Eleggua, he doesn't
just pick the saint off a shelf and give it to you. It's true he has
many Elegguas already prepared, but each of those Elegguas has
a different name and a different path. The babalawo first asks
both Orunla and Eleggua which Eleggua-remember, there are
twenty-one-will' eat with you,' meaning which path of Eleggua
corresponds to you and what's Eleggua's name in that path.
When the orishas answer, the babalawo picks the proper Eleg-
gua, which has already been prepared according to special in-
structions from Eleggua himself, and proceeds to give it to you
with the proper ceremonies. Once you have that, you know you
can't go wrong because both OrUnla and Eleggua himself have
pointed the way."
The differences in view between Mencha and my mad-
rina, typical among many santeros, were not resolved during this
conversation. Each of them had lived many years within the cult
and had adhered to her personal beliefs for too long. Sporadic
rifts surface between some santeros, but for the most part there is
agreement on how the major tenets of the faith should be ob-
served.
When I went home that night after the tambor, I thought
about Mencha's words and concluded after a while that what she
had said made sense. I therefore resolved to receive Eleggua and
the Warriors from the hands of a babalawo. Later on, I thought
greedily, I'll also get Eleggua from the oriate, and in this way I'll
have double protection.
When I told my madrina about my decision, she nodded
151
THE BABALAWO

her head. "I knew you'd be telling me this. Mencha can be very
convincing. I know a lot of santeros who would quickly put you in
your place and refuse to do what you're asking, but I believe in
letting my ahijados make some choices. After all, you'll be paying
for the Warriors. You have every rightto get what you want. Next
week I'll take you to see a babalawo and we'll see what OrUnla has
to say about all this."
The divination system of OrUnla, the patron saint of the
babalawo, is also known as La Tabla de Ha-Ha's table. A
babalawo told me once that Ifa (another name given to Orunla by
the Yorubas) is more than a god of divination. He is the answer to
every question that has ever been asked or will ever be asked by
mani he is the wisdom that created the universe and the power
that sustains it. He is, in fact, everything.
In the beginning, according to the Yoruba legend, Ha's
table belonged to Chang6. But the irrepressible god of thunder
and lightning was too fond of partying and dancing to pay proper
attention to the business of looking into the future. As far as
Chango was concerned, the present was just fine. Let somebody
else worry about the future!
One day he noticed that OrUnla seemed to like the divi-
nation table and spent many hours staring at it longingly. Some-
time earlier Olofi, the father of the gods, had presented Orunla
with the gift of dance, making the orisha the best dancer in the
Yoruba pantheon. Chango had always wanted to excel in the
dance to impress his many lady friends. After some con-
sideration, he approached OrUnla and offered to exchange the
divination table for the coveted gift of the dance.
To OrUnla the exchange was ideal: he was always too
involved with profound matters to have any time for danCing. So
the two oris has happily completed the exchange and never re-
gretted their decision. Chango became more popular than ever as
his dancing skills improved, while Orunla's reputation as a wise
man grew until all the other orishas' major decisions were
brought to him beforehand so he would decide the best course of
action.
152
THE BABALAWO

The decision of which orisha to crown on a person's head


during the asiento can be ascertained in various ways. The san-
tero or italero-an expert reader of the seashells-can tell which
orisha is an individual's mother or father, and the oriate, also a
master diviner with the seashells, can also determine who should
be crowned on the yaguo's head. But if there are ever any doubts
about which orisha "owns" a person's head, the only thing to do
is bring the question to "the feet of Orunla," and let the babalawo
read the orisha's final verdict. Once Orunla has "spoken," the
matter is settled. That orisha, and that one orisha only, can be
crowned on the yaguo's head, for Orunla's word must never be
questioned.
One of the most faSCinating things about the babalawo's
consultation is that regardless of how many babalawos are con-
sulted and how distant they may be from each other, Oninla's
answer will never vary.
My first meeting with a babalawo was a general consulta-
tion only, as the delicate procedure of determining a person's
ruling orisha requires a conclave of several babalawos.
It was late December when I walked into the babalawo' s
house. I had been told so many extraordinary stories about this
legendary wizard I hardly dared to confront him. The house itself
was large and comfortably furnished, and nothing in the waiting
room gave a clue to the babalawo's business.
My madrina and I were the first to arrive. While we
waited for him to get ready for us, several other people arrived for
consultation. By the time he called us to his working room, there
were already four people waiting. When we left, the room was
filled with people, some of whom had to stand in the hall.
The room where the babalawo received us was small and
furnished like an office. The desk was half buried under mounds
of paper with a push-button telephone to one side. Two me-
dium-sized filing cabinets stood against the left wall. Behind
the desk was an executive chair and there were two smaller ones
in front of it. One of these chairs was for the consultant and the
other for his madrina or padrino, if he was accompanied.
153
THE BABALAWO

Behind the consultant's chair was the canastillero with


the soperas of the babalawo' s orishas all luxuriously wrapped in
brocaded silk cloths. All his collares de mazo-the initiation neck-
laces-were displayed around the soperas. OrUnla's secrets were
outside the canastillero in a special urn. The general effect was
one of richness and splendor.
The man who sat behind the desk was in his mid-sixties.
He was a light-skinned mulatto with close cropped white hair, a
medium build, and shrewd, penetrating brown eyes that smiled
at us from behind thick horn-rimmed glasses. The large Havana
cigar in his mouth sent thick plumes of smoke throughout the
room.
As soon as we entered the room, the babalawo stood up
and saluted my madrina warmly. He then motioned us to sit in
front of him. In her simple, direct manner, my madrina told the
babalawo she had brought me over because I wanted to receive
Eleggua with a babalawo and she thought I should consult him
first. The babalawo listened and nodded his head in silent under-
standing. When she finished, he turned to me and asked me for
OrUnla's derecho. This money, which amounted to $5.25, he took
from my hands and wrapped in a piece of brown paper. Folding
the paper in the form of a triangle, he tucked the ends inside the
folds, handed the small package back to me, and asked me to put
it between my joined hands and bless myself with it. I did as he
told me and gave him back the derecho, which he put aside.
At this moment, the telephone rang and the babalawo
excused himself to answer it. He spoke with his caller for a few
minutes and then hung up. The man who just called, he told us
confidentially, was a Bolivian lawyer who had come to New York
just to meet the babalawo, from whom he needed an important
service. "A delicate business," the babalawo said, "but I'll see
what I can do." He did not go any further, but judging from what
transpired later on, the Bolivian had called on the right man.
Asking me my name, the babalawo wrote it down on a
piece of paper, then picked up the okuele and began the consulta-
tion. As I mentioned earlier, the okuele is a chain about eighteen
154
THE BABALAWO

inches long joining eight round medallions, usually of tortoise-


shell. On one side of each medallion are lines and small designs.
The oracle is deciphered according to the side upon which the
medallions fall when the babalawo throws the okuele down on
the table. The okuele, like the seashells, also makes use of five
igbo, or divination aids: a black stone, a small seashell, a buckeye
seed, a carved piece of bone, and a small black seed.
The babalawo picked up the derecho, blessed the okuele
with it and began to pray, invoking Orunla to come and help me
solve my problems. I heard my name mentioned several times,
but since the babalawo was speaking in Yoruba, I did not under-
stand very well what he was telling the orisha. As he prayed, the
babalawo kept dipping his fingers in a small gourd filled with
water, and then touching the okuele with his wet fingers. After a
while, when the prayers seemed to be over, he pressed the
okuele against my forehead, blessed me with it, and proceeded
with the oracle.
Throwing down the okuele for the first time, the
babalawo picked up two igbo and told me to roll them between
my hands and then separate my fists, keeping an igbo in each,
without letting him see which igbo went into which hand.
I rolled the two igbo between my hands, separated them
into my fists, and extended my closed hands to the babalawo. He
threw the okuele again and chose one hand. I opened it and
showed him the igbo within.
"MaferefUn Chango," the babalawo said, meaning "thanks
to Chang6." "He keeps you away from many troubles."
My madrina and I exchanged glances, but neither of us
spoke. The babalawo began to make rows of small circles and
vertical lines underneath my name, as the okuele began to de-
cipher Orunla's message. These circles and lines formed a series
of patterns which the babalawo then interpreted in the line of
Yoruba parables.
Each pattern corresponded to a parable, and in each
parable spoke one or more of the orishas. The system is im-
mensely complicated because there can be any number of combi-
155
THE BABALAWO

nations within the and also with the igbo, which controls
the medallions' speech. As I watched the patterns grow on the
paper, I suddenly realized that I was looking at a binary system.
The 1 and the athe babalawo used were the same digits used by
computers, which can be easily seen on the back of any computer
card. Furthermore, the babalawo was using the binary code in the
same manner as the computer does, in random patterns each of
which encodes a message. Here was a man, who had never used
a computer card, let alone program a computer, using a system
handed down to him through countless years of African religious
tradition.
After the consultation, when I told the babalawo about
the similarities between Ha's table and the computer system, he
shrugged his shoulders.
"It's the simplest system in the world," he said. "And the
most complete. It's a combination-or series of combinations-
between something, the one, and nothing, the zero. The entire
universe is made of somethings and nothings. With those two
ciphers, worlds can be made and destroyed. But we're now in
Orunla's province," he added with a smile. "I cannot tell you any
more. Except the Yorubas were not the only ones who used the
binary system. Many other ancient civilizations knew it. Com-
puter technology chose it simply because it is the best and the
simplest. All the knowledge that can be had lies between the one
and the zero, which is why Orunla uses them."
The things the babalawo told me during the consultation
covered a wide range. Each time he finished writing a pattern, he
would look up and say something new.
"Tell me," he said at one pOint, "have you ever seen
anyone get killed in front of your eyes?"
"No," I said, looking at him with a worried glance. "Why
do you ask?"
"Because Oninla says that one time in your life you saw
someone die in a tragic way-someone who was killed by some-
one else."
"But that's impossible," I stammered, my apprehension
156
THE BABALAWO

growing. "I would remember such a thing. That's never hap-


pened to me, thank God."
"Perhaps if you were very young when you had the
experience, you would find it difficult to remember," the
babalawo insisted, gently coaxing my memory.
And suddenly I remembered. When I was five years old,
shortly after I started school, I saw a classmate-a little boy my
age-run over by a car. As if a veil had suddenly been lifted, I saw
the small figure of the little boy running with open arms toward
his mother, who was waiting for him after school. The car seemed
to be moving in slow motion, but suddenly the mother was
standing alone on the opposite side of the road and the boy was
under the car's wheels, his dark-blond hair on the hot asphalt.
From the school bus where I was sitting, I saw his dying eyes
turned upward to look at me, and there was an infinity of regret in
those eyes. Many years later, I went to visit his small grave and
wondered at the twist of fate that had kept him forever a child
while I had grown up to be a woman.
The impact of the memory was so strong that my eyes
filled with tears. The babalawo saw that I remembered and nod-
ded his head gently.
"Oru.nla is never wrong," he said softly. "Although
sometimes we wish he were . . ."
"But why did I have to remember this?" I asked. "It was
so deeply buried in my mind . . . "
"You had to remember because that soul has accom-
panied you for many years, and it is important that you pray to it
now and help it gain light. If you recognize its existence and its
presence in your life, it will help you achieve many things."
"But I don't very much like praying to the dead," I
objected.
"I know," said the babalawo. "I've already seen that. But
you must make an effort. It's very important for your own
spiritual development that you pray to souls who are members of
your family group or are with you through friendship or sym-
pathy, like this one."
My madrina, who had been silent all this time, nodded
157
THE BABALAWO

her acquiescence." I keep telling her the same thing," she told the
babalawo. "I even gave her a palo-very much against her
wishes-and keep reminding her that in Santeria praying to the
iku comes first."
"And in all other religions," said the babalawo. "Even
the Chinese pray to their ancestors . . . "
Although the babalawo usually finishes with the okuele
in fifteen minutes, this consultation lasted almost an hour.
"This has almost been an ita," the babalawo said finally.
"Which is the lifelong reading the yagu6 gets during an asiento.
But I like you; I feel an instinctive affection toward you, even
though we just met. And you will always find me here, whenever
you may need me."
The "ita" the babalawo gave me that day included a
thorough and accurate medical assessment of my physical health,
which foods I should avoid, a thorough review of my past life,
marriage, and subsequent divorce, my love life, financial status,
and the correct prediction of the publication date of my next
book-which had not yet been written! I was also told what I
could expect of the coming year and what to do to improve my
life. The ebb6s-the remedies-he prescribed for the problems I
brought to him solved the problems within weeks after the visit.
As to Eleggua, I was to try to receive the orisha as soon as possible
with the babalawo or with the oriate, whichever way I preferred.
But for the improvement of my life in general, it was vital to have
Eleggua and the Warriors on my side-the sooner the better. I
was also to receive the initiations of Olonin and the cofa de
Orunla, which not everyone is called to take, at the earliest possi-
ble date.
Not all babalawos have this vision and talent for inter-
preting the okuele. All babalawos have some of Orunla's wis-
dom, but some have more than others. The babalawo who saw
me is one of the most respected and admired of all Orunla's
priests in the United States. If any interested reader can find his
way to this babalawo' s door, he should say from the bottom of his
heart, Mafereftin Ortinla. . .
II
ELEGGuA
ANDTBE
WARRIORS
Mondays belong to Eleggua. On that day all the santeros and
followers of Santeria wake up earlier than usual so that they may
pay proper homage to the orisha, who is the key to all the
mysteries of the cult.
It is very easy to honor Eleggua. All that is required is to
wash the stone head representing the orisha with fresh water and
anoint it with manteca de corojo. The image is exposed to the
sun's rays for a few hours before noon and then returned to its
usual place-on the floor or in a small commode near the front
door. Prior to addressing Eleggua-or any other orisha-his
follower pours three small amounts of water in front of his image.
He then speaks to Eleggua, preferably in Yoruba, and asks the
orisha's blessing and his protection in all human endeavors. If a
person does not speak Yoruba, he should then memorize a few
short prayers to the orisha in the African tongue, even if he does
not know their exact meaning. Eleggua knows the intention and
that is sufficient.
One of the most common laudatory prayers directed to
the orisha is, AIaIe Ie cupaehe ago meeo, Eleggua ago Iaroye Eshu beleke
158
159
ELEGGuA AND THE WARRIORS

inka Eshu Bi mamakeiia, ofemi, moforibale Olodumare bara male


Babamilogu6, Okulogu6, eyelogu6, ofologu6, iguaraye abollo kerekete.
In this prayer, one pays homage to Olodumare-Olofi,
God the Father-and asks Eleggua in his aspects of Laroye and
Eshu for good health, good luck, and protection against all evil.
The Yoruba prayer is then complemented with an exten-
sive invocation in the supplicant's mother tongue, at which time
the orisha is asked to intercede in any special situation that may
be causing the person concern. After the prayer, Eleggua is "fed"
with his favorite foods, such as smoked possum, smoked fish, a
handful of toasted com, bits of coconut, and assorted candies and
caramels, for he is said to love sweets. Sometimes, especially if
the orisha has conceded a special favor, the follower will offer him
a large basket of fruit, which is left at his feet until the fruit begins
to rot.
Some santeros recommend that prior to the food offer-
ing, Eleggua should be sprayed with a mouthful of rum to which
have been added three well-chewed grains of black pepper. A
cigar is then lit and three mouthfuls of smoke blown on the
image, which is kept exposed all day long with a white candle
burning by its side.
As we saw in Dona Pepita's case, Eleggua is sometimes
prepared on a big seashell; other times his secrets are concen-
trated on a dry coconut or in a name, a tropical root similar to
yucca. But in general, most Elegguas are prepared as a hollow
head of sandstone or cement. Inside the head go all the personal
data concerning the person who receives him and all the mys-
teries of the orisha. Traditionally, the head is made by mixing
together a handful of earth from seven different places-from
near a church, a major thoroughfare, a jail, city hall, a hospital,
the crossing of four roads, and a bakery. To this earth are added
three of the herbs and seven pieces of the palos-tree branches-
that belong to Eleggua according to Santeria tradition. To the
mixture is added a palo belonging to Osain, a flat natural stone
(preferably dark), the head of a turtle, OrUnla's afoche (a special
powder prepared from name by the babalawo), and twenty-nine
160
ELEGGuAAND THE WARRIORS

coins of various denominations gotten from seven different


stores. All of these materials are in turn mixed with a bit of cement
and omiero, the sacred liquid prepared by the santeros during
major initiations. The omiero is usually made of twenty-one of
the herbs ascribed to the orishas, well crushed by hand, to which
are added honey, blood from the sacrificial animals, dry red wine,
holy water, seawater, river water, and rainwater. Other ingre-
dients are sometimes added to the mixture, but the ones men-
tioned are the most common. The omiero is the miracle elixir of
Santeria, and many santeros claim that a few sips from this often
malodorous water can cure any illness and bring great luck. I
always keep a jar of omiero with me, which my madrina thought-
fully replenishes when it begins to dwindle.
"It will keep you healthy and banish all evil," she always
tells me. And when I complain that its smell and taste are enough
to decimate a battalion of Marines, she shakes her head severely.
"It does not smell," she insists, with unshakable faith. "It
is fragrant, pure, and holy. It has all the strength of the orishas."
And in all truth, I must admit that drinking a bit of omiero has
cured for me influenza, bronchitis, headaches, and-incredibly
enough-innumerable upset stomaches. A few drops of omiero
added to my regular bath always leaves me feeling stronger and
filled with great vitality.
The omiero and cement added to the rest of the ingre-
dients used in the preparation of the Eleggua result in a paste
which is then shaped to form the orisha's head. Atop the image is
usually inserted a small blade in the shape of a rooster's crest. The
eyes and the mouth are always formed by three small cowrie
shells.
Once finished, the head is buried on a crossroads before
sunrise so that Eleggua's spirit, which owns all crossroads, will
enter the image and fill it with all his powers. Seven days later,
the babalawo or santero who prepared the image will dig it out of
the ground. The hole where the image was buried is consecrated
with the blood of three red roosters, and then filled with the
161
ELEGGuA AND THE WARRIORS

bodies of the sacrificed animals, toasted com, bananas, candies,


and a generous shot of rum. It is finally covered with earth, and
the santero or babalawo returns to his house with Eleggua's
image, which is now fully consecrated and in possession of all of
the orisha's immense powers.
When a person receives this consecrated image, he also
receives a small cauldron with the weapons and implements of
the Warriors, which include-besides Eleggua-OggUn, the
mighty iron forger, and Ochosi, the divine hunter. Osun, the
guardian of the door, is also given to the initiate at this time. It is
represented by a small silver rooster atop a silver chalice and must
be placed on a high shelf near the front door. Whenever Osun
falls down from his place, it means danger is near, and appro-
priate measures must be taken to circumvent this danger. When
the santero or babalawo gives Eleggua and the Warriors to a
believer, he invariably tells him, "I herewith give you these
weapons for your defense. Let these Warriors always fight your
battles and they will always be won." He then proceeds with the
actual initiation ceremony.
The iyalochas often give the initiation of the Warriors, but
the preparation of the image and the gathering of Eleggua's
powers into the image can be done only by a santero, oriate, or
babalawo. And there are many secret rituals of the orisha which
can be conducted only by men, since Eleggua, like Orunla, is not
very interested in the interplay between the sexes. I finally re-
ceived Eleggua and the Warriors from a babalawo. This venerable
old man, reputed to have brought Santeria to the United States
more than thirty years ago, is the first elder in the religion. He is
much loved and respected in the Santeria community, and his
fame is so great that he is invariably invited to be a guest speaker
in the yearly conference of babalawos held in Nigeria. His name,
which he has allowed me to disclose, is Pancho Mora.
When I first came to him for a consultation, he threw the
kuele, studied it carefully, and then wrote a few words on a slip
of paper. "Three medium-sized stones found in the woods." I
162
ELEGGuA AND THE WARRIORS

looked up at him enquiringly.


"That's what you must bring me to prepare your Eleg-
gua," he explained. "That's all you need to know right now.
Nothing else is important."
"But I wasn't planning to receive Eleggua now," I said.
He nodded his head gently and his eyes twinkled.
"Whenever you're ready," he said softly, "that's what you must
bring to me. I will then ask which of the three stones is the right
one for your Eleggua. I will build the foundation of the orisha
over the stone chosen."
"Are all the Elegguas prepared this way?" I asked curi-
ously.
"No, there are many ways to prepare Eleggua. But yours
must be prepared with a stone from the woods."
When I left the babalawo's house I still did not plan to
receive Eleggua, but somehow that weekend I found myself
driving out of the city limits.
I knew that the type of stone that the santeros and
babalawos use as otanes is smooth and round. But the first stone I
came across in the woods was pyramidal in shape, rough in
texture and grayish in tone. It was not a typical otan, but I felt
myself irresistibly attracted to it. When I dislodged it from the
ground where it was imbedded, I saw that it was half covered
with moss. A strong smell of fresh herbs exuded from it. I pock-
eted it swiftly and continued looking for the other two stones,
which turned out to be like the classical otanes.
A few days later I was back at the babalawo's house.
Giving him the stones, I apologized for the unusual shape of the
gray one and explained my great attraction for it.
"Let's find out right away if it is the right stone," he said
immediately. "Often the stone you like best is the one Eleggua
wants."
He threw the okueh?, stared at it for some time, then
shook his head in disbelief.
"This is phenomenal," he said after a while. "Not only is
163
ELEGGuA AND THE WARRIORS

this the stone, but this particular "letra," or pattern of the okuele,
is my own special cipher as a babalawo."
"What does it mean?" I asked.
He looked at me with his wise, old eyes and smiled
gently. "Let's just say Eleggua has chosen this stone for you and
me as your padrino," he said. But something in his voice made
me feel he was not telling me everything he saw in the okuele.
I did not ask him any further questions. He told me to
return after a week's time to receive Eleggua and the Warriors, as
he needed seven days for the preparation of Eleggua. When I
came back at the appointed time, he gave me the Warriors in a
short but impressive ceremony which he said I was free to de-
scribe, as it was not secret.
After saluting Ortinla, his orisha, he told me to kneel
down faCing him and to extend my opened hands toward him.
He then placed the sandstone head representing Eleggua on my
palms, praying all the time in Yoruba. After a while, he lifted
Eleggua off my hands and told me in a grave voice that I was
never to kneel in front of Eleggua again. I could stand or crouch,
but I could not kneel. He replaced Eleggua with the small caul-
dron containing Oggu.n's and Ochosi's implements and con-
tinued praying. The last thing he placed on my hands was the
small silvery cup surrounded by small silver bells and topped by a
rooster that represents Osun. He asked me to shake the cup and
ask for the orisha's protection. Finally he helped me stand up and
touched his cheeks to mine in the Santeria embrace.
" You are now my godchild-my ahijada-and I'm your
padrino," he said with an affectionate smile. "You must come to
see me once in a while, especially on my saint's birthday. And
remember I'll always be here any time you may need help."
The price of the initiation also included the yellow and
green bead necklace belonging to Ortinla and the orisha's beaded
bracelet known as the ide. The bracelet was placed inside a hol-
low, gold circlet to " avoid curious glances," as the babalawo told
me.
164
ELEGGuA AND THE WARRIORS

The most impressive part of the ceremony came when I


asked the babalawo the name of my Eleggua. He scribbled two
words on one of his slips of paper and gave it to me. It read: Eshu
Alabbgwanna. As soon as I read the name, I remembered the
tambor I had once attended with my madrina, where I had come
face to face with Obatala. I could almost hear the orisha's words
as he spoke to my madrina: "Omo-mi, I want you to make a new
eleke for my child, the eleke of Eshu Alabpgwanna, the master of
all roads. He'll see that she's always protected wherever she goes.
I knew for certain that the babalawo who gave me the
Warriors and the omo-Obatala did not know each other. How,
then, could they both agree that Eshu Alabbgwanna was the
name of my Eleggua-especially considering that Eleggua has
twenty-one names?
The ceremony in which a person receives Eleggua and
the Warriors is entirely different from the actual initiation, or
asiento, where Eleggua is crowned on the head of one of his
children. This initiation, one of the most complicated in Santeria,
empowers an individual to officiate in all of Eleggua's rituals and
enter into his mysteries. The extraordinary powers received by an
Eleggua initiate do not compare with those received with the
initiation of the Warriors. That initiation gives the protection and
power of Eleggua and the other three orishas, but it does not give
to the initiate personal power nor the knowledge of Eleggua's
vast mysteries.
The powers of Eleggua are so immense that they take the
yaguo, or initiate, almost by surprise. My madrina once told me
of an initiation she witnessed during which Eleggua was crowned
on an old woman's head. The asiento took place in the woods or
nearby (my madrina was purposely vague about it). Eleggua,
according to tradition, is always saluted by placing one foot
forward and then lifting first the right and then the left elbow.
Sometimes, when the Warriors are also present, the right arm is
extended forward with clenched fist, following with the left arm
in the same position. The person then turns his back on the
orisha, shakes his backside vigorously, and taps his feet hard on
165
ELEGGuA AND THE WARRIORS

the floor. When the orisha possesses one of his children, he


salutes in the same way. And when he dances, he invariably hops
around on one foot.
The woman who was being initiated knew nothing of
Santeria. She bad suddenly been taken ill, and when her son
brought her to a santero for a consultation, the seashells prognos-
ticated death for her unless she was immediately initiated into the
cult. Further investigations with a babalawo revealed that the
woman was a daughter of Eleggua, who was therefore the orisha
to be crowned on her head.
Because of the urgency of the case, the initiation was
celebrated as soon as possible, and there was not much time to
instruct the old woman in any of the orisha's ceremonies. But
suddenly, in the midst of the asiento, the woman became pos-
sessed by Eleggua. She went around saluting all the santeros,
presenting first one elbow then the other, shaking her derriere
with unexpected energy, and vigorously tap-dancing all over the
place. She then picked up the wild tempo of the bata and began
hopping on one foot all over the woods, keeping time with the
drums all the while.
Some of the santeros tried to hold her, afraid that the old
woman's heart might give up under the strain, but Eleggua was
having too much fun to allow any interference. He evaded all the
hands stretched out to get him, howling with glee, tap-danCing
and hopping alternately, and waving both fists in the air. When
he grew bored with the dancing, he proceeded to stuff himself
with the foods prepared for him, and only when he was good and
ready did he allow anyone to touch him. My madrina says that
this asiento took place nearly twenty years ago, but the old
woman initiated-who in time became a celebrated iyalocha-is
still alive and full of energy, in spite of her advanced years.
As Maria told me when I was little, there are twenty-one
Elegguas, each of which walks a different path and answers to a
different name. Some santeros claim that all the Elegguas united
together as one force are known as Eshu. But Eshu known by that
name alone has rather negative connotations, as he is said to be
166
ELEGGuA AND THE WARRIORS

vengeful and bloodthirsty when offended. Santeros who believe


in this aspect of Eleggua equate Eshu with St. Bartholomew,
whose day is celebrated on August 24. But usually Eshu is further
identified with an added name to indicate the path he walks and
where he can be found. Thus Eshu Laroye lives inside houses,
behind closed doors; Eshu Bi lives on street corners; Eshu Aguere
on the hills; and Eshu Kaloya in the marketplace. Eshu Oku Bora
is the master of life and death, while Eshu Alayiki is the patron of
the unexpected. Eshu Ogguanilebbe, Oggun's fearful compan-
ion, causes accidents so that Oggun may drink the blood thus
shed. And Eshu Latieye wins every bet, no matter how high the
odds against him.
Among the twenty-one aspects of the god are some very
old Elegguas: Elufe, the oldest of them all, is extremely serious
and will not tolerate immorality around him. Marimaye, origin
of all the other Elegguas, is said to be evil and is prepared with
mice. Aiiagili, a close friend 6f Orunla, distributes the work
among the other Eleggmis; and Alaleilu, very honored by the
santeros, is one of the most powerful of the Elegguas.
The youngest Eleggua is Barakeiio, who lives in the
woods and causes nothing but confusion wherever he goes.
Another troublesome Eleggua is Aganika, who is always causing
problems with the police, whom he brings along wherever he
roams.
When a person receives Eleggua, he also learns the name
of his personal Eleggua, indicating the path walked by the orisha
in conjunction with the initiate. Because each of the twenty-one
different Elegguas must be taken care of in a different manner, it
is very important to know which aspect of the orisha is harmoni-
ous with an individual's personality so that there will be no
disharmony later on. A mistake in the choice of Elegguas can be
disastrous for the one who receives him.
As the messenger of the gods and the guardian of all the
roads, Eleggua is forever hiding behind the door, listening to
what is going on so he can help those he likes and cause havoc for
167

ELEGGuA AND THE WARRIORS

those he doesn't. Many patakfs illustrate this habit of Eleggua


and how he uses it. In a well-known legend, when Chango ex-
changed the divination system for Orunla's gift of the dance, he
first had to convince Olofi that Oninla would be able to read the
oracle accurately, Not knowing what else to do, Chango
suggested that Olofi design a divination task to determine
whether Orunla had any natural divinatory gifts. Thinking this
was a good idea, Olofi went out to the fields and planted a
handful of dried corn on one patch of ground and a handful of
toasted corn on another. Eleggua, who was hiding as usual, saw
Olofi plant the corn and realized at once what Olofi intended. He
immediately ran to Chango, one _of his closest friends, and told
him what the father of the gods was planning. Chango, deter-
mined to acquire the gift of the dance at all costs, told Orunla. Of
course, when Olofi called Oninla to ask which of the two patches
of ground would produce new corn, the future god of divination
was ready with the proper answer. He told Olofi that the toasted
corn in the left patch would not germinate; therefore only the
right patch would produce new corn at its proper time. Very
impressed with Orunla's "innate" talents of divination, Olofi
immediately authorized Chango to complete the transaction.
Another patak[ illustrates the dangers of not feeding
Eleggua. It seems that at one time the goddesses Yemaya and
Oshtin m;:1de their living by reading the seashells. Eleggua,
whom they employed as a porter, opened the door to all those
who came to the two orishas' house for consultation. In the
beginning, everything went splendidly. Oshun and Yemaya
shared their earnings generously with Eleggua, whom they fed
with the most delicious foods. But after a while, they grew stingy
with their money and forgot to feed Eleggua. The poor orisha sat
by the door day after day, letting people in to consult the two
goddesses, while he languished in rags with a grumbling empty
stomach. Finally, growing closer to starvation, Eleggua decided
that he had had enough. When the next person arrived for con-
sultation, Eleggua told him that Oshtin had moved.
168
ELEGGuA AND THE WARRIORS

"What about Yemaya?" the person insisted.


"Oh, didn't you know?" asked Eleggua with an innocent
smile. "She joined the army."
As new people arrived for consultation with Oshtm and
Yemaya, they were told that the two goddesses had given up
divination to carry on a vast array of unlikely practices such as
deep-sea diving, belly danCing, and paratrooping. Inside their ile
(house), it was now the turn of the two goddesses to languish in
rags, near starvation. When they realized Eleggua was sending
them to the poorhouse, they asked the orisha's forgiveness and
promised they would never forget to share their money and food
with him. Eleggua-who fortunately does not carry a grudge-
happily agreed, and very soon all three orishas were living like
royalty again. This patakf shows why all the orishas allow Eleg-
gua to eat before them, and why the santeros are so careful to
attend to the orisha's needs before anyone else's.
When Eleggua is kept happy and well fed, he can turn a
person's life into a paradise. He will keep problems at bay, and
then he will open all the doors of opportunity so that individual
will be able to achieve his fondest dreams. Although Eleggua
does not control every human endeavor, he is the best friend of all
the other orishas, each of whom controls a different aspect of life.
All Eleggua has to do is intercede with one of the other orishas
and a person's wish will be immediately granted. 50 it is wise to
treat the irrepressible orisha with the proverbial kid gloves to
ensure his continuous support.
There are many ebbos prepared with Eleggua' s help.
Eleggua Laroye-a close friend of the love goddess Oshtm-is
very propitious to lovers, specially those who have been aban-
doned or mistreated. In 1980, an Argentinian friend came to me
in tears, threatening to commit suicide. Her husband of fifteen
years had left her for another woman and was asking for a
divorce. The couple's two children were crushed by the separa-
tion; the younger child, who was only eight and worshiped his
father, refused to eat or go to school. The wife, who had been in
the United States for only a few years and did not speak English
169
ELEGGuA AND THE WARRIORS

fluently, did not know what was going to become of her and the
two children. She asked if I knew of some sort of magic that
would make her husband return home.
I immediately gave her directions to prepare an ebb6
known as the "drunken coconut," for Eleggua Laroye. This ebb6
was given to me by Eleggua himself through the seashells. A dry
coconut is opened, emptied of its milk, and refilled with five
different liquors and five different candies. The name of the
person one wishes to influence is written on a piece of paper and
placed inside the coconut together with some mercury-to make
the person run swiftly in one's direction. The liquor is placed
inside the coconut-symbolizing the person's head-to make the
individual in question "drunk" with love for the one casting the
spell. Likewise, the candies are intended to sweeten the person's
disposition toward the one who loves him.
Once the coconut is prepared, a glass is filled with clear
water and the coconut is placed over it, with the piece that was
removed back on top of the coconut. A white candle is burned
over the coconut for twenty-one days. At the end of this time the
water still remaining in the glass is poured where the person for
whom the spell is intended will step on it. The coconut is then
tied with yellow ribbons and thrown in a river, for both the color
yellow and river waters are attributes of Oshun, the goddess of
love.
This spell is so effective that very often one sees the
results long before the twenty-one days are over. In the case of
my Argentinian friend, her husband was back home fifteen days
after she started the coconut, half dazed and repentant, not fully
aware of what had made him go astray or what brought him back
to his wife.
There are innumerable ebb6s, some of which the san-
teras call paraldos, for every imaginable purpose. Why is Eleggua
so effective in solving human problems? It is, I believe, because
he lives within every human being's consciousness and can
transmit telepathic messages from one person to another. Like
the other orishas, Eleggua is pure psychic energy directed
170
ELEGGuA AND THE WARRIORS

through a specific channel. With the Warriors, he overcomes all


problems because he transmutes negative energy into energy
that is positive and creative. Eleggua is the impulse that makes
life worth living; he is optimism and hope, and every opportunity
that becomes reality is sure to have his will behind it.
13
MAKING
TBESAINT
During the ceremony of the asiento when he "makes the saint,"
the yagu6 " dies" a mystical death and is reborn in Ocha, the
African name for Santerfa. A year later, when the madrina or
padrino gives the yagu6 the libreta, or notebook, where all his
future life is revealed, the yagu6 sees a notation on the libreta's
first page that says, "Today was born in Ocha a child which was
named. . . . " Here is written the yagu6's new African name,
followed by the date of the initiation. The libreta, which must
never be seen by anyone except its owner, lists all the other
orishas which the initiate must also receive, and how he can
protect himself from any dangers or difficulties that may arise.
I am not an iyalocha, since I have never received the
initiation of the asiento. What I know about this ceremony I have
learned from initiated santeros. Some of the information I re-
ceived was purposely vague, as the ceremony is secret and
should never be revealed. But several years ago, one of my closest
friends was initiated as an iyalocha, and she revealed to me most
details of the ceremony, although she still kept some secrets she
dared not speak about.
Were I an initiated santera, I would be breaking an oath of
secrecy to reveal the details of this awesome ceremony, but since I
am not I will be simply repeating what was told to me by someone
171
172
MAKING THE SAINT

who received the initiation. Therefore I will not be breaking any


oaths.
Since I cannot use the real name of the santera who
underwent the initiation, I will call her Laura.
Several weeks before the date of the asiento, Laura went
to her madrina's house and brought the $3,500 she had saved for
the cost of the initiation. Some initiations are more costly, espe-
cially those of Eleggua, which can easily double the cost of Lau-
ra's asiento: but she received the mysteries of Obatala, whose
initiations are among the least expensive, perhaps because it is
one of the most popular. The reason for Obatala's popularity is
that he is the owner of all heads, and when there is doubt as to
who is the true guardian angel of the yaguo, it is always safe to
initiate him into Obatala's mysteries. Also, when a person makes
the saint to recuperate from a serious illness, santeros sometimes
crown Obatala on the person's head, to ensure that he will escape
from death. But a babalawo I know always jokes about the high
incidence of Obatala initiations in Santeria and blames them on
the incompetence of some santeros who do not know or do not
dare to undertake some of the more complicated initiations, such
as those of Eleggua, Chango, and Oya.
Laura remained in her madrina's house until the day of
the asiento, whose African name is karioriocha (ka, to place; ri, on
top; ori, head; Ocha, gods). The day of the asiento was carefully
chosen to make sure Laura would not be haVing her menstrua-
tion, as during this time a woman must abstain from touching
anything pertaining to the orishas, or even approaching the room
where the otanes are kept. The necklaces are not to be worn
during this time, either.
The money Laura gave to her madrina had many uses.
Some of it was used to pay the derechos of the babalawo, oriate,
ayugbona (aSSistant priest or priestess), and the sixteen iyalochas
who attended the ceremony, all of whom had to receive the
sacred stipend demanded by tradition. (Sixteen is a number
sacred to Obatala, other orishas require their own number of
iyalochas or babaochas.) The madrina received $800; the ayugb-
173
MAKING THE SAINT

ana $120; the babalawo $150; the oriate $100; the iyalochas $30
each. Of the rest of the money the madrina spent $450 for the
sacrificial animals; $150 for the various implements and weapons
of the orishas; $300 for food; and $700 for Laura's clothes, includ-
ing the beautiful dress and crown she wore after the asiento.
What was left was spent in other needs, such as the soperas
where the otanes are kept, several dozen white plates, Chango's
batea, the beads for the collares de mazo, and the metal bracelets
of the female orishas.
Among the clothes the madrina bought for Laura were
seven different outfits (skirts, blouses, dresses, no slacks), as the
yaguo has to change clothes every day to preserve the meticulous
cleanliness the orishas demand. The madrina also bought seven
sets of underwear and sleepwear, to be changed at least once
daily, preferably twice; seven pairs of white stockings; seven bed
sheets; seven pillowcases; seven large and seven small towels; a
robe; and a pair of shoes and slippers. All of these clothes were
white, as the yaguo has to dress in this color for a whole year. The
skirts, blouses, dresses, and initiation gown were all sewn by a
santera who specializes in designing and sewing initiation
clothes. (Men buy their clothes ready made.)
Laura is married, but her husband-a strong believer in
Santerfa-did not object to her spending the sixteen days before
the asiento at her madrina's house. He knew Laura had to abstain
from sexual intercourse for at least seventy-two hours before the
initiation, and considered himself lucky that the santeros have
relaxed the ancient rules that used to demand a whole year's
sexual abstinence. Sixteen days is the usual time spent at the
madrina's or padrino's house, or ile-orisha (house of the saints),
because there are sixteen orishas worshiped in Ocha and sixteen
cowrie shells in that divination system. After the initiation is
over, the yagu6 must remain seven more days in the madrina's
house, after which time he or she is allowed to leave. And if
married, as in Laura's case, he or she is then allowed to resume
normal marital relations.
The first of many steps in the asiento is the ebbO de
174
MAKING THE SAINT

entrada-the ebbO of entry. As already discussed, the ebb6 is a


remedy, spell, cleansing, any of a thousand ways in which an
individual propitiates an orisha to help him. In the ebb6 de
entrada, which must be officiated at by the babalawo, the yagu6
asks the oris has' forgiveness for all his past sins and all the
impure acts he has committed in his life.
During Laura's ebb6 de entrada, her madrina and
ayugbona were present with her. The babalawo asked Ortinla
what type of cleansing Laura needed to purify herself from her
past faults so she could receive the karioriocha. The orisha re-
sponded that besides the usual components of the ebb6, such as
coconut, water, Orunla's afoche, smoked fish, possum, and cer-
tain herbs, several chickens and doves were required.
Laura was cleansed in accordance with Orunla's instruc-
tions. The animals were passed ritualistically over her body and
then sacrificed by the babalawo. As they had taken upon them-
selves all of Laura's sins, these animals were not eaten.
After this first ritual cleansing came the second cleansing,
this one with river water. Some santeros insist on bringing the
yagu6 to a river and cleansing her there, but sometimes the river
water is brought in pails to the ile-orisha, where the initiate is
bathed. This procedure was followed in Laura's case, since the
river waters surrounding New York can hardly be considered
suitable for purification. The water for Laura's purification was
therefore brought from upstate New York, but Laura had to go to
the river with her madrina and ayugbona to ask Oshu.n' s blessing
and to deposit on the riverside the ritual offerings to the
goddess-a shrimp stew, Oshun's favorite fruits, and special
honey cakes. Next to the food were left five pennies, as Oshtin's
derecho.
Upon returning to the ile-orisha, the ayugbona and two
other iyalochas took Laura to the bathroom for the purification
bath. The three women tore off Laura' s clothes into shreds, until
she stood naked on the bathroom floor. This action, reminiscent
of the day Marfa tore off my clothes by the seashore, represents
the destruction of the yaguo's links with the past and her willing-
175
MAKING THE SAINT

ness to be born anew. The waters that will cleanse her are a
symbol of the amniotic fluid in which she floated in her mother's
womb before she was born.
Naked, Laura was helped by the iyalochas into the bath-
tub filled with river water. With a brand-new bar of Castile
soap-the only one the santeros accept for ritual cleansing-the
ayugbona scrubbed Laura vigorously from head to foot, chanting
all the time in Yoruba, invoking the orishas to be present at the
cleansing. The soap was wrapped in harsh vegetable fibers that
left Laura's skin tingling. When the bath was finished, Laura was
wrapped in a new white towel, dried, and dressed in new white
clothes. The ayugbona then sat Laura on the toilet seat and
proceeded to comb and braid her hair. At no time during the
bathing, dressing, or grooming was Laura allowed to do any-
thing, since a newborn child is unable to care for itself and must
depend on others for every need.
After she was dressed and her hair was combed, Laura
was brought out into the room where her madrina's canastillero
was kept and asked to sit on the floor on an estera, or straw mat.
The ayugbona then brought her a plate of food and sat by her side
to watch her eat.
That evening, the ayugbona cleansed Laura's head with
coconut. This rogaci6n de cabeza completed her final purification
as a yagu6. The comers, windows, and doors of the ile-orisha
were then ritually sealed. Late in the evening, as Laura sat by
herself on a low stool, her madrina approached her from behind
and, taking her completely by surprise, slipped Obatala's collar
de mazo around her neck. This ceremony, called la prendici6n (the
pinning), is the true beginning of the initiation. The inafa, or collar
de mazo, is a symbol of the orisha's laying claim on the yagu6's
head. La prendici6n is the yagu6's final commitment. Anytime
before the inafa is slipped around his neck, the yagu6 can change
his mind about making the saint and walk out of the ile-orisha.
But the moment the prendici6n is over and the inafa rests upon
his chest, the yagu6 is committed for life to the worship and care
of his orisha. There is no way back.
176

MAKING THE SAINT

Immediately after the prendici6n, Laura was taken to a


sort of cubicle formed in a corner of the room with several white
sheets for walls. She was told to sit on a low stool facing the wall
and warned not to speak unless told to do so. For several hours
she sat in her cubicle, listening to the sounds of the iyalochas as
they got ready for the asiento.
During the time she spent facing the wall, Laura learned
what it is like to be in the clutches of acute paranoia. Very slowly,
a horrible sense of doom began to take hold of her. The most
outrageous fears started to infiltrate her mind. What if these
people were going to kill her in some kind of hideous human
sacrifice? After all, how long had she known her madrina? Three
years was hardly any time at all.
As her fears grew, Laura began thinking of how to escape
from the ile-orisha. She tried to remember the position of the
doors and windows, and began to put together a plan of escape.
Sweat was pouring in rivers down her face and back. She placed
her hand on her chest to feel the hammering of her heart, and her
fingers came to rest lightly upon Obatala's collar de mazo.
The sudden contact with the bead necklace immediately
brought Laura out of her blind panic. Great waves of relief came
rushing down upon her, and her fears receded. Clutching her
necklace with trembling fingers, she began praying to Obatala,
asking his forgiveness for her doubts and his help during the
coming ordeal. The orisha seemed to hear her prayer because a
great sense of peace extended over her and she was able to relax
while she continued her long wait.
Minutes grew into hours and Laura's mind began the
inward voyage that was to take her into inner dimensions that she
never dreamed existed. Her first feeling, one of drowsiness, was
soon replaced by an awareness that she was outside her body
looking at herself and all the activity that was taking place in the
ile-orisha.
While Laura was beginning her long descent into the
depths of her unconscious, the iyalochas were preparing the
omiero, the basis of all the initiations in Santeria.
177
MAKING THE SAINT

The preparation of the omiero is known as "making


Osain," who is the owner of all ewe. All the herbs used in the
omiero are provided by the babalawo, who gets them from a
santero who specializes in the knowledge of herbs and who is
known as a yerbero or Osainista. In Cuba and Puerto Rico, the
yerbero goes to the woods to gather fresh herbs for the omiero,
but in the United States, where some of the required tropical
plants do not grow, the yerbero gets the ewe from selected
botanicas, the religious-goods stores that cater to the needs of the
santeros. Botcinicas import the herbs from the tropiCS and keep
them refrigerated to ensure their freshness.
The babalawo places the herbs in several large baskets
and brings them to the house of the yagu6' s madrina. The
iyalocha receives the ewe at the door of her house in a short
ceremony and gives the babalawo a derecho, usually $5.25. She
brings the ewe inside the igbodu, or sanctuary, where the asiento
will take place, puts them on an estera on the floor, and purifies
them with water and coconut. The babalawo then spits on them
to confer on them his power-ache-which is concentrated in his
saliva.
Seven iyalochas, all dressed in white with handkerchiefs
tied around their heads, barefoot, and wearing their necklaces
and ceremonial bracelets, sit in front of the estera, each holding a
clay vessel painted with the color of her orisha. One of the elders,
who knows by heart which herbs pertain to which orisha, divides
the 101 herbs among the seven iyalochas so that each receive her
orisha's ewe. Kneeling on the estera, each iyalocha receives the
ewe of her saint and intones an invocation to her deity in Yoruba.
When all the ewe has been distributed, the oriate arrives
in the igbodu and begins the chanting that consecrates the herbs
to the orishas. After the ritual prayers to the iku, Olofi, and the
orishas, including Osain, the oriate chants the sixteen sureyes, or
ceremonial invocations to the orishas, starting as usual with
Eleggua. As each sureye ends, the oriate marks the floor with a
vertical line in chalk, and two of the younger iyalochas--who are
not with the traditional seven-pour water over each clay vessel.
178
MAKING THE SAINT

The seven iyalochas in the meantime crush the ewe with


their hands and answer in chorus each of the chants.
When this long and tedious process is completed, each orisha's
otanes, necklaces, corresponding cowrie shells, and implements
are washed in the light-green liquid resulting from the crushing
of the herbs in water. These are the otanes that the yaguo will
receive during the asiento.
During the ritual washing, the stones receive the blessing
of each orisha and are consecrated in their names. Afterward, the
liquid that is left is gathered together in a large vessel. At this
time, holy water, coconut milk, river and seawater, rainwater,
honey, rum, cocoa butter, crushed eggshell (cascarilla), possum,
smoked fish, toasted corn, pepper, and several seeds-enl tuche
and obi kola, which are untranslatable as well as indispensable to
the mixture-are added to the omiero. When all these ingredients
are mixed, one of the iyalochas dips a hot coal into the liquid and
brings it immediately out again, saying that it is "better to drown
than to burn to death." The last two ingredients of the omiero are
some of the blood of the sacrificial animals and the afoche of
Oru.nla.

The light touch of the ayugbona' s hand on her shoulder


brought Laura out of her reverie. As if in a trance, she felt the
ayugbona's hands help her stand up, and then wrap her in a
white sheet. During this second part of the ceremony, known as
the second prendicion, the ayugbona instructed Laura to close her
eyes.
Guided by the ayugbona's hand, she left the cubicle and
was brought to the igbodu' s door. A voice from within told her to
identify herself and asked what she wanted. "Santo," she an-
swered. "Which saint?" the voice asked. "Eleggua," Laura an-
swered. As if she had not spoken, the voice repeated the same
question: "Which saint?" This time, Laura answered "Aganyu."
179
MAKING THE SAINT

The same question was asked a third time, and Laura answered,
"Chango."
On and on went the voice, demanding the names of each
of the orishas to be received in the initiation, and Laura named
them all. The last orisha she mentioned was Obatala, in whose
mysteries she was going to be initiated. Only when Obatala's
name was said did the door open for Laura.
Still with her eyes closed Laura entered into the igbodu
where the iyalochas stripped her of her clothing and carefully
washed her in some of the omiero. All during the washing, the
iyalochas chanted in Yoruba, asking the orishas to bless and
protect Laura and watch over the asiento. By this time, Laura was
in such a dazed state that she was hardly aware of what was going
on around her. She heard the voices and felt the iyalochas' hands
as they washed, dried, and dressed her. But part of her seemed to
be missing, and what was left was slowly sinking within a deep,
dark pool.
Still with closed eyes, Laura was brought to the apot{' or
throne, which is a round low stool shaped like a drum. Only
those orishas who are "kings" and "queens," such as Chango,
Obatala, Oshlin, and Yemaya, may sit on the apotf. All the others
sit on chairs. The apoti is also washed in the omiero. Painted on
the floor on a comer of the igbodu are four concentric circles of
white, red, blue, and yellow. Over the circles, wrapped with
some herbs on a white handkerchief, and covered with a large
malanga leaf, is placed the orisha's derecho. The apotiis placed
over all this.
As soon as Laura sat on the apotf, she was immediately
surrounded by the iyalochas, who, headed by Laura's madrina,
began to cut her hair. As each iyalocha snipped a lock of Laura's
hair, she expressed a wish for Laura's health, happiness, and
general welfare. Through the payment of a derecho, it is possible
to "buy" the yaguo's head from an orisha, thereby avoiding the
total loss of the initiate's hair. But Laura had been very ill im-
mediately before the asiento, and Obatala had demanded the
180
MAKING THE SAINT

sacrifice of her hair. Laura's madrina had advised shaving her


head completely in full accord with tradition.
While the oriate shaved her head, he and the iyalochas
chanted in Yoruba, invoking the orishas in their traditional order.
When Laura's head was completely shaved, the oriate painted on
it six concentric circles in the colors of the four main orishas of
the cult: white for Obatala, red for Chango, yellow for Oshlin,
and blue for Yemaya. On the center of her head the oriate painted
a white circle to symbolize Obatala, Laura's deity. All over the
head, forehead, and temples, each iyalocha painted a dot in the
color of her orisha. On each of Laura's cheeks, the madrina
painted three vertical white lines, to symbolize the yeza, the tribal
marks of the Yorubas.
Then the central part of the asiento, the actual "crown-
ing" of the saint, took place. This ceremony is known as la parada,
the parade, and when it is completed, the yaguo has been in-
itiated in Ocha.
The iyalochas prepared a paste of crushed herbs and
other ingredients-the secret" of the saint-and placed it on top
II

of Laura's head. At this point, eight of the iyalochas-sym-


bolizing Obatala's number-suspended four pieces of cloth in the
colors of the main orishas, white, red, yellow, and blue, over
Laura's head. The various otanes of the orishas, starting with
those pertaining to Eleggua, were then placed on the cloths as a
"crown." All the chants and invocations of each orisha were
intoned by those present. The last otanes to be placed over
Laura's head were those of Obatala.
As the chanting grew, Laura seemed to lose her last
vestiges of consciousness. She felt herself falling forward and
knew no more. Later her madrina told her that she had stood up
from the apoti and walked around the igbodu, completely pos-
sessed by Obatala, whose presence had been so strong that it had
required several santeros to overcome the orisha and talk him
into leaving. The madrina had sacrificed a chicken and fed the
orisha some of its blood. The sacrifice had been followed by a bit
of possum and smoked fish, honey, and some of the omiero.
181

MAKING ruE SAINT

With the head of a blade, a cross was made on Laura's


tongue to ensure that her orisha would have the gift of speech, as
otherwise he would never be able to speak through her. At this
point, Obatala smiled and saluted all those present, thanking
them for all their devotion and hard work.
When the orisha finally left and Laura opened her eyes,
she could not remember anything of what transpired. She was
asked to sit once more on the apotf, and the last part of the
ceremony, the sacrifice of the animals sacred to the orishas, then
took place.
The four-legged animals were all kept outside the ig-
bodu, and brought inside one by one, each with a piece of white
silk embroidered in gold braid draped on its back. While Laura sat
on the apotf during most of the ceremony, she was asked to kneel
each time the babalawo immolated one of the animals.
Before each animal was sacrificed, Laura chewed a few
bits of coconut and some grains of pepper, which were placed on
the animals' eyes, ears, and forehead . She was then instructed to
touch the forehead of the animal three times with her forehead,
breasts, and legs. The sacrificial victim was then tied by the legs
and placed Sideways on the floor over a bed of ritual herbs.
As each animal was sacrificed, its blood was gathered in a
clay vessel while everyone chanted in Yoruba. Later on this blood
was poured into the various vessels where the otanes were rest-
ing in front of the apotf. The head was then cut off and offered to
Laura, who tasted some of the blood and then spat it toward the
ceiling. The babalawo danced a ritual dance with the head on his
hands and then placed it in front of the otanes representing the
orishas. The animal was immediately removed from the igbodu,
legs first like all the dead. Later on, each animal would be ritualis-
tically dismembered and each piece of meat presented to the
orishas before removal for the private consumption of the san-
teros and their families.
The several four-legged animals included in Laura's
asiento were followed by a variety of fowl, such as roosters, hens,
doves, and ducks, among others. The head of each animal was
182
MAKING THE SAINT

offered to Laura, who tasted the blood and repeated the action of
spitting upward. Each part of the animals was carefully named in
Yoruba as they were presented to the orishas, and the chants and
invocations never ceased during the sacrifice.
The ritual sacrifice lasted more than four hours. When it
was finally over, the babalawo, his face streaming with sweat, his
clothes and body splattered with blood, humbly lowered his head
in front of the orishas, and uttered the final words of the sacrifice
and of the asiento, "Eroko ache"-it is done, with your blessing.
But not all asientos end with the orishas' blessings.
Sometimes a mistake is made somewhere in the preparation of
the ceremony. And then terrible things can happen.
Several years ago, one of my madrina's ahijadas, whom I
will call Eva, became impatient because my madrina did not
hurry to initiate her into the cult. She left my madrina' s house and
went to another santero to make the saint. Although my madrina
had told Eva that she was a daughter of Oya, the new santera to
whom she went insisted that Oshtin was Eva's orisha. Without
consulting a babalawo to be sure of the truth, this santera pro-
ceeded to initiate Eva into OshLin's mysteries.
The first sign that something was amiss took place during
the asiento, when the iyalochas tried to cut Eva's hair. Normally
very fine and soft, it suddenly became rough and stiff like wire,
and projected outward like the snakes on Medusa's head. No
matter how hard the iyalochas tried, none of the ritual scissors
would cut through the hair. Eva's eyes, which were supposed to
be closed, suddenly opened and she stared at the terrified iya-
lochas as if her eyes were about to fall from their sockets. Her
body began to convulsve uncontrollably until she fell from the
apoH.
The ayugbona and the other iyalochas, trembling almost
as much as Eva, told her new madrina that they did not dare cut
Eva's hair. It was obvious, they said, that a mistake had been
made in deciding which orisha should be crowned on Eva's head.
She was obviously not OshLin's daughter. In their opinion, it was
foolhardy to go ahead with the initiation as originally planned.
183
MAKING TIlE SAINT

Eva's new madrina, however, was undaunted by the


iyalochas' words, and she quickly dismissed Eva's reaction as
hysterical and melodramatic. Taking the scissors from the ayugb-
ona's hands, she told the frightened women that she alone
would cut Eva's hair and accept Oya's punishment if the initia-
tion went wrong. She firmly seized a handful of Eva's hair and
after many struggles finally managed to cut it off. Standing next
to her was her husband, who was the oriate in charge of over-
seeing the ceremony. No sooner had the scissors cut through the
reluctant hair than the oriate stumbled, clutched his throat, and
fell dead at his wife's feet.
The santera dropped the scissors and knelt by his side to
see what was wrong. Seconds later her screams had turned the
initiation into a nightmare. Oya had extracted her punishment.
This story is only one of many I have heard on the
dangers of making a mistake somewhere during the asiento. For
the orishas, who can be infinitely generous and loving to their
children, can also be terribly unforgiving when offended.
The night of her asiento, Laura slept on the estera at the
feet of the orishas. Her madrina slept on a cot by Laura's side. The
next day, known as el dia del medio, Laura was dressed in her
coronation clothes, a beautiful gown made of white peau de soie
embroidered in tiny pearls, with a wide skirt, fluffy sleeves, and a
high neckline. A wide crown, made of the same materials as her
dress, completely encircled her forehead, covering her shaved
head. Barefoot, she wore the collar de mazo, the necklaces, and
the bracelets, of the orishas: seven silver for Yemaya, five golden
for Oshlin, nine copper for Oya, and a solitary silver one for
Obatala, her orisha. She stood by the apoti, with the soperas with
her otanes by the side of her throne. The walls and ceiling over
her were draped with white lace and silver brocade. There were
white flowers all around her, and she looked breathtakingly
beautiful, like all initiate omo-orishas. For as she stood by her
throne, she was no longer Laura, but Obatala himself in all his
unearthly beauty.
Shortly after twelve noon, her husband, family, friends,
184
MAKING THE SAINT

and all the friends of her madrina came to visit Laura and pay
their respects to her orisha. Her visitors used the estera placed in
front of her throne to prostrate themselves and thus pay foribale
to Obatala. A small basket by the side gathered all the of-
ferings-one dollar each-that people gave to Obatala.
After six in the evening, the last visitor was politely
escorted out of the door, and the doors of the igbodu were again
closed to outsiders. They remained closed for seven days, during
which time Laura ate and slept in the igbodu, leaving it only to go
to the bathroom. Her madrina and ayugbona never left her side,
feeding her by hand, accompanying her to the bathroom, wash-
ing her, and watching her every mood, as if she were a small
child-which was indeed what she was as an initiate in Ocha.
Three days after the asiento, the diloggun took place. All
the santeros got together to read the seashells and determine
what would happen in Laura's future life, which other initiations
she had to undergo, and how she might protect herself against
enemies and other dangers. Her ritual name was also determined
at this time. This extensive information, which the santeros call
the ita, was gathered together in Laura's libreta, which her ma\
drina kept and gave to her a year later, at the end of her
period.
Seven days after the asiento, came the day ofla plaza, the
marketplace. Laura and her madrina went to the market to pur-
chase a large offering of varied fruits for the orishas. On each of
the four street comers outside the marketplace, Laura deposited,
under her madrina's instructions, a few bits of coconut, smoked
fish, possum, com, and three cents, tightly wrapped in a piece of
brown paper. These were Eleggua's derecho, so he would bless
her quest and protect her against all evil.
Inside the marketplace, Laura and her madrina pur-
chased all the fruits that pertained to the orishas. When no one
was looking, Laura stole a pear from a fruit stand; her madrina
had explained that this ritual stealing was part of the initiation
and would bring her luck. The token theft is a symbol of the
185
MAKING THE SAINT

orishas' ownership of all that exists, and their right to take any-
thing they want from the material world. This right, which does
not extend to the santeros, is exercised only once in the santeros'
life, on the day of la plaza.
After Laura and her madrina finished buying the fruit,
they returned to the ile-orisha. They were met at the door by the
ayugbona with the ritual ringing of theagog6, the bells with which
the orishas are called down to earth. Laura and her madrina
placed the fruit in a large basket, and carefully balanced it over
Laura's head. Returning to the igbodu with the basket on her
head, presented the fruit ritualistically to each of the
orishas.
That afternoon, the fruit was divided among all the
iyalochas and babaochas present during the asiento. A rooster
and two coconuts were given to Eleggui!.. Laura paid a small
derecho to her madrina, picked up her otanes, her soperas, her
seashells, and all the implements of her saints, and returned
home to her husband.
But this was not the end of the initiation, only the
beginning. For three months after her return home, Laura was
not allowed to sit at a table or use a knife and fork. She had to eat
her meals sitting on an estera on the floor, using only a spoon. A
vast array of foods were forbidden to her, among them coconut,
corn in any form (which precluded even the drinking of most
sodas), anything colored red such as tomatoes and apples, no
hamburgers or pizzas, beans of any type, and most pastries.
When the three months were over, the "three-month
ebb6" took place, with more ritual cleansing and chantings.
Sometime after this, Laura was presented to the tambor, also
known as the bata, the ritual drums of Santeria, in a beautiful
ceremony for which she dressed in her coronation gown, neck-
laces, crown and bracelets. She presented a deep dish to the bati!.
with two coconuts and two candles and the ritual derecho of
$1.05. She was told to deposit her offering by the bati!. and kiss
each of the three drums while kneeling in front of them. This was
186
MAKING THE SAINT

the last ceremony she would attend in connection with her initia-
tion until the end of the year, when the final ebb6, with its ritual
cleanSing, would take place.
During the course of the year of initiation, Laura could
not wear makeup, curl her hair, or look at herself in a mirror.
During this period she was dressed in meticulous white, her head
modestly covered by a white handkerchief tied African style.
Except during her menstruation, she had to wear her necklaces
and bracelets whenever she went out into the street. Having to
dress constantly in white and wearing her initiation "jewels" did
not bother Laura as much as the attention she received. Every day
someone would stop her in the street and ask her if she was a
nun, a Muslim, or a Moonie. She desperately avoided having to
go into the subway, where everyone in the car stared at her as if
she had horns growing out of her head.
At times she felt the year would never end, but end it
finally did. Her hair was several inches long. She had lost some
weight and felt lighter. Her health had improved considerably,
and when she finally looked at herself in a mirror, she saw that
her eyes sparkled and her skin looked supple and smooth. Never
had she felt or looked better.
At the end of the initiation year, Laura's madrina gave
her the libreta, her coronation clothes, and the hair that had been
cut from her head during the asiento. This hair was to be placed in
her coffin upon her death, and the dress and "jewels" worn for
that final voyage.
Laura has been a santera for three years. She has at-
tended innumerable asientos, tambors, and fiestas de santo.
There is only one ceremony which she has never attended and
would prefer never to attend: the ceremony known as itutu,
celebrated upon the death of a santero.
14
ITUTU-
DEATROPA
SANTERO
Like the asiento, the lugubrious ceremony of the itutu extends for
a whole year. It is divided into three parts. The first of the three
rituals is celebrated on the same day the santero dies, the second
nine days after his death, and the third a year later.
When a santero dies, his family immediately informs
several olochas, who should number at least nine-the number of
Oya, owner of the cemetery. The santeros gather together in the
mortuary chamber where the body lies. Locking all the doors they
proceed with the ritual, which is a form of appeasement to ensure
that the dead person's soul departs and will not remain behind to
hunt the living.
The santeros sit down in a circle. One of them-
preferably an oriate-asks each of the iku's orishas whether they
want to "depart" with the dead person or remain on earth. For
this purpose, all the dead santero's soperas (with the otanes he
received during his asiento) are opened, and each orisha's cowrie
shells are used for the questioning. Eighteen cowrie shells are
allotted to each orisha, except Eleggua, who owns twenty-one.

187
188
!TUTU-DEATH OF A SANTERO

But as usual, only sixteen are used for the reading of each orisha's
wish.
While some choose to remain behind, other orishas opt
to leave with the iku. Immediately after the orishas have "spo-
ken," the oriate breaks the soperas of the orishas who wish to
leave with the dead. A white plate and one of the necklaces of
each of the departing orishas are also broken. The otanes, to-
gether with the orishas' implements and attributes, are either
thrown in a river or buried with the dead santero. If the orisha
decides to stay on earth, the oriate questions him or her until he
determines with whom-among the family, friends, or ahijados
of the dead santero-the orisha wishes to remain. Once the heir
has been established, the orisha's otanes and various attributes
pass immediately into that person's possession, who must purify
them as soon as possible to rid them of the dead santero's influ-
ence.
My madrina had the otanes and the seashells of her own
dead madrina's Oshlin, who chose to remain on earth-pas-
sionately fond of living as she is-in my madrina's house.
"Weren't you a little apprehensive about receiving
them?" I asked her.
"Why should I be?" my madrina answered, looking at
me askance. "Oshlin is my mother, and my madrina loved me.
Besides, I cleansed the otanes and the seashells thoroughly as
soon as I got them. And let me tell you, those shells speak' much
I

better than mine. I use them all the time. After all, they have the
aches of two santeras. They're twice as powerful."
"But they belonged to a dead person, madrina," I in-
sisted, with an inward shiver. "I couldn't use them."
"You and your fears of the dead!" snorted my madrina
contemptuously. "What would you do if someone died and left
you a valuable inheritance? Not touch the money?"
"But that's different, madrina."
"How is it different? Oshlin' s otanes and seashells are a
very valuable inheritance to me because they confer upon me
189
!TUTU-DEATH OF A SANTERO

some of Oshtin's immense powers. And if you don't think that's


valuable, you have a very poor sense of values."
But the otanes and seashells are not the only sacred
objects to be disposed of. The hair cut during the dead santero's
asiento, the scissors and shaving blade that were used, the head
dyes, the four pieces of cloth in the colors of the orishas that were
placed on the santero's head, and the comb used to comb his hair
prior to the asiento, must all leave with the dead.
The santeros dress the corpse in the clothes he wore
during his initiation. The seashells of the departing orishas are
laid upon the corpse's breast encased in a white bag, together
with bits of possum, smoked fish, and a few grains of com. The
hair is placed next to the body in the coffin. The other objects are
placed in a large gourd which has been previously covered with
two pieces of cloth, one white and one black, in the form of a
cross. Within the gourd, all the santeros deposit handfuls of dried
com silk, bits of dried okra, and ashes. Then they all turn their
backs to the gourd and the oriate kills a black chicken which he
puts over the ashes. The gourd with this symbolic ebb6 is placed
next to the coffin. It must enter the cemetery before the body and
must be thrown into the grave so it will come to rest at the head of
the coffin.
Several hours before the burial, all the santeros begin to
chant in Yoruba and dance around the coffin, calling the dead
santero by his initiation name, and all the dead santeros mayores
and other ikus to come and attend the ceremony. The oriate
marks the compass with a beribboned palo. Then the orishas are
called, one by one, starting with Eleggua, to come and cleanse the
body of all impurities.
The orishas arrive at the itutu by taking possession of
their children, and cleanse the dead olocha with colored hand-
kerchiefs which they pass all over the corpse. Some.orishas cry
bitterly in regret that they have lost a beloved and faithful priest,
who will no longer be able to carry on the traditions of the cult.
The goddess Oya, who must precede all the dead to her lonesome
190
ITUTU-DEATH OF A SANTERO

abode, also possesses one of her children and purifies the body
with her eluke, a sort of fan made of feathers.
When the purification ritual is completed, the santeros
who are not possessed place those mounted by their orishas with
their backs against the wall and hit the wall with their fists three
times. This dismisses the orishas, who now leave to accompany
the dead person to his last resting place. The doors of the mor-
tuary room now open, and the coffin is removed. Once in the
street, a small clay vessel is broken behind the funeral car, and
plenty of cold water is thrown by its side so the dead person will
start "refreshed" upon his final journey.
My madrina told me a terrifying story of what took place
during the itutu of a friend of hers, an initiate of Oya, the ceme-
teryowner.
The itutu was almost over. The santeros were beginning
to line the possessed olochas against the walls to dismiss the
orishas. My madrina, who had been staring disconsolately at her
dead friend's face, saw the corpse's eyes open slowly until they
were staring straight at her.
"I nearly fainted/' my madrina told me. "My heart
jumped so hard in my chest I thought it would come out of my
mouth."
"I thought you weren't afraid of the dead, madrina/' I
chafed her lightly.
"I'm not afraid of the dead/' she retorted with an icy
stare, "as long as they stay dead. But when they try to come back
to life-well, that's another story./I
"There are various natural reasons why a corpse may
open its eyes/' I told her, "such as an uncontrolled movement of
the lid mechanism. It has nothing to do with the supernatural."
"Fine and dandy/' said my madrina. "But what is the
natural explanation of the fact that when I turned around to tell
the other santeros what I had seen, I found myself face to face
with the dead santera?"
"What do you mean, 'face to faceT' I asked incredu-
lously.
191
ITUTU-DEATH OF A SANTERO

"I mean she was standing by my side, as clear as day."


My madrina shivered a little and rubbed her arms briskly. "She
was dressed in black, and her eyes had a fixed, vacant stare. I
moved slowly away from her, and she made no move to follow
me. Soundlessly-for I could not have spoken if I had tried-I
shook the arm of the oriate and pointed to the dead santera. I saw
immediately from the look in his eyes that he could also see her.
One by one, all the mamalochas and babaochas in the room
became aware of the presence of the specter. Without a word, we
all formed a circle around the coffin, next to which stood the ghost
of the deceased. We joined hands and began to pray once more,
calling the name of the dead santera, and asking her to recognize
that she was a spirit and that it was time for her to leave the
material world. Very slowly, the ghost began to dematerialize
until only a smoky wreath was left floating over the coffin. After a
while this too disappeared, and we were able to breathe normally
once more."
"What happened afterward?" I asked, still shaken by the
tale.
"Nothing much," said my madrina. "But I dreamed of
her almost every night after the itutu. Only nine days after her
death did the dreams end."
The funeral mass, said in honor of the dead santero nine
days after his death, is known as oro ile Oloft-prayers in the
house of Olofi (the church). After the mass, the santeros meet
once more and "offer coconut" to the dead olocha. During this
second part of the itutu, the santeros ask the spirit ifhe is satisfied
with the rites and purifications, and if there is anything he re-
quires for the total peace of his soul. The dead santero's wishes
are carried out meticulously as soon as possible after the ritual.
A year later, the third and last part of the itutu is carried
out. During this, the most complicated part of the ceremony, a
four-legged animal, usually a pig, is sacrificed to the dead.
Prior to the ceremony, which is called levantamiento del
plato (removing of the plate), all the olochas paint the three yeza of
the Yorubas upon their cheeks so that Oya will spare their lives
192
ITUTU-DEATH OF A SANTERO

and will not take them with her. The derecho of the ikti is placed
by each santero on its basket by the side of a table, and the ritual
begins by covering the table with a white sheet. Upon this im-
provised altar is placed the plate that the deceased used to eat
from. Another plate filled with salt is placed on the table, next to a
large bottle of Florida Water-a staple in SanterIa-two lit can-
dles, and the images of St. Peter (Oggtin) and St. Therese (an
aspect of Oya). On the wall behind the table the santeros hang
another white sheet with a black cross in the center.
During the coconut offering preceding the sacrifice, all
the santeros look away from the pieces of coconut as they fallon
the floor. This is done so that the ikti will not demand the life of an
observer together with the animal sacrifice.
As the babalawo sacrifices the animal offering, all those
present chant in Yoruba, praying to all the dead, starting with the
santeros mayores. Outside the house, one santero acknowledges
each prayer by making a line in chalk on the ritual palo used to call
upon the dead.
As during all animal sacrifices, the head of the dead pig is
separated from its body and placed on a white plate. The head,
together with a gourd filled with the animal's blood, is placed
under the altar where the dead may partake of them.
Around midnight, the tambor begins. Contrary to the
happy atmosphere of the orishas' tambors, a tambor dedicated to
the dead is sad and melancholy. Everyone sings and dances, but
the action is perfunctory. There is no joy in the olochas' voices or
movements. During these somber festivities, the orishas do not
descend to earth, with the exception of Eleggua-who opens all
doors, induding death's door-and Oya, queen of the dead.
Shortly after the beginning of the tambor at the stroke of
midnight, two of the santeros bring some of the ritual food of the
dead to the cemetery. If they cannot enter within, they leave their
offer by one of the cemetery's comers. The food, prepared with
rice and some of the sacrificed animal's meat, is unsalted, as are
all of the iku's foods. The santeros accompany the dead in this
funeral meal, which they call osun.
193
ITUTU-DEATH OF A SANTERO

Before sunrise, the sacrificial animal's head and its blood


are removed and brought either to the cemetery or to the woods.
The tambor continues until early the next morning, when all the
santeros and the members of the deceased's family attend a mass
said in his honor.
When the santeros return from the church, the house
where the tambor took place is ritually cleansed. Some of the food
is thrown around the house and then swept out of doors, so that
"the dead will leave, following the food." The floor is then
scrubbed with special herbs and clear water.
The final act of the itutu, and the one which gives the
ceremony its name, occurs when four san teras clear the altar and
lift the sheet that covers it, placing it folded on the floor with the
plate of the deceased on top. This is the ritualistic "removal" of
the plate, which is then taken to a street corner and shattered into
many pieces. When the plate is broken, so are the last ties the
dead santero had with the material world, and his spirit is finally
free. This ends the itutu.
My madrina always insists that the iku and the orishas
are one and the same force; the difference is that they walk
"different paths." After all, says my madrina, all the saints, with
the exception of the angels, are also ikus because at one time they
all lived upon earth, encased in human flesh. They have simply
severed their ties with the material world and developed God-
given powers.
For some time, my madrina was worried by my obvious
reluctance to "work" with the dead, and my violent dislike of
anything connected with the ikti. Many times she tried to con-
vince me of the importance of developing strong friendly ties
with the dead members of my family, as they could help me solve
many problems. Most important, she feared that my indiffer-
ence might cause them sorrow and confusion that would reflect
back to me in everyday life. After careful consideration, she came
upon what she thought was the perfect solution.
Early one Tuesday morning (according to the santeros
Tuesdays are very magical days), my madrina called to ask me to
194
ITUTU-DEATH OF A SANTERO

come to her house around seven, as she had something impor-


tant to tell me. I was to bring white flowers, a bottle of rum, and
candles.
Something in her voice left me a little uneasy, but I had
already promised to comply with her wishes, and I did not dare to
call her back to cancel. Accordingly, I bought the flowers, the
rum, and the candles, and at a few minutes before seven I was
knocking at her door.
As soon as I entered her house, I knew my misgivings
had been well founded. Her dining table was covered with a
white sheet, and around it were five people, including my ma-
drina. The lights were alllow, and there were flowers and candles
on the table along with the inevitable Florida Water. I imme-
diately recognized all the ominous signs.
"Madrina," I told her as I handed her the items she had
requested. "Why didn't you tell me you were going to have a
seance? You know I don't like calling upon the dead. I think they
should be allowed to rest in peace."
"That's just the pOint," she said. "They can't rest in peace
if you don't help them find the light they need."
Ignoring my objections, she took her place at the head of
the table and told me to sit by her side. My flowers were placed by
themselves on a vase next to me. She lit one of the candles I had
brought and one of those already on the table.
The seance-which the santeros call a misa espiritual, a
spiritual mass-started with a typically lengthy collection of
prayers, which are read from a spiritist devotionary compiled by
the famed French spiritualist Allan Kardec. After the prayers, my
madrina opened the bottle of Florida Water and asperged the
table and all those who were sitting at it. Sitting down once more,
she began to pray to the dead of my family and asked them to
come forward.
As soon as I heard my madrina begin to call on my
personal dead, I became petrified. Although I have nothing but
the deepest affection for the memories of those who have pre-
ceded me, the thought of establishing actual contact with any of
195
ITUTU-DEATH OF A SANTERO

them was to me quite unnatural. If any of them should actually


manifest during the seance, I simply did not know how I would
react.
Sitting silently at my madrina's side, sweat pouring
steadily down my back, I joined my hands over the table in an
unconscious act of prayer. Immediately my madrina told me to
open my hands and lay them flat upon the table.
"If you lock your hands together," she told me in a low
voice, "you will be cutting the energy flow among all of us. Also,
make sure that you keep your feet uncrossed, for the same
reason."
I quietly obeyed her. Across from me, a young santera
whom I knew to be a daughter of Yemaya tensed her body and
began the laborious breathing that precedes a manifestation. My
heart started to beat faster inside my chest. For some wild mo-
ments, I thought of getting up from the table and leaving the
seance. But, knowing that such an action could result in disagree-
able psychic aftereffects, I remained seated by my madrina's side.
The santera's labored breathing grew until she was mak-
ing a hideous rasping sound in her throat, similar to a death
rattle. I leaned over toward my madrina and asked her if I could
get up to get a glass of water. I was not thirsty; I was simply
looking for an excuse to leave the table. But my madrina shook
her head in silence and motioned me to stay put.
One of the other persons at the table was an elderly man
who had been a santero for thirty years. He started interrogating
the daughter of Yemaya, who continued breathing with diffi-
culty.
What was the spirit's problem? he wanted to know. Was
there anything we could do for it, or was there anyone in the
room for whom it had a message? All his questions went unan-
swered. Finally my madrina stood and opened the bottle of rum I
had brought. Taking a large mouthful of the fiery liquid, she
sprayed the face of the possessed santera. The woman trembled
violently and tensed her body even more. Again my madrina
sprayed rum over the santera's face. This time the woman's
196
ITUTU-DEATH OF A SANTERO

reaction was more definite. She stood up clumsily, pushing her


chair backward until it turned over with a loud thud. Quite
unexpectedly, she extended her hands in my direction and said,
"You, give me your hands."
I looked at my madrina helplessly, but she motioned me
to obey the santera. I stood up slowly and extended my hands to
the iyalocha. The woman's eyes, which had been closed, now
opened. They stared at me with hypnotic intenSity. Her hands
closed like a vise around mine, and I immediately felt as if an
electric charge had been passed through my fingers to the top of
my head. I began to tremble violently, my teeth chattering audi-
bly.
"Do you know who I am?" asked the spirit possessing
the santera.
I shook my head in silence, unable to speak.
"I am your great-grandmother Tonia," said the spirit,
still fixing me with her terrible unblinking eyes.
"Was one of your grandmothers named Tonia?" asked
my madrina in a low voice. I nodded, still silent. "Then the
possession is genuine," said my madrina. "Listen to what she
tells you."
The santera's hands continued to press mine until I felt
sure that all the bones in my fingers would be crushed. Her
breathing slowly relaxed as the possession became complete, but
still she made the rasping sound deep within her throat.
"You have heard of me, haven't you?" the spirit insisted.
I nodded. I had often heard my mother reminisce about
her formidable grandmother, who rode bareback like a man and
almost singlehandedly built a sugarcane and tobacco empire.
"Speak to me," ordered the spirit with authority.
"Yes, I have," I said in an almost inaudible voice.
"Good," said the spirit, more kindly. "You never met
me. I died before you were born, but I'm never far from you. I
watch over you all the time and make sure nothing bad hap-
pens to you."
197
lTUTU-DEATH OF A SANTERO

A fine mist seemed to spread over my eyes and my voice


trembled slightly when I answered her: "Thank you."
"I know why you're afraid of the world of the spirit," my
great-grandmother continued. "To you it's the unknown, a
world of shadows and fear. But to us who have crossed the barrier
of light, it is not a shadowy, fearful world. It's a place of great
peace and tranquillity. But only," she added with a sudden
frown, "if we have the understanding to know who we are and
where we are. Many of us do not have such an understanding.
They are confused and frightened and are often not aware that
they are no longer in the material world. That is why candles,
offerings, and prayers are helpful, because they are great sources
of spiritual energy that raises the vibratory levels of the down-
trodden souls, awakening them to their spiritual reality. Don't be
afraid of us! Pray for us and we will grow stronger, and soon we
will be able to share that strength with you."
" I will, " I said softly.
The spirit smiled and her hands softened over mine.
" I want to give you a present," she said suddenly. She
reached out a hand toward the flowers I had brought and picked
out a single white rose. She held the rose in her hand for a few
moments, her entire arm shaking with tension. Then she relaxed
her hold on the rose and extended it to me.
"Keep it always," she said. " It will bring you many
bleSSings. And remember me in your prayers. Remember all of us
who love you. We will wait for you until the day you jOin us, and
then we will all rejoice together."
My great-grandmother was the only spirit that man-
ifested that night. When I left the seance I felt very much at peace.
Upon reaching my house, I placed the rose I had received from
her in vase with water which I put on my desk. It lasted un-
changed for three months. At the end of this time, all the petals
fell off the stem, but they still retained their original freshness and
fragrance. I gathered them lovingly in a small lavender envelope,
which I always carry with me. The petals are now withered, but
198
ITUTU-DEATH OF A SANTERO

the smell of fresh roses can still be perceived when I open the
envelope.
After this experience, I began to pray consistently to the
dead in my family. I still feel a bit edgy when I come in contact
with the dead, but am no longer afraid. I believe what my great-
grandmother told me, that what I fear is the unknown-a natural
inborn human fear.
On Mondays, before turning my attention to Eleggua, I
go into my bathroom and light a candle to all the dead in my
family. I always place a small glass of cool water and some hot
black coffee next to the candle on the floor. And I am no longer
afraid to shake my palo and let my dead know that I still love
them.
15
ACBE-
POWER OF
TBESAINTS
The ache of the saints is the power of the forces of nature. The
Yoruba pantheon is composed of more than six hundred orishas,
each of whom has a dual significance. Each orisha represents a
natural force; but also personifies a human concern. Thus
Chango symbolizes fire and lightning, but also passion, joy, and
victory over enemies. Yemaya is the ocean waters, but also
maternity and womanhood. Eleggua represents all doors and
crossroads, but also hope and opportunity. The orishas, then,
function both in the macrocosm and the microcosm. Their es-
sence is both human and divine.
Of the large Yoruba pantheon, Santeria worships ac-
tively only sixteen: Eleggua, Obatala, OrUnla, Chango, OggUn,
Ochosi, Babalu-Aye, Aganyu, Orisha-Oko, Inle, Osain, Obba,
Yemaya, Oya, OshUn, and the Ibeyi, or heavenly twins.
In many ways, the orishas are a gigantic filing system for
everything that exists. Every stone, bird, flower, tree, and fruit
and all natural phenomena such as rainbows, clouds, and rain are
attributes of one of the orishas. Likewise, every human thought,
action, and enterprise is represented by an orisha.
199
200
ACHE-POWER OF THE SAINTS

When the yagu6 receives the mysteries of his saint, he


also receives the power to control all the things his orisha repre-
sents. Most important, together with the powers of his personal
orisha, the yagu6 receives the powers of Eleggua, Obatala,
Chango, Yemaya, and Oshtin, the five orishas who make the
foundation of Santeria.
With Eleggua, the santero receives the hope of a bright
future full of brilliant opportunities. With Obatala, he receives the
gifts of peace and mental clarity. With Chang6, he receives the
gift of self-realization, control over difficulties and the joy of
living. With Yemaya, he receives the gift of motherhood or the
love of women. With Oshun, he receives the blessings of love, a
happy marriage, and all the money he may need. To complement
these powers, the santeros often receive other vital initiations,
such as that of Babalti-Aye, to ensure good health; Olocun for
riches and power; Orisha-Oko for material prosperity and stabil-
ity; Oggun for business success; and the cofa de OrUnla for
wisdom and protection.
The essence of the orishas is gathered into the otanes and
bonded to them by the blood of the sacrificial animals. From the
beginning of time, every covenant made between God and man
has been ratified with a blood sacrifice. The Old Testament is full
of examples. The sacrificial victim is necessary to prove man's
willing intention to honor the covenant. The blood itself repre-
sents the energy from which all things are created. To offer blood
to the Deity is to make him a gift of pure energy that he can use to
create anew.
The sacrificial blood, candles, and food offerings given to
the orishas, and through them to Olofi (God), are all sources of
undifferentiated energy through which the orishas replenish
their powers. Neither the orishas nor the iku actually "eat" the
blood or the food given to them. What they do is absorb the
energies of these offerings. The burning of a candle acts in a
similar way, because it releases large amounts of energy as the
wax melts. Of these three types of offering, the offering of blood
is the most important and indispensable because the energy that
201
ACHE-POWER OF THE SAINTS

is released is living energy, from which the spiritual world is both


formed and nourished. For this reason, God has always de-
manded a blood sacrifice from man during the ratification of each
covenant. Jesus' death on the cross is an example of the ultimate
sacrifice during which he shed his blood to establish a new
covenant with God.
Perhaps the greatest importance of Santeria as a religious
experience is that it acknowledges the blood of the sacrificial
animal as the orishas'-and therefore God's-divine right, the
"sweet savor unto the Lord" spoken of in the scriptures. To
accept the validity of ceremonial blood sacrifices to God is not the
same as condoning the senseless slaying of an animal by someone
who lacks both the training and the psychOlogical balance that is
received through the proper initiatory rites. The ritual offer of
blood to an orisha is not a wanton bloodletting on the part of the
santeros, but a religious ceremony conducted with utmost grav-
ity and respect.
During the asiento, the powers which the santero re-
ceives from the orishas-and those he acquires during other
initiations-remain latent within him until he develops them
fully. This development grows through his observance of natural
laws and his study of the uses of natural objects in a variety of
ebb6s. Control of the will is also vital, and this is the reason why
so many abstinences are demanded of the yagu6 during the first
year of initiation. Through his humility in accepting all the sac-
rifices required of him, the yagu6 hones his willpower to a fine
edge. It is this will which he must call upon to conduct his
imposing magical feats later on, when he is a full practitioner of
Santeria.
Santeria, an earth religion, worships God and the orishas
in the forces of nature. The santeros do not believe that God is
nature, but rather that nature is a manifestation of God's will.
Like most natural religions, Santeria practices a type of sym-
pathetic magic based on the old law of similarity that "like pro-
duces like." This sympathetic magic has both a positive and a
negative precept. The positive precept tells the magician (in this
202
ACHE-POWER OF THE SAINTS

case the santero) how to achieve something by means of rituals


and ebb6s. The negative precept, under which fall all of magic's
so-called taboos, teaches the magician what he must avoid in
order to ensure his spells' success.
The law of similarity, also called imitative or
homoeopathic magic, states that an effect must resemble its
cause. In imitative magic the magician acts out his final aim in
conducting the ritual or spell. For example, the voodoo practice of
stabbing an effigy with pins to cause pain or death to a victim is a
form of imitative magic. Burning wax images in somebody's
name or writing someone's name on a bar of soap and then
melting the soap in water are other examples of this type of
magic. The magician's idea is that what is happening to the object
will happen to the victim himself. Whether his intent be good or
evil, the magician states his will in the same manner: "In the same
way that this and this is happening here, so will this and this
happen to so-and-so." An example of this imitative magic is a
simple love spell very popular among the santeros. It calls for
writing the lover's name on a piece of paper and wrapping the
paper in many yards of red thread. Just as the desired person's
name is being wrapped in the thread, so will this person become
enraptured with love for the magician.
In Santeria, the basic laws of sympathetic magiC are rein-
forced by the powers of the orishas. Each ebb6 therefore is dedi-
cated to the orisha who controls a particular human reaction.
Many years ago, when I was still married, my husband (who
specialized in painting military miniatures) was having many
difficulties in selling his artwork. The problem was that the sales
manager of the sports store where his miniatures were sold did
not like my husband, and was therefore discouraging collectors
from buying the miniatures. The man's antagonism cost my
husband thousands of dollars in lost revenue, and our financial
situation very soon became untenable.
Although my husband tried to stay away from what he
called "all that magical hullaballoo," he finally asked me if there
was "something" we could do to stop the sales manager from
203
ACHE-POWER OF THE SAINTS

ruining the sale of his figures. I told him I knew Dona Gina, a
santera in the Bronx who was famous for her magical powers, and
that I would make an appointment with her as soon as possible.
Several days later we went to see the iyalocha. Dona
Gina, like Dona Mercedes, was a retired schoolteacher, but while
Dona Mercedes was a blue-eyed blonde, Dona Gina was very
dark and looked very much like Marfa. Since she spoke English
fluently, my husband was able to explain in his own words what
was going on.
Dona Gina read the coconut. "You have a serious prob-
lem," she said. "This man feels great animosity toward you and is
determined to ruin you."
"But why?" asked my husband. "I've never offended
him in any way. Why should he want to destroy me?"
"Some people don't need any reason to hurt others,"
said Dona Gina sententiously. "They just enjoy causing mis-
chief."
"Is there something you can do to help me?" asked my
husband hopefully.
Dona Gina was thoughtful for some time.
"Yes, there is," she said finally, "but there is some
danger involved, as this ebb6 is very powerful. You need
Oshlin's help," she added, nodding her head to emphasize her
words, "because she controls the money that is being taken from
you. I will prepare something for you to get rid of this man. As
soon as I put it in your hands, you must take it to the river and
throw it in with five cents as o shun' s derecho. But be very careful
as you drive to the river, because what I'm going to give you is a
veritable atomic bomb. I wouldn't want you to run into any
trouble. But you run that risk as long as you keep the ebb6 in your
possession."
"We'll be careful," said my husband.
"All right then," said Dona GLTla. "I'll prepare the ebb6
now."
Reaching under her working table, she pulled out a large
basket full of hundreds of powders, oils, roots, and many other
204
ACHE-POWER OF THE SAINTS

magical ingredients. She then asked me to bring her a large lime


from a basket of fruit in her kitchen. Obediently I brought her the
lime.
With a small knife, Dona Gina cut the lime in quarters,
but did not cut all the way through, so that the four pieces still
held together. She wrote the man's name on a piece of paper and
placed it in the center of the line. Over the paper she sprinkled
cigar ashes, pepper, snake powder, gunpowder, and a few grains
of a red dust that she claimed was so volatile she didn't even like
to touch it. She would not tell me its name, although I now
suspect it might have been the reed known as dragon's blood.
After she sprinkled the powders over the man's name,
Dona Gina gathered the four pieces of lime together plaCing fifty
pins in the form of a cross all over the lime. She then put it inside a
wide-necked brown jar, added some black coffee, and asked my
husband to spit inside the bottle three times.
"That's so you will dominate your enemy," she told my
husband. She capped the jar tightly and gave it to him. "Re-
member what I told you," she reminded him. "Drive carefully on
the way to the river, and don't stop anywhere under any cir-
cumstances."
We paid her fifty-five dollars for the spell-an amount
reflecting OshUn's hand in the ebbo. The few,minutes that took
us to drive from Dona Gina's house to the Harlem River seemed
interminable. My husband drove at twenty miles an hour, but I
kept telling him to slow down in order to avoid the possibility of
an accident.
Finally we arrived and threw the bottle within its brown
paper bag into the turbid river. Upon hitting the water, the bottle
produced a sound like a loud explosion. I instinctively moved
back, expecting some of the water to splash me. When I looked
back, the bottle had sunk to the bottom of the riverbed. Feeling
greatly relieved, I asked my husband for the time and he told me
it was two o'clock.
As soon as we returned home, my husband called the
store where his miniatures were sold, and asked to speak with the
205
ACHE-POWER OF THE SAINTS

sales manager. The salesman who answered said that the man
was no longer with the store, as he had just been fired. The
dismissal had occurred right after lunch, around two o'clock.
The new sales manager hired by the store was very
friendly and made every effort to encourage the sales of my
husband's miniatures. This episode not only strengthened my
husband's belief in Santeria but had another pleasant aftermath,
as both of us became very fond of Dona Gina, who remained one
of our closest friends until she died.
There are literally thousands of ebb6s like the one Dona
Gina prepared, which use both natural ingredients and the force
of an orisha. Some, used for the purpose of hurting somebody,
fall under the aegis of "black magic," while others are strictly
"white," or natural, magic for protection, for love, or simply for
healing.
Santeria does not have many negative spells, since
santeros frown upon destructive behavior. But protective ebb6s,
like the one given to us by Dona Gina, are very common. Like the
coiled rattlesnake on the original American flag, the santero tells
his enemies: "Don't tread on me." Those who do invariably
suffer the consequences.
The ancestor worship that is such a vital part of Santeria
has its roots in the belief that the orishas are also ikus, simply
another aspect of the same force. The dead are at the very founda-
tions of Santeria. To propitiate them is to open the doors leading
to the orishas.
To develop and strengthen their relationship with the
dead, some santeros undergo the initiation of palo monte or palo
mayombe. The paleros work exclusively with the dead, never
invoking the orishas unless they have also received the initiation
of Santeria. To be "cut" in Palo confers upon the initiate the title
of mai or pai de prenda (mother or father of the "jewel"). The
prenda, or jewel, is a large cauldron where a few bones stolen from
a grave are kept, together with many other ingredients. As I
described this practice in detail in my first book on Santeria, it is
not necessary that I do so here.
206
ACHE-POWER OF THE SAINTS

Palero is another word for herb expert. Though some


paleros engage in rather negative work, many practitioners of
Palo use their great knowledge of herbal lore and vast powers to
alleviate human suffering. When I first wrote about the palero or
mayombero I was rather negative in my deSCriptions of Palo
practices. Since then I have met many paleros, most of whom use
their knowledge to help mankind, sometimes without monetary
rewards. Because of their great herbal expertise, healing is one of
the paleros' best-known powers. Epilepsy, paralysis, leukemia
and other fonns of cancer are only some of the many illnesses
cured by some paleros of my acquaintance. Because of the herbal
knowledge that is part of the Palo tradition, many physicians are
attracted to the cult. I know at least two doctors in the New York
metropolitan area who are involved in the practice of Palo. One of
them is an initiated palero.
Palo is not descended from the Yorubas, but from the
Congo tribe. Santeros believe that it is wiser to receive the Palo
initiation-if it is wanted-prior to the asiento, since Palo
specializes in the worship of the dead, which go before the
orishas. There are santeros who cut themselves in Palo after the
asiento, but the older olochas consider this practice dangerous for
the initiate's mental stability. "It's like receding," an old
babalawo told me once. "Like going back to kindergarten after
you graduate from high school."
To be cut in Palo is highly descriptive: during the cere-
mony of initiation, the new palero receives certain ritual cuts with
a knife on various parts of his body. The prenda is also known as
an nganga. Some paleros feed it with a few drops of their own
blood once in awhile, but most practitioners of the cult denounce
such practices as very dangerous, because "Once the prenda
learns to drink human blood, it will demand the same sacrifice
each time. It can kill you if you don't obey it."
A palera of my acquaintance told me how often her
prenda speaks to her. lilt whispers in my ear," she told me. " It
can predict everything that's going to happen and warns me in
207
ACHE-POWER OF THE SAINTS

advance of any dangers that I may be facing. It's my very best


friend. I couldn't live without it."
Although some santeros are cut in Palo, most are not.
Like the rivalry between santeros and babalawos, there is no love
lost between paleros and santeros, many of whom denounce the
practice of Palo as necromantic and therefore negative.
When I began writing this book, I considered discussing
the differences and similarities between Santeria and other
African-originated cults such as Haitian voodoo, Trinidad's
Shango, and Brazil's Macumba. But I do not really think it is
necessary. My purpose has not been to write a comparative study
of Santeria, but rather to relate how my personal experiences in
the cult have affected my life.
To many santeros, Santeria is escapism, a life within a
life. The fiestas de santo, the tambors, the initiations, and even
the itutu are spiritual routes they travel to escape the demands of
a materialistic world. In the orishas, they find a spiritual reality
infinitely preferable to their own. But for the vast majority of the
cult's members, Santeria is a collective happening, a way of life.
The truly devoted santeros weave their lives around the orishas.
Nothing exists outside the saints, and their will is law.
During a recent fiesta de santo, I met a daughter of
Yemaya who told me in affectionate tones how her mother had
stopped her from moving several times because the choice of
house did not meet with the orisha's approval.
"How did you know Yemaya didn't want you to move?"
I asked the iyalocha.
"Through the coconut, of course," she told me. "Every
time I found a house I liked, I asked Yemaya if she wanted to live
there, and she always said no. Finally, after many months of
searching, I came upon a place that my Mother liked. We moved
there immediately, and I must say she knew what she was doing.
The house is beautiful, the neighborhood quite pleasant. My
Mother could not have made a better choice."
During the same fiesta, the santero who was celebrating
208
ACHE-POWER OF THE SAINTS

his saint's birthday also had some comments to make about


Yemaya, the darling of the santeros.
"Hoy se puso los monos, Yemaya," he declared, using a
Spanish idiom meaning "Today Yemaya primped herself." He
went on affectionately. "This afternoon, after I finished washing
her in the omiero, she didn't know where to sit inside the sopera.
First she sat on the left, then she sat on the right, then finally
settled for the middle. I bet she's sitting in there now, listening to
me and waiting until we are alone to put me in my place."
The santero was describing the positioning of the otanes
(Yemaya) into the sopera (her seat). After washing the otanes in
the omiero, as is always done during a fiesta, he obviously had
some difficulty in replacing them within the sopera in their
proper order. Because to a santero the otanes are the representa-
tion of an orisha, he saw Yemaya's otanes as the orisha herself, all
flustered prior to attending a party, and not knowing where to
"sit" inside her sopera.
It has not been my intention to make a case for Santerfa.
Obviously, Santerfa is not for everyone. It is for me, and for
people who, like myself, are searching for an identification with
the forces of nature and a deeper understanding of the inner self.
Many systems offer the same knowledge and the same powers,
but few with such a degree of purity and total surrender to the
divine will.
Anthropomorphizing the forces of nature and the vari-
ous elements in a human's emotional makeup has often been
branded as atavistic and ignorant. But it is precisely the personifi-
ca tion of the orishas as dis tinct individuals that makes Santerfa so
useful in what Jung called the individuation process, which is the
perfect harmonizing of the various elements of the deep uncon-
scious within the human psyche.
It does not really matter whether we see Chang6 as an
orisha or as an archetype of the collective unconscious. The
important thing is that he be absorbed and integrated into the
psyche. Once this integration is complete, the psychic energies
that form his essence will be always available for immediate
209
OF THE SAINTS

release whenever needed. The same is true of all the other


orishas.
Many of the experiences that I have had in Santeria and
that I have cited here may seem difficult to believe, but they pale
in comparison with the ones I purposely did not cite-because
they are completely unbelievable! The orishas have given me
love, success, money, protection, and above all, greater self-
understanding and a sense of inner peace. The experiences were
sometimes rewarding; others were terrifying. I was under-
standably happy when a special ebbo to Yemaya and OshUn
made my marriage possible, but I was badly shaken when I asked
Chango to stop a man from hurting my career and the man
dropped dead in the middle of a railway station shortly after-
wards. There is no way one can explain these things; they just
happened.
Of all the teachers that I have had within the cult, the
most influential was Maria. When I was a child, she taught me
that there was an open channel between myself and natural
forces, a channel that made it possible to communicate and iden-
tify with nature. Such a teaching, received from a woman who
did not know how to read or write, can be compared with many
years of psychoanalytic therapy. My many humbling and enrich-
ing experiences in Santeria have taught me how great are my
limitations and also how infinite my possibilities, all possible
through the ache, the power of the saints.
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Glossary
Abiku-a mischievous spirit who possesses a small child and sickens it
until it dies
Ache--power, blessing
Acuelle-blessing
Afoche-a magical powder prepared by the babalawo from the name
root
Aganyu-a Yoruba deity syncretized as St. Christopher, and said to be
Chang6's father
Agog6-the bells used to invoke the orishas
Ahijado-a Spanish word meaning godchild
Ainf.-dirty, unkempt
Aja-water
Akonrin-ceremonial singer and caller of the orishas
Akpetebi-mistress, lover of a male orisha
Alabbgwanna-the Lonely Spirit, said to be Eleggua's mother
Alafia-blessing; also one of Chang6's titles
Alakisa-filthy, smelly
Alegbo-ugly
Aleyo-a nonbeliever or nonpractitioner of Santen'a; someone not in-
itiated into the cult
Alforjas-narrow shoulder bags, attributes of Babalu-Aye
Alogu6-very good

214
215
GLOSSARY

Alogura-strong, power
Aluya-Chang6's fa vorite dance, which he executes while brandishing
a double-bladed ax in each hand
Amala-Chang6's favorite food, prepared with okra and cornmeal
Amarre--a spell cast to secure a lover's affection
Anafre--a tin can filled with live coals that is used as an oven by poor
people in the tropics
Apoti-the throne used by an orisha during the initiation of the asiento
Ara-body
Aranf-happy
Are iku-dead san teras mayores
Ariku baba aw6-blessings, holy father
Ar6n-sickness
Ase-food
Asentar-to initiate someone as a santero
Asiento-the major ceremony of Santena, during which a person is
initiated as a santero
Asona--amen
Aye-one of the five igbo, or elements used in the divination system
known as La Tabla de Ifa
Ayugbona-the santero or santera who assists the madrina or padrino
during the asiento
Babalawo-high priest of Santerza and a son of the orisha OmnIa
Babalu-Aye-orisha who is patron of the sick, syncretized as St.
Lazarus
Babaocha--a male santero
Baba-oro-heavenly father
Bata-the three sacred drums of Santena, called Iya, It6tele, and Ok6n-
kola
Batea-Chang6's wooden bowl, where his otanes and implements are
kept
Bilongo--an evil spell
Bohfo-Puerto Rican hut, with floor of hard-packed earth and roofmade
of in terwoven palm fronds
Botanica-religious-goods store catering to the needs of the san-
teras
216
GLOSSARY

Brazalete de mazo-ritual bracelet received by the santera during the


asiento
Burucu-evil
Cabio Sile-traditional greeting to Chango, also used when the orisha's
name is mentioned
Cambio de cabeza-head exchange, which takes place when an orisha
transfers his or her ownership of an individual's "head" to
another orisha
Camino-path
Canastillero-display case where the santero keeps the soperas with the
orishas' otanes and implements
Candomble-Brazilian version of Santena, also known as Santuario
Caracoles-the seashells used by the santera to divine the future
Cascarilla-powdered eggshell used by the san teras as a purification
element, also known as efUn
ChangO-patron of fire, thunder, and lightning, who brings victory
over enemies and all difficulties; syncretized as St. Barbara
Chekete-drink prepared for the orishas with oranges
Cofa de Orunla-a bracelet sacred to the orisha Orunla, prepared by
the babalawo and given to an individual during a special initia-
tion to acquire the orisha's help and protectien
Collar de mazo-one of several heavy beaded necklaces the santero
wears during the initiation
Collares-necklaces or elekes, the first initiation of Santerfa
Coquitos-coconut half shells, polished to a high mahogany shine and
used for drinking coffee in the tropics
Corojo-a yellow seed used for medicinal purposes
Cosi-to banish, to send away
Cowrie shell-the seashell used by the santero to divine the future
Cundiamor-herb sacred to Babalu-Aye and used to cure diabetes

Derecho-a ritual payment to the orishas


Despojo-a ritual purification
Dia del medio-the day after the initiation, when noninitiates can pay
their respects to the yagu6

217
GLOSSARY

Dilloggtin-the seashell divination system


Ebb6-a magic spell, a ritual cleansing, any of a vast number of rituals
done forpurification or protection or for bringing about a desired
change in an individual's life
Ebb6 de entrada-an ebb6 conducted to purify the initiate prior to the
asiento
Eburegua aim6-extremely dirty, disreputable
Efun-cascarilla, or powdered eggshell
Egg6-the woods
Eleda-an individual's guardian angel
Eleggua-the messenger of the oris has and guardian of the doors;
without him nothing can be accomplished; he is syncretized as
St. Anthony and as the Holy Infant of Prague
Elekes-the ritual necklaces of Santeria
Ellife-one of the five positions of the coconut during the coconut
divination system
Eluke--a fan made of feathers used to cool the orishas when they become
agitated
Eri aworan-one of the five igbo or elements used in the Table of Ifa
EIti tuche-special seed used during the preparation of the asiento
Escoba amarga-plant used in purifying baths and to drive away the
abiku; it is known botanically as Partenium hysterophorus
Eshu-the twenty-one aspects of Eleggua; there are twenty-one Eshus
Estera-straw mat used by the san teras to pay their respects to the
orishas
Ewe-plants, herbs
Ewe ay6-0ne of the five igbo used in the divination system known as La
Tabla de Ifa
Fibu-something bad
Fiesta de santo--a special party in honor of the orishas
Flamboyan-the royal poinciana, Puerto Rico's national tree
Florecita-a Spanish word meaning little flower
Foribale-genuflection made to an orisha or an older santero
Fundamento-the five necklaces or elekes; also the secret ingredients of
any of the initiations
Gaviotas-seagulls
Giiemilere-a party for the orishas or saints
218
GLOSSARY

Guerreros-the Warriors (Eleggua, Oggun, Ochosi, and Osun), one of


the most important initiations of Santena
Hekua-blessings
Ibeyi-heavenly tunns
Ha-another name of Orunla, the owner of La Tabla de Ita
He-the legendary city where the orishas come from in southern Nigeria
He-love
Igbo-the five elements that comprise La Tabla de Ifa
Igbodu-sanctuary where the initiation takes place
Igbon-dead santeros mayores
Iku-all the dead; death
TIe-home
TIe-Olofi-the house of God
TIe-orisha-the house of an orisha, usually meaning a santero's house
Inaia-initiation necklace, or collar de mazo
Inle-patron of medicine, syncretized as St. Raphael
Ire-good luck
Irole-day
Irora-sorrow
Ita-all the predictions made by the babalawo and the santeros for the
initiate, or yagu6, after the asiento
Itagua-one of the positions of the coconut in the coconut divination
system
Italero-a santero who specializes in the reading of the seashells, and
who instructs other san teras in this art
It6tele-one of the sacred drums of Santena
conducted upon the death of an olocha
Iya-mother; also one of the sacred drums of Santena
Iyalocha-santera
Iya-oro-heavenly mother
Jibaro-Puerto Rican peasant
Jicara-a hollow gourd, cut in half and used as a drinking vessel
Jutfa-possum, a magical ingredient of many spells and rituals and a
favorite food of Eleggua
Karioriocha-African name of the asiento
Lalafia-well, happy
219
GLOSSARY

Letra-a message from the coconut or the seashells


Libreta-the notebook where the san teras write down all their secrets
and the details of the asiento
Lonely Spirit-Alabbgwanna, said to be EleggUifs mother
Lucumi-Cuban name for the Yorubas
Macumba-Brazilian version of Santeria
Madrina-godmother, the initiate's teacher and instructor in the mys-
teries of the orishas
Mai de prenda-a palera, a woman initiated into the cult of Palo
Maja-tropical snake
Make the saint-to be initiated as a santero
Mamalocha-a santera
Manigiia-Cuban word for the woods
Manilla-special bracelet sacred to a female orisha
Mascaras-masks worn on the Day of the Innocents in Puerto Rico
Matanza-the ritual sacrifice of the animals during the asiento
Medio asiento-a half initiation usually conducted for an unborn child
over its mother's abdomen
Melao de cana-molasses
Modupue-thank you
Monte-woods
Moyubar-to salute the dead or the orishas, asking for their blessing
Mundele-a white person
Negreros-slave traders
Nganga-the prenda, or cauldron, where the palero keeps his secrets
Noumenon (pI. noumena)-something intangible, unknowable by
the senses but conceivable by reason
Oba Kosso-one of Chang6's titles
Obatala-the father of the orishas, patron of peace and purity, syn-
cretized as Our Lady of Mercy
Obba-Chang6's wife and a patron of the hearth
Obi-the coconut, who at one time was also an orisha but fell from grace
because of his sin of pride
Obi gill gill-dry coconut
Obi kola-one of the seeds used in the preparation of the asiento
Obini-girl, woman, female
220
GLOSSARY

Ocana sode-one of the positions of the coconut in the coconut divina-


tion
Ocha-an orisha, a saint
Ocru-awful
Ochosi-patron of hunters, one of the Warriors, syncretized as St.
Norbert
Ochu-moon
Ochumare-rainbow
Odduaras-flintstones used by Chango in some of his spells
Oddudua-Obatala's wife, given to him by Olofi
Oggun-patron of metals and all working people, syncretized as St.
Peter
Okonkolo-one of the sacred drums, and the base upon which It6tele
and Iya speak to each other
Okuele-the eight medallions joined by a chain that the babalawo uses
to divine the future
Olocha-a santero or santera
Olocun-an aspect of Yemaya, said to live in the ocean depths
Olodumare-God the Creator of the Universe
Olofi-God as humanity's Creator and the source of the orishas
Olorun-another name for God
Omiero-the sacred liquid prepared with a minimum of twenty-one and
a maximum of 101 herbs for any of the major initiations of
Santena
Omo-son
Omo-Chang6-a son of Chango
Omodere-children
Omo-mi-my child
Omo-orisha-the child of an orisha, a santero
Om-honey, an attribute of Oshun
Ordun-any of the patterns of the seashells
Oriate-master of ceremonies and expert reader of the seashells
Orisha-saint, one of the deities of the Yoruba pantheon
Orisha-Oko-patron of agriculture, syncretized as St. Isidro Labrador
Oro-heaven; also drum music played to Olorun-Olofi
Orob6-good luck
221

GLOSSARY

Oror6-bad, evil
Oru-sun
Orun1a-chief diviner of the Yoruba pantheon, known also as Ifa and
Omnmila; the patron of the babalawos
Ortinmila-another name of OmnIa
Osain-owner of the woods and all ewe; he has only one eye, one leg, and
one arm, the result of a battle with OmnIa
Osainista-an herbal expert
Oshtin-the lovely Venus of the Yoruba pantheon, patron of love,
marriage, and gold; she is one of Chang6's favorite akpetebfs and
is syncretized as Our Lady of La Caridad del Cobre, patron saint
of Cuba
Osun-one of the orishas, who is always with Eleggua and warns the
san teras when danger is near
Ostin-funeral meal offered to a dead santero
Ota-one of the five igbo used in the seashell divination
Otci-an enemy
Otanes-the flat, smooth stones that represent the oris has
Otutu-cold
Oya-patron of the cemetery and owner of the flame; she is one of
Chang6's favorites and is syncretized as St. Therese and Our
Lady of La Candelaria
Oyekun-one of the patterns in the coconut divination system
Padrino-godfather, the teacher and instructor of the initiate and the
one who conducts the asiento
Pai de prenda-a palero, a man who has been initiated into the cult of
Palo
Palero-an individual initiated in the mysteries of the cult of Palo
Palo-an African cult based on the beliefs and magical practices of the
tribe of the Bantus, also known as Congos; there are two paths
in Palo, palo monte and palo mayombe
Papa Dios-God the Father
Parada-one of the most important parts of the asiento, when the saint
or orisha is crowned on the head of the initiate
Paraldo-ebbO or spell
Pataki-a legend of the orishas
222
GLOSSARY

Pava-the large straw hat worn by the Puerto Rican jibaro


Pilon-the low stool where the initiate sits during the asiento
Plaza-an offering of fruits and tropical delicacies to an orisha
Prenda-the nganga, or cauldron, where the palero keeps his secrets
Prendicion-the "pinning," a part of the asiento when the collar de
mazo is slipped by surprise around an initiate's neck
Puerta-the "door," the lead cane cutter in a cane-cutting gang
Quinta-luxurious villa of Moorish or Spanish-style, very popular in
the tropics
Rayado--one who has been "cut" in Palo, when the initiate receives the
tribal cuts of the Bantus on certain parts of his body
Rayar-to be "cut" in Palo
Registro-a reading with the seashells, the coconut rinds, or the okuele
Rogacion de cabeza-ritual purification of the individual's head, done
with grated coconut, cascarilla, and cocoa butter, among other
ingredients
Santeria-a Latin-American cult based on the religions and magical
practices of the Yorubas; the word means worship of saints and
aptly describes the cult's practice of worshiping the orishas,
syncretized as Catholic saints
Santero-an initiate and practitioner of Santeria
Santero mayor-an elder among the san teras
Santo-a Yoruban orisha, syncretized as a Catholic saint
Santuario--Brazilian version of Santena
Setf-a tiny fish, native to Puerto Rico, used to prepare a tropical dish
known as empanadas de set{
Sopera-Soup tureen used to house the otanes
Sureye-Ceremonial invocation to orishas
Tabla de Ifa-main divination system of Santena
Talaca-poor
Tambor-drum; also a special party dedicated to an orisha when the bata
are played in that orisha's honor
Toque de santo-a tambor
Unsara-to disappear
Warriors-Eleggua, Oggun, Ochosi, and Osun
Yagu6-the initiate during and after the asiento
223
GLOSSARY

Yemaya-patron of the seas and of motherhood; mother of fourteen of


the most important orishas, including Chango, syncretized as
Our Lady of RegIa
herbal expert
Yeza-tribal marks of the Yoruba
Yoruba-Nigerian tribe whose myths and rites are the basis of Santeria
Index
Abiku, 24-25, 30 Batista, Fulgencio, 108
Afoche, 159, 178 Bhakti,24
Aganyu, 62, 113, 134, 199 Bible, blood sacrifice in, 10:>-5, 200
19, 142, 164 Binary system, 155
AJaleilu, 166 Blood sacrifice, 47-49, 90-100, 138-40, 160-61
AJuya dance, 32 in asiento, 173, 178, 180-82
Amarre, 25 ASPCA and, 101-3
American Journal of Psychiatry, 79 in Bible, 10:>-5, 200
Anagili, l66 in d eath ceremonies, 192-93
Ancestor worship, 92-99, 111-12, 156-57, 205 honey in, 109-10
Set also Seance of large animals, 146
Animal sacrifice, see Blood sacrifice need for,
Archetypes, orishas as, 80, 208 Botanicas, vii, 177
Arecibo (puerto Rico), author's childhood Brazil, Santeria in (Macumba), viii, 107, 2m
in, 1-21, 25-43 Buddhism
Arecibo Ionospheric Laboratory, 58, 64 reincarnation in, 11
Amaz, Desi, 108 75
Asiento, x, 50, 90, 164-65, 171-86
dangers of making mistakes in, 182-83 Canastillero, 49-51, 90, 153
initiates to (yagu6s), 116-21, 14s-49, Candle-burning, 200
173-75,201 Candomble, 107
lifelong reading in (ita), 157 Cascarilla (efUn), 51
Palo and, 206 Castro, Fidel, 106-9
ASPCA (American Society for the Catholic Church
Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), 101-3 author and, 75
Ayugbona, 24 funeral mass in, 191, 193
in asiento, 172-74, 178, 184, 185 Santerla and, 16-17, 20
See also Bible
Babalawos (high priests), 22-24, SO, 84, 192 Cemetery, orisha of, see Oya
in asiento, 172-74, 177, 181-82 Chang6, 13, 20-21, SO, 83, 199
description of, 146-47 as archetype, 81
okuele divination by, 84, 91, 116, 147, asiento of, 172
15:>-57, 163 author's special relationship to, 32-34,
person's orisha determined by, 22-23, 76-78, 85-87, 114-15, 154, 209
146, 152 batea of, 89-91, 113
Warriors given by, 147, 149-57, 159-64 dance of, 31- 32, 123, 130, 151, 167
Babalu (Babalu-Aye), 62, 90, 108, 112, 199 feast of, 112-24
tambor to, 124-43 gifts of, 200
Babylonians, 22 Ha's table exchanged by, 151

224
225
INDEX
Chang6 (amtinutd) Eleda, 49
mistresses of, 20, 61-62, 63-64, 94 Eleggua, 18-20, 62, 83, 129, l84, 192,
rain and, 35, 76-78 199
as St. Barbara, ix, 15-17, 112-13 asiento of, 172
in tambor, 25, 27-34 Castro and, 108, 109
Chicas, Otto, vii-viii dance of, 130, 165
Cigars day of, 158
cleansing by, 136 different aspects of, 19, 150, 164-66
energy from, 106 feeding of, 19, 47-49, 88-100, 159, 167-68
in honoring Eleggua, 159 gifts of, 200
in palo ceremony, 98 initiation of, 38-39, 89, 147, 149-57, 159-64
Circumcision, 104 nature of, 164-70
Oeansing, 138-40 prayers to, 39-40,
for asiento, 174-75, 179, 185-86 Elekes, see Necklaces
by cigar, 136 Elufe, 166
after death ceremony, 193 Eshu, 16!Hi6
Coconut Alabbgwanna, 142, 164
cures with, 39, 49, 168-69 Oggiianilebbe, 63, 166
divination with, 37-49, 121, 207 Ewe, 18, 21, 177-78
COincidence, 87-88
Collares (necklaces; elekes), 49, 82-83, Fees (derechos), 126
142-43,163 for asiento, 172-73
de mazo, 118, 153, 175-76 for babalawo, 153, 163, 173, 177
Collective unconscious, 80, 208 for Dona Gina's ebb6, 204
Computer, okuele compared to, 155 at tambor, 126-30
Congo tribe, 206 Fire
Cowrie shells (caracoles), 43, 83-84, 85-86, on Chang6's day, 124
152, 184, 187-88 control of, 34, 81
Cuba forest, 94
Puerto Rico and, 128 Florida Water, 192, 194
Santeria in, 107-9 Food
Cundiamor, 125 Chang6' s, 33-34, 113
for dead, 111, 112, 192
Dances Eleggua's, 19, 47-49, 88-100, 159, 167-68
Babal\i's, 127, 130, 131, 133-34 healing nature of, 131-32
Chango's, 31-32, 123, 130, 151, 167 at Maria's house, 54-56
of possessed, 31-32, 122-23, 132-34 Obatala's, 141
of various orishas, 130, 165 Osain's, 95-96
Day of the innocents, 17 Oshlin's, 174
Dead, the, set Ancestor worship; Death at tambor, 126-27, 131-32
ceremonies; Seance Foribale, 29-30, SO, 117, 122
Dean, Stanley, 79 Free will, 87-88
Death ceremonies, 187-93 Fundamento, x
Derechos, see Fees
Divination God, see 010.6.
coconut-shell 37-49, 121, 207
cowrie-shell, 43, 83-84, 85-86, 152, 184, Haiti,207
187-88 Herb medicine, 206
okuele, 84, 91, 116, 147, 153-57, 163 Sua/so Ewe
Table of lfa, 23, 151 High priests, su Babalawos
Drums (bata), 28-29, 90, 113, 127, 129, 132, Holy Infant of Prague, 19
185-86 Homoeopathic magie, 202
Honey, 62-63, 64, 98-99
Ebb6s, 168-69, 173-74, 185-86, 202-5, 209 blood and., 109-10
226
INDEX

Human sacrifice, Santeria suspected of, Obba, 199


101-2 Obi, 37-39
Hume, David, 70-71, 73 Ocha, 171, ISO
Ochosi, 20, 62, 163, 199
Ibeyi, l99 Oddudlia, 15
lia, Table of, 23, 151 Ogglin, 19-20, 58, 62-63, 130, 163, 166, 192,
lie (Nigeria), 12, 63 199, 200
Ikli, see Ancestor worship; Death possession by, 134, 135, 141-42
ceremonies; Seance Okueh?, 84, 91, 116, 147, 153--57, 163
Imitative magic, 202 Olocun, 57, 91, 157, 200
Individuation process, 208 Olofi (Olorlin-Olofi; Olodumare), 22, 51,129
Inle, 62, 199 as God, 14, 87, 159, 200, 201
Ita, 157 hills sacred to, 95
Itutu, 187-93 stories of, 15, 18, 37-38, 57, 62
Omiero, 23, 160, V6-79
Jung, Carl Gustav, 49, SO, 208 Oriate, 24, 147, 149-51. 161, 187
in asiento, 172, 173, 177-78
Kabbalah, 78 Orisha-Oko, 66, 199, 200
Kant, Immanuel, 71-73, 75 Orishas, see Saints
Kardec, Allan, 194 Onlla, 62
Koch, Edward, viii OninIa (OrUnmila; Ha), 58, 83, 94, 167, 199
Krishna,24 afoche of, 159, V8
babalawo and, 23, SO, 116, 146, 151
Libreta Gournal), 41, 171, 184 cofa de, 146, 157, 200
Loiza Aldea (Puerto Rico), 86 Osain, 59, 93--95, 159, 177, 199
Love, Oshlin as, 61, 168-69 Oshlin, 44, 56, 83, 99, 113,148, 167-68,
Lucumf, viii, 86, 107 188-89, 199, 203, 209
author' s special relationship with, 34,
Machado, Professor, 70-75 114-15
Macumba, viii, 107, 207 in canastillero, 49
Magic Chan g6 and, 20, 61-64
"black," 205 dance of, 130-31
sympathetic, 201-5 food of, 174
Marfa (nanny), 1-21, 25-43, 53--68, 209 gifts of, 200
Marimaye, 166 as patron saint of Cuba, 107
Mask of Olocun, 57, 91 rain and, 35, 36
Matanza, 146 stories of, 59-64
Mead, Margaret, viii Osun, 20, 91-92
Medio asiento, 23 Otanes, 23, 44, 49, SO, 162, 178, 180, 208
Menstruation, 172, 186 of dead, 187
Mirrors, not looking into, 27-28, 120, 124-25, Our Lady of La Candelaria, 137
186 Our Lady of La Caridad del Cobre, 107, 112
Misa espiritual (seance), 193--98 Our Lady of Mercy, 112
Moyubar, 40, 51, 98 Our Lady of RegIa, 112
Oya, SO, 62, 94, 113, 148, 199
Necklaces, see Collares asiento of, 172
Nietzsche, Friedrich, 80 dance of, 130
in death ceremonies, 187, 189-92
Oba, 20, 62 possession by, 134, 136-37
Obatala, 15, 49, 52, 62, 83, 86, 112, 113, 199
asiento of, 172-86
bracelets of, 148-49, 183 Paleros, 205-7
gifts of, 200 Palo Monte (palo mayombe), 205-6
possession by, 134-35, 140-45, 164 Palos, 92-99, 157, 159, 198
227
INDEX

Panatela, 113 Santeria (continued)


Pancho Mora, 161 as way of life, 207
Papa Dias, see Olofi Santero
Possession babalawo not a, 146
by orishas, 31-32, 122-23, 132-45, 165, categories of, 23-24
18G-81, 189-91 clothing of, 116
in seance, 196-97 death ceremonies for, 187-93
Prostitutes, Oshlin and, 61 initiation in womb of, 23
Psychic phenomena, 78-79 journal of, 41, 171, 184
Puente, Tito, 114 last initiation of, see Asiento
Puerto Rico powers of, 121. 147, 161
author's childhood and youth in, 1-21, Santuario, 107
25-43, 64-66 Schopenhauer, Arthur, 71,
Cuba and, 128 Sea (ocean), Yemaya and,
slavery abolished in, 1271 Seance, 193-98
University of, 54, 68-78 Seashells, see Cowrie shells
Setf (fish), 58
Rain, bringing and stopping, 34-36, 76-78, Sexual abstinence of yagu6, 173
81 Shango, 207
Registro, ix, 43-49 Shaving of head, 179-80
Reincarnation, 10-11, 17, 100 Slavery, 12, 82
Rivers, Oshlin's ownership of, 35 Sonora Matancera orchestra, 114
Rogad6n de cabeza, 49-53, 175 Sopera, 44, 49-51, 113, 187-88, 208
Rum, spraying of, 95, 98, 159, 195 Spain, author in, 66-67
Spells, see Ebb6s
St. Anthony of Padua, 19 Spinoza, Baruch, 75
St. Barbara, ix, 112-13 Stealing, ritual, 184-85
St. Bartholomew, 166 Sympathetic magie, 201-2
St. Frands of Assisi, 116 Synchronidty, 49,88
St. Isidro Labrador, 66
St. Lazarus, 90, 1l2, 124-25 Tarnbors, 2>-34, 124-43, 185
St. Peter, 20, 192 cost of, 128
St. Therese, 192 for death, 192-93
Saints (orishas), ix, 13-21, 56 Trinidad, 207
ache of, 199-209
bells for calling, 185 Voodoo, 202, 207
collective unconsdous and, SO, 208
disguises of, 16-17 Walters, Barbara, 106
fear and respect for, 44 Warriors, the, 20
feasts of, 112 initiation of, 38-39, 89, 147, 149-57, 159-64
number of, 199 Winds, orisha of, 137
numbers of, 40, 60, 172, 180, 187 Women, initiation of, 120, 172, 186
possession by, 31-32, 122-23, 132-45, 165,
180-81, 189-91 Yagu6, see Asiento
as preordained guides of individuals, 22, Yemaya, 15, 50, 56, 83, 113, 148, 167-68, 199,
23 207-8
prindpal, 50, 146 author's dedication to, >-9, 11-12
Santeria dance of, 130
author's first initiation into, gifts of, 200
foundation saints of, 146 Oya's quarrel with, 62
origin of, viii-ix, 20 possession by, 134-36
purpose of, 53 rain and, 35, 36
secrecy in, x, 82-83, 147-49, 171 seven paths of, 57-58
three elements of, 111 as Virgin Mary, 12
228
INDEX

Yoga, Bhakti, 24 Yoruba people, viii-ix, 12


Yoruba (language), 29-30, 39-40, %, 129, cheek marks of, 91, ISO, 191
154,158-59 modem, 82

Zen Buddhism, 5-6, 75