Santeria: the way of the saints

Wednesday, February 17, 2021 - 9:38pm

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Courtesy of Kate Derringer
 

By the ocean is where I found my Holy. It is where I return to be washed anew— the sand grains suspended in salt water exfoliate my skin; a shedding of the self to make room for another layer where the sun can reach me. In the parts of the Caribbean I've been able to explore, I found the ocean means more than just water.

Yemaya assessu; assessu Yemaya 

Yemaya olodo; olodo Yemaya 

Kai kai kai Yemaya olodo, Kai kai kai assessu Olodo 

Yemaja is the Gush of Spring 

The gush of spring is yemaja 

The mother of the children of Fishes is the Owner of Rivers

The owner of Rivers of the Children of Fishes 

The moon connects to the Earth's gravitational pull by forcing the rise and fall of tides. Every time the ocean meets a continent, energy is lost. Thus the moon, with the help of oceans, quite literally slows down the Earth's orbit. Transfixed in a gravitational dance, an ebb and flow of energy, the synchronicity evokes a mysticism unparalleled, a strength guided by light.

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Courtesy of Kate Derringer

The first time I felt Yemaja’s magic was in Havana, Cuba. This day the water was silent. Calmly, rain met the serenity of still water, and quiet waves lapped on the shore in ribbons. We sang her song and laughed together as she kept us warm and safe in her waters. Any other day her waves were tumultuous and dangerous. There was a peace that washed over me and made the world seem to come together. This day we played and sang — adults like kids in her bliss. 

I first learned I was a witch (aside from being called one by my Abuela when my hair was messy) when I heard Princess Nokia's song Brujas. 

She opens by saying: 

“I’m that Black a-Rican bruja straight out from the Yoruba

And my people come from Africa diaspora, Cuba

And you mix that Arawak, that original people

I'm that Black Native American, I vanquish all evil

I'm that Black a-Rican bruja straight out from the Yoruba

And my ancestors Nigerian, my grandmas was brujas”

It was the first time I heard the word Cuba in a song, and it immediately had my attention. The way she sings about magic with a boss-you-up twist. I felt my identity being spoken to me and represented in such a way that liberated me from the shackles of Christianity I had been raised with. The moments in the water singing Princess Nokia’s song solidified the connection unlike anything before. The moments when I learned Yemaja’s protection would be my salvation, mankind's salvation, but it could just as easily be our demise. In a lot of ways, that is what Santeria is: “The way of the saints.” It's a balance of light and darkness you must pour your energy and resources into mastering: a lifelong pursuit.

The Sun set over the melicon where my hips matched with my beating heart beneath the moonlight. 

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It was my last night in Havana, my last night in the streets I began to call home. My eldest brother Maikel called me and told me he would be picking me up for an evening dinner by the water. He was always eager to see me and show me the way of my ancestors, the practices of the island and the ways of the streets my father had been born and raised on. I felt safest at night walking the street beside him. He met me with kisses on each cheek and two small gifts. Between loud and fluid Spanish explanations of his love for me, he handed me two beaded necklaces. One, a string of clear and deep blue beads, representing Yemaya; the other, pearl white that stood alone in might, representing Obatala, “the sky father.” These may seem like plastic adornments to some, but on my island they represent the love, presence and protection of Orishas, deities that originate from ancient Yoruba practices, an ethnic group native to the Ivory Coast of Africa. The original source of humankind. 

There are four hundred Orishas (orichá in Cuban practice and orixá in Brazilian practice), but only about 20 of them are practiced in Cuba. Orishas are spirits and vessels of God, each representing a natural element or entity. One or more is assigned to each person. They are sent by the omnipotent Oludumare, a manifestation of God, to guide humanity on successfully living on earth. They are living spirits that were once alive that come back to live through humans. In Cuba, I was told they live in your head and heart, and I watched ceremonies in which they come to take on the entirety of the body of the practitioner. They are like godparents that actually live through you, forming a relationship with your entirety. Orishas also usually have similar qualities or characteristics to their inhabitants. For example, being a potential daughter of Yemaya, I have an innate nourishing ability whereas mi Abuela, una hija de Chongo — meaning a daughter of Chongo, the Orisha of thunder — was known to be notoriously strong-willed. On the other hand, my father was un hijo de Elleguá, a trickster, the Orisha of chance and uncertainty— he was known for being funny and having a balance of good and evil. 

Being Caribbean holds manifold identities, but when I was handed the beads of Yemaya, the mother of the sea and all living things, and Obatala, the father of all Orishas, I was given new meaning. I was given their power and their love, and though the pieces were not consecrated, they further opened the gate into a new world of magic, herbalism and divine supreme light which I had only ever associated with demonic witchcraft, as it was told to me in church. To many, this religion is very scary; you are in fact dealing with extremely powerful gods, spirits who offer divine guidance, but who also require maintenance and devotion. 

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When I was in Brazil, the school I worked at also functioned as a partial safe haven for Candomble, the Brazilian equivalent to Santeria. Most of the people running the school, along with the students, were practitioners. It was interesting to watch as the people's personalities and characteristics so closely resembled that of their Orisha(s). The woman running the school was actually a high priestess who, if her Orishas told her to, would give you guidance as told to her by your Orishas. I talked to the practitioners — each with the same adoration you have for family. We shared roots deeper than blood. 

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Courtesy of Ana María Sánchez-Castillo

Though I have not been initiated, in my particular practice, I begin by asking for freshness and for the path to the Orisha to be freshened. I ask for my home to be freshened. I ask to freshen Elleguá (the guardian of all entrances and owner of all journeys and paths, one of the strongest warriors) on his path to Eshu Laroye (believed to be the companion of Oshún, the popular deity of femininity, divinity, fertility, beauty and love, one of the most important Eshus). I give homage to Oludumare who exists in heaven and close to earth — the one who owns the day, the one who encompasses the entire cosmos — in Santeria you’re part of the Universe in a literal way! I greet Oludumare and Olorun who is the keeper and protector of the earth, the owner of all spirits. I tell Oludumare that I give homage to all the ancestors that lie at her feet and I praise her creative forces and those that have sacrificed their lives for the continuity of life. I pay homage to the sunrise and set. I pay homage to all of eternity. I pay homage to the moon and the sun. Finally, I pay my respects to all expressing gratitude and my infinite devotion to my ancestors and the Orishas that shape my life. In this way, I hold the power to my destiny. I embody the boldness and divinity of all of my Orishas and ancestors.

 

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