The Orishas are deities that inhabit the Yoruba pantheon of the magical Santeria religion or the Ocha Rule in Cuba. They are deities who fall in love, are envious of each other, fight, know the secrets of the forest, control the elements of nature but possess as many imperfections as a normal human being.
Santeria is the most popular religion of African origin being practised in Cuba and was brought here by Nigerian slaves of the Yoruba tribe.
Any observant person on the streets of Cuba has seen, at least once in his life, objects near a tree or even openly on a street corner. Bananas tied with a red ribbon, coconuts, eggs, fruit and other objects that seem out of place on the urban landscape - they are the Ebbo. Most curious people stop to look while others prefer to cross the street, just in case. Santeria believers have placed these offerings to solve their personal or health related problems.
As a sociological and cultural phenomenon, Santeria has many interesting elements. Its beautiful Patakines fables about the creation of the Orishas and the reasons for their behaviour are a marvellous legacy. Passed down in an oral tradition, it has survived time, colonial dominion and its enemies. Iyyabós, or initiates in the religion, dressed all in white and wearing bright and colourful necklaces and bracelets, walk among us in our everyday lives.
Experts explain that Santeria is a result of the relationship between two cultures and two religions: the Catholic and the African. To practice and protect their religion, the slaves brought from Africa during the Spanish colonization of Cuba had to camouflage their beliefs with those of the dominant class.
The encounter with, and influence of, this Spanish culture led people to look for similarities in the stories of the Catholic saints to allow them to worship their own deities through them.
Either by similarities in garments or in legends, those divinities were combined. For example, fa Virgen de fa Caridad (the Virgin of Charity), patron saint of Cuba for Catholics, is Ochun in Santeria. La Virgen de fa Caridad is a mulatta with a golden yellow dress and is associated with sensuality in Cuba. In Santeria, she represents the saint who conquers with her beauty and her symbolic colour is yellow.
Meanwhile, Santa Barbara has a sword in her hand and is linked to thunder and is dressed in red and white. Slaves adored him in front of their colonial masters but secretly, they were paying tribute to Chango, the Orisha warrior dressed in red and white, who carries an axe and is the master of lightning.
All that transcultural richness, as it was called by the Cuban ethnologist and anthropologist Fernando Ortiz, goes beyond religion and is also part of the national culture finding expression in song and dance.
A MAGICAL WORLD Santeria has 401 Orishas but according to the president of Cuba's Yoruba Association, Antonio Castaneda, only about 50 of them are commonly known in Cuba.
It has a system of divination, Ifa, in which everything is consulted before making a decision or ordering Santeria believers to do something.
Orula, the Orisha who has the power of divination, is the guru of men and their futures and is the interpreter of the !fa oracle. Natalia Bolivar in her book, Cuba: Images and Stories of a Magical World, states that it is Orula who speaks to his devotees through a medium called a Babalawo, the highest priest in this religion.
There are also the Santeros, or clerics, with the men referred to as Babalocha and the women Iyalocha. They rank below the Babalawo and consult with conch shells.
The Iyyabós, children of the saints, are those who have held a ceremony that according to the divine mandate, an Orisha will rule over them. They must carry out a series of rituals and habits for the rest of their lives. Each year, they must have a party to honour their main saint.
There are many fascinating aspects of Santeria which continue to coexist with modem reality. A visit to Cuba will be enriched by a brush with this unique and ancient religion.