A Structuralist Analysis of
Puerto Rican Santería
Among the many religious phenomena that have come to the attention of anthropologists is the syncretism of African and Catholic belief systems in the Caribbean. Puerto Rican Santería is one of such syncretist belief systems "whose external manifestations is the parallelism created between the diverse images drawn from the Catholic cult and the representational deities of an African group...known to ethnologists as the Yoruba." (Dalmau, 1978: 6) Those wishing to study of these phenomena are faced with the existence of a wide array of arguments and methodologies. In this essay I will present some of the methodologies that have been used by anthropologists who have researched Puerto Rican Santería. The essay also provides the reader with a brief introduction to some of the elements and concepts of this religion.
Anthropology and the Study of Religious Phenomena
Functionalism, Social Disorganization and the Theory of Deprivation
Functionalism, for example, is a school of thought which purports that there must be an inherent cause-effect relationship between the parts and the whole, between the economic base, social structure and ideological superstructure, and thus between religion and society as "two aspects of the same unitary whole." (Leach, Lessa and Vogt, eds., 1965: 575) It is also a framework that has been used to develop some of the theories that seek to explain this phenomenon. The Theory of Social Disorganization and the Theory of Deprivation are two examples of this type of approach.
The Theory of Social Disorganization defines Puerto Rican Santería and other related phenomena as 'crisis cults' or as "new projective systems resulting from culture shock and the strains of acculturation." (LaBarre, 1971: 3) It explains these cults as existing mainly in "traditional societies, in exceptionally unstable societies or as deviant pathological behavior in the context of modern industrial mass society." (Bourgoignon; Zaretsky, ed., 1974: 243)
Alan Harwood, an anthropologist who has studied Santería, utilizes a methodology that is based on the Theory of Deprivation. In his book, Rx:Spiritist as Needed, Harwood defines Santería as a cult that is part of a sub-culture within a general culture framework. (Harwood, 1976: 36) As a cult, it serves the function of self-identification from the part of its adherents to a certain set of values which are actualized through rituals. In the ritual, the medium is seen as the tour de force because s/he plays the role of activating the chain of events through which both believer and cult are manifested. All of these in turn are defined within the role which they may play in a social context at large.
Harwood's definition of cult, presupposes self-identification within a social framework that is labeled a sub-culture because it fails to fulfill the function of providing a complete world-view that would equip people with beliefs and values to help them to "earn a living or vote at the polls..." (Harwood, 1976: 36) Harwood thus correlates religious fervor and socio-economic conditions with a rationale that views every representative aspect of culture as having a social value. Yet it has been proven that religion and socio-economics do not necessarily go hand in hand. The anthropologist Bryan Wilson, for example, found that his "Pentecostal groups becoming disturbingly middle class and was forced to conclude that the relationship between socio-economic circumstances and modes of religious expression no longer holds." (Hine; Zaretsky, ed., 1974: 649)
Although the fieldwork resulting from these studies is of relevance, I believe that the aforementioned approaches are inconclusive. They also fail to give more than a superficial account about a phenomenon like Santería. This is because, from a methodological point of view, they begin by establishing a series of categories that reduce social reality to yet another set of categories. (We all know that a graveyard a million of years old is the study of archeology and not city planning.) Categories are not intrinsic to the phenomenon being studied. They should be recognized as research tools that serve the sole purpose of drawing methodological boundaries.
Structuralism as an Alternative Methodology
The structuralist point of view refers to religious phenomena as a human activity and attempts to analyze it "according to the different structures which they produce." (Douglas; Leach, ed., 1967: 49) Social life, is seen as a matter of interaction between persons. In this approach, three basic structures that delineate information transfer among people of all societies are defined. These are kinship, or the rules for the transference of people within geographical boundaries, economy, or the "structure underlying transfer of goods and services" (Douglas; Leach, ed., 1967: 50) and language, or the transfer of knowledge.
Rather than abstracting from the data, a structural approach uses comparison between elements in categories, to render proximity. Since it also attempts to retain the richness in texture that is so characteristic of religion, it maintains that the constituent units "have no meaning by themselves, they acquire it only because of the way in which they are combined." (Douglas, Leach, ed., 1967: 50)
Whereas the functionalist approach would view Santería as an almost conscious rejection of native or indigenous culture -- it renders it as non-adaptive and advocates that "anything not African has be white, and whatever does not derive from ancestral tradition is assumed to be borrowed from the Master Race" (Bastide, 1971: 208) -- a structuralist point of view takes into account the "part played by adaptation, the influence which economic infrastructures can have, and indeed the whole basic process by which civilizations are formed." (Bastide, 1971: 208)
In addition, the structuralist approach does not see religion as a passive activity and even the ordering "of Nature is not mechanically registered but created by human agency...achieved via human consciousness" (and) "not an order in itself." (Worsley, Leach ed., 1967: 142) Religion is a human activity that is reciprocal in nature: humankind makes religion and this in turn shapes the way that it perceives and attributes value to its world.
Structuralism: Roger Bastide's Methodology
In the structuralist methodology outlined by the anthropologist Roger Bastide, he compares 'Preserved' and 'Living' religions. 'Preserved' religions are those that are the result and expression of a threatened culture's will to resist, to preserve its ethnic identity by crystallizing tradition and removing it from the flux of history." (Bastide, 1971: 13) A 'Living' religion, on the other hand, is not a phenomenon that can be termed as being 'alive' in the sense that it does not evolve or change through time but rather "it remains anchored to a ritual as has been laid down by the ancestors." (Bastide, 1971: 129)
Unlike 'Preserved' religions, 'Living' religions do not possess either a purely African or purely Western structure that they may seek to preserve. A 'Living' religion evolves in its own fashion "and adapts itself to the changing world as a totality, a collective complex of mystical rites and observances, a totality both outside and above those persons who form its membership." (Bastide, 1971: 132) In Puerto Rico, continued colonialism and suppression have achieved, to a greater degree, a re-composition of African and non-Catholic indigeneous religious practices to the extent that these have become secularized and assimilated into folklore. Thus, Puerto Rican Santeria can, at least initially, be seen as a popular cult with syncretist elements that, although surviving in a structure that follows a predominantly African pattern, cannot be labeled as being a 'Preserved' religion. Unlike Brazilian Candomble and Cuban Santería, which thanks to the existence of ethnic associations, have survived as 'Preserved' religions (Bastide, 1971: 99), in Puerto Rico, the diverse elements of the cult should be examined from the point of view of it being a 'Living' religion.
Following this approach can perhaps render some interesting insights and help explain why the cult's syncretist aspects do not really change through time, but rather these remain "on the plane of coexistence between disparate objects." (Bastide, 1971: 155) It also can allow us to understand why "although in religious practices Catholic images are used, its only Christian element lies in that exterior manifestation because in rigor it believes in idols and is pagan." (Dalmau, 1978: 7)
Puerto Rican Santería: A Description
A Syncretist Essence
The syncretist nature of Puerto Rican Santería relates to the diversity of origins of the cult's elements: It is composed of beliefs and artifacts gathered from African religions, Indian folklore and the French spiritism developed by Allan Kardek. We can visualize these syncretist elements as modalities that exist in a continuum. On the one end we have the artifacts and practices which derived from Mesa Blanca -- the scientific spiritualism of Allan Kardek introduced in the island in the end of the 19th century -- and on the other the Indian traditions. African traditions constitute a mid-point, or center, in this continuum. I believe that they also provide most of the performance elements of the ritual in the cult as it stands today. The existence of the Indian traditions at one end of the continuum may be due to the demographic regression that eliminated a large percentage of the Indian population during the early stages of imperialist dominance by Spain. Because their place was filled in by Africans brought as slaves to the colony, it would be logical to assume that many of the Indian traditions were assimilated into religious practices of African origin.
The origins of the African modality of Puerto Rican Santería is further crystallized when Yoruba deities are identified with Catholic saints. In this modality the saints are invested with specific supernatural powers. Mesa Blanca, on the other hand, implies the existence of a hierarchical structure in which spirits are organized from the most to the least developed, or impure, spirits. (Harwood, 1976: 49)
Among the interesting sociological aspects is the economic distinction between Mesa Blanca and the African modality that has been identified. Mesa Blanca is the aspect of the cult whose practitioners come, or came, from an upper strata in Puerto Rican society. The African modality is reportedly more common among the members of lower classes. Through this observation Alan Harwood argues that as the socio-economic distinctions between the practitioners of both modes dissolve into one self-identifying role of ethnic background, the two aspects of the cult are blending into one. However, since individuals "freely consult mediums of both traditions" (Harwood, 1976: 49) the cult cannot really be seen as fulfilling a functional, identification role.
Paraphernalia and other Representational Aspects of the Cult: Among the first things that are readily observable in the cult of Puerto Rican Santería is the paraphernalia found in both the centros and the domestic altars. The centros are gathering places for the community, where important ritual places take place. Please note that domestic altars are a tradition in Latin America and the Caribbean. Their existence as a separate quarter depends on the economic welfare of the household. Among the poorer, the domestic altar may exist within the space of a bedroom.
In the domestic altar we can observe some of the integral aspects of the cult's teleology. These include animism and totemism. The altars usually contain talismans, saint images, candles, flowers and vases of water. Talismans, can be found objects which are believed to have been "sanctified by nature itself." (Cabrera, 1974: 266) They can also be assigned by a Babalawo, or high priest of the cult. This means that the talisman must undergo certain rituals. Through these rituals it is verified that it is indeed "animated by a supernatural force of an Oricha" (Cabrera, 1974: 266) It is not unusual for a talisman to be bestowed in connection with rituals of initiation to the cult.
Saint images of all sizes and appearances are maintained in the altars, as are the so-called attributes of the saints. These attributes are assemblages of objects that are part of the narrative through which the symbolic representation of the saint occurs. For example,Yemayá, the goddess of the sea, has attributes usually made of silver that include a full moon, the sun, an anchor, a life saver, a boat, seven oars, seven rings of silver, a key and a star. (Cabrera, 1974: 268) These saint images are described as representing "the saints who are the protectors of the mediunidad." (Harwood, 1976: 62) but in the home they are the protectors of the family. Candles and flowers, as objects that denote devotion and worship, are routinely lit and kept by the saint images. The candles come in all colors, and they may vary according to the saint or Oricha in question. In the case of Saint Barbara, whose representation as an Oricha would that of Changó, the candles utilized are red.
The presence of water receptacles is also a consistent element in these altars. It is explained in terms of the strong belief in the spiritual strength of water. Therefore, the recommendation is made of "keeping a small receptacle full of water under the bed to cleanse away all evil influences." (Gonzalez-Wippler, 1971: 19) Water is also used as part of the ritual in both the African modality of Santería and in Mesa Blanca. In the latter it is always used at the beginning of the ritual and in connection with the invocation of Eleggua, the Guardian Spirit of roads and doorways, so that he "will not obstruct what we do." (Cabrera, 1974: 144). In Mesa Blanca, water is used in the seances "as a receptacle for the evil spirits and influences that the mediums remove from clients." (Harwood, 1976: 62) In the ritual, candles can also be used to "dispel an intranquil spirit from the house, as part of the rite of sorcery, and in request to a saint for help." (Harwood, 1976: 62)
The use of herbs is also an integral part of the cult. These can used by healers, also referred to as santiguadores and Herbalists. These are individuals who "specialize in treating illness through concoctions of herbs." (Delgado, 1979: 7) The use of these items can be observed in the practice of rituals 'simple' exorcisms.
These are the rituals that constitutes a part of everyday life. They do not require the specialized knowledge of a santiguador, and you do not have to be a Santero, or active practitioner, in order to practice them. Despojos, or ritual baths fall in this category. There are despojos "for love, money, and general good luck, the most popular ones being those of Saint Claire, the Seven African Powers and rompezaraguey and Saint Michael." (Gozalez-Wippler, 1974: 71)
Sahumerios and riegos, are other rituals that also belong to the category of 'simple' exorcism and are used in everyday life. A sahumerio consists of mixtures "of incense, storax, mastic, garlic skins and brown sugar which is burned over live coals." (Gonzalez-Wippler, 1974: 73) The resulting smoke is allowed to penetrate every corner of the house. Riegos are concoctions of herbs, water, and alcohol used to clean the floor of the house.
The positive aspect of Sahumerios and riegos is that they are used to dispel evil influences. This may help to explain their co-existence with despojos for love, money and general good luck.
Deities and Spirits of the Cult
In the mythology, the creation of the earth from matter is an event that can be empirically observed and understood. It is also explained in relation to the genealogy of the Yoruba pantheon. In this pantheon there are many saints and Orichas. Each has a representative color and symbols. In addition, they each have a human aspect under their jurisdiction.
The Yoruba creative being is composed of "three separate and equally undeniable spirits." (Gonzales-Wippler, 1973: 25). Although the Afro-latin sources consulted digress as to the actual names that compose this creator, all of them agree on the identity of this creative principle, Olodumare. It is also a commonly held belief that it is a "very different god, who never comes down to earth and who never becomes possessed in the body of a believer." (Agun-Efunde, 1978: 27)
Olodumare is also composed of Olofi, Olorun, Olodumare-Nzame and Baba-Nkwa. He is syncretised as the Crucified Christ (Gonzales-Wippler, 1973: 29) or Jesus Christ, the Lord (Agun-Efunde, 1978: 29).
Agayanú,: Son of Obatalá and Oddudua. The brother and husband of Yemayá. "His cult has lessened." (Gonzales-Wippler, 1973:26). Like Osain, he is syncretized as Saint Joseph. His Ileke is a large, white bead, followed by nine red beads and eight yellow beads.
Obatalá: The second "man," created by Olodumare, he was left in charge of
the Earth when the former decided to go somewhere else in the universe. In
some myths, he is the creator of the human race. In others, he is the
creator of the human head (or brain). He controls all white substance.
This includes the bone structure and the brains, He represents purity and
peace, and is one of the most powerful Orichas. In the güemileres, or
rituals of Santería, he is invoked when one wants to rid oneself of evil
Obatalá is depicted as a knight on a white horse. His syncretist representation is Our Lady of Mercy. His Ileke is made of all white beads.
Oddudua: This deity is the wife of Obatalá. She is the symbol of the Earth. "Some Santeros say that Oddudua is the female aspect of Obatalá and not a separate entity." (Gonzales-Wippler, 1973: 102) It is also said that she is "the oldest Obatalá." (Cabrera, 1974: 123). The syncretist representation is Saint Claire.
Yemayá: The daughter of Obatalá and Oddudua, the sister and wife of Agayanú,, she is also the wife of Oggún and Orunla. Yemayá is the only female deity that speaks Dilogún in the Table of Ifá. She is the goddess of the waters. In her oldest aspect, or avatar, she is the masculine Yemayá Olokun, the god of the ocean. The syncretist representation is Our Lady of la Regla. Her Ileke is seven white beads, alternating with seven blue beads, "then one white, and one blue until seven of each have been threaded..." (Gonzáles-Wippler, 1973: 32)
Eleggua: Son of Olofi. Also described as one of the aspects of Olodumare. In his domain lie the ability to 'open' and 'close' doors and or to change situations. "The Orichas are not free of his power and mischief, they are very careful not to cross him since he can close the roads and put a stop to their ways." (Cabrera, 1974: 85) Like the other deities, he has many aspects. In his aspect of Eshu, he is the equivalent of the Christian devil. As Eshu Oku Oru, he is in command of life and death and some Santeros say that "Eshu, without further appelatives, is all the 21 Elegguas rolled into one." (Gonzales-Wippler, 1973: 107) In the güemileres he is always the first one to be invoked. He is syncretized as the Holy Guardian Angel, the Soul in Purgatory, and the Infant of Atocha. His Ileke is three red beads, alternating with three black beads.
Orunla (or Orummila): Created by Olodumare "sometime after the creation of the earth." (Agun-Efunde 1978: 35) His powers are confined strictly to divination through the Table of Ifá. He is never used directly for spells or cures and he never possesses the believer. He is syncretized as Saint Francis of Assisi and his Ileke is a green bead alternating with a yellow bead.
Orisha-Oko: "God of fields and harvests. Brings fertility to the land and families." (González-Wippler 1978: 81) His Ilekes are purple and white beads with a red mark.
Babalu-Ayé: The half-brother of Changó. He is the patron of the sick and his symbol is a pair of crutches. "He is represented by a leprous old man accompanied by two dogs." (González-Wippler 1973: 28) He is syncretized as Saint Lazarous and his Ileke is made from black beads.
Osain: The god of herbs and curative plants, he has no particular Ileke that we know about. (Interesting to note is that all the Ilekes are bathed in herbs before they are bestowed.) He is syncretized as Saint Joseph.
Changó: "God of fire, thunder and lightning." (Gonzalez-Wippler 1973: 26) "The one who becomes bigger the more he screams." (Cabrera 1974: 34) The son of Yemayá and Agayanú, in his domain we find passion and the conquering over enemies. He is syncretized as Saint Barbara and his Ileke is made of six white beads alternating with six red beads.
Oke: "God of the mountains and protector of those who live in high places. Some say that he was conceived of the union of Obatalá and Oddudua, but this is debated by many Babalawos." (González-Wippler 1973: 28) One of the husbands of Yemayá. He is syncretized as Saint Peter or as Saint Michael the Archangel. His Ilekes vary. Some consist of seven brown beads followed by three black beads; others are seven green beads followed by seven black beads.
Oshún: Goddess of the rivers. The Venus of the Yoruba pantheon, she is Changó's sister and favourite concubine. (González-Wippler 1973: 28) "The owner of gold, she can give it or take it away." (Agun-Efunde 1978: 52) She is synchretized as Our Lady of La Caridad del Cobre and her Ilekes are yellow.
The Seven African Powers: The deities described can be represented alone or as a group. A very popular combination is that one of the Seven African Powers. They are believed to control every aspect of human life. For example, Obatalá brings peace and harmony among people; Changó gives power over one's enemies, and is a symbol of sensual pleasure; Eleggua opens all the doors to opportunity and removes all obstacles; Oshún is the patroness of gold, love and marriages; Oggún is the god of war and gives work to the unemployed; Orunla gives great power and opens the doors of past and future and Yemayá is the goddess of fertility and maternity." (González-Wippler 1973: 103)
Used only when encountering very difficult situations, only a Babalawo can wear the Ileke, of the Seven African Powers. This consists of red, black, yellow, blue, white, green, and brown with a large crystal ball in the middle.
The Seven African Powers: Attributes
|Obatalá:||White||Peace, purity||White substance, brain, bones|
|Eleggua:||Red, black||Messages, opens and closes doors||iron nails, small iron rooster|
|Orunlá:||Green,yellow||Divination||Table of Ifá|
|Yemayá:||Blue, white||Maternity, womanhood||Seashell, canoe, fans|
|Oggún:||Green, black||War, employment||iron knives, steel weapons|
|Changó:||Red,white||Passion, enemies||Double edged sword,castle, thunder|
|Oshún:||Yellow,green,red||Love, marriage, gold||Mirror, fan, seashells, pumpkins|
All of the paraphernalia mentioned is easily accessible to mediums, Santeros and laymen at Botánicas, or specialty shops. These shops are very important as they also provide literature in the form of prayer books, and other materials such as candles, statues of saints, ointments and also because "the shop owners are very knowledgeable about folk healing techniques and may serve to prescribe herbs or to refer patrons to local healers." (Delgado, 1979: 4) The role of the Santiguadores and Herbalists can be either fulfilled by a medium or a Santero, or by a senior member of the community." (Delgado, 1979: 7)
The Belief System
In the cult there is a vision that comprehends nature as an animate being to which humans stand in relation to. They define and can control nature, but it also molds them. Exorcism is, therefore, not seen as resulting from a pathological conception of ethos. Evil is not seen as lurking evil that is chaotic or destructive in absolute terms, but rather as a necessary and intrinsic element. It is part of a principle of inertia that enables good to manifest itself. Destruction and chaos, if present, are not finite, negative things, but part of a dynamic process that clears the path for the evolution of life. A Santero who does work of an apparently destructive force is looked upon as "using the negative aspect of a positive force." (Gonzalez-Wippler, 1974: 18)
If the world view includes a strong belief in the power of exorcism, this is re-enacted via rituals and the practice of magic in a context that includes every day life. What results is a framework of values with a notion that humankind, although dependent to nature has at its disposal the resources to understand, control and manipulate it. Thus Mesa Blanca explains the contradictions of human existence in the following terms
...the bad things in life are composed of two parts, one is the things that man cannot prevent and the other is his tribulations, whose first cause is its insecurity and its excesses...it is very evident that man is the author of his own tribulations and afflictions which he should save by acting always with moderation and prudence. (Kardek, Allan, No date: 7)
Unlike Mesa Blanca, the African modality of Puerto Rican Santería does not possess such theology, but rather relies on the relationship between believer and deities to explain how the latter can be as passionate as human beings, and in certain instances unjust." (Agun, Efunde, 1978: 33)
to be continued
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