What is Santería?
Santería or La Regla Lucumí originates in West Africa in what is now Nigeria and Benin. It is the traditional religion of the Yoruba people in those countries. The slave trade brought many of these people to the shores of Cuba, Brazil, Haiti, Trinidad and Puerto Rico among others. But along with the bodies being brought over for sale into a life of misery, something else was being brought along. Their souls. And their religion.
First of all, Santería is not a 'primitive' religion. On the contrary, the Yorubas were and are a very civilized people with a rich culture and deep sense of ethics. We believe in one God known as Olorun or Olodumare. Olorun is the source of ashé, the spiritual energy that makes up the universe, all life and all things material.
Olorun interacts with the world and humankind through emissaries. These emissaries are called orishas. The orishas rule over every force of nature and every aspect of human life. They are approachable and can be counted on to come to the aid of their followers, guiding us to a better life materially as well as spiritually.
Communication between orishas and humankind is accomplished through ritual, prayer, divination and ebó or offerings (which includes sacrifice). Song, rhythms, and trance possession are also means with which we interact with the orishas and how we are able to affect our day to day lives so that they we may lead deeper and fuller lives during our stay in this world.
In the New World the orishas and much of the religion was hidden behind a facade of Catholicism with the orishas themselves represented by various saints. The slaveowners would then say "look at how pious this slave is. She spends all of her time worshipping Saint Barbara." Unbeknownst to them, she would actually be praying to Shangó, the Lord of Lightning, fire and the dance, perhaps even praying for deliverance from that very slaveowner. This is how the religion came to be known as Santería. The memory of this period of our history is also why many in our religion regard the term Santería as a derogatory.
The traditions of Santería are fiercely preserved and full knowledge of the rites, songs, and language are prerequisites to any deep involvement in the religion. Initiates must follow a strict regimen and are answerable to Olorun and the orishas for their actions. As a person passes through each initiation in the tradition, this knowledge deepens and their abilities and responsibilities grow accordingly. In fact, during the first year of their initiation into the priesthood, the initiate or Iyawó or 'bride' of the orisha must dress in white for an entire year. The iyawo must not look into a mirror, touch anyone or allow themselves to be touched, and they may not wear makeup, or go out at night for this year.
La Santería is famous for its 'magic'. This magic is based on a knowledge of the mysteries or orishas and how to interact with them to better our lives and the lives of those who come to us for the aid of the orishas. We live under the premise that this world is a magical one. This knowledge seems 'supernatural' only to those who don't understand it, but it really is quite natural.
Although the people were yanked away from their homes in Africa and enslaved in the New World, the orishas, the religion and its power could never be chained down and the religion survives now. Not as an anachronism, but ever growing even now in such places as France and the Netherlands.