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Santería and Vodou  
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Santería, Vodou, and related belief systems comprise a complex of religious ideas, practices, and imagery whose origins can be traced to West African traditions. Arising in African-descended communities in the Caribbean region, they utilized collective memories retained by slaves to undergird a survival response to forced labor, poverty, and racism.

In modern times, their emphasis on individual relationships with guiding or guardian spirits (known variously as orishas, santos, or loa) has expanded their appeal to many others who, for a variety of causes, feel disenfranchised from Western religion.

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Among them are proponents of woman-centered spirituality drawn to the formidable personas of female spirits such as Yemayá, and glbtq followers attracted by the aspects of certain of the orishas and by the cross-gender possibilities of spirit possession rituals. The latter are ceremonial trances in which devotees surrender their consciousness to the personality of an orisha, who then interacts with congregants to advise or prophesy.

In the New World, African believers incorporated concepts from the Roman Catholic Church, especially in merging the identities of African spirits with the Catholic saints, or "santos." Although anthropologists often cite this as a classic example of syncretism--the blending of differing beliefs and practices--originally it may have been a survival strategy to disguise and protect the African style of worship from attempts to suppress it.

Unlike the Abrahamic faiths, African diasporic traditions do not necessarily cultivate a worldview of good versus evil. Instead, adherents develop individual relationships with their favorite guardian spirits and invoke their aid through food offerings, animal sacrifice, or the energy from lit candles. In this way, individuals are promised access to a source of power for resolving personal crises and--in extremis--accessing a lifeline for the soul.

Related traditions are Candomblé (Brazil), Shango (Trinidad and Grenada), Kumina (Jamaica), Kele (St. Lucia), and Louisiana Voodoo (U.S.).


Santería arose in Cuba in the 1800s. Also known as Lucumi or Regla de Ocha, its concepts derive from the religion practiced in the Yoruba city-states in what today are Nigeria and Benin. Yoruba religion posited the omnipresence of a life-force, called ashé, which can be tapped for good or ill by those initiated into its mysteries. From ashé rose the creator Oludumare who, while non-anthropomorphic when considered as a whole, can manifest through many different facets, including male and female personas.

Oludumare gave rise to the orishas, a pantheon of subordinate deities with unique personalities. Central to Yoruba-derived beliefs, the orishas can be induced to intercede in human affairs or offer advice to their devotees via offerings, divination, and spirit possession.

The Yoruba recognized over 1700 orishas. Africans uprooted to Cuba by slavery managed, over the generations, to preserve knowledge of about two dozen orishas. Of these a few rose to prominence in Santería as the Seven African Powers, five of whom have significant glbtq associations.

These include Obatalá, the supreme orisha, responsible for human heads and thus associated with mental clarity and lawgiving. He has a dual-gender capacity to enable fertility as well as several female personifications, and is sometimes associated with same-sex love.

Yemayá, the queenly mother spirit who presides over the sea, is often depicted as a woman warrior and symbol of female strength; she took several male orishas as husbands and is Changó's mother, but is sometimes also linked with female orisha Oshún.

Ellegguá is a trickster linked by Christians to the devil but his role, as lord of crossroads, makes him important in human choices. He is sometimes seen as hostile to homosexuals but he has several female personas.

Changó (also Shangó) is associated with machismo and womanizing. His waywardness with women was somewhat moderated by Yemayá. Relatively recently, he has gained an appeal to gay men drawn to masculinity.

Oshún is the orisha of love, eroticism, sensuality, and the arts. She presides over rivers and lakes and is invoked as a patron by gay men, lesbians, and . She is sometimes linked romantically with Yemayá.

A number of lesser orishas are also of interest, including the following.

Inlé, the androgynous lover of Yemayá, is considered woman-like and beautiful and has come to be seen as a protector of gay men and lesbians. Because Yemayá cut out his tongue so he couldn't gossip about their affair, he can speak only through her.

Babalú-Ayé, associated with sickness and healing, is frequently invoked by people living with AIDS.

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Voodoo Pantheon, a sculpture by Cyprien Tokoudagba (1989). The seated figure represents Legba, one of several Vodou spirits who has male and female aspects.
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