Black History Month Week Three: Seven Pre-Colombian Religions & Their Iterations in the Americas
Growing up, I remember being told that the Santeros were bad people because they did bad things. I was an inquisitive child, but I also usually knew not to ask questions of some. So I waited until I was in college to begin my journey to understand what it was that the Santeros in Puerto Rico had done which was so bad. What I learned then, and have continued to learn to this day, made me realize that Santeria is not an evil thing and Santeros today are simply continuing to honor African tradition while also incorporating Catholic saints. The term Santeria actually means worship of the saints. I also found information about other religions over time which have also withstood the ravages of slavery and forced Christianity. Here is a list of a few:
1) Santeria - The worship of the saints was and is an amalgamation of respect for Catholic saints and reverence for African Yoruba deities, called orishas, wherein the saints with similar qualities to some of the deities became one. Catholicism was pushed onto enslaved Africans, and such individuals cleverly found ways to continue worshiping their native deities while avoiding backlash from those in positions of power (1). As far as I can tell, the "bad thing" that those who practice Santeria have done is to hold onto African traditions, rather than connecting themselves wholeheartedly to European traditions. The orisha with which I am most closely connected is Yemaya (depicted in my drawing below), the mother of all and the deity of waterways.
2) Voudon (voodoo or vodun) - Like Santeria, Voodoo or Voudon was brought out of West Africa during the slave trade. Like Santeria, the latter incorporates the worship of multiple deities and connecting them to Catholic saints. Voodoo was a powerful influence for the revolutions in Haiti in the late 18th century which drove the French colonizers out of Haiti, many of whom fled to New Orleans and brought enslaved individuals with them. It was during this time that Voodoo, which had been introduced to New Orleans earlier, became more strongly incorporated into the culture there (2).
3) Islam - Islam, a religion which has connections to Judaism and Christianity, was also brought through the Transatlantic Slave Trade, as some of those captured and enslaved practiced Islam. Accounts are few, and it is thought that this might have been due to early scribes of religions in the colonies not wanting to draw attention to non-Christian religions. Prior to the move across the ocean, Islam had already been fused with African traditions, in a similar manner to what is witnessed in Santeria and Voodoo (3).
4) Candomble - A religion persecuted by mainstream Brazil until recent years, Candomble means dancing to honor the gods. The gods, called orixas in Brazil, are invited to possess their worshipers, who then don clothing which indicates the deities who have entered their bodies. While the Candomble religion has gained traction and recognition in recent decades, that recognition is being challenged once again by Christianity, this time in the form of Evangelical sects. It seems that, like its cousins Voodoo and Santeria, the religion remains misunderstood (4).
5) The Cult of Maria Lionza - This religion, developed in Venezuela, combines traditions of the European, native, and African communities to form a sect which holds to Christian traditions, but also adds to them. The legend of Maria Lionza is that she was a native princess kidnapped by a snake. The snake was killed by God as punishment, but the resulting catastrophe killed the princess's entire community. The princess herself became a deity whose spirit resides in the mountain of Sorte. The name Maria links the princess, whose original name is not known, to Mary, the mother of Jesus of Nazareth (5).
6) Rastafarianism - A religion built on Judeo-Christian and pan-African influences, Rastafarianism has roots in the belief that Ethopian king Haile Selassie was a god, which was seen to have been predicted by Marcus Garvey a few decades earlier. In 1930, Ras Tafari Makonnen was crowned King Haile Selassie I, and was reputed to be the embodiment of God on earth. The Rastafarians believe in a need to return to Africa spiritually and physically, and in the superiority of Black people over others. They also believe in the requirement not to touch their skin or hair to decorate, trim, or otherwise modify God's creation; vegetarianism or the charge to eat as little animal flesh as possible; a requirement to care for other human beings, including those who do not practice their religion; and that one must worship no other god besides Haile Selassie (6,7).
7) Ifa- Among many African Americans, a search for a religion which speaks to who they are has brought them back to Yoruba, the religion practiced by many who were enslaved in the Americas. Ifa is a way of worship which uses Yoruba language and traditions to connect to the deities, and it began only several decades ago in the United States (8). It is interesting to me that this religion which was banned from practice among the enslaved across the colonies which eventually became the United States, is now finding new life among the descendants of the enslaved.
It is interesting to note that the majority of the religions mentioned here have roots in the Yoruba religions from West Africa. Some traveled on the ships along with Africans who passed them down through the generations, while others began more recently. But one thing they all have in common is that they uplift people who have been oppressed in the Americas. The true danger in these religions is not their magic or their rituals in which chickens are sacrificed, but their African-ness. These religions allow people of African descent to see themselves in their deities, in their rituals, in their faith. I mentioned in the beginning of this post that I am partial to Yemaya, the mother orisha/orixa/orisa of the Yoruba tradition. The picture I drew of how I see her is hanging up in my bedroom. She is placed beside a drawing of Atabey, the Taino mother deity, who is often depicted as nude and pregnant. The two share space with pictures I collectively call, "Women of the World," because I used colored pencils to develop a group of pictures of women with multiple levels of melanin. All of these represent me, make me smile, and help to start my day in a joyful way. I imagine that many who practice the different traditions mentioned in this post have felt the same way.
1) Figueroa, I. (n.d.). Santeria. http://www.elboricua.com/AfroBorinquen_Santeria.html#:~:text=Santer%C3%ADa%20is%20an%20old%2Dworld,the%20Caribbean%2C%20including%20Puerto%20Rico.&text=In%20Santer%C3%ADa%20there%20is%20one,help%20and%20console%20their%20followers.
2) Ancient Origins: Reconstructing the Story of Humanity's Past. (2021). The origins of Voodoo, a misunderstood religion. https://www.ancient-origins.net/history-ancient-traditions/origins-voodoo-002933
3) The Pluralism Project: Harvard University. (n.d.). African religion in America. https://pluralism.org/african-religion-in-america
4) Garcia-Navarro, L. (2013). Brazilian believers of hidden religion step out of the shadows. https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2013/09/16/216890587/brazilian-believers-of-hidden-religion-step-out-of-shadows
6) History.com. (2018). Rastafarianism. https://www.history.com/topics/religion/history-of-rastafarianism
7) BBC.co.uk. (2009). The Rastafarian teachings about race and about the superiority of Black people.
8) Johnson, C. (2013). Ancient African religion finds roots in America. https://www.npr.org/2013/08/25/215298340/ancient-african-religion-finds-roots-in-america