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Yoruba Medicine, Roman Catholicism and the Birth of Santeria — Introduction:

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Medicinal and spiritual healing was a fundamental way of life the Yoruba of west Africa. As it turns out it also says the groundwork for surviving an unimaginable ordeal — the middle passage. As Yoruba practices were modified and as Roman Catholicism was forced onto enslaved Africans, Yoruba medicine was transformed into Santeria.

REFERENCE: The Atlantic Slave Trade in Two Minutes, Slate

I’m professor Darius Spearman and this is African Elements. Previously, we explored culture as a set of beliefs and practices that serve as a survival toolkit in a specific setting. But the middle passage drastically changed that setting by subjecting enslaved Africans to an ordeal the depths of which are literally abysmal. That is, the further and deeper one looks at the Atlantic slave trade, the more and more suffering one finds. Can those practices serve as a useful set of survival strategies even under these horrific circumstances? In this episode we explore how West African healing practices laid the basis for African survival under the most catastrophic conditions — The Atlantic slave trade — practices that later took the form of Cuban Santeria, Haitian vodou, and other forms throughout the Americas. We’ll talk about Yoruba Medicine, Roman Catholicism and the birth of Santeria coming up next.

Welcome back to African Elements, where we explore various topics in Black and Africana Studies and bring them from the classroom to right here where the people are at. At African Elements, we believe that this curriculum — the same curriculum I use in my classroom — should be available to everyone. The support of our subscribers and Patreon members has been a big part of making that possible, and for that I cannot thank you enough. To support this channel for as little as $1 a month, click the link below. Otherwise, a “like” and subscribe would be thoroughly appreciated. Moving on…

As we’ve seen, “culture” can be understood as, beliefs, practices and modes of being of a particular people in a particular setting adopted as a means of survival. In the various regions of the continent Africans have structured their lives (their religion, artistic traditions, and social organization) in a distinct way based survival in their specific setting. But the middle passage brought on a set of circumstances not only completely different from anything West Africans had experienced before, but one that was unprecedented in the history of humankind — The Atlantic Slave Trade.

Over the course of 3 to 4 centuries, the Atlantic Slave Trade saw an estimated 10 to 15 million enslaved Africans taken from the continent. Of that number, between capture in Africa, the dreaded middle passage, sale in the Americas, and the brutal 2 year “seasoning” period of adjustment after their arrival, an estimated 20 to 30 percent perished.

But I and many of those you who are watching are living proof that many survived. In large part, their survival can be credited to the set of strategies that West Africans brought with them across the Atlantic, that still proved useful — even in a completely new setting over 2000 miles away.

While African cultural practices vary from region to region, West African spiritual systems were generally infused with a strong sense of collectivism — or the idea that the strength of the community relies heavily on the collective health of each individual member. In other words, when someone in the community is sick, it’s in the collective interest that the community come together to promote healing. That notion collectivism informs the healing practices that have historically been embedded in the spiritual, medicinal, music, and dance expressions that make up the larger belief systems that you find in many precolonial West African societies.

In terms of healing, that collectivism manifests in the process as practitioners who collected the medicinal plants called upon the deities that governed the spiritual properties for healing and upon the community. In the Yoruba tradition, for example, for certain ailments that require medicinal plants governed by the spiritual properties of, say, Yemaya — the Nigerian river goddess — those medicinal plants must first be spiritually infused with healing properties. That spiritual infusion can only happen through collective ritual and dance, and it was only through those ceremonies in celebration of Yemaya that the medicinal plants could be infused with the power of healing.

The African origins of Santeria stem largely from the Yoruba of southwestern Nigeria. In Cuba, the Yoruba Orisha worship practices fused with Spanish folk Catholic traditions and formed Santeria. As a healing form, enslaved Africans were forced to attend to their own medical problems due to neglect by slave owners and the exorbitant cost of physician’s services and pharmaceuticals. Thus, by necessity African-based medicine, magic and their associated plant-based medicines have persisted in many cases and flourished in the Americas.

To be sure, Africans arrived in an American setting that was fundamentally different from the one they left in Africa. So, how might West African culture lay the groundwork for African survival in the Western Hemisphere? For that, we have to examine the process of acculturation. For the purpose of this program, I’ll define “acculturation” as, “cultural modification of one group by borrowing and adopting the cultural traits of another group…” Why would anyone do that? The answer, as you’ve probably guessed is, to survive.

Even though the African cultural practices I describe in this program were adopted specifically for survival in West Africa, enslaved Africans didn’t abandon their mode of survival once they reached the Americas, and in fact, they maintained a strong attachment to them. In a lecture given at Santa Rosa Junior College in 1998, Haitian scholar, Leslie Desmangles describes the Yoruba and the Dahomey belief systems represented throughout the Americas from Brazil, Central America, the Caribbean and the southern United States, as expressions of the nativism. Nativism is a tendency to revert to one’s native cultural traditions in the face of cultural imperialism and oppression.

As part of the process of subjugation, the French, Spanish, British, and later US Americans forbade the enslaved Africans from practicing their indigenous culture, religion, and often their language as well – as the cultural practices were literally beaten out of them. Stronger and harsher oppression results in stronger resistance and tendency toward nativism. So, ironically the power of Santeria and its New World offshoots as a healing tradition is directly attributable to the vigor with which the European powers oppressed its practitioners. In other words, European attempts to stamp out elements of African culture in the Americans simply made those elements stronger and more deeply entrenched.

But how? If the goal is survival, it seems counterintuitive that Africans would continue their cultural practices in the face of such brutal repression. How did they survive?

It turns out that Roman Catholicism had some structural similarities with African religions. Ancestor worship, elaborate ritual and offerings, and most importantly, polytheism. Santeria evolved as the Yoruba deities which numbered more than 400 in West Africa were reduced to several dozen relevant entities in the Americas and juxtaposed onto Roman Catholic symbols and rituals. In that way, Africans could continue a mode of traditional worship now disguised as Roman Catholic practices to honor their own gods now concealed by the names of Roman Catholic saints.

To this day, the African deity Babalu-Ayé, horribly disfigured god of smallpox and disease, who governs disorders of the skin and is popularly referred to as “the doctor of the poor” is associated with with St.Lazarus. Obatalá, god of peace and tranquility who controls thoughts and dreams and whose leaves are called on to heal blindness and paralysis with Jesus Christ. And Yemayá, goddess of the oceans who rules over intestinal illness and tuberculosis is synchronized with the Virgin mother.

Because many if not most of the plants used in Santeria are native to the Americas, Santeria has adapted, evolved and acculturated specifically to meet the needs of the oppressed and enslaved Africans in the Western Hemisphere.

Similar to Roman Catholicism is the Yoruba belief in a high God. Olorun or Olodumare is the creator and supreme ruler of the universe. Olorun is believed to exist on a plane far beyond the reach of humans. Contact with the supernatural world can therefore be made only with the aid of divine intermediaries known as “Orishas.” The number of Orishas identified in studies of traditional Yoruba religion ranges from 400 to 1700. The parallel role of the various bishops and saints as Divine intermediaries in the Roman Catholic faith makes clear the basis for its infusion into the Yoruba spiritual system and the resulting birth of Santeria.

Because the setting is different, though, many of the articles and symbols used in African healing traditions in the Americas are substituted or improvised. Yemaya, who is a river goddess in West Africa, for example, becomes the goddess of the ocean in the Santeria healing tradition. Likewise, the plants and herbs governed by Yemaya that are used in healing are indigenous to West Africa. So they have to be substituted for those found in the Western Hemisphere. Some of the substitutions occur through trial and error, and some through contact with indigenous peoples through further infusion with Native American practices.

That is especially true among the vodoun in Haiti where remote maroon communities – communities of runaway slaves – developed in relative isolation in Haiti’s rugged interior. The result is a wide variance in the practice of vodou from one community to the next. Since the slave population in the Americas consisted of a variety of African ethnic groups, the practice of vodou in any one particular maroon community may be more Dahomey influenced, for example, or it could be more Yoruba depending upon the make-up of the community. It may also vary in the degree of Taino influence, which is the Native American group indigenous to the region.

In Cuba, for example, we see various denomination of Palo practices that originated in the Congo Basin into branches that include Briyumba, Kimbisa, Mayombe, and Monte. In this Palo Monte ceremony, that I recorded in Havana, Cuba, we see much of the substitution and improvisation:

TOUR GUIDE: This is a Palo Monte altar. We see that there is a pot — an iron pot — with the chains because the chains are a homage paid to the slaves. These pots with the pots used by the slaves to air their food, and the chains resembled slavery and the sufferings of these people…. and they blow.

So as you see, Tato is already old, so he must be practically guided. But while he is alive, he preserves the authority. So he spits brown on it in order to give it to the spirit. This is “malafo.” In African dialect this is malafo, so they spit on the alcohol in order to share the drink with Sarabanda.

See how they introduce the cigar inside? They blow out to the smoke goes out of the mouth.

TOUR GUIDE: Every ceremony has a music and a dance. You will see that the pressure of the music is so high, that when they start playing you a feel the vibration.



So, as we’ve seen, African cultural elements helped enslaved Africans survive in the Americas, but some modification was necessary as a result of a change in their setting. In the ceremony you just saw, there were some distinctly Cuban elements that were infused into the ceremony that are clearly modifications of West African practices. Can you spot them? I’d love to see your thoughts in the comments below.

I’m Professor, Darius Spearman. Thank you for watching, and until next time, I’ll see you in the comments.


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