"The Worship of Saints"

Trinidad, Cuba 2018

I learned more about Santeria on my last trip to Havana. Exploring the city  i came across people wearing all white clothing. “They are people going through their Santeria initiation” i was told. 

Santeria is a fusion of Catholic practices and African folk beliefs. It emerged in Cuba during the 17th century, and has been embedded in Cuban society ever since. Slaves from West Africa were imported to Cuba and they brought their religious tradition with them.

What i found interesting is how this religion survived during the colonisation period when colonial laws forced conversion to Catholicism. 
Rather then abandoning their traditions and beliefs to embrace the new religion, African slaves secretly twinned their orishas ( deities) with Catholic saints creating a syncretism with Catholicism. Chango’, the orisha of thunder and lighting was hidden behind Santa Barbara, Eleggua’ the orisha of travel and road became St Anthony de Padua, etc….

After years of secrecy Santeria today is more public and very popular in Cuba. However the initiation ritual, which last 7 days and involves the ritual sacrifice of animals, is still held in secrecy and to attend you have to be invited by a Santero . 

As photographer, I was interested in this ritual but had no connections  in Havana to attend one of these ceremonies. 
Luck was on my side in Trinidad, where i casually met Aniceto, a local campesinos, whose wife was a Santera and she was going to attend an initiation ceremony the following day . 

She invited me to join the Coronation Day , which is part of a 7 days process , and is the day when the person is “embellished”, “crowned” and “confirmed” as “Santo” ( Saint). This is also the day when the sacrifice of animals happens, and to be honest i wasn’t sure of what to expect.

The following morning I was taken to a small house in the periphery of Trinidad  and was given instruction to what i could and could not capture with my camera. The actual incoronation was held in secrecy in a small room   and only Santeros could attend . Apart from that, i was given access to the initial preparation and the following sacrifice of animals and celebration.

The day started with “purification” of all the attendee including myself. Plant and herb preparations were employed  to cleanse and prepare individuals prior to making contact whit the orishas and a pigeon was sacrificed to remove negative spiritual influences. 

In the meantime, the person being initiated was being shaved  off his hair and dressed with white clothes, whilst an endless number of  sacrificial animals where brought in. The number and type of animals relly depends on the type of Orisha. In this case it was the deity of Thunder ( Chango’) who likes  chickens , pigeons, doves, goats, sheep, and turtles. 

After the cleansing , the secret ritual of the incoronation took  place in a room where only Santeros were invited . I was waiting outside for about three hours and i was offered some food which i could not eat, as i was feeling the pain of all these animals surrounding me,  about to be brutally sacrified.

I could ear screaming from a woman in the room who was possessed by the spirits , toghether with prayers. Every once in a while Santeros were leaving the room with buckets of dirty water, plants, and slaughtered animals. But the worst for me was yet to come.

After a long and painful waiting, i was finally let inside the secret room,at condition that i would only take photos  when told by the “Padrino” .  
The room was dark and smelly ,the air was thick. Hidden in the dark , i could see a man dressed in white with some blood over its clothes. On the floor many vases full of  stones and other misterious objects. The room was now being preparred for the “matanza” ( slaughter ). 

All the vases were put in the middle of the room and animals where brought in one by one, presented to Orisha and then killed with a deep incision of a sharp knife on the neck. 
The floor soon turned into vivid red with blood everywhere, and all Santeros where  in circle praying and screaming.

The slaughtering went on for at least two hours  and the ceremony  ended with a big meal . 
Followers only eat meat after the symbolic ashes are consumed by Orisha, with the animal’s blood being sprinkled on stones that symbolically represent the orisha’s head.

For one year after the cerimony the initiated must wear  white clothes and follow certain rules.

Santeros pay a lot of money for this ritual and only a relatively small percentage of Lucumí practitioners are fully initiated Olorichas, as this step represents a serious and full time commitment to the spiritual practices of Regla de Ocha ( Santeria) , as well as a special calling. 

The believers of Santeria range from devout to casual just as any culture would with religious affinities. There is a hierarchy of positions with Santeros or Olorichas at the top. They serve a variety of functions in the community from general counselors for social matters ,to traditional medicinal healers.

This was for me another event in the exploration of cultural playgrounds in Cuba and  I was lucky to experience it,  despite the uncomfortable and cruel scenario......since then i struggle to eat meat .