Santería does not use a central creed for its religious practices; though it is understood in terms of its rituals and ceremonies.
These rituals and ceremonies take place in what is known as a house-temple or casa de santos (house of saints) also known as an ilé.
Most ilés are in the homes of the initiated priests and priestesses. Ilé shrines are built by the priests and priestess to the different orichás which creates a space for worship called an igbodu (altar).
In an igbodu there is a display of three distinct thrones draped with royal blue, white and red satin that represent the seats of the queens, kings and the deified warriors.
Each ilé is composed of those who occasionally seek guidance from the orishas as well as those who are in the process of becoming priests.
Cabildos And Casas
The many cabildos and casas that bridged the 19th and 20th centuries are fondly remembered by contemporary priests as the origins and strongholds of Cuban Lucumí culture and religion.
To become a Santero or Santera “Priest or Priestess of Santería”, the initiator must go through an intensive week-long initiation process in which the teaching of the ritual skills and moral behavior occurs informally and nonverbally.
To begin with, the initiator goes through what is called a cleansing ritual. The initiator’s Padrino “godfather” cleanses the head with special herbs and water.
The Padrino rubs the herbs and water in a specific pattern of movements into the scalp of the head.
Rogación De La Cabeza
However, if a person is entering Santería for the need of healing, they will undergo the rogación de la cabeza “blessing of the head” in which coconut water and cotton are applied on the head to feed it.
Once cleansed, there are four major initiation rituals that the initiator will have to undergo: obtaining the elekes “beaded necklace”, receiving Los Guerreros “the Warriors”, making Ochá “Saint”, and Asiento “ascending the throne”.
Obtaining The Ilekes
The first ritual is known as the acquisition of the beaded necklaces “known as ilekes”. The colors and patterns of the beads on the ilekes will be those of the orichá that serves as the iyawo’s “bride” ruling head and guardian angel and so the first thing that must be done is to determine who the orichá is.
The ilekes necklace is bathed in a mixture of herbs, sacrificial blood and other potent substances and given to the initiated.
The initiate most often receives the necklace of the five most powerful and popular oricha as the multicolored beads of the elekes are each patterned for the primary Orichás “Eleguá, Obatalá, Yemayá, Changó, and Ochún” and they serve as a sacred point of contact with these Orichás.
When the necklace is received, the initiated must bow over a bathtub and have his or her head washed by the olo orichá.
The elekes serves as the sacred banners for the Orichás and act as a sign of the Orichá’s presence and protection; however, it must never be worn during a woman’s menstruation period, nor during sex, nor when bathing.
The second important ritual is known as medio asiento, the creation of an image of the orichá Eleguá. The individual will go through a consultation with a Santero, where all the recipients’ life, past, present and future will be reviewed.
During the consultation, the Santero determines which path of Eleguá the recipient will receive. Then, based on his findings, he chooses materials that will be used to construct the image of the Eleguá, a sculpture that is used to keep evil spirits away from the initiator’s home.
This ritual is only prepared by men as the orichás take some of the Santero’s “manly” spirit in the process.
The third ritual, known as “receiving the warriors”, is a ritual where the initiated receives objects from their padrino that represents the warriors; Iron tools to represent Ogún; an iron bow and arrow to represent Ochosi; and an iron or silver chalice surmounted by a rooster to represent Osún.
This ritual begins a formal and lifelong relationship that the initiate will have with these Orichás, as the orichás devote their energies to protecting and providing for the initiate on their path.
The last ritual of the initiation process is known as Asiento “ascending the throne” and is the most important and the most secretive ritual in Santería, as it is the ceremony where the iyawo “bride of the oricha” becomes “born again” into the faith.
This ritual is a culmination of the previous rituals and cannot be made unless the others have been completed.
Asiento is a process of purification and divination whereby the initiated becomes like a newborn baby and begins a new life of deeper growth within the faith.
Once the initiation is completed, depending on the individuals “house”, there is a year-long waiting period, known as iyaboraje in which the newly appointed Priest and Priestess can not perform cleansings and other remedies.
It is a time where the Iyawo or Bride of the Orichá must follow a strict regimen of wearing all white and must avoid physical contact with those who have not been initiated.
Once the ebo del año has been completed there will be an end of year ceremony, which will enable the Priest or Priestess to consult clients, perform cleansings, provide remedies and perform initiations.
They are also regarded as royalty in the religion, as they are considered representatives of the Orichás and are vested with the power to work with the forces of those Orichás in full.
With Santería rituals there are musical ceremonies and prayers that are referred to as bembé, toque de santo, or tambor.
It is a celebration dedicated to an Orichá, where the batá drums “set of three drums known as the iya (the largest drum), itoltele, and okonkolo” are played in the Orichá’s honor.
Through these sacred drums, messages of worshippers reach the orichás and the orichás respond to their devotees.
These drums are used only by men and must always be treated with respect; for example, dancers must never turn their backs towards the drums while dancing, as it is considered disrespectful.
Priests are commonly known as Santeros or Olorichas. Once those priests have initiated other priests, they become known as babalorichás, “fathers of orichá” (for men) and as iyalorichás, “mothers of orichá” (for women).
Priests can commonly be referred to as Santeros (male) and Santeras (female) and if they function as diviners (using cowrie-shell divination known as Dilogun) of the Orichás they can be considered Italeros or if they go through training to become leaders of initiations, Obas or Oriates.