Monthly Archive: May 2012

The Seven African Powers

A syncretized depiction of the Seven African Powers as seven of the chief Orishas of the Lucumi faith

The Seven African Powers are a common spiritual force that people petition within Santeria but there is a common misconception around who they are and how they function. If you visit any botanica (spiritual shop) you’ll find candles with something akin to the image on the right claiming to be 7 African Powers Candles. You’ll also find spiritual supplies like baths, oils and powders that claim to work for the Seven African Powers. Who are these powers in reality?

The image to the right shows a collection of seven different saints: Our Lady of Mercy, The Virgin of Regla, Our Lady of Charity of Cobre, Saint Barbara, Saint Joseph of Arimathea, Saint John the Baptist, Saint Martin of Porres (reader-submitted correction: Saint Benito of Palermo), and Jesus on the Cross in the center. Under each saint image is the name of one of the Orishas. The name Olofi is under the image of Jesus. The vignettes of saint images are linked together with a metal chain with 7 of Ogun’s tools hanging from the bottom. Because of the image to the right, most people mistakenly think that the Seven African Powers are the orishas: Elegua, Ogun, Orula, Chango, Oshun, Yemaya and Obatala. But how did this syncretization come about? Who are the Seven African Powers if they aren’t the Orishas? Can anyone work with the Seven African Powers or is it limited to initiates of Santeria only?

The Influence of Syncretization and Santerismo

A Yoruba descendant initiated to Obatala

The syncretization of the Orishas with the individual Catholic saints isn’t that unusual but the grouping of these particular Orishas together is what makes it unique. In order to understand how this portrayal of the Seven African Powers came about, we need to explore another spiritualist tradition called Santerismo. Santerismo developed out of Puerto Rican Espiritismo (Spiritualism) blended with Orisha worship outside of a Lucumí ritual framework. In Santerismo it is common for spiritualist mediums to become possessed by Catholic saints referring to themselves by the names of the Orishas. Santerismo really began to take root in the Puerto Rican community in New York City in the 1950’s shortly after Celina Gonzalez’s song “¡Que Viva Changó!” came out in 1948. The song’s lyrics really display a close syncretization between Saint Barbara and Chango, and the spiritualist community ran with it. Santerismo is NOT Santeria (Lucumí/Lukumi). Santerismo is a spiritualist tradition open to personal revelation while Santeria is an initiatory religion with strict rules. The term “Seven African Powers” is something that exists in Santeria, but they are not the Orishas, they are spirits of the dead – guides – that we’ll discuss a bit later. But the spiritualists in Santerismo didn’t understand the difference and they assumed they were the Orishas themselves.

It is also interesting to note that the image of the seven Catholic saints put together in that manner, along with the proliferation of magical supplies dedicated to the Seven African Powers didn’t really come about until the 1970’s and 80’s corresponding with an influx of Latinos into the United States especially from Puerto Rico after a referendum in 1951 officially made Puerto Rico a commonwealth of the U.S. The second generation of Puerto Rican kids was born in the 70’s and 80’s and many of them were born and raised in New York amid the Espiritismo tradition’s influences.

The Seven African Powers Are Spirit Guides Not Orishas

A historical drawing of an Abakuá Ñáñigo

The Seven African Powers are actually spirits of the dead from the seven different African tribes that were brought to Cuba and forced into slavery. Within a Santeria (Lucumi/Lukumi) cosmological understanding, the Seven African Powers are araorún (citizens of heaven – dead spirits) – they are not usually Egun (ancestors of blood or initiatory lineage). When a person speaks of the Seven African Powers they refer to a group of 7 different spirits, one from each of the following tribes: Yoruba, Congo, Takua, Kissi, Calabari, Arará, and Mandika. A person who has a connection with the Seven African Powers will have one spirit guide from each of these tribes unique to him, and one of the seven will dominate the group and orchestrate their efforts. This is an interesting cultural reflection of the history of Cuba where these seven formerly hostile tribes were forced to live and work together to survive.

Within the diloggun oracle’s corpus of information, the Seven African Powers are heavily referenced in the odu Edigbere (7-8). Interestingly, this odu also speaks about the importance of the drum as a tool to call down the Orishas and it also speaks about the power of Congolese magic within the religion of Palo Monte. If a person were to receive the odu 7-8 in a diloggun reading it would indicate that they have the Seven African Powers in their court of spirit guides and it would be up to them to use Spiritualism (Espiritismo) to determine who they are, what their names are and who is the primary one that heads the seven. A strong relationship with that one leading spirit guide allows that person to call upon the support of all seven spirits in any endeavor. The Seven African Powers are called upon for help with spiritual evolution, overcoming obstacles, and cultivation of personal power. Anyone can petition the Seven African Powers as they are spirit guides and everyone, initiated or not, have access to spirits of the dead for their guidance. Typically they are petitioned by lighting vigil candles that are of 7 colors, or using 7 different candles of different colors. It is also traditional to tie strips of cloth or handkerchiefs of seven different colors in a bundle. By whirling this bundle of loose multicolored cloth in the air over your head, as you call the Seven African Powers and petition them for help, you’ll be calling upon the ancestral spirits of these seven tribes to work.

Who are the Orishas?

A depiction of the Orisha Yemayá dancing.

Who exactly are the Orishas? Why do some people call them The Saints? Why do some folks point to a statue of Saint Barbara and call it Shangó? This is one of the many confusing things for newcomers to Santeria and it is the drawback of syncretism.

Long before the Lucumí people were brought to Cuba in the slave trade, Christian missionaries were already present in Subsaharan Africa doing their best to convert people to their religions. One of the ways missionaries bridged the cultural gap between traditional African religion and Catholicism was to point out similarities in their beliefs. This made conversion away from traditional religion and into Catholicism much smoother and often a very natural transition for the Yoruba people. So long before the Lucumí ended up in Cuba they were already drawing parallels between Catholic saints and the Orishas. But to get to the bottom of it, you need to understand how we view God and the Orishas in Santeria.

In Santeria we call God Olodumare, Olorun or Olofi (three names for one force). Olodumare is God the creator. Olorun is God the owner of heaven (sometimes perceived as the Sun). Olofi is seen as God the ruler over the earth. But these three names for God are all seen as one generative force that created all of the universe.

Olodumare created everything: heaven, earth, the animals, and breathed life into humanity. Olodumare is beyond any gender labels but I personally prefer to refer to Olodumare as the divine feminine generative force or “She”. According to our patakis (legends), Olodumare created everything, created the Orishas (Her oldest children) and assigned a portion of Her ashé (power, life force) to each of the Orishas. She gave them dominion over nature and mankind. Then Olodumare departed, rather annoyed with humanity and our annoying tendencies, and left the Orishas to tend to our affairs. For this reason, Olodumare is perceived as a distant and relatively uninvolved creator goddess. While we do praise Olodumare with every ritual invocation, we actually interact on a daily basis with the Orishas.

Depending on how you break down the word Orisha, it either means “selected head” (as in God’s selected ones to rule) or “streams of consciousness” (as in the currents of ashé that emanate from Olodumare). The Orishas have a vested interest in mankind. They intercede on our behalf when we pray to them, engage them with ebó (offerings) and they change our destinies for the better. The Orishas can also put obstacles in our way to test our character or to see if we will conduct ourselves with integrity, humility and respect. The Orishas are not gods and goddesses, but they are Olodumare’s divine chosen children who watch over us. In many ways it was natural for Christian missionaries to compare the Orishas to Saints. Saints are not God but they are divine messengers who intercede on the behalf of humanity when we pray. The parallels were clearly there and missionaries took advantage of that to begin drawing Lucumí initiates into Catholic worship.

Saint Lazarus statue with offerings to the Orisha Babalú Ayé(hand made cape, baskets panuelos and eleke by Rosita Eleggua) 

When the slaves were taken to the Americas, the practice of syncretizing saints with Orishas was already occurring, and it afforded the slaves an opportunity to continue practicing their traditional Lucumí beliefs without their slave masters getting too suspicious. The practice of calling the Orishas saints became firmly entrenched in the religious practices of Santeria. It is so prevalent that many practitioners will refer to the Orishas by their syncretized saint names more often than their Lucumí names. For example, it is much more common for a practitioner of Santeria to call Babalú Ayé by the name Saint Lazarus. Other Orishas succumbed to the same fate:

There are many other examples of syncretism but these are the most common ones. So for the common folk, a loud clap of thunder evoked fear of Changó, but they would all proclaim “Hail Saint Barbara!” Syncretism even resulted in the Lucumí people holding sacred drum ceremonies (Añá – Tambor de Fundamento) on Catholic saint feast days; parading through the streets while playing  African batá drums and carrying saint statues.

But now that the colonial times are over, people are realizing the impact that Catholicism and slavery had on Santeria. More people are moving away from syncretism toward a more traditionally African way of worship. As anyone who has been initiated in La Regla Lucumí can tell you, the Catholic façade quickly drops away once you enter our sacred room of worship. More practitioners of Santeria are now praying exclusively in Lucumí instead of in Spanish. More are pushing aside saint statues and preferring traditional beadwork, cowrie shell ornamentation and African ways of decorating their shrines. There is even a movement in Santeria to do away with the word Santeria itself and use the proper term Lucumí (Lukumí) which comes from the African saying “my friends” or the religion of my people.

In the strictest sense, the Orishas are not saints, they are Olodumare’s eldest children sent to intercede on our behalf and help us achieve our greatest destiny. They are extensions of Olodumare’s power, streams of her ashé that we can tap into for personal development and spiritual evolution. They speak Lucumí (Lukumí) and don’t respond to prayers to Jehovah. They dance with us, speak to us and encourage us to live life fully and develop good character. They are the pillars of our faith and the Santeria Church of the Orishas is dedicated to raising awareness about them.

Welcome to the Santería Church of the Orishas

Ekun Dayo's throne commemorating the anniversary of his initiation.

The Santeria Church of the Orishas is dedicated to the worship of Olodumare (God), the Orishas and our Egun (Ancestors). Our church adheres to the tenets and practices of Santeria (La Regla Lucumi/Lukumí) and welcomes all who are interested in learning more about Santeria, the Orishas, the ancestors or traditional Afro-Cuban religions. We are based in the Greater Los Angeles area of California.

We offer educational services in the form of in-person clases, online articles and lectures at local colleges and universities. Our religious services include spiritual guidance through Diloggún divination (Santeria Cowrie Shell readings), Obí readings (Santeria coconut readings), spiritualist mediumship readings, in-person cleansings, ebós (rituals), initiations and Egun (Ancestor) veneration meetings.

The Santeria Church of the Orishas is a part of the Missionary Independent Spiritual Church movement from Forestville, California.

We believe in the immanence of spirit, the intercessory power of prayer, and the efficacy of the practice of setting vigil lights for petitions and praise.