Historically, culturally and liturgically speaking, Santería has always been a religion that honors women and upholds their importance in society. Some of the most important and pivotal figures in the history of Santeria have been women. Women shaped the way our religion evolved in the new world. Women preserved the lore of our religion by passing on the secrets of our ceremonies, our sacred songs, and the lexicon of information found in our divination systems. Plainly put, Santería is a women’s religion.
The Yoruba were always a matrilineal people. Women held great power in the function of their culture and politics. While the Yoruba tribes were patriarchal in the sense that men held the roles of kings and chiefs, the women of the tribes ran the family and orchestrated daily life. The importance of women can even be seen in the powerful female orishas that are found in the pantheon of Santeria. Yemayá is the mother of all living things, who owns all waters and is queen of heaven and of the earth. Oshún, her younger sister is the orisha of the river, the essence of femininity, sensuality, beauty and is a powerful witch and seductress. Oyá is a fierce female warrior orisha who rides the whirlwind, wields a machete, throws lightning and fights by Shangó’s side as his equal. Obba is the queen orisha who descended into the underworld and transformed herself from a rejected outcast, to a powerful sorceress wielding the powers of life and death. While not an orisha, Ikú – the force of death – is often portrayed as female in our patakis (legends). Even Olodumare – the creator deity – is gender-neutral leaning female in Her role as creator of the universe. Women are known to be powerful and important at the heart of Santeria’s religious practice.
Influential Women in Santeria
Many women have played important roles in the history of Santeria. These are some of the more well known women – many of whom are found in the moyuba prayer that all initiates recite in our religious practice. Know that when you call upon the names of these mighty ancestors, you are calling upon the ache of women and the important contributions they made in Santeria.
Oba Tero (Ma Monserrate González), a Yoruban slave from the city of Egbado and priestess of Shangó, was brought to Havana, Cuba in the 1840’s and made her way to Matanzas after a conflict with Efunché Warikondo and Latuan (who dominated Santeria practice in Havana). She was one of the most influential founders of Santeria in Matanzas. She carried the “asiento” style initiation and her unique Egbado-centric practices to Matanzas, establishing the differences between Matanzas lineages and Havana lineages. She was a prominent oriate in our religion.
Her goddaughter, Ocha Bi (Ferminita Gómez) a priestess of Yemayá was instrumental in preserving the Lukumí tradition of Olokun worship and most santeros who have received Olokun have received their orisha from her lineage of descendants. This was especially important because she wrestled the control of Olokun’s mysteries away from the Babalawos, preserving an Ocha-centric lineage of his mysteries.
Efunché Warikondó (Rosalía Abreú) a powerful priestess and head of the Cabildo San Jose 80 (a mutual aid society for slaves) was one of the most influential figures in establishing the asiento style of kariocha (crowning as a priest) in Santeria. The slaves of Havana worked together to buy her freedom from slavery. She claimed to be of royal Yoruban blood. She along with Ayají Latuán (Timotea Albear – a powerful and prominent oriaté) at one point controlled the entire religion of Santeria’s practice within the city of Havana, Cuba. No one could operate in the city without their approval. These two women worked together to standardize and establish the Oyo-centric “asiento” style of kariocha in Santeria. This style of initiation, where the new priest receives multiple orishas in addition to his tutelary orisha, has become the standard practice for those being initiated into the priesthood for 95% of Olorishas. There is a minor variant that comes out of Matanzas as established by Oba Tero (previously mentioned) – but that ceremony is also an “asiento” style of initiation.
Aurora Lamar (goddaughter of Efunché and a priestess of Aggayú) was the founder of the Ataré Lineage (Pimienta Lineage) of Santeria named after the Atare neighborhood of Havana, Cuba in which she lived. She had hundreds or even thousands of godchildren that she initiated, and was known for initiating people and allowing them to pay in installments. This resulted in her nickname of “La China del Ten Cent” (The Chinese-looking woman of the ten-cent store) because you could pay in ten-cent installments for your initiation.
Women were oriates and are still able to be oriates in Santeria. Women were mighty godmothers initiating hundreds of people. Women divined with diloggún and gave orishas to people. Women truly consolidated Santeria’s practices from the fragments of various tribal religious traditions into one cohesive religion.
The Decline of Women’s Power in Santeria
As the Lucumi people were immersed in Spanish colonial culture, there was a marked clash of values between their women-centered native culture, and male-centered Cuban culture. This along with the interference of Ifa’s male-centered culture in the early 1900’s caused women to lose power and position in Santeria over time.
Spanish colonial influence is also evident in the roles that women are typically assigned in modern Santeria. Women are usually left to be cooks, cleaners in the igbodu (sacred room) or as seamstresses for garments and altar decorations. While all of these roles are sacred and important, historically women were the leaders and lore-keepers of Santeria. They were oriates, they officiated initiations, sacrificed animals with the knife, butchered animals, and performed all of the other tasks stereotypically relegated to men. Women were some of the most powerful diviners using the diloggun, yet this role is now typically assigned to men.
Clearing Up Misconceptions About Women in Santeria
There are many misconceptions about women in Santeria and many superstitions have arisen around what women can and can’t do in the religion. At the Santeria Church of the Orishas we strive to dispel any misconceptions that are not firmly rooted in our cultural, historic or liturgical traditions. We also work actively to restore women to their honored role as leaders in Santeria (Lucumi/Lukumi).
Misconception: A woman cannot be an oriate
Truth: Due to the patriarchal Cuban culture that pervades modern Santeria, women have been mistakenly taught that they cannot be oriates (masters of ceremonies). Women like those mentioned above were oriates in the past and women can still be oriates today. In fact there are currently female oriates in the United States (at least two that I know of) and there are several more in Cuba. There is nothing to prohibit or prevent a woman from being an oriate. Often people will claim that a menstruating woman cannot be an oriate. This is a misconception as well. When women are on their period they cannot be near the sacred vessels of the orishas – this is true. There is a traditional taboo that prohibits menstruating women from touching our sacred orisha vessels and implements, but women are not constantly on their period. When they are not actively bleeding, they can still participate fully in religious ceremonies: they can divine and they can be oriates, including sitting on the mat and performing itá. This misconception is probably rooted in the misogynist taboos inherited from Spanish male-centered culture or from fear around the natural processes of a woman’s body.
Misconception: Women cannot make an Eleggua, give Warriors or wash Eleggua
Truth: This is a misconception with roots in Ifá and in Cuban patriarchal culture. In Ifá the construction of Eshu (mistakenly equated with Eleggua) is relegated to Babalawos only. But this is not Eleggua. Eleggua of Ocha is constructed by an Olorisha not a Babalawo. It is birthed in a special ceremony by olorishas (not babalawos) and is used in the Kariocha ceremony when a person is made a priest/priestess in Santeria. The Eshu of Ifá is not used in that ceremony and should never go to a person’s head in Kariocha (ordination ceremony). Elegguá of Ocha can indeed be made by women. Women can be initiated into the sect of Eleggua as a priestess. Women can initiate another individual as a priest or priestess of Elegguá as well. If they can do these things, they can most certainly make the “small version” of Eleggua given in the reception of The Warriors (Guerreros). They can also wash Elegguá in the sacred room when he is being birthed, and can wash his diloggun too. There is no taboo against women doing this, and the excuse that “the energy of a man must be present to make Eleggua” is misogynistic superstition perpetuated by Ifá and patriarchal Cuban culture. Many will argue this point and I expect to receive much backlash on this point alone.
Misconception: Women cannot read diloggún
Truth: Women can indeed read diloggún and have been some of the most powerful readers in our religion’s past. Women also have the ability and right to perform itá (a life reading), providing they are not actively on their period. They can read on a table or on the mat. Some will dispute this claiming that a woman of menstruating age cannot read on the mat. To refute this claim I offer patakis that describe both Oshún and Yemayá reading with diloggún on the mat. There’s even a pataki (legend) describing Yemayá performing ebó até (ebó of the mat) which requires the reader to be seated on the mat. If these powerful female orishas did it, then women can certainly do it. In fact, because of her mastery of the tool, the diloggún was given to Yemayá for her to use, and her husband (at the time) Orunmila, was given the okuele by Olofi to divine. Women can read diloggun, always have, and should always be allowed to. (Keeping in mind the exception for women who are actively having their period.)
Misconception: Women cannot sacrifice animals with the knife
Truth: Women can receive the initiation of Pinaldo (Pinadu) where they receive the knife and are given the permission to sacrifice animals with the knife. As part of this initiation, the initiate must sacrifice animals with the knife. If a woman can receive pinaldo she must sacrifice an animal as part of the initiation and therefore is given license to sacrifice animals. Some will dispute and say that sacrificing animals carries to “hot” or chaotic of spiritual energy to it and it could cause the woman to have menstrual issues. This is particularly damning evidence of misogynist patriarchal misunderstandings of women’s menstruation, perhaps fear of a woman’s mysteries, and is total nonsense. In traditional African society women sacrificed animals and butchered them for food. If a woman can receive the knife or be crowned as a priestess of Ogún (the embodiment of the knife’s cutting edge) she can certainly wield the knife for eyebale (blood sacrifice).
Misconception: Women cannot be initiated as a priestess of Chango. It will give her manly characteristics or make her into a lesbian.
Truth: The fact that this misconception even exists is ridiculous. The orisha to whom one is initiated does not change one’s sexual orientation. It does not change a person’s characteristics either. In fact, a person’s tutelary orisha is the one in best alignment with that person’s natural energy and destiny. You aren’t changing someone by initiating them, you are lining them up with their destiny. If a woman is legitimately a child of Changó then she should be initiated as a priestess of Chango. Additionally, in Yoruba practice women lead the worship of Chango. They would kneel before his shrine and hold up their bare breasts to him in supplication. Any men crowned as priests of Chango would grow their hair out long and braid it like women, then wear skirts when worshipping Chango. The thought was that Changó was such a “ladies’ man” that he would only answer the prayers of a woman. The misconception that women will become manly if crowned as a priestess of Chango is something that flies in the direct face of cultural tradition and historical evidence. It is nothing more than misogyny and homophobia in action.
At the Santeria Church of the Orishas, we strive to educate others about the misconceptions that are commonly found in Santeria and to give historical and cultural evidence to disprove these misconceptions. We hope that you’ll think about what we’ve provided here in this article and determine for yourselves what makes sense and what is just superstition. Women have always been at the heart of Santeria and they, like our powerful female orishas, deserve to be treated with respect, honor and held in the highest regard.