Ancestors within Santería

Photo by Mary Ann Clark

This post is the next in my series introducing you to the Afro-Cuban religion of Santería.

This is the religion I practice alongside my participation in the local Unitarian Universalist Congregation. In this first post, I will talk about the history of this religion, from its origins in West Africa to its settlement in the United States and other countries of the Americas and around the world. The second post was a look at ideas about the cosmology and our place in it. In this post we will consider our relationship with our ancestors. Then I will do an introduction to the Orisha, the deities of this pantheon. If you want to know more about this religious tradition, I would encourage you to pick up my book Santeria: Correcting the Myths and Uncovering the Realities of a Growing Religion available from as either a hard cover or ebook.

Everyone has ancestors. Some of us can name our family back two or three generations, others have done a deep genealogical search. Many people today have multiple family lines, including step and adoptive members. Some of us recognize non-blood relations as ancestors, people like certain heroes and role models, as well as individuals who have served family roles during our childhood or even later. If we are religious, we might also recognize people who had a significant impact on our religious development or sponsored our introduction into the deeper portions as ancestors.

From the Yoruba viewpoint a human being consists of different parts including the physical body (ara), the heart, the breath (emi) and the head (ori). They also believe in several “souls” one of which remains in orun (the invisible world, sometimes call “heaven”) and is available to help its descendants and another that returns to ayie(the visible world, sometimes call “earth”) for another life. Unlike the view in some Eastern traditions, from this viewpoint human life and continual reincarnation is considered a good thing. The Yoruba say, “Orun is home, but Ayie is the marketplace.” Home is where we go when we grow old and tire, needing to rest up, but the marketplace is “where the action is.” People go to the market to meet their friends, buy and sell their goods. Home is calm, the marketplace is alive with activity. Home, as many of us have discovered over the past year, can become boring. The Yoruba often see their ancestors reborn in their children who carry some of the physical characteristics or personality traits of those who have died. So apparently, orun is also boring as people appear to live long lives and come back to ayie quickly.

Santería provides a way to ritually honor all of our egun, all of these ancestors. For many people, their introduction to the practices begins with the construction of one or more sacred spaces (altars) to these ancestors.

According to West and West Central African ideas, the boundary between the visible world (ayie) of everyday life and the invisible world (orun) that is home to the ancestors and other beings is through water. We are born in a gush of water and after death travel across water. For this reason, many people will build an egun shrine in a cabinet below a sink in either a bathroom or the kitchen. That places this space close to the ground, where our ancestors’ bodies reside, and close to a source of water, the pathway between the worlds.

An egun shrine many honor blood and non-blood relatives, members of one’s religious family, and others important to the individual’s physical and spiritual development. The space will often include offerings of water and other drinks, such as coffee or rum which the ancestors may have preferred in life, small plates of food taken from that prepared for oneself and the family, candles, photos, dolls, and other items reminiscent of the folks being honored.

This shrine provides a place who one may go to reconnect with those who have passed on to the invisible world. Since everyone has ancestors, both recognized and unknown, everyone can construct such a shrine. In fact, those who feel a call to this religion are often encouraged to first set up an egun shrine as a way to begin their journey along the path to become more involved in the tradition by connecting with their ancestors. As one accepts initiations into the religion, one can also include one’s religious ancestors, those who initiated those who initiated you in this space.

The Yoruba people of West Africa and the Kongolese people of Central Africa are among the ancestors of many African-heritage people in the America and the founders of Santería and other African-based religious in the Americas. Both groups had complex and sophisticated rituals developed to honor their ancestors. However, many of these traditions were lost in the New World environments. In the 19th century, a new tradition developed in France and soon made its way around the world and into the Caribbean. Allan Kardec (born H. Leon Denizard Rivail in 1804) developed a way of speaking with the dead that became known as Spiritualism (Espiritismo). Kardec understood the soul to be an immaterial fluid that animates the human body. When a person dies, this fluid separates from the body and becomes a disembodied spirit that may roam the material and immaterial realms until it is reincarnated into a new human being in either this world or another. Important to Kardec’s original followers, the conversations they had with these beings were the scientific proofs of continued existence.

Many followers of Santería have incorporated the ideas and rituals of Espiritismo into their religious practices, beginning with the construction of an altar or bovida as a second sacred space for honoring non-ancestral spirit guides and helpers. Standard basic boveda is a table covered with pure white cotton cloth. On it are place 5,7, or 9 glasses filled to the brim with water. You can add a white “seven day” candle or two regular white candles as well as other items such as flowers, a crucifix or symbols of other faith traditions and representations of one’s spirit guides and helpers. Some people add food and drink, although others think these “profane” items don’t have a place on an altar to incorporeal spirits.

A boveda should be balanced and beautiful, a calm space for interacting with pure, light, white, productive, helpful, and needful spirits welcomed there. Although practitioners of Espiritismo get together for rituals designed to call these spirit guides into presence, and individual can also use their personal boveda as a point of connection as well.

What about you? Have you tried building sacred spaces in your home for ancestors, role models or other sacred beings? Have you incorporated this space into your personal religious practice? Let us know about your ideas and experiences in the comments.

Thank you for reading. Feel free to follow me on FaceBook, and Twitter (@drmaryann), and join Dr Mary Ann’s Academy to receive free periodic emails about my newest projects and get a copy of Dr Mary Ann’s Commonplace Book:



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Mary Ann

Recognized an as authority on Afro-Caribbean religions, Mary Ann's newest passion is speculative fiction. Heart of a teacher.