A Santeria ritual in a Havana Rainforest

On a panoramic tour of Havana, we were taken to a rainforest. I knew Cuba was lush and tropical but I didn’t really expect to see a rainforest on our culture and arts itinerary. The drapery of emerald green swags billowing from the tree limbs was magical. The rushing waters of the river were captivating at that time of the day as it was almost dusk and the lighting was surreal. The waves were steadily and aggressively lapping up which created an incredibly romantic and haunting tone. As we descended some rugged terrain into the riverbank area, I noticed three people at the water’s edge. I could tell these locals were involved in something authentic. 

There were some challenging areas to sidestep as we navigated down the steep hills and stones to reach them. (photo below by Rebecca) Once I reached the shore, I didn’t have any time to really focus my camera on the best settings but I just started shooting! Fortunately, the light was so unbelievably perfect during these “magic hours” for photos. I snapped away, knowing I’d read up later and study what it was I witnessed during this lucky timing.

My pictures revealed that two chickens (or a rooster) were rubbed on the lady’s body and possibly on the younger girl, too. There was a cup collecting drained blood, possibly from a decapitated chicken but I’m not completely sure that is what happened during this specific ritual. When I studied up on Santeria spiritual cleansing rituals, later, this is what I learned:

The Santeria church of the Orisha uses this ritual as a catharsis of negative energies and disturbances. They also use egg cleansing, spiritual baths, and sarayeye which is a ceremonial cleansing that uses bundled herbs or the rubbing of a feathered animal over a person’s body.

Magic spells and rituals sometimes include blood sacrifices. In certain voodoo practices, the use of life forces offered up in sacrifice revitalizes the spirits. In another article I read, I learned about a Cuban healer who slits rooster’s throats with a butcher knife and lets the blood (and absorbed evil) splatter at the person’s feet.

The origin of such rituals came from the time that these practices were brought to the Caribbean by West African slaves. In order for Santeria to survive in the time of  plantation-owners and Spanish missionaries, Santeria adopted elements of Catholicism by incorporating their idols and renamed African gods within the images of Catholic saints. The Yoruba gods (orishas) were merged with the saints in this fusion of religious traditions. The latter allowed them to adjust  to the religion of their masters.

African animism blended with Catholic saints and contributed to the recognition of St. Lazarus being their patron saint of healing. Formerly known as Babalu Aye, this orisha (spirit) was associated with disease and healing.

In the rainforest, we found a chicken skeleton and goat’s skull on the ground. Reportedly, the carcasses of the animals are sacrificed as gifts for the gods. This thicketed forest happens to be a favorite setting for Santeria devotees to practice their ritual. An exotic bird, which resembled a vulture (but pretty), soared around the river and landed to rest. Even a Cuban vulture is more flamboyant and exotic! It swooped and dove in and around trees and seemed to skitter across the water. The vultures are sniffing out the freshly sacrificed animals as the life force (ashe) is given up to the gods of Santeria, leaving the carcasses behind for the predatory birds.

These are only a few details of spiritual cleansing rituals and I’m curious to learn more. My tour guide thinks the reason I may have been permitted to get this close to take photos is because I was coincidentally wearing an all-white outfit which happens to be the folk dress of the Santeria religion. He believes that the people may have thought I was “one of them”. I don’t know if that is true but I felt fortunate to witness their ritual. For the sake of privacy, I am somewhat relieved the photos have dark shadows so that their faces aren’t directly exposed in the photos I’ve included here. I have other more detailed photos with graphic details but for the sake of introduction and general information, I am only including these photos. This landmark with its exposed spiritual practice remains one of the most powerful images I saw and experienced in Cuba. To see this live rather than only read about it or see representations in museums made our Cuba experience very authentic and alive.

photos by Gina Kingsley

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