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The Living Traditions of Santeria

Written by Marta Moreno VegaAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Marta Moreno Vega

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On Sale: July 22, 2009
Pages: 304 | ISBN: 978-0-307-56710-9
Published by : One World/Ballantine Ballantine Group
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Synopsis

Long cloaked in protective secrecy, demonized by Western society, and distorted by Hollywood, Santería is at last emerging from the shadows with an estimated 75 million orisha followers worldwide. In The Altar of My Soul, Marta Moreno Vega recounts the compelling true story of her journey from ignorance and skepticism to initiation as a Yoruba priestess in the Santería religion. This unforgettable spiritual memoir reveals the long-hidden roots and traditions of a centuries-old faith that originated on the shores of West Africa.

As an Afro-Puerto Rican child in the New York barrio, Marta paid little heed to the storefront botanicas full of spiritual paraphernalia or to the Catholic saints with foreign names: Yemayá, Ellegua, Shangó. As an adult, in search of a religion that would reflect her racial and cultural heritage, Marta was led to the Way of the Saints. She came to know Santería intimately through its prayers and rituals, drumming and dancing, trances and divination that spark sacred healing energy for family, spiritual growth, and service to others. Written by one who is a professor and a santera priestess, The Altar of My Soul lays before us an electrifying and inspiring faith–one passed down from generation to generation that vitalizes the sacred energy necessary to build a family, a community, and a strong, loving society.

Excerpt

OLODUMARE THE UNKNOWN IS THE PATH TO KNOWLEDGE

The orisha Olodumare, the Supreme God, originally lived in the lower part of heaven, overlooking endless stretches of water. One day, Olodumare decided to create Earth, and sent an emissary, the orisha Obatalá, to perform this task. Olodumare gave Obatalá the materials he needed to create the world: a small bag of loose earth, a gold chain, and a five-toed hen.

Obatalá was instructed to use the chain to descend from heaven. When he reached the last link, he piled the loose earth on top of the water. Next, he placed the hen on the pile of earth, and ordered her to scatter the earth with her toes across the surface of the water.

When this was finished, Obatalá climbed the chain to heaven to report his success to Olodumare. Olodumare then sent his trusted assistant, the chameleon, to verify that the earth was dry. When his helper had assured him that the Earth was solid, Olodumare named Earth “Ile Ife,” the sacred house.

Before he retired to the uppermost level of heaven, Olodumare decided to distribute his sacred powers—aché. He united Obatalá, the orisha of creation, and Yemayá, the orisha of the ocean, who gave birth to a pantheon of orishas, each possessing a share of Olodumare’s sacred power. At last, the divine power of Olodumare was dispersed. Then one day, Olodumare called them all from Earth to heaven and gave Obatalá the sacred power to create human life. Obatalá returned to Earth and created our ancestors, endowing them with his own divine power. We are all descendants from the first people of the sacred city of Ile Ife; we are all children of Olodumare, the sacred orisha who created the world.

It was ten o’clock on Monday morning, August 25, 1997, when I arrived at the home of Doña Rosa, a Santería priestess of Yemayá. A short, wiry woman the color of sweet chocolate syrup, Doña Rosa was dressed in blue-and-white gingham in honor of her patron, Orisha Yemayá. She often lent her home to my godmother for initiation ceremonies, since her five-room, street-level apartment was large, had a small inside patio, and was centrally located in Havana, Cuba.

Doña Rosa greeted me with a warm embrace and then led me into the kitchen to await instructions from my godmother, my madrina, Zenaida, who was in a room off the kitchen, hidden by a white curtain, finalizing preparations for the ceremony that was about to begin. My madrina was planning to initiate a young Puerto Rican ritual drummer, omo añya, Paco Fuentes, into the Santería religion. He was to receive the aché of his patron, Orisha Shangó. Today was the asiento, the ritual that would ceremoniously place the aché of Shangó on the head of the new initiate.

Doña Rosa asked that I sit on a high wooden stool to await the portion of the ceremony in which I would participate. She offered me a glass of water and said, “My daughter, it is only ten o’clock in the morning and the heat is already close to ninety degrees.” Momentarily cooled by the water, I waited patiently for the ceremony to begin. The apartment was swarming with activity as the priestesses, the santeras, iyalorishas, prepared lunch. I tried to relax in the midst of the mounting excitement as santeras and santeros, babalorishas, the priests, hurried about collecting dishes, placing the sacrificial animals on the patio, and arranging the plants that would be used in the ceremony.

During Paco’s ceremony, I would be an active participant undergoing the ritual, permitting me to initiate others. One of the rules of the religion is that an initiate must witness the ceremony that was performed on them. This assures that the initiate will understand all the steps that they went through in the various ceremonies for initiation. It is also a way of passing on information, learning rituals through an apprenticeship process.

The yellow walls of Doña Rosa’s apartment had turned gray with age; the forties-style furniture showed signs of collapsing from the years of wear and the countless makeshift repairs. The santeras were busy sweeping the floors, decorating, and cooking in anticipation of the visitors who would later come to celebrate the birth of the new initiate. The humming voices of the priestesses and priests mingled with the screeching cries of the sacrificial goats and chickens that were fenced outdoors in the open courtyard between the living room and the kitchen. Recently washed red-and-white curtains were gently waving in the courtyard breeze, causing the animals to squawk louder from fright.

The kitchen felt like a steam bath. There was a hot fog billowing from the large aluminum pots of boiling rice, beans, chicken fricassee, and goat stew being prepared for lunch. I was nervous because for the first time I would be participating in certain portions of the ceremony that would prepare me to initiate others into the Santería religion.

When the orishas unveiled my destiny eighteen years ago, I was doubtful of all that they said lay ahead of me. As a new initiate, I was just beginning my explorations of Santería, and I thought the diviner’s prediction that I would eventually become a madrina with godchildren of my own was preposterous. I should have trusted my godfather Elpidio’s advice always to have faith in the orishas, for their word is truth.

Every fifteen days, my godchildren and I sit and conduct a misa, a ceremony in honor of our ancestors. Before and after these sessions, we discuss the role of the orishas in our lives, and the differences we are experiencing in our lives as we become one with our spirits. Our sessions, like all new experiences, began tentatively as I struggled to accept that my long years of study would prepare me to take on a greater level of responsibility.

When I at last placed the chairs for my godchildren in a circle in front of my bóveda, my ancestral altar table, I began to feel the spiritual energy fill my living room. The rays of the afternoon Sunday sun seemed to brighten as I set my bóveda in the center of the room. My hands shook as I tried to light the match for the candle to be placed before the ancestor altar. Suddenly the flame soared higher than it should have, and the room filled with the luminous energies of my spirit mothers; I knew then everything would be fine.

As a priestess and godmother, when I bring my godchildren together, I teach them the patakís, the teaching tales or parables of the orishas. The patakís form the heart of my religion. They are our poetry, our myths, and they bring wisdom and spiritual splendor into our lives. Through our patakís we come to know the powers of the orishas, learning lessons through the orishas’ adventures. With my godchildren seated before me, I began: “Today, I am going to speak to you of honor, the honoring of the orishas, the honoring of our ancestors, and of ourselves. Because all rituals must open and close with Ellegua, the orisha of the crossroads, I will begin with a story of Ellegua, the trickster and the god of balance, the orisha of both beginnings and endings.

“A youthful, childlike orisha, Ellegua is an active and mischievous divinity. In this story, he is walking down a dirt road after having caused havoc in a village. Disturbed because the inhabitants of the village had not honored him, Ellegua decided to create imbalance in their lives. Everything that used to be right, he made wrong. Ellegua dried the wells and filled them with sand. He made wild animals tame. The villagers were baffled.”

Ellegua’s actions caused tremendous confusion in the village. The villagers could not light fires to cook their food. They had no water to drink, and their farms were barren and dry. The angry villagers went out looking for Ellegua on the same road he had taken leading out of the town. They knew he would be easy to identify because he had been seen dressed in black. In reality, though, as I told my audience, this was only partly true, for he wore his traditional ritual colors—red on one side and black on the other.

As he walked on, Ellegua had a change of heart. He decided to return to the village and give the villagers the opportunity to repent for their disrespectful behavior and to honor him properly. But when he saw that they were consumed with anger, he decided to play a trick on them to teach them a lesson. In their temper and impatience, they still had not learned from their mistakes.

One of the villagers, noticing Ellegua dressed in red, asked him if he had seen a man dressed in black. Ellegua shook his head, smiled, and said, “No, I have not seen this man.” Without thinking, the villagers continued on the road looking for Ellegua, while Ellegua returned to the town, sat down, and waited. He knew that after a fruitless search, the angry villagers would return to their town with a change of heart.

And, of course, he was right. The villagers returned, tired and chastened, having recognized the error of their ways. They then set about preparing the ritual ceremonies required by Ellegua; he, in turn, set their lives in balance once again.

“Ellegua teaches us that we must look at all sides of the story in order to make an informed decision,” I carefully shared with my godchildren the lesson of this tale. “He reminds us that the obvious is not always the correct answer. He shows us there is much more to gain if we stop, think, and reflect before taking an action.”

Through our patakís, Santería teaches us the many ways of seeing the world to better understand our path in life. Santería encourages us to see and understand the sum total of the parts. To be one-dimensional in our thinking is to leave out a vast realm of possibilities, choices, and solutions. Ellegua teaches us to search actively for and to open the spiritual and secular doors to self-healing and empowerment. Other orishas have their own lessons, their own strands of wisdom to teach us. Woven together, their stories, energy, and power create a beautiful spiritual tapestry that is filled with portraits of pilgrims from many cultures, many faiths.

In recounting the grand pantheon of orishas to my students, I ask them to imagine a strong, ancient tree standing beside a beautiful, glistening ocean. The father of all orishas, Obatalá, is like the roots of that tree; the mother, Yemayá, is like the water that nurtures and gives life to the tree. The Supreme Orisha, Olodumare, could be said to be the one who planted the seed of this tree. And the orishas, the many gods and goddesses who represent all aspects of life and living, the children of Yemayá and Obatalá, are like the very highest branches, those closest to Olodumare in the highest reaches of heaven.

I ask my godchildren to envision, just below the highest branches, the enlightened spirits of their ancestors. Beneath those enlightened spirits is where the spirits who need prayer would reside, and on the lowest branches are where humans would dwell. With this symbol of a tree, I teach my godchildren the sacred hierarchy of our religion.

I tell them that just as one branch on a tree has many boughs, each of the orishas has several roads, or caminos. And on each road, the orishas will manifest their powers, their aché, in a different manner. Like the orishas, we, too, have many caminos—I am a mother, grandmother, professor, godmother, and priestess; yet I do not cease to be Marta. Similarly, Yemayá, the mother of the orishas and the goddess of the ocean, has several caminos, and among them are the following: Yemayá Asesú, who moves slowly like the foam at the seashore; Yemayá Okotó, who lives in a bed of seashells and loves to be surrounded by pink and blue; and Yemayá Akuara, who lives where salt and fresh water meet and who can be both humble and haughty.

In her many manifestations, Yemayá is always the orisha of salt water, and her caminos reflect the many characteristics she possesses. Like Yemayá, each one of the orishas holds domain over a force of nature. Some orishas are guardians; others are responsible for birth, health, and community; some are orishas of creation; still others protect the Earth.

There are more than 401 orishas—the number one symbolizes the infinite range of the orisha pantheon. Each orisha represents an aspect of nature’s energy, helping us to understand that we are, in fact, one with nature. Collectively, the orishas represent the infinite elements in nature: water, earth, wind, fire, trees, flowers, and animals. Just as the ocean is an orisha called Yemayá, the sweeping whirl of wind that precedes a storm is the orisha Oyá; thunder and lightning is the orisha Shangó. In ancient times Shangó was a king of the ancient sacred city of Oyó; he was then transformed by Olodumare into an orisha after his death. Ochun is the goddess of fresh water, and Obatalá, the creator of human beings. Ochosi is the hunter orisha, and Oggun is the god of truth and iron.

While these orishas and the elements of nature they represent are perceived as life-giving forces, they can also be destructive. In recent natural disasters, we have seen Yemayá’s rage inundat- ing Nicaragua with hurricane floodwaters, the wrath of Orisha Agayu covering the island of Martinique with volcanic lava and ashes, and the fire of Shangó devastating fields and homes in California.

The orishas demonstrate through natural acts that every element carries both positive, iré, and negative, osogbo, forces. And our own lives reflect the need to balance these positive and negative energy fields. If we pollute the ocean, it will cease to give us food. And the air that is essential to our lives must be kept clean if we are to survive. We are part of a divine creation. And I ask my godchildren to respect this creation, since orun, the spirit world, is spiritually united with aye, the world of the living, like two halves of a tightly fitted calabash.

Aché, the divine power of the orishas, is united with the secular world through Santería rituals we can trace back to our earliest ancestors. I pass on to my godchildren the traditions of Santería, just as my godparents taught me and their godparents taught them; the ceremonial rites and rituals have been passed down in this way through generations spanning centuries. And just as my godmother initiated me in the religion, I now initiate my godchildren, with the hope that I will inspire them to one day do the same. With each passing year, my spiritual family grows, new branches burgeoning from one tree.

My religious family found its roots in Cuba. It is headed by my padrino, Elpidio Cárdenas, and my madrina, Zenaida Rod- ríguez. Elpidio is an elder high priest, now eighty-one years old; he was trained by his godfather to interpret the complex system of divination symbols, the odus, used to interpret the philosophy of our religion and the accompanying patakís. Elpidio has initiated more than one hundred babalawos, priests, who are his godsons.

His wife, Zenaida Rodríguez, is my madrina, a priestess, or santera, who “crowned” me with the orisha who claimed me, Obatalá. She has been my mother, mentor, and friend since 1979. Together, my padrino and madrina head an international family, with godchildren in France, Japan, Mexico, Canada, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Dominican Republic, the United States, and the former Soviet Union. But I was Zenaida’s first godchild, her first ahijada, when I was initiated in 1981; since then, she has initiated twenty-eight others.

The initiation of an African woman ten generations ago in Ile Ife would have held much in common with the ceremony I underwent almost twenty years ago. Initiation, asiento, has always been conducted by the godparents who are the priests and priestesses of the religion. As a madrina, I now lead my students through their initiation ceremonies, guiding them to understand the wisdom of the orishas and the empowering presence of their ancestor spirits.

Through initiation into my religion, one is reborn. Our initiation is a conscious act of letting go of negative influences that weigh down the spirit, allowing the spirit to soar and to embark on a new beginning. The energy that naturally flows from initiation opens up inner channels, granting the initiate the ability to see, feel, smell, taste, and hear more acutely, and to be more pres- ent in the world. By combining my knowledge of the spiritual and the secular worlds, I have found a universe that unveils all of its wisdom and beauty before me. Like the great orisha goddess of the ocean, Yemayá, who lives both in the ocean and on Earth, we must avail ourselves of all the natural treasures of both worlds.

And so I teach my young initiates that every piece of the world possesses a divine natural power, an aché. According to practitioners of Santería, everyone possesses aché within, and we all have spiritual energies and guardian angels who watch over us. Whether we name them ancestors or orishas, our guardian angels all serve the same purpose. Some of us call our angels “spirits.” Others refer to their presence as “intuition.” They are also invoked as “powers.” Whatever we choose to name them, we know they exist and are present in our daily lives.

They are the inner voice, the sixth sense, that warns us of impending danger. They are the adrenaline force that makes us accomplish the impossible because they have the blessings of the highest power. My religion celebrates the aché in nature, and the power of our ancestor spirits, called eguns, and we perceive them everywhere in the world around us.

We believe our ancestors live among us and must be honored daily before our altars. These spirits can communicate with us through dreams, intuitions, visions, and metaphysical intervention. In ceremonies, misas, and rituals, we call down our ancestor spirits, though they surround us every day, comforting, protecting, and illuminating our spirits. The omnipresence of ancestral spirits helps guide our daily lives, allowing the ancestors to share their wisdom with us.

My loved ones who have joined the spirit world may not be with me physically, yet I know their spiritual essence continues to encircle me with their love and their power. I know them through my intuition and my spirit, through the voice that warns of imminent danger or offers a hint of great surprises. The religion of Santería provides an understanding of these special feelings and occurrences—not as extraordinary mysterious episodes, but as part of living a normal balanced life within the worlds of aye, heaven, and orun, earth.

Santería has taught me that the spiritual world is complex, composed of guardian angels who see us in different ways, and of gods and goddesses who bring different energy forces to our lives. I am initiated with the aché of Obatalá, the orisha of creation, and with the nurturing energy of Yemayá, my sacred maternal orisha. Among my ancestral spirit angels are the Native Indians of the Caribbean, the Moors, Kongos, and Yorubas of Africa, Gypsies and Europeans from Spain and the Caribbean.

With my godchildren encircling me before my bóveda, I pick up the objects on my altar one by one, offering one final lesson before we conclude our misa. I show my godchildren the small figurine of a Native American chief; a sculpture of a bounti- ful African woman draped in a red shawl; and a vibrant Gypsy adorned in yellow lace. Each one honors my ancestor spirits. Placing the figurines back in their places, I ask my godchildren to honor also the people in their lives, their mothers and fathers, children, grandchildren, and friends.

On the occasions when I care for my seven-year-old granddaughter Kiya, she follows me as I perform my morning rituals. She acknowledges the spirit of the ancestors and the orishas. Playful like Ellegua, she places candies at his altars, and as I did with my grandmother, my abuela, she always asks for a piece of candy for herself. Sometimes, when I am rushing to get her home, I will forget to perform a ritual, but she will stop and say, “Nana, can I ring the bell to Obatalá?”

Recently, when I visited her, she took my hand and asked, “Abuela, do you want to see my altar?” My heart filled with pride as she joyfully explained each object that she had placed on her altar of toys, stones, and trinkets she loved. In the center of her altar, I noticed that my son Sergio and his soul mate, Jenna, had placed photographs of my father and other loved ones so she would know them also. In my granddaughter’s glowing face, I see my abuela, my mother, and myself.

My granddaughter’s altar is the beginning of her documenting her own life for her children, a way of remembering the life she has had with her parents and other family members. Through her, I have learned that my life is complete; there is a balance in my life like the balance between the spirit and secular worlds in Santería. My work as a professor and as a priestess, a godmother and grandmother, are not at odds; they are one. But this was not always so. There was a time when I, much like the villagers in Ellegua’s tale, saw only one side of my story.

A Message from My Elders

Following the guidance of my elders, I start each morning with a hug for myself. They have taught me that if I love and appreciate myself, then I will know how to appreciate and love others. The embrace is also a way of celebrating my life and blessings.

I start my mornings by looking out my living room window to the heavens, acknowledging the sacred power of Olodumare, and that of the spirits and the other orishas. Looking at the sky and clouds reminds me that I am part of the sacred creation and omnipresent energy force that created Earth.

To begin the day I start with the following prayer:

Olodumare, thank you for your blessings.

Spirits of my ancestors and orishas, protect me.

Illuminate my mind with positive thoughts.

Open the channels of positive energy so my family, friends, and I will always be protected from negative thoughts and energy.

Open the channels of positive energy that bring health, harmony, and unity to my family and community.

With the blessings of my spirit guides and orishas, I know that this will be so.
Marta Moreno Vega

About Marta Moreno Vega

Marta Moreno Vega - The Altar of My Soul
Marta Moreno Vega, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the City University of New York's Baruch College. Professor Vega is founder of the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute and Amigos del Museo del Barrio. She has curated major visual arts exhibitions, including "Santería and Vodun in the Americas", and organized three international conferences on "Orisha Tradition and Culture."
Praise

Praise

"A graceful tribute to a timeless religion, a testament to the transformative power of discovering your own spiritual side."
--New York Daily Challenge (Brooklyn)

"Highly recommended . . . Vega elegantly describes the rituals, meaning, and continuing relevance of Santeria, weaving her story into 12 chapters, each devoted to a different deity. Vega's account is rich with patokis ("mythic stories") and the lessons they teach for daily living."
--Library Journal

"Engaging, scholarly, and accessible, this is an excellent book."
--Booklist

"Vega makes an excellent, informed spokesperson on Santeria, and her accessible book will help explain Santeria beliefs and practices to a wide audience."
--Publishers Weekly

"More than a compelling study of one of the world's most fascinating religions, this inspiring account maps one woman's profound journey from emptiness to overwhelming peace and joy."
--Carib News (New York)

Selected by the Quality Paperback Book Club and the One Spirit Book Club

  • The Altar of My Soul by Marta Moreno Vega
  • August 28, 2001
  • Religion - Spirituality
  • One World/Ballantine
  • $16.00
  • 9780345421555

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