Sunday, October 24, 2010

Syncretism of and Similarities Between Catholicism and Yoruba Traditional Religion

   Although their cosmologies stand in stark opposition to one another, there exist multiple examples of commonalities between Roman Catholicism and Yoruba Traditional Religion. Such examples include numerous instances of conflations between personalities, icons, attributes, and symbols of Catholic saints with those of Orisha (spirits or deities), as well as similar creation myths.
   Yoruba Traditional Religion is a set of rituals practiced by over one hundred million people in the Americas alone. Most of those devotees living in the Americas are the descendants of people who were taken as slaves to Spanish, French, and Portuguese colonies from their homes in what are today southwestern Nigeria, eastern Benin, and as far west as western Ghana (although many Orisha are known to have originally come from the Nupe region of northern Nigeria).
   Yoruba Traditional Religion is known by many names. It may be called Ifa (also one of the names of its divining deity Orula), and it may be called Lukumi or its Spanish variant Lucumí. It may also be called Ocha, which is a contraction of "Orisha," or Regla de Ocha, which means the law, rule, or order of the Orisha. Priests are called santer@s, olorisha, babalosha, iyalosha, and babalawo, among others.
   Cuban Orisha religion is called Santería, a Spanish term referring to its practitioners’ dedication to creating statues and shrines to their saints. The name Santería is often used to connote insult and derision, as such extreme reverence for saints could be construed as bordering on worship, idolatry, or heresy. Other related traditions include the Shango religion in Trinidad (named for a king-deity who wields a two-headed axe), Candomblé in Brazil, and variants in the United States including Oyotunji village.
   Haitian Vodou also contains aspects of Orisha religion. For people of Benin practicing Dahomean religion and speaking Fon, Orisha are called vodou, vodun, voodoo, or voudou, from "vodu," meaning spirit or deity. They may also be called Loa, a term which refers to their law, rule, and order. The Haitian variant of this term is Lwa.
   Those ancestors taken from West Africa spoke Yoruba, Fon, and Ewe. The terminology used by adherents of Orisha religion is "a mix of Yoruba…, Spanish…, a creolized version of Yoruba known as Lukumi…, English, and some Kongolese words."

   Orisha are the focus of ritual attention in Yoruba Traditional Religion. They are secondary deities, the primary deity being Olodumare, the single great god and personification of ashé
, the energy of the Universe, and he whose power was distributed among all the Orisha, Olodumare and Olokun, the Orisha of the depths of the ocean, are the only major Orisha who do not have corresponding Catholic saints.    According to Mary Ann Clark, "[t]he Orisha traditions are often described as a syncretistic religion that combines elements of West African Orisha cults and Spanish colonial Catholic religious practice." Clark describes West Africans as "generally ready to take on new ideas and practices and incorporate them into their lives and cultures," and as having "brought together their own disparate beliefs and practices, [and] also [having] incorporated the images of the saints and other cultural elements from the dominant culture." Clark says that "[p]ractitioners are commonly accused of either corrupting Catholicism with their own cosmology, practices, and language, or of inappropriately assimilating Catholicism into their practice of Orisha worship."

   There are innumerable subsidiary Orisha, though they are often shortened to a group of approximately twenty deities. One of the most important Orisha is Eleggua, also known as Esu, Eshu, Exú, Eleda, Elegba, Legba Ati-Bon, and Elegbara (connoting power, authority, and a status as the personal messenger of destiny). He is called Papa Legba by practitioners in Haiti, New Orleans, and Dahomey, Benin. Also, he is sometimes called Tata Eleggua or Lucero.
   Eleggua is a trickster, a provocateur, and the spirit of divine unpredictability. He is associated with doorways, entrances, roads (especially crossroads), language, communication, travel, and commerce and the marketplace (the latter being shared with Obba, the female river deity). He is a great friend of Orula, the diviner Orisha, whom he aids in making sure that divination rituals are performed correctly and with timeliness. As a figure who is able to communicate in all human languages, he acts as an intermediary between the world of human beings and the world of the Orisha. For this reason, as well as owing to his status as the "alpha and omega," he must be the first and last spirit invoked in all rituals, and he is the only being who can permit humans to communicate with other Orisha. He also interprets for humans the will of the Orisha.
   Across the multiple traditions, Eleggua is syncretized with such Catholic figures as Lazarus, St. Peter, St. Michael, the Santo Niño de Atocha, St. Anthony the Great (also known as St. Anthony the Hermit), St. Anthony of Padua (also known as St. Anthony of Lisbon), the Lonely Spirit of Purgatory, St. Martin, and St. Martin Caballero.
   In Haiti, Eleggua is syncretized with Lazarus due to the function they share as gate-keepers, their association with dogs, their crutches or canes, and the fact that they are both often seen sprinkling water. Elsewhere in the Americas, however, St. Lazarus, due to his infliction with leprosy and skin disease, he is associated with Babalu Ayé, the name of the Orisha Sopona, the god of smallpox and pestilence. Babalu Ayé is also associated with crutches, dogs, and having a status as a messenger for the gods.
   In the Orisa’Ifa tradition among Haitians and people from Benin, Eleggua is associated with St. Peter and St. Michael due to their gatekeeping function and their association with the protection of the domicile. St. Peter is also associated with a patriarchal serpent divinity named Danbala.
In Cuba, Eleggua is associated with Santo Niño de Atocha, the infant Jesus. This may be due to the fact that Eleggua is sometimes portrayed as an infant because he personifies birth. Owing to his status as alpha and omega, he is also often portrayed as an elderly man and also personifies death. He is seen as young and virile in West Africa. Also, both Eleggua and Jesus are known as teachers of humility and compassion.
   In Haiti, Eleggua is associated with either or both St. Anthony the Great of Egypt and St. Anthony of Padua. Both St. Anthonys are prayed to in Catholicism and by some Mayans of Mexico and Guatemala for assistance in retrieving and locating lost and stolen items.
However, there is not a single characteristic shared by Eleggua and both St. Anthonys.
   Like Lazarus and Babalu Ayé, St. Anthony the Great is associated with pestilence and skin diseases. St. Anthony the Great is also associated with basket weavers, and baskets are sometimes used as shrines to Eleggua. St. Anthony the Great is also associated with cemeteries, which somewhat relates to Eleggua’s role as the personification of death. However, a female river deity named Oya has a much more direct connection with cemeteries than Eleggua does.
   St. Anthony of Padua is associated with the elderly, and so is Eleggua in his aforementioned role as omega. St. Anthony of Padua is also associated with travel hostesses, just as Eleggua is so intimately related with travel and roads. St. Anthony of Padua is also associated with the mail, which has to do with language and communication, which are associated with Eleggua. It is a Puerto Rican folk custom for young women coming of age to hang a statue of St. Anthony of Padua upside-down in order to assist them in their search for a husband. This may be the only way St. Anthony of Padua could be construed as performing a function in Orisha religion that is at all similar to the retrieval role that he performs in Catholicism.
   In Cuba, some Santeros identify St. Martin Caballero with Ellegua due to the association with horses, travel, and crossroads. Eleggua is only one of many Orisha who has associations with Catholic saints. According to Clark, "All of the most common and many of the more obscure Orisha are associated with one or more Catholic saints."

   Obatala is associated with Jesus, St. Sebastian, and Our Lady of Mercy. Obatala as well as Osain are associated with St. Joseph. Obatala is likely associated with Jesus due to their holding in common associations with purity, wisdom, wine, white cloths, their reputation as "all that is holy and good," the fact that they are both sons of the one great god, and doves. Obba is also associated with doves.
   Aside from St. Peter’s affinity for dogs and his role as a gatekeeper, characteristics which liken him to Eleggua, St. Peter is also associated with Ogun because St. Peter holds metal keys, and Ogun is a blacksmith, and thus he is associated with iron and metal items. Ogun also has a gatekeeper function in that he uses his razor-sharp machete to clear the undergrowth and to open the way "when people’s lives become overgrown and [they] are blocked from [their] own best destiny."

   Shango, the king-deity who wields a double-headed axe called oshe, is associated with St. Barbara, who is the patron saint of military technology. Also, Shango is credited with helping to construct the first towns, while St. Barbara is also the patron saint of masons and stonecutters. Orula, the Orisha who knows and divines the past, present, and future, and who aided Obatala in the creation of the Earth, is associated with St. Francis of Assisi for unknown reasons. However, Orula, Obatala, and St. Barbara, share relationships to either palm trees, palm nuts, or palm wine, although neither Orula nor Obatala is associated with St. Barbara.
   Besides being associated with St. Joseph, Osain is also associated with St. Sylvester, St. John the Baptist, and St. Anthony the Abbott. Inle, the fisherman Orisha and the deity of snakes, medicine, healing, and protection against witchcraft, is associated with the Archangel Raphael. The deity of twins, Ibeji, also known as Meji or Jimugas in Spanish, is associated with Saints Cosmo and Damien.
   The female deity Obba is associated with St. Clare and St. Kathleen of Sienna. Ochosi, associated with hunting, the bow and arrow, and justice, is associated with Saints Norbert and Hurbert. Another female deity named Oya is associated with Our Lady of Candlemas. The female deity Yemaya is associated with Our Lady of Regla. The important female deity Oshun (or Osun or Ochún) is associated with the Virgin of Charity of Cobre.
   According to Clark, although "the matches made were not exact," "the incorporation of alien elements… was freely undertaken by knowledgeable priests who deliberately chose what of the surrounding culture they wanted to incorporate into their own beliefs and practices," and that choices were made based on "the similarity of the saintly iconography to that of the Orisha," as opposed to a more reactionary explanation of how this incorporation of Spanish and Catholic elements came about. She claims that the color with which the Orisha and the saints were associated appeared to be an important factor.
   According to Clark, "[t]he saints are merely the most widely known examples of syncretism in the Orisha traditions." Other than the numerous instances of conflation between Orisha and Catholic saints, Yoruba Traditional Religion and Catholicism share several aspects related to their origin myths.
   As in the Judeo-Christian tradition, Santería holds that humans were sculpted out of the clay of the earth, and that their first breaths were breathed into them by their creator. However, in Santería, that creator is not Jehovah but Olodumare, the universe and the single great god. In Santería, Olodumare is not the deity who sculpts human beings out of the clay of the Earth. Rather, that role is fulfilled by the favorite son of Olodumare, Obatala.
   Obatala is all that is holy and pure and good, and he is also the oldest and wisest as well as the leader of all the Orisha. Obatala becomes intoxicated on palm wine while making humans from the clay, causing there to exist physical deformities in human beings. He is the protector of children afflicted with such deformities. This stands in contrast to the creation myth of the Judeo-Christian tradition, which depicts the creator as infallible, the creation as fully intentional, and attributes the imperfections of mankind to sins committed against the creator by the first man and the first woman.
   Eleggua also performs a role similar to the god of the Judeo-Christian tradition in that he keeps a watchful eye on humans, acts as a moral guardian, and makes sure that people are sincere and keep their promises.
   While the Catholic Church and la Regla de Ocha share opposing viewpoints on the afterlife, reincarnation, and the location of unseen realms, these differences do not appear to be significant obstacles hindering the success or popularity of syncretism between the two. Nearly all of the major Orisha have corresponding Catholic saints with several similar attributes and / or symbols, and the Orisha and the saints may be prayed to in place of those deities with which they are associated.
A search for similarities between the two religions reveals a willingness of West Africans to adopt new religious ideas, an air of incompleteness surrounding this only partial adoption of Spanish Catholicism, and several similar aspects of the creation myth that pre-date European contact with West Africa by hundreds and perhaps one or several thousand years.

1. Clark, Mary Ann. Santeria: Correcting the Myths and Uncovering the Realities of a Growing Religion. Praeger Publishers, Westport, Connecticut. 2007
2. Theard, Dawn. "Papa Legba."
. 12 August 2009. 3. Bowker, John. "Vodou." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. 1997. 12 August 2009.
4. Corbett, Bob. "Introduction to Voodoo in Haiti" ("An Overview of Haitian Voodoo"). March 1988. 12 August 2009.
5. Rodriguez, Jose. Telephone interview. 12 August 2009.
6. Corbett, Bob. "Introduction to Voodoo in Haiti" ("An Overview of Haitian Voodoo"). March 1988. 12 August 2009.
7. Yronwode, Cat. "Saint Martin of Tours (San Martin Caballero). The "Lucky W" Amulet Archive. 12 August 2009.

Written Between August 1st and August 12th, 2009
Originally Published on October 24th, 2010

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