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Syncretism

Santeria And Voodoo

Yet another important example of syncretism can be found in the Caribbean. As a result of the slave trade, a host of West African religious beliefs were transplanted to Cuba, Haiti, and other Caribbean islands, as well as to Brazil, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. There, they intermingled with the Roman Catholicism of the slave masters and plantation owners. The result was a set of syncretistic religions, the most important of which are Santeria and Voodoo (or Vodou).

Santeria took shape primarily in Cuba and reflects for the most part the beliefs of the Yoruba people, who live in what is now Nigeria. The focus of the Yoruba (and other West African belief systems) is upon a pantheon of deities called orishas. However, in Santeria, these figures are often identified—that is, syncretized—with Catholic saints. A good example is Changó, a male god of thunder, lightning, and fire, who is nevertheless identified with St. Barbara, a devout young woman who lived in the fourth century C.E. and who was beheaded by her father for refusing to give up her Christian faith and marry according to his wishes. At the moment of her beheading her father was struck by lightning, and this gave rise to a legend that St. Barbara had power over lightning bolts. Although Changó is a masculine orisha, the similarities between this legend and the Yoruba traditions about him led to the syncretism in question.

Haitian Voodoo (more properly Vodou or Vodun) is similar to Santeria in a great many ways, both in its African heritage and when it comes to syncretism. Here, the West African deities, primarily from Benin and Dahomey, are called loa and are also usually identified with Roman Catholic saints. For example, the serpent loa, Damballah, is often identified with St. Patrick, drawing on the legend that the latter drove the snakes out of Ireland. Houngan, or Voodoo priests, have long since adopted elements of Roman Catholicism in Voodoo rituals, including the use of candles, bells, crosses, the practices of baptism, and making the sign of the cross. These Christian elements are intertwined with such African religious practices as drumming, dancing, ancestor worship, and spirit possession.

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