From the Comments: Santeria, Vodou, and the Media

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  April 4, 2011 — 16 Comments

I’d like to highlight two comments from yesterday’s post on the treatment of Santeria and Vodou in the media. The first comes from Jacquie Minerva Georges, who notes that adherents to Afro-Caribbean faiths are engaging with the media, just not the mainstream English-speaking media.

“Thank you, Jason for your devotion for defending the Afro-Caribbean/Latin American based religion. I do believe practitioners of African-based religions are speaking but not the “mainstream” media or certain individuals. I often must read French, Spanish, Portuguese written [typed] articles to find out what practitioners of such faith[s] are speaking about. Recently there was an article, originally written in Spanish but somehow was translated into English, regarding practitioners of Santeria being really upset and embarrassed by individual practitioners leaving offerings to the orishas in [the] public community [parks for an example where masses commune]. “We” are educating the recently migrant practitioners that “our” rituals must adapt to our times and/or the “general” public. Here is a link to what I am speaking of: titled “Offering to the Orishas”.”

Georges follows up to say that “some of ‘us’ we don’t care what others think about our faith[s].”

The second comment I’d like to highlight from yesterday’s post comes from Rev. Heron Herodias, a Wiccan priestess from the Church of the Sacred Circle in Utah. She was interviewed by a local Fox affiliate about one of the stories linked in yesterday’s post.

“They interviewed me about this – classic Fox News move “Hey, let’s ask a Wiccan about Voudou!” I’m embarrassed to say that they got some good “out of context” and reporter-fed quotes from me, while completely cutting out the point I was trying to make which was that animal sacrifice is not only a legal practice in the US, but that many “mainstream” faiths including Christianity have a history of it as well. They interviewed me for a good twenty minutes, and BOTH of the statements they showed were fed by their reporter. For instance, I followed up the statement about human remains being a concern with the acknowledgement that most mainstream Santeria practitioners discourage the use of human remains (having read some prominent Santeria practitioners say the same thing) even while other practitioners do not. i thought that by being interviewed that I could help dispel the “OH NOES, ded animal” hype. Lesson: don’t be a patsy for Fox News when they come a-callin’.”

I think both comments add some great context and additional information, and I’m glad they shared it with us here. I’m thinking of taking a page from Andrew Sullivan and highlighting smart, relevant, comments that expand and clarify an issue more often.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    So, does Santeria use skulls, or not?

    • Iyawo Odofemi

      Santeria generally does not use human skulls. In Santeria, we do use animal skulls sometimes, though.

      Human skulls are used in Palo, a separate religion often practiced by Santeros which comes from the religion of the Kongo people of Central Africa.

      ~Iyawo Odofemi

  • anonimo

    jason…need to comment
    but, it seems that both fox news and rev. herodias were pretty darn ignorant
    this doesnt even look like santeria to me, but more like palo mayombe
    i wish you had done more research instead of resorting to the same ignorance…with all due respect

    there are more afro-diasporic faiths other than vodou and santeria…
    screaming santeria all of the time is like lumping all pagans under the wiccan umbrella…

    • Jason Pitzl-Waters

      Well, Roberto Casillas-Corrales told police he practiced Santeria, notPalo. So I'm going by what he has said, though I'm always open toother interpretations and theories.

      • Iyawo Odofemi

        The way that practitioners describe their faiths in Afro-Cuban religions is complicated. While a Santero may be a Santeria Priest, as well as a Palero (Palo Priest), and an Abakua member, they tend to only describe themselves, especially publically, as being Santeros. This has to do with stigma attached to Palo, as well as language issues, and the privileging of Santeria/Lukumi above other Afro-Cuban faiths (which is a very complicated spiritual issue).

        ~Iyawo Odofemi

  • Baruch, there is a syncretic version of Santeria that does use human remains extensively, called Reglas de Congo which has it's own variations, Palo Mayombe and Palo Monte. However, according to mainstream practitioners, these variants are looked down upon as not being acceptable within Santeria as it is commonly practiced.

    Additionally, when I agreed to be interviewed, I was under the impression that some Pagan symbology may have been involved, not having seen any of the footage about the arrest nor any photos of the altars.

    Finally, and at least according to this Palo Mayombe web store, it is actually legal to sell human remains in the US, although possession may be subject to local laws.….

    • Iyawo Odofemi

      Um, that's not true. Speaking as a Santera (initiated Santeria Priestess), I can say that Palo is not a 'variant' it is a completely separate religion practiced in tandem with Santeria by some practitioners. And yes, they use human skulls, and no, there's nothing wrong with that.

      ~Iyawo Odofemi

    • Palo is not a variant of Santeria, but a separate tradition distinguished by it's roots in Central African Kongo culture, as opposed to the West African cultures associated with Santeria. Also, it isn't accurate to designate Palo as particularly "syncretic" as if this differentiated it somehow from Santeria, which also has syncretic elements. There are also traditions within both Santeria and Palo (and also within Vodou and Candomble, etc, etc) that have resisted syncretism, especially with Christianity.

      The lines separating different Afro-Caribbean traditions are not clear and bright, to be sure. And claims and counter-claims about the degree of syncretism with Christianity (and other kinds of mixing) are difficult for insiders to navigate, let alone non-initiates. But one should always be very careful when making statements that appear to give precedence to one tradition over the other. For example, one can safely say that Wicca is a variant of Paganism. But to refer to non-Wiccan forms of Paganism as "syncretic versions of Wicca" is both incorrect and a great way to rub people the wrong way.

      (I now see that someone more knowledgeable has already covered some of this, but I'll go ahead and post this anyway for the sake of emphasis.)

  • Thanks anonomio for calling me names, way to elevate the discussion. I'm guessing that you didn't actually read my commentary on the way they cut my discussion of the subject into sound bites that fit their viewpoint.

    • anonimo

      no, i read it your comments and i am not backtracking here.

      if it is true that "not having seen any of the footage about the arrest nor any photos of the altars" and "under the impression that some Pagan symbology may have been involved"
      then it would have been better not to agree with the interview…because you yourself were not sure what was really going on…..if anything, it just makes things worse….

    • Iyawo Odofemi

      I can really empathize with your words being edited like that as I've had the same thing happen to me before on the news. However, I think that your understanding of Santeria and Palo is in need of a bit of education. I'd recommend reading the books Santeria Enthroned by David H. Brown, and Crossing the Water by Claire Garoutte and Anneke Wambaugh. As a Wiccan Priestess, I don't expect you to fully understand my faith, just as I don't fully understand yours, but if you are going to speak publically on it, I'd appreciate it if you had a firmer grip on the subject.


      ~Iyawo Odofemi

  • Nkele

    Nsala malecum Rev Hebron-

    As an initiate in the Palo Mayombe tradition, and as an aborisha (orisha devotee), I can tell you that the traditions are very separate, different and have very distinct origins. Furthermore, to view Palo only in respect to its "acceptability" within the confines of orisa tradition is to completely misunderstand how the traditions work together, due to the fact that many initiates work pan-systemically.

    Secondly- the link you sent is to a site that myself, and many Paleros have gotten several good laughs out of. Palo is, and has never been "the dark side of santeria". Palo, like anything else (including orisa, wicca or any other tradition including Christianity), can be used to both heal and harm.

    Thirdly- the traditions are oral traditions, so finding accurate information online is tricky at best. Most of what you will find will be bull, including what you found on that site.

    Finally- since you're using the term "Reglas de Congo" I'm gonna assume that you, like many, read your staple Lydia Cabrera info and took it from there. That is probably the problem. I would recommend actually communicating with initiates, and finding solid information prior to formulating such opinions.


    • harmonyfb

      Are there any books on Palo you'd recommend to give the uninitiated a better general grasp on your faith?

      • harmonyfb: "Are there any books on Palo you'd recommend to give the uninitiated a better general grasp on your faith?"

        Check out Eoghan Ballard's PhD thesis: Ndoki bueno ndoki malo: Historic and contemporary Kongo religion in the African diaspora. Here is a link (only a preview is available without purchasing the thesis — but you might be able to find it in a library). And here is a link to an article in which Ballard is interviewed about a decapitated goat: Expert: Goat decapitations likely a prank. And here is an article by Ballard from the New York Latino Journal: "JEWISH" AND "CHRISTIAN" PALO IN CUBA.

  • To clarify once again, I was not told that the person was a Santero, or the nature of what they found, only that there were "occult or pagan symbols" associated with an arrest, and that they were seeking someone with knowledge of the occult. The footage that you saw of me seeing the photos was my first glance at the photo evidence. I did not claim to be an expert on anything, and only agreed to be interviewed so that I could MAYBE shed some non-freakout light over the situation, whatever it was. I'm fully aware that I'm a white girl in Utah without extremely deep knowledge of the intricacies of Palo, Santeria and other traditions, and would not presume to speak for that, I can only say that you have to understand how deeply conservative and reactionary the media in our state can be, for them to even seek out anyone with a glimmer of actual knowledge about an occult type story was an exceptional occurrence. I did try to bring what knowledge I have to the situation. Sorry if the nuances were incorrect.

  • I just re-listened to the original voicemail from the reporter, and I was told, in order, "dead animals and human remains were found, along with occult or pagan symbols" and they drove to my workplace in the middle of the day to make the evening news with it.