Creole Religions in the Caribbean

While the dominant religions on the Caribbean islands are all variants of Christianity, a few religions are the result of African slaves combining their spiritual practices with the beliefs of their captors.

These Creole religions were most often practiced on French and Spanish islands where Roman Catholicism was the religion of the whites. The two best-known forms of these Creole religions are Vodou (Voodoo and Vodun are common spellings) and Santería (also called Regla de Ocha).

Although the Creole religion with the most recognizable name is Voodoo, the truth about this belief is somewhat less glamorous than Hollywood would have most believe. Creole religious practices don't typically involve evil spells and dolls stuck with pins.

Creating a Creole

Creole religions developed on islands where African slaves were indoctrinated into Roman Catholicism. Generally speaking, this was possible because the Catholic practice of honoring saints easily lent itself to cultural interpretation. Slaves - usually field workers - who were introduced to Catholicism in a slapdash manner most often developed these new religions.

Owners usually believed religion would take too much time away from field labor, so slaves were given the briefest introduction to Catholic worship and practices. Slaves "creolized" the religion by attributing alternate personalities to the saints - the personalities of African gods and goddesses.

One of the most important aspects of these religious alterations was their ability to remain undetected. On the outside, shrines were dedicated to Catholic saints. However, this dual-personality meant that these saints acted as little more than white masks for their African deities, and the symbols associated with the gods and goddesses were then associated with the saints. However, it's important to remember that both African religions and Catholicism underwent changes during this process.

Religions also differ from island to island as well. The Creole religion created on French-speaking Haiti is called Vodou, while Spanish-speaking Cuba formed Santería. Mysticism and spiritual beliefs common on other islands included Obeah (a belief in witch-doctors and mystic practices) and Espiritismo (a more modern healing and spiritual belief).

Common Aspects

Although differences in practices and beliefs abound, similarities are common, too. For example, these religions combine elements of monotheism and polytheism. African religions have one main supreme being but also have many other deities. Roman Catholicism, is similar because they, too, honor saints as intermediaries between the supreme God and humanity.

Spirits are also important. Both spirits of the ancestors and spirits of other living entities can play a role in the lives of the living. Supernatural power can also be imbued in inanimate objects. Contact between the human world and the spirit world is an important point in Creole religions, and can even be manifested as possessions - or via animal sacrifices.

Spirits and power can become centralized into one human being, a leader who can pass on knowledge to others. These leaders also officiate the rituals that are a part of the religion. Rituals draw heavily on music and dance as forms of contact with the spirit world, sometimes even giving dances or musical pieces to particular deities.

Creole religions have spread to areas where former Caribbean-nationals have moved. People brought their religion from Puerto Rico and Cuba to New York, and Haitians have traveled to the United States as well. However, many regard the practices of the religions as closely guarded secrets and are less than willing to let outsiders join in.

Different Practices

Santería and Vodou are in some ways the most similar of the African Creolized religions - Regla de Palo and the Abakuá Secret Society also share similarities but are less well-known than these other two. Espiritismo combines many elements to become its own belief system as well. Meanwhile, Obeah, Myal, and Quimbois are similar spiritual practices.

Santería is based more explicitly on the practices and beliefs of the West African Yoruba tribes, while Vodou combines Yoruba traditions with other African beliefs. One of the biggest differences - most likely the one that has earned Vodou its reputation - is the practice of magic among Vodou's believers. Santeros believe in possession, but generally not magic or charms.

Regla de Palo, followed by the Congolese on Cuba, combines many of the beliefs of the Santeros with a bit more of the magical. Practices by Paleros are also closely guarded, leading to more speculation about their "witchcraft." The Abakuá Secret Society is unique as the only Creole religion that is exclusively for men.

The religions themselves are based on the African gods and goddesses. However, Espiritismo combines elements of Catholicism with elements of a more recent French "spiritualist" movement and even Taíno beliefs, particularly on Puerto Rico. Santerismo is best defined as a combination of Santería and Espiritismo, and it is being practiced more and more outside the Caribbean.

Obeah, Myal, and Quimbois are Afro-Caribbean Creolized forms of witchcraft and healing practices. Ashanti and other linguistically united tribes were brought to the Caribbean as slaves almost exclusively by the British - the French and Spanish thought these Africans to be more likely to rebel. This means that these spiritual practices were performed almost exclusively on British islands, though Quimbois was a popular practice on Martinique and Guadeloupe.

Practitioners of Obeah, called Obeah-men or Obeah-women, learned a great deal about the plants of the region and used them for healing or for rebellious purposes. In the British islands, Obeah, and all similar practices, were outlawed. Witchcraft was important to all of the spiritual (but not religious) beliefs of the transported Africans, while some focused more on the good, or bad, aspects of their magical abilities as practitioners.

Gods and Saints

Each Creole religion has its own names for its deities, but these names often represent the same African god and may be represented by the same saints as well. The saints and gods are identified by certain symbols.

Although there is much more to be said about these religions and their gods, a few of the most important Santeria and Voodoo deities are listed below:

Orisha (Santería) Lwa (Vodou) Similar to: Role Symbols Offerings
Olorun, Olodumare, Olofi -- Father, Son, Holy Ghost Creator, Sky God, God on Earth, and Spirit of God N/A N/A
-- Gran Met (Haiti) Essentially monotheistic Creator God N/A N/A
Eleguá or Echú Eleguá -- Christ Child of Atocha; San Antonio de Padua; Anima Sola or devil

Papa Legba or Papa La Bas
Important to crossroads, thresholds, and luck. Enforces justice. Reports to God about humans. Can alternately be a trickster. Cement or clay head with cowrie shells, coconut, large stone, the colors red and black, the number three, and Monday Pastries, sweets, rum, tobacco, rooster, or male goat
-- Papa Legba or Papa La Bas Saint Peter Intermediary of the gods to people. Guardian of the gates to heaven and the crossroads. Has a limp, walks with a crutch, often in rags, with a pipe in his mouth. Left at crossroads
Ogún Papa Ogoun St. James the Elder (Santiago) and St. Peter War, iron, minerals, mountains, forge, blacksmith, tools, technology. Responsible for any who use iron or steel often. Iron objects. Represented by an iron pot. Colors are black and green, numbers are seven and three. Tuesday is his day. Palm wine, salt, roasted yams, tortoises, and dogs
-- Agwé, Agwé-taroyo, or Admiral Agwé Saint Ulrich Protector of ships at sea, sea life, and fishermen Boats with oars painted blue or green; shells; small metal fish; or tridents. Often represented by steamboats or warships. Take place at seasides or edges of lakes and rivers. Include boats loaded with drinks - usually champagne.
Changó Changó Santa Bárbara most commonly; also Sts. Patrick, Mark, and George. Protector of warriors, fishermen, and hunters. God of music, particularly batá drums, thunder, and lightning. Double-bladed ax or hatchet, thunderstones or flint stones collected after lightning storms, mortar, a castle, the sword and the cup. Colors are red and white, day is Dec. 4 - Santa Bárbara's feast day. Numbers four and six. Ram, tortoise, okra, bean fritters, and cornmeal with okra

While some of the more important Santería and Vodou deities are included here, Creole pantheons are large and include many other gods and goddesses. These unique and fascinating practices differ greatly from island to island, and they continue to grow and change as Caribbean practitioners of these religions and spiritual beliefs move around the world.


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