Facts and figures don’t seem to apply to Cuba. All that is paraded in both the national and international press needs to be taken with a massive pinch of salt – news and comment can be grossly misleading, as if there is ever a correct way to be led when it comes to ‘understanding’ a country. With Che Guevara’s diary nestled under one arm, most travellers seem to rock up brimming with confidence, churning out their knowledge about the Revolution and the lives of numerous Castros, only to head off a few weeks later dazed and confused. Cuban culture is as shadowy as the most labyrinthine streets of La Habana Vieja, today more than ever.
One of its most fascinating aspects is the cult of Santería, although any foreigner would have to dig hard even to scratch its surface. Nominally, 85% of the population are Roman Catholic, but in reality a large proportion are followers of this mysterious syncretic religion. When millions of slaves were brutally imported from Africa during the colonial era, many from modern-day Nigeria, they brought with them their Yoruba beliefs and rituals, which they were forced to mask with a veneer of Catholicism. Santería is the hybrid product of this oppression. Hence the name, which means ‘Way of the Saints’, as every deity (orisha) has its overt Catholic avatar.
Although it may not be the first thing visitors to Cuba notice, the religion is crucial to much of the nation’s treasured heritage: art, music, everyday life. Every Cuban, believer or non-believer, will be well-acquainted with the faith. Deities and symbols of Santería figure across the arts, from Wifredo Lam’s surrealist, sugar-filled paintings to Alejo Carpentier’s famous novels of lo real maravilloso (magical realism). And Havana trembles with the drums of rumba, born of the sacred rituals where orishas would be invoked by ceremonies of los tambores.
Yet the culture isn’t confined to the arts. Santería dolls swing above the dashboard of almost every old American car, protecting it against the lethal Havana traffic. Many homes hold small shrines to personal orishas. Most obviously, newly initiated priests (santeros, or babalawos) are seen dressed distinctively all in white.
The Museo de los Orishas, run by Cuba’s Yoruba association, is a large, spacious haven of peace overlooking the chaos of the Capitolio. At 5CUC, guide included, the museum is de rigueur for anyone wishing to learn more about Santería and the many orishas worshipped.
Upstairs, a vast hallway is divided by totems painted like trees. It is both a spiritual and educative space where you can wander at ease between the dozens of wooden sculptures. The whole pantheon is massive, with up to 400 orishas, but only a dozen or so figures of everyday worship are represented here. Oludomare, the one supreme God and creator of the universe, has no image – only two large, bright white sheets of satin cascade down from up high, as if to crown an invisible ruler.
The orishas he communicates through stand proud, offerings left at their feet, lit up majestically against a painted backdrop of their home – woodland, waterfall or ocean. We start with Elegúa, orisha of roads and crossroads, and protector of travellers. (His Catholic avatar is San Antonio de Padua.) Then there is the matronly Naná Buruki, grandmother of the forest, who sits beneath a tree with a child in her arms.
Yemayá interests me most. Formidable against the crashing waves of the sea that she rules, she can be beneficent or cruel. Protector of maternity and children, parents have left dolls and children’s toys in the basket below her feet in return for the welfare of their families. Her Catholic counterpart is the Virgin of Regla. Thousands make the pilgrimage to Regla every September on her feast day, paying tribute to Yemayá via the image of the black Madonna at the altar of the church – Roman Catholic in name only.
Femininity has often been associated in art and religion with water and the sea, while masculine symbols and deities tend to remain on solid land. Yemayá’s role exemplifies this. Other female deities of Santería also represent bodies of water; Ochón rules the fresh waters and fertility, her sculpture resembling a mermaid in a fishtail dress. There is also Olokún, who owns the depths of the ocean. However, when I ask about this, my guide is eager to point out that gender in the Santería pantheon is fluid and unstable – many orishas shift from man to woman at midnight. Olokún is sometimes male, sometimes female, sometimes fish. Others have no sex at all.
Santería was inaccurately named from the start, saints being but disguises for the Yoruba orishas. This seems to epitomise the mystery of this religion for outsiders. But before delving into the provincial churches and communities – where the real practice takes place, far from any Christian altar – this museum is a great place to start.