Santería Health Systems: Looking at 'La limpieza'

By Solimar Otero



This essay looks at the role that ritual cleansing, or la limpieza, plays in enacting and re-affirming ideas about health in the Latin American/Cuban religion of Santería. As a belief system that emphasizes the linkages between spirituality and the body, Santería utilizes ritual cleansing of the body with various objects in order to maintain spiritual and physical wellbeing. The limpieza may be used to open the way for other rituals or may be performed on its own. Usually, an adherent's godmother or godfather (madrino or padrino) takes an object, blesses it by calling upon Yoruba deities named orisas, and passes it all over the adherent's body. The object is then removed and thrown out of a doorway, or taken to a crossroads for disposal. Objects that may be used include (but are not limited to) white cloth, live fowl, herbs, flowers, and blessed liquids. The limpieza ritual is arguably a focal point where body and spirit can actively be remedied at the same time. Due to this perceived connectedness between body and spirit in the belief system, the limpieza ritual is an excellent starting point for exploring notions about health, cleanliness, and the body in Santería.

Yoruba and Lucumí Ritual: An Overview

Santería, or La Regla de Ocha as it is known in Cuba, is a belief system that merges traditional Yoruba religion with Roman Catholicism. Orisas, traditional Yoruba deities, are combined with Roman Catholic saints whose hagiography matches different aspects of the sacred stories, the itan or patakí of each orisa. The orisa's traditional colors, foods, rituals, prayers, and mythology from Yorubaland exist completely in this Diasporic incorporation (Bascom 1992: 1-16; Barnes 1997: xii-xxi).

The Catholic saint becomes an extension of the many manifestations of each orisa. That is, the same orisa in traditional Yoruba religion may manifest in several different guises. These guises are called caminos in Spanish and ona in Yoruba, both translating into the idea of a road or a way. In Cuba, the Yoruba names and the Yoruba prayers associated with each manifestation or camino of the orisas are pretty much in common parlance (Cabrera, 1980a; Ortiz 1993a: 54-63; íí 1990). This type of religious merging is similar to the processes of linguistic and cultural creolization and transculturation elsewhere in the Americas (Abrahams 1983; Ortiz 1983).

Santería as a Health System

Santería acts as a belief system that contains elements of a folk health system (Hufford 1997: 731). For its adherents, Santería belief, mythology, and ritual incorporate all aspects of life; they encompass a worldview that is holistic in many respects. Santería beliefs orient personal philosophies, reactions to surroundings, actions and discourse with others. Santería also provides a system for assessing and stabilizing a person's well-being in terms of biological and spiritual needs. This type of outlook is similar to other alternative and folk health systems that act as a part of an overall belief system (Hufford ibid; O'Connor 1995: 6). Later in this essay, I will explore the advantages that Santería and other folk healing traditions offer in terms of providing an array of alternatives for users, thus increasing their popularity and legitimacy in contemporary contexts. However, first I will review the beliefs in Regla de Ocha that pertain directly to health and well-being.

Osanyin: The Orisa of "Medicine"

There are two important awos or sects that deal directly with healing, herbs, and well-being. Ifa priests and priests of the orisa Osanyin/ Osain are the main groups of practitioners that deal with the seriously ill and injured. Babalawos, Ifa divination priests, have the knowledge to perform divination according to the ancient tradition of learning 256 Odú verses, and thus prescribing sacrifice or ebo accordingly (Bascom 1969; Abimbola 1976; Ajayi 1996). The babalawo uses the opele or diving chain made of fruits of the opele tree in order to perform Ifa divination. Another name for the orisa associated with Ifa is Orunmila/Orula. Orunmila cannot functionally perform the divination or bring the sacrifices to bear without first consulting the orisa Esu, lord of the crossroads. It is fundamental in any Yoruba or Santería ritual that Esu/Elegua be saluted and given an offering because it is he who carries messages and the vital power ase to the other orisas on behalf of the practitioner. Here is an example of an important Ifa chant that displays the Yoruba holistic concerns on well-being from Bade Ajayi's ethnography on Ifa divination:

Won ni o r'ebo nitori owo
Won ni o r'ebo nitori omo
Won ni o r'ebo nitori aya
Won ni o r'ebo nitori ire gbogbo.

They instructed him to offer sacrifice because of money
They instructed him to offer sacrifice because of children
They instructed him to offer sacrifice because of wives
They instructed him to offer sacrifice because of all blessings (38).

The sacrifices to be offered in this traditional Yoruba context depend on each individual verse, each odu. However, common sacrifices include anything from money, animals, fruits, prayers, acts of kindness, and so on. Sacrifices restore the balance in a spiritual system where an imbalance has occurred. The sacrifices rectify the situation and restore health, wellbeing, and prosperity. This notion of balance/imbalance is found elsewhere in folk healing traditions and makes up an important concept in many alternative healing systems (Hufford 1997: 726-728; O'Connor 1995: 20-21; 30-31).

In Cuba, we find that babalawos are indeed respected and turned to for problem solving within orisa worshipping communities. The babalawo in Regla de Ocha is expected to perform certain functions. For example, Cabrera tells us that "Distancing iku is the most important function of the santero curandero [healer], and with this the authority to be able to decree a change is exercised by the babalawo, minister of Ifa, who has told us that by making a pact with iku, compromising her and making her respect the children of and those protected by Ifa"1 (Cabrera 1984:135).

The above quote illustrates how the babalawo has been sanctioned in myth and practice to distance iku via sacrifice. The babalawo behaves in Cuba in a variety of capacities because he is a dignitary of such a fluid folk tradition. His function of distancing iku or death is accessed as an auxiliary health resource by most individuals in this cultural context.

However, according to Santería practitioners, the orisa Osain is the actual "owner" of medicine and herbs (Flores-Peña 1996: 4). The Yoruba title for Osanyin in Cuba is Oluwa Ewé, which means the "owner of leaves" (Cabrera, 1993: 73). It is believed that the forest and all of its foliage belong to this one-eyed, one-legged deity. He is closely associated with Ifa priests in mythology and practice, but Osanyin has his own awo or sect, and priests, onisegun (Cabrera 1993: 73-148). Folklorist and babalocha (Santería priest) Ysamur Flores-Peña interprets Osain /Osanyin's role as healer in Santería: "The religion has a very rich heritage of natural healing lore. At the very core of this tradition that assigns everything in the universe a life of its own, is a mighty spirit, a deity called Osanyin" (1996: 4).

In the mythology, Osanyin is given the power to all herbs and foliage by the almighty god in Yoruba belief, Olodumare. The orisa keep this knowledge in a gourd, or igba, on a tree in the forest. In some variants of the myth, the goddess of the winds and thunder, Oya, knocks loose the herbs and all the orisas are then distributed their signature herbs (Flores-Peña, 1996: 3). However, the power to release the vital essence, the ase, of these plants still lies with Osanyin. One must ask him for help when performing a rituals2 with herbs so that the vital essence, the ase of a plant may be released for curing (Flores-Peña 1996: 4; see Cabrera for variants in narratives and ritual practices concerning Osain and herbal healing, 1993: 100-102). Osain's herbs are primary to creating sacred substances, (like Santería's "holy water," the omiero), needed for blessing objects and performing limpieza rituals (Cabrera 1993: 102).

In this way, we see that in Santería, ritual, narrative, material culture, and belief are all intertwined in different ways. Ritual practices enact beliefs and knowledge about Osanyin in very practical and quotidian arenas. In Santería one does not wait until illness sets in to think about the importance of keeping the balance of ase in place. Preventative sacrifices, a crucial one being the limpieza, help to maintain the balance of ase in one's life. The belief system in this instance contains multiple and holistic models for action in a believer's life.

The Incorporative Nature of Beliefs on Health in Santería

"Los medicos no pueden lo que un babalocha o un ngángantare /
The medical doctor can't do with what a babalocha and a ngángantare can" (Cabrera 1993: 25).

The above adage illustrates certain attitudes towards health and healing in Santería. The first is that there are realms of existence in which medical doctors and santeros have different levels of efficacy. Both systems can successfully co-exist among Latin American patients because they address different spheres of concern and influence. This is so because of beliefs in multiple sources of illness that medical practitioners will not recognize. For example, illness caused as a result of punishment from the orisas for sacrifices not performed (Cabrera 1993: 51-54), or for adherence to the wrong orisa, cannot be adequately treated by a medical physician, according to the logic of Santería. However, Santería practitioners do not have a problem with seeking medical treatment health practitioners when they feel it appropriate (Cabrera 1984: 10).

The limpieza: Cleansing Self and Home

"Because of this, in order to conserve one's health, it is indispensable, we are insisted to and copiously told, 'to behave well with the saints and the ancestors; consult [with a diviner] every now and then; limpiar oneself frequently and, clean the house with washes and smoke vapors, defend the door with some trabajo3, make oneself a good resguardo (talisman)" (Cabrera 1984: 137).

I have been working with Ochun priestess Nilda Estevez for over eight years as both a researcher, a participant-observant, and a "godchild" in her ile or spiritual home/center. Estevez arrived in the United States from La Habana, Cuba, fifteen years ago. She has been an ordained priestess of the orisa Ochun for thirty of her sixty-seven years. She resides in Southern California, but travels to Cuba almost yearly for family visits and religious obligations. She acts as a spiritual resource for numerous individuals, practitioners, and students in the Los Angeles area.

Though she has moved several times during the course of our "work" together, her "house" as a central point for performing divination and cleansing rituals always remains. This point is crucial here in that the idea of "home" in Diasporic and itinerant populations and traditions (which Santería is, in stemming from immigrants and slaves in Cuba) is more about a set of relationships in the world rather than a fixed "place." The "place" becomes a referent for what the idea of "home" emits, signifies, recalls, and also "does" for people. This is especially important in "healing" rituals like the limpieza since re-calling and re-making "home" is a process that can purify and remake whole what is broken in a person's psyche and body.

In a holistic system like Santería you need to "carry" home with you if you are responsible for a diverse and shifting community's wellbeing, like Estevez is. In fact, Estevez—who is an "everyday" santera in terms of practicing the religion not for fame or fortune, but for her own "vocation," spiritually—has godchildren in Las Vegas, Havana, Los Angeles, and Miami. The notion of a spiritual "center" takes on a metaphorical, practical role in the lives of believers and clients. It becomes a useful tool, a living idea that helps to heal and re-connect those in the community back to a "source." That this "source" becomes another jumping point for the next step in an adherent's life is implied in the very notion of healing and cleansing from the focal point of a spiritual ile or home.

Consequently, Estevez engages in limpiezas of all sorts. Most recently, in the weeks of fieldwork leading up to this essay, Estevez performed ritual cleansings with live fowl, a fish, and also a piece of white cloth. Her "diagnostic" system in these rituals was led by the mythological corpus and semiotic system attached to the orisas or deities governing each trabajo or work/ritual. To clarify, each deity governs a set of elements, colors, herbs, kinds of personalities, and ancient stories that serve as guides for using these elements to perform tasks like the "limpieza" on adherents.

As Karin Barber (1981) has noted in her seminal essay on Yoruba traditional religion, "How Man Makes God in West Africa: Yoruba Attitudes towards the Orisa," the relationship between deity and worshipper in Yoruba traditional religion, of which Cuban Santería is a part, is symbiotic. In other words, the deity and the adherent need each other in intimate ways that pattern human relationships: parent/child; man/wife; doctor/patient. I would argue that the re-patterning of these relationships within this epistemology and worldview makes us re-consider these human relationships less along a hierarchical scale, but more in the frame of what each positionality or role can learn from each other. For in a "holistic" system such as Yoruba esin ibile and Santería, orisas have had a human or elemental component of existence and people are all potentially ancestors. Thus, existence is not necessarily "fixed" and energies used, intended to heal and cleanse, can be called upon to change a situation. But, one must know the "proper" technique, and that is where specialists with that kind of knowledge, like Estevez, come in.

Estevez, before performing any kind of limpieza, must ascertain if one is indeed necessary for the client. She does this in a variety of ways. Most often, santeros like Nilda consult the West African divination systems associated with the cowry shells (dilogun) and with the four pieces of coconut known as obi. In some cases, especially with santeros interacting in a variety of religious roles and spiritual practices, the expert will also consult ancestors/muertos known in the practices of Espiritismo and Palo. For many santeros, this triad of religious traditions—Santería, Espiritismo, and Palo— form the cache of knowledge and techniques that can be utilized to solve any number of problems for clients and community members. One must be adept and experienced in order to efficaciously combine these traditions. In a sense, santeros, like artists and skilled practitioners of any sort, must hone their knowledge and often "specialize" in a particular area where they have exceptional skills or interest.

Estevez makes use of several private spiritual resources, as any good santera would, that she "inherits," re-discovers, and develops from her inception as a santera. The common belief is that all individuals are born with orisas and spiritual ancestors attached to their existence on this planet. However, one can only desarollar, or develop (literally "unfurl") these gifts by first re-discovering them in the practice of spiritual work like Santería. Estevez's own personal "gifts" or gracia, then, already existed when she came into being. The idea in a ritual like the limpieza, which can restore health and well-being, is that on some level the expert will affect these principles that are also at work and affecting the adherent. How effectively this can happen in a ritual cleansing also relies on the stability, complexity, and integration of the belief system as a whole as expressed in the practitioner's knowledge of how to implement personal specializations within Santería as a whole. Thus, Estevez needs to know how to creatively push the boundaries of the belief system enough to create a new metaphysical reality for her client, but also stay within the protective confines of the religious beliefs that sanction and re-enforce her role as a santera.

After Estevez consults the orisas, the ancestors (muertos), and prepares her seven herbs, the limpieza can begin. Estevez usually becomes possessed by her personal ancestor, Francisca Siete Sayas, an Afro-Cuban spiritual guide that Estevez consults in her spiritual work. She describes this personal ancestor in an interesting way that evokes how nuanced, amalgamated, and complex the understanding of African ethnicity and religious practice is for many santeros. Francisca Siete Sayas, according to Estevez, is a "conga" or an individual who was ethnically Bantu in Cuba, but lived her life as a "Yoruba" spiritual healer, iyalocha/santera as well in Cuba in the nineteenth century. Francisca Siete Sayas was a priestess of the orisa Yemaya, an espiritista, and also engaged in the Congo practice of Palo. (Yemaya is the goddess of the sea and motherhood, and is syncretized with the Virgen de Regla, patron of Havana, Cuba.) Thus, Estevez's spiritual ancestor also serves as a professional ancestor. What is also important to keep in mind here is that many santeros and santeras have similar ancestors and guides that have personal histories that evoke Francisca Siete Sayas' narrative and/or legend. Ethnically and racially, one does not have to be "congo" or "Yoruba" to inherit a Francisca or to practice Santería. In this respect, Cuban national culture mirrors that of West Africa and Latin America where creolization and mestizaje is made a part of the rhetoric of romantic nationalism—especially as a part of the popular culture that is a part of daily life.

Also note that Francisca Siete Sayas, as a spiritual entity, has an orisa, Yemaya, as a guide as well. All of these connections have special meanings. Primarily, such spiritual genealogies illustrate that in the worldview of Cuban Santería, spiritual and physical planes are interlayered with dense relationships that resemble those of family, friends, and enemies. Francisca Siete Sayas' role in the limpieza allows us to look at the spiritual resources that Estevez is able to utilize in the performance of a limpieza. As the deity of the ocean, Yemaya allows Estevez a set of spiritual symbols and objects, a special arsenal, that she can turn to. Her use of objects hailing especially from the shore, in this worldview, is especially sanctioned and possibly efficacious on numerous metaphysical planes.

Estevez speaks emotively about her role as a madrina. For her, it is important that she be able to detect in both subtle and dramatic ways the needs of a godchild. Almost always, a limpieza will be needed in order to safely deal with opening the road for solving problems, or may even be the solution itself. A limpieza, for Estevez, is a means of re-creation—a cleaning of the slate of problems where new beginnings can take place. Different situations have different solutions. Our conversation goes this way:

SO: Umm. Also, how, how one knows. Well, put it this way, someone enters the your home and says to you: "Look, Madrina (godmother), I need something, I don't feel well at all." How is that process, what happens? One comes in and sits down and, and—
NE: Let's see, let's see, my daughter how it really is—
SO: Ok—
NE: You, you have your madrina, no? And you feel bad. You go to the house of your madrina, you say "Mi Madrina, what should I do?" "What to do? Well, let's give you a bath, with white flowers and cascarilla [chalk-like item used frequently in Santería]."
SO: Yes.
NE: One of those limpiezas done with cascarilla. That bath.
SO: A bath, uhh-huh.
NE: What else does one's madrina do? One looks at her [one's godchild] well, to see what is happening.
SO: To see what is happening, yes.
NE: To see what's wrong.
SO: Yes. And how do you feel after giving a limpieza? Do you feel tired, do you feel cleansed yourself?
NE: No. After one gives a limpieza one has to cleanse oneself.
SO: A-haa, a-haa.
NE: Because the weight that you are carrying, the madrina takes it over.
SO: Really?
NE: Yes, yes. When I finish from doing one I have to take a special bath.
SO: Oh yes.
NE: One also feels very tired.
SO: As well, that's true. (Interview transcript translated from the original in Spanish by the author)

The ritual bath is a limpieza that has a direct effect on an adherent's person. In paying special attention to the body, the person performing this prepared ritual for themselves is able to rejuvenate and restore the external and internal parts of themselves. Here, Estevez speaks clearly about how a madrina gets to know her godchildren by the process of diagnosing, prescribing, and monitoring the success of different kinds of baths to them.

The prescription of such ritual cleansing allows the relationship between the specialist and the client to grow into a bond of trust. The act of listening, especially on the part of the specialist, is a skill that specialists like santeros are providing for the communities they serve. Again, here we see the reciprocal relationship between a madrina and godchild. Madrinas have numerous spiritual responsibilities, some of the most important being detecting the need for a limpieza; performing the cleansing for the godchild or client; and taking the negative spiritual weight onto herself and disposing of it properly.

The specialist also needs to serve as a teacher, as one who gives the skills and knowledge for self-care to her godchildren. Estevez's preference for spiritual baths as a means for una limpieza is common among Santería practitioners as a sort of "test" for how adept a learner a godchild may be (Cabrera 1984: 132; Mason 1994: 23-39). This provides the opportunities for selecting future inheritors of spiritual legacies and religious genealogies. As is known in traditions of knowledge, academic and quotidian, many teachers are also evaluated by the quality of their students. limpiezas, then, are some of the first evaluative tests given to omoile, spiritual children, in estimating their potential and qualities as spiritual workers.

Not all santeros are created equal. There are hierarchies and specializations among individuals participating in Santería, especially as a health system. Bodies of knowledge and practice are resources shared across lines of different types of orisa worship. Santeras often make referrals to different individuals and groups that have access to the esoteric knowledge needed to remedy a specific situation (Cabrera 1993: 25-72). Santería, then, expresses itself as an incorporative system that stabilizes itself by providing a variety of problem-solving options, through different specialists, to its practitioners.

In Santería, individuals are encouraged to utilize all the resources available to them to establish and maintain their well-being. A medical doctor's success at healing a practitioner of Ocha does not lessen the power of the orisas or disprove Osanyin's ability to heal. On the contrary, it is the ase that the orisas bestow upon the doctor, person, or the actual implements used, that restores the balance of ase to the patient. Cabrera explains: "The science of the doctor increases in its effect if it is combined with magic, the power of the gods, the intervention of a spirit. The success of a difficult operation depends on a previous rite, on an ebo, on a sacrifice with which divine protection can be obtained, that only a healer can know how to provoke, generally a priest, or priestess, of the Yoruba religion, Lucumí as it was called in Cuba"(1984: 10—translated from the original Spanish).

Santería can incorporate medical techniques into its belief and health practices. A believer/patient can explain the efficacy of different health strategies from within Ocha, without having to give up his/her religious resources or convictions. This opens up the myriad strategies available to patients and priests in attempting to find solutions to the community's health problems.

Conclusion: Santería and Conventional Medicine

Santeros in the Americas are fluent examples of grassroots cultural, medicinal, and political workers. Priests' and priestesses' movements back and forth from Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and the United States establish modern-day orisa trade networks of religious articles, money, knowledge, and spiritual genealogies. Many move ritual objects, herbs, goods, and art between transnational borders. These second and third Diasporas are, as the great Pierre Verger and William Bascom have noted, ancient and ongoing. People in their quotidian and family memories, remedies, and histories, see the ongoing knowledge and movement of their ancestor as models for creating new collaborated spiritual and cultural families in traditional ways. Rituals like La limpieza, and the beliefs that center on Santería as a health system, solidify this process through ritual.

It has become increasingly clear that the existence of conventional medicine alongside folk belief and health systems like Santería does not eradicate people's use of either system (Hufford 199: 738; O'Connor 1995: 1, 28). Indeed, individuals in contemporary society tend to select what they need, based on experimentation and efficacy, from different health and belief systems (Hufford 1988: 21). My research suggests that those involved in Santería are no different in this respect. Individuals tend to make choices based on what they feel is the most appropriate way to deal with a health problem. In most instances, we find a combination of resources being used, in order to "cover all the bases" it would seem. The findings here suggest that for many Cubans and Cuban-Americans the norm is to combine conventional medicine with Santería. This peaceful co-existence is a legacy that Cuban immigrants have brought with them from their homeland: "With his prestige intact the healer practiced in Cuba. He was called santero, palero, babalawo, baba-ocha, tata nganga, tata nkisi, espiritero4, and it was frequent that one of these would send one their patients or protected to a physician, a rival, that like the Catholic priest did not lessen their clientele. Medical science worked its effects if it was combined with magic, the power of the gods, and the intervention of a spirit" (Cabrera 1984: 10, italics in the original).

In this way, Santería's incorporative structure may serve as a case study of how folk and alternative health systems are able to thrive alongside conventional medicine. Such "holistic" belief systems are empowering to individuals because people are encouraged to experiment and take an active part in their well-being. In contemporary society, alternative health systems are influenced by these folk traditions, and vice versa, because they provide a similar active role to individual patients (Hufford 1997: 734-735).


1. Osanyin/ Osain is syncretized in Cuba with Catholic saints San Antonio Abad and San Silvestre.

2. The balance/imbalance principle in orisa worship penetrates many levels of ritual, especially in dealing with the awo of Osanyin. For example, in Cuba, babalawos and practitioners must gather their own herbs from the forest. However, in order to ensure their potency, they must restore the balance of what they are taking by offering something to the forest, to Osanyin, upon entering and leaving el monte, the forest. For more on this, see Cabrera's El Monte, La Habana: Letras Cubanas, 1993: 147-148.

3. A trabajo, literally a piece of work, is used to refer to a spell or magic deed performed for protection in this case.

4. Spanish and African names for the various types of folk healers found in the 1950-60's in Cuba.


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Solimar Otero is a folklorist in the English Department at Louisiana State University. This article was first published in the 2008 Louisiana Folklore Miscellany.