The Lukumi Tradition

by Shloma Rosenberg (with an almost comical amount of help from Ilari Oba)

A note on terminology:

The Yoruba slaves who were brought to Cuba throughout the slave trade and their descendants in Cuba and the diaspora were known as "Lukumi." The origins of the word "Lukumi" are still obscure, regardless of the certainty with which cases are stated by those who have made up their minds. Many believe that the term was derived from "Oluku mi" ("my friend") which was used by Yoruba speaking people to refer to their countrymen, and as a greeting for same. There is reference, however, in early literature, to the Kingdom of Oulkoumi or Ulkumi. Early scholars made use of the terms Ulkami, Ulkumi or Alkami to refer to the people who are now known as "Yoruba." The term "Yoruba" was originally applied to these people by their northern neighbors and taken as an official denomination for the people after British colonization. In any event, the term is now used to refer to both the religion and the practitioners of Afro-Cuban Orisha worship.

The name by which the religion is now most commonly known, "Santeria," is a pejorative term first applied by the Spanish to the religious practices of the peasantry. It was used as a derogatory reference to the unusual amount of devotion and attention paid to the Catholic Saints, often in preference to Jesus Christ. This term was again used in Cuba to identify the "pagan" religion. The Yoruba devotion to the Orishas, who were often referred to as "santos" ("saints") by both slave and slave-owners, was mistakenly seen as the "fanatical" worship of demigods and the neglect of "God." Therefore, the opprobrious and demeaning term "Santeria" was extended to the religious practices of the so-called "savages." Only in recent years, after having the label applied by outsiders for an extended period of time, has the term begun to be used by members of the religion.

In the latter half of the 18th century, large numbers of slaves were brought to Cuba from the region of Southwestern Nigeria which was and is the home of the people now known as the Yoruba. Most of these people were taken from the Oyo, Egbado and Ijesha areas. The vast majority of these men and women practiced the indigenous religion of their homeland, and many were members of the priesthood. They brought with them their religious beliefs and practices, as well as deep knowledge of the inner mysteries of initiation and other ceremonies.

While the basic theology and metaphysical worldview of all Yoruba speaking peoples was the same, there were still differences in practice from region to region. Over the years, as members of the diverse groups came together and merged religious traditions based on the commonalties of their beliefs and practices, the religion known as La Regla de Osha Lukumi (The Rule of the Lukumi Orishas) was born. In the early part of this century, in Havana, a reformation took place in which the most esteemed elders of our tradition came together to standardize the ceremonies and rituals of the Lukumi faith. This more focused and coherent set of practices spread throughout Cuba, then into the diaspora. They have stood the test of time and given us the religion we practice today.

Most of our religious dogma comes from the Old Oyo empire of Ancient Yorubaland. This empire, due to the internal strife that brought about its decimation, and the ensuing effects of slavery, Islamic jihads and colonialism, is now gone. The religion practiced by the slaves who were brought to the New World has undergone many changes in Nigeria, and, although we can see that our basic beliefs are the same, there are major differences in practice. Just as contact with other religions affected and actually benefited the religion in the New World, in Yorubaland the effect was exactly the opposite. Colonialism and monotheistic religions took a heavy toll, weakening the roots of the ancient religious traditions of the Lukumi/Yoruba descendants in the homeland. Currently, Orisha worshippers are but a slim minority of Nigeria's total population.

If we look, however, to Brasil and Trinidad, two countries which had virtually no religious interaction with Cuba, we can see that their religious traditions are very similar to those practiced in Cuba. Their chants, aesthetics and initiation rites bear striking similarities (and in many cases are identical) to ours. Often, these are similarities that we do not find in modern-day Nigeria. This is one indication that New World forms of Orisha worship are OLDER traditions which were born of a common ancestry and remained intact, rather than, as is often proposed by Neo-Africanists, the results of New World innovations.

The Lukumi tradition was the "pathmaker" in the US. It is the oldest tradition here, and the progenitor of the majority of the neo-African deviations which claim to practice a "more African" system of worship. Over 90 percent of Orisha worship in the US descends from the Lukumi tradition, yet there are many who claim not to even though they employ fundamental elements of Lukumi tradition, such as prayers, chants, herbs and bead patterns, and the services of members of the Lukumi faith, like animal suppliers, seamstresses, botanicas, priests, Oriates, etceteras, ad infinitum. In addition, the Lukumi tradition has spread to other countries like wildfire-Venezuela, Panama, Columbia, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Spain, The Virgin Islands, Curacao, Canada, Costa Rica, France, Germany, Sweden and Britain- to make it the most widely practiced tradition of Yoruba origin in the world.

Be ALL this as it may, we must remember that, even in the times of the Old Oyo empire, beliefs and rites differed greatly from region to region in Yorubaland, as they still do. There is no "One True and Only Way", and there never was. It is important that all legitimate religions born of Yoruba origin and fostered by the environment in which they evolved be respected, and that their integrity remain uncorrupted. The Lukumi religion is but one branch on a very old tree, the trunk of which is the ancient tradition of the Yoruba speaking tribes of West Africa.