What's the deal with santería and espiritismo?

We set the record straight on the people dressed in white.

Have you ever seen those folks who dress all in white every single day? Or met a businessman sporting a strange bracelet of snails under his cuffs? Or rode a bus in which the driver had a statue of some lady with a sword on the dashboard? Whether you are native or just visiting Venezuela, you have probably been baffled by the mythical santeros, also known as “brujos” (witches). Depending on who you ask, you’ll hear different stories about these guys going from gossipy smear campaigns to tinfoil-hat conspiracy theories, and everything in between.

But who are they? Where did they come from?

Santería is a magical religion tracing its roots back to the Yoruba (an ethnic group from what is now Nigeria) who were taken to Cuba during colonial times. Forced into slavery in a Catholic environment where practicing their ancestral faith in front of their masters would invite the lash or the branding iron, the Yoruba camouflaged their religion under the figures of Christianity. Their central god (Olodumare) was masked as the God of The Bible, and their lesser deities (Orishas) were hidden under the alphabet of Christian saints. Thus Santería (the way of the saints) was born.

But Santería is not the only magical religion in Venezuela. Before it came from Cuba, there was already a system of beliefs that had dominated the scene for at least a century: Espiritismo. Originating in the central-western state of Yaracuy, Espiritismo revolves around María Lionza, a whiteface version of a legendary princess of the Jirajara tribe. She rules the universe together with Guaicaipuro, a historical chief that commanded a coalition of different tribes against the Spanish conquerors in the XVI century, and Negro Felipe, a legendary rebellious African slave. These three figures command a vast and ever expanding pantheon of spirits, forces, ancestors, and wraiths.

Santería and Espiritismo are similar in some respects: both revolve around performing rituals to obtain direct results in life (landing a job, curing a disease, getting a girlfriend, etc.); both make use of similar candles, idols, and amulets; and both perform animal sacrifices regularly. The main difference between them is that Santería is considerably more rigid in its practices and laws, since it adheres more solidly to its African roots. While Santería has something approaching a dogma, Espiritismo is amazingly fluid and constantly updates itself to include all sorts of new deities from many different backgrounds: devotees can call upon the spirits of pretty much every prominent figure from Venezuelan history, dangerous thugs from the 70s, Vikings from the X century, and yes, a certain infamous left-wing strongman. Anything goes.

This may all sound like the deranged practices of fringe groups, but Santería and Espiritismo are hugely popular. These religions cater to many different tastes and welcome believers that wouldn’t be well received in other faiths. Every city in Venezuela has several witchcraft stores where you can buy anything you need to dabble in magic or even hire the services of professional witches. Every year, on October 12th, thousands of people go to Sorte, the sacred mountain of Espiritismo, to practice rituals that go from dancing in trance to walking on fire. According to some estimates [10], between 30% and 50% of the Venezuelan population practices either Santería, Espiritismo, or both. And apparently Venezuela has twice as many priests in Santería than in Catholicism.

Reliable statistics are hard to come by though, since neither religion is institutionalized to any significant degree. Things get even more complicated when you realize that most devotees consider themselves to be Catholics. In fact, a usual entry requirement of both religions is to have been baptized in the Catholic Church. Even hardcore Catholics are careful not to tread on a brujo’s feet, for fear of supernatural consequences. A common saying in Venezuela is “No creo en brujas, pero de que vuelan, vuelan”. It’s not really translatable, but you’re not too far if you say: “I don’t believe in witches, but I do believe they fly”.

So now you know.

Next time you hear about brujos putting curses on politicians or building altars in cemeteries, remember:

  1. These are not the weirdest things brujos do,
  2. Espiritismo and Santería are distinct religions, and
  3. They’re both more common than you probably thought.

Alejandro Gutiérrez

Venezuelan engineer. B.S. and M.Sc. in Mechanical Engineering at La Simón and Ph.D. in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Università di Bologna. Researcher and teacher at the University of California, Merced. Technocracy dreamer. Science Fiction fanatic, self-appointed Tolkien scholar, and overall nerdy person.