Understanding Santeria through Stories

{Ocha’ni Lele. Teachings of the Santeria Gods. Destiny Books 2010. 269 pages. $16.95}

Reviewed by Star Foster

I love a good story. A good story has a mystery, a moral, a familiarity or a sense of the fantastic. A good story satisfies you down to your bones. Ocha’ni Lele’s book Teachings of the Santeria Gods is chock-full of just such stories.

Today when we want to learn about the Gods we often go to books that explain the Gods to us, rather than simply absorb the stories about the Gods. I knew very little about the orishas when I began reading Lele’s book but I was quickly entranced by them through their stories. What a wonderful way to meet Shango, Oya and Eleggua!

The book is divided into twelve sections to correspond with diloggun, an Afro-Caribbean divination system. For each of twelve possible results, or odu, there is a theme, and for that theme there are stories. Stories of love, loss, deception, faith, humility, perseverance, spiritual growth and sacrifice.

Sacrifice. If you know nothing else about Santeria you know they practice sacrifice devoutly but you may not know why. How does this fit in with their worldview? What function does it perform for them? How do they decide when and how and what to sacrifice?

You could certainly read some dry study of the religion and find your answers but I suggest you try the stories first. Lele sits us down and regales us with stories that are funny and heartbreaking. Reading the book gives you the impression you are seated near the feet of a favorite uncle as he spins tales into the night, far past your bedtime.

These are stories with a purpose and the lessons they teach are delivered sweetly. I learned how wealth is always jealous of wisdom, and will lavish gifts upon wisdoms suitors in order to seduce them. To pursue wisdom solely and purely is to have wealth throw itself at you. I learned that Life and Death depend upon each other and walk the world hand-in-hand. I learned Eleggua is wise and will help you out of your foolishness if you are willing to listen and make a personal sacrifice. I learned about the hubris of the rooster and how Unle was hospitable to all manner of misfortunes.

If you have any interest in Santeria, or in a story well-told, then you should pick up Ocha’ni Lele’s Teachings of the Santeria Gods. Don’t simply read it, savor it. Each of these stories is a gem worth examining, and Lele is the wise jeweler joyfully pointing out each facet.

Star Foster manages the Pagan Portal at Patheos.

"Honestly": Riffing on Messy Lives, Jesus, and Jazz
The Power of the Cross: A Review
Tasting God: A Q&A with Ginny Kubitz Moyer
The Pursuing God: A Video Q&A with Joshua Ryan Butler
About David Charles

David Charles joined Patheos in September 2008. Since then, he has helped shape the structure and content of the site and has led partnership development with a wide range of academic and religious organizations.

David was educated in Switzerland, England, and the United States. He holds advanced degrees in religious studies from Oxford and Harvard Universities. His academic training spans a number of disciplines and fields of study, including anthropology, literature, and history. He is the recipient of a teaching award from Harvard.