Material History of American Religion Project

Seven African Powers: Hybridity and Appropriation

Santeria has a rich material culture, offering tremendous opportunities for studying the material history of religion. Mary Ann Clark warns us, however, not to trust all appearances.

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Although an examination of the objects used in religious practice can often be used to gain insight into a religious system, it is also possible for objects to mislead, to suggest relationships that do not exist, or do not exist in the manner suggested by our initial analysis. One such class of objects is the images of Catholic saints that have been associated with the Afro-Cuban religion of Santeria. Free and enslaved Africans developed Santería in Cuba in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Based on religious ideas and practices found throughout the Yoruba-speaking area of present-day Nigeria. Although almost completely African in its deepest rituals and most sacred practices, from its earliest beginnings Santería has incorporated European and Catholic cultural elements into its iconography. Among these elements are a group of Catholic saints who have been associated with the African Orisha, the deities of the religion.

Every student of the religion, whether religious seeker or scholarly investigator, quickly learns these correspondences: Shango is associated with St. Barbara, Yemaya with Our Lady of Regla, Oshun with the Virgin of Cobre, and so forth. Many books about the religion, both scholarly and popular, contain a chart of correspondences that list the saints associated with the most common Orisha (Bastide 1971, 153-57; Brandon 1983, 175-187; Brandon 1993, 76-77, 144-45, passim; Herskovits 1937; Murphy 1993, 3240, 120-124, passim). One can not participate in this religion on even the most shallow level without having some knowledge of these associations as practitioners often use the names of the saints and the names of the Orisha interchangeably. This cloaking of the Orisha in the mantle of Catholic saints suggests an ongoing process of heteroglossia and hybridization. These terms from the work of M. M. Bakhtin describe the ways two linguistic or symbolic systems can co-exist within a community. Heteroglossia is the use of "another's speech in another's language" and hybridization is the "mixture of two symbol systems within a single utterance" (Bakhtin 1981, 324, 358). These are techniques used by all speakers who easily move between social languages. Within Santería we find examples of heteroglossia when practitioners use Spanish (or English) terminology for Yoruba concepts when speaking in a principally Spanish (or English) environment. Hybridization occurs when someone mixes together Yoruba, Spanish and/or English terms within a single utterance. But practitioners can also use these techniques in non-linguistic situations, for example when statues of religious figures from other traditions are used to represent the Orisha, the deities of Santería.

Seven African Powers candle

What looks like an interesting example of the way African and European iconography are hybridized can be found encoded in the Las Siete Potencias Africanas (the Seven African Powers) candle. These tall, glass-enclosed candles can be found not only in botanicas (Sp. religious and herbal supply stores) serving the Hispanic community but also in many grocery and retail stores throughout the Houston area. A visit to a local grocery store reveals a vast array of magical candles. In addition to the Las Siete Potencias Africanas candle described here, similar candles are also available in a wide variety of colors and styles. Candles with pictures of individual Catholic saints, candles promising help with Life's Problems (Get Out of Jail, Win the Lottery, etc.) and some with no label or printing at all are all readily available. These candles are 8 1/2 inches tall with a 2 1/2 inches diameter and cost about $1.00 in the grocery store. They are often called "seven-day" candles since they can burn for as long as seven days. On the back of many of these candles is a prayer in Spanish and/or English, to be said in conjunction with the burning of the candle. (In an interesting side note, I am beginning to find similar candles in other locations. I have seen 7-day candles with "gag" labels: "Bad Hair Day" "Completing the Dissertation" or "Programming the VCR" as well as candles with goddess and Tibetan Buddhist images.)

Seven African powers candle, detail

Looking more closely at the Las Siete Potencias Africanas candle, we notice its distinguishing element, the Seven African Powers label on the front. In the center of the label is an image of the crucifixion with the title "Las Siete Potencias Africanas" printed above and the word "Olofi" printed below. Surrounding the center image are seven medallions connected by a chain. Each medallion contains the picture of a Catholic saint. But at the top of each medallion is the name of the Orisha generally associated with that saint. (The Orisha name "Chango" is clearly visible above the picture of St. Barbara.) Hanging from the chain connecting the lowest two medallions is a set of miniature tools. The typical prayer asks the "Seven African Powers" who surround Our Lord to intercede for the devotee to him because "we received the promise 'ask and you shall receive'." The prayer asks for spiritual peace, material prosperity and the removal of obstacles that cause misery "so that I will never again be tormented."

Here we find two symbol systems intertwined in such a way that one need not choose between them in order to participate in the blessings promised by the candle. One can move freely and easily between two symbol systems exploiting the strengths of each. In order to understand this hybridity, let's look more closely at these images. Most prominent is the crucified Jesus surrounded by a group of objects associated with his passion and death. This tableau called the Arma Christi, Arms of Christ or Instruments of the Passion, are a group of objects associated with Christ's suffering, death and burial. The Arma Christi is commonly found on paintings depicting the Mass of Saint Gregory. As commonly found on the candles the image includes the cock that reminded Peter that he had denied Jesus, a column and scourge, the cross, the hammer and nails along with the pliers used to remove the nails, the sponge used to offer Jesus vinegar to quench His thirst and the lance that pierced His side. This image focuses attention on one of the most important events in Christian mythology and places the candle squarely within a Christian milieu. However the title above and Yoruba word "Olofi" below the image suggest more is going on here. Olofi is a creolization of the Yoruba word Olofin, a title of Olodumare the Supreme Being of the Yoruba pantheon. The title Olofin means "supreme ruler" and among the Yoruba is often combined with Orun (heaven) or Aiye (earth) to designate Olodumare as the sovereign of those planes (Ìdòwú 1994, 36-37). Among Santería practitioners, Olofi is often associated with Jesus Christ as the personal God of mankind. Thus the image and caption suggests that not only is this an image of the crucified Christ but also of the Yoruba deity Olofi.

Looking at the individual medallions we find a similar hybridization. Although each image is of a well-known Catholic saint, the name printed above each image is that of the Orisha commonly associated with that saint. Thus we find, moving around the label, The Virgin of Mercy named Obatalla, the Virgin of Regla named Yemalla, the Virgin of Cobre as Ochum, St. Barbara as Chango, St. Francis as Orula, John the Baptist as Ogum, and St. Anthony as Elegua. Those who are familiar with Catholic hagiography will note that, with the exception of the Virgin of Regla whose story associates her with St. Augustine who was born in North Africa, none of these saints could be identified as an "African" saint.

Below the image, on a chain connecting the medallions, are tiny tools including a sword, a battle-ax and a lance along with several types of hammers. Santería devotees and others familiar with the religion will recognize these as the tools of Ogun that many wear on a similar chain around their ankle. Ogun the Ironworker is a powerful Orisha who is believed to work twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week for his devotees. Including his tools here not only mirrors similar tools found among the Arma Christi but also invokes the potency of this Orisha.


Candle display

These candles are both easy to find and inexpensive. The juxtaposition of images suggests incorrectly, as we shall see below, that these candles may be used in either religious system. Catholics, ignoring the African elements, may focus on the images of the Crucifixion and the saints while Santería practitioners and devotees may see past the Catholic images to find their own deities portrayed. One might suggest that the Seven African Powers candle (and others dedicated to individual saints) must be widely used within these different religious communities.

Santería practice provides a spacious field for material culture analysis. As many as 80 per cent of the practitioners are initiated priests. Each priest as part of his or her initiation is given a set of tools dedicated to the Orisha. These tools called fundamentos (Sp. foundations) are deposited within ceramic pots and placed together on the devotee's home altar. These altar spaces become the focus of private devotion where a wide range of objects cluster to depict and entertain both the Orisha and their followers. Since they can be used to represent the basic Santería pantheon, one would expect to find Las Siete Potencias Africanas candles prominently displayed in these spaces. However, my observations suggest otherwise. Rather, the most common candles found in these spaces are pure white seven-day style candles without any image or marking. Sometimes one finds candles in the color associated with an Orisha with or without decoration. Never have I seen one of the Seven African Powers on an Orisha altar display. And although traditional Catholics might use these candles, they would be more likely to prefer other candles from the same display with pictures of their saints without the African elements.

At first it seemed as though neither group would show a preference for this odd candle. Neither Catholics nor santeros seem to be using these candles as part of their religious practice. But retail stores do not continue to stock items that are never purchased. Who, then, uses these candles? When I began to question the santeros that I knew I discovered that the form of the question was important. When asked, "Do you ever put Seven African Powers candles on your Orisha altar?" The answer was "No". However, when I asked, "Do you ever use Seven African Powers candles?" I got a resounding, "Yes, of course." I discovered that while Santeria priests did not use these candles in their worship of the Orisha they did use them in other situations.

One of the most common uses for these candles was for simple rituals with or for people not initiated into Santería. Although it was more common for priests to work with only one Orisha at a time, priests told me that they did occasionally have non-initiates burn a Seven African Powers candle if they needed to invoke several of the Orisha included on the Seven African Powers candle. It is also common for non-initiates who may have seen other types of seven-day candles in the homes of santeros to use these candles on their own to invoke the basic Santería pantheon. Many priests spoke of such use both before their own initiation and on the part of their non-initiated godchildren.

The second generalized reason santeros told me they used these candles was for "spirit work". Spirit work refers to a range of activities associated with the practice of Espiritismo, (Sp. spiritism). There has been little scholarly work done on the practice of Espiritismo, however as practiced in the Houston community it includes various practices to invoke ancestors and spirit guides. Although neither Santería nor Espiritismo requires that a practitioner be involved in both religious systems, their complementary practices lead many to embrace both systems. And although it is possible to follow one system without the other, all of the Santería practitioners I know also engage in spirit work to some extent. Whereas Santería focuses ritual activity on the Orisha, the deities of the Yoruba, Espiritismo works with the spirits of the dead and while Santería ritual is formalized, Espiritismo practice is much more freeform, focused on the needs and desires of the devotees and the spiritual entities invoked. Since many of the spiritual ancestors of practitioners may have been initiated Santería priests it is common to use the public elements of Santería in Espiritismo rituals.

A third reason practitioners suggested for the availability of the Seven African Powers candles was a desire by outsiders to appropriate some of the magical power often associated with Santería practice. In communities familiar with Santería it is often seen as an effective occult system, a powerful form of brujaria (Sp. witchcraft) that can both heal and harm according to the intention of practitioners. While outsiders, particularly those living in Hispanic communities, often gain some knowledge of the religion through their use of it as an alternative healing system, it is only through initiation that one gains full access to all of the aspects of the religion. But some familiarity with the religion can lead outsiders to want to gain some of its benefits outside the system of formal initiation. As the deities associated with this secretive system, the Orisha represent the power base of Santería. Based on conversations with both initiates and non-initiates, I would suggest that the Seven African Powers candle represents a way in which non-practitioners attempt to access a portion of this power for themselves without having to become directly involved with the religion itself. By buying and burning this candle non-initiates feel that they can access some of the power of the Orisha initiates find in the fundamentos they received as part of their initiation experience.


What then are we to think of this artifact? Although it suggests a syncretism of African and Christian iconography, to see them as either a form of camouflage or as religious borrowing would be a misreading. Syncretism is properly defined as the fusion of unrelated religious systems. In a syncretistic situation elements of the contributor systems are combined in such a way that a new religious formulation is developed. But neither are these candles a form of camouflage. They are not intended to either conceal one religious practice behind another or to deceive observers as to the religious elements invoked. Instead these candles represent a case of religious appropriation. Religious appropriation is the use of one or more elements of an alien religious system in a way that does not fundamentally change the borrowing system. We can see example of religious appropriation when Christian congregations use sage to "smudge" their religious spaces or when yoga is used as a stress reducing exercise program while its place within Hindu spiritual practice is ignored. Religious appropriation is the side-by-side juxtaposition of one set of power symbols with another without any blending or confusion of symbols. In such a case no direct analogies are drawn, nor is there any hybridization. Those using these candles depend on the Orisha pantheon but in no way does Santería need either these candles or the images they present.

Thus Las Siete Potencias Africanas candles suggest a relationship between Catholic and Santería religious practice that does not really exist. Although Santería practitioners are adept at seeing through the saints to the Orisha they represent and freely incorporate Christian and other European elements into their total religious practice, the Seven African Powers do not represent any commonly accepted arrangement of Santería deities. That is, although most or all of these Orisha are commonly found on Santería altars, no practitioner receives this particular set of Orisha as part of any initiation ceremony. Rather Las Siete Potencias Africanas are an example of religious appropriation, that is, the use of the "power" of this religious system outside of its own milieu. We see this most clearly among santeros who use these candles but not in the practice of Santería proper.

It is important in this discussion to maintain the distinction of what practices form Santería proper and what practices, although also performed by Santería practitioners, are not parts of their Orisha worship. In addition to their practice of Santería, many santeros also practice Espiritismo, some practice other African-derived religions and many continue to participate in the Christian (Catholic or Protestant) religions of their families. In ways that may not be apparent to outsiders, each of these sets of practices is kept to its own time and place within the religious life of santeros. And although they freely move between several religious systems santeros are very clear on what "belongs to the Orisha" and what belongs to these other religious systems. The different religious practices are not generally mixed; rather each is kept both physically and temporally separate. The Orisha are worshipped in their time and place, the spirits are invoked in theirs and Catholic ritual is performed according to its own set of religious rules. It is a subtle but important distinction to recognize that these candles represent not Santería practice but alternative practices of santeros and others. What at first seems to be a subtle distinction between the candles used as part of Orisha worship and other candles actually points to an important dichotomy between Santería practice within the religion and alternative religious practices.

The Seven African Powers candle can also serve as a warning to scholars of material culture. In spite of fitting nicely into the common understanding of Santería as a syncretistic religion, a deeper probing of their use reveals that they serve no direct purpose within the religion to which our original analysis suggests they belong. While these candles appear to confirm the common impression of Santería as a syncretistic religion, deeper inquiry as to their use challenges that reading. In actuality, these "Santería" candles serve no purpose within the religious system to which they first appear to "belong." Only by observing actual practice and conversation with practitioners was it possible to unravel the place of these candles in the larger religious complex. This is particularly important in a religion like Santería that although being the focus of attention for several generations of scholars remains hidden behind a veil of secrecy. That elements of a variety of religious systems appear to be juxtaposed should not imply that they have been integrated into a single religious system. Not only observation but conversations with practitioners is necessary to correctly place the different objects found.

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Bakhtin, M. M. 1981. Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Translated by Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Bastide, Roger. 1971. African Civilizations in the New World. Translated by Peter Green. New York: Harper & Row.

Brandon, George. 1983. The Dead Sell Memories: An Anthropological study of Santeria in New York City. Ph.D. diss., Rutgers University: The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick.

Brandon, George. 1993. Santeria from Africa to the New World: The Dead Sell Memories. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Herskovits, Melville J. 1937. "African Gods and Catholic Saints in New World Negro Belief." American Anthropologist 39 (4 (Part 1)):635-643.

Ìdòwú, E. Bælájí. 1994. Olódùmarè: God in Yorùbá Belief. New York: Wazobia.

Murphy, Joseph M. 1993. Santería: African Spirits in America. Boston: Beacon Press.

Mary Ann Clark is an independent scholar working on her book Asho Orisha: Material Culture as Religious Expression in Santeria under a provisional contract with the University Press of Florida. You can reach her at .

Copyright 1999, Mary Ann Clark