I was charmed by a witch doc­tor

A Cuban witch doc­tor taught me the old ways

Chat It's Fate - - Contents -

Sit­ting back in a beau­ti­ful red-and-white con­vert­ible 1956 Buick Spe­cial with cracked cream leather seats and trim, I felt the hot Caribbean sun warm my skin. I was on hol­i­day in Cuba and my driver, Ramón, was giv­ing me an un­of­fi­cial tour of the beau­ti­ful, his­toric cap­i­tal, Ha­vana.

‘What do you know about San­tería?’ an­tería?’ I asked him cu­ri­ously. I’d heard a lit­tle on my trip about this mys­te­ri­ous, lo­cal form of magic and was fas­ci­nated to learn more. From what I’d been told, I’d gath­ered that San­tería is a bit like voodoo, a mash-up be­tween an­cient African tribal be­liefs and a su­per­fi­cial Catholic makeover that is unique to Cuba.

Ramón gave me a con­spir­a­to­rial look. ‘I have a friend who prac­tises it,’ he whis­pered. ‘He’ll tell you all about it – so long as you buy him a beer!’

It seemed like a price worth pay­ing! Ramón made a call on his mo­bile and told me the name of a bar in the Old Town where I could find Liober that af­ter­noon…


Liober turned out to be a friendly chap in his for­ties with a wife and two chil­dren. Sip­ping his beer, he sat back in his chair. ‘So, you want to know about San­tería?’ he be­gan. ‘Well, San­tería was, like all re­li­gion, heav­ily sup­pressed by Cuba’s com­mu­nist gov­ern­ment but now it is com­ing back into the open, along with Catholi­cism and even things like gay rights, which were non-ex­is­tent un­der our for­mer leader Fidel Cas­tro.’ Liober ex­plained that he grew up in a very poor part of Ha­vana, in a so­lar, a huge build­ing sub­di­vided into rooms and cheap apart­ments, a lit­tle like a Brazil­ian favela, where ev­ery­one is crammed in to­gether, of­ten shar­ing com­mu­nal bath­rooms, toi­lets and court­yards. ‘Our neigh­bour, Gen­erosa, was a san­tero - some­one who prac­tices San­tería - or a ba­bal­awo as we call a high priest­ess,’ he said. ‘She and her hus­band would of­ten have par­ties with vi­o­lins ded­i­cated to the god Og­gun who loves vi­o­lin mu­sic – his San­tería name is some­times San Pe­dro, San Pablo or San Miguel.’


Liober used to bor­row the hand­bell and the wooden cock­erel from Gen­erosa’s al­tar to play with – but his fa­ther was afraid and made him re­turn them.

‘Gen­erosa would al­ways say, “It’s OK, th­ese are the things of Changó – it is a sign that he is watch­ing over your boy.”’ Liober said. ‘It seems I was drawn to San­tería from an early age.’

‘Who is Changó?’ I asked Liober, in­tensely cu­ri­ous.

It turned out Changó was a god! When you first go to a cer­e­mony, Liober ex­plained, the ba­bal­awo – the high priest who has stud­ied the re­li­gion through the old books – will tell you your own ‘road’ or ‘map’. ‘Each per­son has a dif­fer­ent one. They use shells or co­conut pieces to look for a sign,’ Liober said.


‘They’ll look up the mean­ing of the sign in the scrolls. So it might be that you are gov­erned by Changó - the most pow­er­ful god, noted for his anger, the ruler of the head. The god will warn you if he thinks some­thing needs your at­ten­tion – your health, per­haps. And usu­ally this would be fol­lowed by a live an­i­mal sac­ri­fice.’

Fas­ci­nated, I asked Liober to ex­plain the his­tory of San­tería. an­tería. He told me that the Spaniards

An­i­mals are sac­ri­ficed by hav­ing their throats slit

in the 16th cen­tury re­fused to al­low the slaves they took from West Africa to wor­ship their own gods.the slaves found a way around it by re­nam­ing their or­ishas, or gods, with names of Catholic san­tos, or saints, hence the name San­tería.

‘So you pray to your or­isha, or saint,’ ex­plained Liober. ‘It could be some­thing like, “I re­ally love this girl, please en­ter her soul and make her love me back.”’ Sac­ri­fices I ask about the an­i­mal sac­ri­fices, and Liober chuck­led. ‘You tourists al­ways want to know about the an­i­mal sac­ri­fices! Yes, there would be sac­ri­fices of chicken or goats where the ba­bal­awo would slit their throat – but this is not un­usual in Cuba where we slaugh­ter all our an­i­mals our­selves, we don’t buy neatly pack­aged meat from the su­per­mar­ket. Slit­ting the throat is the nor­mal method. Tourists

might not like it, but it’s a clean and quick death.’ Al­though most peo­ple in Cuba are Catholics, few see any kind of con­flict be­tween their re­li­gious and spir­i­tual be­liefs. ‘One ba­bal­awo I know is a de­vout Catholic,’ Liober said. ‘He never misses mass on a Sun­day and as­sists the Fa­ther in his du­ties. And San­tería is at least as wide­spread as Catholi­cism - any­one who tells you oth­er­wise is ei­ther un­in­formed or a liar!’ Fidel­cas­tro

There is a ru­mour that Fidel Cas­tro, who led the 1959 com­mu­nist revo­lu­tion in Cuba against a tyran­ni­cal gov­ern­ment, was a san­tero, mainly due to the fact that dur­ing his vic­tory speech, two doves sup­pos­edly flew down and one landed on Fidel’s shoul­der. Doves are as­so­ci­ated with Obatalá, who is also known as Vir­gen de las Mercedes.

‘Is there a dark side to San­tería?’ I asked Liober. I was think­ing of the films I’d seen about voodoo – zom­bies ris­ing from graves, voodoo dolls, ter­ri­fy­ing curses, that kind of thing.

Liober thought for a mo­ment. ‘Well, some might ask a ba­bal­awo to cause harm to an enemy – per­haps make a hated boss lose his job or have some sort of ac­ci­dent,’ he said even­tu­ally. ‘It’s the same prin­ci­ple as ask­ing for good to hap­pen, you are still pray­ing to the gods and of­fer­ing a sac­ri­fice. But many ba­bal­a­wos will refuse to do it be­cause it doesn’t sit well with them.’

‘Many say, what­ever bad you do to some­one else will come back to you ten-fold,’ Liober added thought­fully. ‘It’s re­ally not a sig­nif­i­cant part of the re­li­gion. And don’t for­get – it is a re­li­gion, not black magic!’

I said good­bye to Liober, leav­ing him to en­joy his beer in the sunshine, and went to find Ra­mon and the car.

I’d learnt an aw­ful lot about a fas­ci­nat­ing old re­li­gion – and, as Cuba moves into the 21st cen­tury, San­tería fi­nally seems to be com­ing out of the shad­ows.

Maybe one day it will be as wide­spread as Wicca!

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