It is hard to say which has been more maligned, modern Satanism or Afro-Caribbean traditions like Vodou and Santeria. According to Hollywood, Vodou ceremonies consist of blood-smeared witch doctors torturing animals to appease the forces of darkness. According to urban legend and fundamentalist propaganda, Satanists infiltrate day care centers in the name of Lucifer. The reality (as reality is wont to be) is considerably different. Far from being obsessed with death and torture, the Afro-Caribbean faiths are strongly life-centered and life-affirming spiritual traditions. Modern Satanists, in a similar vein, are far more likely to be found in recording studios or art galleries than in pre-schools. And yet there are numerous similarities (and a few very important differences) between these two worldviews. A study of the areas where they converge and diverge can help us understand both of these traditions, as well as the fears and prejudices of our culture.
Until very recently, the term “Satanism” was not something you did, but rather a convenient stick with which to beat anyone who proved inconvenient to the religious and political hierarchy. Moslems, Jews, heretical Christians and other unfortunates were accused of worshiping the “father of evil” at moonlit sabbats featuring writhing orgies, sacrificed infants and covenants in blood. These accounts were frequently “verified” in torture chambers and embellished by folk tradition and sexually frustrated clergymen into tales guaranteed to arouse revulsion and hatred. In the present day, Satanists are envisioned as a shadowy, Illuminati-like organization with tentacles in child pornography, drug dealing, “snuff films,” and world government; imagine Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a Hammer film and you’ll get the idea.
Modern Satanism, as described in Anton LaVey’s The Satanic Bible and as practiced by members of the Church of Satan, is a considerably more sedate affair. LaVey envisioned Satan not as an actual anthropomorphic being, complete with horns, tail and pitchfork, but as a symbol of man’s animal nature and of indulgence in the pleasures of the flesh. Those Church of Satan members who perform ritual typically see it not as “summoning powers from Hell” but rather as psychodrama and emotional release. A “Black Mass,” for example, becomes not a tool to evoke Satan to visible appearance but rather a way to break the chains of a Christian upbringing. Many Satanists actually eschew ritual altogether. They reject not only Christianity but mysticism in general and are frequently dogmatic materialists and skeptics.
Sacrifice, be it animal or human, is not part of modern Satanic ritual. The idea of sacrificing anything to ANY god, whether you call that god YHVH or Satan, is seen by modern Satanists as repellent and degrading. A Satanist would sooner spit in a deity’s eye than say “Please, Mr. Deity, will you do this favor for me if I kill this cat in your name?” Rather than sacrificing an animal, a modern Satanist is more likely to try to learn from it; Satanists see man as “just another animal” and strive to get in touch with their own inner beast.
(I am aware that there are self-proclaimed Satanists who are not influenced by, or who did not understand, LaVey’s work and who may commit violent or criminal acts in the name of Satan. Richard “the Night Stalker” Ramirez comes to mind immediately; the stereotypical glue-sniffing pet-killing metalhead teen would be another example. For the purposes of this discussion, I am not including this subset. This article deals with modern religious movements, not abnormal psychology, and these people no more represent modern Satanism than Jim Jones represents modern Christianity.)
The Afro-Caribbean traditions are a synthesis of various elements. At their heart are the religious practices and deities of western Africa, mostly from the Fon and Dahomey regions. These are combined with images and legends from Roman Catholicism; Santeria, for instance, identifies St. Barbara with the thunder god Chango and St. Lazarus with Babalu-Aye, orisha of healing and medicine. Altars to the orishas (Santeria) or lwas (Vodou) will typically feature statues of these saints or religious figures, together with various items connected to the deity in question. One might, for instance, find a statue of the Virgin on an altar to Erzulie, lwa of love and beauty; around it might be sugar cakes, a bottle of perfume, pink roses, and jewelry. Added to the mix are various deities and ideas from pre-Columbian cultures. In Santeria the figure Maximom (syncretized with St. Simon Judas) is a modern representation of an Indian fertility deity named Macha. Many of the petro lwas, entities known for their fury and quick action, originally came from the Arawak and Carib cultures; the ghedes, Vodou spirits of death, are known for obscene jokes, as were the spirits of the dead in the pre-Columbian cultures of Hispaniola. Finally Western magical, ceremonial and hermetic traditions like Freemasonry and spiritualism have been thrown into the mix, making for a veritable religious gumbo.
While there are many differences between the various traditions, and even within a particular tradition, there are certain notable similarities. First and foremost is the practice of spirit possession. In each of these traditions worshipers are at times “ridden” by the various entities, who then proffer their blessings (or warnings, or curses) on those assembled for the ceremony. These possessions are quite impressive. A hougan ridden by Oggun Ferri, for example, may lie atop the point of a sword placed in the ground without getting cut or impaled, while one ridden by Baron Samedi might gulp down a mixture of rum and hot peppers which would leave any faker gasping for breath. The altered state which leads to “riding” is achieved through drumming and dancing; to a casual observer, a Vodou or Santeria ceremony may well look like a Carnival celebration.
These traditions also involve sacrifice. One who wishes to gain the favor of the lwas or orishas must make offerings appropriate to the particular spirit. A Santero who wishes to appease Ellegua (the opener of the gateway, called Legba in Vodou and Exu in Candomble), might offer him rum, candy and toys; to gain the favor of Oshun (orisha of love), he might offer honey and a statue to the Madonna de la Caridad del Cobre. These offerings frequently involve animal sacrifice. While some Westerners find this shocking, it must be taken in its proper context. For the most part the sacrificed animals are later fed to the congregation; we should also remember that these practices originate in cultures where one may frequently see animals killed. We have distanced ourselves from our abattoirs and can purchase our meat without being reminded that it was once a living animal. This luxury is not available to most rural Haitians or Cubans. For them killing a chicken is not “a vile sacrifice to the forces of darkness”– it’s the first step in making soup! They do not have our gag reflex upon seeing a chicken beheaded or a goat’s throat slashed. It is something they have seen frequently since childhood, and no more repulsive to them than a trip to our local supermarket’s Meat Department is for us. (Those who would still condemn them should also note that these animals are killed as quickly and humanely as possible, and are generally treated with far more care, concern and respect than those killed on our “factory farms” and turned into Oven Stuffers and hamburger patties).
Finally, the Afro-Caribbean traditions are initiatory. While anyone may attend Santeria or Vodou ceremonies or make offerings to the lwas or orishas without any special training, one who wishes to lead ceremonies or present himself as a Babalao or Hougan must first be trained in various facets of the religion by one who has already undergone this training, and must follow various tenets and taboos leading up to an initiation ceremony. These ceremonies have not yet been committed to print and can only be performed by one who has the lineage to do so i.e. by one who was himself or herself properly trained. Some have theorized that this concern with secrecy and initiation is a result of slaveowner persecution against the African faiths. More than a few Blacks were put to death in extremely unpleasant ways for practicing “witchcraft” and secrecy quickly became a necessity for those who wished to serve the ancestors and the African Powers. Others point to the various secret societies and “coming of age” ceremonies of African culture. Whatever the root cause, the practical result is that you can only learn so much Vodou or Santeria on your own. While there are several excellent books on Vodou (Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen is particularly recommended) and Santeria (anything by Migene Gonzales-Wippler is good), sooner or later an interested student must find a teacher willing to initiate and train him.
Perhaps the most important difference would be that most modern Satanists see Satan as a symbol, not as an entity. In the Afro-Caribbean traditions, the ancestors and various deities are seen as actual beings, not as archetypes, images or symbols. They are as real, to their followers, as your next-door neighbor or the greengrocer down the street. They regularly attend ceremonies held in their honor and communicate with their worshipers in a way which is difficult to understand for those who have never seen or experienced spirit possession. They are immanent in every aspect of daily life; Legba watches at every crossroads and Oya can be found in any graveyard. Many Western readers will scoff at this as uneducated, unsophisticated animism and spirit-worship. In actuality there is a complex and profound system of metaphysics underlying the Afro-Caribbean faiths; those who doubt this should consult Deren’s observations on the figures of Legba and the Marassa (Twins) in Divine Horsemen.
Another difference would be that Santeros and Vodouisants see Satan and his minions not as proud, rebellious spirits to be emulated but as dangerous forces of darkness which should be dispelled or dispersed. A goodly part of the Hougan’s or Babalao’s day is devoted to protecting people from evil spirits and from black magic. Floor washes, unhexing candles, exorcisms, prayers; the Afro-Caribbean traditions have innumerable defenses against the powers of evil. The average botanica has far more items intended to lift curses than items used to cast curses; the average Santero is far more likely to offer stern warnings against tampering with evil spirits than to summon them for you. This contrasts sharply with modern Satanism, which does not see the necessity for blessed candles, Holy Water, or any other forms of “protection” against the devil and his minions.
Finally, modern Satanism sees itself as essentially in opposition to the established social order and the needs and wants of society. Most modern Satanists see themselves as “lone wolves” or “the Alien Elite” and speak with contempt of the “sheeple” and “herd mentality.” While the Afro-Caribbean traditions began as a rebellion against an unjust social system, they have since become the established social order. Vodou is a pervasive force in Haiti’s everyday life. Ceremonies at the peristyle, like church socials in rural America, serve as meeting places and community gatherings as well as religious rituals. Many prominent hougans and mambos also become important political figures within their community; the Duvaliers would be the most notable example of this. The African and Indian traditions which were synthesized into Vodou, Santeria, Candomble and their variants were tribal religions. As such, they were keenly concerned with the survival and prosperity of the group and expected their followers to band together in an “all for one and one for all” fashion. Wade Davis, in his excellent Serpent and the Rainbow, discusses how “zombis” are typically made from those who have in some way violated the trust of their community or otherwise endangered the group. This might seem stifling to some “lone wolf” Satanists, but again we must consider the environments in which these faiths developed. In Cuba and Haiti starvation is a real and constant threat; those who reject their society and strike out on their own are far more likely to die of deprivation than a group which shares resources and responsibilities.
Technically Satan is not part of the pantheons of Vodou or Santeria. In practice most followers of the Afro-Caribbean faiths are also Roman Catholic and believe in Satan’s existence and his power. There are “lwa flags” (elaborately painted and embroidered banners used in many Vodou ceremonies) dedicated to “Le Roi Lucifer” and other Satanic figures, and devil candles burned to bring harm to one’s enemies or to obtain a lover à la LaVey’s Destruction and Lust Rituals are sold at most botanicas. Candomble, the Afro-Brazilian tradition, syncretizes Exu with Satan. Exu altars and figurines frequently feature red devil figurines, complete with horns, tail, and an enormous phallus. His consort, Pomba-Gira, is identified variously with Lilith or with the Whore of Babylon and is the patroness of prostitutes. And of course the “Old Man at the Crossroads” who has been featured in so many blues songs and who plays such a role in African-American folklore and hoodoo is none other than Papa Legba, grinning broadly and offering forbidden power and knowledge to those brave enough or crazy enough to sign over their souls.
Both Satanism and the Afro-Caribbean traditions reinterpret Christian figures for their own purposes. The heroic Promethean rebel envisioned by modern Satanists bears little or no resemblance to the skulking “father of Lies” who runs screaming from a cross or a few drops of Holy Water. Similarly, few Catholics would recognize St. Barbara as she is envisioned by those who put her statue on altars dedicated to Chango. This attracts scorn from many “magical purists” who claim their own religious views are “untainted by Christian influence” and who scoff at Satanism and at the Afro-Caribbean traditions as “variants of Christianity.” In actuality, the ethics and metaphysics of Santeria or Vodou (and modern Satanism) are very different than anything found in Christianity, saints, rosaries and inverted crosses notwithstanding...while the ethical systems of many of the most self-righteous Newage and Wiccan types come straight out of the New Testament.
The Afro-Caribbean traditions, like modern Satanism, hold no stock in the “Threefold Law” or in many of the other “thou shalt nots” common to many of the “white light” traditions. A Santero or Vodouisant feels no compunction about using magic to harm, injure or kill his opponents; he typically assumes they will be doing the same to him and acts accordingly. Legal disputes in Haiti provide business not only for lawyers but for bokors, itinerant sorcerers specializing in particularly potent and lethal forms of magic. A Madrina whose husband has strayed can choose from any of a wide variety of Santeria spells designed to break lovers apart; should these fail, she chan choose from an equally wide variety of spells designed to kill her rival. In a similar vein, love spells are generally frowned upon by white-light types as an attempt to “control another’s will.” A Santero or Vodouisant would laugh at this idea. For them a candle burned so Erzulie Freda Dahomey or Oshun might make the desired fall passionately in love is as much a part of the arsenal d’amour as a candlelit dinner for two. In the Afro-Caribbean traditions, as in Satanism, all is fair in love and in war.
There is a profound distrust for the body and the material world found throughout much of Western magical thought. This combines the worst of our Christian culture (the idea that the body, the material world and physical pleasure are inherently evil) with misunderstood Eastern philosophy à la Blavatsky and a few others. This distrust does not exist in the Afro-Caribbean traditions. The legends of the lwas and orishas are filled with drinking, gambling, sexual misadventures, and all sorts of fun things which would leave a pious clergyman scandalized. Material success and well-being are not seen as obstacles on the path to enlightenment, but rather as evidence that a person is favored by the gods. The lwas and orishas regularly intervene on the “material plane” for their worshipers; a Mambo or Babalao whose spells don’t work will quickly be a Mambo or Babalao without a congregation. (Imagine a priest losing parishoners because he couldn’t heal the sick, or a rabbi scorned because his love spells didn’t work). While Satanists would generally give themselves credit for their victories rather than praising some spiritual entity, most would certainly have more interest in gods who reward their followers in this world than in gods who present all kinds of taboos and restrictions but give nothing in return but “spiritual reassurance” or “tickets to the afterlife.”
The Afro-Caribbean traditions are not Satanic in any sense of the word, save perhaps the sense in which “Satanism” is equated with “everything my pastor doesn’t like.” Nevertheless, there are many points at which the ethics of modern Satanism intersect with the ethics of the Afro-Caribbean traditions. Modern Satanists like to talk about “social Darwinism;” the Afro-Caribbean faiths grew up in an environment where it is the order of the day. In Haiti and Cuba stupidity is not just painful; it can quickly prove fatal. As a result, their ethical code is tinged with a hard realism. The lwas and orishas serve those who feed them; they will help a criminal escape the clutches of the law as quickly as they will heal a sick child. The Vodouisant or Santero may serve his gods, but he expects them to serve him back; he feels no compunction about asking for miracles, nor is he surprised when he gets them. He doesn’t ask for peace of mind or “enlightenment” or other such hoo-hah; instead, he asks for money, for sex, for power...for all the things which Christianity considers evil and which Satanists (and most sane people) consider desirable. Their belief in literal spiritual entities may not sit well with us skeptical Western types, but it is a belief based on empirical evidence. Vodouisants and Santeros believe in their deities because these deities produce results for them, not because of “faith.”
These are traditions where witches hex as quickly as they heal. They are traditions where ancient religious practices have been preserved (not “recreated”) and combined with anything else that works in a strange, beautiful, and intoxicating blend. Unlike the wooly-headed pablum which passes for “mystical thought” in our society, theirs is a practical mysticism; it seeks for, and regularly gets, results in the material world. A Satanist who wanted to see real folk magic in action, minus the tree-hugging crystal-polishing hippie crap which has polluted so much modern “witchcraft,” would be well advised to take a look at the Afro-Caribbean traditions, or to pay a visit to his local Botanica.