According to dictionary.com, a religion is a "set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs." Therefore under this general understanding I will refer to Santeria as a religion, although I do not give it any credence.
When the Spaniards were establishing a colony in South America and the island of Cuba, they brought slaves with them to do the hard labor. These slaves came largely from West Africa in the 1600s and 1700s, and they brought with them much of their folklore, culture, and religious practices. The slaves were polytheistic, but soon the Spaniards tried to encourage them convert to the Roman Catholic Church; yet, the West Africans continued to persevere in their practices. Therefore, the Spaniards began persecution of the slaves that included many of the atrocities we are vaguely aware of such as beatings, whippings, rapes, and other forms of torture.
Instead of converting, the West Africans began to take notice that some of their gods and goddesses looked vaguely like some of the better known Catholic Saints which the Spaniards put into their churches and chapels. So, what looked like Catholic converts to the Spanish, were really African slaves practicing the same pantheistic, animism and ancestor worship.
The main god is Olofi (aka, Olodumare or Olorun), but of the 400 minor gods and goddesses, only 16 are popularly worshipped and practiced: Obatala, Yemaya, Oshun, Oya, and Chango, to name a few. These five form the foundation of the practice of Santeria. The will of Olofi is manifested through the forces of nature. In exchange for total submission, observation of feasts, obedience to orders and rituals, the follower is promised supernatural powers and protection from evil in most major domains: influence/power, health, position, and ablitiy to see and modify the future. The "priests" of this religion are known as santeros.
The practices are supposedly limited to white magic and excludes black witchcraft.
Obatala is associated with Our Lady of Mercy and is the origin of the other gods and godesses and creation, but is not the creator (Olofi). He is also the patron of purity and peace. Orunla (aka, Ifa or Orunmila) is the patron of the high priests and the principal magician. He is associated with St Francis of Assisi. Yemaya is associated with the Virgin of Regla and is the patron of the sea and motherhood. Oshun is the younger sibling of Yemaya and the queen of love, marriage, gold, and the rivers. She is also the favorite concubine of Chango and is associated with our Lady of Charity. [...] More information: here.
How do I convey how familiar these names are, if not in print from the numerous trips I've made with my mom to the santero shops, to perhaps hearing some of them? Like, I've seen the names of Eleggua, Oggun, Ochosi, and Osun at different times as well as those mentioned above.
The Orishas, or gods, are represented by 16 cowrie shells and small figurines which represent the powers of each deity. These have to be wahed with sacred liquids made from teas and juices of plants, rubbed with oil, and fed with the blood of the deity's favorite animal (most typically chickens, pigeons, and other fowl). These objects have to be kept in the personal home. The bead necklaces and bracelets are made of the characteristic color of each Orisha, which protects the wearer from any magic spell via deflection. The Orisha protects it's "child" with its color.
There are initiation practices involved which are long, complicated, costly, and completed in a series of phases. First, the santero needs to learn which gods correspond to the initiate, which begins with the necklaces (which were constructed and then soaked in animal blood - and the smell is never lost) and ends with the asiento. The process is as follows: the wearing of old cloths (they are cut off of you), the bathing (a tea/infusion), and changing into white clothes to symbolize new life. An Orisha is assigned to the person to watch and protect and initiate. There are prayers in a foreign tongue (not Spanish), and animal sacrifices. Usually a second phase includes the divination of the initiate's future in which stones are thrown into a bowl filled with sand. Then the initiate is given the santeros' reading of his/her future. Then the initiate recieves his/her own set of cowrie shells, on which blood poured and a home for his/her Orisha, a decorated box containing food and oil for the seed. The seed is the home of the Orisha.
The Orishas are subject to human weaknesses: material greed, incest, adultery, drunkeness, violence, etc. Most of them "practice" witchcraft, divination, and magic. Necromancy also exists in Santeria along with the use of amulets and creating prayers or changing the fate of others (i.e., setting up white magic 'hexes' for someone, much like the Mormons can 'baptize' the dead). The whole focus of Santeria is the betterment of a single person, using prayer/hexes, magic, and divination of the person and others close to them to change their destiny which was created before they were born.
I've been involved with this stuff against my will, and often deceptively brought to participate in the initiation events - as in the the true nature of the outings were revealed to me.