Traditional African religions often found plants to be quite useful for both medical and ritual purposes, an aspect that carries over to the Santeria faith as well. "Plants play an important role in Santeria ritual, whether in communal ceremonies, the more private domain or healing rites, or individualistic practices of magic, witchcraft, and sorcery" (Brandon 1991:59). In this paper, the use of plants in Santeria will be detailed, as well as the reasons behind their use in various rituals and customs related to the Afro-Cuban religion. The role of plants in Santerian religious ceremonies is typically one of healing and sacrifice, as plants are tied to the gods that the Santeria worship.
Santeria stems from many unique and signature aspects of Yoruba, including many of its fundamental aspects “Yoruba traditions of divination, sacrifice, ceremonial spirit possession, and healing remain important in present-day Santeria" (Brandon 1991:56). Orishas are the many spirits that are thought to dwell in the next world and in this one, and the priests who act as spiritual leaders are the olorisha. Spiritual possession is thought to be common and a typical explanation for changes in personality as well as minor to major medical problems. According to studies, "Practitioners may attribute disease, disturbing life events and bad luck to factors such as a person's envidia (envy), mal de ojo (evil eye) the belief that certain individuals can inflict misfortune through their gaze, or, in rare cases, hechiceria (witchcraft)" (Potterf 2006:88). These unique factors can all contribute to the various illnesses and bad events experienced by those practicing Santeria.
In order to remedy their ailments, Santeria rituals must be performed. The olorisha, or priest, would assemble the congregation to gather around someone who was thought to be possessed by an orisha, or someone who was experiencing divination. Plant concoctions created for the purpose of a ritual are typically called ozains or omeiros. These are mixtures of plants whose purpose is to "cleanse, refresh, and prepare individuals and objects for contact with the orisha or Santos, the deities of Santeria" (Brandon 1991:60). During these rituals, offerings of sacrificial blood, fruit, and valuables are presented to the orishas or Santos, as a means of gaining their favor. This is done in order to facilitate the body and prepare it for a possession by an orisha. Through this consensual possession, the orisha is thought to heal the person who is ill (Olupona & Rey 2008). Despojos are the common term for Santeria cleansing rituals, which typically remove harmful spirits from the body, and absorb the bad spirits and their influences into smoke, water, or an object. Plants are typically used in the smoking process, where the steam of the smoke sloughs out the bad spirits, fumigating them. Often, several different methods of cleansing, including brushing the person with a broom made of spiritually significant branches, weeds or sprigs of flowers, are utilized to cleanse the body of unfortunate possessions.
Plants and herbs are called egwe in Lucumi, the base language from which the Santeria spoken language is derived. These plants "are thought to have the power to help...