The religion of the West African Yoruba people was forced underground by centuries of slavery in the Americas. Several hybrid forms of worship, of which the best known is Santeria, were created by deliberate conflation of Yoruba spiritual entities with Catholic ones.
The Yoruba people of West Africa recognize three levels of spiritual force: one creator god called Olodumare; numerous nature or messenger spirits (similar to Christian angels) called the orishas, and the revered spirits of the dead, called the eggun. Under the yoke of Catholicism, Olodumare was identified with Jehovah, and the orishas were identified with various Catholic saints or angels.
Wherever people of African descent were converted to Catholicism, different patron saints were spontaneously identified with their own African deities and spirits. However, there was no central hierarchy to make the ascriptions, so as far as the Yoruba [among the enslaved people] were concerned, the hagiography and iconic symbols associated with each orisha and each saint produced a variable set of flexible lists of correspondences. Here is a typical list of correspondences between nine of the orishas and more than a dozen Catholic saints:
Eleggua: Messenger, Opener of the Way, Trickster
Saint Simon Peter, San Martin (Caballero), Saint Anthony (of Padua)
El Nino de Atocha, Saint Expedite, Saint Michael Archangel
Obatala: Father of Humanity, Bringer of Peace and Harmony
Our Lady of Mercy, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel
Yemaya: Spirit of Motherhood, the Ocean, and the Moon
Our Lady of Regla, Mother Mary, Star of the Sea (Stella Maris)
Oya: Female Warrior, Spirit of Wind, Storm, Thunder, and Magic
Our Lady of Candelaria, Saint Catherine, Saint Theresa
Oshun: Lady of Love, Beauty, and Sexuality, Spirit of Fresh Water
Our Lady of Caridad del Cobre (Our Mother of Charity)
Shango: Fourth King of the Yoruba, immortalized as Spirit of Thunder
Ogun: Lord of Metals, Minerals, Tools, War, Birds, and Wild Beasts
Saint John the Baptist, Saint Anthony (of Padua), Saint George
San Pedro (Saint Simon Peter)
Orunmila: Teacher, Prophet
Saint John the Evangelist taking Jesus down from cross
Babaluaye: Spirit of Disease and Sickness, also Provider of Money to the Poor
Saint Lazarus of Dives
In the United States, Mexico, and the Caribbean, seven of the many orishas were combined into a commonly seen image called “The Seven African Powers.” However, there are far more than seven orishas, and most of them are identified with more than one Catholic saint.
So who are the Seven African Powers?
The Seven African Powers image […] consists of seven saints (sometimes given orisha names and sometimes saint names) surrounding a central circle in which is shown the crucifixion of Jesus, watched by a rooster on a pedestal. Inside the circle of saints the word “Olofi” sometimes appears. The full image is found on a common Mexican package amulet that combines three coins, an image of the Holy Trinity and a print of The Seven African Powers The inner Crucifixion image, without the outer ring of saints, appears on candles and other articles marked “Just Judge” or “Faithful Judge” in English or “Justo Juez” in Spanish.
According to Blair Whitmer, writing in Usenet in the late 1990s,
“The phrase “The Seven African Powers” is misleading. These seven deities are only seven out of a large pantheon of Orishas. These are worshipped in several different religions brought to the New World including Santeria (in Cuba), Candomble (in Brazil), Arara (in Cuba) as well as many others. The phrase “Seven African Powers” is mostly predominant in African-American hoodoo; in Spanish-speaking nations, they are the Siete Potencias (Seven Powers).
“As a priest in Santeria, I’m biased towards the belief that proper worship of Orishas requires the direct input and guidance of a priest in the chosen religion. The same is not necessarily true if they are simply being invoked for magical uses, but that’s not really “worship” … at least not in MY book. Personally, I would advise extreme caution in invoking an Orisha for magical uses without the associated religious practice and guidance from a priest.”
My good friend and collegaue Dr. E. of the Santeria Church of the Orishas disputes the above, and, given his lifetime of association with the Cuban-American community and his position as a priest of Shango in the religion, i think it is worthwhile to quote him at some length:
“The Seven African Powers Are Spirit Guides Not Orishas
“The Seven African Powers are actually spirits of the dead from the seven different African tribes that were brought to Cuba and forced into slavery. Within a Santeria (Lucumi/Lukumi) cosmological understanding, the Seven African Powers are araorún (citizens of heaven – dead spirits) – they are not usually Egun (ancestors of blood or initiatory lineage). When a person speaks of the Seven African Powers they refer to a group of 7 different spirits, one from each of the following tribes: Yoruba, Congo, Takua, Kissi, Calabari, Arará, and Mandika. A person who has a connection with the Seven African Powers will have one spirit guide from each of these tribes unique to him, and one of the seven will dominate the group and orchestrate their efforts.
“[…] If a person were to receive the odu 7-8 in a diloggun [cowrie shell] reading it would indicate that they have the Seven African Powers in their court of spirit guides and it would be up to them to use Spiritualism (Espiritismo) to determine who they are, what their names are and who is the primary one that heads the seven.”
Now, even as this Seven African Powers image was meeting general acceptance in the New World Santeria community that resulted in Italian production of it as a holy card, an entirely unrelated event was occurring, namely, the immigration of a wave of Santeria-practicing Cubans to America during the late 1970s. Bearing the Seven African Powers image with them, these folks ran smack into the ongoing African-American social movement called African Cultural Nationalism.
During the late 1970s, the popularity of the book (and later TV mini-series) “Roots,” combined with the rhetoric of African-American political figures who promoted black pride and black power, led many people who had previously looked down on their African ancestry to take up the wearing of African clothing and the adoption African names. Some turned from Christianity to Islam as a statement of their disaffection with American values; others investigated African religions.
Santeria, despite the Catholic influences that both adorned and concealed its African character, met a real need for African-centered religious expression in the African-American community. Even among those who retained their Baptist, A.M.E., C.O.G.I.C., or Pentecostal Christian religious affiliations, the Seven African Powers image — with its entrancing title “AFRICAN” — cast a warming glow.
Since the 1920s, if not earlier, hoodoo conjures and root workers were used to working with a pan-cultural mixture of imagery in their magical practices — including Jewish kabbalism (e.g. “Secrets of the Psalms”), Japanese Shinto-influenced Buddhism (e.g. Hotei, The Lucky Buddha), German and French invocatory magic (e.g. Albertus Magnus’ Egyptian Secrets” and “The Black Pullet”), Catholic ritualism (e.g. devotionary candle-burning), Mediterranean folklore (e.g. belief in the evil eye), and alleged Romany (Gypsy) fortune telling, and European-style divination by playing cards.
The cross-cultural nature of hoodoo and the “African” name almost guaranteed that the Seven African Powers image would be readily integrated into the hoodoo catalogue of efficacious articles. Despite Protestant Christian unfamiliarity with Catholic saints or Lucumi orishas, the central figure of Christ crucified conveyed a powerful and familiar message to most African-Americans and the word “AFRICAN” supplied a strong incentive for acceptance.
Thus, in the early 1980s the Seven African Powers name entered hoodoo as an all-purpose power-enhancing magical formula, considered to be equivalent to John the Conqueror in its presumed effects, and used in much the same manner — with the added value of conveying African Cultural Nationalism or black pride, as well. At the same time, the Just Judge detail-image, due to its evocative name, became associated with, and began to be used as an equivalent to, the already extant hoodoo magical formula called Court Case.
While worship of the Just Judge can be integrated into conventional Protestant worship of Jesus Christ, especially as a substitute or enhancement to traditional hoodoo Court Case spiritual supplies, actual worship of the Seven African Powers is not found in hoodoo, as far as i can tell. Rather, the name and image are used in magical rites only, for the purpose of enhancing personal power.
Other Santeria-influenced spiritual supplies bearing the names or likenesses of orishas have had less success in penetrating the Protestant Christian hoodoo market. Chango Macho candles are occasionally sold to men in hoodoo stores, due to the presence on them of the familiar word “macho,” which has entered the English language as a borrowing from Spanish. They are used much like John the Conqueror candles, to increase virility. Yemaya and Ellegua candles, on the other hand, although widely available in American botanicas, do not seem to be found in many hoodoo supply stores at the present time, except in mixed Latino and African-American neighborhoods which share a Protestant / Santeria customer base.