My Black Madonna Blessing
During one of my free days in Havana, I headed to Regla, a tiny island in the middle of Havana’s harbor, known as the center of Afro-Cuban religions. (Hat tip to Mr. Greenwald for suggesting the visit.)
I mainly came to Regla to visit the Church of the Black Virgin, which featured a black Madonna brought over from Spain in the 17th century. The saint is associated with Yemayá, the spirit of the ocean, and is the patron to many sailors. Curious about all local traditions, I wanted to spy the saint in person and absorb a bit of the island’s Santería atmosphere.
Santería, the predominant religion here in Cuba, is a fusion of traditional African rites, brought over with the slave trade, with Roman Catholicism. Central to this religion are trance communication with ancestors and deities, animal sacrifice, and sacred drumming and dance.
I eventually made it into the church, but not before I was waylaid by a Santería priestess. Dressed in all white, she was sitting on a stone wall outside the church yard when she called me over. Initially I thought she had a question to ask me, but what she meant was did I have a question for her. (My Spanish is really poor.)
But by the time I figured out my mistake, it was too late. Next thing I knew I was sitting beside her, holding her umbrella for shade for us both as she gathered her totems. During the ritual, I never understood what was going on or what was being said, but I’ll give her this much—it was an elaborate ceremony.
Here’s the crux of my blessing:
Palm Reading: First she squirted warm water on my hands from a plastic bottle filled with roots and herbs. The brown liquid was warm after sitting in the sun and smelled faintly floral.
She then preceded to read both palms, tracing each line and telling me exactly what they said. (Words of Spanish understood: 5)
Tarot Cards: Next she pulled out her tarot cards and asked me to divide the pack into 3 piles. I chose the middle pile and she then flipped the cards over one by one, pointing out the significance of each one and how they related to one another.
She then moved onto the two other piles, again flipping them over one at a time and relaying the insight provided by the cards. (Words of Spanish understood: 3)
Reading Shells: She had four whole white clam shells which she indicated I should toss. I threw the shells three times, with all four landing on their backs the final time. This seemed to delight her as she shared her words of wisdom. (Words of Spanish understood: 0)
Writing of Wishes: She next pulled out her notebook and gestured for me to write down what I wanted. I wrote down 3 words. She pulled out another bit of paper and had me write down my wishes again. This time I added pictograms alongside the words. Heaven forbid we have any miscommunication here.
I then held the papers, one on top of the other, in both hands while she sprinkled them with the herbal water. She folded them together and tucked them away under the dress of one of her dolls. (Words of Spanish understood: 4)
Acquiring Fetishes: Now she took me by the hand and led me to a sleeping lad who was selling accoutrements. She carefully selected one yellow beaded necklace, a candle, a small piece of pottery shaped like a man’s head, and two flowers – a tuberose and a wilted sunflower.
• Beads – After forking over the equivalent of $6, she led me back to her spot on the wall. She then had me wrap the beads in my hands and sprinkled them with the water while singing softly and looking into my eyes.
She then placed the necklace, known as an eleke, over my head. It was alternating yellow and green beads, the mark of Orula, who personifies wisdom and is a master healer.
• Pottery – Next she had me choose a small rock from the ground and place it into the carved out head of the pottery figure. She filled the rest of the brain cavity with dirt then sealed it with wax melted from the new candle.
She had me hold the pottery in both hands in a certain way. She was very particular about this as I balanced the head between my right-hand thumb and my left-hand palm. I kept pulling away because I was afraid she was going to burn me with the hot wax, but I finally held steady for her.
She then wrapped the pottery head in a piece of paper and gave it to me for safe-keeping in my purse.
• Flowers – Next, she and I held the flowers by the stems while she repeated blessings over and over, using my name several times. She proceeded to walk around me, gently hitting me with the flowers all over my legs, arms, shoulders, back and head.
(Words of Spanish understood: 10)
At some point during the ceremony, she also had me kiss each of my palms after drenching them in herbal water. I kind of forget when exactly this happened.
It was now time for payment. She asked for $40 – an outrageous sum. I countered with $10 and we settled on $15. Unfortunately she saw I had more bills and insisted on $20 in the end. I relented because what’s $5 when you’re bargaining with Santería priestess? I reasoned that just because I didn’t know what was going on, doesn’t mean there not some power to her incantations.
A few weeks later, I still have the single strand of yellow beads and the tiny pottery head filled with dirt. And she still has my $26. (The equivalent of one month’s salary for a teacher in Cuba.) I’m certain at least of one of us had our wishes fulfilled that day.
This entry was posted on Thursday, April 30th, 2015 and is filed under North America.