We’re not very good at keeping secrets in our modern culture. Social networking and text messaging make it possible for us to follow the intimate details of our friends’ lives and receive tons of information from all around the world at the touch of a little button. A lot of people have trouble understanding why they need to keep anything secret unless they’ve done something bad and they don’t want anyone to know about it. Secrecy suggests underhanded, suspicious behavior, and anything done in secret must be either illegal or immoral. Otherwise, why keep it secret? Popular magazines exist for the sole purpose of uncovering people’s secrets. Just think what happened the last time a celebrity or politician tried to keep a secret…. It usually leads to scandal.
In Santería, secrecy has a completely different meaning, and a different social function. It creates a barrier between insiders and outsiders, making sure the religion remains in the hands of people who will safeguard it and respect it as it was handed down to us by the ancestors. There’s no real reason why outsiders need to know certain information. What would they do with the information if they had it? It would be useless to them, because they don’t have the aché (divine energy) to understand it fully. Santeros don’t have an evangelical mission and don’t try to convert outsiders to the religion. It’s irrelevant if outsiders understand Santería or not. Those who practice it understand it, that’s what matters. Santeros don’t feel any particular zeal to get everything about the religion out in the open and share it with the world. If someone doesn’t know about Santería or doesn’t appreciate it, it’s their loss. Contrary to what many outsiders think, the secrecy surrounding Santería isn’t there to cover up evil deeds. Secrecy surrounds the religion because the knowledge that comes from Santería is so precious, it can’t be squandered. No one would put a pot of gold in the front yard and stick a sign on it saying: take some. Santeros feel the same way about the sacred teachings of the religion. Knowledge is for those who’ve made a serious commitment to the religion, who respect tradition, and who will use the knowledge to good ends.
Sometimes it’s hard to know who’s your friend and who’s your enemy. If you share knowledge with someone you think is a friend and later he turns against you, he can use the knowledge he got from you to harm you. We’re not just talking about gossip and the potential for blackmail. We’re talking about spiritual power, too, because practitioners of Santería learn how to align themselves with the aché of the Orichás, who bring them health, prosperity, success, and allow them to overcome their enemies, not through witchcraft but through the spiritual protection the Orichás offer their children. Through secret ceremonies, Santeros strengthen their own personal aché and enlist the help of the Orichás to solve problems. The secrecy of the ceremonies isn’t to hide evil; it’s to protect what’s good and necessary in life, and keep it in the right hands. Those who are initiated into the religion have a sacred obligation to do the right thing.
In part, Santería’s reputation for secrecy goes back in time, when the slaves in Cuba couldn’t practice their religion openly. They hid the Orichás behind the saints, and kept their ceremonies and rituals secret so those with political and social power (the masters) wouldn’t punish them. This historical experience taught Afro-Cubans to be quiet, guarded, and cautious. But, there is something deeply engrained in the religion itself that promotes this careful approach to life. So many of the refranes (proverbs) of Santería talk about the dangers of talking too much, of telling people information that they can use against you, of teaching others everything you know and finding yourself suddenly replaced. Knowing when to be quiet and listen is much more important than having the gift of gab. People who talk too much and too freely aren’t to be trusted. This isn’t a paranoid or fearful approach to life but, rather, one that encourages discretion. Think before you speak. Think about what you’re saying, and who you’re saying it to. Does it need to be said, or would it be better left alone? A person who’s fearless or smart or strong doesn’t need to declare it to the world; his actions speak louder than words. Modesty and humility are important in Santería and a person who constantly boasts about his own greatness ends up looking small in the eyes of his community.
So why are some aspects of Santería kept secret? Santeros would reply: if there’s no reason for others to know, why tell them? Tradition says these things are to be kept secret, so they’re kept secret. It’s that simple. Maintaining secrecy is a way of honoring tradition and the sacred teachings of our ancestors. When and if a person needs to know something, the Orichás will lead him into the religion through the proper channels.
By the way, none of the information I’m writing about on this website is secret. The information I’m sharing is general enough that anyone can have access to it. Imagine it as the tip of the iceberg, the part that’s visible. There’s more under the surface, but not everyone can see it.