Aggayu painting by Erik Oliveras

Agayu (Aganju, Aggayu) is the brother of Shangó. He is the volcano, the deserted places, the fire in the earth. Agayu is also the ferryman who takes people across Oshun’s rivers, and for this reason he and Oshun have a very close and special relationship. In many houses, children of Oshun must receive Agayu either in their Kariocha or at their ebo meta (three month ebó, the first ritual obligation a new priest must perform following their initiation). Agayu is also closely related to Egun (the dead), and as a result has a close association with Oyá. One elder who is now iba’e taught me that Agayu is an Orisha who will save his omo (children) without asking for anything in return - which is exactly why we must never forget to give him something to show our gratitude. Maferefun Agayu Sola! Biaya!


Cuba is home not only to Lukumi, or Santeria, but to a variety of Afro-Cuban religions and societies. The four most well-known are: Lukumi; Arara; Palo; and Abakua. Other, less well known Afro-Cuban religions include: Cuban Vodú (Haitian Vodou in Cuba); and Bembe muertera de sao (an old, rural form of Afro-Cuban religion that shares much in common with Palo and Vodú). Due to the non-exclusivity of West and Central African religious cosmologies, practitioners may practice a number of these religions at the same time, though this practice is done separately. In Lukumi, it’s generally believed that Lukumi’s kariocha ceremony to priesthood must be the last and thus most important initiation received, due to the Orichas’ royal status.

Lukumi (first photo)

Also known as la regla de Ocha or Santeria, Lukumi is by far the largest Afro-Cuban religion and has spread globally since the Cuban Revolution. Lukumi centres on the worship of Orisha - Yoruba deities - and is organized through decentralized but hierarchical ilés (houses). There are three forms of priesthood within the religion: Olorichas (who become Iyalorichas and Babalorichas, depending on gender, when they initiate their own Godchildren); Oriates (ritual masters of ceremony, traditionally women but more recently dominated by men); and Babalawos (straight male diviners initiated into the secrets of the Oricha Orunmila). Lukumi is a largely female-oriented religion, with an historically high prevalence of LGBT practitioners.

Arara (second photo)

Arara is a distinct ethnic and religious group deriving from the Fon people. Their worship centres around deities called fodunces / vodunces, such as Afrekete and Masé. Like Lukumi, they have their own distinct language, songs, and drum patterns. However, the religion has absorbed many aspects of Lukumi and today closely resembles Lukumi structure. Lukumi and Arara priests often work together, particularly around the ceremonies for Asojano (Babalu Aye in Lukumi), who is believed to be Arara in origin. Orichas related closely to Babalu Aye, such as Nana Buruku and Nanu, are also seen as Arara in origin and so Lukumi priests may often employ Arara to work these ceremonies for them. Aspects of Arara have also been absorbed into Lukumi, including a number of songs and word-borrowings. Arara is often said to “not cross water,” and as a result there has been little effort to practice the religion outside of Cuba.

Palo (third photo)

Palo is a Cuban religion derived from the Bantu-speaking peoples of West-Central Africa. Though derisively referred to as the “dark side of Santeria,” Palo is a separate religion. Palo is concerned primarily with nfumbe (spirits of the dead) and mpungo (deities). Palo has a bad reputation due to the use of human bones, however it is a religion based in healing. Palo is divided into several ramas (branches), such as Mayombe and Brillumba, and organized through munansos (communities) headed by Tatas (male priests) and Yayas (female priests). It is a male-oriented religion and traditionally not open to LGBT people (though this is controversial and there are a number of LGBT tatas and yayas out there). It is likely the second most popular Afro-Cuban religion.

Abakua (fourth photo)

Abakua is a men’s secret society that derives from the Ekpe people of Nigeria and Cameroon. Often referred to as the “leopard society,” it’s members are called Ñañígos and are seen dancing in outfits as pictured in the photo. They are highly secretive, so not a great deal is known about them but they have their own language, dance styles, drumming, and religious cosmology.