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 slvaes 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:
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 most often seen on hoodoo soaps and anointing oils 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, regardless of what is "proper," and regardless of the origin of the Seven African Powers image, hoodoo practitioners -- especially those who live in close proximity with Latin Americans -- do work with the Seven African Powers in a magical context, perceiving them as deities of luck, protection, and power. I have some opinions on how this practice has developed. This material is not substantiated by citations from scholarly materials, but rather is the result of my having lived through the times described and having witnessed these events. My information is not complete, however, and i welcome any additional comments.
When i first began studying and practicing rootwork in the mid-1960s, i saw no references to the Seven African Powers or to any of the orishas by name in African-American conjure shops. There was one obvious African cultural remnant of Ellegua / Legba / Nbumba Nzila worship in the hoodoo rite known as the crossroads ritual, but the entity whom the aspirant met at the crossroads was not said to be an Orisha or Loa / Lwa or Nkisi. Rather, he was verbally identified by all the folks i knew, and in all the 20th century oral histories i later read, with the Teutonic Devil (not the Judeo-Christian Satan, but rather Der Teufel). I assumed that this was due to cultural cross-over dating to slavery times, a substitution of a European wild, tricksterish crossroads god for an African one of similar nature.
It was only in the late 1970s or early 1980s that i first saw the standard image known as "The Seven African Powers" in a hoodoo supply store. Shortly thereafter i also began to collect examples of the central image, labelled Just Judge in English.
The introduction of the Seven African Powers and Just Judge images into North American hoodoo shops coincided in time with the arrival of numerous Cuban refugees. (However, according to some people, the image itself may have originated in Puerto Rico, not in Cuba.)
In the era before easy global travel and before the interconnectivity of the internet brought a re-Africanization to the religion, practitioners of Santeria in its most Roman Catholic form tended to worship the orishas in a manner that combined African and Roman Catholic ritual. Thus, they required holy cards, novena candles, novena booklets, holy medals, and other Catholic accoutrements. The mostly Italian (and occasionally Mexican) manufacturers of such religious goods complied with this need, despite the fact that the Papacy has not been friendly to Santeria.
Every religious article i have seen that bears the Seven African Powers or Just Judge image is either a full-colour reproduction of the original painting or a rendering of it into line-art. That is, unlike figures of Christ or Mary, which come in numerous artistic variations (pale or dark-skinned; Semitic, Germanic, Slavic, or African; happy, sad, pained, compassionate, or stern; standing, sitting, floating, or reclining; alive, dead, transfigured, or ephemeral), there is only ONE complete Seven African Powers image and only ONE Just Judge detail that is cropped out of it. This image was painted by someone both artistically talented and well versed in standard Catholic iconography, for the saints depicted as "covers" for the Orishas are hagiographically correct in all details.
There is one oddity about the image, however: it is more or less square in proportion, not a vertical rectangle. Thus it is not easily adaptable to being printed on a standard Catholic holy card of the kind mass-produced in Italy, nor will it readily fit on the vertical rectangular label of a glass-encased novena candle. In order for it to be utilized on such articles, bordering elements must be added to it at top and bottom. The Italian holy cards bearing this image that i sell in my shop have a lovely sepia-charcoal graduated fade at top and bottom to make up the length of the image; similar cards from Mexico have a garish flat cyan background. The Just Judge detail-image can only be roughly cropped to fit the vertical rectangle of a holy card or novena candle label; in doing so, part of the picture to each side must be lost. The Italian Just Judge holy cards i sell are cropped in such a way that they fill the card entirely, but part of the scene is cut away.
Because the Seven African Powers and Just Judge images do not really fit the proportions of the articles to which they are applied, i have always assumed that the original painting was not commissioned by an Italian holy card manufacturer, but was adapted from a specific painting that had became an object of cult interest in Cuba or Puerto Rico at an earlier time.
Another reason for assuming that the Seven African Powers image was created outside the ecclesiastical mainstream are Blair's and Dr. E.'s comments above that the orishas depicted are not the entire pantheon; they seem to be simply the artist's own seven Spirit Guides, or, more likely, the seven spirits given the most prominence in his or her house of worship. The image as it stands gives outsiders to the religion a skewed set of information about who the orishas are, as it falsely seems to consolidate the prominence of those seven deities over the others. It is, in some sense, a hegemonic statement, albeit doubtless produced with innocent motives.
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.
This cultural mingling was all taking place during a time when traditional old-style hoodoo suppliers were slowly going out of business due to the age of the proprietors and/or were being bought up by one surviving company, International Imports (a.k.a. Indio Products). As immigration from Latin America increased, the static or shrinking African-American hoodoo spiritual supply market sector that Indio served was slowly eclipsed by the newly developing botanica market, and Indio began to slant its product base toward Spanish-speaking Santeria customers. The Seven African Powers name and image were applied to many products at this time, as Indio standardized the former proliferation of hoodoo supplies into a streamlined and uniform set of hoodoo-cum-Santeria products.
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.
To learn more about the religions of West Africa and their derivatives in the Americas such as Santeria, Candomble, Vodoun, Macumba, and Palo, you can read the 1990s archives of the usenet newsgroup alt.religion.orisha via the Google Groups achive (formerly the dejanews archive).
For more up-to-date articles on Santeria and Lukumi, please see Dr. E.'s Santeria Church of the Orishas
I would like to thank Blair Whitmer, A. Ashtine, Stevan Davies, and
Matt M. Perez
for their contributions to this page, especially with regard
to the identification of Catholic saints with African
Whitmer supplied this guide to pronunciation:
The rest of them are pretty simple, just a question of where the
emphases are. Chango, Ochun, Yemaya, Ogun, and Obatala all have
the accent on the last syllable. Orula is accented on the second
Lucumi, which is, as I understand it, a Spanish-ised version of
Yoruba (the language of the Yoruban people in Africa where Orisha
worship originated), uses Latin vowels. In other words, the vowels
are pronounced the same as in Spanish and other Romance languages.
(i) is "ee" as in the Spanish "si",
I've heard multiple pronunciations of Elegua. Of the three
syllables, sometimes the accent is on the second which "softens"
the hard (g) into a swallowed "gwa" sound. When the accent is on
the last syllable, the hard (g) is more pronounced.
(e) is "eh" as in the better,
(a) is "ah" as in father,
(o) is "oh" as in Ohio,
(u) is "oo" as in super,
(ua) combines "oo" and "ah" into a "wah",
(ay) in Yemaya is tricky to describe, and easy to say.
The (y) modifies the (a) before it into an "ai" sound,
like the (i) in "might", but then you also say the (ya)
after it ... "yem-ai-yah" ... with the accent on the
(ch) in Chango and Ochun is either pronounced hard,
as in "change", or it softens into a "sh" sound.
I would like to thank Blair Whitmer, A. Ashtine, Stevan Davies, and Matt M. Perez for their contributions to this page, especially with regard to the identification of Catholic saints with African deities.
Additionally, Blair Whitmer supplied this guide to pronunciation:
The rest of them are pretty simple, just a question of where the emphases are. Chango, Ochun, Yemaya, Ogun, and Obatala all have the accent on the last syllable. Orula is accented on the second syllable.
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