Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Weaving Spirituality: Santería and the Northern Tradition

Ellen, from Greylady's Hearth, asked me some time ago to write about the ways in which I incorporate both Santería and the Northern Tradition into my spiritual/religious practice. It is at once a rather simple and complex topic; I don't necessarily combine them, but I do honor Norse/Germanic history and mythology as a part of ancestor veneration. And as I've pondered it over the past couple of weeks some salient areas of relationship between the two have risen up into my thoughts:
1) Both Santería and the Northern Tradition feature a variety of gods and goddesses/Orichas whom we learn about through our personal relationships with them, as well as through sacred stories or myths. In these stories they interact amongst themselves as well as with others, oftentimes showing quite human characteristics that serve to teach us about the world (and in fact some were human at one point or another). In Norse history these are the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda, as well as the Sagas to some extent. In Santería these are the patakís. A principal divergence here is that while the "pantheon" in Santería includes the presence of a primary creator God, Olodumare, no such equivalent exists in the Northern Tradition. (Santería is a monotheistic faith, whereas the Northern Tradition is considered polytheistic. The Orichas are somewhat similar to saints, which lent themselves to being syncretized with Catholicism during slave times in the New World).

2) Both Santería and the Northern Tradition feature a divination style unique to the history of each. In Santería divination is most typically done via the caracoles (Merindilogún, cowrie shells - usually those of Elegua) by Santeros, or using the epuele or Opon Ifá (Table of Ifá) by Babalawos, priests of Orula (I'm sidestepping obi divination since it is essentially a yes/no system that, while extremely helpful and useful, lacks the complexity of the previous two). The heart of both the caracoles and Ifá lies in the Odu (which is too complex a subject to detail here). In the Northern Tradition the wisdom of the runes was granted to Odin after he sacrificed himself (to himself, as it were) for 9 days hanging upside down from the branches of Yggdrasil.
3) Both Santería and the Northern Tradition place heavy emphasis on ancestor veneration. In Santería, our family members who have passed on, previous generations we may never have had a chance to know, even spiritual ancestors (such as those of our god family) form our egun, those without whom we may not exist, those whose own life experiences may have sent vibrations down through our family's energetic ties that could well be influencing us today in ways we may not even be aware of. Our egun, our ancestors, are honored, recognized, petitioned for support and guidance. We offer them water, coffee, flowers, plates of food. We talk with them. We welcome them, invite them to be present for us in any way that they are able.

I honor my egun at my bóveda - my altar. Learning about the Northern Traditions (a term I most commonly use to refer to the Norse/Viking/Germanic pre-Christian spiritual beliefs and tales) is one way that I honor aspects of my biological lineage. While my physical ancestors are diverse (British Isles, southern Italy, Northern Africa, the Middle East, Northern Europe and Scandinavia, even South America) I have always been drawn to Viking history. Thus, it has become an aspect of personal study, it contributes to an extent to my spiritual ideology, and serves as an element of ancestor veneration, even within the context of Santeria.


I fondly recall listening to my aunt proudly discuss our North Frisian and Danish "Viking" history when I was a young adolescent. She and my uncle named their boat "Norddorf" after the town of my great-grandfather's birth on the island of Amrum in the North Sea. Amrum is one of the North Frisian islands located off the coast of Germany, near Denmark. He, along with his Danish wife, my great-grandmother Emilie, form the first generation of U.S. immigrants on my father's side.

As I started to learn more about ancient Norse mythology I was drawn even more deeply into the fold. I was born on a Wednesday, Odin's Day, and I was born near Yule, a time associated with the Wild Hunt. I found Odin fascinating - a shaman, a warrior, a seeker, a leader, a wanderer, a diviner, in some ways a loner.  Those were attributes that called to me. A couple of years ago I finally began to study the Elder Futhark runic system with more diligence and focus. On my husband's many jaunts to Sweden he has brought me back treasures such as a silver mjölnir pendant which I wear along with my elekes (sacred necklaces of the Orichas which are granted as part of one of the first initiations in the religion). In fact, in a sort of intercultural yin-yang, my husband also wears a mjölnir!

Santería is my religion, the set of traditions into which I am initiated through my god family. It is my heart; in important ways it forms the foundation from which I approach my life, and provides a framework within which I may come to understand (as much as any of us are truly able) my place in the universe. Honoring and learning about the Northern Tradition is one way in which I recognize my biological ancestry, and thus coexists harmoniously with my overall spiritual practice.
Interestingly, as I was writing this post I took a break, and as I was making some tea my husband came home and handed me a surprise package: a carved candle in the form of an elderly man, and a white and tan egg, also a candle. He said that the carved man reminded him of someone who could be my grandfather, and indeed when I saw it I thought of a European mariner. And the egg is connected to my Ángel de la Guarda, Obatalá. Beautiful synchronicities ;-)


  1. Fascinating to read about how you make the soup of your spiritual practice - a pinch of this, and a goodly helping of that. To me, it sounds organic and very respectful, like it really works and honours all the elements :)

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this personal aspect of you life. It is very inspiring to read how you have blend parts of different traditions into your own spiritual practice. It radiates a lovely kind of confidence and freedom.

    1. Thanks, Ellen! I do find my spiritual and religious practice very freeing even within the context of tradition. Santería is my core faith practice and does have structure and hierarchy but I enjoy incorporating aspects of other spiritual systems that resonate. One of the countless beautiful aspects of Santería is that it's not an "either/or" sort of path :-)

  3. Love reading how the Divine weaves each of us...so many threads make up the tapestry as you've shared so beautifully here. Thanks, Olivia, for this lovely offering.