THE ALTAR OF MY SOUL by Marta Moreno Vega


The Living Traditions of Santería
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A Santería priestess and college professor explains her conversion to the ancient African religion.

Vega (African and Hispanic Studies/Baruch Coll.), who did not know that she had been “born into a family that practiced Espiritismo and Santería until [she] was grown up,” employs a sort of cut-and-paste technique. Each of her chapters contains three parts: an introductory story about one of the orishas (divinities), a portion of her spiritual autobiography, and a summary (e.g., “A Message from My Elders”) that identifies the significance of both. By the end, readers will have a fair understanding of the beliefs and rituals of this polytheistic religion that was brought to the Western Hemisphere by the African slaves—particularly by the Yoruba (from present-day Nigeria). The author claims that these enslaved people retained vestiges of their religion despite the baptisms and conversions forced upon them by their Christian captors. “Our elders,” she writes, “ingeniously hid the sprits and orishas behind Catholic images.” She tries to be generous with other, more conventional religions, but these efforts are somewhat gratuitous, as she later describes the “relentless onslaught of Christian and Muslim faiths” on the followers of Santería. And (squeamishly? prudently?) she never describes the ritual of animal sacrifice that plays a part in her religion. She does, however, fill her story with emotional accounts of visiting with the spirits of her deceased relatives (the rooms are invariably filled with white light, her spine tingles with electricity, and everyone weeps and hugs warmly afterwards), and she manifests an unquestioning spiritualism, revealing that her own personal orishas have advised her to get organized, have regular dental checkups, and avoid fried foods. An appendix includes the complex pantheon of Santería and provides instructions for creating your own altar.

Suffused with the pious certitude of the True Believer, but unlikely to win converts.

Pub Date: Sept. 5th, 2000
ISBN: 0-345-42137-X
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Ballantine
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 2000