Actually, what the Howards practice is called Santeria, a religion comparable but not identical to Haitian Voodoo. Santeria is a secret religion of ancient gods, throbbing drums, spirit possession, and ritual sacrifice. Santeria and Voodoo are in fact sister religions, both ripped from Africa's west coast by the slave trade and carried to the Caribbean (primarily Cuba and Haiti) in the hearts and minds of slaves. Eclectic and resilient, Santeria evolved over several hundred years into a rich spiritual stew of African tribal beliefs and indigenous folk magic, with a liberal dash of Catholicism mixed in for good measure.
Today, Santeria is a vibrant, thriving religion with an increasing number of devotees all over the world. Most popular among the black and Hispanic populations of major American cities, Santeria is also practiced by gays, lesbians, and followers of other fringe religions, such as the various forms of neo-paganism. But even with the high level of popularity Santeria is currently enjoying, it still--and perhaps purposely--remains an obscure and misunderstood faith.
Jill and Cameron Howard have over 28 years in "the religion" between them. Mrs. Howard is a Santeria "mayor," an elder in the strictly hierarchical religion, who is dedicated to Oshun, the spirit of love. Mr. Howard is a former martial arts instructor, the ex-frontman of a hardcore punk band, and, currently, a programming consultant at Microsoft. He has also made a name for himself as one of the foremost babalawos--the high priests of Santeria--in the United States, having undergone the extensively complex and private rituals of his rank. (The only public part of the initiation of a babalawo is when the novice is paraded between rows of elder babalawos, who beat him mercilessly with large sticks.)
The babalawo is a spiritual specialist of sorts who fulfills an indispensable function: to divine the will of the fearsome and mysterious deities called Orishas. Through an outrageously complex oracle called the ocuele--a system of divination that is curiously and intriguingly based upon the binary system of ones and zeros--the babalawo speaks directly to the Orishas and divines their will.
"When someone comes to me for divination," says Mr. Howard, "the Orishas declare what the root of their problem is, and, most importantly, what can be done about it." Howard loves discussing his faith, and does it well. Through divination, he claims, "almost any problem can be identified, and, through Santeria's vast repertoire of rituals, overcome or prevented."
Hundreds of rituals have been developed for this purpose. These rituals are designed to entreat the Orishas to intervene on behalf of the believer. But Santeria isn't about brown-nosing divine beings in some bizarre game of cosmic kiss-ass. There's a very delicate and profound method behind the madness. The theology hinges upon a dynamic (and divinely decreed) relationship between all elements of creation--including man and the Orishas. The ultimate goal of Santeria is iwa plele--spiritual evolution.
In spite of such lofty spiritual goals, the world of Santeria is notoriously cagey. This is due in part to Santeria's fear of public opinion. Some folks get riled up about things like ritual blood sacrifice and trance possession, so Santeria tends to keep a low profile, adopting a policy of "what they don't know won't hurt us."
"Sacrifice is a very important part of our religion," says Mr. Howard, in an eloquent, well-rehearsed monologue that reveals his experience in confronting the issue. "But animals comprise only a very small part of the much larger definition of sacrifice. There are many categories of sacrifice. Some offerings are as simple as candles, fruit, or prayers."
The theology behind sacrifice is simple, even elegant: Sacrifice is a natural exchange of energy in a dynamic universal plan. It is unreasonable--in fact it's downright rude--to expect something for nothing. "In a real sense, all of life--the process of living itself--is sacrifice. Every choice precludes all other options, and everything that lives feeds upon death. It is a process; it's the universal order." But sometimes the Orishas request more than apples and candles. Sometimes the spirits need eje. Blood.
"As a rule, animal sacrifice only occurs in reaction to major situations like sickness or serious misfortune," says Mr. Howard. The topic clearly exhausts him. But he doesn't need to justify his religious practices. If he wants to behead a chicken to appease an ancient jungle god, he's perfectly entitled to--it's in the Constitution!
In 1993, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruling upheld Santeria's Constitutional right to practice animal sacrifice. The ruling compared Santeria's practices to the Hebrew concept of kosher, where the animal's blood is offered to God and the meat sanctified. "The meat of the sacrifice is eaten," says Mr. Howard. "Unless the sacrifice was performed to prevent sickness or tragedy." In that instance, the sacrifice is thought to "absorb" the illness, and eating it would be tantamount to ingesting spiritual toxic waste. In these cases, the carcass is tossed in the trash.
Blood sacrifice is only one of the controversial aspects of "the religion." Trance possession is another. "During a bembé [drumming party for the spirits], an Orisha may manifest by entering the body of a priest. The songs, rhythms, and dances we use have been specifically developed over centuries to entreat the Orishas to 'come down.' Anyone who has experienced being possessed will tell you what an amazing experience it is."
Contrary to horror-flick possessions, when an Orisha inhabits a worshipper, it is for benevolent purposes only. When the party's over, the spirits simply leave; no exorcist required. But, by all accounts, coming face to face with an Orisha is an intense experience.
"I once attended a bembé in San Francisco," remembers Robert McIntyre, a newly initiated Santero who is part of the Howards' "god family" of followers. "Oshun came down and possessed one of the dancers." The "possessee," he explained, was male, but Oshun, the Orisha of love and beauty, is the personification of all things female. "The transformation was startling; this man became Oshun. Oshun stayed and spoke to us. She knew about a surgery I was about to undergo, and She predicted some serious problems that were going to occur because of it. She also told me a simple ritual I could do to prevent the potentially serious situation. This dancer didn't know me at all--but everything happened as She predicted--but because I followed Her advice, everything worked out fine."
It's a curiously common scenario. Many believers tell incredible tales of the supernatural intervention of the Orishas in their lives. And if Mr. Howard has his say, these stories will become even more common. "When we came to Seattle five years ago, our goal was to bring the religion of the Orishas with us. We've done that. There is no doubt that it will continue to flourish and grow, as more and more people discover the power of the Orishas.
"It's inevitable," Mr. Howard continues. "You just can't argue with results."
For more information, call 729-1000.