Michael Mason honors the gods of Santeria through both scholarship and sacrifice.

Thirteen years ago, at the age of 23, Michael Atwood Mason approached his father with an epochal decision: He intended to pursue initiation in Santeria, an Afro-Cuban religion known in the United States—if at all—for its sacrifice of animals. In strict demographic terms, Mason was hardly the most obvious candidate for Santeria: The white grad student from Severna Park, Md., would be entering a religion whose roots lie in West Africa’s Yoruba-speaking region and evolved into its present form in melting-pot Cuba. In this country, most converts come from Latino or African-American backgrounds and live in the immigrant neighborhoods of Miami or other urban areas. A child of the Annapolis suburbs was, to say the least, atypical.

None of this particularly worried his father, John Mason. In Michael’s words, he had been “born into an Episcopal family where people cultivated intimate and intense relationships with God.” Specifically, John Mason, now retired and living in Springfield, Va., was an Episcopal priest who had worked with “all sorts of priests, rabbis, and preachers” in ecumenical events. He had been an activist during the civil-rights era. At various points, he had communed with Zen masters and spent time in Trappist monasteries. One of his sons had already decided to become a Quaker.

Still, Santeria seemed like a stretch. “It would have been easier if Michael had become a Hindu or a Buddhist,” the elder Mason says. “My friends told me, ‘Boy, does he have your number!’”

But Michael Mason’s devotion to Santeria was no prank. In July 1992, during a multifaceted seven-day ceremony in Havana, he was initiated as a Santeria priest. Since then, Mason has ministered to Washington-area adherents of the religion, many of whom live in or near his Mount Pleasant neighborhood. He regularly initiates others into the religion.

Equally important, Mason has taken up the study of Santeria as his profession. He earned a Ph.D. in anthropology in 1997 and now works as an exhibition developer on African subjects for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. And the Smithsonian Institution Press has published his book, which Mason says is the first published ethnography of the Afro-Cuban religion. Living Santeria: Rituals and Experiences in an Afro-Cuban Religion attempts to bridge his dual roles by intertwining his experiential descriptions with academic-style theological analysis.

Santeria developed from the indigenous religions of Nigeria and Benin and followed the slave trade to the new world. The faith has cousins elsewhere, including Haiti’s Vodoun and Brazil’s Candomble. The Santeria worldview features overlapping spheres of gods and people, suggested by Santeria’s alternate name—Oricha. In the Lucumi language, oricha describes a deity that represents any one of the many faces of the creator god, Olodumare. By divination, often using cowrie shells, practitioners can gain access to the will of the spirits and clarify realities about adherents’ lives.

“The religion is focused on an adherent’s ongoing interaction with the world of the spirits,” says Mason. “A lot of it is about honoring the spirits and maintaining a certain kind of open and positive relationship with them that results in reciprocity.”

More controversial is the religion’s use of animal sacrifice. “The religion operates on the notion that the life of the animal is transferred to the gods or the spirits and that it enlivens, activates, motivates and directs them,” Mason explains. People who believe in Santeria want to touch an animal’s blood in ritual ways because they believe that it is rich in ache—Lucumi for “life force.” Slaughtering live animals, usually over sacred objects, is considered an effective way to channel and redistribute the ache. Sacrifices are carried out according to adherents’ evolving spiritual needs, usually in private homes. Even though a priest might carry out a sacrifice every few weeks, or even more often, “you don’t get used to it,” Mason says. “It’s supposed to be awesome—taking a life with the goal of improving the lives of people around you.”

For long stretches during Cuba’s colonial period, the practice of Santeria went underground—a history that has shaped the practice of Santeria today. “Church” in the conventional sense of the word is not a major part of Santeria; events typically take place in the homes of practitioners. Moreover, the tradition is largely oral, maintained by a priesthood that is initiated from the ranks of adherents via a multistep, almost meritocratic process of learning. “The religion lacks a lot of external structure—you don’t have to have money to keep up buildings,” he says. “It shifts responsibility to the individual. That’s how it was sustained under tyranny.”

The first generation of Santeria practitioners came to the United States in the 1940s; their ranks grew as exiles fled Castro in the ’60s and during the Mariel boatlift in the late ’70s. In recent decades, some American-born black nationalists, seeking to recapture their African roots, have become converts. But the religion is perhaps growing fastest among Latino immigrants, including many who are not Cuban. Santeria is now practiced relatively openly in Washington, where the phone book lists “eight or nine relatively good stores” that sell items for use in Santeria ceremonies, “and there are probably more than that,” Mason says.

Still, the role of animal sacrifice has proved an irritant in some communities; in Miami, zoning battles have erupted between adherents and their neighbors. “There are some practicalities of having chickens, even for an hour or two, in an urban or suburban context,” Mason acknowledges.

John Mason—who was divorced from Michael’s mother when Michael was young—does not recall his son being an especially spiritual child. “As a kid, he went to church—some—but it’s only as an adult that he’s told me that he cared much about religion at all,” the father says. He does, however, remember his son’s facility and self-directedness with regard to languages. One summer, Michael taught himself French, for no apparent reason other than to learn it.

Michael enrolled at the Santa Fe, N.M., campus of St. John’s College, a school best known for its “great books” curriculum. He left after two years, though he says that the predilection to view life through the lens of literature and philosophy has stuck with him. He completed his bachelor’s degree in American studies at the University of Oregon, with a minor in folklore and ethnic studies. He then earned his master’s and doctorate from Indiana University—one of the nation’s leading centers for the study of African culture.

Mason’s first direct experience with Santeria came in 1987, when he had a dream about Oya—whom he describes in his book as “the turbulent and forceful warrior Lucumi deity of wind and storms, usually imagined as a strong-willed woman with a lot of attitude.” In the dream, Mason believed, he had invoked Oya, and she had responded to his call. Such callings do not always happen in dreams, adherents say, but communications of some sort are a common pathway into the religion. Through a network of contacts, Mason located people who could bring him into Santeria. By 1992, he was prepared to make the big leap, traveling to Havana to undergo his formal initiation as a priest of Ochun, the goddess of rivers and love.

The ceremony featured a wealth of sights and smells, from colorful cloths, Cuban coffee, honey, and cigars, to goats, sheep, and an assortment of birds, most of which were sacrificed. It is an event not done lightly. Initiates must feed numerous people for seven days, shave their heads, and promise to wear white for a year. The first three days are the most intense; the next four are more a time of isolation and reflection. “When I went through it, it was as if I had shed some incredible weight,” Mason says. “I felt vastly more alive.”

The design of Mason’s book mirrors his approach to Santeria: part personal testimony, part theoretical discussion. During breaks in his initiation, he took notes; during subsequent events in Cuba and the United States, he assembled a collection of photographs, audio- and videotapes, and stacks of notebooks that informed his volume.

The fieldwork described in Living Santeria dates back to about 1989 and includes travels to Cuba, Chicago, Washington, Miami, New York, and Los Angeles. Since 1992, Mason has visited Cuba approximately 20 times, sometimes to the countryside but more often to the city. (There are differences in Santeria practices between city and country, he says, but they are not very great.) Often, Mason would live, eat, and sleep in the home of practitioners for a week or more; sometimes, he would travel from house to house doing interviews and observations.

In his book, Mason sought to maintain a delicate balance. He wanted to write from a perspective that was informed by his own participation, but he didn’t want the book to be simply his own story. He sought intense, long-lasting relationships that would yield personal narratives of spiritual struggle.

“I begin the book with a quote from Eduardo Galeano: ‘What it all comes down to is that we are all the sum of our efforts to change who we are,’” Mason says. “Seeing people trying to change who they are requires living with them on an intimate basis and seeing them struggle with challenging personal events—hunger, sickness, death, poverty—and use the religion to act on their lives. That approach to being alive and engaging in a spiritual process is not what people see if they enter the religion for a short period of time. They’re drawn to the amazing colors and sounds, the amazing stories about the gods.

“What I try to do in the book is create a portrait of the living religion—the relationship between people and their gods…to help readers have some sense of what it’s like to live in this densely populated world of spirits,” he continues. “I want to communicate the texture of those experiences.”

The blending of scholarship and full-on embrace of the religion embodied by Mason has at times been frowned upon by anthropological officialdom, going beyond mere participant observation and inviting questions about the objectivity of the research. Mason counters that scholars are often passionate about their areas of specialty—noting that for him, the two roles are now inseparable and mutually reinforcing.

Mason takes comfort in the fact that, in the circle of academics who study culture, it is not all that rare to be a scholar and a practitioner at the same time. What distinguishes him, colleagues say, is the intensity of his turn to Santeria, the degree to which he has actively initiated and ministered to others.

“His religious practice informs his scholarship, and his scholarship in turn informs his religious practice,” says Katherine Hagedorn, director of the ethnomusicology program at Pomona College, herself a Santeria practitioner—initiated by Mason. “It’s this continuous flow between the two realms that nourishes him.”

Mason qualifies, citing a protective Lucumi deity: “While I would be saddened if I had to give up anthropology, it would simply not be possible to take Osun out of my head.” CP