Santería has a long history as a religion that honors women, showing reverence to their importance in our society. In fact, many of the most important historical figures in Santeria are women. Women have profoundly shaped the way in which our traditional religion evolved once it reached the new world. It was the women who preserved the traditional lore and passed on our sacred songs and ceremonies, as well as our methods of divination. To put it simply, Santería is a religion for and by women.
The Yoruba people have always been a matrilineal society. Women always held power in the culture as well as politics. It may seem that the Yoruba are patriarchal because men filled the role of a king and there were chiefs; however, the women ran the family and daily life.
The powerful female orishas demonstrate the importance of the feminine within Santeria. For example, Yemayá is the mother goddess, presiding over the water. She is the queen of all Heaven and of all the living things on Earth. Oshún is Yemayá's younger sister, presides over the rivers. Oshún is the embodiment of femininity; she is a beautiful and sensual seductress and witch. On the other hand, the orisha Oyá is a fiery female warrior who rides upon a whirlwind. Oyá is armed with a machete and lightning bolts. She battles alongside Shangó as his equal. The queen of the orishas is Obba. Obba descends into the underworld transforming from a spurned outcast, into an omnipotent sorceress who can manipulate the power of life and death. Ikú, While not an orisha, is the power of death. Ikú is most often symbolized as a woman in our legends. Even the creator, Olodumare, is portrayed as gender-neutral but leaning towards the female.
Women have been known to play an important and powerful role in the religious practice of Santeria. The originators of most all of the Santeria houses were female. These women ruled exclusively or shared their rule over their house with their Babalawo husbands. These women led the traditional ceremonies and presided over the rites of initiation over new Santeros. While these duties are now performed by male Oriaté, the functions of an Oriaté were first performed by women. Two of these famous female oriatés were Guillermina Castel and Teresita Ariosa Eni Ochún.
Today, Santeria is practiced all over the world, and women remain at its root. There are now more women being trained as Oriatés, and soon, women will rule Santeria once more.