Saints: Faith without Borders

Saints: Faith without Borders

by Francoise Meltzer

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While the modern world has largely dismissed the figure of the saint as a throwback, we remain fascinated by excess, marginality, transgression, and porous subjectivity—categories that define the saint. In this collection, Françoise Meltzer and Jas Elsner bring together top scholars from across the humanities to reconsider our denial of saintliness and


While the modern world has largely dismissed the figure of the saint as a throwback, we remain fascinated by excess, marginality, transgression, and porous subjectivity—categories that define the saint. In this collection, Françoise Meltzer and Jas Elsner bring together top scholars from across the humanities to reconsider our denial of saintliness and examine how modernity returns to the lure of saintly grace, energy, and charisma.

Addressing such problems as how saints are made, the use of saints by political and secular orders, and how holiness is personified, Saints takes us on a photo tour of Graceland and the cult of Elvis and explores the changing political takes on Joan of Arc in France. It shows us the self-fashioning of culture through the reevaluation of saints in late-antique Judaism and Counter-Reformation Rome, and it questions the political intent of underlying claims to spiritual attainment of a Muslim sheikh in Morocco and of Sephardism in Israel. Populated with the likes of Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, and Padre Pio, this book is a fascinating inquiry into the status of saints in the modern world.

Editorial Reviews

Church History

Saints deserves attention, not only on account of the sophisticated content of most of the essays but also on account of the structure of the volume itself which provocatively defies scholarly convention by its ‘inorganicism, the very indecorousness and jangling’ together of incongruous elements.”
Reviews in Religion & Theology

“Overall, the collected contributions in Saints: Faith without Borders showcase both the wide range of approaches that can be brought to bear on the ‘saint’ and the myriad of circumstances where sainthood and sanctity occur. This volume provides a welcome opportunity to take the term ‘saint’ on the broadest possible level. Saints: Faith without Borders is an intellectual experiment that results in a delightful conflux of theory and application, yesterday and today, saints and sanctity.”
Religious Studies Review

“This intelligently edited, consistently engaging volume collects eighteen essays from scholars in a variety of fields—theology, history of religions, philosophy, art history, comparative literature, etc.—dealing with saints and sainthood in their multifarious forms. . . . This volume is highly recommended not only for those interested in the category of the saint but also for scholars investigating the fraught relationship between religion and modernity.”

Product Details

University of Chicago Press
Publication date:
A Critical Inquiry Book Series
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

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Faith without Borders

By Françoise Meltzer, Jas Elsner

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-51992-0


From Cuba with Saints

Marc Blanchard

As the heads of saints on a Yoruba altar shine upon the chalice, surrounded by rotten fruit and beheaded roosters, so among horns and crowbars do the heads of the Living-Dead emerge from a luminous plate: white eyes on white faces, peppermint hair crowned by a halo of flames, two thin threads rolling down from broken eyelids and splitting their faces into stripes, Byzantine coins.

In Christian religions, saints are considered intermediaries between humans and God, and they have often given voice to the needs of communities during hard times, such as natural disasters, invasions, migrations, and other social, economic, and political conflicts. Thus in late fifth-century Paris, Geneviève is said to have brought together the Parisians terrified by Attila the Hun and to have led them peacefully to pray and prevail against the barbarians. In Afro-Cuban religion, orishas (saints) also have this function, but their voice is distinctly African, Caribbean, and Cuban. They maintain a connection to a world originating in Africa and marked by the realities of the slave trade and maroon resistance, the struggle for independence from Spain from the 1860s to the 1890s, the Spanish-American War of 1898, the subsequent American dominion of Cuba until 1959, and the Cuban Revolution and its aftermath, including fifty years of the U.S. trade and culture embargo against Fidel Castro's regime. Unlike Christian saints, Cuban orishas maintain a deep connection to the political resistance of societies in which secrecy and community are primordial. Afro-Cuban saints have first and foremost resisted projects of imperial dominance and internal repression. The figure central to this mystique of resistance has been the cimarrón or fugitive slave. Since the wars of independence from Spain the major heroes of Cuban independence—Antonio Maceo, José Martí, Che Guevara, and Fidel Castro—have had to reconcile these two projects, that of the state and that of an AfroCuban religion, and thus in their assembly of the Cuban nation to weave strands of beliefs and practices that remain distinctively African or Afro-Cuban. I will be making the point that these are indeed heroes in the strict sense of the term; they, much like the cimarrón, have through their deeds become inseparable from the narrative of the Cuban state and, precisely because of the areligious (and especially anti-Catholic) strand in the national project, have ended up playing the part of saints or holy men both in Cuba and in other places. All the heroes/saints whom I review here are dead, with the exception of Fidel Castro, who temporarily transferred his power to his brother Raúl in 2006 and in 2008 resigned all his official functions and is in ill health. In the case of Martí, Maceo, and Che Guevara, their having suffered martyrdom and death has made them indispensable not only to the present regime in Cuba but also to the average Cuban. They are more alive for being dead, and Castro is in fact more powerful for being frail. Indeed, I would argue that Fidel has never been more important to Cubans as, contrary to what most Americans and Cuban exiles believe, many Cubans on the island argue that nothing is done without Fidel's consent or the interpretation of his consent and insist that his present abdication from power proves to them that he does love Cuba and the Cuban people more than he loves his own post.

Talking Cuban, Talking Saints: Five Steps to Sainthood "Whawhawhat?"

"Keep it to yourself," I told Cué.

"Keep what?" Silvestre said. "I don't get you."

"Why? I am not a ñáñigo. I'm not even a silent drum."

"Come on, what you mean?" Silvestre said.

"We don't mean anything," I said. I don't know if I said it rudely.

"Just words."

"Quite the reverse," Cué said. "We do mean, words don't."

"Reverse of what?" said Silvestre, ritardando.

"Of everything," Cué said.

"What everything?" said Silvestre. I said nothing.

In Cuba saints, gods, and heroes are lumped together in an extricable Afro-Cuban performance of the orishas, the intermediaries between human beings and God. The religion best called Afro-Cuban, though it has many traits that make it resemble the religions of Africa (especially those of the Congo and Nigeria), for the first time anywhere incorporates European colonization and allows the priests who preach it (the santeros and babalawos) and the people who follow it to think of themselves as intermediaries between the world of reason and the other world, where life is not ruled by schemes of reason but by forces (life, death, sex, envy, sympathy, love) beyond the control of a single individual. This relation between two separate but intertwined universes carries with it its own phenomenology, which Cabrera Infante explores in the epigraph above.

The mention of ñáñigos—members of an Abakua secret society—links Cuban sainthood to a certain linguistic, philosophical problem: conceiving reality in the context of colonial invasions, the erasure of an indigenous and mixed-race population, and the syncretism between one major Christian religion and many Afro-Cuban religions. The epigraph also illuminates the relationship between ways of saying and ways of invoking and illustrates the rich contribution of an Afro-Cuban culture to the mythology of being Cuban. But, in a larger sense, this connection to Afro-Cuban cultures is not simply a known trait of Cubanness; it indicates something of a paradox in Cuban culture that, on the one hand, makes Cuba, the island, the recognized seat of Afro-Caribbean culture and Afro-Cuban religion and, on the other, extends in the larger form of Santería to the whole Caribbean. This doesn't mean that every Cuban believes in Santería or follows its practices—Santería is not a formally constituted religion—but rather it means that Santería makes available to every Cuban the conditions for reaching sainthood or becoming a santero and conjuring, as Cabrera Infante tongue in cheek suggests, the silence of the drums, the center of all meaning.

Let me suggest five basic principles for understanding Santería. First, Santería, which is essentially about orishas and other Afro-Cuban practices, is based on a body of religious beliefs that articulate a bipartite cosmos. On the one hand, there is a central divinity (Olodumare). This divinity plays a role similar to the God of the West and especially the Judaic God, who is a God removed from his creatures and whose voice and presence are of a completely different order from his creatures. But, on the other hand, in Afro-Cuban rites, the orishas are the link between God and his creatures. Those orishas are the representatives of the supreme God, and, for all intents and purposes, they are the intermediaries between God and humans. But, in this relation of human beings with the spiritual, the saint's mediation not only facilitates a relationship with the sacred but also formulates a technology that, as Foucault would argue, allows the practitioners to define their living space and their references in terms of dos and don'ts in the thread of daily life, of things clean and unclean in the ritual order, and appropriate and inappropriate in the social order.

Second, Santería is about the rituals appropriate for each orisha, but it is also about the transformation of the supplicants into more complete individuals. Through the rituals of Santería, the supplicants not only garner the favor of particular orishas but also become practicing holy persons in a specific Afro-Cuban religion who can by themselves carry on the tradition of that religion. In the construction of the Cuban nation, we need to add that, except for the Virgin of the Cobre in Santiago de Cuba and the Virgin of Regla in Regla, Havana's secondary harbor, and their Afro-Cuban equivalent, Ochun, the orisha of love, sex, maternity, and marriage, most of the orishas have been men, suggesting that the task of combining sainthood and nation has been given to males.

Third, Santería, a complex concept, can be applied to the whole body of Afro-Cuban and Afro-Caribbean religious traditions or, more narrowly, to only a few among those traditions. The four major Cuban traditions—Lucumi, Arara, Abakua, and Kongo—are branches of African religion that have distinct characteristics, but they all refer to orishas and ritual objects, which also function as saintly devices. Santería, a term used mostly outside Cuba to refer generically to Afro-Cuban practices outside the island and the prevalent religious reference today, does not designate a separate religion from the other four but incorporates elements of the four and is the categorical, unspecialized reference to an Afro-Cuban religion that manifests itself differently throughout the Caribbean world and beyond.

Fourth, while Santería has indeed become a transnational religion, Cuba is the largest, most populous island in the Caribbean, and when understood in reference to Cuba proper the paradigm of this transnational Santería must be modified to include references to the history of Cuba, its colonial and postcolonial identity, and the complex relation of Afro-Cuban heritage to the national history of Cuba.

Fifth, in the largest sense, Santería applies to all religious practices of Afro-Cuban or Afro-Caribbean origin, whether those practices are recognized, maintained, developed, transported, and re-created on the island of Cuba or in the rest of the Caribbean (understood in the strict sense as the area of islands located between North and South America and divided into several portions [the northern and the southern Antilles, for instance] or, more widely, as an arc from southern Florida to northern Brazil, which includes not only the islands but all the coastal areas of southern North America, central Mexico, and northern Latin America). For instance, Jamaicans have traditionally come to Cuba, and their particular brand of Afro-Caribbean culture has undergone changes in Cuba, while native Cubans, especially black Cubans, have also been attracted to Jamaican Rastafarian practices. The same could be said about the relation of a Spanish-speaking, Cuban Santería to Haitian voodoo and the transformations that Haitian voodoo underwent in Cuba following the Saint-Domingue planters' flight to Cuba after the Haitian Revolution. In this sense, then, and principally because Cuba is by far the largest island in the Caribbean, Afro-Cuban religion, born in Cuba, has remained very Cuban and contributed to the surge of Cuban nationalism, but it has also merged into transnational cults throughout the Caribbean. Moreover, this expansion of Santería has brought with it an expansion and appropriation of the forms of knowing and writing about Santería, which are informed by this new, transnational cultural phase of the development of religion. In other words, Santería is now a privileged object of study in the field of cultural studies, with its paradigms of displacement, mixing, deconstruction, and reconstruction. The proliferation of new, hybrid religious practices outside Cuba have thus been seen as counteracting the national project of an areligious, atheistic, Cuban Revolutionary state apparatus inside Cuba.6 Yet, in fact, Santería has also remained deeply connected to the current and former national project.

Over time, we have come to use the concepts of saints and Santería to articulate an Afro-Caribbean Cuba either as a part of or as a parallel to the Cuban nation in a hermeneutics of national history. This articulation of saint and nation, I would argue, began at the very end of the nineteenth century with the Cuban war of independence against Spain and the Americans. In proposing to integrate national, seemingly unreligious heroes and African saints into the narrative of the Cuban nation and Cuban state, I am aware that I risk distorting or coloring a history of the black and Afro-Cuban heritage in Cuba with official revolutionary dogma. This dogma states that the resistance to Spanish rule from its earliest beginnings had been led by a cohort of revolutionary whites and rebellious slaves eager to gain their freedom. However, as Rebecca Scott and other scholars have recently made clear, this revolutionary reinterpretation may not be so obvious; the examination of civic archives sometimes shows that former slaves may not have participated to the extent claimed by post-1959 revolutionary historians and that the matter of a generalized African rebellion against the white sugar planters may in the end turn out to have been more complex than the hagiography of the Cuban Revolution makes it appear.7 Indeed, the first leaders of the anti-Spanish rebellion were slave owners, who had decided to free their slaves in order to gain a military advantage against the Spanish Crown. But here I want to make three claims. First, Afro-Cuban history and Afro-Cuban religion and its saints have been central to this reconstruction of the Cuban nation. Second, the heroic geste, which has resulted in the revolutionary reconstruction of Cuba's history since the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, owes a great deal to white revolutionaries, from Martí to Che Guevara and Fidel, who have used traces of Afro-Cuban history and religion to reconstruct a revolutionary history that has distanced itself from African religion and incorporated it into its mythos of liberation. Third, and perhaps more important, because of the cosmogonies of Afro-Cuban religion and the theology of resistance inherent in it, Afro-Cubans have embraced these heroes as saints. Significantly, perhaps the most gripping of all the saints is not quite an orisha but someone who can compete with all of them put together, the god-spirit of the escaped slaves, the famous cimarrón.

The Cimarrón del Cobre

Cimarron: A Spanish-American name of the Rocky Mountain sheep or bighorn. One must notice the doubtful tone of Lenz' suggestion "cuyo significado primitivo parece haber sido el matorral." In fact no OSp. or Sp. cimarra with the meaning "bush" is to be found, as far as I know. Zerolo in his "Diccionario Enciclopédico de la Lengua Castellana" gives, not a cimarra "bush" as one might infer from Lenz' context, but renoval in its American Sp. meaning to which Lenz refers. Even if cimarra existed, one could not understand its genesis: the un-Romance suffix could not be justified (v. Gamillscheg), whereas renoval shows the suffix -a1 with the collective meaning M. L. Wagner has pointed out ("Volkstum u. Kultur der Romanen" 3.87: hayal "hayedo," maizal, port. matagal "Gestrüpp, Gehölz"). It is strange enough that the German Lenz thought more of the Fr. faire l'école buissonnière "to play truant" than of the German die Schule schwanzen and the similar Sp. hacer la rabona. It is obvious that hacer la cimarra comes from cimarra "simar" (attested by Nebrija [zamarra, -on] and Couarrubias [çamarro –a], in Sp. Latin of the 10th century Zamor, Dozy-Engelmann 365, and by the French text of 1447: Deux samarres ... a la faczon d'Espagne.); cf. REW, 7563a [arab. sammur "sable"]: "Sp. zamarra (mfrz. chamarre; it. zimarra, cimarra "langer Rock" (frz. simarre "Schleppkleid"), pg. sammarra [read samarra]"schleppender Rock."

The mythology of the cimarrón or escaped slave holds a place in Cuban history at the nexus of the official history of the republic, empire, and ideological domination by the Catholic Church, on the one hand, and, on the other, of the underground history of flight, resistance, and the guerrilla, which has made the cimarrón an unofficial orisha in the aggregated pantheon of Afro-Cuban culture. The place of the cimarrón in Afro-Cuban culture is largely unknown but truly extraordinary, and it is only recently that good anthropological studies have shown the extent of this culture of resistance—not only in Cuba but throughout Latin America. For example, in Mexico, Palenque in the state of Chiapas is now associated mainly with the remnants of an indigenous temple; in Brazil, whole cities of escaped slaves managed to survive for generations. The importance of anthropological works on the cimarrón cannot be overstated. By uncovering and reconstructing the physical structures of the palenques, which may at their beginnings have integrated elements of indigenous fortifications, we can reevaluate the contribution of escaped slaves and their indigenous predecessors to the story of the independence of Cuba.


Excerpted from Saints by Françoise Meltzer, Jas Elsner. Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Meet the Author

Françoise Meltzer is the Edward Carson Waller Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago, where she is also professor at the Divinity School and in the College, and chair of the Department of Comparative Literature. Meltzer is the author of five books, most recently of Seeing Double: Baudelaire’s Modernity, and a coeditor of the journal Critical Inquiry. Jas Elsner is Humfry Payne Senior Research Fellow in Classical Art at Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford, and visiting professor of art history at the University of Chicago. Elsner’s most recent solo-authored book is Roman Eyes: Visuality and Subjectivity in Art and Text.

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