Espiritismo (Portuguese and Spanish for “Spiritism”) is a term used in Latin America and the Caribbean to refer to the popular belief that good and evil spirits can affect health, luck and other aspects of human life.
The phenomenon and broad range of beliefs defined as “Espiritismo” originated with the ideas of Spiritism defined by Allen Kardec. His Spritism would become popular in Latin America and influence existing religions as well as forming Africanized traditions of Espiritismo itself. It would become especially prominent in Cuba and Puerto Rico. Scientific White Table Espiritismo would develop from a loose understanding of Kardec’s philosophy. During the Ten Years War in Cuba much of the population was in panic and grieving from the loss of loved ones. White Cubans where able to alleviate some of their emotional pain by turning to Espiritismo which allowed them to commune with dead loved ones. White espiritistas would ask their Congolese slaves to guide them in Espiritismo de Cordon ceremonies. In the early 1800s Espiritismo would gain popularity in Puerto Rico because of the populace’s rejection of Spanish hegemony and Spiritism’s condemnation by the colonial Catholic Church. Originally brought to the country from Puerto Ricans studying in Europe the White Table Espiritismo practiced by the upperclass would help evolve a more creolized Indigenous Espiritismo among the underclass. Researcher Marta Moreno Vega suggests Puerto Rican Espiritismo became popular as a way to mimic ancestor veneration in Kongo religion.
Espiritismo in Cuba would eventually mix with other local African elements and produce Espiritismo Cruzao which would gain in popularity in the early 1900s. By the Cuban Revolution espiritisa practices became banned and pushed underground but still retain a presence in Cuban society to this day. Cuban Americans and Puerto Rican Americans residing in New York and New Jersey began to meld the beliefs of Santeria and Espiritismo which became Santerismo. This was first noticed by religious anthropologists in the 1960s. 
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A tenet of Espiritismo is a belief in a supreme God who is the omnipotent creator of the universe. There is also a belief in a spirit world inhabited by discarnate entities that can gradually evolve intellectually and morally. Espiritistas believe these beings can influence the corporeal world in various ways and that the espiritistas, in turn, can also influence the actions of the spirits.
Espiritismo has never had a single leader nor center of practice, and as such its practice varies greatly between individuals and groups. In all cases, Espiritismo has absorbed various practices from other religious and spiritual practices endemic to Latin America and the Caribbean, such as Roman Catholicism, Curanderismo, Afro-Brazilian Macumba, Santería, Vodou, Shinto, and Neo-Pagan cults like Antinous.
An example of this syncretism is a magical spell that involves asking Saint Martha to exert one’s will over that of another person by burning a specially prepared candle, saying certain prayers, and wearing an amulet tied with a red ribbon around one’s waist.
In other cases, the goals and methods of the Espiritista are less obviously in the realm of magic and might be considered a form of folk medicine or alternative medicine. Whatever the desired effect, the equipment and materials used for Espiritismo may often be purchased at a botánica within the practitioners’ community.
Differences from Spiritualism
Espiritismo shares many of its fundamental concepts with 19th century Spiritualism as was practiced in the United States and Europe. During this period, several books on mediumship and spiritual practices became available in the Caribbean and Latin America. As many Native Americans and people of African descent had long standing traditions of ancestor worship and trance possession, Spiritualism was readily absorbed into and adapted to these pre-existing belief systems.
Many espíritas or espiritistas (Espiritismo practitioners) communicate with spirits in a gathering of like-minded believers known as a misa (mass, in Spanish). Most practitioners will have an altar called a mesa (table, in Portuguese) ou mesas brancas (white table, in Portuguese). These sessions are somewhat akin to the séances of American-style Spiritualism of the 19th to the present. Many Espiritistas’ practices, however, have elements of magic ritual which are not traditionally found in mainstream Spiritualist denomimations, but are often found in Spiritualist denominations associated with the spiritual church movement.
The Espiritismo differs from the Spiritism as the first consist of the syncretic religious practices described above while the second is the established religion-doutrine itself, directly based coding Allan Kardec’s and other mediums’ books, such as those from Francisco Xavier and Divaldo Franco.
This form of Espiritismo was largely contained to the urban areas of Cuba. Its followers would study the writings and concepts of Kardec. It would also be popular in the Puerto Rican upperclass and eventually evolve into Puerto Rican Indigenous Espiritismo. This form of Espiritismo would also become noticeable among the Olmos and Paravisini-Gerbert:[which?] 179</ref> During the rituals, its members are seated around a white linen covered table in an attempt to connect with spirits within a séance. The spirit usually enters the body of the medium that is present at the table. At this time, those individuals seated around the table have the ability to ask questions to spirits who have entered the world through the mediums. Furthermore, the spirit(s) is seen as a source to possible solutions to problems that are plaguing people. In addition, the spirit will manifest itself in a variety of ways dependent on the level of intensity of the spirit.
Those participating in the rituals have certain duties they must fulfill prior to and during the ritual. They must remain in a mediated position and will most likely use prayers, hymns and music from Kardec’s works. Many times, these rituals involve a small group of people, but private rituals do exist.
Espiritismo de Cordon
The origin of this branch of Espiritismo is derived from its ritual. The ritual associated with Espiritismo de Cordon is physically, mentally and emotionally difficult. Those participating in the ritual stand in a circle holding hands while walking in a counterclockwise fashion. At the same time, they are chanting and beating the floor with their feet and swinging their arms forcefully until they fall into a trance. The heavy breathing and stamping serve one specific purpose. The noises that are made create a hypnotic noise that leads the medium into a trance. Upon reaching this particular state of mind, the medium can contact the spirits for solutions to problems or aliments.
The main focus for this particular branch of Espiritismo is healing. The ranking of the mediums that are required in the rituals is rather simple. Their achievements to solve problems and heal people will allow them to have a higher ranking. There is no clergy found within Espiritismo de Cordon. The Head Medium is generally in charge of the ritual space, but does not always participate in the ritual chain itself. Instead, the Head Medium acts as the guide during the actual ritual. The altar, which is used in Espiritismo de Cordon, takes up a rather large area. The space is usually purified to drive out any evil spirits and welcome good spirits. The entrance is protected by a large bowl of water and all who enter must wash their hands to prevent the spread of evil spirits. Espiritismo de Cordon is different from other religions in the sense that it does not have a set doctrine of beliefs. The religion is open to everyone and does not require new participants to partake in an initiation process.
Some have said that Espiritismo de Cordon has three influences on its practices and doctrines: folk Catholicism, Kardecian Spiritism and African creeds, but the most recent investigations have determined that what was thought to be African roots are in fact the remaining of Taíno religious rituals and dances called “areítos”.
Espiritismo Cruzao (which means Espritismo Crossed in English) is a form of Cuban Espiritismo with influences from folk Catholicism and Palo religion. It is one of the more popular Espiritismo variants on the island. It contains the practices of Scientific Espiritismo and Espiritismo de Cordon but also includes the use of Palo cauldrons, Elegua artifacts, animal sacrifice, the representation of Catholic saints, offerings of fruit and sweets, and tobacco use to induce a trance state. A common spirit that is called upon will be a deceased slave who will speak Bozal.
An important ceremony in Espiritismo Cruzao is the Misa Espiritual which inducts new Regla de Ocha novices to the practice. The Mass for the Dead carried out by devotees involves a table with a white cloth, herbs, and pictures of ones deceased relatives. Lit candles will encourage the spirit of the dead ancestor to go on to the afterlife and on occasion the family will try to commune with the spirit if the spirit has given a family member dreams of wishing to communicate.
Puerto Rican Indigenous Espiritismo
Puerto Rican Espiritismo shares many similarities in its origins to Cuban Espiritismo. The religious movement encountered many setbacks in its early years in Puerto Rico. Those who were caught practicing it were punished by the government and ostracized by the Catholic Church. Allan Kardec’s books made their way into the country and were received well by the educated class. The movement did not despite all the roadblocks, which had been set up to prevent its spread in the country. There were two divisions within Puerto Rican Espiritismo. The first division was a middle class movement, which utilized the Kardecian methods in an attempt to enhance the development of the country. The other division applied towards to lower classes in both the rural and urban settings. This division is known as “Indigenous Espiritismo” and is synonymous to Puerto Rico and is the most popular in the country.
Puerto Rican White Table Espiritismo follows the same ritual practices as found in Cuba. The attempt to achieve spiritual communication through a medium was widely practiced all over the island.
The practice of Indigenous Espiritismo would eventually begin to form in the lower classes of Puerto Rico. Unlike White Table Espiritismo this practice incorporates Taino healing methods. A medicine man known as a bohique can pray to spirits, and use tobacco, massages, and magic to cure ills. The folk medicines of Spaniards and African peoples are also incorporated.
This religious practice is a result of the merging of both Espiritismo and Santería. There are distinct African influences found within this religion though the orishas that are used to communicate to the spirit world. During the rituals, the mediums have the ability to communicate with spirits but are possessed by the dead who are messengers of the orishas. Who many mistake to be the orishas themself.
In Santerismo, the leader is known as the Godfather (padrino) or Godmother (madrina) as seen in the Santería religious practices. The leader prays at the altar before taking his or her place beside the medium at the table. The leader is present when the possession takes place while religious music or Afro-Cuban chants are played to praise the orishas. Before to the ceremony, there is a religious cleansing of the area to remove any evil spirits. A prayer is said to Elegua to protect the entranceways from any unwelcome or evil spirits. Shortly after, prayers are recited to attract good spirits for the ritual. The ritual may end with an exorcism which can be acquired a number of ways. One way to achieve purification is through a sahumerio. A sahumerio requires the burning of charcoal, garlic, incense and herbs to extract evil spirits from the place as well as a washing with holy water.
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