Palo, or Las Reglas de Congo are a group of closely related religions or denominations, which developed in the Spanish colonies of the Caribbean amongst Central African slaves of mostly Bantu ancestry. Other names associated with various branches of this religion include Mayombe, Briyumba and Kimbisa.
The word “palo” (“stick” in Spanish) was applied to the religion in Cuba due to the use of wooden sticks in the preparation of altars, which were also called “la Nganga”, “el caldero” or “la prenda”. Adherents of Palo are known generally as “Paleros”, “Ngangeros”, or “Nganguleros”. Membership is by initiation into a “house” or “Temple”. The organizational structure follows the model of a family. During slavery when blood families often were broken up by slave holders, this model was particularly significant and taken literally.
Palo has its roots in the Congo basin of central Africa, from where large numbers of African slaves were brought to Cuba, Puerto Rico, as well as to the colony of Santo Domingo, the present capital of the Dominican Republic. Accordingly, a great part of Palo Monte’s liturgical chants and invocations are in a mixture of the Spanish and Kikongo languages, other influences being introduced through their presence in Black Spanish-speaking Latin America.
During the mid 19th century Palo began to spread among the Venezuelan and Afro-Latino communities in the United States as well as many other places outside the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. Eventually, members of non-African Latino groups, as well as African Americans, gained access to these traditions. The religion remains largely Afro-Latino in character. Although it is largely unknown whether the religion started in Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic or Cuba, the most traditional form can be found in these three islands. In Puerto Rico, the city of Guayama became nicknamed “the city of witches”, because the religion was widely practiced in this town.]
Belief system and rituals
The Palo belief system rests on two main pillars:
- 1. The veneration of the spirits of the ancestors.
- 2. The belief in natural (“earth”) powers.
Natural objects, and particularly sticks, are thought to be infused with powers, often linked to the powers of spirits. These objects are known as “nganga” and are the ritual focus of Palo’s magical rites and religious practice.
A certain number of spirits called Kimpungulu (singular: Mpungu) inhabit the Nkisi (sacred objects, also spelled Inquice, Inquise, and Enkisi). Kimpungulu are well known in name and deed, and are venerated as gods. They are powerful entities, but they are ranked below the High God Zambi or Nzambi.
The main practice of Palo focuses upon the religious receptacle or altar known as a Nganga or Prenda. This is a consecrated vessel filled with sacred earth, sticks (palos), human remains, bones and other items. Each Nganga is dedicated to a specific spiritual Nkisi. This religious vessel is also inhabited by a muerto or spirit of the dead (almost never the direct ancestor of the object’s owner), also referred to as “Nfumbe”, who acts as a guide for all religious activities which are performed with the Nganga.
Various divination methods are used in Palo. One, Chamalongos uses shells or disks of various materials, often coconut shells. A more traditional method, Vititi Mensú, is a form of envisioning or scrying, using a sanctified animal horn capped with a mirror.
There are many Ramas that have developed through the ages such as Brillumba – This rama has separated into branches such as Siete Brillumba Congo. The branch born when seven Tata’s from Brillumba combined their ngangas to create an Nsasi Ndoki. This rama has grown through the years and is well known today.
Religious syncretism can be seen in some houses of Palo, called Palo Cristiano, with the use of the cross and images of Catholic saints as representations of the Nkisi. However, in other houses, called “Palo Judio”, there is no syncreticization with Catholic imagery. The name Palo Judio literally means “Jewish Palo”, but the term “Jewish” as used here does not refer to the Jewish religion; rather it is metaphorical shorthand for “refusing to convert to Christianity”, that is, in the case of Palo, “purely Congo African.” It is important to note that because of European economic pressure the Kingdom of Kongo had officially converted to Catholicism while still an independent nation during the late 15th century and that the African-Catholic syncretic movement extended well into the era of slavery, reaching its height under the leadership of Kimpa Vita (1684 – 1706), who promoted Saint Anthony of Padua as “a second God.” Thus it is obvious that much of Palo Cristiano’s Christian syncretism, as well as Palo Judio’s resistance to Christian syncretism, originated in colonial Africa, not Cuba, Puerto Rico or other places in the Afro-Cuban diaspora.
The identity of the Nkisi is further clouded because authors, either outsiders to the religion or coming from houses of Palo Cristiano, have attempted to associate the Nkisi with the Orishas of Santería, a different religion. Thus the entity “Nsambi Munalembe” (also known as “Nsasi”, “Siete Rayos” and various other names) may be said by these authors to be the equivalent of Saint Barbara in Catholicism or Chango (Shango) in Santería.
Because of Kardecian syncretism in many houses of Palo, a spiritual Misa is often held before the initiation, in order to identify the main spirits which will help to develop one’s life. These guides often speak also throughpossession, and may give direct advice.
The religions of the Congo reached the Americas by other paths than through Puerto Rico. In Brazil Congo religions are known as Umbanda, Quimbanda, Candomblé de Congo, or Condomble de Angola. The one most closely related to the Cuban Palo Tradition is Quimbanda.
In Jamaica, the Bahamas, and the Virgin Islands, Congo based religions are called Kumina, or when seen as a form of magic without liturgical worship, as Obeah.
Closely related to Palo in practice, but like Obeah, lacking Palo’s theological and liturgical aspects, is a form ofAfrican American folk magic known as hoodoo, conjure, or rootwork, which developed from African slave beliefs in the United States. The reason for the striking similarity between these traditions is that the core beliefs underlying hoodoo derive from Congo and Angola. In Haiti there is a Vodou denomination known as Makaya that is similar to Palo.
The highest level of the Palo pantheon is occupied by the creator god, Nzambi. The Kimpungulu (singular:Mpungu) of Palo Mayombe are spirits or deities encapsulated in sacred vessels (Nkisi), representing aspects of nature, such as thunder, agriculture, or wind. Other spirits that can inhabit the Nkisi are Nfuri (wandering spirits or wraiths), Bakalu (spirits of ancestors), and Nfumbe (anonymous spirits).
- Nzambi(Nsambi, Sambia, Nsambiampungo, Pungun Sambia, Sambia Liri, Sambia Surukuru, Sambi Bilongo) – not an actual Mpungu, but a higher god, creator of the cosmos. Equivalent to YorubaOlorun.
- Lungombe(Lukankanse, Kadiampembe) – negative aspect of Nzambi
- Kobayende(Cobayende, Pata Llaga, Tata Pansua, Tata Nfumbe, Tata Funde, Tata Fumbe, Pungun Futila, Tata Kañeñe) – king of the dead, god of diseases, associated with San Lazaro, eq. Babalu Aye.
- Mariguanda(Pungu Mama Wanga, Centella Ndoki, Yaya Kengue, Mariwanga, Mama Linda, Campo Santo) – gatekeeper between life and death. Associated with Santa Teresa & Oya Iansan
- Gurunfinda – god of forest and herbs. Associated with San Noberto non Nato or San Silvestre, eq. Ozain.
- Nkuyu(Nkuyo, Mañunga, Lubaniba, Lucero) – Deity of woods and roads, guidance and balance. Associated with San Antonio, eq. Elegua.
- Má Lango(Madre de Agua, Kalunga, Mama Kalunga, Pungo Kasimba, Mama Umba, Mbumba Mamba, Nkita Kiamasa, Nkita Kuna Mamba, Baluande) – goddess of water and fertility. Known also as the Virgin of Regla, the patroness of Havana harbor, eq, Yemaja.
- Chola Wengue(Mama Chola, Chola nengue) – goddess of richness and pleasures. Associated with La Virgin de la Caridad del Cobre, the Patron Saint of Cuba, eq. Oshun.
- Kimbabula(Kabanga, Madioma, Mpungo Lomboan Fula, Nsambia Munalembe, Tonde, Daday, Munalendo, Padre Tiempo) – god of divination and winds. Associated with Saint Francis, eq. Orunmila.
- Watariamba(Watariamba, Nkuyo Lufo, Nguatariamba Enfumba Bata, Saca Empeño, Cabo Rondo, Vence Bataya) – god of hunt and war. Associated with John the Baptist, eq. Ochosi
- Nsasi(Nsambi Munalembe, Siete Rayos, Mukiamamuilo, Nsasi) – god of thunder and fire, equivalent to Santa Barbara, eq. Shango.
- Ma Kengue(Yola, Tiembla Tierra, Pandilanga, Mama Kengue) – spirit of wisdom and justice. This Mpungu is associated with La Virgin de las Mercedes & Obatala.
- Sarabanda(Zarabanda, Rompe Monte) – deity of work and strength. Associated with Saint Peter, eq. Oggun.
Palo has been linked to a rash of grave robbing in Venezuela. Residents report that many of the graves atCaracas’ Cementerio General del Sur have been pried open to have their contents removed for use in Palo ceremonies. In Newark, N.J., a Palo follower was found to have the remains of at least two dead bodies inside pots within the basement, along with items looted from one of the tombs.