Palo, also known as Palo Monte and Las Reglas de Congo, is an African diasporic religion that developed in Cuba. It arose through a process of syncretism between the traditional Kongo religion of Central Africa, the Roman Catholic branch of Christianity, and Spiritism. Initiates in the religion are termed paleros (male) or paleras (female).
Palo teaches the existence of a creator deity, Nsambi or Sambia, who is uninvolved in human affairs. Central to Palo is the nganga or prenda, an iron cauldron into which human bones, sticks, and other items are placed. This is believed to be inhabited by the spirit of a dead individual, who becomes the slave of the palero or palera. The practitioner commands the nganga to do their bidding, typically to heal but also to cause harm. Those nganga primarily designed for benevolent acts are baptised; those largely designed for malevolent acts are left unbaptised. The nganga is "fed" with the blood of sacrificed male animals. Various forms of divination are employed to determine messages from the spirits.
Palo is divided into multiple traditions, including Mayombe, Briyumba, and Kimbisa, each with their own approaches to the religion. Palo is most heavily practiced in eastern Cuba although is found throughout the island and has spread abroad, including in other parts of the Americas such as Venezuela and the United States. Many paleros and paleras also practice another Afro-Cuban religion, Santería. Practitioners have repeatedly clashed with law enforcement for engaging in grave robbery to procure human bones for their nganga.
The name Palo derives from palo, a Spanish term for sticks, referencing the important role that these items play in the religion's practices. The religion is often also termed Palo Monte, meaning "spirits embodied in the sticks in the forest." Another term for the religion is Regla Congo, a reference to its origins among the traditional Kongo religion of the Bakongo people. Palo is also sometimes referred to as brujería (witchcraft), both by outsiders and some practitioners themselves.
Although its origins draw heavily on Kongo religion, Palo also takes influence from the traditional religions of other African peoples who were brought to Cuba, such as the Yoruba. These African elements are combined with elements from Roman Catholicism, and from Spiritism, a French variant of Spiritualism. Reflecting its African heritage, many practitioners refer to their homeland as Ngola.
Palo is an Afro-Cuban religion. It is one of three major Afro-Cuban religions present on the island, the other two being Santería, which derives in part from the Yoruba religion of West Africa, and Abakuá, which has its origins among the secret male societies practiced among the Efik-Ibibio. Many individuals practice both Palo and Santería. Generally an individual is initiated into Santería after they have been initiated into Palo; the reverse is not normally permitted. There are similarly practitioners of Palo who also practice Spiritism.
Practitioners are usually termed paleros or mayomberos.
The Palo worldview includes a supreme creator divinity, Nsambi or Sambia. In the religion's mythology, Nsambi is believed responsible for creating the first man and woman. This entity is regarded as being remote from humanity and thus no prayers or sacrifices are directed towards it.
Deities play a much less important role in Palo than they do in Santería. In Palo, the spirits of both ancestors and of the natural world are termed mpungus. The spirits of the dead are more specifically also called muerto or nfumbi. Some of these spirits have their own names, among them Nsasi or Sarabanda or Baluandé. Certain spirits may also have different aspects or manifestations, which have their specific names too. Practitioners are expected to make agreements with the spirits of trees and rivers. The scholar Judith Bettelheim described Palo as being "centered on assistance from ancestors and a relationship with the earth, one's land, one's home."
The spirits of Palo are generally considered fierce and unruly. The spirit pact made in Palo is more occasional and intermittent than the relationship that practitioners of Santería make with their deities, the oricha. Practitioners who work with both the oricha and the Palo spirits are akin to those practitioners of Haitian Vodou who conduct rituals for both the Rada and Petwo branches of the lwa spirits; the oricha, like the Rada, are even-tempered, while the Palo spirits, like the Petwo, are chaotic and unruly.
A key role in Palo is played by a vessel, sometimes a clay pot or gourd, at other times an iron pot or cauldron, the calderos, which is often wrapped tightly in heavy chains. This is the nganga, a term which in Central Africa referred to a man who oversaw religious rituals. It is also known as the prenda, a Spanish term meaning "treasure" or "jewel." It is alternatively sometimes called el brujo ("the sorcerer"), or the cazuela, while a small, portable version is termed the nkuto. The terms prenda and nganga designate not only the vessel but also the spirit believed to inhabit it. The choice of nganga vessel can be determined depending on mpungu. The nganga is deemed to be alive, and is regarded as the source of the Palo practitioner's supernatural power. The practitioners are termed the perros (dogs) or criados (servants) of the nganga.
The contents of the nganga are termed the fundamento. A key ingredient in these are sticks, termed palos, which are selected from specific trees. The choice of tree selected indicates the sect of Palo involved. Human bones will also typically be included, if possible including a skull, termed the kiyumba. If bones of a deceased person are unavailable then soil from a dead individual's grave may suffice. Other material added can include animal bones, shells, plants, gemstones, coins, razorblades, knives, padlocks, blood, wax, aguardiente liquor, wine, quicksilver, and spices. Soil from various locations is added, including from a graveyard, hospital, prison, and a market, as may water from a river or the sea. Often the quantity of material will spill out from the cauldron itself and be arranged around it, sometimes taking up a whole room. The mix of items produces a strong, putrid odour and attracts insects.
In Palo, it is believed that the spirit of the dead individual resides in the nganga. This becomes a slave of the owner, making the relationship between the palera/palero and their spirit quite different from the reciprocal relationship that the santera/santero has with their oricha. The spirit will then protect the palero or palera, and carries out the commands of their owner or their owner's clients; its services are termed trabajos. They rule over other spirits, of animals and plants, that are also included in the nganga. Specific animal parts added are believe to enhance the skills of the nganga; a bat's skeleton for instance might be seen as giving the nganga the ability to fly through the night to conduct errands.
The nganga can both heal and harm. Those nganga intended for use to good ends undergo a baptism ceremony and are termed cristiana (Christian). Those intended for malevolent ends are left unbaptised and are termed judía (Jewish). The latter are used for trabajos malignos, or harmful work. The boundaries between the two types of nganga are not always wholly fixed, because the baptised nganga can still be used for harmful work on rare occasions.  The medical anthropologist Johann Wedel noted that most of the paleros/paleras he encountered during the 1990s claimed that unbaptised ngangas were very uncommon by then.
The nganga is kept in a domestic sanctum, the munanso, typically formed in a cellar or a shed in the practitioner's backyard. When an individual practices both Palo and Santería, they typically keep the spirit vessels of the respective traditions separate, in different rooms. The nganga is "fed" with blood from sacrificed male animals; this is poured into the cauldron. Species used for that purpose include dogs, pigs, goats, and cockerels. This helps to maintain the nganga's power and vitality and ensures ongoing reciprocity with the practitioner. On at least one occasion, the palero/palera will give the nganga some of their own blood. Offerings of food and tobacco are also placed before it.
The making of a nganga is a complex procedure. Its components must take place at specific times during the day and month. A Palo practitioner would travel to a graveyard at night. There, they would focus on a specific grave and seek to communicate with the spirit of the dead person buried there, typically through divination. They then determine to create a trata (pact) with the spirit, whereby the latter agrees to become the servant of the practitioner. Once they believe that they have the consent of the spirit, the palero/palera will dig up the bones of the deceased, or at least collect soil from their grave, and take it back home. There, they perform rituals to install this spirit inside their nganga. When a new nganga is created, it is described as having been "born" from a "mother" nganga. The practitioner enters a pact with the spirit of the nganga in a ritual involving them contacting the latter using divination and trance. For a time the nganga is then buried, either in a cemetery or a monte area of nature, before being recovered. When a practitioner dies, their nganga may be dissembled if it is believed that the inhabiting nfumbi refuses to serve anyone else and instead wishes to be set free.
Palo teaches that menstruating women should be kept away from the nganga, for their presence would weaken it. It is also explained that the nganga's thirst for blood would cause the woman to bleed excessively, causing her harm.
Birth and the dead
Palo teaches that the individual comprises both a physical body and a spirit termed the sombra ("shade"). In Palo belief, these are connected via a cordón de plata ("silver cord"). In Cuba, the Bakongo notion of the spirit "shadow" has merged with the Spiritist notion of the perisperm, a spirit-vapor surrounding the human body.
The dead, referred to as the egun, play a prominent role in Palo. It is held that ancestors can contact and assist the living, with paleros/paleras venerating the souls of their ancestors.
The negative rumours that often circulate about Palo means that it is rarely practised openly. The practices of Palo are often secretive. Groups practice their rituals in a building termed a casa-templo (house-temple). Practitioners sometimes seek to protect the casa-temple by placing small packets, termed makutos (sing. nkuto), at each corner of the block around the building; these packets contain dirt from four corners and material from the nganga.
The language used in ritual actions derives heavily from the Kongo language, while the phrase that practitioners greet one another with is nsala malekum. They also acknowledge each other with a special handshake in which their right thumbs are locked together and the palms meet. Priests of Palo are called the Tata Nganga ("father nganga") or the Mama Nganga ("mother nganga").
Drawings called firmas play an important role in Palo ritual. These are deemed to be caminos ("roads"), for they facilitate contact between the worlds, allowing the mpungu to enter the ceremonial space. The firmas are akin to the vèvè employed in Haitian Vodou and the anaforuana used by Abakua members.
The designs of the firmas often incorporate ideas from traditional Kongo cosmology, including references the sun circling the Earth and the horizon line, regarded as the division between Heaven and Earth. There are many different designs; some are specific to the mpungu it is intended to invoke, others are specific to a particular casa-templo or to an individual practitioner themselves. Before a ceremony, the firmas are drawn around the room. The creation of these drawings are accompanied by chants called mambos. Gunpowder piles at specific points of the firma is then lit, with the explosion deemed to attract the attentions of the mpungu.
Multiples of seven are considered sacred in Palo.
Prior to the initiatory rituals, the initiate will be washed in water mixed with various terms, a procedure called the limpieza or omiero. After the bath, the initiate will be clothed in items that reflect their status as a practitioner of Palo: trousers rolled up to the knees, a towel over the shoulders, and a bandana on the head. The torso and feet are left unclothed. At initiation, the name of the initiate's guiding spirit is revealed, along with the ingredients that will be needed for their nganga. Initiation into Palo involves a series of rituals called rayamientos (markings). These involve cuts being made on the body of the initiate, into which parts of the nganga's contents will be rubbed.
Music in Palo practices begins with wooden percussion instruments followed by drums. Examples are the catá, guaguá, and the ngoma, or conga. The cowbell, hoe, and plow are used as metallic instruments.
Palo has been a means of transmitting the ritmas congos and influencias bantu, forms of Cuban drumming.
Healing and hexing
Paleros and paleras often have an advanced knowledge of plants and herbs found in Cuba. They are believed capable of producing various powders. When these powders are used to cause harms, their ingredients will often include dried toad, human hair, or fish bones.
Clients may approach a palero or palera when they want a rapid solution to a problem. It may be that they want assistance in dealing with a problem such as state bureaucracy or emigration issues. Sometimes, a consultation with a Santería initiate will also result in advice about Palo.
In Cuba, it is believed that illness may have been caused by a malevolent spirit sent against the sick person by a palero or palera.
Palo's practitioners communicate with their spirits via divination. The style of divination employed is determined by the nature of the question that the palero/palera seeks to ask. Two of the divinatory styles employed are the ndungui, which entails divining with pieces of coconut shell, and the chamalongos, which uses shells. Both of these divinatory styles are also employed, albeit with different names, by adherents of Santería.
Fula is a form of divination using gunpowder. It entails small piles of gunpowder being placed over a board or on the floor. A question is asked and then one of the piles is set alight. If all the piles explode simultaneously, that is taken as an affirmative answer to the question. Another form of divination used in Palo is vititi mensu. This involves a small mirror, which is places at the opening of a special animal horn, the mpaka, which is decorated with beadwork. The mirror is then covered with smoke soot and the palero or palera than interprets meanings from the shapes that the soot forms. Both fula and vititi mensu are forms of divination that Palo does not share with Santería.
I know of two African religions in the barracoons: the Lucumi and the Congolese... The Congolese used the dead and snakes for their religious rites. They called the dead nkise and the snakes emboba. They prepared big pots called nganga which would walk about and all, and that was where the secret of their spells lay. All the Congolese had these pots for mayombe.
— Esteban Montejo, a slave during the 1860s
After the Spanish Empire conquered Cuba, its Arawak and Ciboney populations dramatically declined. The Spanish then turned to slaves sold at West African ports as a labor source for Cuba's sugar, tobacco, and coffee plantations. Slavery was widespread in West Africa, where prisoners of war and certain criminals were enslaved. Between 702,000 and 1 million enslaved Africans were brought to Cuba, the earliest in 1511, although the majority in the 19th century. In Cuba, slaves were divided into groups termed naciones (nations), often based on their port of embarkation rather than their own ethno-cultural background.
Palo arises from the Kongo religion of the Bakongo people. The Bakongo inhabit a region across of Central Africa, that stretches from the southwestern Gabon, southern parts Republic of the Congo, southwestern Democratic Republic of the Congo and northern Angola (including the exclave of Cabinda). Bakongo slaves formed the largest nation in Cuba between 1760 and 1790, when they comprised over 30 percent of enslaved Africans on the island. The nganga would probably have been one of the very few weapons that the enslaved could use against their owners.
In Spanish Cuba, Roman Catholicism was the only religion that could be practiced legally. Cuba's Roman Catholic Church made efforts to convert the enslaved Africans, but the instruction in Roman Catholicism provided to the latter was typically perfunctory and sporadic.
Palo has its roots in the Congo Basin of Central Africa, from where large numbers of enslaved Kongolese people were brought to Cuba where the religion evolved. It is mainly a product of BaKongo religion but has been influenced by other faiths. Palo's liturgical language is a mixture of the Spanish and Bantu languages, known as lengua, bozal or habla Congo.
During the mid-20th century, practitioners experienced police harassment. Following the Soviet Union's collapse in the 1990s, Castro's government declared that Cuba was entering a "Special Period" in which new economic measures would be necessary. As part of this, priests of Santería, Ifá, and Palo all took part in government-sponsored tours for foreigners desiring initiation into such traditions.
In 1989, the Cuban-American narcotrafficker Adolfo Constanzo and his group were found to have abducted and killed at least 14 people on their ranch outside Matamoros[disambiguation needed] in Mexico, with the bones of their victims being placed into cauldrons for use in Palo rituals. Constanzo's group had apparently combined Palo with elements from Mexican religions and a statue of the Mexican folk saint Santa Muerte was found on the property.
In 1995, the US Fish and Wildlife Service arrested a Palo Mayombe high priest in Miami, Florida, who was in possession of several human skulls as well as the remains of exotic animals. In Newark, New Jersey, in 2002, a Palo practitioner was found to have the remains of at least two dead bodies inside pots within the basement, along with items looted from a tomb. A Connecticut Palo Mayombe priest was arrested in 2015 for allegedly stealing bones from mausoleums in a Worcester, Massachusetts, cemetery. In 2021, two Florida men robbed graves to get heads of dead veterans for ceremonies. 
Palo is divided among various different denominations or traditions. These include the Regla Biyumba, Regla Musunde, Regla Quirimbya, Regla Vrillumba, and the Regla Kimbisa.
The Regla Kimbisa sect was founded in the 19th century by Andrés Facundo Cristo de los Dolores Petit, who was highly syncretic in his approach to Palo. The tradition is founded on the principles of Christian charity. In Kimbisa temples, it is common to find images of the Virgin Mary, the saints, the crucifix, and an altar to San Luis Beltrán, the patron saint of the tradition.
Palo has also blended with Spiritism to create Muertería.
Both men and women are involved in Palo, but many women find the community of practitioners to be too masculinist; in contrast to Santería, an attitude of machismo is common among Palo groups. Gay men are often excluded. Observers have reported high levels of homophobia within the tradition, unlike the large numbers of gay men involved in Santería. The scholar of religion Mary Ann Clark for instance referred to a "pronounced homophobic atmosphere" in Palo.
In Cuban society, Palo is both valued and feared. Palo has also been incorporated in popular culture, such as in Leonardo Padura Fuentes' 2001 novel Adiós Hemingway y La cola de la serpiente. By the start of the 21st century, various Cuban artists are incorporating Palo imagery into their work.
The existence of Palo has impacted the burial of various individuals in Cuba. Remigio Herrera, the last surviving African-born babalawo, or priest of Ifá, was for instance buried in an unidentified grave to prevent paleros/paleras digging his corpse up for incorporation in a nganga. Palo has been linked to a rash of grave robbing in Venezuela. Residents report that many of the graves at Caracas' Cementerio General del Sur have been pried open to have their contents removed for use in Palo ceremonies.
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Just a month ago, Newark police raided the scruffy tenement at Central and Norfolk. Inside a basement worship room, 10-gallon Palo pots held at least two sets of human remains, including two skulls. ...
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- Kimbisa.org, roundtable discussions of issues in Palo, hosted by Palo Priests.
- Nganga.org, general information on Bantu religions in the diaspora.
- Palo, Comparative African religions
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- Palomayombe.com, general information.
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- Palo, Congo, Inkisi at Curlie
- Video of Palo ceremony for Má Lango, also known as Madre de Agua, at a beach in Santiago de Cuba Jul-2014 (YouTube)