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Palo, also known as Las Reglas de Congo, is a group of closely related religions which developed in the Spanish Empire among Central African slaves who originated in the Congo region. The branches of Palo include Mayombe (or Mallombe), Monte, Briyumba (or Brillumba), 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". Priests of Palo are known as "Paleros", "Ngangeros", or "Nganguleros".
Palo has its roots in the Congo Basin of Central Africa, from where large numbers of Kongo slaves were brought to Cuba where the religion was organized. Palo's liturgical language is a mixture of the Spanish and Kongo languages, known as lengua or habla Congo.
Belief system and rituals
The Palo belief system rests on two main pillars:
- The veneration of the spirits of the ancestors.
- 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 Enkisi, Inquice, or Inquise). Kimpungulu are well known in name and deed, and are venerated as spirits. They are powerful entities, but they are ranked below the Supreme Creator 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 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. Chamalongos uses shells 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 spiritual branches, or Ramas, that have developed through the ages such as Briyumba - this branch has separated into branches such as Siete Briyumba Congo; the branch born when seven Tata's from Briyumba combined their ngangas to create an Nsasi Ndoki.
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 Judaism; rather it is metaphorical shorthand for "refusing to convert to Christianity", that is, in the case of Palo, "purely Congo".
Due to 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 through possession, and may give direct advice.
The highest level of the pantheon in Palo is occupied by the supreme creator God, Nzambi. The Kimpungulu (singular: Mpungu) are spirits encapsulated in sacred vessels (Nkisi). Other spirits that can inhabit the Nkisi are Nfuri (wandering spirits or wraiths), Bakalu (spirits of ancestors), and Nfumbe (anonymous spirits).
- Chola Wengue
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. In Newark, New Jersey, USA 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 one of the tombs.
In popular culture
The "unsub" (or "unknown subject") in Season 6, Episode 12 of the American television show, Criminal Minds, orchestrates a series of murders based on Palo rituals in an effort to bring attention to himself and the religion.
- ""Jewish" and "Christian" Palo in Cuba".
- Romero, Simon (2009-12-11). "Palo (Religion) In Venezuela, Even Death May Not Bring Peace". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-05-21.
- William Mcgowan (November 8, 2002). "Resting Without Peace". Wall Street Journal.
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. ...
- Lydia Cabrera. 1993 "El Monte". La Habana: Editorial Letras Cubanas.
- Lydia Cabrera. "Palo Monte Mayombe: Las Reglas de Congo" .
- Lydia Cabrera. "La Regla Kimbisa del Santo Cristo del Buen Viaje".
- Jesús Fuentes Guerra and Armin Schwegler 2005.Lengua y ritos del Palo Monte Mayombe:...
- Erwan Dianteill. "Kongo in Cuba" (English), Archives-de-sciences-sociales-des-religions, 2002
- Natalia Bolívar Aróstegui. "Ta Makuenda Yaya"
- Miguel Barnet. "AfroCuban Religions".
- Robert Farris Thompson. "Flash of the Spirit".
- Jeff Lindsay. "Dexter in the Dark". 2007.
- Nicholaj De Mattos Frisvold. "Palo Mayombe, The Garden of Blood & Bones". 2010
- Todd Ramon Ochoa. "Society of the Dead: Quita Managuita and Palo Praise in Cuba" University of California Press, 2010.
- 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
- Palomayombe.com, general Kimbisa SCBV information.
- Palo-mayombe.com, general Palo Mayombe information.
- Palo, Congo, Inkisi at DMOZ
- Video of palo dance performed by Cutumba
- Video of Palo ceremony for Má Lango, also known as Madre de Agua, at a beach in Santiago de Cuba Jul-2014