Palo, also known as Las Reglas de Congo, is a religion with various denominations which developed in Cuba among Central African slaves and their descendants who originated in the Congo region. Denominations oftentimes referred to as “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“, “nkisi” or “la prenda“. Priests of Palo are known as “Paleros“, “Tatas (men)“, “Yayas (women)” or “Nganguleros“. Initiates are known as “ngueyos” or “pino nuevo“.
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 Bantu languages, known as lengua, bozal or habla Congo.
Belief system and rituals
The Palo belief system rests on two main pillars:
- The veneration of the spirits.
- The belief in natural/earth powers.
All natural objects, and particularly sticks, are thought to be infused with powers, often linked to the powers of spirits.
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 oftentimes venerated as spirits with anthropomorphic qualities. They are powerful entities, but they are ranked below the Supreme Creator Zambi or Nzambi, making Palo a henotheistic religion.
The main practice of Palo focuses upon the religious receptacle or altar known as “la Nganga“, “el caldero“, “nkisi” or “la prenda“. This is a consecrated vessel which serves as a microcosm. Each Nganga is dedicated to a specific mpungu. Oftentimes, this religious vessel is also believed to be 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 theNganga.
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.
Denominations are further broken down into temple homes known as munansós that are headed by an experiences elder priest or priestess. There is no central authority figure in Palo.
Religious syncretism with Catholicism is prevalent within Palo due to the fact that the Kingdom of the Kongo adapted the Catholic religion and created a form of Kongo-Catholicism as early as the 15th century. Iconography and the lack thereof is a reflection of dual socio-politics beliefs that have been in opposition for centuries. In Cuba they are categorized as Palo Cristiano (Christian Palo), which uses the crucifix and images of Catholic saints as representations of the kimpungulu versus Palo Judio (Jewish Palo), where there is no Catholic imagery\iconography to be found. Although the name Palo Judio literally means “Jewish Palo” 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 the popularity of Kardecian Spritism in Cuba, many temple-houses have made it mandatory to practice seances known as spiritual Misas especially prior to initiation in order to identify spirits guides 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 nature spirits encapsulated in sacred vessels (Nkisi). Other spirits that are recognized are Nfuri-Ntoto (wandering spirits or wraiths), Bakulu or Kinyula Nfuiri Ntoto (spirits of ancestors), and Nfumbe(the spirit of the nkisi).
- Chola Wengue