This paper examines sacred material objects, or nkisi, and the rituals that utilize them, in Palo Monte/Mayombe, an African inspired tradition of Oriente, Cuba.
Palo is a part of the reglas de congo (Congo cults) of the Kongo Kingdom of West Africa. Cuban Palo is the result of the experiences of enslaved Africans brought to Cuba from the sixteenth century into the end of the nineteenth century. The most important sacred object in Palo Monte/Mayombe is the nganga, often a three-legged iron cauldron used for holding sacred objects during rituals which created a small replica of the world.
Common natural objects used in these rituals are plant parts, rocks, stones, large turtles or turtle shells, stuffed animals, other animal parts, soil, sand, and seawater. Man-made objects such as magnets, nails, knives, pliers, razor blades, horseshoes, scissors, handcuffs, candles, and machetes. Animal sacrifices are also a part of rituals utilizing the nganga. This paper will explore the ways in which sacred objects are used in Palo as well as the people who use them and the historical context of these rituals and practices.Palo Monte/Mayombe is the largest denomination of reglas de congo (congo cults) whose roots come from the Kongo Kingdom. Rituals of Palo Monte/Mayombe are built around the conditions of slavery and use reenactment to recreate that history in order to connect with the spirits of enslaved African descendants, maroons (runaways), and specialized nature spirits, or mpongo. While many sacred objects, or nkisi, in Palo come directly from nature such as soil, sand, seawater, and plant and animal parts as well as human remains, some are also man-made such as ngangas, cazuelas, chains, handcuffs, candles, and machetes.
Dr. Johnson gives a well-rounded description of nkisi and minkisi as well as some good examples of sacred objects in Palo:Nkisi can be drawn from the natural created world, such as rocks, plants, sticks, soil, remains of humans, and animals. Nkisi can also be manufactured objects associated with the social history of Cuba, such as chains, iron cauldrons, crosses, etc. Practitioners understand nkisi as items and substances imbued with small portions of the universe’s creative essence, which is power. When nkisi are arranged together within Palo ceremonial spaces, they become minkisi, multiple nkisi functioning in concert to alter the atmosphere of a ceremonial space and make it receptive to revelatory communications with and from spirits. Individual nkisi and collective minkisi are employed by Palo practitioners to communicate, receive, and commune with different spirit beings.Oriente, the eastern portion of the island of Cuba, is known as the “land of the dead” due to the presence of enslaved African people taken from the Kongo Kingdom of West Africa.
Enslaved African people from the Kongo Kingdom, captured and transported by Spanish colonists, arrived in Oriente in the sixteenth century and “established the African presence as an intimate and ongoing factor in social structures that would become Cuban: people, nation, culture, and religion.” Although Spanish colonists had been experimenting with sugarcane cultivation since the early fourteenth century, it wasn’t until after the Haitian revolution at the end of the eighteenth century that Cuba became a large source of sugar and saw an influx of enslaved Africans brought to work on sugar plantations and meet the demands of the industry. It was also during this time in the mid nineteenth century that Palo emerged and spread throughout Cuba. In analyzing Palo’s origins, Kenneth Routon suggests that “palo clearly emerged out of a historical context considerably shaped by the colonial sugar economy.”According to Dodson, Palo Monte and Palo Mayombe are two names for the same religion. She writes, “We first thought this tradition represented to distinct sets of ritual customs, Palo Monte and Palo Mayombe. However, when we interviewed practitioners about differences, they comprehended only one set of practices with two names.
This contrasts with some Spanish language literature that discusses two seperate sets of traditions, but we acknowledge respondents’ understandings as these guide their lives and published literature has rarely if ever included insights from Oriente.” The nganga, the most important object in Palo, is a pot or cauldron that contains soil, sticks (palos), plant and animal parts, and other objects specific to the mpongo (nature spirit) inhabiting it. A practitioner of Palo is called a mayombero or palero and a religious leader or priest is called an Nganga (the Nganga is the priest while the nganga is the container). A male Nganga is called Tata Nganga or Tata Nkisi, meaning “father of the nganga” or “father of sacred objects”, and a female religious leader is called Madre Nganga or Madre Nkisi. Routon writes, “The local reputations of individual tata nkisi depend on the extent of their mastery of a muerto, the efficacy and power of their brujería (magic or sorcery), the number of years they have spent practicing the religion, or the number of ritual godchildren they have formally initiated into their cult house.
” Ngangas are seen as community leaders and the process of becoming an Nganga can take decades. An nganga is usually a three-legged iron cauldron representing Sarabanda, an mpongo often associated with things made of iron and the most commonly worshiped. One nganga dedicated to Sarabanda was described as, “an iron cauldron containing hooked sticks of wood, chalk markings, mercury, feathers, other animal parts, and other objects intended to represent the whole world.
” However, other mpongos may prefer different containers for their ngangas. Chola Wengue, Baluande, and Nsasi use differently shaped clay pots called tinaja painted yellow, orange, blue, or red. Centella Ndoki, another mpongo, uses an nganga made from a gourd.
This paper will largely focus on ngangas made from iron cauldrons. These ngangas resemble cauldrons used by enslaved people to boil sugar cane on plantations during the sugar boom in Cuba.The relationship between an NgangaThe idea is that the spirit sells itself for a price negotiated with a future employer of its capacity to empower “trabajos” (works) undertaken in the service of the priestly owner/ manipulator of the object-assemblage the spirit consents to inhabit. It is an arrangement compatible, on one semantic level, with understandings of wage labor as the voluntary conveyance of title over one’s personal embodied capacities to a second party under market conditions. Accordingly, once specific “works” have been completed, the spirit is paid by appropriate sacrifices of blood, alcohol, food, or tobacco.Although blood sacrifices are used for payment, they are usually reserved for correcting and imbalance in the universe and spirits are consulted thoroughly before the sacrifice occurs. This ritual is called “feeding the nganga.
” Routon points out that, “Because contact with the dead is fraught with danger, it must be ritually managed to ensure that it is not harmful to the dead’s living host.” This is partially due to the unique power dynamic between the Tata Nganga and the mpongo within the nganga. At times the Tata Nganga will insult, spit on, or flog the nganga in an effort to force the spirits to work harder. Tata ngangas also have other ways of convincing spirits to do their bidding or appear to them.During Routon’s time collecting data in Cuba, he attended a fiesta para los muertos, a type of ritual meaning “party for the dead” led by a Tata Nganga named Arcaño. During the ritual, Arcaño attempts to summon a spirit using his nganga while a group of mayomberos sing and dance. The spirit is refusing to appear and Arcaño is becoming impatient:Finally, as a new singer took the lead, the body of the mayombero displayed the first signs of possession (e.g.
, convulsions, sudden vocal outbursts, heavy breathing, and drooling), and the activity in the room, which only moments before had bordered on a kind of dismal automatism, began to swell with fervor. The lead singer quickly moved close to the mayombero, who now stood in the middle of the room rubbing his face. A few of the other musicians then gathered around him as the singer, raising his voice in a noticeably more aggressive register, intoned the first of a series of haunting refrains intended to hasten the arrival of the muerto: Lead singer: “I’m going, I’m going to the mountain!” Chorus: “Slave driver, release the dogs!” Lead singer: “He’s not going to get me!” Chorus: “Let the dogs loose on the runaway slave!” What began as an ostensibly benign ceremony in honor of the muertos suddenly became charged with the violent imagery of a plantation overseer and his ravenous dogs, poised to chase down a slave in flight. The body of the mayombero soon dropped to the floor, overtaken by the spirit of a 19th-century Congo runaway slave frantically gasping for air: “The spirits of runaway slaves,” one medium casually remarked, “are always out of breath; they always come running in order to escape the overseer and his dogs.” Reluctant to emerge from his otherworldly hiding place, Arcaño’s runaway slave spirit had to be forced into attending the party made in his honor through an appeal to the terrorizing imagery of a colonial slave hunt.
Face down on the floor, the embodied spirit writhed about in one place with his arms firmly pressed against the length of his torso in a manner eerily reminiscent of the boca bajo, a disciplinary tactic that required a slave to lie facedown on the ground while receiving lashes. One of the ritual assistants then gently laid the blade of a machete on each of the spirit’s shoulders, extending downward at an angle across his back. The spirit soon recovered himself, stood up, and proceeded to give counsel to everyone present in a mixed speech consisting of bozal.
According to a mayombero interviewed by Dodson, “the spirits speak the Cuban-Creole-Congo language,” or bozal, a variation of Kikongo, part of the Bantu languages. This word likely comes from bozales, a term that previously referred to recently enslaved African people who had just arrived in Cuba, thought to have special magical abilities but also seen as uncivilized or brutish. This term is also used by contemporary mayomberos to refer to spirits of enslaved people and maroons (runaways). The three categories of spirits that participate in Palo rituals are: ndoqui, ancestral spirits who lived in times now forgotten; mpongo/npungo, “specialty spirits in or of forces of nature”; and mfundi/nfundi, the living dead. Due to Sarabanda’s association with metals and iron in particular, its nganga may contain magnets, nails, knives, pliers, razor blades, horseshoes, scissors, handcuffs, or a type of whistle specifically used by Havana police. Sometimes a lock is also included as a reminder of the oppression of slavery. Makutos are small packets used during rituals and are described as a small portable nganga. Masango, a type of nkuto (singular of makutos) are packets made from corn husks containing corn kernels and soil from the main nganga in the house.
All ngangas contain soil as a main ingredient for rituals, almost always from a number of specific locations. For example, Arcaño claims to have soil taken from 21 different locations:the bush, savannah, hill, palm tree, silk cottonwood tree, river, beach, an anthill, crossroads, his house, a Catholic church, polyclinic, hospital, police station, court tribunal, prison, cemetery, seven tombs (siete tumbas), funeral home, and the slave quarters of the plantation in Baracoa where “Manuel” once labored in the sugar refinery. What is so striking about Arcaño’s nganga, however, is that it does not just compress salient features of the local rural and urban landscape. This magical cartography also condenses a more global or transnational geography. Arcaño claims that his nganga contains soil taken from at least seven locations abroad: Ethiopia, Nigeria, Angola, Haiti, the Canary Islands, Hialeah (Miami), and New York. To some extent, the inclusion of these soils represents a spatial compression of the migratory circuits that define both Cuban history and the more recent diaspora that began with the 1959 revolution.
The nganga, then, turn out to be much more than just microcosmic plantations or symbolic runaway-slave settlements. Rather, the nganga are stunning magical constructions of a more encompassing global space-time compression in which salient geographies of the present are transposed within a cosmological structure that mirrors the historical landscape of power associated with the institution of slavery.Routon describes a ritual he watched Arcaño perform in a cemetery for a man called El Gordo who wanted revenge on the man his wife was sleeping with (El Tipo):Arcaño worked quickly. He first drew the signature of the whirlwind on the sidewalk in front of the grave, and in the center of it he placed a piece of paper with El Tipo’s name on it, his photograph, and a piece of bone from the recently disinterred cadaver, a way of luring the dead out of the grave because “they always go looking for what is theirs” siempre andan buscando por lo suyo.
He then lit a white candle in the center of the drawing and began chanting, blowing black-market rum on the signature and into the pit of the grave. After pouring more rum onto the spiraling line of the signature, the “road” or “path” (camino) along which the dead would soon travel, he placed the rum bottle near the point where the signature began and set fire to the signature. The flame quickly moved out from the direction of the grave and into the bottle, creating a small explosion. Arcaño hurriedly capped the bottle.
The dead had been tricked out of the grave and captured. Forced out of the ground in search of “what is theirs,” the dead are “caught” by directing them into and imprisoning them within containing devices such as rum bottles. Arcaño then began singing while he ripped the paper bearing El Tipo’s name into five pieces and tied four of the pieces around four candles using corn husks. He placed the four wrapped candles in a square on top of the signature and then blew chamba, a ritual drink containing magically imbued substances, onto the signature and into the grave. When he had finished, he forcefully threw the four paper wrapped candles into the four corners of the pit. Finally, he grabbed a handful of soil from the grave, which he placed inside a plastic bag along with El Tipo’s photo, the rum, the chamba, and the remaining piece of paper. As we left, Arcaño told El Gordo to give the grave digger-mayombero 10 pesos, about $0.40, enough for a pack of cigarettes.
This ritual demonstrates the process of using human remains and other nkisi to trap spirits and use them to do the Nganga’s bidding on behalf of El Gordo. Unfortunately Routon later learned that the spirit turned on El Gordo and caused him to lose his car and he was forced to sell his personal possessions to make ends meet. Arcaño had warned him that this was a possibility when performing rituals meant to harm others but in the end El Gordo realized his mistake only after it was too late.Ritual: Sacred objects are used in rituals and are integral to creating the atmosphere in which the rituals are performed. Sacred objects also help practitioners of Palo Monte/Mayombe connect with spirits and their past. Things like rum and cigars are also used during rituals as offerings for spirits.Power: Sacred objects, and ngangas especially, have an incredible amount of power.
Ngangas can be used to destroy lives and even kill people but also provide the wisdom to change lives for the better and improve society as a whole. There was even a rumor that Cuba imported bulls to sacrifice to the nganga Fidel Castro used to protect himself from his enemies. Spirits: Spirits can be trapped inside of sacred objects but also benefit from them through the payment of “feeding the nganga”. Sacred objects such as the nganga, drums, soil, and plant and animal parts can be used to help the spirits of enslaved people escape their pain and provide wisdom for their descendants. Body Co-Sharing: Through the use of the nganga, Arcaño is able to be “mounted” by Manuel, a runaway with an injured leg. A woman who body co-shares with an enslaved women who had a miscarriage is able to still feel the stomach pains from it. Body co-sharing or mounting occurs through ritual using sacred objects.
Palo Monte/Mayombe is a religion centered around enslavement and the dead. This is evident when looking at the nkisi utilized by Ngangas in rituals and daily practices. From simulations of slavery to the construction of ngangas, Palo chooses to find wisdom and healing out of pain and suffering. The sacred objects used in Palo are more than just instruments to perform magic, they are a recreation of the world that Palo’s Afro-Cuban ancestors lived in and a way to connect to that history. Each nganga is unique just like the Nganga who uses it.
These small replicas of the world actually contain a world of spirits within them.