Palo Mayombe is a path that my ancestral spirits have intended for me to walk. Following more than a year of intensive working with my ancestors this has became undeniably clear to me. I was initially hesitant to commit to Palo because I was very comfortable, successful, and happy with my existing magical and spiritual practices. But the second I set foot in the Cuban wilderness everything clicked into place and I knew that I had to embrace these roots in my spiritual development. Cuba is literally my motherland as it is where my mother and several generations of her family were born and raised prior to the revolution. This was my first visit to the island and needless to say, it was an incredibly emotional and rewarding experience. While there I met with a few Tatas and Yayas who not only reaffirmed that I was heading in the correct direction, but gave me a better idea of how different Palo houses and lineages functioned.
A couple months before heading to Cuba I was meeting periodically with Tata Musitu and was accepted into his house here in the United States. I was blown away by the accuracy of his readings, the palpable strength of his nganga and his strictly orthodox Mayombe approach to the religion. When he sung in Palo Kikongo, the spirits took notice. There was never any doubt in my mind that if I would continue in Palo it would be through him and his house, my trip to Cuba was that final confirmation I needed; and today I am incredibly honored to have him as my padrino in Palo Mayombe.
I have taken my first steps and now I face a long journey ahead before I make any serious headway in the religion; but as the Palo proverb states: piango piango llega lejos (‘step by step we go far’).
So yes, I am far – FAR – from being an expert on Palo, but I have realized that the online occult and esoteric communities could use some help in better understanding this beautiful religion. Frankly there is a lot of garbage circling the internet on blogs and forums regarding Palo and I am hoping that this post can be a place of refuge for those wishing to sift through the misinformation and to learn a bit of introductory material about the tradition. Given that this blog has gained a much larger audience than I ever imagined, I hope I can do some good and at least steer the curious in the right direction.
So let’s start with some basics…
What is Palo? Is it an ATR?
Palo is a living initiatic religion passed orally from teacher to initiate. Thus it can only be fully understood within the context of a spiritual lineage (rama) and house (munanso) as each will have their own set of secret teachings, taboos and techniques through which they interact with the spirit and natural world. This initiatory structure is paramount to understanding the religion. It empowers the Palero with a spiritual line of ancestral practitioners thereby granting him or her a degree of authority to work the spirits and the dead; an authority that is otherwise unattainable by any single individual on their own. Thus you cannot simply learn Palo from books, videos or through solitary practice. I encourage everyone to re-read those last two sentences; not because they are well written, but rather because of the fundamental importance of the message … no lineage, no spiritual authority to work Palo, simple as that.
As I touched upon in Pact-Making in Palo & Bakongo Religion the underlying cosmology in Palo is one of animism. In short, everything has spirit (nkisi) and it is the Palero’s role to form pacts and work with the spiritual landscape in order to produce sacred medicines for the community and to personally grow, transform and evolve spiritually. There is a creator god who we call Nzambi (or Nzambi Mpungu), but he acts as a catalyzing agent for creation rather than a judging and wrathful demiurgic god and is far removed from our day-to-day human concerns. We do catch glimpses of Nzambi expressed throughout the universe; perhaps the most prominent are his celestial manifestations as the masculine power of the Sun (Ntango) and her feminine manifestation as the Moon (Ngonde).
There is no official pantheon of deities in Palo, only various catalogs of spirits and named forces of nature (mpungu). This is a major point of misinformation on the web and in books. Even some otherwise reputable sources will discus a pseudo pantheon of Palo mpungos as core to the tradition, but this is not entirely accurate, at least not when discussing pure Palo Mayombe.
The belief in the totality of Nzambi together with the importance of the ancestors (bakulu) and making pacts and working with the spirits of the landscape (basimbi) and the dead (nfumbe) are the foundational tenets of the religion. It is a core ideology that originates with the traditional Bantu religions of the Bakongo people of central Africa and thus Palo is identified as Regla-Kongo (Congo Law/Rules). But despite this Congolese foundation, Palo as we know it does not exist in Africa, it never did.
Palo was born in Cuba when escaped Bakongo slaves and their decedents came into contact with the spirits of the Cuban wilderness alongside the indigenous Taino (Ciboney) populations. It it thus improper to say that Palo is an ATR in the strict sense since it is not a direct import – or a true continuation – of an African religion. It is however a diasporatic offspring of Bantu belief systems and perhaps best described as a cousin-tradition to the Nkisi cults of the Congo.
Is it related to Santeria?
The short answer is No!
Despite what you have read or seen on the internet, Palo has nothing to do with the Yoruba/Lukumi religion (Ifa, Ocha, Santeria). The Yoruba people are from the western African Coast (modern day Nigeria and Benin) and compose an entirely different ethnic group (culture, language, religion, etc.) than the Bantu people of the Kongo traditions. This is import to understand. To lump them into one “African” tradition is as ignorant as saying that all Asian traditions or all European traditions compose one cultural group simply because they share a continent.
Today the lines between the Congolese Regla-Kongo and the Yoruban Regla-Ocha or Regla-IFA are indeed very blurred in Cuba and elsewhere around the world as many initiates into Palo are also initiated into Santeria or Ocha and some Tatas are also practicing Babalawos (priest of Ifa). In Cuba, many people will simply refer to the whole corpus of IFA, Ocha and Palo traditions alongside Catholicism and Kardecian spiritualism as simply “religion” without any other descriptors. The practices however don’t mix, and any practitioner worth his/her salt will keep them and their protocols separate. Ocha is Ocha and Palo is Palo.
What are the reglas and lineages or ramas of Palo?
Outside of Cuba, Palo is generally called Palo Mayombe ; however, this is a bit of misnomer since not all lineages and houses are truly Mayombe – in fact, most are not.
In Cuba, “Palo Monte” is used far more frequently to speak to the entire body of Regla-Kongo Palo tradition. Other terms such as Palo Cruzado (‘crossed palo’, denoting heavy syncretization with other religions), Palo Cristiano (‘Christian palo’) and Palo Judio (‘Jewish palo’, not actually jewish, but simply non-Christian) deserve a brief mention. However, these are not specific reglas of Palo, but rather terms that are used to denote the degree of syncretism and mixing in individual lineages and practices.
There are many houses (munansos) and lineages (ramas) of Palo Monte, but commonly they are understood to fit within three major forms or sub ‘reglas’ within the greater Regla-Kongo:
2. Biyumba (Vrillumba o Brillumba)
Mayombe is the oldest and most orthodox form of Palo. It strictly focuses on the spirits of the natural landscape and the ancestors of blood and spiritual lineage. The origins trace back to a specific Nkisi cult in the Mayombe region of Cabinda (NW Congo) from where it gets its name and the tradition came into its own in the caves and wilderness of the Pinar del Rio highlands of Cuba. Mayomberos typically only have one prenda/nganga as opposed to the other reglas where practitioners tend to amass a large collection – each devoted to an individual mpungo. Initiates in Palo Mayombe understand the mpungos to be natural forces, not divinities.
Biyumba developed out of Palo Mayombe and rose in popularity during Cuba’s war of Independence. It was the first regla to initiate people of non-Bantu ancestry and frequently worked with and developed pacts with dead spirits of no particular blood or spiritual lineage (often times to send them out for warring intentions). It is a vast regla and has many ramas and sub-lineages. Indeed, a great number of houses today are some offshoot of Biyumba. Broadly speaking, Palo Biyumba is more oriented toward the various mpungos and over time some lineages have introduced a degree of syncretization with elements of Ocha and Catholicism.
Palo Kimbisa was popular on the eastern side of the Cuban island and has absorbed many influences from Catholicism to Freemasonry to Haitian Vodou. Kimbisa likely originated within an already syncretized Catholic-Kongo religious tradition from the Kingdom of Kongo following Kimpa Vita’s Christian reform in the 18th C. In Kimbisa the mpungos are paramount and are seen as divinities and saints. Thus, Kimbiseros will venerate the mpungos and focus much of their work calling upon them, instead of upon the dead. The most well known Kimbisa rama is Andrés Petit’s La Regla Kimbisa de Santo Cristo del Buen Viaje.
The Kimbisa prendas I have seen also tend to be huge in comparison to Mayombe. It is also common to see Kimbisa (as well as Briyumba) prendas with crucifixes. Moreover, many Kimbiseros and Biymberos will make a distinction between prendas judias or prendas ndoki(those without crucifixes and containing the bones of non-baptized individuals) used to curse, kill, and other malefica; and prendas cristianas (with cross and baptized nfumbe) used to heal and general benefica. This distinction does not appear whatsoever in Mayombe.
There are other more obscure reglas that I quite frankly do not know much about. One such is Shamalongo who are said to work tiny prendas inside gourds without nfumbe (bones of the dead). It is unclear if this is an offshoot of Mayombe or not, but from my understanding from what I’ve read it seems heavily influenced by Ocha and espiritismo.
Does Palo have gods? What are Mpungo/u?
Mpungo/u is a complicated term. In Kikongo mpungu means a “natural force/spirit of nature” and this is the understanding that is preserved in Mayombe. As discussed above in Biyumba and Kimbisa mpungos developed into some form of anthropomorphized divinity akin to saints, heroes or demigods. Most of the commonly known mpungos in Palo (i.e. Zarabanda, Nsasi Siete Rayos, Chola Wengue, Cobayende, etc.) refer to powerful Nkisi of specific locations in Cuba that developed into their own cult and took on a life of their own. To complicate matters, these mpungo have been syncretized with specific Catholic Saints and then through the saints with the Yoruba Orisas so that Nsasi Siete Rayos came to be linked with Santa Barbara and then Chango, Mama Chola Wengue with La Virgen de Caridad de Cobre and Oshun, etc. ,etc.
The important thing to remember is that while these mpungos are very real and very powerful, they are spirits from the landscape of Cuba not Africa, so any connection with them to the Orisa is purely philosophical. The syncretization is meant to draw parallels between their functions and the function of saints in Catholicism and Orisas in Regla-Ocha, it is not that Nsasi Siete Rayos = Sta. Barbara = Chango, but rather that they share similar domains.
Is Palo a Necromantic Religion?
The issue of necromancy is one that is difficult to answer flat out as it will greatly depend on the querent’s definition of the term. What is necromancy? If your vision of necromancy is hollywood-style “raising the dead” to perform tasks commanded by the Palero, then most definitely not! However, if for you – as for me – necromancy encapsulates ancestor veneration, communication and forming working relationships with the dead; then indeed Palo has necromantic elements. As I have discussed at length in Honoring the Ancestors and the Dead the ancestors and our beloved dead are our our strongest allies, teachers, and guides in spiritual matters.
I have no problems with the term necromancy. I also firmly believe that necromancy – in its base etymological meaning from the Greek νεκρός (nekrós), “dead” and μαντεία (manteía), “prophecy”, “oracle”, or “divination” is at the core of nearly all magical and mystical religious systems. It is that ancestral component that links the physical world of the living to the spiritual world of the dead; thus, even mainstream religions are necromantic in this sense. What do Christians do? They venerate the spiritual ancestor of their religion, who just so happens to be represented as a dead man on the cross. Through prayers directed to him – in other words, by speaking to the dead – the faithful seek wellbeing for themselves and their family in this life and the next. Catholics take this one step further and venerate the dead through the cult of saints even storing their body parts as relics and objects of worship.
But here is the truth; there is nothing dark or sinister about death or the dead. It is part of the natural cycle of existence. In nature, death always births new life!
Death, as understood in Palo and by countless traditional societies, is a new beginning – one of eternal existence in the world of the spirits, not some unclean, detested and feared finality as viewed by modern western society.
However, brace yourself, for I am about to reveal a major secret…well actually not, it is just a simple truth. Palo does not focus on the dead, but rather on Nature itself! The word “Palo” literally means “stick” and is used colloquially to reference the sticks, roots and herbs used to make the sacred medicines of the religion. The dead and the ancestors are part of the natural spiritual landscape and thus form an integral component of the tradition, but contrary to popular belief, are not the sole focus.
Palo Mayombe is first and foremost a religion based on Nature and Natural forces!
This is a beautiful religion that has been horribly misunderstood and improperly portrayed by many charlatans and unworthy pretenders. Thanks to misguided writers and crazed individuals, Palo has been dragged through the mud as the blackest of black magic and Paleros came to be portrayed as grave-robbers and bloodthirsty cultists. Yet, nothing can be further from the truth! It is time for Palo to reclaim its light and to shed the shadow cast on it by ignorance and fear. For many, the mention of Palo conjures images of dark rites occurring in the dank basements or the backrooms of inner city residences; so it is vitality important for all of us to understand the origins of the religion and the majesty of the landscape in which the tradition was born.
A picture is worth a thousand words, or so it is said. So rather than thousands of more words to wrap up this post and leave an impression in your mind as to what Palo Mayombe is truly about, I leave you with some photos of the Pinar del Rio wilderness. Needless to say the pictures don’t do it justice, as it is truly one of the most magical places on earth.
It was here under these towering Ceibas and Royal Palms, within these ravines and in these caves where Palo Mayombe was born…and it was here where I took my first steps towards understanding what it means to be a Mayombero.