A Few Notes on Palo

Stacey Lawless —  May 24, 2013 — 9 Comments

Nsala malongo! I’ve been learning about Palo cosmology and history over the last couple of months, and slowly unraveling some of the confusion I had about how the religion works. I thought I would offer up some of what I’ve learned, detailing a little of our worldview and the fact that there are different denominations, or ramas, of Palo. (By the way: any mistakes here are entirely mine, while the goodness in this piece must be credited to my teachers.)

And without further ado . . .

The dead

The dead are the basis of everything in Palo.

We call them the bakulu, which means ancestors, but the concept of “ancestors” tends to make Americans think of family trees. “Bakulu” can (and does) refer to lineal ancestors, but the dead are so much more than that. They are the basis of all life. They are the stuff of the material world, and the sea of possibilities that configure and reconfigure the fates of the living.

Kongo cosmogram, showing the cyclical nature of human existence.

Kongo cosmogram, showing the cyclical nature of human existence. The horizontal line represents the boundary between the living and dead.

We do think about and work with individual dead people: named ancestors, spirit guides, the beloved dead uncle who always gave you good advice. Sometimes they come to us in dreams and intuitions; sometimes, if we’re fortunate, they come to us in possession and bless us with their healing and wisdom.

But we also think of the dead as an anonymous collective, a force, a field, a sea. The KiKongo word “Kalunga” means simultaneously the collective dead, the saltwater ocean, and the cemetery. To the people of the kingdom of Kongo in central Africa, whose traditions gave birth to what would become Palo, the land of the dead lay below the sea. The surface of the sea was the demarcation between the living and the dead, a site of creative tension and power. Graves, too, were points of contact, and dirt from a grave carried the power of the deceased person within. You can still find seashells left on graves in Black family cemeteries in the United States, a trace of the old philosophy.

The spirals of conch shells symbolize the cyclical nature of existence in Kongo thought: death is hardly an end, merely a transition to a new existence. The dead are being continually reborn, crystallizing into their lineal descendants, or appearing as trees, pools and stones, plants and animals. Everything in the material world is a form of the dead, precipitating out of Kalunga like grains of salt out of seawater, to exist for a while before being dissolved again.

Nzambi

The source of the living and the dead is Nzambi a mpungu. Nzambi is neither male nor female, and is the ever-present majestic force that brought creation into being and permeates it. In Palo we tend to think of Nzambi in these terms, as the creator, because the Kongo traditions in general have been in continuous dialogue with Christianity for centuries. But Nzambi can also be thought of as the first ancestor, emphasizing the continuous cycle of life and death. In that sense, creation just is, with no beginning and no end.

The mpungos

And then there are the mpungos. Mpungu is a KiKongo word that refers to power generated by something, or, as my Tata once put it, “a hot stove can have an mpungu.” So in essence, it’s just a force. However, some lines of Palo have developed certain of the mpungos into major powers, even to the extent of conceiving of them as divinities. The Internet is full of descriptions of the mpungos, who have names such as Chola Wengue, Siete Rayos, and Zarabanda, and the tendency is to syncretize them with the Orishas of Santería. Not all ramas (which are, essentially, Palo denominations) work with the mpungos in this way, however.

The Ramas of Palo

The way a rama regards mpungos and the dead seems to be one of the major distinctions between lines of Palo. (There are many other distinctions, but they have to do with ways of conducting ritual.) There are numerous ramas, but the three main ones are Mayombe, Briyumba, and Kimbisa.

Palo Mayombe is probably the oldest one. It works primarily with the ancestors of blood and spiritual lineage, and in the past, if you were not of Bantu descent, you could not be initiated into Mayombe houses. (“Bantu” refers to a group of related African languages, of which KiKongo is one, and by extension to the ethnic groups that spoke these languages.) Mayomberos tend to see the mpungos as natural forces only, not divinities, and to downplay them in Palo practice.

Palo Briyumba developed out of Palo Mayombe and broke away from Mayombe’s ancestral focus. Briyumberos began to initiate non-Bantus. They also developed pacts with dead spirits who had no blood or lineaged connection to the Paleros, putting them to work and in some cases effectively enslaving them. Briyumba came into its own during Cuba’s wars of independence, and saw justice in conscripting the bones and souls of deceased oppressors to serve those they had formerly abused. In Briyumba, the mpungos are used to give attributes and direction to the dead who serve the Briyumbero.

Kongolese crucifix

A Kongolese crucifix

Palo Kimbisa developed in Oriente, the eastern part of the island of Cuba, and has absorbed influences from several other traditions, including Haitian Vodou. (There is a long history of contact between Oriente and Haiti, which is only about forty miles away from the eastern tip of Cuba.) Some Kimbiseros make extensive use of Christian symbolism, and some work with the Catholic saints. One theory of Kimbisa’s origins is that they lie with Kimpa Vita’s Kongolese Christian reform movement, which blossomed in the kingdom of Kongo for a few years in the eighteenth century, before being brutally repressed. Kimpa Vita had thousands of followers, many of whom were subsequently sold into slavery in the Americas. It is an intriguing theory, but nobody knows for certain if it’s true.

It is Kimbisa that regards the mpungos as divinities, finding parallels between them and the Orishas, and focusing much of their work and veneration upon them, instead of upon the dead. The dead in Kimbisa are the medium that the mpungos use to affect the world.

 * * * * *

Dear readers, I hope you enjoyed this. When I was starting out on this path and trying to read everything I could find on Palo, I was very confused about who or what Paleros worked with, and what was up with all the crucifixes and Orisha comparisons and whatnot. If I can straighten a little of that out for other readers and seekers, that’s great. In fact, let me try this: if you have questions about Palo, bring them up in the comments section and I’ll try to answer them in my next post. (Just bear in mind that I’m new at this and there may be things I can’t answer due to ignorance or oath.) Malongo yaya!

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Stacey Lawless

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  • Refr

    When I was researching Palo, one of the things I was told again and again was that you would not be welcomed, accepted, or initiated if you were anything other than exclusively heterosexual. This seemed to pop up no matter where I looked or who I asked. Is it true that Palo is inherently unfriendly to LGBTQ+ people, or is it a matter of politics that varies from group to group?

    • Stacey Lawless

      Hi Refr,

      This is a thorny issue . . . The short answer is that Palo forbids LGBTQ+ people from being initiated. Some gay people are initiated anyway; I know a couple of guys who have been. But it’s difficult, if not impossible, for them to find acceptance within the Palo community in general. My own nso does not initiate LGBTQ+ people.

      Personally, I wish that Palo was welcoming of people on the LGBT spectrum, but the reality is, it’s not.

    • Khi

      I know a number of beautiful, powerful gay male Paleros. It is not that the cult itself forbids LGBTQ+ people from being initiated, but only that some houses have this restriction.

      • Stacey Lawless

        Do the gay Paleros you know take part in the greater Palo community? The ones I know don’t, because they got sick of all the flack they took for being gay. It is obviously possible for gay people to be scratched, but it’s a hard road. I don’t want to sugarcoat that.

  • Nick Ritter

    The cosmogram you have shown in this article is remarkably similar to one I have heard about from Latvian pagans representing the tauta (tribe): it is a circle bisected horizontally by a line. The circle represents the tauta, and the line is the earth, with half of the tauta above and half below, with a notion of cyclical motion.

    • Stacey Lawless

      Cool! Thanks, Nick.

  • Quimbisero

    Sala Muleko, Well, there are bits here that are good, but there’s some obvious confusion. While Todd Ochoa makes for successful academic writing, he made some pretty fundamental mistakes when it comes to real Palo. The first is that the idea of the “anonymous dead” belongs to espiritismo, not Palo. In Palo, your relation to the dead is personal – first name basis, in fact. And Kimbisa, while it may have some Francophone links (as does everyone in Cuba), is essentially a Western Cuban phenomenon, not an Eastern Cuban one. Having relatives in both parts, and being an Kimbisero initiated in Cuba and a practitioner of Haitian religion to boot, I speak from first hand experience.

    I don’t mean to simply critique your effort. Those were two critical points that your sources are wrong about. However, you also have some solid understandings here, as well.

    Malembe,

    Tata Nsasi Masongo Quimbisa

    • Stacey Lawless

      Nsala malongo,

      Thank you for your critique. It’s always good to be presented with different sources of information. You’re quite right that I drew in part from Ochoa’s book. I also drew on my godfather’s lore (he’s Eric Colon, Tata Musitu) and on Nicholaj Frisvold’s book.

      I do get you about the personal relationship with the individual dead, and maybe I should have stressed that more in the article. My Tata has grumbled about people mounting with this or that Madama or Gypsy instead of their own deceased kin. But I’ve also been grilled about Kalunga by a couple of people in my nso. What can I say? Perhaps it came in via Espiritismo, perhaps it’s been part of the lineage for a while.

      With regard to Kimbisa, my understanding was that it began in Camaguey, but it’s possible I could have misunderstood something. It’s something I can check on with my Tata.

      Malembe,

      Engueyo Ndumba Kunayanda Matari