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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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!