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"Jewish" and "Christian" Palo in Cuba PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Alagguama - A palo mayombe religion character jumping form the jungle with his traditional atributes. Artist: Delgado Alfonso
Image: Alagguama - A palo mayombe religion character jumping form the jungle with his traditional atributes. Artist: DELGADO ALFONSO
Imagen Cuba, using very much a late renaissance European metaphor, Palo has been classified as existing in two major forms, Palo Endoqui and Palo Nzambi, the former called Judio -- "Jewish" -- and the latter Cristiano -- "Christian." These two forms are in fact based upon African originals and a distinction that goes back to feuding sources of authority in Kongo religion during the earlier days of the Kingdom of Kongo.

Religion in the Kongo was always a political thing and associated both with the spirits but also with the kingship. Religion's primary role was the maintenance of the kingdom and the king was himself sacred. So these shifts represented shifts in political control.

The generally accepted understanding is that there were several forms of cult in the Kongo that passed, as these things usually did, for political reasons, in and out of favor with the aristocracy.

One cult associated Lukankasi as the supreme deity and the other Nzambi. Lukankasi was of the sky and Nzambi of the earth. A third deity, Kalunga, associated with the sea and the underworld, also was considered a supreme deity.

Although in the Kongo Nzambi, Lukankasi, and Kalunga were the supreme deities of contesting political factions, they were not all that different from one another -- or perhaps more accurately, there is little evidence remaining to distinguish them. To this day in the Congo and among neighboring peoples, Kalunga and Nzambi are both names for the supreme deity and are used differentially depending on the language spoken.

In time, however -- and in the Americas -- these three contending supreme deities of the Kongo became associated with quite different entities of the Christian and Yoruban pantheons.

When European missionaries arrived in the Kongo, their entire religious exchange with the Kongolese was accurately described (and I believe both Thornton and MacGaffey have used this metaphor or variations on it) as "a dialogue of the deaf." This is because the symbol systems and structures of the two peoples had certain very visible similarities, especially in the linguistic metaphors they used. As a result, Christians adopted the terms used by the Kongolese for religious issues and deity. The Europeans and the Kongolese were then able to speak about religion and spiritual reality using a common "dialect" or vocabulary. The problem was that the Kongolese meant one thing and the Christians another. Both however, thought they understood each other.

Nzambi was associated by the early missionaries with the Christian God. They accepted Nzambi as God because they were trying to graft Christianity into the existing hierarchy. This identification occurred when the Kongolese king Aphonso I became a Christian, and was undertaken to shore up political power in the face of opposing contenders for the throne (who were ever present) apart from any other spiritual concerns. In the Diaspora, Nzambi remained the dios otioso, mentioned but never really invoked in Cuban Palo.

Lukankasi, because he was the deity who was displaced in the Kongo by the Cult of Nzambi, became associated with the Christian Devil. Because he was the deposed deity in the Kongo at the time that the European missionaries arrived, he had already been "demonized," although not to the degree that the Europeans tended to demonize former deities.

Kalunga, because of his association with the ocean, became associated in the Diaspora with the Yoruban Orishas Yemalla and Olokun and subsequently changed gender to female. The association of Kalunga with Yemalla and Olokun only occurred after the Kongolese encountered the Yoruban pantheon. This happened in the New World.

Palo Nzambi makes visible use of the Crucifix and holy
water in its religious articles while Palo Endoqui avoids Christian symbolism.
Remember that "Kongo" in the New World religious scene is a "shorthand" for a large group of closely related peoples who came here, not simply those who spoke Kikongo, although for example in Cuba and North America those dominated. Still, languages are very, very close in that area of Africa and each culture and tribe had minor variations in belief and usage. This makes a very flexible understanding necessary when dealing with the development of Kongo-derived religions in the Diaspora.

It is also necessary to point out that there are fundamental differences between Kongo Palo and Yoruba Ocha beyond the well-known adage that "Palo deals more with the dead than Ocha," while "Ocha deals more with the Gods." Although Palo does deal more with the dead than Ocha does, its true distinguishing feature is that Palo is a religion based upon the beliefs and religion of the Kongo -- it is of Central African Bantu tradition. Ocha, on the other hand, is a completely different tradition. It is Yoruba, which is West African and of the language (and cultural group) generally referred to as Sudanese.

In Cuba, as elsewhere in the New World, the slaves of Kongo origin eventually made an uneasy peace with the more recent Yoruba arrivals from Nigeria in the 19th century.

The two mixed, and still do, somewhat uncomfortably, largely because a fair number of people intermarried and people came to have access to both religions as part of their ethnic heritage. There are those who move between the two easily and many more on both sides of this line who are ill at ease with the other tradition. What is more important than the subtleties of the interaction is the recognition that they are not in reality two parts of the same tradition but two distinct religions from vastly different and widely separated cultures, the Yoruba and the Kongo.

The contemporary belief expressed by some Cubans and Cuban-Americans that Ocha was considered "greater" than Palo was a view largely advanced by the Yoruba and one rarely shared by people of Kongo descent. Another Cuban idea, "Your head belongs to Ocha [worship of the Gods], your back to Egun [ancestor veneration]" is explained because the spirits in Palo are not placed on your head but rather on your back.

In the African diaspora, two major varieties of Palo emerged over the last hundred and fifty years. They are called in the more Kongolese terminology Palo Nzambi and Palo Endoqui (Ndoki). These have been glossed in Spanish, using European equivalents, as Palo Cristiano and Palo Judio -- "Christian Palo" and "Jewish Palo."

Without exception, all Cuban Paleros will agree on this point: Those houses that follow Endoqui traditions (those which are not syncretised with Christianity) are called Palo Judio. All others (namely, Palo Nzambi) are Palo Cristiano.

The association of one type of Palo as "Jewish" in contrast to "Christian" is unfortunately a negative one generally, and it does not refer to Judaism per se. More accurately, it really refers to the absence of Christian symbolism in the religious practice. Palo Nzambi makes visible use of the Crucifix and holy water in its religious articles while Palo Endoqui avoids Christian symbolism.

It is worth noting that few Paleros who are Endoqui refer to it using the European terms, but rather prefer the African ones. Also, there are Paleros Endoquis who work with both sets of symbolism and methods. And, I hasten to reiterate, while Palo Endoqui, aka Palo Judio, is not Christian in its orientation, you will find nothing relating to Judaism in it either.

Of course, as Palo really is a number of fairly closely related religions and not one single tradition, there are no absolute universals here, either.

There is at this time nothing of value in print on this subject in English. My advice is to read two books by Lydia Cabrera. One is entitled "Palo Monte Mayombe: Las Reglas de Congo" and  the other is "El Monte." Both of these books are available through a large number of botanicas across the country or through amazon.com.

EOGHAN BALLARD (eballard [at] sas.upenn.edu), University of Pennsylvania. This article was compiled by CAT YRONWODE from three separate posts made to the usenet newsgroup alt.religion.orisha in November, 2000, and is archived with permission.


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