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ESOTERIC | RELIGION | AFRICAN | PALO

"JEWISH" and "CHRISTIAN"
PALO in CUBA

by Eoghan Ballard, University of Pennsylvania

In 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.

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 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@sas.upenn.edu
University of Pennsylvania

=========================================================

Note: 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. © 2000 Eoghan Ballard.

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