The Palo religion (Reglas de Congo) belongs to the group of syncretic religions which developed in Cuba amongst the black slaves, originally brought from Congo (Africa) during the colonial period. The main Palo branches are Mayombe, Briyumba and Kimbisa. A young Cuban man, wearing a red blindfold, passes a secret initiation ritual of the Palo Monte religion in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba.
The Palo religion is based on animism, it worships the spirits and natural powers. According to the Palo followers, all natural objects (sticks, shells, plants, feathers,…) are linked to the spiritual entities or powers. These objects are often used during the magical rites. A Cuban woman sells natural objects (shells, plants, feathers,…) considered as magic elements in the Palo religion, Santiago de Cuba, Cuba.
The Palo rites (initiation, magic, healing,…) take place in a specially designed room called Templo (temple). The ritual is always led by a priest (shaman) called Tata, who represents the fundamental key (singing, praying), and is able to create a spiritual connection. A Cuban man, the Palo religion priest, sits in his home temple and prepares himself for a ritual, Santiago de Cuba, Cuba.
Although the restrictions on religious practice in Cuba have been eased in recent years and now Palo is officially recognized, the everyday Palo practice is still held in private and secretly, on backyards of homes. A Cuban man sets up the fire, required for a Palo religion ceremony, on the backyard of his house in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba.
The graphic symbol (la firma) has the main importance in the Palo witchcraft rituals and is the key element to release (unchain) the powers linked to the altars (las prendas). The magic symbol is drawn on the floor of the temple and every Palero has one of his own. A Cuban man, the Palo religion follower, draws a magical symbol on the floor of the temple in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba.
The supreme God in the Palo religion (the creative power of the Universe) is called Nzambi. The spirits (Mpungu), representing aspects of nature, such as thunder, ocean, agriculture, or wind, they all rise from Nzambi. Religious symbols and mythological signs belonging to the Afro-Cuban tradition drawn on the wall of the African Culture Heritage Centre in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba.
The Palo ceremony consists of singing (the liturgy is sung in an ancient African language), dancing, drumming and a sacrifice on some occasions, such as chicken, goat or sheep. The sacrified animal is usually eaten by participants afterwards. A Cuban man prepares a goat for a sacrifice, drawing a spiritual symbols on its horns, within the Palo religion ritual in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba.
The Palo magic rituals can work for both - good and ill. In Palo tradition, the good and evil is much more relative than in the Christian ethics. The distinction between good and evil in Palo is whether the motivation is for social (community) benefit or personal gain. A Cuban man, the Palo Monte priest, wearing a typical red and white bracelet, looks out of the window in Havana, Cuba.
During the Palo ritual, Palero asks the spirit (which inhabits the vessel) for a help. It can be healing or doing harm, depending on the intention of Palero. In return, he offers the animal sacrifice to the spirit, because the blood is considered as food for some spirits. A Cuban man, the Palo religion priest, cuts the throat of a goat during the sacrifice ritual in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba.
It has been estimated that as much as 80 percent of the Cuban population consults their specific problems and needs such as bearing children, curing illness or ensuring safe passage with practitioners of religions having African roots (Palo, Santería,…). A Cuban woman consults her health problem with a fortune teller, practitioner of a Afro-Cuban religion, in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba.
The Palo altar (la prenda, or el caldero) is a vessel filled up by magical objects, predominatly by sticks (palo = stick, hence the name), human bones, dirt, horseshoes, nails, guns and others. A powerful spirit (Mpungo) always resides in this altar. The Palo altar (la prenda, or el caldero), a vessel filled up by magical objects, placed on the floor of a house in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba.
During the centuries of forced evangelization, Palo (like the other imported rites) blended elements of Christianity and African beliefs into an unique religious practice. The Christian saints and patrons have been syncretized with the natural powers and spirits. A Cuban man, the Palo religion follower, holds the Christian cross during the Palo initiation ritual in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba.
There are many animistic rites imported to the Americas from Africa, which lately developed there. Santería (originates from Nigeria) is most prevalent in Cuba. In Brazil, Congo religions are known as Umbanda or Candomblé. In Haiti, Vodou has a very lively tradition. Cuban men, the Afro-Cuban religion belivers, sitting in a passage of the old house in Havana, Cuba.
The place where Palo was born and where still remains as a lively religious practice is the region of Santiago de Cuba in the east of the island. Afro-Cuban traditional themes, showing colorful dance, spirits and rituals, painted on house walls in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba.

Palo: African Ritual in Cuba

Cuba – August 2009

The Palo religion (Las Reglas de Congo) is a syncretic religion which developed amongst the black slaves brought to Cuba from the Congo basin (Africa) during the colonial period. Palo, having its roots in spiritual concepts of the indigenous people in Africa, worships the spirits (of humans, plants, rocks,…) and the natural powers (thunder, ocean,…) but due to the forced evangelization, Palo can often give them faces and names known from the Christian dogma. According to Palo, some spirits may reside in altars (vessels filled up by magical objects called la prenda) and these are used to work with and to be asked for a help during the lithurgy.

The Palo ceremony is led by a priest and consists of singing, dancing, drumming and sometimes an animal sacrifice. The Palo magic rituals can work for both - good and ill, depending on the intention of Palero. The difference between good and evil in Palo ethics is whether the motivation is for social (community) benefit or personal gain. Although there have been strong religious restrictions during the decades of the Cuban Revolution, some sources say that the majority of Cubans consult their problems as bearing children or curing illness with practitioners of some Afro Cuban religion.

Photography by Jan Sochor
Music by Los Muñequitos de Matanzas – “Bantu”, De Palo Pa' Rumba (2009)