Cuba has two important religions with an African substrate: (1) Santeria (also known as “Regla de Ocha”), and (2) the less well-known Regla de Palo Monte (also called “Regla Conga”, or simply “Palo Monte” or “Palo”). Lengua y ritos del Palo Monte Mayombe introduces the reader to the second of these Afro-Cuban religions. The approach is predominantly linguistic, but, as Stephan Palmié (University of Chicago) correctly notes in his introduction to the book, Jesús Fuentes and Armin Schwegler’s inaugurates exciting new directions for research that linguists, ethnographers as well as historians will now want to pursue.
Lengua y ritos del Palo Monte Mayombe is divided into two parts. Part 1 is a general introduction to the practice of the Palo Monte religion. Here the authors first place Palo Monte within the larger context of Afro-Cuban religious practices. This then leads to a discussion of Palo Monte’s main components. After a brief excurses into the three sub-branches of the religion (Palo Monte Mayombe is the most widespread branch in Cuba), Fuentes and Schwegler examine the current and past areal distribution of Palo Monte on the island.
In the eyes of Palero practitioners, everything pertaining to their religion is essentially considered secret. A particularly fascinating aspect of Palo Monte is its deities and sacred elements, whose origins have long been a mystery. Thanks to recent advances in the identification of Palo Monte’s “African” linguistic code, the authors are now able to determine the origin and precise meaning of this and related terminology. Examples of such terms include mpangui ‘friend’, chamalongo ‘treatise’, nganga ‘sacred cauldron’, bakofula ‘assistant, aid to Palero priest’, Nkita Kitán ‘Santa Barbara’ — all traceable to a single African language, i.e., Kikongo (spoken in a small area of the Lower Congo).
Part 1 of Lengua y ritos del Palo Monte Mayombe also includes a series of ritual texts, gathered by the authors in the Cienfuegos area (C. West Cuba). Accompanied by translations and ample notes, these texts are the first truly reliable corpus of Palero ritual speech.
Part 2 of the book is dedicated in its entirety to the study of Palero deities. Traditional religious systems of Bantu peoples in general, and those of the Bakongo in particular, are based on two complex fundamental beliefs: (1) the cult of the ancestors, and (2) the kinkisi or cult of protective (and, at times, hostile) spirits that inhabit a magic receptacle or vessel called nkisi (also known in Cuba as “prenda”). The Paleros, who have inherited this tradition, conserve only the second (nkisi) of these fundamental beliefs. Most of Palo Monte’s ritual activities and its nomenclature are centered around this sacred vessel.
An important part of this nomenclature refers to deities, “gods”, “divinities” and “saints”. When Fuentes and Schwegler speak of “gods”, “divinities” and “saints”, they are referring to these very entities and spirits, which according to Palero tradition, have always belonged to the African world of the mpungo and nkita. These gods are not gods in the traditional Western sense of the world; nor are they “saints” that normally appear on an altar. Rather, they are spirit entities, human and at the same time superhuman beings through which the Palero priest (or priestess) achieves his (or her) ritual “work” and magic.
A principal objective of Lengua y ritos del Palo Monte Mayombe is to etymologize the denominations of the Mayombe spirits (which, as already stated, are generally called “gods”, “deities”, “saints”). In Part 2 of the book, readers will find a detailed study of these “gods”. There, as elsewhere in their book, the text is complemented by a series of maps and figures relating to various aspects of the Palo Monte tradition and the Afro-Cuban slave trade in general. The volume is accompanied by 25 photos of Palero practitioners and their sacred nkisi or “prendas”. An extensive bibliography and an unusually detailed index conclude the book.