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Santeria Palo Monte Shrines and Ritual

J. González Pérez (b. 1949), Prenda de Lucero Mundo, 35” tall x 12”diameter, fifty pounds; bisque-fired and painted terracotta pot, beads, cowrie shells, earths, stones, cut branches, leaves, feathers, chain, kitchen knife, conch shell, plastic doll’s eyes, cloth, Havana, March 2001.

Lucero Mundo (Star of the World) is a principal spirit (mpungu) in the pantheon of Cuba’s Congo-derived religious lineages, variously called Palo Monte, Mayombe, Brillumba, Regla Kimbisa, etc. In popular conception, Lucero Mundo is compared to the Lukumí Eleguá, a messenger-mediator figure. Practitioners and scholars debate the use of Yoruba Lukumí terms to define the practices of this “Congo” religion. Practices observed to intensively blend Lukumi and Congo elements are called “crossed” (cruzado).

This Lucero Mundo is set in and built up from a wide terracotta pot, which is “charged” or “grounded” with earths from distinct sites on the landscape (cemetery, forest, crossroads, etc.) and twenty-one specific “sticks” (palos) cut in the forest. It is adorned with leaves specific to Lucero and rooster feathers—a sacrificial bird. The pot is painted red and black and adorned with beadwork associated with Lucero’s counterpart, Eleguá; it bears the distinct “signature” or firma of Lucero—a cross within a circle. The rising branch segments are set within the packed earths and bound with an iron chain. Rising from the center of this conglomeration of materials is the figure of Lucero embedded within a large conch shell, which recalls forms of Lukumí Eleguás. Lucero’s cement face is painted red; his mouth and nose are formed by cowrie shells, and his lolling eyes were taken from the head of a plastic doll. Though many such pots of Palo Monte carry feather adornments, González, because he is also a member of the Abakuá, enjoys elaborating his work with plumeros, which are modeled after the symbolic adornments of Abakuá drums. In this case, Lucero carries one highly-adorned plumero upon his head and four others to mark the four cardinal points of the crossroads. In contrast to the particular way the Lukumí religion employs cowrie shells as adornments (“mouth” facing outward), priest-artists in González’s lineage, as is also done in the Abakuá, mount the shells in “closed” position. This is so the shells “guard the secrets inside” rather than revealing them.

Each “pot,” a varied assemblage of ingredients, elaborates the identity and functions of any given mpungu. The pot as a whole is called, variously, nganga, nkiso, prenda, or caldero. The two most fundamental ngangas in Palo Monte are Zarabanda and Siete Rayos, who are compared to the Lukumí Ogún and Shangó, two great warriors. Zarabanda’s pot, for example, is an iron cauldron packed with iron implements of strength, technology, and fighting: railroad spikes, horseshoes and bits, guns, knives and machetes, and even grenades. Palo Monte’s mpungus are, for this reason, very “material”—as opposed to the Catholic saints, who are very “spiritual” in their use of prayers and flowers. The Palos are fierce and implacable, and the religion uses many military and slavery-based metaphors, which have significant precedents in the Afrocuban struggle for liberation and the two Cuban wars of independence. The mpungu of the nganga does its bidding through a principal spirit of the dead (muerto or nfumbi), conjured from the cemetery and incorporated into the pot through the presence of human relics, particularly skulls and tibia bones. This muerto is considered to be the “general” or “overseer” who commands all of the pot’s subordinate forces—those of the spirits of plants, sticks, stones, animals, and, not least, an army of as many as twenty other spirits of dead humans. Often, as Lydia Cabrera’s sources noted, the “slaves” often “rebel.” In some Palo ritual “work,” priests both defend against, and send out, brujeria (lit. witchcraft) on behalf of clients. Such work often consists in setting up “perimeters” of protection around one’s house and block, and furtively entering hostile territory to set up surveillance perimeters around an “enemy’s” block. Palo Monte ritual “work,” sealed through quid pro quo “contracts” between the living and the dead, is swift and effective. In contrast, relationships Lucumi priests have with their orishas exclude “buying” aid, and the priest is subject to the orisha’s will, not vice versa.

Though a maker of Abakuá, Lukumí, and Palo objects for his religious practice, he is also an artist. González intended this nganga of Lucero Mundo as a detailed, “authentic” representation. For this reason, it does not carry human relics and was not consecrated with blood sacrifice.

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For more information on Santeria and Palo Monte

The Palo and Lukumi Organization - General Palo Kongo information and Web Forum

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