Santeria Palo Monte Shrines and Ritual
J. González Pérez (b. 1949), Prenda de Lucero
Mundo, 35 tall x 12diameter, fifty pounds; bisque-fired
and painted terracotta pot, beads, cowrie shells, earths, stones, cut
branches, leaves, feathers, chain, kitchen knife, conch shell, plastic
dolls eyes, cloth, Havana, March 2001.
Lucero Mundo (Star of the World) is a principal spirit (mpungu) in
the pantheon of Cubas 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
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 feathersa sacrificial bird. The pot is painted red and black and adorned with beadwork associated with Luceros counterpart, Eleguá; it bears the distinct signature or firma of Luceroa 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. Luceros 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 Gonzálezs 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. Zarabandas 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 Montes mpungus are, for this reason, very materialas 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 pots subordinate forcesthose 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 Cabreras 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 ones house and block, and furtively entering hostile territory to set up surveillance perimeters around an enemys 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 orishas 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.