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Santeria Palo Monte Shrines and Ritual

L. González Pérez and J. González Pérez. Congo Siete Rayos and Prenda; cloth, wire, batting, wood, feathers, paint, chalk, earths, sticks, beads, metal chain, and the face, ears, hands, and feet of a plastic doll; Havana, February 2001. Figure 17 _” tall; prenda 7 _” tall.

Lázaro González represents the “Congo” as a muscular, bare-chested figure with cut-off white pants, an adorned ritual staff, red headtie and waist sash, an earring, and beaded necklace. This strong African type is etched into Cuban cultural history, and is reflected as much in nineteenth century engravings as in contempory folkloric performances and practitioners’ own plaster altar statues. The figure of the Congo owes much to popularized images of the Afro-Cuban General Antonio Maceo’s nineteenthcentury columns of cimarrones, who fled their plantations, built fortress-like enlcaves deep in the forest (monte), lived off the land, and fought the Spanish with machetes and herbal poisons. The putative forest home of the Congos accounts for Lázaro’s use of green carpet over the plywood base.

This Congo’s red waist sash bears the signature (firma) of the hot Siete Rayos (Seven Lightening Bolts), one of the two most important principal mpungu spirits of the Palo Monte pantheon. His chest and feet are marked with crosses, indicating that the Congo is engaged, through spirit possession, in ritual work. A red and black snake (ñoca), a guardian figure, entwines itself around the left arm. The red and white bead necklace for Siete Rayos is a reference borrowed from his Lukumí counterpart in the popular imagination, Shangó, the warrior-king and owner of lightning.

The Congo figure is constructed over a wire armature, which is wrapped in cotton batting, sewn tightly with white cotton to fashion the doll’s form, and then sewn over once again with a layer of black polyester. The snake is constructed in the same way, though it is comprehensively painted. Lazaro has ingeniously borrowed the face, ears, hands, and feet from a commercial plastic doll, which he has painted black. These elements are sewn to the cloth figure. Lázaro learned the cloth and wire armature technique from his brother, Julián, who is a specialist in making the miniature Abakuá masquerade figures called íreme or diablito.

Lázaro’s brother Julián made the the nganga or ritual pot of Siete Rayos, which is is the source of the Congo’s strength and “confidence.” It is thus, not surprising, that the Spanish word, prenda, for very valuable possession, was used to name such powerful pots. An experienced palero, Julian constructed it with exquisite detail; he “mounted” it with the correct kinds of earths, feathers, and two powerful kinds of “sticks” taken by an actual prenda, Vencedor and Vence Batalla (Conqueror and Win the Battle, respectively). Completing the detailed pot are a chain and twist of red cloth, which that bind and conserve the power of the prenda.

Without access to new resources, the creative members of the González family work almost entirely with cast-off materials, including carpet, old clothes, burlap sacking, improvised oil paint, and the throwaways of a local Cuban doll factory, though, occasionally, friends and family in the United States send them cloth, beads, sequins, and paint.

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