Learn all about the roots, history and the Divine Spirits of the Palo Religion with this informative essay by Madrina Angelique!
Palo Mayombe often called the dark side of Santeria, but nothing could be further from the truth. The roots of this African religion originate from the Congo area. The Palo tradition was preserved primarily by the slaves who were transplanted to the Americas during the Spanish colonial days. Although majority of slaves that were brought here were the Yoruba people of West Africa, other major tribes were taken from the African continent including the Bantu of the Congo area. With them they brought Palo Mayombe.
Palo is a nature based system very similar to Shamanism, that utilizes the forces of nature, such as sticks, stones, earth, bone and many other items drawn from nature. Palo work is centered around the Prenda’s, also called Nganga’s, which are consecrated ritual cauldrons filled with earth, sticks, bones, herbs, and other sacred objects. The Prenda is home to the spirits of the Dead, as well as the powerful Nikisi, which are the deities of Palo.
The Major Deities of Palo are:
CENTELLA NDOKI: (Madrina Angelique’s personal Nkisi) Centella is very protective of her children. She rules the Wind, Lightning, the Market Place, the Cemetery, the Dead, Witchcraft and creatures of the night. Most work with her will be done in the cemetery. She favors sangria, red wine, plums, eggplants and the colors of purple, red and black.
LUCERO: Lucero is the owner of roads, doors and knows where to find things. He is usually seen as a young man, mischievous yet wise. He favors rum, cigars, candy, fish and possums. His colors are red, black and white. He can be a deadly force when called upon for help in tight situations. Lucero is generally fed first during Ebo’s so that he will allow things to proceed smoothly. His offerings should be taken to the woods.
MADRE AGUA: Madre Agua rules the sea and all the riches that dwell within. She is loving and protective of her children. She can bring great wealth and blessings to those she favors. Madre Agua love sea shells, fans and all things associated with the sea. All of her offerings should be taken to the ocean or a lake when the ocean can’t be reached. She favors the colors of blue, coral and crystal.
MAMA CHOLA: Mama Chola is a beautiful and powerful witch who rules the river, beauty, money and love. She is sensuality, sexuality and gracefulness. Mama Chola is the power of two things coming together. All of her offerings should be taken to a river. Mirrors, peacock feathers, honey, eggs, white wine and mimosa are some of her favorite things and she favors the colors of amber, yellow and orange.
SIETE RAYOS: Siete Rayos is known as the seven lightning bolts. He rules fire, sex, lightning and justice. He is a daring fighter and a nasty rival but can also be charming and crafty with his very male sexuality. All of his offerings should be taken to the woods. Justice from Siete Rayos is swift and sudden. He favors bananas, red wine, and the colors of red and white. The skull and horns of a large ram is a favored item in his Prenda.
ZARABANDA: Zarabanda is the ruler of war, iron, conflicts, knives and protection. He is temperamental, fierce, powerful and protective, can remove serious obstacles, challenges and negative situations, yet he can be very giving at times. All of his offerings should be taken to the railroad tracks. Zarabanda favors plantains, rum, cigars, machetes and the colors of green, black and coral.
TATA FUMBI: Tata Fumbi is one of the most respected of the Nkisi. He is a great magician and healer. He has also been known to bestow wealth on those who treat others with kindness and respect. His colors are blue and white striped beads with yellow, sometimes coral, brown and earth tones. He favors white wine, cigars, beans and rice. He is very concerned with cleanliness and those who approach him must be physically and spiritually cleansed beforehand. A broom, white candles and crutches are favored items next to his Prenda. His offerings should be taken to a field.
TIEMBLA TIERRA: Tiembla Tierra is an old man with white hair and white beard. Tiembla Tierra rules mountains, mystics and fathers. A wise and kind Nkisi, he can also be a fierce warrior. He rules purity, clear thinking and staying calm in extreme conditions. He favors all things white. Coconuts, unsalted rice, cocoa butter, parrot feathers, cool clear water and a wooden staff are among his favorite things. His offerings should be taken to a mountain. He represents coolness of thought, wisdom and clarity. Snails, white elephants and rainbows are associated with him also.
The Prenda is a container or pot either iron or ceramic that contains elements drawn from nature that are used by the Spirits residing in the Prenda. Both Orisha and Palo have the same foundation and correspondences. So one would find similar elements in a Mama Chola pot and in an Oshun pot in Orisha. In an Oshun pot one might find yellow stones from the river, cowrie shells, brass tools and river water. Because these goddesses Mama Chola and Oshun are counterparts of each other in their respective religions of Palo and Orisha we will find many of the same objects in each of their corresponding pots. The Palo Prenda for Mama Chola will contain many more items than an Orisha pot. Besides one or more stones it will contain dirt from various areas , coins, dried herbs sacred to Oshun/Mama Chola and of course the all important sticks from trees and shrubs that will be specific to Oshun/Mama Chola. Most Prenda’s will also contain lodestones, crystals and mercury. Other items will be animal bones and sometimes human bones purchased from supply houses.
Palero’s always custom make Prenda’s and no two are ever exactly alike. Each Orisha/Nkisi has certain animals sacred to it and these animal bones may be placed in the prenda.The Prenda is the home both for the Nkisi and the Dead to live in. Both types of Spirits may make requests through dreams or through mediums to add extra ingredients to the Prenda to make it more effective. In general the most important Prenda’s in Palo are Siete Rayos and Zarabanda. Most initiatory work is performed over these Prenda’s. One can see it would be difficult to do initiations in a public cemetery so instead we bring the cemetery into the Prenda by taking dirt from the cemetery and do our work in private in front of the Prenda. For a new Prenda to work properly it should be consecrated by a valid priest and if possible dirt should be included from an older Prenda that has been used for many years. Usually this dirt will come from the godfathers own Prenda. This is generally how a lot of power is transferred in Palo.
For example, my godfather makes my Prenda, branching it off of his, that was branched off of his godfathers and so and so on. Many of the pots here in the U.S. and the dirt they contain are branched off of pots in Cuba going back to the early 1800’s. These earliest pots are called Root or Parent Nganga’s. Some Palero’s will give their Prenda’s away just prior to their own death, to a family member, a godchild or a friend. These Prenda’s are highly prized and some non-initiates have inherited these pots.heir ability to safely use these Prenda’s will depend on their own knowledge and abilities. A Prenda should only be used by a fully initiated Palero or Palera because in the wrong hands they can be extremely dangerous. No Palero can perform any work without the help of the spirits of the dead at some point in his practice. These spirits are acquired in numerous ways. Sometimes they are passed to him through his own godparents. Other times they are spirits drawn to him by some natural affinity or affection. These spirits may make themselves known through dreams or through mediums at seances performed by the Palero and his fellow initiates. Most Palero’s also maintain an ancestor altar where many spirits maybe acquired through rituals and offerings.