Palo Mayombe: The Garden of Blood & Bones
Palo Mayombe: The Garden of Blood & Bones
Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold
Limited to 63 copies; quarter straight-grained goatskin and marbled boards, red edges, ribboned and presented in a slipcase with a handcrafted bilongo/telesmata
– Sold out
Standard hardback edition
Limited to 639 copies; bound in grey cloth, with the firma of Centella blocked in bone white on the front
– Sold out
Bibliothèque Rouge edition
Unlimited paperback; isbn 978-0-9567203-9-9
8vo (234 × 156 mm)
4 colour plates and the firmas/signatures of the principle spirits rendered in pen and ink
Palo Mayombe: The Garden of Blood and Bones is an initiate’s account of this much maligned cult whose central nigromantic mystery is the prenda, the cauldron containing the human skull or bones, reanimated by living spirit. Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold traces the roots of Palo Mayombe back to Kongolese sorcery, the warrior and leopard societies, and the impact of the Portugese Mission. The original African faith is carried in chains across the abysmal waters of Kalunga and it flowers in Cuba as a New World Creole religion and cult. Yet Palo Mayombe can only be truly understood in the light of a highly developed African cosmology. In drawing parallels with the ancient Greek practice of necromancy, and the grimoire tradition, Nicholaj also illuminates the Western tradition, showing what we have lost in our denial of the dead and the cult of the ancestors. The magical head of Palo Mayombe in its three-legged iron cauldron has implications for understanding our own histories, whether Odin, Baphomet, Bran, John the Baptist or Orpheus. The Misa Espiritual suggests one way in which we can reforge that vital connection and resurrect both our dead and ourselves. In Palo Mayombe the golden vein of fire still transmits the ancestral wisdom and transforms the Paleros into true spiritual warriors who are the walking dead.
The Garden of Blood and Bones gives explicit detail of the workings of Palo Mayombe for good and ill, the method of divination, the herbs, animals, trees and plants, powders, baths and waters, the songs and chants. It presents a complete living system one which embraces both the arts of healing and resurrection, and those that remove life. This is a serious study which confronts the sinister and violent aspects of the cult, but rather than purveying lurid sensationalism expresses the deep dignity and integrity of its nature.This is a book written from within the cult, and will serve as a guide for practising Paleros and those seeking initiation, not simply a Western audience. With access to rare materials, pamphlets, booklets and unpublished field notes, this is the most comprehensive study of Palo Mayombe to date. Santeros and practitioners of Vodou will also find much to ponder within these pages.
Part One · Kalunga
The Visible and Invisible History
Heathen Christianity and African Tradition
Kongo Cosmology and Heraclitus’ Flux & Fire Philosophy
The Roots of Palo Mayombe
Palo Mayombe Cosmology
On the Possession of Spirit
The Vibrant Boneyard
The Retinue of Nzambi
The Lineages of Palo Mayombe
Part Two · Nganga Nkisi
Necromancy and God Making
De Arcana Mortis
The Mystery of Golgotha
The Fundamento and its Secrets
The Origin of the Prenda
The Mysteries of Lucero
The Mysteries of Zarabanda
The Mysteries of Vence Bataya
The Mysteries of Nsasi/Siete Rayos
The Mysteries of Tiembla Tierra
The Mysteries of Mama Chola
The Mysteries of Centella
The Mysteries of Baluande
The Mysteries of Cobayende
The Mysteries of Gurunfinda
The Mysteries of Lukankazi
The Mysteries of the Nganga Kissi
Part Three · Nzo Ntoto
Nzo Ntoto: The Temple of Land, Star and Earth
Vititi: The Art of Seeing
Jura! The Pact and the Road
Part Four · Nfinda
The Herbarium of Palo Mayombe
Appendix: The Misa Espiritual
Palo Mayombe is perhaps best known for its display of human skulls in iron cauldrons and accompanied by necromantic practices that contribute to its eerie reputation of being a cult of antinomian and hateful sorcerers. This murky reputation is from time to time reinforced by uninformed journalists and moviemakers who present Palo Mayombe in similar ways as Vodou has been presented through the glamour and horror of Hollywood. It is the age old fear of the unknown and of powers that threaten the established order that are spawned from the umbra of Palo Mayombe. The cult is marked by ambivalence replicating an intense spectre of tension between all possible contrasts, both spiritual and social. This is evident both in the history of Kongo inspired sorcery and practices as well as the tension between present day practitioners and the spiritual conclaves of the cult. Palo Mayombe can be seen either as a religion in its own right or a Kongo inspired cult. This distinction perhaps depends on the nature of ones munanso (temple) and rama (lineage). Personally, I see Palo Mayombe as a religious cult of Creole Sorcery developed in Cuba. The Kongolese heritage derives from several different and distinct regions in West Africa that over time saw a metamorphosis of land, cultures and religions giving Palo Mayombe a unique expression in its variety, but without losing its distinct nucleus. In the history of Palo Mayombe we find elite families of Kongolese aristocracy that contributed to shaping African history and myth, conflicts between the Kongolese and explorers, with the Trans-Atlantic slave trade being the blood red thread in its development.
The name Palo Mayombe is a reference to the forest and nature of the Mayombe district in the upper parts of the deltas of the Kongo River, what used to be the Kingdom of Loango. For the European merchants, whether sent by the Church to convert the people or by a king greedy for land and natural resources, everything south of present day Nigeria to the beginning of the Kalahari was simply Kongo. This un-nuanced perception was caused by the linguistic similarities and of course the prejudice towards these ‘savages’ and their ‘primitive’ cultures.
To write a book about Palo Mayombe is a delicate endeavor as such a presentation must be sensitive both to the social as well as the emotional memory inherited by the religion. I also consider it important to be true to the fundamental metaphysical principles of the faith if a truthful presentation of the nature of Palo Mayombe is to be given. The few attempts at presenting Palo Mayombe outside ethnographic and anthropological dissertations have not been very successful. They have been rather fragmented attempts demonstrating a lack of sensitivity not only towards the cult itself, but also its roots. Consequently a poor understanding of Palo Mayombe has been offered, often borrowing ideas and concepts from Santeria and Lucumi to explain what is a quite different spirituality. I am of the opinion that Palo Mayombe should not be explained on the basis of the theological principles of Santeria. Santeria is Yoruba inspired and not Kongo inspired and thus one will often risk imposing concepts on Palo Mayombe that distort a truthful understanding of the cult. To get down to the marrow; Santeria is a Christianized form of a Yoruba inspired faith – something that should make the great differences between Santeria and Palo Mayombe plain. Instead, Santeria is read into Palo Mayombe and the cult ends up being presented at best in a distorted form. I will accordingly refrain from this form of syncretism and rather present Palo Mayombe as a Kongo inspired cult of Creole Sorcery that is quite capable of standing on its own three legs without borrowing ideas and concepts from its Yoruba inspired cousin, Santeria. The reference to Palo Mayombe as Creole Sorcery is a term that reflects both the contemporary consensus as well as the tension between the Yoruba and the Kongo worldview. The Yoruba people always took pride in their sophisticated religious ways while looking down on their neighbors to the south, north and east, often seeing them as vulgar in their spiritual ways. Continuing in this vein, we find even today Yoruba people defining the practices found in Kongo and Benin as ‘charming ways’ with clearly negative implications.
My own encounter with Palo Mayombe started in the early 90s when I obtained contact with some practitioners of Palo Mayombe from Puerto Rico and Miami. These encounters turned out to be quite disappointing at first, but in time rewarding in their own right. I was intrigued with the whole idea of the nganga, the spirit pot, seeing this as the genuine witch’s cauldron. My vision of the nganga was accompanied by the similar search of a Stregoni, and together we pursued this haunting idea and searched for a reliable House in Cuba. After some initial disappointment and discouragement initiation was obtained from two Paleros in the neighborhood of Pogolotti in La Habana. Rafael ‘Felo’ Reyes Cartas, a visionary artist and a painter of the nkisi living in modest surroundings was to be my godfather together with Pablo Perez. These men were a curious pairing. Felo was a man as equally occupied with Lucumi/Santeria as he was with Palo Maoymbe and regularly stressed the importance of godliness. Pablo on the other hand was a fierce anti-Christian, a quite hateful man who found enemies around every corner whom he sought to annihilate in whatever way possible. It was like being placed between God and the Devil – a union that at first seemed bizarre, but in time I realized that nothing could have been more perfect. Here I was, already at the beginning of my journey in Palo Mayombe scratched and forged in the very fiery centre that manifested the inherent tension and ambivalence of the cult. On my second visit to Cuba I was made Tata Nganga, which is what a priest of Palo Mayombe is called, and was given my Nganga in a double rama – or lineage. Felo was from Vence Batalla Vrillumba Viramundo and Pablo from Changani Brillumba Mayombe, a so-called ndoki rama. Later I was also received into the Kimbiza order which technically gives the foundation for a unique rama which I have given the name of Viramundo Brillumba Changani Kimbiza Vence Batalla. It is from this triple induction I am born and from this triple fire I write this book.
I believe my personal involvement together with my academic research in the field of Anthropology and the Science of Religion will enable me to provide a faithful living spiritual landscape of this Creole Sorcery. I will strive towards being truthful to the nature of the spirit retinue of the cult but also be sensitive to the reforms that took place on African soil in the 15th century as well as the Cuban contemporary conditions. As such I present this book as a gift to my nkisi, in honor of Nzambi and Lukankazi – and also as a memorandum for those Tata’s and Yaya’s that crossed my path, in whatever guise they chose.