An initiatory religion, Palo is organised through small autonomous groups called munanso congo, each led by a figure known as a tata (father) or yayi (mother). Although teaching the existence of a creator deity, Nsambi or Sambia, Palo regards this entity as being uninvolved in human affairs and thus focuses its attention on the spirits of the dead, collectively known as ?. Central to Palo is the nganga or prenda, a vessel usually made from an iron cauldron, clay pot, or gourd. Many nganga are regarded as material manifestations of particular deities known as mpungu. The nganga will typically contain a wide range of objects, among the most important being sticks and human remains, the latter called nfumbe. In Palo, the presence of the nfumbe means that the spirit of the dead person inhabits the nganga and serves the palero or palera who keeps it. The Palo practitioner commands the nfumbe, through the nganga, to do their bidding, typically to heal but also to cause harm. Those nganga primarily designed for benevolent acts are baptised; those largely designed for malevolent acts are left unbaptised. The nganga is "fed" with the blood of sacrificed animals and other offerings, while its will and advice is interpreted through various forms of divination.
Palo is an Afro-Cuban religion, and more broadly an Afro-American religion. Its name derives from palo, a Spanish term for sticks, referencing the important role that these items play in the religion's practices. Another term for the religion is La Regla de Congo ("Kongo Rule" or "Law of Kongo") or Regla Congo, a reference to its origins among the traditional Kongo religion of Central Africa's Bakongo people. Palo is also sometimes referred to as brujería (witchcraft), both by outsiders and by some practitioners themselves.
The contents of the nganga are termed the fundamentos, and are believed to contribute to its power. A key ingredient are sticks, termed palos, which are selected from specific species of tree. The choice of tree selected indicates the sect of Palo involved, with the sticks believed to embody the properties and powers of the trees from which they came. Soil from various locations is added, for instance from a graveyard, hospital, prison, and a market, as may water from various sources, including a river, well, and the sea. A matari stone, representing the specific mpungu linked to that nganga, may be incorporated. Other material added can include animal remains, feathers, shells, plants, gemstones, coins, razorblades, knives, padlocks, horseshoes, railway spikes, blood, wax, aguardiente liquor, wine, quicksilver, and spices. Objects that are precious to the owner, or which have been obtained from far away, may be added, and the harder that these objects are to obtain, the more significant they are often regarded. This varied selection of material can result in the nganga being characterised as a microcosm of the world.
Palo is organized around autonomous initiatory groups. Each of these groups is called a munanso congo ("Kongo House"), or sometimes the casa templo ("temple house"). Ochoa rendered this as "praise house". Their gatherings for ceremonies are supposed to be kept secret. Practitioners sometimes seek to protect the praise house by placing small packets, termed makutos (sing. nkuto), at each corner of the block around the building; these packets contain dirt from four corners and material from the nganga.
Munanso congo form familias de religion (religious families). Each is led by a man or woman regarded as a symbolic parent of their initiates; this senior palero is called a tata nganga ("father nganga"), while the senior palera is a yayi nganga ("mother nganga"). This person must have their own nganga and the requisite knowledge of ritual to lead others. This figure is referred to as the padrino ("godfather") or madrina ("godmother") of their initiates; their pupil is the ahijado ("godchild").
Firmas may derive from the sigils employed in European ceremonial magic traditions. However, some of the designs commonly found in firmas, such as that of the sun circling the Earth and of a horizon line dividing the worlds, are probably borrowed from traditional Kongo cosmology. There are many different designs; some are specific to the mpungu it is intended to invoke, others are specific to a particular munanso congo or to an individual practitioner themselves. As they are deemed very powerful, knowledge of the meanings of the firmas are often kept secret, even from new initiates. Some practitioners have a notebook in which they have drawn the firmas that they use, and from which they may teach others.
A range of offerings are given to the nganga, including food, aguardiente, cigars, candles, flowers, and money.Palo maintains that the ngangas seek to feed on blood so as to grow and gain power. Animal sacrifice is thus a key part of Palo ritual, where it is known by the Spanish language term matanza. The choice of animal to be sacrificed depends on the severity of the reason for the offerings. Typically a rooster or two will be killed, but for more important issues a four-legged animal will usually be chosen. The head of the munanso congo is typically responsible for determining what type of sacrifice is appropriate for the situation.
Offerings to the nganga will often be given privately. In Palo custom, it is expected that sacrifices will be made to the nganga on its cumplimiento ("birthday"), the anniversary of its creation. They will also be typically given on the feast day of the Roman Catholic saint who is equated with the Santería oricha that is thought to have most in common with the mpungu manifested in the nganga in question. The mpungu spirit Sarabanda is for instance feasted on June 29, the feast day of Saint Peter (San Pedro), because in Cuban vernacular religion the latter is equated to the oricha Ogún, an entity thought to have similar traits to Sarabanda. A firma will be drawn on the floor where the killing is to take place. There will often be singing, chanting, and sometimes drumming while the sacrificial animal is brought before the nganga; the victim's feet may be washed and it is given water to drink. The animal's throat will then typically be cut, usually by a senior figure in the munanso congo.
Palo's practitioners put on performances for the nganga involving singing, drumming and dancing. The main style of drum used in Palo is the three-headed tumbadoras; this is distinct from the batá drum used in Santería. These drums are often played in groups of three. As tumbadoras are not always available, Palo's adherents sometimes use plywood boxes as drums. While performing, the drummers may vie against one another to display their skills. Styles of drumming that have been transmitted within Palo include the ritmas congos and influencias bantu.
Another healing procedure involves creating resguardos, charms that may incorporate tiny pieces of nfumbe, shavings from the palo sticks, earth from a grave and anthill, kimbansa grass, and animal body parts. These will typically be tied into little bundles and inserted into corn husks before being sewn into cloth packets that can be carried by the afflicted person. Songs will often be sung while creating the resguardo, while blood will be offered to vitalise it. The resguardo will often be placed by the nganga for a time to absorb its influence. A Palo practitioner may also turn to the cambio de vida, or life switch, whereby the illness of the terminal patient is transmitted to another, usually a non-human animal but sometimes a doll or a human being, thus saving the client.
Palo, also known as Las Reglas de Congo, is a religion with various denominations which developed in Cuba among Central African slaves and their descendants who originated in the Congo Basin. Denominations often referred to as "branches" of Palo include Mayombe (or Mallombe), Monte, Briyumba (or Brillumba), and Kimbisa. The Spanish word palo "stick" was applied to the religion in Cuba due to the use of wooden sticks in the preparation of altars, which were also called la Nganga, el caldero, nkisi or la prenda. Priests of Palo are known as Paleros, Tatas (men), Yayas (women) or Nganguleros. Initiates are known as ngueyos or pino nuevo. 2b1af7f3a8