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Society of the Dead

Society of the Dead: Quita Manaquita and Palo Praise in Cuba

Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: 1
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    Society of the Dead
    Book Description:

    In a riveting first-person account, Todd Ramón Ochoa explores Palo, a Kongo-inspired "society of affliction" that is poorly understood at the margins of Cuban popular religion. Narrated as an encounter with two teachers of Palo, the book unfolds on the outskirts of Havana as it recounts Ochoa's attempts to assimilate Palo praise of the dead. As he comes to terms with a world in which everyday events and materials are composed of the dead, Ochoa discovers in Palo unexpected resources for understanding the relationship between matter and spirit, for rethinking anthropology's rendering of sorcery, and for representing the play of power in Cuban society. The first fully detailed treatment of the world of Palo,Society of the Deaddraws upon recent critiques of Western metaphysics as it reveals what this little known practice can tell us about sensation, transformation, and redemption in the Black Atlantic.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94792-4
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    This book is about insignificant experiences, fleeting events, and minor intimacies felt at the limits of our reason. It is about registering such experiences, which are of no consequence until they are collected, agglomerated, and allowed to become forceful, which is to say influential, in our lives. It is about respecting the inconsequential and finding in insignificance a turbulence that makes all the difference, that lends direction—to perceptions, substances, and lives. In short, it is about instabilities at the limits of awareness and relation, or sociality, such as the tremble of an eyelid or the tiny catch in a...


    • 1. Isidra
      (pp. 23-30)

      There was hardly an exchange between us that didn’t turn to the dead. As Isidra and I got to know one another, the dead appeared more often. She was pleased that a scholar from New York would take an interest in her reflections, which she considered outside the notice of academic inquiry. It’s not that Isidra was unfamiliar with researchers and universities. She was sixteen when the Cuban Revolution triumphed in 1959, and among the children in her tiny town she was chosen to become part of the Revolution’s first university class. She was proud to have a degree, and...

    • 2. Kalunga, the Ambient Dead
      (pp. 31-39)

      There are important definitions to gather in Isidra’s words, and before writing further about Palo craft and its arts of healing and harming I insist on exploring the topic of the dead, as she did. To say that Isidra pushed me to focus on the dead is an understatement, and when I finally began to do so I was still not convinced hers was the research path to pursue. But at some level we struck a deal, and in a very deep way I trusted that Isidra’s emphasis on the dead would bring me to Palo eventually, if by a...

    • 3. Little Corners
      (pp. 40-44)

      Kalunga, el muerto, the ambient dead, takes many turns and assumes multifarious shapes as it becomes influential. As a zone of indeterminacy prior to dominant signification, as a formless zone ambiguous and ineffable, Kalunga is forever churning forth versions of itself, which it generates spontaneously. These forms are the excess of possibility sparked by the mutual affirmation of immediate existence and objectified matter in the lives of those who practice Palo. Kalunga seizes subjects and places in their hands shapes of itself, which are material versions of the dead. These versions are ubiquitous to matter, like the immanent mass of...

    • 4. Responsive Dead
      (pp. 45-50)

      Isidra’s interpretation of the dead, while being profoundly intimate in that it radiated from folds of sensory and conceptual apprehension, also speaks to the order of knowledge shared to some degree by Palo and Ocha/Santo. Her practice of locating the dead at the faint limits of sensation and her emphasis on the ubiquity and indeterminacy of the dead is consistent with historical accounts of Palo and Ocha/Santo practice, as well as with contemporary treatments of Kongo religion. By my account, the dead in Palo are conceived as an immediacy that seizes people in the double affirmation of visceralintellectual couplings, such...


    • 5. Emilio O’Farril
      (pp. 55-59)

      Isidra met Teodoro in the early sixties, when she was newly arrived from the countryside and the capital was still new to her. She was a teenager from the central Cuban town of Sierra Morena, come to study with the first university class sponsored by the Revolution, and during her first couple of years in Havana she kept a proper materialist distance from the capital’s versions of African inspiration. They were alien to her, in any case, because back home in Sierra Morena she was used to a fluid form of inspiration she called Bembé, which allows central African (Kongo)...

    • 6. Teodoro
      (pp. 60-70)

      Teodoro and I met at Isidra’s, in El Cerro. He was an irregular visitor to her house. He usually appeared uninvited, at the end of some errand that brought him across the harbor from Guanabacoa. This was always by bus around the backwater, and I never knew Teodoro to take the ferry from Regla, where he had lots of family. Sometimes he came running to let Isidra know of a feast he desperately wanted her to attend, and sometimes he needed her help with an initiation. Other times he would come by just wanting to talk Palo. A lot of...

    • 7. Palo Society
      (pp. 71-81)

      Once I was able to piece together some of Teodoro’s Palo Kikongo and begin to understand Palo as he lived it, I was surprised by the degree to which Palo society and the entities it serves, the assembled substances called prendas-ngangas-enquisos, were inseparable for him. He was reluctant to recognize a distinction between the two, just as I might be reluctant to recognize a distinction between the words on this page and the larger document they compose. Palo society and prendas-ngangas-enquisos were distinct events emerging from Kalunga, which was the vast, immediate, and indifferent substrate of unspecified sensation underlying both....

    • 8. Decay
      (pp. 82-96)

      The Manaquita house was hardly a thriving munanso congo. Only a fraction of the feasts that were held in years when Emilio presided were held now, and initiations were few. Still, when the Quita Manaquitas gathered there were more people present than could fit in the house, and the patio was full. Tasks and privileges were assigned according to the initiation hierarchy, and sacrifices were thorough, with four-legged as well as plumed animals offered. The singing and dancing afterward was likewise good, but energy seemed to lack. Most of the longtime Manaquita tatas and yayis were in their fifties or...

    • 9. A Feast Awry
      (pp. 97-110)

      Teodoro cursed himself for being late, then tried to explain it away, mumbling excuses as if rehearsing for his hosts. Isidra kept quiet, muted by her apprehension. We were on our way to a rayamiento, an initiation into a Palo house.¹ The hosts, the Palo Monte Mundo Nuevo Guinda Vela praise house of Guanabacoa, was known for its strictures.² “They don’t like stragglers,” said Teodoro, again and again. “You should never be late to a feast. If we don’t make it to the rayamiento, then I’m not staying for the match[juego]afterward, no point. It’s no good to match...

    • 10. Virtudes
      (pp. 111-128)

      Things were amiss and Isidra’s growing discomfort was obvious. The sacri-fices were done, which meant we had missed the rayamiento. In my limited experience—my own rayamiento as ngueyo—the animals were offered after I was cut. I looked around the room for the initiate, who would be obvious because of her bloody shirt. Also, the greeting song in the air when we entered is usually sung at the beginning of ceremonies, not after the killing. And the energy of the crowd, despite being intense and rousing, was likewise off; coming after the sacrifices it should have been more coherent,...


    • [PART III. Introduction]
      (pp. 129-132)

      The Quita Manaquita Briyumba Congo house of Guanabacoa was, until Emilio O’Farril died in 1995, a thriving society of affliction. Like Nkita healing societies in nineteenth-century Kongo, it successfully integrated the dead and the living to address crises of fate experienced by its members. At the heart of the Quita Manaquita Briyumba Congo praise house were Emilio and Teodoro’s prendas-ngangas-enquisos, which effectively, and literally, grounded encounters with the dead through their astonishing capacity to condense and direct the ever-fluid potential of Kalunga, el muerto, the ambient dead. The dead and the living circulate through prendas-ngangasenquisos, which collect social force to...

    • 11. Lucero Mundo
      (pp. 133-139)

      Early 2000 saw an initiation into the hierarchy of padre nganga on the horizon. At first it was a suggestion, then in February a possibility. Initiations into the hierarchy of madre or padre are rare and happen with much more deliberation than rayamientos like Virtudes’ as ngueyo. This is not to say that initiations into the code of padre or madre do not happen without urgency; they can, but they are generally more negotiable in their time frame. Among other reasons, an initiation as madre or padre nganga means a person will be receiving her or his own prenda-nganga-enquiso, and...

    • 12. The Cauldron
      (pp. 140-148)

      We found the cauldron for Lucero by a circuitous route, though hardly an unexpected one, considering we were looking for Palo materials. Good cauldrons were hard to find, and the dingy craft fairs that clung to the empty storefronts along Havana’s old commercial strips—Monte, Belascoaín, Galeano—sold shoddy ones, like all the Palo and Ocha/Santo wares at such venues.

      Containers for prendas-ngangas-enquisos are of two types: steel cauldrons and clay urns. Pedro said that Siete Rayos, which uses a steel cauldron, used to be made with a clay pot, but because it is so sought after this prenda-nganga-enquiso grows...

    • 13. Reckoning with the Dead
      (pp. 149-157)

      We began with Lucero Mundo sometime after dusk. In the green light of Isidra’s back room we admired the excellent little cauldron. Teodoro, Pedro, Isidra, and I each held it in our hands and in turn commented on its weight and strength. Isidra was especially effusive. “This is a mighty thing,” she said, “and it will be mighty again! Old Pedro says it has been years since he held anything like it.” Pedro nodded, and looked it over again, then asked Isidra what she thought its previous uses might have been. He watched her for a moment, but before she...

    • 14. Nfumbe
      (pp. 158-165)

      Having purged the cauldron of capacities that were not firmly understood and having marked it with firmas to cool and root the currents of the dead that would traverse Lucero, Pedro was impatient to get the nfumbe into the room.Nfumbeis a Palo Kikongo word that means “dead one.”¹ It is an ambiguous term within Palo’s language of the dead and means as much “dead person” as “force of the dead.” It is also the term used to refer to human bones.

      All prendas-ngangas-enquisos made by the rules of Palo Briyumba contain nfumbe—a skull and finger and foot...

    • 15. Insinuation and Artifice
      (pp. 166-178)

      That night passed, as did the following day, and as eve ning settled on El Cerro, Pedro sent me to the patio for the nfumbe. When I returned the door was closed, and I was required to identify myself by my initiation name before entering. When the door opened, I was hit in the face with blasts of aguardiente and white wine from Teodoro’s lips, which were meant to cool the dead coursing through me before I stepped into our work space. Teodoro abstained from using chamba in these aspirations because it was used to liven the dead and alert...


    • 16. Struggle Is Praise
      (pp. 183-190)

      The prendas we built were feasted a few days after they were finished. Prendas should not sit around without having Palo played for them because the nfumbe inside become impatient and unruly. They are coaxed into their kettles and urns with promises of lavish tribute that must be met expediently. Our delay was due to our inability to find animals Isidra could afford, and it took time for our combined networks of underground exchange to bring the animals into our hands at a fair price. Ocha/Santo and Palo blossomed in the midnineties after the economic liberalization in 1994 and the...

    • 17. Cristianas
      (pp. 191-204)

      No prenda in Teodoro’s house was revered like his Lucero. That prenda had once been second to those collected and cared for by Emilio at the Quita Manaquita house. Emilio’s Zarabanda was always the most exalted and, as the center of Manaquita praise, received effusive offerings. With Emilio’s death, Teodoro’s Lucero recognized in its keeper an opening for itself, and it began to claim attention and priority over the others. Even if Teodoro had wanted to keep Emilio’s Zarabanda central to the Manaquita house, he could not have. Day by day his Lucero weighed on him. There was not a...

    • 18. Judías
      (pp. 205-220)

      Prenda judíameans “Jewish prenda.” The chapters that follow address the extraordinary role of this prenda in Palo craft. In its intellectual conception, the prenda judía offers singular insights into the creative transformations by slaves of the cosmos of their Catholic masters in Cuba, just as it reveals the degree to which such transformations were calculated within the incessant struggle for power and control that was Cuban slave society.

      The use of the termscristianaandjudíais an open adoption of nineteenth-century Spanish Catholic ideas concerning good and evil in an ethnocosmic register. These ideas were elaborated and constantly...

    • 19. Tormenta Ndoki
      (pp. 221-238)

      Prendas cristianas are perpetually tended with routines of obeisance—aspirations of cane liquor and cigar smoke fumigations, as well as daily consultations and routine animal offerings. Prendas judías spend most of the year neglected, in “slumber.” Just as all Palo entities are distinct from one another in their appearance—Zarabanda being distinguishable from Siete Rayos, Tiembla Tierra from Mama Chola, and so on—a prenda judía is easily recognizable. As all prendas are kept at a distance from Ocha/Santo sovereigns, so is the prenda judía kept apart from prendas cristianas. This distance, said Isidra, allows it to “rest.”

      “When you...

    • 20. Storms of Lent
      (pp. 239-258)

      As I cleared my head the room erupted into sound. We had Emilio’s old drum with us, and Teodoro Tocayo took it up with an energetic Briyumba rhythm as we switched away from verses of appeal into feast mambos. Emilio’s drum was crafted from the top quarter of an old tumbadora, handmade from narrow slats of wood that had for de cades been dry-rotting from the ground up, and which Teo called “el tambor de brujo,” “the witch’s drum” or “witchcraft’s drum.” Teodoro had left it in the sun all day, so that the goatskin would tighten and “tune.” It...

  9. Conclusion
    (pp. 259-264)

    The Easter weekend passed. The death of God on Good Friday was celebrated throughout Havana in those Palo houses that worked a prenda judía. The dead condensed by these prendas were sent out as ndoki, hunting cats, birds of prey, dev ils, and angels of death against a diminished Catholic world. Not only was the world of Catholicism vulnerable to the powers of judía, so was the world vouchsafed by the powers of Ocha/Santo sovereigns. All divinity was surpassed on that night by the multitude of the Palo dead. The powers of these dead were framed by the Catholic construction...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 265-286)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 287-292)
  12. Index
    (pp. 293-313)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 314-314)