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An Nkisi (plural Minkisi, also Nkishi/Minkishi), literally translates as "sacred

medicine". The term Nkisi is the general name for a variety of objects used
throughout the Congo Basin in Central Africa thought to contain spiritual powers
or spirits (called "mpungo")[1]. In the sixteenth century, when the Kingdom of
Kongo was converted to Christianity, ukisi (an adverbial form of the noun) was
used to translate "holy".
Close communication with the dead and belief in the efficacy of their powers are
closely associated with Minkisi in the Kongo ritual. Among the peoples of the
Congo Basin, especially the Bakongo and the Songye people of Kasai, all
exceptional human powers are believed to result from some sort of
communication with the dead. People known as banganga (singular: nganga)
work as healers, diviners, and mediators who defend the living against witchcraft
and provide them with remedies against diseases resulting either from witchcraft
or the demands of bakisi (spirits), emissaries from the land of the dead.
note: - Bakisi is the plural of Nkisi. Nkisi on one hand, does translate to types of
spiritual medicine, but also refers to "elevated spirits". Nkisi usually refers to the
container of spiritual medicines. Another way of stating an "Elevated (ie, not a
spirit of the dead, but a spirit from Kici (the power of Nzambi (God)) is to say
Nkinda. A society of Nganga is sometimes referred to as a Bakinda. Nkisi are
powered by elevated spirits, whereas Minkisi are powered by spirits of the dead.:
Banganga harness the powers of bakisi and the dead by making minkisi. Minkisi
are primarily containers - ceramic vessels, gourds, animal horns, shells, bundles,
or any other object that can contain spiritually-charged substances. Even graves
themselves, as the home of the dead and hence the home of bakisi, can be
considered as minkisi. In fact, minkisi have even been described as portable
graves, and many include earth or relics from the grave of a powerful individual
as a prime ingredient. The powers of the dead thus infuse the object and allow
the nganga to control it.[2]
Minerals were collected from various places associated with the dead, such as
earth collected from graves and riverbeds. White clay was also very important in
the composition of minkisi due to the symbolic relationship of the color white and
the physical aspects of dead skin as well as their moral rightness. White
contrasted with black, the color of negative ideas and concepts. Some minkisi
use red ochre as a coloring agent. The use of red is symbolic of the mediation of
the powers of the dead.
Often the contents of minkisi were not chosen for any sort of practical
pharmaceutical use, but instead because their names sounded similar to the
specific goals of the nkisi and illustrated a play on words. Among the many
common materials used in the minkisi were fruit ("luyala" in Kikongo - which is
similar to "yaala," which means "that it may rule"), charcoal ("kalazima" in
Kikongo - which is similar to "zima," which means "that it may strike or
extinguish"), and mushrooms ("tondo" in Kikongo - which is similar to "tondwa,"

which means "that it may be desired").

Minkisi serve many purposes. Some are used in divination practices. Many are
used for healing, while others provide success in hunting, trade, or sex. Important
minkisi are often credited with powers in multiple domains. Most famously,
minkisi may also take the form of anthropomorphic or zoomorphic wooden
carvings, and it is these that have principally interested art historians.
Minkisi and the afflictions associated with them are generally classified into two
types. Some are "of the above," and some are "of the below." The "above"
minkisi are associated with the sky, rain and thunderstorms. Those "of the below"
are associated with earth and waters on land. The minkisi "of above" were
considered masculine and were closely tied to violence and violent forces. They
seemed to hold a higher importance; at least according to the masculine
members of the culture who wrote on the subject.
Birds of prey, lightning, weapons, and fire are all common themes among the
minkisi of the above. They also affected the upper body. Head, neck, and chest
pains were said to be caused by these nkisi figures. Some figures were in the
form of animals. Most often these were dogs, referred to as Kozo. Dogs are
closely tied to the spiritual world in Kongo theology. They live in two separate
worlds, the village of the living, and the forest of the dead. Kozo figures were
often portrayed as having two heads. This was symbolic of their ability to see
both worlds.
The purpose of the minkisi of the above was largely civil in nature. They were
used to maintain order and seal treaties. Perhaps the most common use was the
locating and punishing of criminals. These figures, known as nkondi (plural
Minkondi) figures, were used primarily to hunt out wrongdoers and to avenge
their crimes.
Nkondi figures were minkisi of the above that ranged in size from small to lifesize, and contained medicines, usually hidden by resin fixed mirrors. These
figures were usually in the form of wooden figures with open cavities in their
bodies for medicines. The most common place for storage was the belly. The
KiKongo word for belly is "mooyo," which also means "life," and is most likely the
reasoning behind the placement of the medicines. Other common places for
medicines included the head and in pouches surrounding the neck. A nkisi figure
without medicine is useless and serves no purpose. It is simply a container that
gains its power from the medicine.
In most nkondi figures the eyes and medicine pack covers were reflective glass
or mirrors, used for divination. The nganga could use the mirrors to look into the
world of the ancestors. Some nkondi figures were adorned with feathers. This
goes along with the concept of the figures as being "of the above," and
associates them with birds of prey. Minkondi often have their right arm extended

with a sharp blade grasped tightly. Nails and other bits of metals are often driven
into the nkondi figures. Many of the explorers of the late 19th and early 20th
centuries referred to minkondi as "nail-fetishes." Their lack of understanding
caused them to completely ignore the real intentions and uses of the minkondi.
The patrons of the nganga drove these nails into the figure to "awaken" the
The creation and use of nkondi figures was also a very important aspect to their
success. Banganga often composed the nkondi figures at the edge of the village.
The village was thought of as being similar to the human body. The idea that the
edge and entrances needed to be protected from evil spirits occurred in both the
human body and the village. When composing the minkisi the nganga is often
isolated in a hidden camp, away from the rest of the village. After the nkisi was
built and the nganga had learned its proper use and the corresponding songs, he
returned to the village covered in paint and behaving in a strange manner.
The unusual behavior was to illustrate the ngangas return to the land of the
living. Prior to using the nkondi, the nganga recited specific invocations to
awaken the nkondi and activate its powers. During their performances, banganga
often painted themselves. White circles around the eyes allowed them to see
beyond the physical world and see the hidden sources of evil and illness. White
stripes were painted on the participants. Often the nganga was dressed similar to
his nkondi. Banganga generally dressed in outfits that were vastly different than
normal people. They wore ornate jewelry and often incorporated knots in their
clothing. The knots were associated with a way of closing up or sealing of
spiritual forces.
Vamo a jugar nkisi nkisi vamo a jugar

In Spanish the word Palo means stick. The title Palero or Palera literally means
stick man or stick woman. This implies one that works with sticks or is an expert
on using sticks. Initiates are often called Paleros or Paleras depending on
gender. The Palero or Palera practices a form of sympathetic magic. It is
believed that everything is alive and the initiate is one with nature and those
things around him\her. The initiate now has a tie to all these plants (nkandia) and
sticks (Nkunia), to the Earth (ntoto) and its elements. Palo, in some ways can be
considered medicine that is made from sticks. Each stick has a magical or
medicinal purpose, and their uses are well known to the Palero. The Congos
employed the use of sticks from sacred trees and placed them in their Nkisi.
Nkisi can be translated as an object often described as a "fetish," an object that
is believed to have magical or spiritual powers. It's plural form is Minkisi, this is a
term that is seldomly or never used in Cuba. The Nkisi is a microcosm, within the

framework of the Palero it is a representation of the universe which is usually

housed in an iron or clay cauldron made of sticks, dirt and bones. The nkisi also
came to be known as prendas which in Spanish means jewel (according to Lydia
Cabrera, Cuban Anthrolopogist, this name was given to them by the Portuguese),
other names were Nganga (the term Nganga that had originally been used to
described a priest or "shaman" was lost, this term now described the Nkisi itself),
gajo, wanga, Boumba, Saku-Saku, Villumba and Makuto. No other quote better
describes an Nkisi than the following:
"In my country there is an nkisi called Na Kongo, a water nkisi with power to
afflict and to heal; other minkisi have these powers also. They receive these
powers by composition, conjuring, and consecration. They are composed of
earth, ashes, herbs, and leaves, and of relics of the dead. They are composed in
order to relieve and benefit people, and to make a profit. They are composed to
visit consequences upon thieves, witches, those who steal by sorcery, and those
who harbor witchcraft powers. Also to oppress people. These are the properties
of minkisi, to cause sickness in a man, and also to remove it. To destroy, to kill, to
benefit. To impose taboo on things and to remove them. To look after their
owners and to visit retribution upon them. The way of every nkisi is this: when
you have composed it, observe its rules lest it be annoyed and punish you. It
knows no mercy." - (Kavuna Simon)
The items used as containers that inhabit the object\microcosm that is
worshipped may vary from a sac to a seashell to some sort of cauldron. The sac
was known as the boumba or Saku-Saku that was hang from a ceiling and
contained all ingredients. To bring down the sac was a ceremonial custom. One
person would sweep the area where the sac would land while they sang:
"Bare Bare, bare basuras,
Bare, bare, bare, basura,
Once this area was perfectly clean they would draw the fima, patipemba (magical
drawing) where it would land and sing:
"patti patti patti
mpemba simbico!
patti patti patti
mpemba simbico!"
"Como Padre te mando ---- Abajo minganga
Bajalo, bajo mi mam ---- Bajalo como Padre te manda...
Bajalo, bajalo Mama ---- Trailo, trailo minganga
trai nganga como paso liguea."
Once it was on the ground the head of the temple would say:

"Mambe! Mambe! Dio

Cosa buena ta' lo mundo!"
Traditional minkisi in Africa which are more available to the general public for
viewing almost always take form in statues (although this is not the only way they
are composed even in Africa) which can be seen below.

The nkisi is the object which is ritually worshipped. It is the central of all
ceremonies in Palo. Every nkisi encapsulates an mpungo. Mpungo is a Congo
deity, it is like a "Saint", an Nkita. The pantheon of mpungo, kimpungulu (plural),
finds its origin in Africa. Kimpungulu are classified as deities that serve a purpose
and are associated with an aspect of nature (thunder, land, wind etc.). Because
of the development of Palo practices in Cuba and because of its antiquity it is
difficult if not impossible to find the exact names of these deities in Africa
although one can find mpungo of similar purpose and characteristics. While
mpungos are numbered in the hundreds only the most popular are heard of
publicly today yet there are still many others that few know about because there
has been little or no published information on rare nkisi from Cuba. Typical
Cuban Nkisi also take different forms, as mentioned previously they are usually
housed in cauldrons and clay vessels such as the ones seen below:

Beliefs surrounding Palo Mayombe extend beyond the worship of Mpungo. Palo
can be classified as a henotheistic religion that believes in a Supreme Being call
Nsambi, Sambia, Nsambiampungo, Pungun Sambia, Sambia Liri, Sambia
Surukuru, Sambi Bilongo; the high God, made the heavens, the stars, the sun,
the moon, and the Earth. He created nature and their forces. After a time of
watching the storms, blizzards, and heat, He decided to create the animals. He
created man and woman. After creating man and women, He taught them how to
survive in His world, and He taught them how to work with the forces of nature
and their spirits. He taught them of the nkisi, the Makutos, Ngangas and how to
build them.
Although very transcendent and removed from the activities of humans in
comparison with other Nkisi, he is still venerated with prayer, songs, and chants
before attempting to venerate any minister or nkisi. You will often hear such
phrases among Paleros:

"Sambia arriba, Sambia abajo, Sambia por lo cuatro costados"

God above us, God below us, God in the four corners
Primero Nsambi OR Primero Dio
God is first
Con licensia Sambiampungo, Sambia liri, Sambia nsurukuru, Sambia Bilongo
Primero Sambi y despues Palo Monte en la tierra.
"Primero Nsambi sibiriku, despues de Nsambi sibiriku"
"Tintero, tintero, Nsambi lo mas tintero."
Among knowledgable and experienced Tatas are firmas, patimpembas (sacred
drawings) that are used to call upon Nsambi for different given situations and he
is often represented by the crucifix in Palo altars. See below:
Picture taken at a Palo temple in Cuba. Sambe Acutarame translates into God
bless me.
Considered by many to be equivalent to the Christian devel. Some say he is an
aspect of Nsambi and does not oppose him or his work in the Judeo Christian
sense. There are entities which have a special tratados (pact) with this entity.
These forces of nature are considered playful, tricky and dangerous for those
that cannot handle their nature. You will hear many Paleros, describe anything
that is associated with Lucambe as ndoki. In essence this is truly a misuse of the
word ndoki. Ndoki is anything that has "power." A Palero can be an Nganga
Nsambi and be more Ndoki than another.
In contemporary Congo society anyone that is extremely good at something may
be referred to as ndoki. A doctor or dancer may be ndoki. It is for this reason that
there exists ndoki bueno and ndoki malo - good ndoki and bad ndoki (see Death
and the Invisible Powers: The World of Kongo Belief by Simon Bocke).
The main thing about the "ndokis" is that many "nsalan con el viento" - they work
with the wind. It is for this reason that they have names such as
"remolino"\Temporera\Impenso Malongo (whirlwind\tornado). Ndoki malo does
not work with Christian imagery, it does not like anything that strictly refers to any
signs of benevolence or mercy. It is for this reason that you will find some
prendas that contain no crucifix, these are often referred to as prendas judias jewish prendas and are considered to be used for malefic purposes only (for

more please see Eoghan Ballard's article on this Ndoki and Nzambi.) Unlike
Nsambi, Lugambe can be directly worked with since he has his own fetish. This
prenda is reserved only for very experienced Tatas. Lugambe, has been
described by one Tata who posseses him as, "an entity of extreme light but he is
hard to control."
He is a warrior. He is the one that brings true balance, guides all things through
paths to accomplish the work that needs to be done and he is the stabilizer of our
lives and our health. Some people compare him to the Lukumi\Yoruba Esu or
There are ramas that prepare Lucero in a cement bust with cowries for eyes,
ears, nose, and mouth, similar to Lukumi's Eleggua. However there are several
munansos of Palo that prepare him in a clay or iron cauldron. A Palo elder, Tata
Manuel Kongo , explains below that there are several different types of Luceros.
These include:
Luceros Malongo - Serve to guide the individual that has received it.
Luceros de Guia - They are the Luceros that guide an Nkisi. In some lines every
Nkisi has a Lucero as a guide.
Luceros Ndoki/Kini Kini - Similair to the chicheriku of the Lucumi. These can live
outside or inside an Nkisi. They are there to help the Nkisi and can be sent out to
do malicious acts. They are made using wooden dolls.
Fundamentos de Luceros - These are completely built Lucero Mundos.
Luceros Guardieros - They function as guardians, also known as "Guardieros
Talanquera, Oficio Puerta".
The name Lucero derives from the Spanish word "star." This is because the
Congos believed that the stars represented the spirits of the "Nkuyo", especially
shooting stars.

Zarabanda, is the energy of working and strength. Zarabanda is a very popular
and prominent prenda. Zarabanda is the epitome of raw energy being focused
into solidity.

With his machete (mbele), Zarabanda keeps man and spirits in line with threat of
falling under the very weapons that he provided. He is the ultimate in Congo
warfare. He is the "tronco mayor," eldest, in the Brillumba rites. His role in Palo is
indispensable, there are those that believe that a Palero is not complete until he
has received Zarabanda because Zarabanda is the owner of the knife, the
mbele, mbele kasuso and mbele mbobo which allow the Tata to "work" by using
the knife to sacrifice animals and initiate others.
Siete Rayos\Mukiamamuilo\Nsasi\Sabranu Nsasi
Seven Lightning Bolts in English, or Nsasi in Bantu, is a multifaceted prenda. He
is the Tronco Mayor of Mayombe branches. In pure Mayombe he is the only
Mpungo that is worked with.
He is the action of burning in all forms, from the candle to the lightning bolt. He is
the Congo god of thunder. The royal palm found in the tropics and subtropics are
sacred to him because they draw his energy to the Earth by enticing lightning to
strike them.
Siete Rayos is propitiated with stones from the forest, at the foot of a Royal Palm
tree, or anywhere that lightning has been known to strike.
Watariamba\Nkuyo Lufo\Saca Empeo\Nguatariamba Enfumba Bata\Cabo
Rondo\ Vence Bataya
Watariamba, Vence Batalla, or Saca Empeo is the god of the hunt and war, he
is usually accompanied by the tools of Zarabanda, with whom he has a pact. Due
to the rarity of the contents of this Nkisi what is usually done is Zarabanda is
given with a pact of Watariamba allowing the Palero to have both Mpungos in
one Nkisi. He is swift justice.
GuruNfinda\Sinduala Ndundu Yambaka Butan Seke
GuruNfinda is the nkisi of what the forest has to provide. He is the god of herbal
medicine. Without GuruNfinda, no potion, remedy, medicine, or magic could
exist. He is the proverbial owner of Palo. GuruNfinda is hung in a pouch called a
makuto, or resguardo de Seke in many houses. In rare form you will find this
Mpungo inside a cauldron. He can also be put in a clay dish. GuruNfinda
"completes" the Tata and giving him "licensia" to work with the sticks and plants
necessary. When an individual buys sticks to work with he must have a pact with
GuruNfinda done to sanctify the sticks. He is strikingly similair to what the Lucumi
call Osain.

All plants and sticks that grow in the forest are alive and inhabited with a strength
that is derived from the earth, the sky, water that falls on it for it grow. Gurufinda
is the deified representation of such pacts.
Madre de Agua\ Kalunga\ Mama Kalunga\ Pungo Kasimba\ Mama Umba\
Mbumba Mamba\Nkita Kiamasa\ Nkita Kuna Mamba\Baluande
Rules over Yimbi or Simbi Nkita - spirits of the water that are consecrated and
put into Nkisi Masa
Water Spirits are also called Nkisi Mamba as is the sacred mix of plants with
water that is often consecrated and used for a variety of purposes.
Spirits from the woods - Nkisi Misenga, Nkita Minseke, Minseke.
Mother of the Water, or Kalunga and Baluande in Bakongo, is the energy of
protective motherhood. A palero will call upon her to release the force of an
enraged mother to visit her wrath on the child's abuser. She is the force that
heals as a midwife, or harms as would an abusive parent. Water is her attribute.
Water which gives all life, and takes it at will. Its force is the life giving amniotic
fluid, or drowning flood. All water is her domain.
Unlike the Lukumis her power extends beyond that of motherhood and fishes to
the land of the dead. Because water is seen as the dividing line between the
living and the dead she is one of the most feared Nkisi.
Mama Chola\Choya Wengue (at times refered to as Chola Wengue or simply
Mama Chola, or Choya Wengue in Bakongo, is the richness of the river, the
energy to give riches, luxuries, pleasures, and to take them away. Choya
Wengue is the jealous girlfriend, beauty and grace. If she isn't cared for correctly,
or an offense is visited upon her followers, she responds with insanity and rage.
She is the passion of a new found love, and the death by domestic abuse.
Mama Chola is propitiated by the the river.
Centella Ndoki\Pungu Mama Wanga\Yaya Kengue\Mariwanga
Perhaps one of the most feared and essential nkisi of all is called Centella Ndoki.
She is the gate keeper between life and death and owns the dominion of the
cemetary. As her name implies, she works with Ndoki and plays a very important
role in Palo rites because of her relationship with the dead. She is propitiated at
the cemetary.

Kobayende\Bacoballende\Pata Llaga\Tata Pansua\Tata Funde\Tata

Fumbe\Pungun Futila\Tata Kaee
He is the action of contracting and spreading disease and to many he is
considered the king of the dead. Propitiated correctly, his power can be called
upon to remove disease, or to spread it to the enemy of the Congo. He is
described as a distorted, cloaked figure, whose speech is rough and raspy,
prowling the Congo in the heat of the sun to spread his disease on enemies. He
is the wrath of Nsambi, punishing the wicked with torturous scabs, scabies,
fevers, and boils.
His role in ceremonies is indispensible and only a Tata that knows the pact
(tratado) with this Mpungu can rectify whether or not an Nkisi has been properly
seated. He is also an nkisi that is closely works with the dead.
Tiembla Tierra\Yola\Pandilanga\Mama Kengue
Tiembla Tierra, or Yola in Bakongo, is the energy of fatherhood, wisdom, and
justice. He is also known as Pandilanga. There are paths of this nkisi that
becomes the messenger to Nsambi. Ceiba Ngondo or Ceiba Ngundu is a
Tiembla Tierra that has a pact with the Ceiba tree which is considered the tree
that is the house of God, Nkunia Munanso Sambia.
Padre Tiempo\Kabanga\Madioma\Mpungo Lomboan Fula\Nsambia Munalembe,
Tonde\Daday Munalendo
The four winds, this is the mpungo of divination. In some houses he is the last
nkisi that is received. Receiving this mpungo gives the Tata the rank of Tata
Other Spirits
Nfumbe refers to the spirit which becomes part of the nkisi. This is usually
represented by a human bone which can be obtained legally in the U.S. through
Chinese and Indian importations. The bone does not play a fundamental role to
the valid construction of the nkisi.
Nfuiri comes from the word nfwa "death" and refers to spirits which can be

broken down to into Bakulu, Ndundu and Nkuyo. The Nkuyo and Ndundu refer to
wandering spirits, "wraths" while Bakulu refer to ancestors.