In Cuba spirits are everywhere, and for the religious islanders there seems to be little room for doubt regarding the matter. For religious Cubans, spirits not only inhabit their houses, eat their food and join them in their festivities, but also walk along with them on the street and take part in their daily activities, sharing their world with them. However, communication with these entities is not easy, as not everyone has the faculties to understand the distinct forms of spiritual communication.
In this respect, conversations between spirits and humans are almost always mediated by a religious figure, and these are carried out in a language distinctly different from the medium’s ordinary language (Keane 1997), with characteristics rather different to those observed in everyday use (Rappaport 1979; Schieffelin 1985).
From the analysis of a specific kind of communication, I intend to demonstrate how processes of identity formation are constructed through language inside this religious context (Edwards 2009). With that in mind, I propose an excursion through the world of the Congomuertos, a category within many of the ‘possibilities’ (or comisiones) found in the Palo Monte spirit world. This ‘excursion’ begins via a brief description of Palo Monte and its relationship to other ‘Afro-Cuban’ religions, followed by a discussion of the conceptual differences between muertosand espíritus(the ‘dead’ and the ‘spirits’). Beyond a question of semantics, this distinction is entangled with categories that, while nominally synonymous (religiososcall both the ‘higher’ or ‘elevated’ spirits as well as the more ‘earthly’, ‘attached’ kinds of spirits, muertos), refer to distinct ontological universes, and this distinction is reflected also in the speeches or talks of the muertos. As a way of giving continuity to this discussion, I proceed, in the third section of this chapter, with a description of the language used by the Palo Monte muertos. Here I will seek to analyse both the context in which it is produced (misas espirituales, initiations, consultations and religious ceremonies and parties), and the (spoken) language itself, namely from a morphosyntactic to a more pragmatic level. The point here is to highlight the ways in which linguistic innovations relate to, or juxtapose with, collective memory, from a religious point of view.
Given that Palo Monte is a Bantu-based religion extensively practised in Cuba in varied and complex ways, I am particularly interested in observing how so-called Palo Monte brujos(‘witches’), who are known as palerosor nganguleros, appropriate verbal language in order to confer an identity to spirits (rather than simply using it as a means for the transmission of messages), as well as in understanding the underlying processes of linguistic creation versus religious tradition.
In order to achieve these goals it is imperative to understand who these religious people that talk with the dead are, and who these ‘dead’ are that speak; and in what circumstances they communicate, or what compels them to do so. I will focus my attention on conversations occurring between the religious person in a state of trance (as he or she channels the muerto) and the client who seeks in religion and in the muertosa solution for a problem of spiritual or material origin.
Although other types of communication between the spirit world and humans are available in Palo Monte, namely through questions asked duringchamalongosor spell-breaking rituals such as rompimientosor rayamientos,I will deal exclusively with the kinds of conversation that take place between the muerto(the spirit), channelled by the religious practitioner (the medium), and the client. I will make use of all the linguistic knowledge surrounding the Regla– mambos,rezos(prayers) and other forms – in order to test my hypothesis that the dual nature of the verbal languages used by mediums when in a state of trance – in other words, the language of the Congo spirits – plays an extremely important role in the constitution of the religious Cuban imaginary. On the one hand, they can be classified as linguistic innovations in as much as they are languages that are no longer spoken in Cuba and which were brought into the country in a very specific social and chronological context; on the other hand they validate the ancestral character of the spirits, bestowing them with a distinctive identity.