The Book on Palo

The Book on Palo
Item# 806

Item Description

The Wisdom of Don Demetrio, Baba Raul Canizares

Reviewed by Sven Davisson

Ashe! Journal of Experimental Spirituality; Vol 2, Number 1, Spring Equinox 2003

Baba Raul Canizares received initiation into the mysteries of the Afro-Cuban spiritual practice known as Palo Monte while still a young boy living in Cuba. Canizares, whose palo name is Tata Camposanto Medianoche, received this empowerment from Demetrio Gomez (1874-1968) who lived in the city of Guanabacoa where for almost fifty years he led one of the most potent and influential Palo houses in Cuba. Demetrio’s student Paco kept his mentor’s notebooks and Canizares was able to access these in preparing this work. He also had access to unpublished material by Andres Petit, founder of the Kimbisa faction of Palo. Canizares has chosen an interesting and powerful method of writing creating this work. Half the book is written in the first-person and that personally referential I is the voice of Don Demetrio himself. Canizares states in his introduction, “it will be Demetrio’s voice you will hear, channeled through mine.”

This is one of the few books on the Palo tradition in English. I know from personal communications with the author, that this book was truly a labor of love—a project that he put a tremendous amount of energy into over the last few years of his life. The final product of his hard work is nothing less that the definitive book on Palo. He goes much farther than one would expect in a volume such as this detailing practices, providing complete mambos (chants), various plants & their uses, and sigils for the deities. He gives the reader a fascinating description of the making of a nganga—the ceremonial cauldron at the heart of the Palero’s practice.

In addition to being a Palero and Santero, Canizares was a scholar. His earlier Cuban Santeria is already a classic in the field of Afro-Caribbean religious studies. Echoing a similar rational as that given by the Dalai Lama when asked about revealing previous secret tantras to the general public, Canizares states that his reason for publishing such a detailed book on a secret tradition is both to preserve it from being lost and to protect it from being corrupted by greed and sensationalism.

Canizares does not shy away from discussing openly aspects of the religion which will most likely be troubling to some readers. Most markedly among them is the topic of animal sacrifice—an important aspect of many of the African descended new world faiths. It should be noted that the ritual taking of animal life has a long and ancient connection with the practice of religion and is still an important part of several of the world’s “big five” religions. The U.S. Supreme Court has even ruled on the constitutionality of animal sacrifice and religious practice in a landmark case involving a Santerian church in Florida. This said, Canizares approaches the use of animals in a manner that is both unapologetic and non-sensational.

There are many photographs included with the book, including images of Canizares involved in actual initiation ceremonies—“scratching.” Many of the images stand alone as works of art-photography that are as evocative as they are explanatory. The images of the various nganga are really extraordinarily powerful.

Baba passed way in December of 2002 and this is his last book, published just months before his death. It stands alongside Cuban Santeria: Walking with the Night as one of his best works. The Book on Palo is an invaluable contribution to the study of American religion. It should be a part of the library of anyone interested in comparative religion—regardless of their own faith.