Morton Marks
Science of the Concrete
(This article first appeared in “En torno a Lydia Cabrera,” edited by Isabel Castellanos and Josefina Inclán. Miami: Ediciones Universal, 1987)

If you knew the story of all the leaves of the forest, you would know all there is to be known about the gods of Dahomey.
Dahomean proverb

Social scientists working in Afro-America have noted the presence of double systems in virtually every sphere of human activity. In whatever aspect of social or cultural organization, in the linguistic, religious, economic, legal, medical and aesthetic-expressive domains, there exists a pairing or opposition of an official institution or form and its vernacular or Afro-American counterpart.[1] Cuba is no exception, and Lydia Cabrera’s El Monte documents the dynamic relationship between that country’s Iberian-based “official” culture and institutions and its African-derived popular traditions, of Yoruba, Fon, Kongo and Ejagham origin.

Perhaps the best known Cuban “double system” is the pairing of some Catholic saints with their Yoruba orisha counterparts. The dialectic between popular Catholicism and Lukumí (Cuban Yoruba) traditions comprises a good part of El Monte’s subject matter, but such pairings go far beyond the saint/orisha identifications. In the medical domain, Cuba had well-developed parallel systems as well. Hospital dispensaries functioned alongside Yoruba and Kongo healers and diviners, and stethoscopes, divining chains and magic mirrors could all be found among the diagnostic tools available to the Cuban people. Pharmacies and patent medicines competed with botánicas and their stocks of plants gathered in the countryside or grown in urban patios.

While many readers approach El Monte as essentially a literary work or as ethnography, it may also be read as ethnobotany and even as ethnopharmacology. The book’s second half contains a list of more than five hundred and fifty plants used magically and/or medicinally, and is one of the most complete sources of information on any New World botanical system. Its organization into an alphabetical order based on the entries’ Spanish common names obscures a double system of classification, the first based on standard scientific binomials, the second on a folk taxonomy involving orisha ownership. A complete botanical entry in El Monte thus consists of a Spanish common name, a scientific classification, the plant’s Yoruba and Kongo names, and an orisha “owner.”

It is possible to re-order all the entries and arrange them into two groups, one that would place them in their scientific families (Acanthaceae, Agavaceae, etc.), and the other in their orisha family. In the latter, Elegua “owns” red bay (Tabernaemontana citrifolia in the Dogbane family), fowl foot (Eleusine indica in the Grass family), espuela de caballero (Jacquinia aculeata in the Theophrastaceae family) and many others; Obatalá is the owner of cotton (Gossypium sp., Malvaceae), coconut (Cocos nucifera, Palmae), angel’s trumpet (Datura suaveolens, Solanaceae), the castor oil bush (Ricinus communis, Euphorbiaceae), the tropical almond tree (Terminalia catappa), etc. To Babalú Ayé are attributed sesame seeds (Sesamum indicum, Pedaliaceae), guinea grass (Panicum maximum, Gramineae), the bitter melon (Momordica charantia, Cucurbitaceae), congress weed (Parthenium hysterophorus, Compositae), etc.

This second list cuts across the standard scientific families and is clearly organized along a different sort of taxonomic grid. Discovering the underlying logic of this system reveals the operation of an Afro-Cuban “science of the concrete”, defined by Lévi-Strauss as “a speculative organization and exploitation of the sensible world in sensible terms”.[2] In the importance accorded plant classifications and their multiple associations with ritual, medicine, and other aspects of Yoruba and Kongo culture, Afro-Cubans are no different from other traditional (and also Western classical and medieval) peoples described by Lévi-Strauss in The Savage Mind:

…One begins to wish that every ethnologist were also a mineralogist, a botanist, a zoologist and even an astronomer…For Reichard’s comment about the Navajo applies not only to the Australians and Sudanese but to all or almost all native [sic] peoples. “Since the Navajo regard all parts of the universe as essential to well-being, a major problem of religious study is the classification of natural objects, a subject that demands careful taxonomic attention. We need a list, with English, scientific (Latin) and Navajo names of all plants, animals – especially birds, rodents, insects, and worms – minerals and rocks, shells and stars.” [3]

Afro-Cuban herbalists knew the orisha owners, ritual applications, and curative powers of hundreds of trees, roots, barks, grasses, herbs, vines and flowers. In their exploration and classification of the Cuban forests and savannas, they were undoubtedly guided by the cognitive categories anthropomorphized as the “orishas”, which could comprise philosophical, aesthetic, anatomical, botanic and even chemical dimensions. Particular leaves might belong to a certain deity on the basis of mythological associations, ashé (curative and/or magical power), visual appearance (color, shape, and texture), taste, association with a body part or physiological process, or all of these at once. [4]

The origins of orisha ownership, the division of the plant world into ritual and pharmacological categories and the non-arbitrary nature of the associations between the Yoruba deities and their ewe (literally, leaves) are recounted in a myth collected by Lydia Cabrera:

All the orishas received their ashé (blessing, power, active force, gift, magical power) from Olorun [the Yoruba Supreme Deity]. Once He had finished the great work of creating the world and before he withdrew to Heaven and cut Himself off from earthly things, the heavenly Father divided the world among His children…Osain received the secret of ewe and knowledge of their powers. He was the exclusive owner of plants and herbs, and would not give them away to anyone. Not, that is, until the day Shangó complained to his wife Oyá, owner of the Winds. Shangó said that only Osain knew the mystery of each plant and no other orisha had a single plant of his own. Hearing this, Oyá opened her skirts. She shook them vigorously in a swirling motion, and fefé! A powerful wind began to blow. Osain kept the secret of ewe in a calabash hanging from a tree. Seeing that the wind had knocked it down and that all the herbs were scattered, he sang: “Eé egüero, saué éreo!” {“Oh the leaves! Oh the leaves!”] But he couldn’t stop the orishas from picking up the scattered herbs and dividing them among themselves. The orishas named them, and placed a power –ashé – in each one. Thus, although Osain is recognized as lord of leaves, every orisha has his own ewe in el monte, the sacred forest. [5]

It is very possible that the term ashé, the “power-to-make-things-happen”, may be the Afro-Cuban way of referring to a plant’s chemical constituents, its magico-medicinal properties. A recent study by Edward Ayensu[6] provides an important clue for understanding the logic of the Lukumí classifications as presented in El Monte. His work also suggests indirectly that Cuban osainistas (herbalists) and their “science of the concrete” may have discovered what the ethnobotanists’ chemical analyses are now revealing.

Ayensu’s book contains entries for over six hundred plants used magically and/or medicinally in the West Indies, including about one hundred and fifty described by Lydia Cabrera. Although he makes few direct references to Cuba and none at all to the orisha system employed there, his findings strongly suggest that the “orishas” may be pharmacological categories. This hypothesis emerged from a comparison of Ayensu’s data with some of the material collected in El Monte. In fact, moving between the two books is a lesson in the nature-culture dichotomy, what we might term chemistry-ashé. Many of the chemical constituents and their effects as listed by Ayensu are embedded in the symbolic associations that link the Cuban orishas with elements of the natural world. Knowing the “leaves” means knowing the gods; it also leads to the discovery among Cuba’s santeros and paleros of a sophisticated phytochemistry and understanding of human physiology.

One case in point is the white cotton bush (Gossypium sp.), the subject of a lengthy, twelve-page entry in El Monte. This section contains a detailed discussion of the orisha Obatalá, deity of immaculate whiteness and cleanliness. His name may be translated as “King of the White Cloth”, and his worshipers are distinguished by the wearing of this emblem (àlà).[7] Logically, one would expect purity to be a feature of the cotton plant, since it is emblematic of Obatalá and contains his ashé. In Cabrera, we read that this orisha recommends baths containing cotton flowers for those whose personal hygiene leaves something to be desired, and in fact may be causing health problems.[8] According to Ayensu, the essential oil in the aerial parts of the cotton plant contains, among many other elements, salicylic acid, which has bacteriostatic action.[9]

Another characteristic of Obatalá is his association with the head and psychological calmness. Verger reports that ceremonies for this deity as performed in the city of Ilê-Ifé, Nigeria include the washing of his image with infusions of the leaves of “calming” plants, including òwú (Gossypium sp.), àbámodá (Bryophyllum pinnatum), and rinrin (Peperomia pellucida). [10] In Cuba, àbámodá and rinrin are also associated with Obatalá, and their Spanish names are siempre viva and hierba de plata, respectively. (In English, they are known as the life plant and silver bush.) Ayensu reports that leaf extracts of Bryophyllum pinnatum are active “against Gram+ bacteria due to bryophylline content”, and that the plant is taken in “cooling teas.”[11] (Cotton’s salicyclic acid, the basis of aspirin, is also antipyretic – it “cools” fevers.) Peperomia pellucida’s volatile oil contains apiol, with antispasmodic actions, and “acid amines with anesthetic effect occur in [the] family”. [12] Thus, calmness-coolness-purity are some dimensions of Obatalá’s ewe.

In Yoruba, àlà, “white cloth”, is also the word for caul, and boys born in this membrane are sacred to Obatalá. [13] This punning association suggests the aspect of this orisha as “Creator of mankind, [who] fashions the form of human beings in the womb before they are born”. [14] Obatalá’s relationship to fetal development is further described by Bascom:

[In Nigeria], the priests of Orishala, or one of the other white deities, must be called to perform the burial and atonement when a woman dies in pregnancy. Under the cover of darkness, and with great secrecy, they carry the body to the sacred grove of Orishala where it is cut open and the fetus is removed and buried in a separate grave. [15]

Given the multiple associations between this deity and procreation, it is startling to learn that the root bark of the cotton plant is an abortifacient – that which causes the expulsion of the fetus. [16] And other parts of the cotton plant are active in birth control as well. Scientists in China have been experimenting with a contraceptive pill derived from cottonseed oil.

Plants and trees are not only the living symbols of the orishas; as emblems and as medicine, they combine several aspects and powers of the deities at once. Color symbolism is one unifying element that binds the ewe into “families”. Thus, cotton is only one of a series of other white plants, foods, birds, animals, metals and beads consecrated to the “white” orishas. Similarly, many of Oshún’s symbols are yellow, which may take in a range of the spectrum from gold through red-orange to yellow-brown.[17] In her riverine aspect, she owns many aquatic plants and ferns, with sundry ritual and medicinal applications. But perhaps the most perfect embodiment of Oshún is Canella alba, her wild cinnamon tree. (In Cuba, Oshún is the mulata “saint”, her skin the color of canela.)

This is the Lukumí Venus’s tree par excellence. Cinnamon is used to prepare all her love potions, afoshés [powders] and amorous talismans. In the romantic sphere, this tree resolves all the problems brought to paleros and babalochas by their clients. It has strong attractive powers and is indispensable, they tell us, “for all romantic matters.” “When I was in my glory, whenever I courted a woman, I would put a little splinter of cinnamon wood in my mouth, and it would sweeten my words”, Calazán recalls, “and I needed it even more when I got old.”

Fancy ladies and all those who wish to please mix powdered cinnamon with their face powders. Some dust this mixture over their entire body, because cinnamon attracts men the way honey draws flies. “If you do this you will have many suitors”… In the healing arts of paleros and santeros, wild cinnamon mixed in syrup is used to treat stomach colds and to contain diarrhea and bloody vomiting. Remember that Oshún “punishes” with stomach ailments, and that she can cure them as well. [18]

(“Canella contains .75-1.25% volatile oil with 1-alpha-pinene, eugenol, eineole, caryophyllene, about 8% resin and 8% manitol.”) [19]

Oshún’s golden pumpkin (Cucurbita maxima) is closely related to her aspect as “owner of wombs”:

After she had given birth several times, Oshún noticed that she was losing her figure. She went weeping through the countryside, making rogations with different ewe along the way. She made the first request-offering with calabash, but when it dried out its seeds shook noisily, the way they do in maracas, and the noise bothered her. She found pumpkin growing in a field; claiming it as her own, she passed it over her belly. This is how she got herself back into shape…To cure someone with stomach problems, either pain or poor digestion, Oshún takes a pumpkin and passes it over the patient’s midsection, first in a criss-cross motion and then with circular movements…Since the goddess is “owner of bellies”, she can cure a recent hernia with three nice round pumpkins. Standing near her patient, the santera removes the little stems and probes for the rupture near the patient’s groin. These are kept in a place where no one may touch them. “You will see that just as the stems grow back and re-join the pumpkins, the rupture will also close”…Pulverized pumpkin seeds, mixed with boiled milk, are prized for their effectiveness in expelling tapeworms. [20]

(In other parts of the Caribbean and in Brazil, the seeds of Cucurbita pepo are also used as a vermifuge.[21] Pumpkin seeds contain the plant amino acid Curcurbitin that has shown anti-parasitic activity in laboratory tests.)

The tree known in Cuba as the jía brava (Casearia aculeata in the Flacourtia family) “belongs” to Babalú Ayé, the leprous saint/earth orisha. Two other members of Flacourtiaceae, the gorli shrub (Oncoba echinata) and the chaulmoogra oil tree (Taraktogenos kurzii) produce seed oils used in the treatment of leprosy elsewhere in the Caribbean.[22] It is probable that jía brava has similar properties. A more complex symbolic and historical relationship between the smallpox orisha and another of his plants is the case of Agave fourcroydes, or henequen. The entry in El Monte states: “Cloth made from henequen fibers or burlap, is worn by those who are fulfilling a promise made to Babá, for Babalú Ayé himself wore burlap”. [23]

This passage serves as a perfect example of how the Afro-Cuban science of the concrete can also deal with the dialectic between Yoruba and Catholic symbolism. In Cuba, henequen replaced raffia fibers as Obaluaiye’s (Babalú’s) garment. Among the Nigerian Yoruba:

There is a line of poetry praising the deity as a man covered with raffia fiber, as if he were a walking broom – a Yoruba traditional whisk broom with a short handle and long fiber. As a matter of fact, extensive broom imagery characterizes the cult of Obaluaiye. The Yoruba whisk broom, sacralized by the addition of medicines and cam wood paste sprinkled on the straw, is one of the more formidable and famous of Obaluaiye’s emblems. Ifá tells us that when he is enraged, Obaluaiye takes this special broom and spreads sesame seeds (yamoti) on the earth before him, then sweeps the seeds before him, in ever-widening circles. As the broom begins to touch the dust and the dust begins to rise, the seeds, like miniature pockmarks, ride the wind with their annihilating powers; the force of a smallpox epidemic is thereby unleashed. [24]

Here, broom-raffia-sesame-smallpox-roughness-skin form a partial cluster of natural and man-made elements that surround the figure (or cognitive category) of Obaluaiye. In Yoruba symbolism, the following associations are also possible:

The gown itself hides from sight the sickness on Babalu’s body. When he walks in his limping gait, the natural sway or movement of the mariwó [palm fiber] gown resembles the swaying motion of a broom. [25]

The chromolithograph that represents Saint Lazarus shows him as a leper covered with sores, walking with the aid of a crutch and accompanied by dogs. (These “paper saints”, as they were known in Cuba, are often visual puns that link the popular Catholic and Lukumí symbolic worlds and facilitate the transformation of one into the other.) Transformed by the activity of the ever-present double system, BabalúAye/smallpox/raffia becomes Saint Lazarus/leprosy/burlap.

The shift from raffia to burlap may be explained as due simply to the unavailability of the raffia palm in Cuba, and also as a reflection of the popular Catholic practice of wearing one’s “promise” to a saint, comparable to the color and/or fabric associated with one’s orisha: Our Lady of Regla/Yemayá, indigo blue; la Caridad del Cobre/Oshún, yellow; and Saint Lazarus/Babalú Ayé, burlap, symbolic of the penitent with whom Babalú (or Saint Lazarus) is associated.

There is a further connection:

Babalú is a symbol of what happens when the earth turns against you…He is said to make the grains men have eaten come out on their skins, and he is sometimes portrayed wearing burlap, the same sackcloth [the “penitent” association] used to package grain.[26]

In the ever-widening system of symbolic associations documented in El Monte, the original African cluster of relationships may become obscured or even replaced by a new set. But in this case, at least, the African “text” can be restored. By substituting “raffia” for burlap and “smallpox” for “leprosy” in the following Lukumí tale, the resulting version is almost identical to a myth collected by Thompson in Lagos, Nigeria. Here is the Cuban story as recorded in El Monte:

Once, when Shangó was divining in public, a crippled leper heard his words and asked, “Why can’t you tell me something? Don’t you want to divine for me?” “I will tell you,” Shangó replied, “what my father told me. He said that here in this land I have a brother and a half-brother, both older than myself. You are that half-brother. Your fortune and destiny are far from here. Turn around and go. Cross the forest, and you will find the place where you reign…” “How can I travel in this state?” the leper asked. That man was Babalú Ayé, Saint Lazarus. Then Shangó addressed another man who was present. It was Ogún, his other brother, who was accompanied by two large dogs. Shangó took them and gave them to Babalú…who then crossed the forest, protected by the dogs. He traveled in the direction that Oní-Shangó had indicated, and finally reached the land of the Ararás (Dahomey). He stretched out and went to sleep in a doorway. He spent the night there, and was awakened at dawn by a boy, whose body, like Babalú’s, was completely covered with leprous sores. The youth said, “How you must suffer with those sores! You must suffer, just as I do”. When Babalú heard him, he asked, “Do you want me to cure you?” The boy gladly replied, “Cure me!” Saint Lazarus asked for corn meal, corojo palm oil and a burlap jacket. He made a loaf of bread with the flour, dipped it in the oil and rubbed the boy’s body with the bread. He burned the clothing that the boy had been wearing, and dressed him in the burlap jacket…” [27]

The following may be the original Yoruba source:

According to the Lagosian cult of Ejiwa, the earth deity [Obaluaiye] gave Eshu, when the latter was scarred with smallpox marks, a garment made of raffia, of a thickness sufficient to keep flies from swarming about his wounds. Hence, Ifá tells us, the Ejiwa (Eshu) masquerader to this day appears completely shrouded in raffia…The primary image of the Ejiwa cult is a most suggestive clue in the search for the origins of the idea of concealment by raffia of the signs of smallpox. [28]

The “boy” in the Lukumí tale may therefore be Eshu.

Raffia/burlap relate metaphorically to Babalú/Saint Lazarus. They may also relate pharmacologically. While I have no specific information concerning the chemical constituents of the species that produce raffia in Nigeria or henequen in Cuba, I do know that at least two other members of the Agavaceae family, to which henequen belongs, are employed elsewhere in the Caribbean in the treatment of ailments that Cubans associate with Babalú. These are Furcraea agavephylla and F.tuberosa: “rhizome decoctions [of the first] for heat, rheumatism, vitiligo [a skin disease characterized by whitish nonpigmented areas surrounded by hyperpigmented borders], venereal diseases. Leaf poultice on sores”. And the emulsified root of F. tuberosa is used in the treatment of gonorrhea. [29](Saint Lazarus is also the “syphilitic saint”.) Did these properties influence the choice of henequen in Cuba? It is difficult to find the boundary separating the purely symbolic and metaphorical associations between a species and its orisha owner and the chemical ashé it contains.

A plant’s powers may also be expressed in its very name. In African healing and divination, word play is often the active element in a “spell” or cure. Both Yoruba and Kongo ritual specialists employ word magic in their therapies. Bascom describes the role of puns in Ifá divination and sacrifice:

In these cases, the name of an object sacrificed resembles the words expressing the result desired by the client. In one verse, a woman who desires to conceive is instructed to sacrifice cooked beans (ole); the pun here alludes here to embryo (ole)…Thus the figure iwori Meji, who has sacrificed a mortar and tete and gbegbe leaves in order to find a place to live, recite the formula: “The mortar (odo) will testify that I see room in which to settle (do), the tete leaf will testify that I see room in which to stretch out (te), the gbegbe leaf will testify that I see room in which to dwell (gbe).” Water (omi) is sacrificed so that the client can breathe (imi), ochra (ila) so that he will gain honor (ola) and salt, used to make food tasty or “sweet” (dun), so that his affairs will be sweet (dun).[30]

Similarly, Thompson writes:

The concreteness and seriousness of Kongo herbalism is immediately suggested by a ground plan of a mystical garden at Manselele in northern Kongo. Here a healer planted some seventy-seven different trees or shrubs about his residence for the purpose of medicine, sustenance and ritual. Many of these herbs relate to therapy and healing through wordplay and punning invocations. The trees and herbs cluster about the healer’s compound like stanzas of living speech and invocation. [31]

Afro-Cuban osainistas, babalawos (diviners) and nganguleros (Kongo healers) would plant their urban montes in exactly the same way as their African forebears and counterparts:

The late Miguel Adyai, “the Lukumí”, a Cuban-born black with an admirable command of the Aku language [spoken by the Yoruba of Sierra Leone], lived on San Rafael Street. Although this was a bustling commercial thoroughfare, Miguel’s green and fragrant patio had all the Ocha herbs (ewe-orisha), all the medicinal plants he needed. Babalaos, iyalochas [Lukumí priestesses], Kongo priests and priestesses may enter “the woods” in their own homes, which are sometimes squeezed into the busy heart of the city. But they will eagerly migrate to the suburbs, where houses with patios and grassy solares [courtyards] still abound. Or they may move to nearby towns that are happily still filled with plants and trees. These places, such as Marianao, Regla and Guanabacoa, across the bay from Havana, have become the strongholds of orthodox santería. [32]

Herbs gathered in the wild or cultivated in the city might contain two types of overlapping ashé, pharmacologically active chemicals and a magically significant common name. Afro-Cubans rediscovered or re-invented the African speaking-healing connection by punning on the Spanish common names of the plants and trees they found in Cuba. Thus, pega-pega (Desmodium obtusum), which may be translated as “stick-stick” or “glue-glue” is used to mend broken marriages or friendships; embeleso (Plumbago capensis), meaning bewitchment or enchantment, is an active ingredient in a love charm, some of whose other punning ingredients include the eyes of a majá snake, meant to hypnotize the object of the amulet’s owner’s desires; seso vegetal (Blighia sapida), literally “vegetable brains”, is given to someone you want to drive mad (this is the fruit known as akee in Jamaica); palo torcido (Mouriri valenzuela), “twisted tree”, is an ingredient in a spell to “twist” someone’s destiny; ñame volador (Dioscorea bulbifera), the air potato, according to Hortus[33], is planted to prevent flying sorcerers from landing; fulminante is the name of an exploding plant ( Ruellia tuberosa) that when wet fires its seeds like miniature bullets and is used in amulets worn by policemen and underworld figures;[34] raspa lengua (Cosearia hirsuta), or “foul-mouthed”, as it is known in English, has several applications that live up to its name:

All the authorities agree that foul-mouthed “is very good for winning lawsuits. Pulverized and mixed with cascarilla [powdered egg shells], cinnamon and white sugar, it is sprinkled on the rival lawyer’s and prosecutor’s benches. By spreading this afoshé, you can make them hold their tongues”. If a lawyer should step on or inhale these harmless powders, he will fall mute, his speech will become slurred, and he will make mistakes, simply withdraw his complaint or refuse to represent his client. This plant also works (and rightly so) to “stop the tongues of foul-mouthed people”. [35]

Such conjuring powders are employed in both the Lukumí and Cuban Kongo traditions, where they are known as afoshé and mpolo, respectively. Since swollen and inflamed feet are often viewed as a sign that someone has been “fixed” or magically injured by stepping on them, they raise the important issue of diagnosis and the interpretation of symptoms among Afro-Cubans. Some observations made by Janzen in reference to medicine and therapy in Zaire could just as easily apply to Cuba:

…Kongo etiology consistently draws the effective boundary of a person differently, more expansively, then classical Western medicine, philosophy, and religion. The outcome is usually disconcerting or unreal to Western medical observers, although completely logical within the terms of Kongo diagnosis…The definition of the person, as drawn in the typical Kongo hierarchy of symptom progressions, creates a framework within which all of the physical diseases in Western medicine (e.g., pneumonia, hernia, malaria, tuberculosis, diabetes, germs) can be added to the diagnostic repertoire without abandoning the wider etiology of gossip, mysteries, evil acts, curses, “threads of social connection”, “being in someone hand”, and “strange death”, the usual euphemisms for witchcraft. [36]

Red and swollen feet may simply be due to a lot of walking, or they may be the sign that someone has been “fixed” by an enemy. This theme echoes across all of Afro-America, and the full meaning of the following plant entry in El Monte, the very first one, did not dawn on me until I had read an anecdote collected by Price-Mars in Haiti. Lydia Cabrera’s entry for the plant aba (no scientific name) goes as follows:

If no inflammation is present, the Owner of the Road (Elegua) will bless this plant’s leaves and roots, which are boiled and used to bathe, refresh and relieve a traveler’s tired feet. Its leaves are applied as a remedy for paralysis. [37]

This bit of Afro-Cuban botanical lore can be used, in Rosetta stone fashion, to align the following examples from Haiti, Trinidad, and the American South:

The legend says that the Abbé M…, one of our first indigenous priests, died while curé of Pétion-ville [near Port-au-Prince]. Since he was a saintly man, he went straight to Paradise and was warmly welcomed. Day after day he took part in the choir of angels who were celebrating on high the glory of the Creator. But finally, after a time, the good Curé became extremely bored. He went around paradise, yawned, idled about, and became more bored than ever. One day, unable to stand it any longer, he confessed his state of mind to the Good Lord, who was grieved.

“What do you want me to do?” the Good Lord asked him. “Oh, there is only one way to keep me from being homesick for earth, that is to give me a “position” here, and there is only one that I feel worthy of holding, it is that of Saint Peter, keeper of the keys of Heaven”.

The Good Lord remonstrated with him in a fatherly manner by revealing how impossible it was to realize his desires….The Abbé M. was very chagrined but refrained from argument. One morning, Saint Peter, while making the rounds, noticed something unusual at the gates of Paradise. A mixture of feuillages [leafage], d’lo repugnance [odorous water], of parched corn and other substances were strewn on the ground. He was imprudent in pushing aside this strange offering with his foot. Immediately he was stricken with such sharp pains in his suddenly swollen lower limbs that all of Heaven became upset. But from the happy face and satisfied air of Abbé M., the Good Lord knew that he was the author of this misdeed and that he was guilty of an act unbefitting a resident of Paradise. He was damned and cast into hell. And that is why we will never have an indigenous priest… [38]

From Trinidad, George Eaton Simpson reports the following:

Grave dirt may be thrown in an enemy’s yard to injure him, or one may grind a piece of a nest of wood ants, mix this powder with ground black pepper, grave dirt, musk powder and compelling powder, and sprinkle this combination in front of an enemy’s door….Within nine days, the foot of the client’s enemy begins to ache, his ankle swells, and then sores break out. [39]

Commenting on the ante-bellum American South, Gladys-Marie Fry states:

Many ex-slaves believed that all Southern plantations had voodoo advisers who concocted charms for various uses. Matilda Marshall, an ex-slave, recalled: “The slaves were superstitious. They would sometimes throw away good hats and dressed that they thought someone had hoodooed. They wore a silver dime in their shoes to keep them from being conjured”. [40]

Fry mentions another slave who spread “dusting powder” on his enemy, and another who buried frogs, snakes or lizards at someone’s doorstep, “so if the enemy walked over it, it would be painful”. So prevalent were these practices in an area allegedly devoid of African-derived culture that many white slave owners manipulated African magic themselves as a form of social control:

The Black’s fear of conjuring was, of course, a ready-made tool for the whites to use in fostering suspicion and hatred among the slaves. The comment of Mary Howard Neely, a retired school teacher, is typical: “And they [white people] would beat up brick and pepper and put down at the Negroes’ gates, hoodooism…to scare them, you know. ‘You better stay home. So and so put that down for you’. They taught them that. Took them [Blacks} a long time to grow out of it. Some are not out of it yet”. [41]

We may view all these examples as variants of a single “text”, which in turn illuminates the aba entry in El Monte: aching and swollen feet are often a sign of contact with “witchcraft”; Elegua’s aba leaves would be recommended only when an enemy’s “conjure” is not suspected as the cause of these symptoms. If the feet are inflamed and covered with sores, they have probably come into contact with an enemy’s afoshé, and other leaves would be recommended as an antidote. Many of these belong to Shangó, renowned for his anti-witchcraft activity. For Cuban Kongos, leaves of the anamú plant (Petiveria alliacea), placed in the form of a cross inside the shoes, are the protective equivalent of the Lukumí herbs and the Black American silver dime. (In the Anglophone Caribbean, anamú is known as Congo root or kojo root, and in Brazilian herbal medicine it is called tipi or erva-de-guiné).[42] Red ochre (almagre) is the Cuban equivalent of the pounded brick in the southern American “put-down”; pepper is a common element in New World conjuring powders, and usually means “provocation”. This list of correspondences could be greatly expanded.

Readers familiar with Afro-Atlantic religion, folklore, folk medicine and ethnobotany will doubtless find many other parallels between the material presented in El Monte and examples from other areas. By themselves these comparisons might seem anecdotal, but taken together they form a structured system. El Monte not only demonstrates equivalent features among the four major Afro-Cuban traditions. It also serves as a point of reference that integrates a vast amount of comparative data from a geographic and culture area that extends from Brazil to the southern United States. Thus, a “country” (Ki-Kongo) –English vocabulary from Jamaica helps translate many Cuban Kongo terms;[43] a booklet on Brazilian popular medicine containing a discussion of doenças do ar ((“air diseases”) clarifies the Cuban term aire pasmoso, a gust of wind or chill said to cause facial neuralgia and paralysis;[44] and a recent work on Haitian ethnobiology contributes to out understanding of the pharmacological basis of Afro-Cuban “witchcraft” beliefs. [45]

The remarkable achievement of Lydia Cabrera is that her works can be read as literature, folklore, ethnography, ethnohistory, ethnobotany and ethnopharmacology. One very practical contribution of El Monte may be in its stimulation of further reseach in New World botany. Guided by Afro-Cuban religion and medicine, “hard science” could learn a lot from the “the science of the concrete”.


[1] See, for example, Donald R. Hill, The Impact of Migration on the Metropolitan and Folk Society of Carriacou, Grenada (New York: Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History 54, part 2, 1977). Hill has fashioned an entire ethnographic approach based on the interplay between “metropolitan” and “folk”(or “official” and “vernacular”) categories on the geographically small, but culturally complex, island of Carriacou. See also Isabel Castellanos, The Use of Language in Afro-Cuban Religion (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University Microfilms International, 1977) for an application of the sociolinguistic notion of diglossia to the study of Afro-Cuban ritual language.

[2] Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966), p.16.

[3] Ibid, pp. 45-46.

[4] Here, too, we discover another double system at work. Lydia Cabrera points out that in Cuba, the aid of various Catholic saints was sought in the treatment of specific physical ailments: “Besides the orishas, and with the same urgency, one still resorts to Catholic saints, Heavenly Doctors, specialists in different illnesses, who had a large following in colonial days. Old people haven’t forgotten that Saint Gregory the Great and Saint Bernard were famous and sought after for stomach ailments; for dropsy, Saint Fermin and Saint Quentin…Saint Apolonia cured toothaches and Saint Leonard, apoplexy. (Naná Bulukú, an Arará vodun equated in Cuba with Saint Ann, is also an infallible curer of apoplexy.)” (Lydia Cabrera, El Monte [Miami,Florida: Ediciones C.R., 1983], p.44). Elsewhere, the author lists the association of orishas with particular diseases: “Thus we see that the saints [here, the orishas] cause various types of deaths: Babalú Ayé kills through gangrene, smallpox, leprosy; Obatalá blinds and paralyzes; Yewa causes consumption; Inle and Orula madden; Ogún, Oshosi, Elegua and Aláguna – the cause of solitary deaths – provoke uncontrollable hemorrhaging…” ‘Oshún and Yemayá punish a person through the belly. They kill in fresh or salt water, and they cause consumption due to rain and humidity’, says Odedei.” [Cabrera, op. cit., p.48).

Orishas can cure the same illnesses they “fight” with. Both Catholic saints and Yoruba orishas “own” body parts and diseases. In medieval Spain, the saints may have owned” specific herbs as well. Cf. Julio Caro Baroja, La Estación de Amor: Fiestas Populares de Mayo a San Juan (Madrid: Ediciones Taurus, S.A., 1979) and the same author’s Ritos y Mitos Equívocos (Madrid: Ediciones Istmo, 1974) for a detailed discussion of peninsular Spanish folklore, much of which predates Christianity, concerning plants, trees and seasonal celebrations. Brought to Cuba by Spanish colonists, many of these beliefs and practices entered into complex relationships with African traditions.

[5] Cabrera, op. cit., pp. 99-100.

[6] Edward S. Ayensu, Medicinal Plants of the West Indies (Algonac, Michigan: Reference Publications Inc., 1981).

[7] In Cuba, Obatalá was catholicized as Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, Our Lady of Mercy. In a touching pun that manages to play on both the Yoruba and Catholic features of this orisha/saint, Obatalá/Las Mercedes is described as a paño de lágrimas, a figure of speech that may be translated as “consoler” or “a shoulder to cry on.” Literally, it means “a [cotton] handkerchief that wipes all tears away”. (Cabrera, op. cit., p. 312).

[8] Cabrera, op. cit., p. 317.

[9] “Aerial parts: some essential oil containing furfurol, quercetin, betaine, choline, phytosterine, various terpenes: formic, acetic, succinic, salicylic, palmitic, butyric, valerianic, capronic acids.” (Ayensu, op. cit., p. 120.) Compare with Cabrera: “Oú, ododó, the white cotton bush’s flower, has the enviable privilege of clothing Obatalá, of serving as his perpetual mantle and of ‘living’ in the closest possible contact with Orishanla, the [incredibly immaculate] ‘deity of whiteness’.” (Cabrera, op. cit., p. 313.) Presumably many of the chemicals listed are purifying and calming agents.

[10] Pierre Fatumbi Verger, Orixás (Bahia and São Paulo, Brazil: Editora Corrupio Comércio, Ltda., 1981) p. 255.

[11] Ayensu, op. cit., p. 88.

[12] Ibid, p. 148.

[13] One of the male orisha names that might be given is Salakó, derived from the Yoruba So àlà ko, meaning “open the white cloth (or caul) and hang it” (William Bascom, Sixteen Cowries: Yoruba Divination from Africa to the New World [Bloomington; Indiana University Press, 1980], p.9). By coincidence, both Lydia Cabrera in Cuba and William Bascom in Nigeria had informants with this orisha name.

[14] William Bascom, The Yoruba of Southwestern Nigeria (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969), p, 81.

[15] Ibid, p. 82.

[16] Cabrera, op. cit., p. 317, and Ayensu, op. cit., p. 120.

[17] “Oshún’s color is pupa or pon, which, in Nagô (Yoruba), means red as well as yellow. Pon ròrò is golden yellow, the color that characterizes Oshún….Another way of saying red in Nagô is pupa eyin, literally egg yolk. Nothing could be more expressive. Not only is the egg one of Oshún’s symbols, used in the preparation of one of her favorite dishes, it is also the symbol par excellence of the Iyá àgbà, the feminine ancestors.” Juana Elbein dos Santos, Os Nagô e a Morte: Padè, Asèsè e o Culto Égun na Bahia (Petrópolis: Editora Vozes, 1976), p. 89.

[18] Cabrera, op. cit., pp. 364-365.

[19] Ayensu, op. cit., p. 70.

[20] Cabrera, op. cit., pp. 359,360,362.

[21] Ayensu, op. cit., p. 90.

[22] Ibid, p.101.

[23] Cabrera, op. cit., p. 452.

[24] Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit (New York: Random House, 1983), p. 63.

[25] Gary Edwards and John Mason, Black Gods – Orisa Studies in the New World (New York: Yòrubá Theological Archministry, 1985), p. 56.

[26] Ibid, pp. 54-56.

[27] Cabrera, op. cit., pp. 231-232. In one variant of this tale, the jacket is made of zaraza, or chintz.

[28] Thompson, op.cit. p..60. Many Yoruba from what is now Nigeria’s Federal District, including the city of Lagos, were drawn into the slave trade to Cuba.

[29] Ayensu, op.cit. p. 34.

[30] I have combined two sources in this quotation: William Bascom, “The Sanctions of Ifa Divination,” in Contribution to Folkloristics (Meerut, India: Archana Pub., 1981) p. 24, and the same author’s Ifa Divination: Communication between Gods and Men in West Africa (Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1969), p. 130.

[31] Robert Farris Thompson and Joseph Cornet, The Four Moments of the Sun (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1981), pp. 37-38.

[32] Cabrera, op. cit., pp. 68-69.

[33] Hortus Third: A Concise Dictionary of Plants Cultivated in the United States and Canada. Revised by the L.H. Bailey Hortorium, Cornell University (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1976).

[34] Jamaicans call this plant “duppy gun”. Many of the English common names for the plants described in El Monte have a Jamaican flavor: Kingston buttercup for abrojo amarillo (Tribulus cistoides), Jamaica caper tree for palo diablo (Capparis cynophallophora), etc. In fact, were it not for the herbalists and “science men” of the Anglophone Caribbean, many of these uncultivated species, or “weeds,” would have no common names at all.

[35] Cabrera, op. cit., p. 536.

[36] John Janzen, The Quest for Therapy: Medical Pluralism in Lower Zaire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), pp. 189-190.

[37] Cabrera, op. cit., p. 288.

[38] Jean Price-Mars, Thus Spoke the Uncle, translated by Magdaline W. Shannon (Washington, D.C., Three Continents Press, 1983), unnumbered page of author’s introduction. The translator points out that the word feuillages, leafage, is synonymous in Haiti with “witchcraft”. Similarly, some of Cabrera’s older informants equate Osain with brujería, and with amulets and charms containing leaves (including Kongo nkisi and charms): “…Old people call Osain ‘Lukumí witchcraft’. Personified in the materials we shall list below, Osain is compared to the Kongo conjurer’s nganga or prenda….By extension, any amulet can be an ‘Osain’. For example, a tortoise shell, some buzzard feathers and thorns from the cuaba tree or the zarza [Pisonia aculeata] make an Osain that is meant to help someone flee the police. Roughly speaking, Osain means an amulet or more precisely, conjure or evil spell.” Cabrera, op. cit., p. 101.

[39] George Eaton Simpson, Religious Cults of the Caribbean: Trinidad, Jamaica and Haiti (Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico: Institute of Caribbean Studies, U.P.R., 1970) p. 74.

[40] Gladys-Marie Fry, Night Riders in Black Folk History (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1975), pp. 54-55.

[41] Ibid, p.54.

[42] P. alliacea is extremely rich in biologically active compounds, and anamú has a long history in the herbal medicine of all the tropical countries where it grows. In Brazilian herbal medicine it is also called amansa senhor, or tame the master, a holdover from slavery times, when Afro-Brazilians used this herb against slave-owners. Not surprisingly, this plant, like many others mentioned here, often overlaps with Native American usage. Called mucura by Indians of the Peruvian Amazon, it is used as part of an herbal bath against witchcraft and by herbal healers of the forest, called curanderos, to treat a variety of ailments.

[43] Kenneth M. Bilby and Fu-Kiau kia Bunseki, Kumina: a Kongo-based Tradition in the New World (Brussels: Les Cahiers du CEDAF, 1983).

[44] Maria Thereza L.A. Camargo, Medicina Popular (Rio de Janeiro:FUNARTE,1976), pp. 31-33.

[45] E. Wade Davis, “The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombi” [Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 9[1983] 85-104). In listing the plant species added to a combination of substances that lowers a person’s metabolic rate to the point of mimicking death, Davis identifies a number of plants described in El Monte. They have either urticating hairs (Mucuna pruriens), are anacardiaceous and produced severe dermatitis (Comocladia glabra), or are other types of irritants.

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