El Monte - English Version

Frater Vameri

Image by Jean-Sang-O.

Taking advantage of the edition launched by EdUSP in Portuguese, I am rereading “El Monte” by Lydia Cabrera. In this fantastic book, she reveals several customs of Cuban Afro- Diasporic religions , constantly comparing them to sister religions from other countries. It is a book full of valuable information, fun and that opens the eyes of the interested party to a point that is often ignored in Afro- Diasporic religions: the forest.

As Cabrera puts it, the forest is more than the forest or the jungle, a garden, a small collection of pots or even a simple seedling can be "the forest". This interesting reflection leads us to believe that the separation of man and nature is transposed in ways that are possible and achievable. If there is no jungle or wild forest that can be visited, there is all the potential of nature in other ways.

The most beautiful thing about understanding the role of the forest in Cuba is to understand how plants, animals and the natural world are not only the cradle, but simply the basis for everything. In Vodou , the forest, el monte would be personified mainly by Gran Bwa , the Lwa that encompasses forests, jungles, plants and wild animals. However, not only him. For example, in some Simbi we have a little of this world, as well as in certain Ogous as well. As Cabrera says, “the forest” is too immense and powerful to go down on someone's head - by analogy, we can understand that it, because it is so great, admits layers of mystery - represented by different spirits. There can be no contradiction when it is the whole, only inclusion.

Medicines, poisons, sacred herbs, tools of worship, clothes are removed from the forest, actually, even our bodies come from the forest and go back to the forest. There, in the woods, in addition to the human presence, live the spirits - always reclusive. The dead also exist there, for they are where the living do not live.

We must realize that nature cannot be dissociated from these Afro- Diasporic religions. It is no different in Vodou which establishes a relationship between the visible and the invisible both "kingdoms" within nature. If there is the forest and it is a border space, it is a threshold with one foot there and the other here. In the woods, when the road forks, we can be directed to the ordinary or the fantastic - without even noticing the difference.

In the case of the Ounfò (temple of Vodou ) we have a central pole that connects the worlds. I have already discussed here in some past text how this post can be a representation of the palm tree, the axis mundi. In the more specific case of Cuba we could think of ceiba. In any case, if we have a “tree of the worlds” and if we remember that Gran Bwa is himself identified with the central pole of Vodou, we must truly see that the forest is the gateway between the kingdoms.

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