Sunday, January 20, 2019

Commissions: A Bantu Influence in Cuban Spiritism

There are certain elements within a number of religions with Bantu influences that are often not recognized as being representative of Bantu origin. One of these is the association of spirits in "filial" groups. Such groupings are not by any means universal, nor do they present themselves in exactly the same way even when they are present. While common in Brazilian Umbanda, they are absent in Cuban Palo. It is none the less, possible to identify this phenomena in several especially Bantu ethnic tradiitions in Africa, and in both the Caribbean and South America.

In southeastern and southern Bantu traditions among the Shona, Swazi, BaTonga, Xhosa, and others, certain categories of spirits are identified by ethnicity. A similar structure is visible in certain forms of Mbundu religions in Angola, and these are likely the source of the Falanges of Umbanda and the Comiciones of Cuban Popular Espiritismo, also called Cruzado.

While different sorts of spirits existed and exist in Spiritualism and Kardecist Spiritism, including for example spirits of Indians (Native Americans), Mariners, and Hindus, these are individuals and there is no sense of these identities representing a formal group or class of spirit possessing certain functions specific to their identity.

This characteristic is present in certain Bantu traditions in Africa, and in Umbanda and Cuban Popular Espiritismos, both of which bear evidence of strong Bantu influence. Kardecism does have spirits who belong to professions such as doctors, teachers, and even lawyers, but they remain largely individuals; where ethnicity is highlighted, it does not usually play a strong defining characteristic associated with the role the spirit plays.

In Brazil, Umbanda evolved as an African derived religion with a strong Bantu core, having to varying degrees depending on the escuela or school (read type) of Umbanda, influences from Kardecism, Native American, or Orixa religion. Umbanda evolved falanges (falanxes) or groups of spirits usually with specific identity type such as Pretos Velhos (black slave spirits), Marinheiros (mariners), Caboclos (Indians), Ciganas (gypsies), etc. In many versions of Umbanda, these groups are headed by a specific Orixa who while sometimes invoked, none the less does not usually appear in possession. Umbandas falanges are large and their attendant spirits often presented as being almost limitless in number Despite this, the majority of Terreiros de Umbanda (temples) work with a very limited number of spirits as a rule.

In the popular or Cruzado form of Espiritismo of Cuba, the term for such groups or families of spirits is usually referred to as Corrientes or Comisiones. Since the term "corriente" has another meaning as well, I choose to refer to them only by the term "comisiones." These families of spirits are at once less formally constituted and less densely populated than their Brazilian counterparts. It should be understood that Umbanda and Cruzado are not versions of each other, but distinct traditions which demonstrate some common influences. While dogmatic Kardeclsts may refer to them as "baixo espiritismo" or "bajo espiritismo" respectively, they are far from being versions of each other. While Cruzado may legitimately be viewed as a popular, perhaps heterodox form of espiritismo, though Umbanda demonstrates many characteristics emblematic of its early influence by espiritismo, it has long since become a religion distinct in its own right.
Comisiones in Cuban Cruzado, are not standardized. There are certain ones which are fairly universal and at least two or three which tend to dominate, most notably the Congos, but the membership and characteristics of such comisiones may be fluid. The names of some may vary, and certain espiritistas may have distinct comiciones for spirits that another may fold into a single group.

Comisiones tend to be identified by either ethnicity or profession, such as Congos, Indios, Gitanas, on the one hand and Medicos, Mariñeros, and Monjas on the other. One reason why the number of comisiones in Cuban Espiritismo are fewer than in Brazilian Umbanda, is that Cruzados comisiones tend to reflect the cultural elements that contributed to Cuban society, either literally, as in the case of Congos, Españolas, and Haitianos, or more mythically as in the case of Indios and Gitanas. It should also be noted that these groups are all described in stereotypical ways based upon 19th century perceptions. Modern PC sensibilities concerning both names and common behaviors carry no weight here. These may be in some cases real ethnicities that existed or exist in Cuban society, but their real function is more archetypal than literal.

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