For me, the entire relationship between the material world, the written, drawn, carved, or painted symbol, and the immaterial world is best summed up by the Afro-Cuban system called firmas.
Firmas—the word means “signatures” in Spanish—are a form of Afro-Cuban graphic writing, straddling and combining the forms that otherwise might be called diagrams, maps, writing and performance, used by priests of Palo Monte in Cuba.
Descended from the bidimbu and bisinsu symbols developed by the Bakongo people of Central Africa, firmas are one of the world’s most complex and visual symbol systems. They are also one of the forms of graphic writing that most clearly shows the full potential of the written or drawn symbol—the distinction here is meaningless—for conveying communications that go far beyond our narrow alphabetic/phonetic notions of writing.
Each of the firmas is made up of a combination of written elements called sellos in Spanish, meaning “stamps” or “seals”—that is, units that officially mark something and send information. Each stamp represents not a letter but a concept—an action, an object, a place, an idea, a feeling, a means of attracting a force, a focus for meditation.
Firmas are used ritually, combining communication, divination and decoration on walls and doors of houses. And though there is a certain universality of meaning to the individual sellos, each signature is highly personal—that is, it is an expression of the energy and the personality of the person making it. As such, they also bridge the gap between writing, which we think of as having more or less the same meaning to everyone who reads it, and art, which we allow to be expressive of the creator and open to multiple interpretations by the perceiver.
“Although firmas are widely used within Afro-Cuban culture,” explains Barbaro Martinez-Ruiz in Kongo Graphic Writing and Other Narratives of the Sign, “relatively few people can actually read and write this form of graphic writing. Their rarity is in part a result of the system’s complexity, which demands a professional religious education; close work with a [priest] to learn the range of symbols, the syntax, and structural components; and many years of practice.”
“Firmas are…used to depict and call forth spiritual forces, communicate with ancestral spirits, and facilitate divination…. [T]he signatures function as a type of map or electrical circuit whereby the electricity and force of God, like the cosmic vibrations manifested through religious objects, circulate and materialize. Signatures are used to convey feelings, intentions, and desires to spiritual forces and serve as a means for a practitioner to visualize and communicate with the powers of the spirits. Like a text that conveys holy scripture, signatures enable both aesthetic and conceptual understandings of religious values.”
One sello in the shape of a knife crossing an eye, explains Martinez-Ruiz, and part of a much larger and more complex firma, “…must be made at the entrance of a cave, which is represented by a convex half-circle, and is used to control destructive forces known as `bad winds’ that represent illnesses, ghosts, fierce animals, social discord, and hallucinations. The eye represents the action of visualizing the divine powers through the vititi messo (divination mirror). The vititi MENSO is represented by the cross formed by the vertical line of the blade, the horizontal line representing the hilt of the blade, and the combination of the two crosses and two diagonal circles. The crosses also signify sacrifice, death, and birth (in a dialectic sense) of all initiates into the religion.”
Firmas are not written or read in linear fashion; their spatial arrangement represents visually the relationships between the individual sellos and their meanings. As such they are more sophisticated than a conventional alphabet rather than more primitive. They also draw on the visual éclat of the sellos, individually and collectively—again, a dimension of complexity that is foreign to Western readers. Above all, they acknowledge and draw on a relationship between writer, reader, the physical world and the immaterial world that we don’t even consider, so far does it go beyond our functional and materialist conception of writing.
“Signatures are also used to energize people with the forces summoned by the signature.”
In other words, the signature is not just a depiction of the force, the signature is a kind of gateway or portal through which the forces can be manifest. Again, it’s a way of making the invisible visible and the immaterial material.
“When the people supplement the motion of the firma through dance and gesture, the result is a graphic in motion that becomes a perfect symbol of God as a unifying and active spirit. Similarly, firmas are used for healing and meditation and for the facilitation of mutual transactions of energy between priests, practitioners, and God or the forces relevant to a particular religious experience. Firmas are also used to teach practitioners religious values…and to provide…instruction in the organization of time and the sequencing of ritual components within the religious ceremony.”
Firma images, then, are far more meaningful and powerful than letters. The act of drawing/writing them, especially among other such symbols, may be an act of not just representing the forces involved but of summoning, participating in, harnessing, and orchestrating them through the spiritual skill of the practitioner.
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