ancient antilles




Myth and ritual played a central role in the lives of Caribbean Amerindians. The identity of the individual, of the group in relation to other groups, the individual’s role within the group were all determined in some way by origin myths and connections to mythical ancestors. Mythic creatures and culture heroes were common subjects of Amerindian art, lore and legend. And communication with these beings was crucial in making chiefly decisions and performing medical procedures.

 In that their myths resound with brazen acts, incest taboos and forced separations, an image emerges of the Antilleans as a proud, defiant, self-conscious people among whom individuals could distinguish themselves but whose society engendered an over-arching interest in delicately balancing the roles of male and female, day and night, temporal and spiritual. Ritual significance was lent to births, initiations, celebrations, deaths and some wars, and ritual specialists, priests and shamans (behiques) were important authorities in ancient Antillean society and they often stood beside chiefs and kings (caciques) in rulership.

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Cosmology: The Triple World

Like many of the people of the ancient Americas, the people of the Antilles believed in a ‘multiverse,’ or multi-leveled universe in which the airy heavens floated above an earth, which itself floated on primordial waters beneath. Beliefs of this kind could be found from Olmec-era Mesoamerica to the Andes, Amazon and some North American ethnicities.

In the Antillean version of the triple world cosmology, the earth was a rough hemisphere, in that it stretched in all directions in a circular manner, but from its disk-like habitable base it undulated with mountains and islands, mounds on the surface of the disk. The earth hemisphere was pocked by caves and sink-holes, sacred entrances to the watery underworld
(Siegel in Bercht 97 108; Stevens-Arroyo 2006 183).

Above the archipelagic mounds of the earth, was the vault of the dappled heavens, filled with stars, the Milky Way, the moon and the sun, all acting in orderly concert. But in the heavens were also the occasional portents from weather and celestial events, like hurricanes, shooting stars and eclipses. A distinct Amerindian deity, or at least a related aspect of one probably governed each of these phenomena. However, only a few of these deified forces are known to us, mostly from historical sources and ethnographic analogy (the study of living relatives of the Antilleans in South America today).  

At the center of the terrestrial disk of the Antillean triple world was a mythic, axial tree (Siegel in Bercht 97 108) uniting earth, underworld and the heavens. The axial tree could be imagined anywhere, each settlement, chiefdom or island being the center of the universe and the center of that being the location of the symbolic axial trellis, rooted in the Underworld, passing up through the community’s central cemetery into the starry vault (Siegel in Bercht 97 108). Like an arboreal, nocturnal owl, the wide-eyed intoxicated shaman could cause his spirit to fly up and down the axial shaft, communing with the spirits in both the heavens and the Underworld, and bringing back answers for the people of the terrestrial realm.   

There were various analogies for the sky, earth and underworld in the symbolic language of Amerindians. The earth was likened to the back of a turtle or crocodilian, emergent from a dark Underworld where the ancestors and spirits lived. Water was thusly associated with the realm of disembodied entities with the power to make themselves felt in the earthly realm. The skies were filled with named constellations that were sometimes anthropomorphized or zoomorphized in the same way as Mesopotamian or Egyptian constellations. The sun, moon and other heavenly bodies were also used to track changes in weather, fix the times for planting and reaping and, in some cases, also affected decisions regarding war, pregnancy and various ceremonies.

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Eschatology: Life After Death

Besides their pantheon of gods and deified ancestors, ancient Antilleans also believed in a paradisiacal afterlife for their dead, a place the Taino of the Greater Antilles called Coaybay. This place was described by the Hispaniola Taino as a wonderful kingdom on the far side of the mythical island of Soraya (Pané ch.XII; Stevens-Arroyo 06 228). The location of this island was never indicated by Conquest era Amerindians and it unlikely they ascribed a geographic location to it any more than Jews or Christians do the Biblical heaven or Hindus and Buddhist, Mount Meru. Thus, while it is possible that the watery underworld, or perhaps the heavens, is believed to have such islands as Soraya floating inside them, it is more likely that Coaybay existed beyond dimensional time and space.

Besides their pantheon of gods and deified ancestors, ancient Antilleans also believed in a paradisiacal afterlife for their dead, a place the Taino of the Greater Antilles called Coaybay. This place was described by the Hispaniola Taino as a wonderful kingdom on the far side of the mythical island of Soraya (Pané ch.XII; Stevens-Arroyo 06 228). The location of this island was never indicated by Conquest era Amerindians and it unlikely they ascribed a geographic location to it any more than Jews or Christians do the Biblical heaven or Hindus and Buddhist, Mount Meru. Thus, while it is possible that the watery underworld, or perhaps the heavens, is believed to have such islands as Soraya floating inside them, it is more likely that Coaybay existed beyond dimensional time and space.

As with other afterlives, Coaybay did have a manner of interaction with the corporeal world: the spirits of the dead, called opía, hupia (Taino dialects) or maboya (Karina dialect), were believed by the ancient Antilleans to come out of Coaybay at night, taking on the form of bats and owls to feed on the pulp of sweet fruit like guayaba (i.e. guavas) and guanabana (sour sop) in our terrestrial realm, and to hold nighttime celebrations. In their inverted feeding pattern, the opía would seem to live in an afterlife that is a night-world of mutable forms. Images of bats and owls commemorate the opía in Antillean art, appearing prominently in the funerary and shamanic accoutrements of Caribbean Amerindians, but also in objects related to ancestor reverence and perhaps even marriage (Pané ch.XIII; Stevens-Arroyo 06 230; also see Appendix B: Pietro Martire D’Anghiera in Arrom’s Pané 50).

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Zemis: Deities and their Attributes

Yúcahu: The Fruitful
In the world of the agrarian Antilleans, the god that brought the crops to fruition was supreme. The staple crop of the entire Antilles was manioc (i.e. cassava, yuca) from which were made a variety of starchy foods. As suggested in his name Yúcahu, was the life-giving lord of this and al agricultural crops. In conjunction with is mother, Atabeira the earth goddess, Yúcahu Bagua Maórocoti as he was ceremoniously called, caused the crops to sprout, to grow, to flower, and bear fruit. He sustained the lives and the very cultures of the Antilles as a fertility god, an all-seeing heavenly benefactor, and a prophetic and tutelary deity like Quetzalcoatl or Huitzilopochtli in Mesoamerica. In chapter XXV of Pané, “Yúcahu Guamá” foretells that the Tainos will be conquered by a heavily clothed people, who the Conquest-era Amerindians interpreted as the Spaniards.

The ubiquitous trigonoliths (from the Spanish: trigonolitos), or three-pointer stones, found throughout the Caribbean islands are believed to be symbolic representations of Yúcahu. They seem to be abstracted anthropomorphic (and sometimes zoomorphic frog-like or crocodilian creatures) representations of sprouting plant-life. In incised and sculpted trigonoliths, their depiction of the flexed legs of toads/frogs invokes a common fertility symbol associated with the rainy season. And in some examples their nearly conical form is topped by a seeming stylized rendition of a mother’s nipple. Given the Antillean penchant for making visual puns and rhymes, in which similarly shaped or designed objects are overlaid in a single image, the ‘agro-bufo-maternal’ double (and triple) entendre of the trigonoliths would seem to evoke the fertility of Yúcahu Bagua Maórocoti. Such images were usually made of stone (with some notable shell exceptions) and were buried in agricultural fields where they were fertilized by urine, rain and river water in a supplication to Yúcahu.

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Atabeyra (Attabeira/Atabey/Atabex): The Earth Mother.

This supreme feminine deity was revered as the progenitor of the life-giving earth god Yúcahu, and also as his feminine counterpart in her capacity as an earth goddess. Her name has been interpreted as meaning “Mother of the Waters” referring to her control of the fresh water rivers and lakes contained in her earth realm. Atabeyra, the supreme Mother Goddess, was commemorated in various art forms, most notably the monumental petroglyph at Caguana (Stevens-Arroyo 06 221-5). Atabeyra’s squatting position in this famous monolith imitates both the position women take in childbirth and the flexed position of frogs. The association with frogs and their iconography is natural, since the mating calls of these amphibians signal the beginning of the rainy season, a time of planting manioc (cassava/yuca) and what may have been increased sexual activity for the Amerindians (having just planted the new yuca and sometimes being confined to their bohios (dwellings) by the heavier rains).

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Boinayel and Márohu: The Opposing Barometric Forces

The heavy rains are brought by Boinayel, “Son of the Grey Serpent,” the grey serpent being an analogy for the succession of dark rain clouds that roll across the sky in the middle months of the year. Boinayel alternates with his twin Márohu, who brings clear skies between the rains. During different times of the year, the twin gods are masters and harbingers of distinct periods of sustained, fairly stable weather, but with the approach of the rainy season, the alternation between the realm of Boinayel and Márohu can be sudden, taking place several times in one day. Caribbean rains in this season start and stop suddenly with periods of bright sunshine in between showers, which last between five minutes and two hours. In this way, the twin gods seemed locked in a dance or wrestling match with a different winner every day. Boinayel and Márohu are often depicted together[], almost in the manner of Siamese twins. But Boinayel, as the bringer of the rains after a long dry season, is often depicted and worshipped alone. Zemis of these twin gods are frequently hewn from wood and have been surprisingly well preserved by the caves in which they have been found in the Greater Antilles (Pané ch.XI).

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Guabancex: The Hurricane Bringer

The people of the Ancient Antilles coined the very word “hurricane,” from the Arawak word “huracan” for the ferocious storms that wrack the Caribbean at the tail end of every rainy season.  The natural harmony of Boinayel and Márohu that commences in May, and persists for almost half the year, is sometimes violently interrupted by the thunder and lightning of the angry goddess Guabancex. With her flanking forces, Guataubá who musters blustery winds and thunderous rainstorms and Coatrisquie who swells the rivers to flood, the hurricane goddess wreaks havoc on the Antilles. By August and September, the playful reciprocity between Boinayel and Márohu gives way to the mayhem of Guataubá and Coatrisquie, under the swirling arms of Guabancex. Stone and ceramic depictions of Guabancex[] show these arms, curling in opposite directions about the disembodied, circular face of Guabancex evince an uncanny, aerial understanding of the shape and rotation of hurricanes. Indeed, ancient Antilleans who survived hurricanes would have noticed that the storm winds come from one direction in the beginning of the storm, then fall completely silent, then seem to reverse direction. Images of Guabancex seem to capture this phenomenon in the singular motif of the goddess Guabancex (Pané ch.XXIII).

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Baibrama: The Resurrector

From the ashes of the burnt fields, from the lifeless joints of yuca pushed into the ground, pushes the green shoots of new life. This time of renewal is the realm of Baibrama, the grimacing, cadaverous shaman with flashing eyes and erect phallus, life in the midst of death. Decapitated, his head grows back from the root; blinded, his eyes coalesce again like dewdrops; amputated, his limbs sprout like fresh branches, for he is rebirth incarnate. Zemis of Baibrama are naturally made of wood, for its organic quality. In their deathly appearance, these sculptures are supremely potent, especially when bathed in the milky juices of the harvested yuca. Baibrama punishes those who do not honor him and showers bounty on those who feed him the fruits of his miraculous renewals. Wide-eyed, intoxicated shamans converse with Baibrama’s mystery, thusly predicting his resurrections and giving order to the seasons and the harvest.
(Pané ch.XX).

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Maquetaure Guayaba: Lord of the Dead

Coaybay is the land of the dead, beyond the hill son the far side of an island called Soraya. The lord of Coaybay is the ruler Maquetaure Guayaba, whose first name refers to a place or person ‘unliving’ and whose last name makes reference to one of the foods of the dead, guayaba or guava. The dead are believed to sometimes take the form of bats who fly out of Coaybay at night to feed on such fruits as ripe, fragrant guavas. Goggle-eyed bats and skulls are thus the common symbols of Maquetaure Guayaba and his realm. The subjects of Maquetaure can also take on human form to accompany the living in their night celebrations. But these opía, as they are called, can be found out by their lack of navels, the marks we, the living, retain from the physical ordeal of our birth into this life. Since the seductive and dangerous opía (called maboya or opoye in some parts of the Lesser Antilles) prowl the night, the ancient Antilleans restricted their travels during that time (Pané ch.XII).

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Opiyel Guobirán: The Night Dog

This canine ‘spirit of the darkness’ was a restless creature whose natural habitat was the rainforest at night. Images of him were ritualistically tied to poles or trees, tethered in the village to prevent his return to the night forest and to subdue him so that he might hear the prayers of his captors. Page 113 of Olsen illustrates that scholar’s interpretation of an altar in which an Opiyel Guobirán zemi found in northwestern Haiti would have been used. The canine zemi was found buried in a cassava patch along with shaman’s paraphernalia for preparing the hallucinogen, cohoba, a means of contacting the spirit world in the shamanic practices of the Antilles, Orinochia and Amazonia. Since zemis of this deity, which appear in a variety of materials, often feature holes through which he might be tied or hanged, Opiyel Guobirán seems to have been kept near his devotee as a talisman, or perhaps a guide to the world of the opías, spirits commemorated in the prefix of his name (Opiye=opía).

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Myths of the Antilleans

While only a few myths of the Antilleans can be mentioned here, the ones recounted below were important to Conquest-era Antilleans. They were recorded in the accounts of churchmen such as Fray Ramon Pané and Father Raymond Bréton as they attempted to understand the Amerindian mind, all in the hope of converting these “heathen” to Christianity. Therefore their reports must be considered biased, with omissions, exaggerations and possible false emphases. I have attempted here to not just report the myths, but to recount them in the manner of a storyteller. I have taken this license not only to compensate for the cultural parallax between Spaniards and Antilleans but for the disjuncture between the written and the spoken/chanted word. Even so, I have taken very few liberties with the main content of these myths, inserting only small transitional events to assist the narrative flow, e.g. I extrapolate that for some reason Mácocael would have been wandering too early in the morning to have missed the end of his night watch and been caught and carried away by the sun, the latter event recorded by Pané from Amerindian informants. I beg the forgiveness of my friends in the Taíno and Kalinago communities if I have missed anything important or caused any confusion.

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Itiba Cahubaba’s Brood

In primordial time, there was a pregnant woman who died while she was giving birth. When her people saw that she had expired, they rushed to cut her open and pulled from the husk of her body, a group of children, all sons and four in number. For this tragic birth, she is named Itiba Cahubaba, Ancient Bloodied Woman. The four sons were identical, except that one was a caracaracol, a syphilitic, with rough skin. He was called Deminán, and as is the case with some of his kind, he had special powers by which he could win benefits for his people.

Deminán Caracaracol and his brothers enter upon a series of adventures, chief of which tell the origin of the sea and perhaps even of the Antilleans themselves.

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Yaya and the Fount of the Seas

As a rich man called Yaya went off to inspect his inherited conucos (farmlands), Deminán Caracaracol  and his brothers arrived at this Yaya’s bohio (house). Finding it untended, they wandered inside and found a calabash full of fish hanging from the rafters. They ate their fill of fish that day but then heard Yaya returning from his rounds. Startled in their mischief, they bolted for the doorway. But in his haste to re-hang the gourd from the ceiling, Deminán Caracaracol was careless, and the vessel came crashing to the floor. Its watery contents seemed endless as a torrent issued thence, filling the world. It was so that the ocean came to be, filled with fish and countless creatures, all from that calabash. And the very tips of the mountains were all that remained above the water, these being the islands of the Antilles.

What the four brothers could not have known was that the endless ocean and all the fish that issued from that gourd were born of a great tragedy. For that was where Yaya kept the bones of his son, Yayael, an upstart who had once challenged his father for ownership of his conucos. Indeed Yayael had tried to kill his father for his inheritance. Yaya exiled the young man for four months, but knowing he could never trust the treacherous youth, finally decided to kill his son. As was their custom for honoring their dead, Yayael’s parents conserved his bones, hanging them from the rafters in a calabash. But one day as they grew heartsick for their dead son, the couple rushed to take his bones down and look on them kindly. They were surprised to find that the gourd was filled with fish and they wondered if they should eat them. Many kinds of fish swam in that gourd, as if Yayael’s bones had oozed briny water and come alive. They hung the gourd again in the rafters until they could devise some use for this sudden windfall.

So it was that when Deminán Caracaracol spilled the contents of that gourd, he unleashed an ocean, filled with fish, born of the honored bones of an impatient youth. Yayael’s parents could not have been pleased. But we know nothing of their reaction, for they were already far behind Deminán’s as he and his brothers fled in the deluge (Pané ch.IX and X).

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The Dorsal Pregnancy of Deminán Caracaracol

Above the flood was the house of a behique (shaman) named Bayamanaco. The brothers passed his door as they fled Yaya’s land. They could see Bayamanaco carrying some cazabe (cassava bread) inside his house. Their hunger still not slaked by Yaya’s fish, or perhaps whetted by it, the brothers longed for a taste of cassava bread. Again, Deminán Caracaracol took the initiative, stepping into the house of Bayamanaco. “Grandfather,” he said, “may we have some cazabe?” Taken aback by the youth’s presumption, Bayamanaco refused with a most indignant gesture: putting his hand to his nose, he blew a wad of mucous at Deminán. The wily youth turned to flee, but he was unable to escape in time and the sputum splashed unto his back.

Bayamanaco’s mucous was laced with cohoba, the hallucinogen used by behiques to alter their minds and thereby course through the spirit world. The cohoba-spiked snot stuck to Deminán’s back and began to irritate his scabby skin. As the pain in his back intensified, Deminán told his brothers what and who had caused his injury. They looked at their brother’s back and saw a massive swelling. As the protuberance grew, and became more agonizing, Deminán became convinced he would die. But his brothers endeavored to lance the swelling. After many failed efforts, they decided to cut the tumor from their brother’s back. And as they pried the mass open with a stone axe, a female turtle emerged from the back of Deminán Caracaracol.

As they had been plucked like peas from the belly of Itiba Cahubaba, they pried Turtle Mother loose from the spine of their brother. All four brothers married her, and their children were the people of the earth (Pané ch.XI).

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The Caves of Cauta

When the twilight catches men on the road, they often run into trouble. So it was with a man named Mácocael from Caonao. Mácocael and his people lived inside one of two caves in the sacred mountain, Cauta, close to their ancestors and the Underworld. Their cave was called Cacibajagua and in the other cave, a place called Amayaúna, lived strange and uncouth people. The time came that these ancient ancestors decided to leave Cacibajagua and settle the land. So they sent Mácocael out to the mouth of the cave to survey a new location and to otherwise stand guard. Thus he was their scout by day and their sentinel by night. He climbed down Cauta, making his way among the grasses, stones, and the roots of the jobo (hog plum) trees. He must have seen so many wonderful creatures, smelled so many beautiful flowers, ate so many delicious fruit that he could not wait to go exploring again. One day, he forgot himself, and was late in returning to his night watch post beside the door of Cacibajagua. The sun caught him in his rambles and carried him off. He finally rematerialized at his post, but this time turned to stone. Thus, the people of Cacibajagua, and their cacique Guahayona were forced to disperse from the cave without the benefit of foreknowledge of what lay in store for them outside.

Many others shared a similar fate as that of Mácocael, if twilight caught them away from home. Some anxious fishermen were snatched by the sun and turned to jobo trees and when Yahubaba was sent to gather the sacred, cleansing leaves of the digo plant, he went out before dawn and he too was transformed by the sun: into a bird that sings at sunrise. Each island has a different species of this bird, but in Quisqueya (eastern Hispaniola) and Borinquen (Puerto Rico) the bird is called yahubabael (Pané ch.I and II).

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The Arboreal Nymphs

Guahayona, son of Hiali (Híaguali) or the One Who Has Become Most Brilliant, was a cacique of whom many tales were told. Starting with the legend of the exodus from the Cauta caves, Guahayona had many adventures on many travels, and his people were eventually dispersed throughout the Antilles owing to those journeys and separations. But there is a strange story from when Guahayona had returned the island of Haiti after many travels.

One day, as some of the men folk of Guahayona’s kingdom went to bathe by a river, it began to rain but heavily. And since the torrential rain reminded them of the season when men and women couple in their houses, the men were possessed of a great longing for women. But in their travels and trials on the way back to Haiti, they had lost all their women. Yet, as they wrestled with their desires they heard noises in the trees above them, and as they looked up they saw falling amongst the branches many beguiling creatures in the trees. Though much like people, these beings were strangely without gender, neither man nor woman. As the men grasped at them, these mysterious nymphs slipped through their fingers like eels.

The men ran and reported the matter to their cacique who summoned a group of caracaracols, men whose skin had been made rough by syphilis. These men, bearing the mark of sexual affliction, could grasp the arboreal creatures with their rough hands. As the caracaracols subdued these slippery, genderless people, the community of men wondered if they might not somehow make women of these creatures. They began to search intently for the bird called inriri cahubabayael, the woodpecker. When they found one such bird, they brought it to one of the asexual captives. Fastened to the groin of the arboreal, the bird set about its normal work of pecking holes as if to make a nest. The inriri bird made a bottle-shaped burrow in each androgynous creature’s groin, a veritable womb. And so by this ritual, women were re-created on an island where there had been none for some time (Pané ch.VII and VIII).

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Children of the Moon

In the days when people still moved freely between the earth and the heavens, the living life and the realm of the maboya (spirits), there was a maiden who received a nightly visitor. Though she could not see his face in the dark of night, his voice and his touch brought them close and they became lovers. Eventually, the young woman’s belly grew big and round with child. Here family wondered how she had become pregnant. They searched for the seducer and questioned their daughter but they could not discover the identity of the baby’s father. They discovered only that the girl’s lover came to her in the night as everyone slept. Was he a man or a maboya?

A guard was posted at the house where the young woman lived and he waited through the night for the scoundrel’s visit. But in his accustomed way, the seducer slipped in and out of the house without having his identity known. Frustrated, the people of the village soon devised a more cunning plan to reveal the culprit. With the dye they usually prepared from the genipa fruit to paint their skins for war and celebrations, they would mark the cad, even if they could not capture him. Then he could be identified by day, for the black stain of genipa does not fade for a fortnight. By then, they could have searched the area thoroughly for the corruptor.

And so they posted a guard once more and he eventually discovered the girl’s lover absconding from her house. A scuffled ensued and once again the offender got away, but, this time, having been marked by the genipa juice, smeared all across his face. In the day, they searched for the nocturnal visitor and found that they did not have to go far. In shock and disgust, they discovered that the seducer was the young woman’s own brother!

They castigated and ridiculed him as he fled from the village. To the ends of the earth he ran, where the sea meets the sky and there, he rose as the moon, forever marked by the stain of the genipa.

The child of this ignoble union was anything but. His name was Hiali, the One Who Has Become Most Brilliant, and on the wings of a hummingbird, he would sometimes fly up to visit his father, the moon. Hiali was the first of a new people and as such they found a new place to live where they might work out their own destiny. These children of Hiali, and thusly children of the moon, were called Kalinago, the Island Caribs (Honychurch 95 27-8).

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Kalinago and Akaiouman’s Revenge

There was a man in the ancient past named Kalinago who grew tired of his home in Orinochia. He took his family, dogs, and their belongings, and carried them to his canoe. From the Orinoco, he paddled out to sea and traveled all the way to Waitukubuli (the island of Dominica), leaving the land of his forefathers behind. In the mountainous land of Waitukubuli he and the other men of his family fathered many children, and those children had children too.

The cacique Kalinago was not loved by all, and his rule was sometimes questioned. Grumbling nephews plotted against him and finally vowed to kill him. They soon poisoned him, and the betrayed old man seemed to die. But his maboya (spirit) returned as a great and monstrous fish named Akaiouman (Atraioman) and wreaked havoc in the waters. The treacherous nephews could not fish, nor could they swim, for fear of being crushed between enormous teeth or swallowed whole or dashed to pieces. Brave seamen among them ventured out to never be seen again. It is said that men were scattered throughout the Caribees (i.e. the Lesser Antilles), fleeing from the vengeance of Akaiouman (

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More than legends of transformation, guile, mischief, exile and capture, these tales of the Antilleans may contain historical elements of internal power struggle, societal schisms and the emergence of new life ways. The number four recurs constantly in these tales, and others, as a signifier of completion or balance. In the cosmologies of many Amerindians, the universe is divided into four sectors (often assigned different colors as with the Maya and Hopi etc.). Periods of four, and groups of four are a common narrative device for indicating wholeness, beginnings and ends. Read simply as folktales, Antillean myths are as peculiar and entertaining as those of any other tradition, but if read closely for their subtexts, symbolism, themes, mnemonic devices and other aspects of oral tradition, they provide essential insights into the Antillean mindset. Regrettably, Conquest-era chroniclers did not recognize, in their scribbled notations, the important rhythms, inflections, and countless other aspects of these spoken, chanted and performed myths. They complained instead that the Indians were balefully unlettered and that their evident modifications of myths were merely signs of poor memory.

(Additional myths and accounts of zemis and rituals can be found in: Arrom’s Pané 1999 3-38; Rouse 1992 118-121; Keegan 2007 40; Stevens-Arroyo 2006 chapter 7 and pages 179-93, 221, 224, 228, 230; and Lennox Honychurch’s recounting of Breton in The Dominica Story, Longman 1995: 27-9)

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Ritual, Ritual Objects and Worship

How the Zemis were Used The word “zemi” (cemi) is somewhat of a catchall term designating the entire class of objects used by the Antilleans as icons. It is not clear whether there might have been other terms for objects venerated in religious rituals. European chroniclers recorded only this name. Zemis could be fashioned from a variety of materials, including stone, shell, bone, ceramic, weaving or some combination of these. Many zemis were additionally adorned with guanín, a kind of gold-silver-copper alloy; paint; and very likely biological materials such as feathers. While Columbus reported an innocent and benign lack of “idolatry” and even a lack of “religion” among the Antilleans, Fray Ramon Pané, whom Columbus left in charge of compiling a study on the Amerindians, reported something entirely different. Pané described a series of rituals and beliefs related to those rituals, which he understood precisely as “idolatry.” And in his description of these Amerindian ‘superstitions,’ he often patently ignored some obvious similarities between Roman Catholic and Amerindian practices, the similarities that would form the foundation of colonial Caribbean religious syncretism. Still, some practices of the Amerindians were indeed very different from anything experienced by Spaniards or any European that followed.

Zemis were used in private and public devotion. They sometimes represented deities common to entire communities, but many zemis commemorated ancestors specific to one clan house or noble family. The zemi could be kept as altarpieces in the bohio of a family, the sacred caney of a cacique or behique, or they could be kept in caves, as was commonly the case with images of Boinayel (at right). Zemis could be used to hold or store offerings, or libations could be poured over them. They were celebrated in song, with the burning of tree rosin incense (like copal among the Maya), or they were beseeched by a supplicant, to which they were sometimes perceived to respond either in speech or action. The phenomenological experience of the zemi involved the selection of the material, the reverential hewing of the icon from its material matrix, the activation of the icon through ritual, and the manifestation of some desired sign. In fact, trees and rocks sometimes whispered to a zemist devotee to bring a shaman and a sculptor to fashion it into a zemi. Thus the zemi sometimes chose its own size, shape or supplicant (Pané ch.XIX, XXIV, Appendix B page 51) as the material sometimes already contained the spirit of the would-be zemi. Thereby, the act of sculpting a zemi constituted a kind of militated, animist spirit-capture and investiture of that spirit. We might also conclude that the sculpted, incised, woven, assembled zemi was not merely a reminder of some deity but also an embodiment of it; was not merely a container for the spirit but a kind of psycho-spiritual antenna for calling it from some supramundane dimension into full corporeality.

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The Cohoba Ritual

Communing with the zemi or contacting the opías and other spirits sometimes required the expertise of a specialist, the shaman or behique. His preparations for flight into the twilight world of gods and spirits were often taxing. Ritual baths with the sacred digo plant would accompany long fasts of several days to several months (Las Casas, Apologética, ch.166). Only the juice of digo (a plant whose stimulant properties were likened to coca by Las Casas in the Apologética, ch.167) itself could be consumed during this purifying time. A ritual purging of the stomach’s contents, through induced vomiting, also assisted the fast. The devotee inserted a vomitive spatula into his throat to trigger the expulsion. These elaborately carved vomitive implements were shaman’s heirlooms and attest to the importance of the vomitive ritual.

Fully cleansed and emptied of the world’s supports, seductions and processes, the shaman prepared the hallucinogenic tree-bark called cohoba, grinding it to powder in his carved mortar. With the cinnamon-colored cohoba readied in a vessel, the behique reached for a snorting tube. Some of these implements, like the vomit spatulas were finely worked, Y-shaped objets d’art but others were the simple, hollow bones of sacred birds.

Placing one end of the instrument in the fine powder and the other end(s) up his nose, he snorted sharply. A portion of cohoba would shoot through his nostrils. The piercing sensation brought a grimace to his face and tears eventually began to stream down his face like the tears of Boinayel. Snot also dripped from his nose as he sat hunched over with his arms resting on his knees. But he thought nothing of his abject appearance, having left his body to course in the planes beyond, behind, underneath, in-between the fleet moments of the mundane world. In this liminal world, he conversed, contended and colluded with the ancestors, nature spirits and high deities. Then he would return to the realm of humanity, with much needed answers, cures and prophecies (Pané ch.XIX; Columbus in Pané, Appendix A page 44; D’Anghiera in Pané Appendix B pages 50-1). Caciques, warriors, erstwhile mothers, aging parents and the infirm all awaited the counsel of one who had traveled thusly in the spirit world. 

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