The mythological beliefs dominated a large part of the actions of a Taino's life; as observed by historian Roberto Cassa, "the mental universe of the Indians was conditioned by a system of very well organized religious beliefs with most of the essential aspects being consistent throughout the island, as well as neighboring islands of the Antilles."13
What little we know about these beliefs we owe to the work "Relacion de las Antiguedades de los Indios" by friar Jeronimo Ramon Pane, under direct orders from Christopher Columbus 1498.
Modern investigators have compared Pane's descriptions with the art of archeological discovery like myths and vocabulary of other present day Arawak groups. Thanks to these works, specially the work of Cuban doctor Jose Juan Arrom, it has been possible to interpret the most important myths and Antillean divinities in the last few years.
Clarifying that all the leading deities were all mythological beings, we have that the principal Taino myths were:
a) The Origin of the Sun and the Moon – The Sun and the Moon emerged from a cave (BoiNayeL) in the land of cacique MauTiaTiHueL. MauTiaTiHueL means "Son of Alba" or "Lord of the Dawn" making the cave into a cosmic den from which the Sun emerges to illuminate the earth and to which it returns to hide as the moon emerges."14
b) The Quadruplets – There was a man named Yaya (supreme spirit), his son Yayael, that translates as the son of Yaya, wanted to kill him; Yaya banished him for four moons, but, on his return, he still felt the same, so Yaya killed him and hung his bones in a gourd, where they remained for some time.
One day the mother wanted to see her son's bone, and lowering the gourd they saw that the bones had transformed into fish so they decided to eat them.
While in his garden, quadruplets, the sons of a woman named Itiba Tahuavava who had died birthing them, arrived. Only one of them had a name Dimican Caracaracol which means grumpy.
Being in Yaya's house, they lowered the gourd and began eating fish, but hearing that Yaya returned, and trying to hang the gourd back in haste, they dropped it and it broke. "It is said that so much water came out of the gourd that it covered the earth and with it many fish; and this is the sea's birth."15
Exiting Yaya's hut, the quadruplets arrived at the door of an old man named Basamanaco o Ayamanaco, that knew how to prepare casabe, then the quadruplets said “Ayacavo Guarocoel” which means "let's know our grandfather".
Dimivan Caracaracol entered and asked Ayumanaco for casave, he, rudely threw guanguayo (semen) that was full of cohoba (hallucinogenic powders).
Caracaracol returned to his brothers, who looked at his back and saw that he had a swelling that was growing very fast, so they picked up a stone axe and opened it and from it emerged a live turtle; female; that way they built their home and fed their turtle. 16
Every seems to indicate that since Yaya is a supreme spirit of "cosmic farms", and who had a son who was disloyal, who he had to judge. In some cultures death is a symbol of transformation that generates new life and nourishment, which would explain why Yayael's bones, (the son of the larger spirit) would have transformed as fish and his parents in turn ate them.
On the other hand, twins have been made sacred in many religions and being four Itiba Tahuvava's sons, it has been thought that they represent the four cardinal points or "four winds". The mother, that dies at birth, would be Mother Earth and Bayamanaco, more that the grandfather, would possess the important secrets of fire and the preparation of casabe.
In the grandfather's rude response, Dr. Arrom finds represented the creation of the human race: "the flinging of the guanguayo (semen) symbolizes the act of fertilization, the following inflammation in the gestation period, and the splitting with the stone axe for the birth of a new being."17
In other mythologies some animals occupy an important symbolic status, within the waiwai (Caribe-speaking ethnic group of Guyana and northern Brazil), the turtle was the "primary mother or generative nucleus".18
The way these cultures relate to each other, it shouldn't be surprising that a turtle would emerge from Dimivan Caracaracol's back which all reared, transforming a nomad life into sedentary, after acquiring fire, the technique to prepare casabe, and the cohoba, that would keep them in communication with the mystic and supernatural world.
c) Where People Came From – The majority of the people that populated the island came out of a grotto called Cacibajagua (which means "Jagua Cave"). An idol called Marocael kept guard and decided where to send the people, but one day he was late getting to his post and was transformed into stone by the Sun.
Other inhabitants of the grotto came out to fish, but the Sun captured them and they converted into Jobos (tree and fruit from the Antilles: Spondia momnin).
One called Guaguyona sent Yadrucaca to find certain herbs with which to bathe, but this one was also surprised by the Sun in the path and was converted into a mocking bird which they called Yahuba Bayael.
Guaguyona became humiliated and decided to leave the cave taking with him all the women and abandoning all the small children in a stream, these cried with hunger asking for the breast and crying "toa, toa, toa", this is how the children were transformed into frogs or tonas.
Guaguyona went to many islands. He left the women in Matinino and went to another region named Guanin; there a woman that had remained by the sea put him in a guanara or separate place, cured his woulds, and gifted him many guanines (gold pendants) and cibas (stone beads similar to marble).
Guaguyona then changed his name to Biberoci Guaguyona, and there he remained with his father and other relatives, together they make the origin of Guanin.
It is believed that this myth represents the birth of mankind and the creation of stones, trees and birds due to the transformative action of the Sun.
It is known that syphilis existed in the Antilles before the arrival of the Europeans, because of this, Professor Arrom supposes that the Tainos considered it a punishment for incest. This would explain why Guaguyona, tired of waiting for the herbs to heal his wounds, leaves the island taking all the women to avoid relations between siblings and leaves his offspring transformed into frogs, which would put an end to descendants.
In a sacred place (Guanin) it is another woman (which comes out of the sea), which cures him, teaches him habits and manners, and gives him cibas and guanines, objects that possess "not just a sumptuary purpose, but also religious value and magic power."19
d) How They Got Women Back – Since Guaguyona left them in Matinino, the men in the island of Haiti were left without women. One day, some were bathing in a stream and "saw human looking beings falling through the trees which were neither male nor female. They tried to catch them but they slipped through their hands like if they were eels".20
The surprised natives looked for men named Caracaracol because they had tough hands from an illness similar to mange. The Caracaracol were able to catch the creatures and tied woodpeckers or inriri to their bodies. The birds, believing they were made out of wood, began their usual labor and pecked and pierced the area where women usually have their sex."21
In other primitive myths, the androgynous beings are usually related with water, it is possible that this is the reason that the creatures appear in a stream; additionally, we believe that because they are different, the Caracaracol were some sort of special beings, able to do brave deeds.
Maybe the most relevant (and amusing) part of this myth is that, contrary to Eve, formed from Adam's rib, nature would have "carved" the Taino woman's sex by way of a woodpecker.
e) The Land of the Dead – The "place and habitat" of the dead was the Coaybay in a region called Soraya. Living people's spirit was called goeiz and the dead opia.
The opias that live in Coaybay spend the day in seclusion, but at night they come out to stroll and eat guavas (tropical fruit, Pridium guajava).
Pane writes that the opias, as well as coming out to eat guavas, "had parties and walked with the living"22. Because of this, the living would touch them looking for their belly button, and not finding it would say that they were operito, which meant dead.
It is interesting that they would give so much importance to the umbilical cord to preserve life before birth, and the fact that mankind has this mark, it would make sense that the Tainos would be free from it after death.
The path to life and death in the Coaubay is very clearly defined by Professor Arrom: "To the Taino, from what I have seen, death was not extinction, punishment or reward. It was just a chapter in the transit of one existence to another, an expected and foreseen event in the natural cosmic order".23
In his Account of the Antiquities of the Indians, Pane includes the description of the principal gods or cemies of the Taino mythology: the comparative analysis made by Professor Jose Juan Arrom combines these descriptions, the meaning of some of the Arawak names, as well as, artistic representations in the Caribbean basin.
Based on his contributions and those of friar Geronimo, we have grouped the most important Taino divinities in the following tables.
Yocahu Vagua Maorocotí o Yocuhuguamá
Etymology: "It is believed that there is, in the sky, an immortal being and that no one can see him, and that he has no mother, since he doesn't have a beginning."24 His name would be the equivalent of "Spirit of Yuca and the Sea", "Lord without masculine ancestor" and "Yuca Lord", in other words, he who has given man the yuca.
Iconographic Characteristics: He was represented in the three-cornered stones (Trigonolito) or three pointed idols, abundant in Antillean archeology. Sometimes they may be little stones or pieces of shells that have been shaped this way; other times, pieces have been found with elaborately carved with humanoid or animal faces. It is believed that these Trigonolito were buried along with the planting season, with the purpose of "fertilizing" the plot. The Tainos attributed to this deity the mission to predict the destruction of their village. "and they say that this cacique confirmed that he had spoken with Yucahuguama, who had told him how many would be left after his death, because there would be people coming to dominate and kill, and that they would die of hunger".25
Etymology: Pane quotes "it is said that, when there was war, they burned him and then washing him with yuca juice, he grew arms and his eyes re-appeared and his body grew."26
Iconographyc Characteristics: It is assumed that the growth symbolizes the evolution of the yuca from a wild and weak species to the domesticated plant that provides large tubers for the communal nutrition. For Professor Arrom the growth of the Vaibrama cemi, "signifies the growth of the branches (arms), the advent of the eyes, and the growth of the thick root system that constitute, in effect, the body of the new plant".27
Pane, as well as Las Casas write that the cemi caused illness to whoever neglected to care for it and bring it offerings. It would make sense, then, that its appearance would be so intimidating, since it would have to instill fright in those that would not comply with the arduous labor of grating the yuca and extract its poisonous juice before consuming it.
The representations of Vaibrama have been more common in the cemies with mahogany plates meant for offerings. It may be that this was the god they invoked regularly to assure a good crop, as well as for the behiques to heal.
Atabey o Attabeira
Etymology: Yocahuguama's mother – its probable that her name means "mother of waters". According to Dr. Arrom, "Could also have been a divinity associated with the moon, tides and menstruation", "A feminine deity related with maternity". 29
Iconographic Characteristics: Christopher Columbus, Las Casas and Pane wrote that the Indians possessed three special or magical stones; one of them was considered the best at making pregnant women go into labor".30
Dr. Arrom suggests that certain figures carved from rock or bone were used as the amulets that the Taino women would used to invoke Attabeira during birthing pains.
Boinayel y Márohu
Etymology: “Lord of the rain and lord of the good weather". Two cemies made of stone, with their hands tied and with evidence of sweating."31
Iconographic Characteristics: Represented in two figures very close together, like Siamese twins. Some have incisions in the eyes, supposedly so that drops of water that condensed on the stone would roll down. This way, in effect, they appeared to "sweat" or "cry". It is possible that the "tears" symbolized the rains that the Taino was waiting for.
Guabancex y sus asistentes Guatauba y Coatrisquié
Etymology: Guabancex is a feminine divinity, according to Pane's descriptions, "it is said that she moves the wind and the waters, blowa houses to the ground, and uproots the trees".32 It would then be the goddess of wind, controller of hurricanes or tropical storms. She was helped in this task by Guatauba as the god of thunder and Cuatrisque as the god of floods.
Iconographic Characteristics: Various stone icons that have been found in Cuba seem to represent Guabancex as a humanoid figure with arms "like propellers to move the clouds and push the wind in it's task as destroyer".
Etymology: Lord of Coaybay, land of the dead. "The first to arrive in Coaybay was one that they called Maquetaurie Guayaba".33
Iconographic Characteristics: Represented with a certain corpse-like expression; to Professor Arrom, it's lines obey a basic pattern: "prominent chin, disproportionate mouth, flat nose, empty sockets, hair in the shape of a crown or headband".34
It is important to point out that this face has surfaced, more than in large cemies, in effigy heads, leaning stones, small amulets, or cohoba inhalators.
Etymology: “they say it has legs like a dog and is made of wood, and would often leave the house at night and would go to the jungle. There they would go find him, and back in the house they would tie him with ropes: but he would return to the jungle".35
Arrom suggest that these dog-gods were related with opiates and was a sort of Cerberus of the mystic Taino world. In his regular escapades, he would act as a guide for the opiates or spirit of the dead to amuse himself in his nightly adventures.
Iconographic Characteristics: It's most impressive representation comes from Santo Domingo: with human head, possesses the body of a dog from the waist down, and its pose suggests it is ready to jump the hut or go stroll in the jungle...
Illustrations: Betsy Arvelo