The Taino society was characterized by complex religious beliefs in the form of unique origin myths. The fact that we know this today is thanks to the writing of Ramón Pané, who compiled information on the indigenous people. He was the first European to learn the American languages, the first to write a book in the New World and the first ethnologist of the Americas.
Myths are part of the ideals of a culture. They are a sacred version of a supposed reality. The mythology of a culture comes from its holy history. The conception of time was born from the observance of the cyclical movements of the heavenly bodies. The rise and setting of the sun created days. The phases of the moon allowed measuring longer periods of time, creating the concept of months.
The heavenly bodies were mythologized as it was believed that the beings of the origin resided in them. In the times of the myths, a remote past, these beings had lived on the earth and now dwelled in the heavens. The Tainos believed that the creation of the universe had passed through various eras or cycles. The first cycle began when, in the beginning of time, there was Yaya, which means “essence of life.” Yaya was a supreme spirit which evolved into the supreme being of Yúcahu Bagua Maóracoti. According to the beliefs of the Tainos, this deity lives in the heavens, is immortal, nobody can see her and she has a mother, but has always existed.
The mother of Yaya is called Atabey, Yermao, Guacar, Apito and Zuimaco. Her name is interpreted as “mother of the waters.” These names establish the hierarchy of this powerful deity in the Taino pantheon. Yaya had a son, named Yayael (son of Yaya). When he grew up, Yayael wanted to kill his father. Yaya exiled Yayael for four months and when he returned she killed him. The bones of Yayael were placed in a gourd as a symbol that all creation is preceded by a sacrifice. It is possible that this belief led to the Tainos’ custom of hanging small baskets with the bones of their deceased ancestors in the houses. The chronicles of Francisco Colón refer to this ritual: “…in Hispaniola, I would find a carefully guarded skull… that would be the head of a father or mother or other much loved person.”
Continuing with the first cycle of Taino mythology, the quadruplet sons of Itiba Cahubaba, the Great Earth Mother, who had died in childbirth (the quadruplets represented the expansion of space in four directions) came to the bohio of Yaya. In the absence of Yaya, the four took down the gourd and ate the fish that were inside. Then they hurriedly tried to hang up the gourd but it fell to the ground and broke. The water and fish spilled out, creating the oceans, fish and other marine creatures. The four continued their mischief, stealing fire, cassava and the cohoba to Bayamanaco, the god of fire.
The second cycle of Taino mythology consisted of the creation of the Taino world. The Tainos believed they originated on the island of Haiti, known to them as Bohio. They considered it a living island, a feminine being. For the Tainos, the caves were a kind of uterus, a portal for entering the outer world. Three caves were the most important, and from these came the moon, the sun, the great serpent Inaguaboina and, finally, the Taino people.
The third cycle consisted of the formation of the Taino society. Guahayona and Anacacuya emerged from the cave and began the society. Guahayona became the first bohique, or shaman, who was able to travel between the two worlds. A woman named Guabonito helped Guahayona after an illness. This woman served as a spirit guide, introducing Guahayona to the secret powers of nature.
The Tainos carried on this tradition through the areyto. The singing and dance passed on this knowledge to future generations, along with the genealogy of the chiefs and other stories. The areyto ensured that this important part of their culture would not be forgotten. In the areyto ceremony, both men and women participated together, joining arms, dancing in rows or circles to the rhythm of a great drum, maracas, flutes and horns made of shells. This activity continued until exhaustion, evoking the cosmic harmony. It took place in the batey, the sacred space in the central plaza of the settlement.
As for their funeral practices, it appears than in general the Saladoids buried their dead with their legs flexed, with little or no offerings. However, the skeletons of a species of domesticated dogs that was held in high esteem have been found along with human remains, such as in the Candelero site in Humacao, studied by archaeologist Miguel Rodríguez.
The three-pointed sculptures called trigonolitos or cemis were the representation of their gods. In the older archaeological sites, they were smaller in size and without decoration. Some small clay vessels had two small tubes that it is believed were used for inhaling hallucinogens as part of the hallucinatory ritual that originated in South America and was used to communicate with higher spirits. This practice was limited exclusively to the cacique and, on some occasions, to the bohíque and a group of elders who joined the ritual.
Taino society believed that what they thought was found in the heavens, where the divine and the daily were interlaced. The main objective of the society and its beliefs was to maintain the equilibrium, both on earth and in the heavens. If something on earth was out of its place, then something would also not go well in the heavens. They lived in search of a perfect harmony between the two worlds.
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