Zemis of the Taíno People

The Taíno are an Arawak people indigenous to the Caribbean and Florida. At the time of European contract in the late 15th centuries some scholars estimate the Taíno population may have reached more than 3 million. They were the principal inhabitants of most of Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola (the Dominican Republican and Haiti), and Puerto Rico.


In short, Columbus established the first American colony at La Isabela, in 1494. After a brief period of coexistence , relations between the Europeans and Taíno deteriorated. Spaniards enslaved men from villages to work in gold mines and colonial plantations. This kept the Taíno from planting crops that had sustained them for centuries.


Since the late 20th century, most scholars believe that infectious diseases killed off the Taíno, who had not acquired immunity to them. Many had hypothesized the Taíno to be functionally extinct and had backed up that assertion through a systematic “paper genocide.”


Read more about the Taíno in our recent post about them. Today we will be talking about the Arawak/Taíno deities that were called Zemi. The zemi controlled various functions of the universe, and are more akin to spirits than the common concept of polytheistic gods.


In the beginning there was only Atabey, who created the heavens. However, there was still a void, where nothingness prevailed. The heavens were dormant and meaningless. Earth and the other cosmic entities laid barren. Atabey eventually decided to create two new Zemis, Yucáhu and Guacar (who grew jealous of Yucáhu and would later disappear), from magic/elements.


Yucáhu took over as the Zemi in charge of creation, becoming a universal architect. He soon awoke the Earth from its slumber along with two new Zemis. Boinael and Maroya, controlling the sun and moon respectively, who were tasked with illuminating the new world day and night.


Yucáhu found and converted gemstones into the celestial star beings. He followed this by creating animals. Yucáhu then had a revelation, believing that something else should complete his creation.


Yucáhu then opened a rift in the heavens from which emerged the first man, whom he granted a soul and named Locuo. This man would roam the Earth endlessly filled by joy and thanking the deity for his creation. Finally satisfied with his creation, Yucáhu left the world in the hands of humanity, feeling that balance had been reached.


Atabey is the supreme goddess of the Taínos, one of two supreme Zemis in the Taíno religion. She was worshipped as a goddess of fresh water and fertility; she is the female entity who represents the Earth Spirit and the Spirit of all horizontal water, lakes, streams, the sea, and the marine tides. This deity was one of the most important for the native tribes that inhabited the Caribbean islands of the Antilles, mostly in Puerto Rico (Borikén), Hispaniola, and Cuba.


Atabey or Atabeira defines prime matter and all that is tangible or material and has several manifestations. Alternate names for the Taíno mother goddess are Iermaoakar, Apito, and Sumaiko and Taíno women prayed to Atabey to ensure a safe childbirth.


Atabey conceived twin sons without intercourse. The best known is Yúcahu because he is the principal Taíno god who rules over the fertility of Yuca (cassava).


Yúcahu was the masculine spirit of fertility in Taíno mythology. He was one of the supreme Zemis of the Pre-Columbian Taíno people along with his mother Atabey who was his feminine counterpart.


Yúcahu became known as the deity of agriculture, as well as the zemi of peace and tranquility, he represented goodness. This was contrasted greatly by the goddess Guabancex (more commonly, but mistakenly, known as Juracán) whose fierce nature was regarded as responsible for persuading other Zemis in order to bring forth chaos and who was associated with the more aggressive Caribs. Yúcahu was believed to have a throne in El Yunque peak, the largest mountain of a mountain range found in the tropical El Yunque National Forest.


This mountain range diverts the wind of hurricanes, minimizing the damage that the storms do to the lower parts of the island. Noticing this, the Taíno interpreted this as Yúcahu confronting Guabancex and her cohorts over the safety of his worshipers.


Guabancex is the supreme storm deity of the Taíno people. They were located across Florida and much of the Caribbean on islands such as Puerto Rico. She is also known as the Lady of the Winds, and was believed to be responsible for the onset of all violent storms. This also includes all natural disasters, such as earthquakes and volcanoes in the region.


Guabancex was commonly depicted with an angry face in the centre of the image, with her arms flailing on either side in a “S” shape. She was not believed to be a malevolent deity, rather a manifestation of the supreme goddess Atabey. Guabancex was her fierce and destructive side, who could wipe the world out on a whim.


Guabancex was believed to work alongside three assistants called Coatrischie, Guatauva, and Hu-Rakan. These minor Zemis were responsible for heavy rain, thunder and lightning, and hurricanes. While all could be devastating on their own, when working together they regularly caused a disastrous result.


Sources


“Mitologia y artes prehispanicas de las Antillas” by Jose Arrom


“The Identity of GuaBanCex, spirit of natural disasters” by Miguel Sague Jr.


“Guabancex (Goddess of the Wind), from the series Esculturas Rupestres (Rupestrian Sculptures)” Artist: Ana Mendieta, American, born Cuba, 1948–1985


“Ritual Objects of the Ancient Taino of the Caribbean Islands” by Nicoletta Maestri


“Encuentros con la Mitologia Taina” by Sebastian Lamarche

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