Taino Society

Gods, Goddesses and Other Beings that Govern the Natural World of the Taino

HIdden Words

The Obscured Vocabulary of our Taino Ancestors

Taíno culture has had a long history that was destroyed by European invaders and obscured by the passage of time. A few words and phrases spoken in Puerto Rico today are Taíno words as they were spoken hundreds of years ago.

The Taíno were an agricultural people. They planted seeds, raised crops, and used their knowledge of the rainforest to benefit themselves

Taíno word for Haitian Hispaniola

A magical guide, advisor, and healer who knew everything about plants, natural medicine, and herbs. He was also a priest and led the cohoba and batey religious rituals with the cacique.

 


DESCRIPTION

A behique is not much different from a medicine man. His role lies in using herbs, and understanding signs from the zemis in order to heal tribesman.

The most important job of a behique is to aid the cacique during a cohoba ritual by which the cacique invokes the zemi through the idol. During this invocation, the behique is supposed to go behind the hut of the cacique and communicate on behalf of the zemi through a wooden pipe that carried his voice underground and into the hut through the idol of the zemi. By today it sounds like trickery, but this was considered an honorable role to allow a zemi to communicate through you. Although, I cannot say for sure if the behique would also inhale the cohoba seed powder and enter the trancelike state in order to allow the voice of the zemi to travel through them.

The Taíno name for a sacred plant used for grinding down its seeds into a fine red powder mixed with water to create the bright red body paint that was revered by the Taíno as a symbol for male virility.

DESCRIPTION

This plant is major for Latinos everywhere, just not in its natural form. The bixa plant is also known as bixa orellana, achiote, annatto and the lipstick tree since it grows in a bushy shrub and even a small tree. The plant was used for its seeds that imparted a yellow, to orange, and even red color according to how potent the blend is to create the red body paint of the Taíno. Today it is used in the makeup industry but more famously in food products like the Puerto Rican favorite seasoning packet Sazón!

The process of painting your body with symbols of the Taíno, using plants such as bixa (a concoction of seeds of this plant and vermilion used by the indigenes to daub their bodies), genipap, natural charcoal, animal fat, stone axes, conchs, and yautia juice. These paintings allowed the Taíno to express their cosmic, mythological beliefs and culture.

Taíno house made of straw, banana leaves and wooden poles.

DESCRIPTION

General people lived in very large circular bohios with woven straw and palm leaves and other artifacts of the land of their area. The homes had to be large because they housed multiple families, sometimes consisting of as many as 100 people.

Caciques lived in rectangular houses made with the same materials with only their family, but in a bigger proportion and also with a small porch. However, it was imperative that a cacique had a larger home, because they would have as many as 30 wives with many children who were all revered by the tribe.

The homes of neither the general people nor the cacique contained much furniture. They only had cotton hammocks, zemi idols of deceased family members, cradles for infants, woven seated wooden chairs, banana leaf mats, and even couches.

Even after African slaves were introduced to the population and brought their practice of building their homes with mud, there is no record of Taíno adopting this practice in any of their populations across the Caribbean.

Taíno name of the Indigenous people of Puerto Rico before they were renamed by their conquerors the Spanish Conquistadors. Boricua translates to “The Brave People”

Original Taíno name of Puerto Rico that translates to “land of the brave people.”

The chief/king of a Cacicazgo (territory). From their dujo (ceremonial chair; throne), they served as leader, and judge administering justice.

 

DESCRIPTION

The Cacique scheduled all planting, harvesting and hunting activities. Since the tribe did not have a written language, they were also the historian who maintained the historical memory of the tribe known as the ‘Areito’, transmitted from generation to generation by songs and dances under a tree or on a batey.

Caciques were recorded to predominantly be men, but there were two women Caciques in some folktales that we know of today. One of them was Yuiza (Yuisa, Loaiza, Luisa, Loiza) in Puerto Rico, who converted to Christianity and was murdered by the warring tribe of the Carib Indians. The common belief among islanders is that the province of Loiza in Puerto Rico, along with the river that runs through it, is named after this female chief.

Also spelled “Coaibai” which roughly translates to “House/Room of the Dead” or “Abode of the Absent.”

DESCRIPTION

Though zemis were the conduits of tohirni, the souls of the living and the dead had separate names and a final destination.

The Taíno believed the world was separated by day and night in that the day represented order (the world of the living) and night represented disorder (the world of the dead.) They also believed souls existed in trees, rocks, and water but primarily in two classes.

Goeiz refers to the souls of the living, and Hupia (also opia, opi’a, op’a, operi’to) refers to the souls of the dead; not dissimilar to the word “ghost” in that they are both spirits of the dead.

The word hupia though is only given to evil spirits who cause havoc. The spirits of those who were allowed entry into Coaybay are not specifically named. They do not play any roles outside of being prayed to and being remembered through zemis.

Once in Coaybay, the deceased would be rewarded by reuniting with others since deceased loved ones. Though it is unclear, for some reason women were generally believed to be found in this heavenly realm.

A seed that Tainos would grind down into a fine powder and then inhale, inducing feverish visions in a trancelike state.

 

DESCRIPTION

The god of Cohoba carried a plate on his head containing a powder that the Tainos inhaled during a magical religious ceremony causing hallucinations and enabling them to contact the gods. This was the Cohoba ritual, the most important ceremony for the Tainos.

The sacred frog of the island of Borinquén. This frog was on the island even before the Taino.

 

DESCRIPTION

The singing frog of Puerto Rico is the national symbol of the island, and sacred animal adored by Puerto Ricans for generations. The frog is known to be the only one of all frogs on the island that sing, as the island is its original home. The frog has since been introduced to the Hawaiian environment and if you are lucky, you might hear one if you happen to visit the forest there. There are myths surrounding its beginnings, one of which I rewrote here on the site.

However there is another myth entailing of a God named Guahoyona, who kidnapped all the women of Borinquén. With the children left to be cared for by their father’s, they had no mothers to breastfeed or console them. The infants cried out, “Toa, Toa” which means “Mother, Mother” until they all eventually became the Coqui frogs, always crying for their mothers.

The importance of this frog to the Boricua of Puerto Rico cannot be understated. Its history with the island dates back even before the Boricuas themselves. There are cave paintings all over the island, some of the most famous are found on the third largest island within Puerto Rican waters, that is also uninhabited, called Isla de Mona. It is located in the waters in between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. The cave paintings there depict the Coqui, dating back to the 13th century almost 200 years before Columbus arrived on Borinquén in 1492.

The cacique would sit on a special chair called a Duho, which was low to the ground and made him bring his legs out with his knees raised in a squatting position.

 

DESCRIPTION

The squatting position was a position of power, venerated by the Taino as it referenced the primordial Goddess Atabey in the position of eternal labor.

A word that only refers to the souls of the living, versus souls of the dead.

 

DESCRIPTION

The Taino believed in a distinction between living souls and dead souls. Both can only operate in two separate realms of existence, and can interact but are still very much apart.

(also opia, opi’a, op’a, operi’to) refers to the souls of the dead; not dissimilar to the word “ghost” in that they are both spirits of the dead.

 

DESCRIPTION

The Taino believed in a distinction between living souls and dead souls. Dead souls had a way of becoming corrupted in that they lose the ability to discern right from wrong, good from bad.

The word hupia is only given to evil spirits who cause havoc. The spirits of those who were allowed entry into Coaybay are not specifically named. They do not play any roles outside of being prayed to and being remembered through zemis.

Be warned, these spirits were also considered zombies and feared for seducing women and kidnapping people who ventured outside after dark.

Hupias assumed various forms, sometimes appearing as faceless people or that of a deceased loved one. The tell-tale characteristic of a hupia in human form is their lack of a navel/belly button. They were also associated with bats, which are common animals on the islands, as they have many caves to hide or sleep in during the day and come out at night to eat guava fruit which is the same behavior as hupias. Therefore, Guava became the fruit of the dead, much like the Greek Pomegranate.

The Taino word for man

The Taino word for mountain

A very rural person, particularly similar to what people in the U.S. call a “country bumpkin” or a hick. Although, unlike hick, jibaro is almost never used in an offensive manner. In literal use, the word today means farmer or anyone who lives and or works in rural and mountainous regions of Puerto Rico.

 

DESCRIPTION

You know how you listen to country music, or just someone from down south speak? They usually have a strong accent, and they speak the same words as you but they sound sooooooo different. This is what it is like to talk to a jibaro, but more importantly they also tend to do things and think of things in a way that is old-fashioned and straight-forward.

Jibaro is actually a Taino phrase that was made by combining two words in their language to refer to a specific group of people. 

  1. Jiba = Mountain
  2. Iro = Man

If we look at the word purely for its literal meaning in the Taino language, it directly would translate to “Mountain Man”, but the connotative tone behind it is more similar to a person who lives humbly in the countryside of Puerto Rico.

Fun fact! Jibaro is also used in Cuba where its meaning is closer to “Wild” in that the person is from the wild, and lives within nature outside of society and the commonality of technological advances.

Mothers were given the lead role in the family model. As head of household and the family as a whole, husbands were adherent to the decisions of their wives.

 

DESCRIPTION

It was Atabey who created all things including her sons. It was also she who made her sons responsibile for finishing the task of completing creation nly natural that the Taino would respect and favor their women over men, which honors their mother creator.

The Taino based their ancestral descent lines only upon the mother’s bloodline rather than the father.


DEITY PROFILE

The supreme creator of Taino myth is Atabey, the goddess who self-impregnated herself with reality and thus all things sprung fourth. It is only natural that the Taino would respect and favor their women over men, which honors their mother creator.

The Taino practiced relationships with more than one spouse. Men had as many as 2 or 3 wives, and caciques had up to 30.

 

DESCRIPTION

The goal of the tribes of Boriquen was to survive and multiply. Therefore, it was expected of men to marry again and again, especially in the case of the Cacique.

The time of the Tainos was also harsh and often unforgiving. Be aware that they lived without modern medicine or technology. Tribesman died every day from minor wounds and infections, food poisoning, natural disasters (Juracan), and many many more hazards. With so many dying every week, to every month, it was vastly important and even a responsibility of tribesman to procreate.

In the case of the Cacique, they were a leader of many roles as both political, and spiritual leader of the tribe. They could not only make decisions to go to war with other tribes, handling disputes between tribesman, etc. But arguably the most important role was to act as the conduit for Zemi’s so as to translate the will of the gods. With a role as important as mediating between the people and the gods, it is paramount that a Cacique ensure the continuation of his line so his children might one day be worthy of inheriting his role.

For the Cacique, many of their children could succumb to any number of hazards of the times. Thus, for a Cacique to have many children ensures that the tribe will always have an undisputed leader.

Taino word for magic. Tainos crafted idols called Zemis for their gods that they used as vessels to temporarily contain the magical spirit of the deity for a very limited amount of time. The essence of the spirit of the Zemis was called tohirni.

 

DESCRIPTION

Each flower, stone, tree, animal, and any other element of the natural environment was considered somewhat an appendage of sorts of the divine. Like, this rock is a piece of the ear, this flower is a part of the eye, and this stream is a tear. The Taino believed that the environment was alive as physical parts of the the divine. Therefore, all things in nature carried tohirni, or magic related to the divine essence of the zemis. It is the tohirni of zemis that allow for all things to flourish, to live, and grow.

If you read about the goddess Atabey in the creation myth or in the glossary, you will remember that all things exist within her. So, if we compound this idea with that of the famous Greek goddess Gaia, whom the earth itself is composed of, it creates an easier picture of understanding how magic and the divine work in Taino mythology.

The earth itself is a physical manifestation of the goddess Atabeysince all things currently exist within her womb where life may thrive. Tohirni is the magic, the essence of Atabey by which all things grow.

But things may get slightly murky at this point in the explanation so please bare with me. The zemi govern all aspects of the natural world. We know that the zemi Guancanbex governs natural destruction, volcanoes, fire, earthquakes, storms, hurricanes, and floods. Therefore, her essence or tohirni is based in natural destruction, but it is not chaotic. Her tohirni has a place here in the natural world, as it enforces balance. The same applies to Maroya, whose tohirni is moonlight, compassion, the stillness of night, etc. All things that humans experience in the natural world are made possible through the tohirni of zemis according to Taino mythology.

The indigenous peoples of the Caribbean islands and the lower Antilles. They migrated from South America bringing their culture, fruit and vegetable seeds, and beliefs to Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico. The Boricua, are a division of Taino who through isolation upon settling in Borinquén, developed their own identity.

 

DESCRIPTION

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Taino tribes were separated and viewed like individual kingdoms with their own rulers, and societal functions.

 

DESCRIPTION

Each tribe was unique in terms of functions, appearance, trade, and other expressions. They could trade with each other necessities that were available from their region like seashells and fish from the shore and then wood carvings and plants from those closer inland.

Every kingdom has a king, and Taino tribes are no different in that regard. The king of a Taino tribe was called the cacique, and he was not always a man. In Hispaniola there were two famous women rulers called caciqas named Anacaona (Golden Flower) from the Dominican Republic, and Yuiza ( Yuisa, Loaiza, Luisa, Loiza) from Puerto Rico. The cacique would divide up tasks and functions of the tribes among their people, and was fair in the amount of workload each received daily. The cacique’s family would also be revered, and could be found in their house which was the largest in the tribe, found explicitly in the center of all the other houses.

The regular homes of tribesmen were called bohios and housed many people, as the Taino did not believe in traditional ownership. No one house, tool, set of crops, or even wives belonged to any one person. Everything was shared for the benefit of the tribe overall, with limitations to wives and husbands still maintaining marriages to more than one spouse since stepping out of the marriage was not accepted.

Also spelled, “Cemi”, this word refers to the divine beings who govern creation. Think of zemi as a non-gendered non-conforming way of saying god/goddess.

 

DESCRIPTION

The word zemi (ZEH-ME), which may also be spelled and or pronounced as (SEH-ME), cemi and chemi, is a name used to refer to two classes of deities in Taino mythology.

Zemi is also the name used to refer to physical idols crafted and used by Tainos as vessels to temporarily hold the spirit of a god/goddess. From this vessel, a cacique (chief/king) would communicate with the zemi, and then translate its commands to a select few observes who are also individuals of status and responsibility within the tribe. When using the term in reference to the spirits, it is not limited to that of gods/goddesses since the spirits are separated into two classes of spirits.

The first class is of the gods themselves, primordial beings with dominion over natural elements like the seas and hurricanes; giving life and taking it away.

The second, lesser powerful class, is of the spirits of the dead who in their passing return to the earth. When a relative dies, especially an important one like a cacique, a bone from their body is kept. This bone transforms from a body part to a zemi, which as an idol acts as a conduit for the owner’s spirit to return to in order to commune with their loved ones. In this way, similar to the Mexican practices observed on El Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), deceased family members and caciques may be remembered and prayed to for guidance, but differ in that zemis can also  change the natural world on your behalf.

Both classes can be invoked through ritualistic practices guided and interpreted by the cacique of the tribe. A ritual takes place with a zemi idol that has been honored with tributes of food and or other valuables, which are needed along with cohoba, a hallucinogenic powder from beans of a species of Piptadenia tree. The beans are ground down into a powder and then inhaled through snuff tubes by the cacique. The cacique then enters a hallucinogenic state and communicates with the zemi, whose voice is heard through the idol, as it would be connected to a wooden pipe that the behique (magical guide and advisor) would speak through.

Each zemi idol was primarily carved or fashioned from many objects like stones, wood, seashells, cotton and even solid gold; designed to represent a specific deity, but not in the case of the deceased as their skulls/bones already represent the loved one. Said idols contain tohirni, or magic of the deity/earth and if not invoked correctly and controlled by the cacique, may result in natural disasters.

Please do not copy my work. I spent an unholy amount of hours of difficult researching, writing, editing, designing, and illustrating everything on this website by myself!