Indigenous Caribbean Network

FIRE, LIFE and WATER in the Taino spiritual thought of the CANEY INDIGENOUS SPIRITUAL CIRCLE



    I recently bought a second-hand car from an environmentally conscious friend who was concerned with the health of our waterways. When I received the car I noticed that on the rear bumper it bore a sticker that said “WATER IS LIFE”…I thought to myself: “Is it?”

    Thousands of years ago ancient Greek thinkers arrived at the conclusion that everything that exists in the universe is composed of certain fundamental things that were the building blocks of existence. They narrowed these things down to a group of four and called them “elements”. They identified these elements as 1. Earth, 2. Water, 3. Air, and 4. Fire.

     The ancient Greeks were actually on the right track. The Cosmos really is made up of certain fundamental elements, substances that are at the very basic level of universal physical construction. But the “elements” that they identified back then with their limited technological capacity were actually far from accurate, and now we know that in reality there are many more than just four basic elements that make up everything in the universe. Furthermore the original four things that the ancient Greeks identified are not really that elementary since at least three of them can be broken down further into more basic elementary components and the fourth one, Fire, is not really a thing at all, but a process.

     The fact that Fire is not a thing, not something that can be perceived as an element, is at the very core of the Caney Circle argument that IT, as opposed to Water, should be conceived as being equivalent to LIFE. LIFE is also a process. It is not a thing. Like all processes, LIFE begins, has a progressive middle and then finally, ends. All processes do that. Processes come about as a result of the interaction of certain things which act in unison to make the process happen. A foot-race is a process. In it, runners, feet, legs, the racetrack and the starter pistol are all things that come together to make the race happen. The race begins, it goes through its progress and then finally it ends. A fight is a process. In it, fists, teeth that brake, eyes that bruise and muscles that flex violently are all things that act to make the fight happen. The fight begins, it goes through its progress and then it ends.

      Fire, equally, is a process. In it wood, tinder, a match, a hand that holds the match, are all things that act to make the fire happen. The fire begins, it goes through its progress and then finally it ends. Life is also a process. In it flesh, air, blood and food are all things that come together to make Life happen. It has a beginning, it goes through a progress and then finally it ends. The end of a life is called “death”.

     Because Fire is a process and not a thing the ancient Greeks were WAY off when they grouped it with water, earth and air, which really ARE things. Being a process, Fire is definitely more properly grouped with Life, which is also a process, than with earth, water and air, which are things. But the relationship between Fire and Life goes beyond just the fact that they are both processes. Unlike certain other processes such as a race or a fight, the factors that go into creating a fire are almost identical to those that go into creating a life and the two processes are almost identical in the way they manifest. A fire is actually a process in which carbon molecules are chemically combined with oxygen molecules to form the compound carbon dioxide. During this process also, hydrogen and oxygen are combined to create water. Water and carbon dioxide are the by-products of the process called FIRE. They rise up into the air in the smoke of the flames. During the process we know as Fire there are two manifestations that we actually can perceive with our senses. These are heat and light. Both of these manifestations are typical of the process we call “FIRE”. Similarly, in the process called LIFE, the most fundamental things that take place is that carbon is combined with oxygen to form carbon dioxide and hydrogen is combined with oxygen to form water. This is going on all the time inside a human body and that is the reason every time a person exhales he or she lets out both carbon dioxide and water. In addition to all this, living things emit heat just like a fire. This means that in a sense we all carry a tiny fire that is smouldering constantly inside our bodies as long as we are alive. You can’t see the carbon dioxide but the water vapor is easy to condense and manifest by simply breathing unto a cold surface such as a cool glass. When you breathe unto a cool glass such as your bathroom mirror the water vapor that comes out of your body as a result of the fire-like LIFE process inside you will condenses on the glass, fogging it up, and you can see it.

    All fire needs both fuel and air. The fuel provides the carbon and the hydrogen, and the air provides the oxygen. These three elements are the things that are necessary for the fire to take place because the process of fire is actually the combination of carbon and hydrogen molecules with oxygen molecules. In the case of a fireplace flame the hands of the home owner bring the fuel, sticks and logs, to the place where the burning needs to take place. The oxygen-laden air is already there so it doesn’t have to be brought in. However the home owner’s hand can bring more air to the fire by fanning it. This makes the fire burn faster and hotter. 

    In the case of the mini-fire that takes place inside a person’s body, the fuel, in the form of food, is brought from the stomach to the individual body cells where the burning is taking place, by water. Water is the agent that carries the necessary oxygen and fuel to the internal fireplace where the life fire is taking place. This water circulates inside the body in the form of blood taking all the necessary elements to their proper places so that they can play their roles in the various processes of life. Water also serves as a medium within which all of the things that are needed to carry on the business of life can be properly suspended while the process takes place. Because water plays such a fundamental role in the process of LIFE it is deemed essential to LIFE. But….Is water really Life as the bumper sticker on my van states?

      Water is NOT Life….Water is essential to life, just like oxygen and carbon are, but none of these things in and of themselves can be accurately said to BE Life.  Fire, on the other hand, can be accurately equated to Life because they are both essentially the same thing, the oxidation of carbon and hydrogen. Hands bring the carbon and hydrogen locked up in the wood fuel to the fireplace to be combined with oxygen brought in by the air. Water-based blood brings the carbon and hydrogen in the form of calories, locked up in the food fuel that the person eats to the cell “fireplace” to be combined with the oxygen, also brought in by the water-based blood from the lungs. The blood is the internal hands that carry the fuel and oxygen to the appropriate internal fireplace for the burning. That is the reason we say “You have to burn all those calories”.  The calories are the fuel that keeps Life going. In those calories is imbedded the carbon and hydrogen that is needed to keep the life-fire lit. This carbon and hydrogen fuel combination is called “carbohydrates” and is almost exactly the same stuff that burns in a home fireplace.

       In the Caney   Indigenous Spiritual Circle belief tradition we identify the process of burning and the process of life with a cemi spirit called YokaHu. YokaHu represents all burning, whether that burning is taking place in a fireplace, or in the individual cells of a human body, or even in the celestial fireball called the sun. Since all of these burnings are actually distantly related to each other, they are all represented in our sacred pantheon by Yoka Hu.

       Our Taino ancestors recognized the relationship between the burning of calorie-rich food which is the fuel of the human body-fire, and the huge celestial fire of the sun which uses hydrogen as fuel. They made this important link by naming this spirit after a calorie-rich, high-carbohydrate plant tuber called yuca. The name YokaHu (or yucahu) essentially means “Soul of the yuca plant”. When the ancient Tainos told the Spanish chronicler Ramon Pane that Yokahu dwells in the sky, they made the important connection between this earth-bound calorie-rich tuber and the great heavenly body that illuminates the daylight sky.


      In the Caney Indigenous Spiritual Circle we recognize the connections understood by the ancient Tainos between Fire, Life, the yuca plant, and the divine spirit known as Yoka Hu. We know that those people also shared the wisdom with Pane that there was another sacred spirit, a female one, known as AtaBey, who was identified with water and with the earth. Again, knowing that AtaBey is identified with water and that water is not Life, it is inappropriate to identify AtaBey with Life. We DO identify her as the source of Life. As a universal cosmic mother she is the source of everything that exists. We believe that from her womb is born everything just like a fire is born of things that rise from the earth such as wood. So, even YokaHu is born of her. He is her son. But she is only the source of Life, the mother of Life, not Life itself.  

     Recently I became involved in a debate concerning this very topic. There are people in our Taino Resurgence movement who feel that AtaBey is Life because she is the source of Life and because she is identified with water. Essentially they see things in a way similar to the opinion proposed by the bumper sticker on my van; “Water is Life” and therefore they feel that AtaBey is Life. I feel that, in a sense, our ancestors made that subject pretty clear when they named YokaHu after a plant that, because of its high carbohydrate content, can be said to represent Life itself. Not only because plants are, in and of themselves excellent examples of something that is alive, but also because of the enormous levels of  life-energy packed into each one of the yuca plant’s carbohydrate-rich tubers. Plants such as yuca capture the energy of the sun in their tissues by converting it into carbohydrates through the process of photosynthesis.  One can then connect the dots and add up the fact that plants are alive to the fact that it is the yuca plant that makes the vital connection between the sun as a source of all life-energy on earth and the humans who need that life- energy to live and must eat the yuca to acquire that energy. It is in the adding up of all those facts that we understand the logic of our ancestors in naming their Life Spirit after a tuber.

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Comment by Jeffry Johnson on December 21, 2014 at 10:28pm
Hahom, brother! Beautiful!
Comment by Miguel Sague Jr on December 21, 2014 at 10:24pm

Yes brother....Hurakan is identified with the wind and in fact his name contains the word element "hu" which we in the Caney Circle identify with the word "breath" and "air".


Comment by Jeffry Johnson on December 18, 2014 at 5:51pm

What about air? Yoka-Hu is the Lord of Life, and is identified with Fire. Our Mother and Grandmother AtaBey, is identified with Earth and Water. Is Yoka-Hu also identified with Air or is there another Cemi that has this primary connection? Hurakan?

Comment by Jeffry Johnson on December 18, 2014 at 5:42pm

Jan Jan Katu!!! I love the thought process you take, challenging the "water is life" adage. I remember once you said as we humans walk around that we are Yoka-Hu-ing - burning from within with the sacred fire of our Father and our Brother. Now that is a good phrase to remember - Yoka-Hu-ing. I like that idea even beyond the scientifically parallel way that our caloric burning is similar to the burning of fire. I like that idea, because it reminds us that we are one of Yoka Hu's physical representatives in the material world.

Bo'matun for your wise teaching, brother!



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