Indigenous Caribbean Network

Hello all!

I am new to learning Taino spirituality and I'm questioning if we are really polytheistic. Growing up in Boriken that's what I learned but if Yaya is the Supreme Spirit, wouldn't that make us monotheistic? Yes, we have cemis but the way I'm seeing it is that cemis are like the saints for Catholics and Catholics are considered monotheistic. 

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That's a very good question that has been discussed at length by many people both in and out of the Taino Resurgence Movement.

I will give you my own personal opinion based on my studies of world religions and spiritual traditions.

In my opinion the religious system of polytheism requires the existence of a relatively stratified and hierarchical social system that is common of complex and technologically developed civilizations. People such as the Aztecs of Mexico, the Mayas of Guatemala and the Incas of Peru were polytheistic. In such civilizations there were highly developed socio-religious systems that actually controlled the highest levels of the political machinery. The state and the religion were very much associated with each other and the priestly hierarchy was just as powerful or even synonymous with the political hierarchy.

By contrast, the ancient Taino had not reached that level of societal complexity and therefore still existed in a state of social development relatively similar to that of their Arawakan ancestors back in the South American rainforest. This means that for the most part the spiritual system of the Tainos of that era was more animistic than polytheistic. Animism is a spiritual system that perceives a certain amount of sacredness and life to be inherent in pretty much everything that exists. Every rock, every bird, every cloud, every plant, every animal, every grain of sand has a soul and a certain amount of spiritual energy in it. Certain special spirits are recognized and named. Some of those spirits can actually attain a level of importance that can be recognized as something akin to a "divinity" but I would not go as far as to call them "gods" and so I would not define the spiritual system of such a society as "polytheistic" in the strict sense of the term.

There is evidence that indicates that the Tainos of the 15th century had been influenced by the civilizations that they encountered in Central America and Mexico and thus their society and their spiritual traditions were evolving and becoming more like the spiritual traditions of their Central American neighbors. I believe that by 1492 when Columbus arrived in the Caribbean some Taino societies may have been on the verge of crossing over from being strictly animistic in their spiritual system to being more polytheistic. 

Let's talk about Yaya Guaturey the Great Spirit. I think that you have interpreted Yaya Guaturey to be a monotheistic god in the same sense as the Yaweh or Jehovah of the Bible, but that is not the case. In many animistic traditions all over the Americas and even all over the world there is belief in some sort of supreme divine entity that can be identified as a "Great Spirit" but is not a monotheistic "god". Yaya is more of a manifestation of all of the divine energy of the cosmos congregated into one unity. This means that Yaya is actually EVERYTHING and all the spiritual energy that exists in everything. This stands in stark contrast to the so-called "creator god" of the Bible who stands apart and above from the creation, and is the supreme master of that creation. We believe that our Great Spirit is part of cosmic existence.

We believe that at the moment of creation,  the creative entity, in essence, is actually putting forth a portion of itself and so the creation is actually part of the creator. They are, in a way, consubstantial and so the creator does not stand above the creation but is part of it. That is the essence of animism.

The Taino creation narrative is very specific in that respect and symbolically demonstrates that aspect of the nature of the Great Spirit. Some of the most prominent researchers who study ancient Taino spirituality, such as Robiou-Lamarche, have arrived at the conclusion that the Taino Great Spirit Yaya is actually the combined conjunction of the supreme female divine female entity, Atabey, and the supreme male divine entity, Yokahum working in unison, in complete harmony.   In the Taino creation narration the female divine entity Atabey and the male divine entity Yokahu collaborate to bring about the act of creation just like a mother and father would. Things emerge from caves at the moment of creation, such as the sun and the moon and even people. Caves are an obvious symbolic metaphor for the entrance into the womb of Mother Earth (Atabey), since  they are openings on the surface of the Earth. The surface of the Earth is also a metaphor for the essence of the cosmic female. Creation is just a projection of the supreme divinity and not some separate thing that the supreme divinity has produced out of nothing in the way that Jehovah produces his creation out of nothing.

Our belief in secondary divinities that we call "cemies" is the recognition that there are elements of the Cosmic Consciousness that can be isolated and understood as distinct unique manifestations For instance, we believe in a cemi called Boinayel, who represents rainy weather, but at the same time also represents the essence of compassion and creativity because the rain is essential in the growth of food crops and so we see in this spirit manifested the compassion of the supreme divinities who feed us and keep us healthy. We also see in Boinayel the ability for a human being to be compassionate and use his or her creativity to show compassion and altruism. So all that stuff is represented by Boinayel. But Boinayel is not independent from Atabey and Yokahu or even Yaya. They all are part of a complex supreme unity. So Boinayel and Guabancex and Marohu and Hurakan and all the other cemies are not really "gods" in the strict polytheistic sense of the term, but simply manifestations of special elements of existence who have been personified by our ancrestors, who can be identified and can be addressed as individuals.

I believe that this is the important difference between our perception of the Great Spirit as opposed to the perception of members of monotheistic religions of their creator god such as Christianity and Islam. We are not technically polytheists because our divinities don't reach the level of separation between themselves and the bulk of creation that polytheistic gods do, but we are also not monotheists because we do not believe in some sort of supreme deity that is separate from the creation that he has produced from nothing. We believe in the unity of all existence, something like the concept of Gaia in which all of creation is a supreme intelligence of which we are a part.

This is a lot of great information, thank you! You are right in your assumption of me comparing Yaya to Yaweh. I was actually seeing Yaya, Yokahu and Atabey as something like what Christians call the Holy Trinity: God, Jesus, Holy Spirit. Three different manifestations of the same god; the latter two coming from the first one, but it seems I had it completely reversed. This is probably just me trying to make sense of all of this based on what I've known all my life. I grew up Christian and the Bible was what I studied and learned. I love the fact that the creation is actually part of the creator so there is a little "divinity" in everything. If the whole world believed that, this would be a totally different world. 

Exactly! what a difference it would make if all people accepted the fact that there is a little bit of the Great Spirit in every human being and we are all part of the great cosmic divine unity.

What a beautiful insight sister! Yes, if we realized we were all part of the sacredness, truly one family, that would change so much.

Brother, this is such a beautiful description of animism and our way. It is musical, poetic, vivid, and wholly sacred. Thank you for sharing your wisdom!

As you know, my brother, I am at the service of our community with my humble offerings.

❤️

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