Takaji My Relatives
In a recent blog post titled The Meaning of Autumn Equinox I re-published an old statement that explicates the details of Caney Circle belief concerning the ancient traditions of our Taino ancestors in regards to their departed loved ones and how those traditions are associated to the Autumn season. In that post I mentioned that this Autumn season has two dates which we feel are significant in regard to the reverence for ancestors. The first of these dates is the Autumn Equinox, a date that the archeological author Angel Rodriguez's research at Caguana has proven had special significance for our Taino ancestors. The second date is DAY OF THE DEAD in early November when we specifically honor our own family ancestors and departed loved ones. We believe the celebration of these two holidays within Taino ceremonial tradition is justified by solid historical, archeological and ethnological evidence, as well as by living tradition.
I explained in that post that the Taino male deity YokaHu, in our opinion, far from being a typical western-type paternal, immortal "almighty god" in the style of the Hebrew Jehovah, is, in fact, a much more human-like entity, consubstantial with humanity itself and subject to a very human-like life-cycle like ours which begins with birth and ends in death, and then starts all over again with a new birth. The obvious association between him and the yuca plant (manioc), evidenced by his name "Yoka Hu" (or yuca-hu), indicates that this divine entity must be subject to the rules of the biological processes that include sprouting, gradual vegetable growth and, of course, ultimate death at the moment of harvest when the life-giving roots of the yuca plant are yanked out of the ground for consumption.
The following videos about modern-day cultivation and processing of yuca (also known as manioc, mandioca, mand-yuca, tapioc, tap-yuca and tapioca ) illustrates the way in which this food, which is the inspiration of Yoka Hu's name, still plays an important role in the lives of the Indigenous people of the Amazon and Orinoco rainforest where the ancient Arawak ancestors of the Tainos originated.
As the divine name-sake and personification of a mortal, vegetable biological product, Yoka Hu is perceived also to be mortal and cyclical in the same way that yuca is mortal and cyclical. This does not mean that Yoka Hu is perceived in ancient Taino tradition to be in any way less than divine. It simply indicates that the perception of divinity in the ancient Taino mind is different to the perception of divinity in the western European mind. In the western mind divinity is perceived as being separate from nature, the term "supernatural" comes to mind. It indicates that the divine is "above" or "superior" to Nature because it is the creator of Nature.
In the traditional Amazonian-Orinoco Indigenous mind the divine is part of Nature, just like everything else, because all there is IS Nature, nothing is "supernatural" because nothing is beyond or above Nature. It is important to note that contrary to some modern interpretations of Yoka Hu as a Jehovah-like creator god, there is no mention in the writings of early Spanish chroniclers such as Ramon Pane of Yoka Hu "creating" anything. This was an assumption leaped at by some modern-day interpreters (including even some modern-day Tainos) because they are so influenced by their own western European-tainted perceptions of male Judeo-Christian creator divinity. Indigenous people see the divine as being part of Nature as opposed to being "above" Nature. For that reason things that would be perceived as "supernatural" by westeners, such as ghosts, spirits and deities, are perceived as normal, natural everyday elements of reality by the Indigenous mind, things that we all live in close proximity with on a natural plane, even though they may be invisible and hard to perceive without the aid of special procedures and rituals. The natural comparison is to think in terms of air, which is invisible but which we all know is there because we perceive its consequences, especially when they manifest themselves in catastrophic ways such as in the case of the gale-force wind of a hurricane. To the Indigenous mind there is no difference between the invisible air and the invisible spirit.
Traces of the ancient Taino perceptions of YokaHu, the mortal vegetable-humanoid deity who is born, rises to maturity and then dies, simply to be reborn again, are hinted at in the conclusions arrived at by the researcher Maria Proviones-Bishop who published an in-depth study of ancient Taino perception of Death and ancestor reverence in 2001, called "THE BAT AND THE GUAVA". In this research Proviones-Bishop points out the importance that the Amazonian-Orinoco Indigenous understanding of tropical vegetable growth, death and decay plays on their perception of human life-cycle and a type of belief in re-incarnation, the belief that human life can be recycled in a divine womb and re-born as new life in the same way that vegetable life can re-sprout after dying and rotting in the entrails of the earth, the soil of the forest.
In the upper Orinoco River region there is an Indigenous nation called the Makiritare. These people tell a creation narrative called Wattuna (see Marc de Civrieux) . The Makiritare are a yuca-cultivating Indigenous people who share some of the spiritual traditions of our Taino ancestors. In an episode of their creation narrative there is a mention of a divine female called Frimenne, who is very much comparable to the divine Earth-Mother character AtaBey of Taino spiritual tradition. Frimenne is a being who, like Atabey, is identified with large constrictor snakes (see Eugenio Fernandez Mendez) and whose divine spirit eventually ends up dwelling in a sacred lake, a fact that connects her to the identification of AtaBey as a water-mother (see Arrom). When the Makiritare tell the story of how Frimenne guards unborn humanity in her womb for a while before they emerge forth, they refer to the opening of her birth cannal by using the word "cave". By doing that they make an obvious conscious connection between women's vaginal openings and the natural holes on the surface of the earth that lead to the sacred, nurturing, underground, inner recesses of the divine Earth-Mother.
The comparison between ancient Taino cyclical approach to ancestor reverence described by Proviones-Bishop and the Caney Circle perception of Yoka Hu as an equally cyclical being with a life-cycle is a logical one since Yoka Hu is just as much the son of the same divine Earth-Water Mother Ata Bey as humans are. The fact that humanity was perceived by the ancient Tainos as emerging from a sacred cave called Cacibajagua at the point of human creation (see Pane) is proof enough that the ancient Tainos imaged humanity as being children of the female matriarchal Earth deity (Ata Bey). YokaHu is a child born of of Ata Bey (see Pane). Humanity, likewise is born of Ata Bey.
Humans eat yuca and are thus made of yuca because they are composed of the stuff that they eat (you are what you eat). There is an obvious identification between YokaHu and human life. Yoka Hu IS human life. He is, therefore viewed as representing the energy that humans acquire from the consumption of the sacred food and which after being consumed becomes part of humanity much in the same way that the Mayas perceive themselves to be "men of maize" because that is their staple food. So the ancient Tainos were "people of yuca". Being the high-starch, high-energy food that it is, the yuca, and by extension the spirit of the yuca (YokaHu) represents the very essence of energy manifested on Earth, including human energy (which can be described as "life").
The ancient Tainos understood that yuca could only grow in the presence of sunlight and must have made the accurate connection that solar energy was in fact what yuca was providing to humans in the form of carbohydrate starch. They did not have to fully understand in fine scientific detail that through the process of photosynthesis green plants (including yuca) transform radiant solar energy into carbohydrate energy and store it in their tissues. But they did make the connection between the yuca's ability to create high nutritious starch food in the presence of sunlight and thus must have arrived at the conclusion that the spirit of yuca must be in some way identified with the radiant energy of the sun. This is evidenced by the fact that this deity whose name made reference to a tuber that spends all its time deep underground was said to live in the sky (see Pane). This may appear to be a contradiction. The most important part of the yuca plant, the tuberous root remains underground during the growth process of the plant. How could a subterranian plant spirit be said to "live" in the sky? It only makes sense if one recognizes the relationship between radiant solar energy, the process of photosynthesis and the starch-energy stored in that subterranian tuber. And so Yoka Hu is not only the yuca plant but also the sun (which indeed lives in the sky) from which that yuca plant derives its very essence.
Cuban Taino representation of the sun deity "Guey" from a pictograph in Cueva De Las Mercedes cave, Sierra de Cubitas, Camaguey province.
Grating yuca tubers during the process of making casabe bread
The subterranian element of the yuca tuber's life cycle is an obvious metaphore of the slow gradual development of a fetus in the womb of a mother. Therefore it is logical to assume that the ancient Tainos perceived the yuca plant's development underground to be synonymous with the slow gradual development of the baby Yoka Hu within his Earth-Mother's womb deep underground, later to be born of the Earth, sprouting forth from the terrestial surface like ancestral primordial humanity who emerged from the vaginal cave Casibajagua. Taking into consideration Proviones-Bishop's recognition of a kind of reincarnation philosophy imbedded in ancient Taino spiritual belief, it is then also logical to conclude that the essence or soul of YokaHu, like all plants, returns down into the depths of this afore-mentioned Earth-Mother's underground womb after death and harvesting. There, as already stated, it undergoes that process of gestation like a fetus in the watery realm of what the ancient Tainos called Coaybay. So we must accept that the ancient Tainos saw the womb of AtaBey as a kind of recycling center in which both divine life as well as human life returned after the life-cycle to be renewed and re-sprouted. It is interesting to note that in many Indigenous traditions of Central America the sun also is perceived as diving deep into the underworld realm of the Earth every evening only to be re-born again in the morning.
In Caney Circle tradition we identify the stone oval hoops of the ancient Tainos with images of AtaBey's uterus and call them "coas" identifying them also to the ancient Taino digging stick. We are aware of ancient Taino tradition of tying three-pointed sculptures to these ancient hoops and conclude that this represents the return of Yoka Hu to his mother's womb and the attachment of his soul there like the attachment of a fetus to the inside of a womb.
It is important to recognize that the archeological researcher Lamarche made a crucial connection between the Autumnal season when the constellation Orion is prominent in the Caribbean night-sky and a major annual fish run which the Tainos must have taken advantage of every Fall to harvest the rich bounty of the sea. As I pointed out in my previous posting earlier this Fall:
"Lamarche, in his landmark 1992 work "Encuentros con la Mitologia Taina" established that in Yayael's story, the fact that the dead boy's bones turn into fish swimming in sea water once they have been interred in the sacred gourd through the transformative ceremony of the funerary rituals, demonstrates that the ancient Tainos associated sea-water and the interior of a gourd with the Realm of The Dead that we know as Coa Bay, a place that is also identified with the regenerative womb of the Cosmic Mother. Please visit undergraduate anthropology, sociology and history student Ryan Martin's 1999 submission to the IUSB Undergraduate Research Conference in which the scholar proposes close symbolic links between gourds and the concept of a watery ancestral womb in Taino sacred belief system.
The ancient Tainos also equally associated fish with the soul of a dead person. Lamarche bases part of his assertion on the work of Arrom, who confirms that the Taino Realm of the Dead was associated with the womb of Ata Bey, the female entity who represents the Earth Spirit and the Spirit of all horizontal water, lakes, streams, the sea, and the marine tides.
This identification of the soul of a dead person with fish is reminiscent of the traditional beliefs of South American rainforest Indigenous people. One must understand that in Indigenous South American cultures there is a tendency to believe in the ability of souls to be recycled. This means that a soul of a person that has passed away, and who is presently in the watery womb-like, cave-like, gourd realm of Coa Bay can also be considered to be the soul of a person who is waiting to be reborn. As such, if one keeps in mind the relationship between the recyclable soul of the dead and fish, one comes to the conclusion that fish can also represent unborn spirits who have not lived yet."
The primordial ancestor Yaya-Lokuo is said to have eaten the fish that Yaya-el's bones turned into, confirming that not only can the souls of the dead turn into fish in CoayBay, but that, like the sacred essence of the dead YokaHu, the yuca tuber at harvest time, those souls can be nourishing to the living and that the sacred sacrifice of the passing on of one generation representes the life of a new generation. The death of one can be the sustenance of another. This is symbolic of the fact that dead rotting vegetation feeds new growth in the tropical rainforest.
Proviones-Bishop mentiones a number of different funerary traditions among the ancient Caribbean Arawakans. She speaks of archeologically confirmed burials in the ground and in caves, both of which confirm the suggestion that ancient Tainos perceived death as a return to the Earth-Mother's underground womb, even to the point of, in some cases, making sure that this return happened via the same route taken by ancestral humanity during the original "Birth", through a cave. She also makes the important reference to burial in hanging containers. She identifies these containes as hanging "baskets" but fails to stress the importance of gourds as containers of the remains of the dead. Of course, as the work of Ryan Martin indicates, gourds are of crucial importance in the symbology of the watery womb and ancestral recycling center. The higuera gourd establishes numerous metaphores for a womb figure. It starts out as a fruit filled with fertile seeds. That alone establishes the higuera as a powerful metaphore for a womb. Since many higueras were turned into maracas filled with hard dried seeds, this fact also brought up the imagery of a fertile life-supporting container bearing fertile seeds. This aspect of the imagery is reinforced by the fact that maracas were used in magical ritual and the energy of its fertility identity was surely instrumental in its usefulness as a shamanic tool. Then also, the gourd is a principal feature in the Taino creation narrative, in which the ancestral parent-figure that we in Caney tradition identify as Yaya-Lokuo buries the remains of a slain son Yaya-el in a gourd. The fact is that there is definite historical evidence that the containers in which early Spanish chroniclers observed remains of the dead were actually predominantly gourds as opposed to the baskets mentioned by Proviones-Bishop. Furthermore burned and charred bones have been discovered indicating that some remains were cremated before being hanged in the burial gourds.
We in the Caney Circle tradition maintain that although burial practices must have varied widely among Taino groups, the ideal burial procedure of the ancient Taino was to first bury the remains of the departed loved one for an extended period of time so that the flesh would rot away as much as possible, much as in the case of burial traditions of certain Indigenous people of North America. Then the bones, which were perceived as containing the soul which in life was called "Ya", now mostly rid of flesh would be disinterred and cremated. The charred remains of the bones would be separated into two parts, the skull, which was perceived as containing the part of the Ya-soul called the "Guis" or "Goeiz" (Proviones-Bishop calls it "Goeiza") that represented the individual's ability to be a conscious, sentient being was placed in an eartheware bowl and buried under the floor of the home of the deceased and his or her family.
The charred remains of long bones such as ribs arms and legs, which were perceived to contain the portion of the Ya-soul called the "Hu" that represented the person's ability to be an animate, living being, were placed inside an higuera gourd and hung from the rafters of the house by long chords.
After the transition from a living being to a departed ancestor was completed the soul of the departed one was re-named and called "hupia" or "opia" meaning "ghost". It is important to recognize the fact that Pane recorded in his chronicles that the ghosts (opias) of departed ancestors had the capacity to come back from the realm of the dead (CoayBay) and wander the earth at night. Although this activity was usually accomplished the form of bats and owls, it could also be accomplished in human form with completely solid physical bodies. They could even physically interact with the living. They also had the capacity to eat, and mostly preferred guava fruit.
Now as we approach the second sacred holiday of the Caney Indigenous Spiritual Circle "DAY OF THE DEAD", we focus on those who have gone before us, those whose life experiences left a legacy of wisdom upon which we their descendants can build.
In Caney Circle tradition we honor those dear departed souls by creating "memory tablets" for them and establishing a part of our home as a sacred site for their remembrance called a "memory wall".
The creation of a memory tablet follows specific ritual guidelines which are followed faithfully in honor of the opia soul and to help him or her make the transition to Coaybay.
On Day of the Dead we celebrate those ancestors and departed loved ones by creating a special altar in their honor which contains amemory tablet, the sacred flowers of that holiday, marigolds, and the sacred food of the ancestors, guava.
My Relatives may all of you enjoy a blessed DAY OF THE DEAD celebration at the end of this month.