Caribbean Cosmologies: The Greater Antilles

We are traveling to the Greater Antilles – known to my Taíno ancestors and kin as Borikén, Ayiti Kiskeya, Yamaye and Cobao. These four ancient islands were formed by the great Turtle Spirit, who was birthed from the wound of the first Taíno medicine man, or priest, Diminan Caracaracol. Creating networks of caves, rivers, mountains, and jungles, the first Turtle taught Diminan and his brothers how to survive on the Earth, as it was the only creature capable of crossing between the land and sea at the time. Today, the island of Ayiti Kiskeya, or Haiti/Dominican Republic, is more commonly known for being the setting of the first encounter between Spanish colonizers, kidnapped West African families, and the Taíno in 1492.

Image Via: The Decolonial Atlas. A map of the Caribbean islands with their indigenous names.

Similar to mainland experiences in the Appalachians, navigating the vast mountains of the Caribbean became a necessary means of physical and cultural survival for those escaping slavery, violence, death, persecution, and sickness brought on by the Spanish and French. Many today are only beginning to remember the First stories and histories of the islands, and they live on thanks to the teachings of Indigenous elders, healers, storytellers, and descendants finding their way back home 500 years+ into colonization. Below, I will recount the origin story of my people, revealing the most ancient and enduring connections to these sacred islands…

Taíno Creation Story as Told By Sierra Perez

In the beginning there was only Yaya –
Yaya was the supreme, genderless Creator and One born of no mother.
Yaya became the first mother as Atabey, and became the first father as YokaHú.
Atabey was the goddess of fertility. YokaHú was the god of creation, agriculture, and cassava.
It is said that YokaHú created the sun and moon to illuminate the Earth from celestial darkness. The sun and moon emerged from a cave and were named Boinayel and Maroya.
This is how the sun and moon came to be.

Creator Yaya eventually bore a son named Yayael.
One day, Yayael betrayed Yaya by trying to kill them.
Infuriated, Yaya banished Yayael from their celestial home for four full moons.
On the fourth full moon, Yayael‘s feelings still had not changed, so Yaya killed him and stored his bones in a hanging gourd.
The gourd remained in Yaya’s home for many moons.
One day, Yayael’s bones suddenly turned into flapping fish.
It was on this same day that four orphaned quadruplets came to visit Yaya.

They did not know they were the sons of Itiba Tahubaba, Yaya’s daughter who died in childbirth.
The sons soon learned that Yaya was their grandparent.
They talked, laughed, and exchanged many stories about their travels and lineage.
Though grateful to Yaya, one of the brothers, Diminan Caracaracol, the diseased one, soon became hungry and impatient.
Seeing the hanging gourd of fish from the corner of his eye, he snatched it when Yaya was not looking and ate the fish.
When Diminan tried to hang the gourd back up in a clumsy haste, it slipped from his fingers and shattered wide open.
So much water spilled from the gourd that it began to cover the earth below with vast oceans, bellowing caves, and diverse marine life.
This is how the oceans and islands came to be.

After the four brothers left Yaya’s house they went to visit an elder named Basamanaco.
Elder Basamanaco knew the secrets of fire and how to prepare traditional casabe bread.
When Diminan tried to ask for the casabe, the elder only threw guanguayo (semen), tobacco spittle, and cohoba powder at him.
When Diminan returned to his brothers, they saw he had a swollen wound growing on his back.
Not knowing what else to do as the wound grew, the three brothers picked up a stone ax and cut into Diminan.
A turtle emerged from him and swam away into the earth’s oceans, moving effortlessly between the land and seas.
It was on this day that Diminan finally understood his affliction.
He was meant to serve as the link between the spirit and earth realms as the Caracaracol, or priest.
The turtle taught the new Caracaracol how to live on the islands, make casabe bread, and perform the sacred cohoba ritual for his brothers.
This is how the first Taíno priests came to be.

The first Taíno people were said to have emerged from a grotto or cave on Ayiti Kiskeya called Cacibajagua, or the cave of the Jagua.
The people tried to leave the cave three times before they found success.
The first time, a guardian named Marocael stood watch in the cave and needed to decide where to send everyone before the sun god Boinayel rose.
One day he ran late returning to his post and was transformed into stone by Boinayel.
The second time, a group of people emerged together to go fishing, but Boinayel captured them and changed them into Jobos trees.
That is how the first trees came to be.
The third and final time, the one named Guaguycona sent his brother Yadrucaca to find herbs to bathe his wounds with.
But, Boinayel found him at sunrise and changed him into the Yahuba Bayael, or mocking bird.
Humiliated, Guaguycona decided he would leave the cave, and take all of his sisters and his father with him.
The brothers would be left behind to avoid incest.
The small children were left in a nearby stream and became frogs.
The sisters were left by Guaguycona to settle in a place called Matinino.
I do not know what became of them, but Guaguycona soon traveled to other islands.
He met a woman who stayed in another cave by the sea and she gave him gifts of guanine pendants and sparkling stones.

She cured all of his wounds.
Guaguycona was grateful to the strange woman and remained on that island with his father.
One night back in Ayiti, the brothers who stayed behind emerged from Cacibajagua and saw that the trees looked like androgynous people.
Knowing that the sisters had been left behind in Matinino for their safety – the generous Inriri, or woodpecker, carved women’s bodies into the nearby trees and allowed the men to procreate with them instead.
That is how the first Taíno mothers returned to populate the islands.

*Alternative ending on how the first mothers returned:

One night back in Ayiti, the brothers who stayed behind emerged to bathe in a stream when they saw amphibious looking humans falling through the ceiba trees.
They had no sex and slipped through the men’s fingers like eels.
Surprised, the men looked for the Caracaracol, with his diseased hands it would be easier to catch the slippery creatures.
The Caracaracol caught and tied the creatures to nearby inriri.
The Inriri began to pierce the creatures’ bodies and created holes.
That is how the first Taíno mothers returned to populate the islands.

Sacred Caves in Caribbean Cosmologies

An image of a Taíno cave, showing images of humanoid, fish-like beings or deities. Image Via: Wikipedia.

Cacibajagua is the cave from where Taíno ancestors emerged, and it is said that non-Taíno ancestors emerged from the one called Amayaúna. The Sun and the Moon (Boinayel and Maroya)  emerged from the one called Iguanaboina.

Caves are highly sacred and spiritual places to the Taíno and other peoples of the Caribbean, including the Kalinago, Ciguayo, and Guanahatabey, to name a few. They are considered to be the original wombs of creation, and the resting place of Ancestors. As highlighted in the Taíno origin story, it is believed that the First ancestors emerged from caves, and today they still act as portals to the realm of the underworld and the ancestors. In many ways, they were some of the first altar spaces. Cave paintings, petroglyphs, pictographs, pottery, bones, and ritual objects have all been found within these sites, revealing the cosmologies and cultural practices of the ancestors who left them behind. Ancestral veneration itself is still closely associated with caves, and the bats who dwell within them are believed to be the spirits of Ancestors returned at night to feast on guava.

Diasporic Medicine: Santería and Lukumi

Santería and Cuban Lukumi are religions that developed in the Caribbean from the synchronization of Yoruban spiritual practices with Roman Catholicism as a result of colonization and slavery. Forcibly brought over from all parts of the coast and interior of West Africa, some 500,000-700,000 or more Ancestors were taken to the island of Cobao, or Cuba. The majority arrived in the 1800s (Pluralism Project, Harvard University). Hiding their traditional practices and wisdom through the image of Spanish Catholic Saints was one of the only means of protecting their knowledge during slavery and beyond (unlike Hoodoo in the Southeast mainland, which developed from synchronizing African spirituality with Protestant Christianity). More specifically, deities from the Yoruba pantheon out of present-day Nigeria, Benin, and Togo – called Orisha (Orisa, Orixa, Oricha) – were synchronized with related Catholic Saints. For example, the Orisha of healing and disease, Obalu Ayé or Sanpanna, became Saint Lazarus, and Shango (Xango), the Orisha of lightning became Saint Barbara.

These diasporic forms of traditional African religion, much like Haitian Voodoo, Brazilian Candomble, Trinidadian Shango Baptist, among other diasporic practices, was a means of healing, protection, and survival for so many individuals and communities on the islands. Even after slavery was abolished in 1886, many still had to hide their practices through the lens of Catholicism. Today, Santería and Lukumi are passed down generationally, as well as through initiations and/or devotional practice within their respective kinship communities, or ilés. It is estimated between 250,000 to one million+ people now practice these traditions on the mainland. However, initiations can only be performed in Cuba, similar to the Yoruba Ifá tradition where initiations are performed in West African homelands, predominantly Nigeria.

Sources & Further Reading

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