1200 AD to 1500 AD
3.1″ (7.9cm) high x 1.5″ (3.8cm) wide
This intriguing stone sculpture is a zemi – the physical incarnation of a Taino god, spirit or ancestor. These were used by families and centralized magico-religious institutions on a village scale, in order to “…help women with child…many which speak, and others that make grow the things that they eat, and others that bring rain, and others that make the wind blow” (Arrom 1974: 26). Historical accounts by Columbus, among others, also confirm a fertility role for at least some of the pieces. Identifying specific pieces with specific gods or spirits is not always possible; the pantheon of gods is fairly well established (based around Yucahu – the god of cassava, the Taino staple crop – and his mother Antabey, who is responsible for fertility and water) but their physical appearances are generally undefined. Zemis have been found in various parts of the Caribbean, especially Hispaniola and Jamaica.
Large-scale zemi figures in stone, wood and shell were commissioned by Taino chieftains (caciques) and stored in temple-like structures. Miniature, amulet-like, versions such as this one may have been owned by a wider section of society. The detail of the carving however, especially on the reverse, confirms that this was a high status object with a talismanic function. The zemi is depicted in a ritual squatting position with his knees bent and inward facing. The position of the hands, with the fingers pointing vertically downwards above the knees, also recalls the pose adopted by Taino shamans during the cohoba rituals. According to Taino beliefs, shamans were able to communicate with the souls of deceased ancestors when they entered into a trance-like state induced by the hallucinogenic cohoba. The facial features are skeletal, with circular sunken orbits, triangular nose and gaping mouth. On the reverse, the ribcage and spine are indicated, as are the feet which have been tucked beneath the body. A symmetrical design of incised triangles adorns the back of the head. Similar geometric motifs are a recurring feature in Taino art and must have had some cosmological significance for their original audience. This is superbly crafted piece that offers a fascinating insight into the religious life of the Taino.