The God Fearing Tainos

The Tainos were a relatively peaceful people who wore few or no clothes, practiced fishing and subsistence farming, and were devoutly spiritual. One of the first Spanish settlers to visit a Taino village described being amazed to see well-constructed houses of wood and straw, with walls of woven cane, surrounding a plaza. The village (empty because the residents apparently fled in terror at the sight of Spanish ships) was filled with gardens, and a well-made road led to the sea, where the natives had constructed a watchtower. This may have been a pleasure retreat for the village chief and his family, a fish-spotting platform or a guard post to warn against attacks by the fearsome Caribs, who at the time were their only enemies.

According to historical accounts written by the Spanish, the 15th century was a bad one for the Tainos. Shattering nearly 800 years of relative tranquility, the Caribs surged north from the Venezualan coast, spread through the Lesser Antilles, plundered Taino settlements and scattered their residents. By the time Columbus arrived, according to European chronicles, the Caribs had begun invading eastern Puerto Rico.

The Tainos were not great warriors, and tended to put their fate in the hands of deities, which they called cemies, as well as a heavenly creator called Yocahu, a "good" god named Yukiyu and a number of lesser gods. They constantly prayed to fetishes made of wood, stone or seashells, which represented the cemies. They used tobacco for mystical and medicinal purposes. Most were afraid to be alone in the dark of night, when the dead walked around in human form and could be distinguished from the living only by their lack of a navel. Each village was built around a plaza known as the batey - which served as ceremonial site, town hall and ballpark -where a soccer-like game between two teams was played as a religious ritual.

SUDDEN-DEATH SOCCER?

It is unknown if the Tainos practiced human sacrifice, offering the losers oftheir competitions to the gods as the Mayans did. But anthropologists agree that the matches were seen as a forum for the expression of divine will, and that the atmosphere at the games was deadly serious.

In what was probably the first anthropological study of the New World, a Catalonian friar named Ramón Pané lived with the Taino people for several years to study their customs and beliefs in order to begin converting them to Christianity. His report on Indian mythology, written in 1505, includes an uncanny prophecy. Sometime during the early 15th century, a great chief named Cazivaquel fasted for a week in order to communicate with the gods. When he emerged, he reported that a cemí had told him that upon his death, the new chief would rule only a short time, and that a clothed people would arrive and eventually rule the Tainos, killing many of them. The cemí also said that the remaining Tainos would die of hunger. At first, the Taino people believed the prophecy referred to the Caribs. But because the Caribs only plundered, they told Fr. Ramón, perhaps it instead referred to Admiral Columbus and his men.

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