Zemis - Ritual Objects of the Ancient Taino of the Caribbean Islands

Tainos Religious Objects called Zemis

Taino Zemi - Walters Art Museum
Three pointed Taino Zemi - Walters Art Museum. Gift of the Austen-Stokes Ancient Americas Foundation, 2005. Walters Art Museum

A zemí (also zemi, zeme or cemi) is a collective term in the Caribbean Taíno (Arawak) culture for "sacred thing", a spirit symbol or personal effigy. The Taíno were the people met by Christopher Columbus when he first set foot on the island of Hispaniola in the West Indies.

To the Taíno, zemí was/is an abstract symbol, a concept imbued with the power to alter circumstances and social relations. Zemis are rooted in ancestor worship, and although they are not always physical objects, those that have a concrete existence have a multitude of forms.

The simplest and earliest recognized zemis were roughly carved objects in the form of an isoceles triangle ("three-pointed zemis"); but zemis can also be quite elaborate, highly detailed human or animal effigies embroidered from cotton or carved from sacred wood.

Christopher Columbus's Ethnographer

Elaborate zemís were incorporated into ceremonial belts and clothing; they often had long names and titles, according to Ramón Pané. Pané was a friar of the Order of Jerome, who was hired by Columbus to live in Hispaniola between 1494 and 1498 and make a study of Taíno belief systems. Pané's published work is called "Relación acerca de las antigüedades de los indios", and it makes Pané one of the earliest ethnographers of the new world. As reported by Pané, some zemís included bones or bone fragments of ancestors; some zemís were said to speak to their owners, some made things grow, some made it rain and some made the winds blow.

Some of them were reliquaries, kept in gourds or baskets suspended from the rafters of communal houses.

Zemis were guarded, venerated and regularly fed. Arieto ceremonies were held every year during which zemís were draped with cotton clothing and offered baked cassava bread, and zemi origins, histories, and power were recited through songs and music.

Three Pointed Zemís

Three-pointed zemís, like the one illustrating this article, are commonly found in Taíno archaeological sites, as early as the Saladoid period of Caribbean history (500 BC-1 BC). These mimic a mountain silhouette, with the tips decorated with human faces, animals, and other mythical beings. Three-pointed zemís are sometimes randomly dotted with circles or circular depressions.

Some scholars suggest that three-pointed zemis imitate the shape of cassava tubers: cassava, also known as manioc, was an essential food staple and also an important symbolic element of Taíno life. The three-pointed zemis were sometimes buried in the soil of a garden. They were said, according to Pané, to help with the growth of the plants. The circles on the three-pointed zemís may represent tuber "eyes", germination points which may or may not develop into suckers or new tubers.

Zemi Construction

Artifacts representing zemís were made from a wide range of materials: wood, stone, shell, coral, cotton, gold, clay and human bones. Among the most preferred material to make zemís was wood of specific trees such as mahogany (caoba), cedar, blue mahoe, the lignum vitae or guyacan, which is also referred to as "holy wood" or "wood of life".

The silk cotton tree (Ceiba pentandra) was also important to Taíno culture, and tree trunks themselves were often recognized as zemís.

Wooden anthropomorphic zemís have been found all over the Greater Antilles, especially Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. These figures often bear gold or shell inlays within the eye-inlets. Zemí images were also carved on rocks and cave walls, and these images could also transfer supernatural power to landscape elements.

Role of Zemis in Taino Society

Possession of the elaborated zemís by Taino leaders (caciques) was a sign of his/her privileged relations with the supernatural world, but zemis weren't restricted to leaders or shamans. According to Father Pané, most of the Taíno people living on Hispaniola owned one or more zemís.

Zemis represented not the power of the person who owned them, but the allies the person could consult and venerate.

In this way, zemis provided contact for every Taino person with the spiritual world.


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Updated by K. Kris Hirst