Have you ever had the feeling you were being watched even though you are all alone? Or that somebody is in the room with you but the moment you turn around, there is nothing there but air? If you would ask the Indigenous people of the Caribbean ca. 1000 years ago, they would tell you that you were graced by the presence of one of the spirits.
If you ever wonder what it was like to live in a pre-colonial society, you cannot just simply imagine yourself in the Caribbean ca. 1000 years ago. As you probably know, life would have been very different then. Spirituality, for example, would have played a very big part in your life. This would mean that your worldview would possibly have been completely different from what you believe now. You would have lived in a world where inanimate objects could have souls or represent spirits and they could summon hurricanes if it pleased them. This world is full of raw, awesome, natural power. But there is no reason to be afraid of them. If done correctly, the spirits, called zemi or zemies, could be channelled into certain materials if they had the correct shapes and characteristics. You would have been able to use them for better, or for worse…
These zemies might not always look very interesting at first glance but they have kept archaeologists and other researchers busy since the 16th century. According to current records, these types of artifacts have been made and used by the pre-Columbian societies of the Caribbean area from around 200 BCE until the arrival of Columbus in 1492 AD. Ramón Pané, a companion of Columbus, was the first to record that the native population regarded these zemies as alive and that they contained entities such as spirits or souls.
There are many kinds of zemies with many different shapes, functions and personalities. They were made from wood, rock or even the bones of ancestors. The spirits that lived in these zemies could be something personal, like a guardian spirit or your beloved dog that died in 1297 CE. They could also be used to invoke something powerful, like Guabancex, the primordial goddess of devastating storms and hurricanes. Researchers believe that these zemies served several purposes depending on their shapes, matching the spirit or deity that inhabited it. The most common in the current archaeological record is the three-pointed zemi and some prime examples of this type of zemi have been excavated on different sites on Saba.
Zemi with detailed anthropomorphic facial features from the Turabo Valley, Caguas, Puerto Rico (photo: W. A. Géigel).
If you look at the first zemi found at the site of Kelbey’s Ridge on the North-eastern side of Saba, you might not even recognise it because of its rugged appearance. This specific three-pointer is made from coral and was found in a settlement dating to the fourteenth century AD and with affiliations to the ‘Taino’ realm of the islands of the Greater Antilles. The surface of this zemi is quite heavily weathered and, as you can observe, the surface is not very smooth. However, there is something very remarkable hidden from unobservant eyes…
Zemi from Kelbey’s Ridge
This three-pointed object actually has a decoration on its left end, probably depicting an animal. However due to its weathering it is difficult to see which animal is actually depicted. This unidentified creature probably represents a deity or spirit. It was not uncommon for zemies to be decorated according to the spirit that were channelled through them. There is evidence that different gods would have different functions if they were invocated in a zemi. For example, if someone wanted to grow yuca or manioc crops, they first had to bury the little three-pointed idol housing the zemi of Yucahu, spirit of the crops and agriculture, in their fields in order to get a successful harvest.
Often, among the Taino, three-pointed zemies were associated with the deity Yucahu so it would be possible that it was him who was depicted on this three-pointer. Yucahu was the son of Atabey Yermao Apito Zuimaco, one of the most powerful primordial mother-deities, and he is often depicted as a benevolent deity who would bring water, favourable wind, sun, fertility and other necessary things for survival in the Caribbean.
Zemi from Spring Bay
When you look at the second zemi you can immediately notice the distinct three-pointed shape and that it seems to be in a better condition. The structure of the coral is much clearer and it does not seem as ''worn-out’’ as the zemi from Kelbey’s Ridge. If you look closely, you can see another carving on its right end. This carving could be depicting an animal or deity just like the other zemi and because of its shape and material it could be another three-pointer that was connected to Yucahu.
This three-pointer was found buried at the site of Spring Bay, Saba when it was excavated in 1987. Because of its lack of weathering, this zemi can tell you a lot about what zemies originally used to look like.
So, what exactly are these zemies? Are they just idols of deities that had to be worshipped? Are they containers for any spirits that you would like to channel? Are they functional items that gained a spiritual meaning along the way? Archaeologists and other scientists of all sorts have tried to discover the true meaning and purpose of the curious living artifacts through the ages.
Even though Western scholars did not see the significance of the zemies at first, they began to understand the importance of the role of these zemies within the pre-colonial Caribbean societies around the eighteenth century. Since then, many theories on how they were used in context have been suggested by researchers from all specializations. The first theories depicted the zemies as holy rocks that were worshipped like the communal totems of the native Northern American tribes. But as the interest and curiosity for the mysterious three-pointed artefacts grew, the theories became more advanced and in 1935 researchers suggested that the word zemi was derived from the Arawakan word ''seme'', which means ''spirit benevolence'' or ''sweetness'' . The idea that zemies could be benevolent spirits gave way to theory that zemies could depict pantheon of twelve different deities, but this theory could never fully be proven.
Currently zemies are regarded by scholars as icons, linked to certain personages. These personages could have been spirits, like your ancestors, or deities, like Yucahu, and they would have their own faces and identities. They could ''animate'' the physical icons and through hallucinogenic trances, you would be able to communicate with the personage that matched with the icon that you had.
But what about the functionality of the animated artifacts? What could you DO with them? Were they only for communicating with the spirits? Or could they have served any other purposes? Well, as already mentioned each zemi had their own specific power that could be used. Another good example of this would be the zemi called Baibrama, which had the power to make people sick if used correctly. You can imagine that this type of power would be much sought after in, for example, times of war or crisis and that these types of zemies could have been very precious.
But recent research shows another way that the Indigenous people could have used these icons: these zemies would have been used to actually give people the right to rule. Originally, the Indigenous population of the Caribbean consisted of different tribes, who were all individually lead by their own chief called a caciques. But how did these chiefs gain their positions as leaders? Researchers currently believe that the caciques actually got their political powers through the zemies that they owned. If you owned antique, reputable zemies, it showed your capability to communicate and control the powerful forces of nature, thus giving you the power to become the caciques of your tribe.
So, what about the places where these idols were found? In what context were they found? What can the sites where they were found tell us about zemies?
Map of Saba with the mayor pre-colonial sites (Hofman and Hoogland 2016).
Text by Jasper Meijer, based on original published research (see further reading).
Breukel, T.W., 2013. Threepointers on Trial; A biographical study of Amerindian ritual artefacts from the pre-Columbian Caribbean. Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, Leiden.
Hofman, C.L. & Hoogland, M.L.P., 2016. Saba’s first inhabitants; A story of 3300 years of Amerindian occupation prior to European contact (1800 BC- AD 1492). Sidestone Press, Leiden.
Hofman, C.L. & Hoogland, M.L.P. & Van der Klift, H.M., 1987. An Archaeological Investigation of Spring Bay, Saba. Fieldwork Report 1987. Koninklijk Instituut voor taal-, land- en volkenkunde, Leiden.
Hofman, C.L. et al. 2007. Bright, A.J., Boomert, A. & Knippenberg S. Island Rhythms: The Web of Social Relationships and Interaction Networks in the Lesser Antillean Archipelago between 400 B.C. and A.D. 1492. Latin American Antiquity, Sep. 2007, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Sep. 2007), pp. 243-268. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Hoogland, M.L.P & Hofman, C.L., 1993. Kelbey's Ridge 2, A 14th Century Taino settlement on Saba, Netherlands Antilles. Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, Leiden.
Oliver, J., 2009. Caciques and Cemí Idols: The Web Spun by Taíno Rulers Between Hispaniola and Puerto Rico. The University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa.
Walker, J.B., 1993. Stone collars, elbow stones and three-pointers, and the nature of Taino ritual and myth. Washington State University, Pullman.