Caribbean Religions: Pre-Columbian Religions

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European explorers noted three major aboriginal groups in the Caribbean at the time of contact (1492 and the years immediately following): Island Arawak, Island Carib, and Ciboney. There is an abundance of information concerning the religious practices of the Island Arawak and Island Carib, but very little is known of Ciboney religion. Our knowledge of the Ciboney has increased somewhat, especially through the work of Cuban archaeologists such as Osvaldo Morales Patiño, but there remain many gaps in the archaeological and ethnohistorical records.

This essay will focus on the Island Arawak and the Island Carib. The Island Arawak were concentrated in the Greater Antilles, a group of large, mainly sedimentary islands. The principal islands of the Greater Antilles are, moving from east to west, Puerto Rico, Hispaniola (now divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Jamaica, and Cuba. The Island Carib inhabited the small, mainly volcanic islands of the Lesser Antilles (Saint Christopher-Nevis, Antigua, Guadeloupe, Dominica, Martinique, Saint Lucia, Barbados, Grenada, Saint Vincent, and Tobago). Trinidad, Margarita, Cubagua, and Coche are usually considered a part of the Caribbean region, but culturally these islands have much in common with the South American mainland (Glazier, 1980b; Figueredo and Glazier, 1982).

Earlier scholars, such as Hartley B. Alexander (1920), emphasized differences between Island Arawak and Island Carib religions. This tradition continued in the work of scholars such as Fred Olsen (1974) and Charles A. Hoffman (1980), for example, who postulated strong Maya influence on the religious systems of the Greater Antilles. Later, scholars paid greater attention to the similarities in Arawak and Carib belief systemsfor example, the many parallels in Arawak and Carib shamanismthan to their differences.

Both the Island Arawak and the Island Carib originally migrated from the South American mainland (Rouse, 1964). The Island Arawak settled in the Greater Antilles at about the beginning of the common era and were followed several hundred years later by the Carib, who claimed to have begun their migrations into the Lesser Antilles only a few generations before the arrival of Columbus. The Island Carib asserted that they conquered the Arawak of the Lesser Antilles, killing the men and marrying the women. Douglas M. Taylor (1951) suggests that the women's language prevailed, because the language spoken by the descendants of the Island Carib belongs to the Arawakan family of languages. Of course, another possible explanation is that all the peoples of the Lesser Antilles were of Arawak origin.

It should not be assumed that the Island Arawak of the Greater Antilles and the Arawak of the South American mainland are members of the same ethnic group. The Island Arawak and Arawak proper did not speak the same language. Irving Rouse points out that their two languages were "no more alike than, say, French and English" (Rouse, 1974). Moreover, inhabitants of the Greater Antilles thought of themselves not as "Arawak" but as members of local chiefdoms, each of which had its own name. Since each chiefdom was totally independent of all others, the group we know as the Island Arawak had no need for an overall tribal name.

In 1920, Hartley Alexander suggested that the sea must have been a tremendous barrier to cultural transmission in the Caribbean. Contemporary archaeologists, however, recognize that water did not constitute a barrier for these peoples. Therefore, archaeologists no longer study individual islands in isolation. This has many implications for the study of aboriginal Caribbean religions as it becomes increasingly apparent that religious developments on one island were likely to have affected religious developments elsewhere in the region. Various island groups seem to have been in constant contact with one another.

Archaeologists have since established a firmer and more comprehensive chronology for the Caribbean region (Rouse and Allaire, 1978). They also have discovered much greater variation in religious artifacts than was previously thought to exist, which in turn hints at a greater variation within the religious traditions of the Island Arawak and the Island Carib than was previously supposed. Arawak and Carib traditions, for example, may have differed from settlement to settlement on the same island.


Both the Island Arawak and the Island Carib possessed a notion of a high god, though, as the chroniclers' reports make clear, their high god differed conceptually from the God of Christianity. We know, too, that aboriginal high gods were thought to exert very little direct influence on the workings of the universe. Many of the early chroniclers, including Fray Ramón Pané, Gonzalo F. de Oviedo, and Raymond Breton, refer to Arawak and Carib high gods as kinds of deus otiosus; that is, they are inactive gods far removed from human affairs and concerns. Neither the Island Arawak nor the Island Carib conceived of their high god as creator of the universe, and it is unclear how powerful the high god was thought to be. Was it that their high god was able to interfere directly in world affairs but chose not to do so, or was he thought to be totally ineffectual? Chroniclers differ somewhat on this. Pané suggests that the high god was a powerful deity who chooses to be inactive. Other chroniclers stress the inactivity of the high god and the lack of attention accorded him. The bulk of the evidence, including what we know of other American Indian religions (Hultkrantz, 1979), supports the latter interpretation.

Island Arawak

The identification of Island Arawak deities is often a problem. Their high god was known by two names: Iocauna and Guamaonocon (spellings differ from chronicler to chronicler). Peter Martyr reports that the Arawak supreme being was not self-created but was himself brought forth by a mother who has five names or identities: Attabeira, Mamona, Guacarapita, Iella, and Guimazoa. He also reports other appellations for the high god, including Jocakuvaque, Yocahu, Vaque, Maorocon, and Macrocoti. Pané provides an equally complex list of male and female deities, and it is apparent that most deities in the Arawak pantheon were recognized by a number of appellations. Henri Pettitjean-Roget (1983) has suggested that the various names be interpreted as different incarnations of the same deity, as in the Hindu tradition. Another possible explanation is that different names simply represent local variants.

A number of interpreters (Joyce, 1916; Alexander, 1920) have posited that the Island Arawak possessed a conception of an earth mother and a sky father similar to that of other American Indian groups. This has been called into question. While there are many similarities between the goddess Attabeira and the earth mother of American Indian mythology, there are also many differences. Attabeira does seem to have been associated with fertility, and as Fred Olsen (1974) suggests, her many Arawakan names describe her various functions: mother of moving waters (the sea, the tides, and the springs), goddess of the moon, and goddess of childbirth Representations of Attabeira frequently show her squatting in the act of parturition, and archaeologists have been greatly impressed with the vividness of these portrayals. Her hands are holding her chin while her legs press into her sides as she struggles in childbirth. In several representations her open mouth and heavy eyebrows ridging over wide-open eyes convey successfully the intensity of her efforts. But there are other characteristics of Attabeira that are not at all like those of an earth mother. Sven Lovén (1935) concludes that Attabeira cannot be identified as a goddess of the earth because she seems to have dwelt permanently in the heavens. He concedes that Attabeira may have been an all-mother, but this does not necessarily imply that she was an earth goddess.

Lovén (1935) also points out that Iocauna was not an all-father. As noted previously, native conceptions of Iocauna would have precluded procreative activities. It is possible that one of Iocauna's names, Yocahu, is related to the yuca (cassava) plant (Fewkes, 1907). Yocahu may have been the giver of yuca or the discoverer of yuca, but he was not believed to be the creator of yuca (Olsen, 1974). It is clear from all accounts that after yuca was given to the Island Arawak, it was cultivated through the cooperation of zemi spirits and was not at all dependent on the cooperation of Yocahu.

Other prominent Island Arawak deities include: Guabancex, goddess of wind and water, who had two subordinates: Guatauva, her messenger, and Coatrischio, the tempest-raiser; Yobanua-Borna, a rain deity; Baidrama (or Vaybruma), a twinned deity associated with strength and healing; Opigielguoviran, a doglike being said to have plunged into the morass with the coming of the Spanish; and Faraguvaol, a tree trunk able to wander at will. One difficulty with the various listings provided by the chroniclers is that they do not distinguish mythical beings and deities. This is unfortunate because the Island Arawak themselves seem to have made such a distinction.

As Alexander (1920) has pointed out, there is some evidence that nature worship and/or a vegetation cult existed among the Island Arawak. This remains, however, a much neglected aspect of Island Arawak religion. Pané's elaborate description of the manufacture of wooden religious objects suggests some similarities between the production of these objects and the construction of wooden fetishes in West Africa. While the analogy is not complete, it has been noted that many aspects of Caribbean religions seem to derive from similar attitudes toward material objects (Alexander, 1920).

One of the most important differences between Arawak and Carib religions is that among the Island Arawak nature worship seems to have been closely associated with ancestor worship. The bones of the Island Arawak dead, especially the bones of their leaders and great men, were thought to have power in and of themselves. This notion also existed among the Island Carib, but their ceremonies and representations were not so elaborate. In addition, most chroniclers mention that the Island Arawak painted their bodies and faces, especially in preparation for war. The chroniclers are in agreement that the painted figures were horrible and hideous, but there is little agreement as to what the figures were supposed to represent. Jesse W. Fewkes (1907) has suggested that body paintings had religious importance; most other sources suggest that markings served to distinguish members of the same clan. The practice may have been a form of ancestor worship.

Island Carib

Like the Island Arawak, the island Carib recognized a multitude of spirit beings as well as a high god whose name varies according to text. Sieur de La Borde (1704) refers to their high god as Akamboüe. According to Raymond Breton (1665), however, Akamboüe means "carrier of the king," and the highest deity in the Island Carib pantheon was the moon, Nonu-ma. Breton argues that the moon was central in Island Carib religion because the Carib reckoned time according to lunar cycles. The sun, Huoiou, also occupied an important place in the Island Carib pantheon. Although the sun was said to be more powerful than the moon, Huoiou was also said to be more remote from human affairs and therefore less significant.

Of the spirits directly involved in human affairs, Icheiri and Mabouia are the most frequently mentioned. Icheiri, whose name comes from the verb ichéem, meaning "what I like" (Breton, 1665, p. 287), has been interpreted as a spirit of good, while Mabouia, from the same root as the word boyé, or "sorcerer," has been interpreted as a spirit of evil. The Carib informed Breton that it was Mabouia who brought about eclipses of the sun and caused the stars to disappear suddenly.

The terms icheiri and mabouia have been widely discussed in the secondary literature. I believe that these were not names of spirits, but were general categories within the spirit world, and that spirits were classified primarily according to their relation to the individual. One man's icheira (helper) could be another man's mabouia (evil spirit) and vice versa (Glazier, 1980a). The most important consideration, as far as the Carib were concerned, was to get a particular spirit on one's side.

Another major category in the Island Carib spirit world was that of the zemiis. Zemi, too, appears to have been a very general term; the word is of Arawak origin and indicates the strong influence of Island Arawak language and culture on the Island Carib. Among the Carib, to get drunk, chemerocae, literally meant "to see zemiis." Zemiis were thought to live in a paradise far removed from the world of the living, but every so often, according to La Borde (1704), Coualina, chief of the zemiis, would become angry about the wickedness of some zemiis and drive them from paradise to earth, where they became animals. This is but one example of the constant transformations from deity to animal in Island Carib mythology.

Zemiis were frequently represented by, and in many cases were identical with, conical objects that have been found at both Island Arawak and Island Carib sites. The most common types are triangular (the so-called three-pointers) and/or humpback in shape. Some are elaborately carved, but a majority of zemiis are plain. Archaeologists have discovered zemiis made of wood, conch shell, and stone, but stone zemiis are the most prevalent.

Fewkes (1907) was among the first to suggest the religious import of these objects. He posited that they may have had a magical function, especially in reducing pains associated with childbirth. Olsen (1974) offers a more materialistic explanation. He suggests that the conical shapes of these stones represented the Caribbean islands themselves dramatically rising out of the sea with their pronounced volcanic peaks. Pettitjean-Roget (1983) provides a broader interpretation than Fewkes or Olsen. He postulates that these conical objects were nothing less than an encapsulation of the entire cosmos.


Both the Island Arawak and the Island Carib had a notion of the afterlife. The Island Arawak conceived of spirits of the dead, called opias or hubias, who were said to wander about the bush after dark. Occasionally opias joined the company of the living and were said to be indistinguishable from the living, except for the spirits' lack of navels. In both Arawak and Carib religions, the activities of the dead were thought to resemble the activities of the living. Opias, for example, passed their time feasting and dancing in the forest. Their behaviors were similar to native ceremonies.

Pané reports that the Arawak of Haiti believed in a kingdom of death, Coaibai, which was situated on their own island. Every leader of importance had his own kingdom of death, usually located within his own dominion. In addition, there were uninhabited places where the spirits of evil people were said to roam.

The Island Carib, on the other hand, had a much more diffuse notion of the afterlife. All spirits of the body, omicou, went to the seashore or became mabouias in the forest. There was no concept of an underworld, nor were spirits associated with specific locations, as among the Island Arawak. Each individual was said to possess three souls: one in the heart, one in the head, and one in the shoulders. It is only the heart-soul that ascends to the sky, while the other two souls wander the earth for eternity. The Island Carib asserted that only valiant heart-souls ascended; the implication here is that even the heart-souls of the less valiant sometimes became mabouias and roamed the earth.

Elaborate burial ceremonies were noted among both the Island Arawak and the Island Carib. Archaeological evidence indicates that the Island Arawak performed several types of burials: (1) direct interment, with the skeleton in a sitting or flexed position; (2) interment within a raised mound, with the body in a crouched position; (3) interment within a grave covered with an arch of branches topped with earth; and (4) burial in caves, with skeletons in a flexed position. Secondary burials were also prevalent (Lovén, 1935).

Christopher Columbus summarized the different burial customs on Hispaniola as follows: "They open the body and dry it by the fire in order that it may be preserved whole. Often, depending on rank, they take only the head. Others are buried in caves. Others they burn in their houses. Others they drive out of the house; and others they put in a hammock and leave them to rot" (Lovén, 1935). It is apparent that Arawak burial customs differed markedly and that burials for leaders were much more elaborate than burials for the masses. From the archaeological record, it is also apparent that the Island Arawak buried a majority of their dead in crouching or flexed positions. In this they differed from the Ciboney, who buried their dead lying straight (Lovén, 1935).

Burial customs among the Island Carib were not so varied. Breton (1665) noted that the Island Carib dreaded death, and that it was forbidden to utter the name of the deceased. The Island Carib referred to the dead indirectly (e.g., "the husband of so-and-so") because to do otherwise would cause the deceased to come back to earth.

When an Island Carib male died, the women painted his cheeks and lips red and placed him in a hammock. After some time the decomposed body was brought inside a hut, where it was then lowered into a shallow grave. Burial was in the flexed position, with the body sitting on its heels, and with the elbows resting on the knees and hands folded to the breast. Important men were buried with cooking pots and utensils, their dogs, and slaves who were killed so they might continue to serve their masters in the next life. La Borde (1704) notes that the Island Carib frequently burned the bodies of their leaders and mixed the ashes with their drinks. This may not be accurate, for there is little archaeological evidence for cremation among the Island Carib.

Origin Myths

We possess no creation myths for Caribbean peoples. Both Island Arawak and Island Carib seem to have assumed that the universe had always been in existence. They did, however, have many stories concerning the earliest peoples of their respective groups.

Island Arawak

According to the aborigines of Haiti, the earliest people appeared out of two caves. A majority of the people emerged from a cave known as Cicibagiagua, while another, smaller group emerged from the cave Amaiacuva. Alexander (1920) suggests that these two caves represent two different races or tribes. Lovén (1935) argues to the contrary: there is, he says, but one tribal group. Since most of the people emerged from Cicibagiagua, those who emerged from Amaiacuva constituted an elite, the Taino. I find Lovén's interpretation the more plausible. These caves, situated on the mountain of Cauta in the region of Caunana, were believed to actually exist and may have been located in the area of present-day Sierra de Coonao. Where caves did not exist, Island Arawak stress appearance out of the ground.

Island Arawak legends also account for the first appearance of the sun and the moon from a grotto known as Giovaua, and for the origin of fish and the ocean. According to the legend:

There was a certain man, Giaia, whose son, Giaiael, undertook to kill his father, but was himself slain by the parent, who put the bones into a calabash, which he hung on top of his hut. One day he took the calabash down, looked into it, and an abundance of fishes came forth. The bones had changed into fish. Later, when Giaia the parent was absent, his four sons took the calabash and ate some of the fish. Giaia returned suddenly and in their haste the sons replaced the calabash badly. As a result, so much water ran from it that it overflowed all of the country, and with the water came an abundance of fish. (Fernández Méndez, 1979; my trans.)

Other stories tell how the four brothers obtained manioc and tobacco from people whom they visited (see Fernández Méndez, 1979). Rouse (1948) suggests that these stories may have been put to song.

The stories of the emergence from caves and the origin of fish are, in Pané's account, followed by stories concerning the adventures of Guaguigiana, a culture hero, and his comrade. Giadruvava. Guaguigiana appears to have been something of a trickster figure, and his adventures resemble those of trickster-fixers associated with other American Indian groups. It is to Pané's credit that he attempted to present stories in the order in which the Island Arawak themselves presented them, even when that order made little intuitive sense to him (Deive, 1976).

Island Carib

Among the Island Carib the first man, Louguo, was said to have descended from the sky. Other men came out of his navel and his thighs. Louguo created fish by throwing cassava scrapings into the sea, and according to La Borde (1704), many of the first men were later transformed into stars.

The constellations were accorded great importance in Island Carib thought: Chiric (the Pleiades) was used to number their years; Sauacou, who changed into a great blue heron, was sent to heaven where he forms a constellation announcing hurricanes; the Great Bear is the heron's canoe; the constellation Achinaou announces gentle rains and high winds; the constellation Cauroumon is associated with heavy waves; the constellation Racumon was changed into a snake; and Baccamon (Scorpio) foretells high winds (Breton, 1665). It is clear that the various constellations were used to divine the future, but it is unclear whether or not the constellations were actually believed to cause earthly events.

Rites and Ceremonies

The most important ceremonies among the Island Arawak pertained to rain and the growth of crops, but there were also important ceremonies for success in war, burial of the dead, curing of the sick, canoe building, cutting hair, the births of children, marriage, and initiation. In most instances these rites took the form of elaborate dances known as areitos. Fewkes (1907) notes that dramatization played a part in all ceremonies. For example, in their war dances the entire war sequence was portrayed: the departure of the warriors, surprise of the enemy, combat, celebration of victory, and return of the war party. Singing also played a part in all ceremonies, and some of the early chroniclers incorrectly restricted their use of the term areitos to funeral chants or elegies in praise of heroes.

The island Carib conducted ceremonies on many of the same occasions as did the Island Arawak. According to La Borde, the Island Carib held rites whenever a council was held concerning their wars, when they returned from their expeditions, when a first male child was born, when they cut their children's hair, when their boys became old enough to go to war, when they cut down trees, and when they launched a vessel. Some authorities mention other ritual occasions: when a child reached puberty, when a parent or spouse died, when the Island Carib were made captives, and when they killed one of their enemies.

Island Carib rites met individual as well as societal needs. Each individual had his own personal deity or zemi. These personal deities were thought to reveal things to the individual, and it is reported that individuals customarily withdrew from society for six or seven days, without taking any sustenance save tobacco and the juice of herbs. During this period, the individual experienced visions of whatever he or she desired (victory over enemies, wealth, and so on).

Much has been written on alleged cannibalism among the Island Carib (the word cannibal is a corruption of Caribal, the Spanish word for "Carib"). The Island Arawak told Columbus that they were subject to raids by man-eating Indians known as Carib, and Columbus directed his second voyage to the Lesser Antilles, where he had been told the Carib lived, in order to confirm Arawak reports. Rouse (1964) credits Columbus with confirming that the Carib practiced ritual cannibalism, that is, they ate captives in order to absorb their fighting ability. Recently the anthropologist William Arens (1979) has suggested that Columbus had no direct evidence for this assertion, and in fact did not really believe that the Carib were cannibals, but he perpetuated the myth of Carib cannibalism for political reasons. The early chroniclers provide some support for this position. In his Historia general de las Indias, 152761, Bartolomé de Las Casas flatly denies that the Carib were cannibals. Whatever the status of Carib cannibalism, there is agreement that it was not an everyday practice and was largely confined to ritual occasions.

One other Island Carib rite attracted considerable attention in the early literature, and that was the practice of the couvade. At the birth of a child, Jean-Baptiste Dutertre reports, Carib fathers would rest as if it were they who were suffering labor pains. For forty days and nights fathers remained isolated from society, fasting or consuming a meager diet. At the end of this period there was a great feast at which the invited guests lacerated the father's skin with their fingernails and washed his wounds with a solution of red pepper. For an additional six months the father was expected to observe special dietary taboos (e.g., it was believed that if the father ate turtle, the child would become deaf). Dutertre records a number of other taboos involving birds and fish.


Tobacco, narcotics, and stimulants played an important part in both Island Arawak and Island Carib rites. Tobacco, called cohiba, was used in a number of different forms in all ceremonies. Among the Island Arawak, tobacco smoke was used as an incense to summon the gods. Tobacco was sprinkled on the heads of idols as an offering. Religious leaders among the Island Arawak and Island Carib "stupefied" themselves with tobacco when they consulted their oracles; they also used tobacco in curing rituals.

As Breton (1665) reports, the Island Carib "know tobacco but do not smoke it." They would dry it by a fire, pound it into a powder, add a little seawater to it, and then place a pinch of the snuff between their lips and gums. The Island Arawak, on the other hand, sometimes did inhale tobacco smoke through their nostrils. But its use was limited. Generally there is no evidence that tobacco was burned during ceremonies.

Throwing aji (pepper) onto live coals was part of Island Arawak and Island Carib preparations for warfare. Ricardo E. Alegría (1979) contends that the pepper caused irritation of the mucous membrane, a racking cough, and other discomforts that were thought to induce the proper psychological state for war.


The distinction between shamans, who are said to obtain their power directly from the supernatural, and priests, who must learn a body of ritual knowledge from established practitioners, is not useful in distinguishing Island Arawak religious leaders (variously known as piaies, behutios, buhitihus, behiques ) from Island Carib leaders known as boyés. Although the role of the piaie appears to have been more priestlike than that of the boyé, similarities among piaies and boyés far exceed their differences.

Island Arawak

Major duties of the Arawak piaie were to divine the future by consulting their personal zemiis and to direct offering to zemiis during public ceremonies. In both of these duties, they served as intermediaries between the Island Arawak and their gods (Deive, 1978).

Accounts of Arawak shamanism provide very little detail concerning the piaie's role in public ceremonies, and it is unclear whether or not all piaies were able to conduct public ritual. It is possible that some piaies functioned solely as curers or diviners and could not perform other rites.

Pané provides a lengthy account of Arawak healing practices. The curer, he notes, began his treatment of the patient by prescribing a special diet and was himself expected to observe the same diet as his patient. Herrera gives a condensed description of curing procedures:

When any leading man is sick, he calls a medicine man, who is obliged to observe the same dietary rules as the patient. It is customary for the medicine man to purge himself with an herb that he takes by inhaling until he believes himself inspired. In this condition he says many things, giving the sick to understand that he is talking with an idol. Then the Indians anoint their faces with oil and purge the sick who stand by in silence. The medicine man first makes two circuits about the patient and, pulling him by the legs, goes to the door of the house, which he shuts, saying: "Return to the mountain or whither you wish; blow and join hands and tremble, and close the mouth." Breathing on his hands, he then sucks the neck, the shoulders, the stomach, and other parts of the body of the sick man, coughing and grimacing; he spits into his hands what he had previously placed in his mouth and tells the sick man that he has taken from the body that which is bad. He also says that the patient's zemi had given it to him because he had not obeyed him. The objects that the doctors take from their mouths are for the most part stones, which they often use for childbirth or other special purposes, and which they also preserve as relics. (Herrera, 1937, p. 69; my trans.)

If a patient died, it was thought to be because the piaie had not observed the proper diet. The Island Arawak were not very tolerant of unsuccessful healers, and it was not uncommon for a healer to be seized by a deceased person's relatives who would strike him with a stick until his arms and legs were broken, gouge out his eyes, and lacerate his private parts.

Alfred Métraux (1949), in his overview of shamanism in South America, states that in most instances the role of the religious leader was distinct from that of the political leader, but this distinction between political and religious authority does not seem to have been as pronounced among the Island Arawak. For example, Rouse (1948) points out that it is unclear whether the chief and his attendants (the principal men of the village) were also shamans. The attendants, he notes, had a special name, bohuti, and were of such high status that they customarily refused to accept commoners as patients.

Island Carib

The Island Carib maintained a rigid distinction between political and religious authority. There are no reports of healers becoming chiefs or chiefs becoming healers. But even in the Lesser Antilles, a certain complicity between religious and political leaders is apparent. For example, a political leader needed a boyé' s support in order to wage war, and boyés derived direct economic benefits through their association with chiefs.

The Carib never went to war without first consulting the spirit world to find out if conditions were favorable for victory. Since chiefs were unable to make direct contact with spirits, they required the services of a boyé whose predictions had tremendous impact on public opinion. It would be difficult for a war chief to override a boyé' s predictions and carry out expeditions believed to be inauspicious. Shamans never gained an upper hand, however, for if a chief was dissatisfied with one boyé's prediction, he was free to consult others. Often, several boyés were consulted at once, and the old war chief chose the most "correct" prediction. Given the circumstances, it was advantageous for both parties when a chief developed a working relationship with a particular shaman who could be counted on to support his war policies. These relationships often followed kinship lines.

Boyés also needed to develop working relationships with chiefs to defray the high costs of apprenticeship. We have no clear notion of the actual length of apprenticeship for shamans among the Island Carib, though in some tribes of the Guianas apprenticeship is said to have lasted from ten to twenty years (Métraux, 1949). This period of training was probably considerably shorter among the Carib, but we lack details for all but the final months of preparation:

After a fast of five months, the candidate is brought into the carbet (a place in which things have been set aside) before a table on which manioc bread, ouicou (sweet potato and manioc beer), and the first fruits of the season are placed. An older shaman chants and blows tobacco smoke to summon his familiar spirit who descends and sits on a hammock to receive offerings (anaeri ). The elder shaman asks for another spirit to descend and become his apprentice's familiar. (Dutertre, 16671671, vol. 2, pp. 365366; my trans.)

From this passage, it is clear that five months of training (and possibly more) was required of the would-be shaman. This would constitute a hardship for the apprentices family, for others had to assume his workload and provide for him while he was in training. Also, they had to provide offerings for sacrifice and make payments to senior boyés.

Boyés were a professional class in Island Carib society. They charged for all services, and I contend that they did not train new shamans without demanding something in return. War chiefs and their families, as wealthier members of their society, were in the best position to take on obligations to senior boyés (Glazier, 1980).

Island Carib shamanism was not flexible. It was not possible to go off on one's own and become a boyé. A would-be shaman had to do an apprenticeship under an established boyé and had to undergo formal rites of initiation in order to receive a spirit familiar. Shamans who claimed that their knowledge derived solely from their relationship with spirits probably glossed over their arduous training, wanting instead to stress mystical aspects of their careers. The picture they present of shamanism in the Lesser Antilles is inaccurate.

There is, however, no ambiguity concerning the boyé' s authority. While the authority of the war chief may have been that of a charismatic leader, the authority of the boyé was clearly that of formal investiture. Breton (1665) put it succinctly: "The boyés make other people boyés."

Boyés were perhaps the wealthiest members of their society. While war chiefs and families had considerable control over the distribution of some resources and war booty, boyés had control over the distribution of goods outside kinship obligations. A boyé' s clientele was not restricted to his kin group, and his reputation could well transcend his own island. The boyé Iris's reputation, for example, extended beyond his native Dominica (Du Puis, 1972).

The boyés had great potential for wealth, for there was always demand for their services. In times of trouble, they were called upon to dispel evil spirits; in times of prosperity, they were called upon to insure its continuance; and when there was doubt, they gave assurances for the future. Major religious activities were sacrifice and offerings, both of which were ultimately appropriated by the boyés (Rochefort, 1665). Offerings consisted of foodstuffs and some durable goods, a portion of which went directly to the shaman in return for his services; the remainder, ostensibly for the gods, was appropriated later for the shaman's use. Thus shamans had numerous occasions to accumulate wealth, and in some cases a shaman may have gotten too wealthy and would be forced by public opinion to redistribute part of his property.

Under certain conditions, senior war chiefs were allowed to join with the boyés in appropriating offerings intended for the gods. This further differentiates the roles of boyé and chief. Only the most senior war chief had the right to do what any boyé could do from the moment of his initiation.


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Alexander, Hartley Burr. "The Antilles." In The Mythology of All Races, edited by Louis Herbert Gray, vol. 11, Latin-American Mythology, pp. 1540. Boston, 1920.

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Stephen D. Glazier (1987)