Skip to main content

Garifuna Religion


GARIFUNA RELIGION . The Garifuna are an ethnic group numbering roughly 300,000 with communities in some 40 villages dotting the Caribbean coasts of Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Belize. Their traditional ancestor-focused religion presents a multilayered confluence of Amerindian, African, and Roman Catholic influences.


The Garifuna are descendants of Africans and Amerindians (Carib and Arawak) who shared the island of Saint Vincent beginning in the second half of the seventeenth century. Garifuna is properly the name of their language, which is affiliated with the Arawak linguistic family. The term is derived from Kalinago, the ethnic title used by Island Carib Amerindians to describe themselves but misrecognized by Christopher Columbus as "Carib." Europeans called the Garifuna "Black Caribs" because of the group's apparent African ancestry. That appellation was in common usage until the shift to Garifuna as a standard ethnic name after the middle of the twentieth century.

The African presence on Saint Vincent derived in part from survivors of a slaver shipwreck near the island dated to 1635. Most probably, then, their African origins derived from the slave trade out of the ports of west central Africa. The African presence also derived from Carib raids that carried slaves from European colonies and from the arrival of fleeing African maroons from neighboring Barbados and elsewhere. By 1674, according to accounts from the Jesuit missions, the "Black Carib" numbered as many as the "Red" Island Carib on Saint Vincent. Reports from 1700 indicate that they had already founded settlements separated from the Island Carib Amerindians.

After 1783 Saint Vincent became a permanent British colony and was slotted for sugar production. Following a period of military resistance in the Second Carib War (17951797), a British naval convoy deported approximately five thousand Garifuna to Roatan, an island just off the coast of Central America. Though half of those deported died in transit, their survivors settled the Central American coast early in the 1800s. This became the new homeland, the site of their reconstitution as a distinct ethnic group with its own specific set of religious practices.

Religious Transculturation

Garifuna religion provides a stunning example of the religious transculturation that occurred throughout the Caribbean Basin during the colonial period. Seventeenth-century missionary accounts of the Island Carib Amerindians describe religious leaders known as piaye or boyé. These were shamans who used gourd rattles and tobacco to cure patients of illnesses attributed to malignant spirits through their mastery and mediation of tutelary ancestral spirits. They are also recorded as performing divination. The "Black Caribs" adopted this religious office and techniques from their Saint Vincent hosts. Garifuna religion continues to rely upon the leadership of such shamans, still called by the similar title of buyei. They orchestrate and direct sophisticated ritual performances under the influence of the helping spirits of benevolent ancestors (hiuruha). Other aspects of early Island Carib Amerindian religion, like the belief that a person is constituted by multiple souls, including the "heart-soul" (uwani ) as the seat of agency and will and the "spirit double" (afurugu) that may wander during dreams and after death, remain a vital part of contemporary Garifuna religion as well. These bear witness to the legacy of Island Carib Amerindian societies, many of them now nearly assimilated or extinct, in Garifuna religious life.

Traditional west central African religious practices also left their mark on Garifuna religion. The most elaborate ritual performances, called dügü, utilize three drums to guide dances that culminate in spirit possession by returning ancestors, called gubida, who are feted as they dance and consult with the living. Drummers' use of polyrhythmic meter for dances like the punta, once a funerary dance, and the junkunnu, a mask dance, punctuate and offset the use of mono-rhythms like the amalihani. These complex drumming patterns recall in music and dance the west central African legacy.

Catholicism also played a key role in Garifuna religion as it assumed its current form after 1797. All traditional Garifuna religious actors also consider themselves to be Catholic, and Catholicism provides the overall mythic structure within which the ancestor religion is maintained. Malignant (mafia) spirits, for example, typically associated spatially with "the bush" (el monte), are considered manifestations of the devil, while positive spirits are regarded as agents of the high God (Bungiu). Postmortem rituals (see below) begin with "masses" (lemesi) adapted from official Roman Catholic liturgy and continue with novenas (ninth-night masses) and anniversary masses performed to remember and appease the dead. Catholic saints are prominent on Garifuna altars, and specific saints like Esquipula and Anthony are called upon as sources of solace and assistance.

Small-Scale Ritual Events

Since the overall mythic and ethical structure of Garifuna religion is provided by Roman Catholic Christianity, the distinguishing characteristics of Garifuna religion are found in its sophisticated complex of ritual practices. Moreover since specific beliefs and ethical postures vary widely in relation to popular adaptations of Catholicism, correct ritual practice is particularly crucial to Garifuna religious identity. Myths and belief remain largely implicit, embedded in ritual performance.

In general, rituals are focused on the problem of death and the transfer in status from living human being to exalted ancestor (gubida). Though the dead remain a source of power for the living, they must also be helped by living family members as they take the steps from this world to their status as recently departed spirits (ahari) and then to one of finally becoming gubida in the otherworld. The otherworld is called Sairi, the home of the ancestors, and is often physically located on Saint Vincent. The postmortem journey is simultaneously one of progressive spiritual advance and one of geographic traverse, or return, to the lost homeland. The ritualization of death is therefore in part an expression of diasporic consciousness, a means of looking back to a paradise lost.

Insofar as the ritual obligations to the dead are not adequately performed by the living, ancestors register their complaints through signs experienced by the living as nightmares, bad luck, accidents, and unexplained illnesses. Garifuna religion is in this sense rigorously this-worldly. It is concerned with alleviating concrete material problems by contemplating them and acting upon them as ruptures in the relations between of the living and the ancestors. These crises are addressed through a sequence of ritual interventions that demand progressively more serious investments. The ability to prosper in the material world is therefore understood as directly related to and contingent upon the attention devoted to the family ancestors' "advance" through the spirit world.


When a member of the community dies, the corpse of the deceased is placed in a coffin and laid out in his or her house for public viewing. Candles are lit and placed at each corner, and near the coffin a simple altar is erected on a low table, including holy water and statues of Catholic saints. Crepe-paper streamers are hung in a canopy over the body. Friends and relatives arrive at the wake and hold vigil through the night, drinking coffee and rum (aguardiente or guaro ), playing cards, and talking. At dawn the corpse is interred in a graveyard that is nearby yet spatially removed from the village. The burial is accompanied by wailing laments and the pouring of rum into the grave by family members and friends.


Between six months and several years after the death, the family "bathes" the deceased. A small pit is dug immediately adjacent to the home, and a fresh change of clothes for the departed is suspended above it. Family members and intimate friends pour liquids into the pit, variously including freshwater, saltwater, strained cassava water, herbal infusions, and favored beverages like coffee and rum. Tobacco and favorite foods may be offered as well. Following the "bathing" of the deceased, the pit is closed. The ritual is small and intimate in nature, of short duration, and does not require the presence of the buyei as officiant.


Around a year following death, as well as later if called for by the ancestor through divination by the buyei, a "mass" is held for the spirit of the deceased (ahari), who is viewed as still present in the village. The occasion marks the end of a period of mourning for the spouse who survives the dead and, as an occasion marking the return to everyday life, is conspicuously festive. Food and beverages are served, and the celebrative punta dance is drummed and danced in the yard. The punta is typically comprised of a circle into which a man and a woman enter in pairs, two at a time. The dance entails the rhythmic oscillation of the hips while holding the upper body perfectly still and the facial expression calm. It celebrates both the life of the deceased and the ongoing force of the community despite the loss of one of its members.

Women gathered for the purpose sing "women's songs" (abaimahani), standing in a line with little fingers linked and thrusting the arms forward in rhythmic concert, a gesture suggestive of shared labor. The song lyrics recall the struggles of family life and loyalty and sometimes speak from the perspective of the ancestors, pleading to not be forgotten. Men's songs (arumahani) are ideally presented in similar fashion, though since the twentieth century it has become increasingly challenging to find a choir of males able and willing to perform the old songs. This is because of a common male pattern of leaving the village for long durations in order to find work. The lyrics of men's songs often recall the necessity and dangers of travel for labor far from home and the longing to return.

In addition traditional tales (úruga) may be told, often humorous trickster-like narratives. The festivities continue until dawn.

Major Ritual Events

While the foregoing are required in all cases, the most elaborate postmortem rituals, the chugu and the dügü, are called for only when specifically requested by an ancestral spirit. When a family member suffers unusual misfortune, recurring nightmares, or unexplained illnesses or pains, he or she may consult a shaman (buyei). With the patient seated before the buyei 's altar (gule), the buyei lights a candle, smokes his or her pipe, and summons his or her tutelary spirits (hiuruha) by blowing the vapor of rum from the mouth over the altar. This activates it. Blowing smoke over the head of the patient, he or she consults with his or her spirits to "read" the nature of the problem at hand, depending on the movement of the smoke and the insights granted by tutelary spirits (hiuruha). This ritual act is called arairaguni, "bringing down the spirits." If the problem is one caused by the ancestors (hasandigubida), he or she negotiates with the afflicting spirit to decipher what it requires. This may be a misa, a chugu, or in the most serious of cases, a dügü. Together with the patient, and taking account of the family's financial resources, the shaman then plots the course of action.


The chugu, literally the "feeding" of the dead, is a one- to two-day ceremony officiated by a buyei. In addition to all of the elements included in a "mass," it entails the assembly of a greater number of relatives and the preparation of large quantities of food offerings, including roosters (gayu) offered for sacrifice. Since a more intimate communication with the dead is required than in a "mass," the buyei erects his or her personal altar (gule) in the house where the chugu will take place. There he or she places the symbols of his or her key helping spirits as well as the implements of the shaman's vocation: the maracas (sirisi) used to call the spirit, the wand (murewa) used to communicate with and control the spirit should possession trance occur, and bottles of rum and tobacco used to purify the room and to activate, or "heat," the altar. Traditional foods are prepared, including most importantly the sacrificed roosters (gayu) and cassava bread (ereba), to present an abundant table to the dead. Women's and men's songs are performed at length, and the spirit may also be celebrated with punta dancing. Much rum is consumed to create the atmosphere of exuberance and generous abundance believed to be favored by the ancestors.

At the conclusion of the day's events, the buyei concocts a nog of beaten eggs and hot rum (furunsu). Each participant places his or her full cup upon the altar while making requests of the ancestor before exchanging the cup with another participant. The exchanged communal drink unites the group. Finally, the buyei "burns the table," pouring rum over its surface and igniting it in flame. A strong blue flame reveals the ancestor's approval of the offering and indicates that the precipitating symptoms of bad luck or illness that evoked the chugu should subside.


Just as the chugu contains all the elements of the "mass," the dügü contains all the elements of the chugu, such that the larger ritual encompasses the smaller in the style of Chinese boxes. Dügü is short for adugurahani, "mashing down the earth," perhaps referring to the long periods of dance that are required of participants. It is regarded as the fullest expression of Garifuna religion and is a major ritual event that is prepared for a full year and performed over a week's duration. It typically occurs many years after the death of a family member and only when mandated by a buyei and his or her spirit helpers. Announcements about the dügü circulate for at least a year to insure that sufficient funds can be raised for sacrifices of roosters, pigs, and sometimes a cow and to feed a crowd of participants that may number in the hundreds for a week's time. All family members, even those residing in the United States, are obligated to attend. Indeed the ritual's efficacy depends on a complete demonstration of family unity to resolve the perceived crisis. It is arguably the emotional dramatization of family unity itself that provides in part the experience of the ritual as a healing cure.

First, a ceremonial house (gayunere or dabuyaba ) must be constructed in "traditional" palm-thatch style on the beach. The dügü formally begins with the "return of the fishermen," a group sent three days prior to catch fish in the "traditional" way in the offshore cays. They arrive at dawn, attired as Garifuna ancestors wearing helmets of woven palm, and are greeted with exuberant songs by family members attired in matching red-dyed uniforms. They are given rum and cigarettes and are laid in hammocks, just as the ancestors will be later in the ritual when they are incorporated in living bodies of dancers through spirit possession.

Over the next two days follows a sequence of dances both to honor the ancestors and create the conditions for their arrival in possession. First are the amalahani, dances to honor the ancestors. These continue for up to four hours at a time, brought to crescendo by the shaman, who exhorts the large group until some are possessed by ancestors. Transformed into known figures from the past, they make requests and are soothed with rum and food. Living family members may ask questions, in response to which the ancestors give counsel.

Throughout the second and third day, the food offering (chugu) is prepared. Roostersone required from each attending nuclear familyare sacrificed, massive amounts of rum assembled, and tables loaded with the most traditional Garifuna foods. The food is piled high on a wooden table and left for the ancestors' consumption. After the spirits "eat," the assembled participants also take their fill, rejoicing in the luxurious abundance far exceeding that of everyday life. At the close of the day, what remains of the spirits' food is buried in the ground or returned to the sea, taken by canoe and deposited in the deeps.

Finally, the shaman guarantees the ancestors' acceptance of the offerings. Pouring rum on the table, he or she feeds the flame and tips the table to all sides, as in the chugu. There is great joy, and all rush to wipe the sacralized liquor on their bodies as a balm for all pains. Reunited family groups run to enter the sea together in a temporary moment of communitas.

As the dügü summons and placates ancestors, it also reinforces family bonds among the living. This has become increasingly important as a third of the Garifuna have emigrated to the United States since the middle of the twentieth century. The dügü takes on new import and meaning for those residing abroad, serving the purpose of communicating the experience of home through the dense, compact form of ritual performance. Territoriality, or consciousness of place, is fortified above all in this central ritual performance. With increased migration, the dügü appears to be gaining in the frequency of its performance rather than suffering a decline.

New Developments

Migration to cities like New York has sparked a new identity consciousness of the Garifuna's African roots. Religious leaders in New York have begun to conceive of their traditional practices within the purview of other African diaspora religions like Cuban Santería and Haitian vodou. This new form of indigenous syncretism justifies a view of the Garifuna as a dramatically innovative religion, especially as it is reshaped in the new contexts of U.S. urban centers. As Garifuna religious leaders in the United States return periodically to perform rituals in Honduras, Belize, and Guatemala, they carry with them a new identity consciousness. This will likely have transformative effects on homeland religious performance as well.

The second key contemporary issue of Garifuna religion is the rise of evangelical Christian sects since around 1980 in homeland villages. Converts to the new churches disavow all connections to traditional practices, which are regarded as diabolical. The use of dance, tobacco, rum, and altars are vehemently rejected, leading to the dismissal not only of Catholicism but of virtually all traditional rites. This creates friction within families and between village factions and generates new conundrums for traditional practices like the dügü, since in that ritual all members of the family are required to be present. When evangelicals refuse to attend such events, they are accused of jeopardizing the rituals' efficacy and therefore also the physical safety of everyone in their kin group. While such disputes are divisive, they also serve as explanations of future accidents, bad luck, and illnesses. The disputes therefore incite ritual as much they compromise it.


Bianchi, Cynthia Chamberlain. "Gubida Illness and Religious Ritual Among the Garifuna of Santa Fe, Honduras: An Ethnopsychiatric Analysis." Ph.D. diss., Ohio State University, 1988. This dissertation goes to great lengths to show the rich detail of Garifuna postmortem rituals framed by an ethno-psychiatric approach to healing.

Coelho, Ruy. "The Black Carib of Honduras: A Study in Acculturation." Ph.D. diss., Northwestern University, 1955. Chapter 5 provides an important mid-century look at Garifuna religion in Honduras. Much of the literature gives attention to English-speaking Belize, giving added distinction to this source.

Conzemius, Eduard. "Ethnographical Notes on the Black Carib (Garif)." American Anthropologist 30, no. 2 (1928): 183205. Possibly the earliest "modern" ethnographic description of Garifuna ritual.

Flores, Barbara. "The Garifuna Dugu Ritual in Belize: A Celebration of Relationships." In Gender, Ethnicity, and Religion, edited by Rosemary Radford Ruether, pp. 144170. Minneapolis, 2002. A sympathetic and accomplished essay on the dügü ritual with special attention to the issue of gender.

Gonzalez, Nancie L. Sojourners of the Caribbean: Ethnogenesis and Ethnohistory of the Garifuna. Urbana, Ill., and Chicago, 1988. This is an important resource on Garifuna history and archaeology written by the preeminent Garifuna ethnographer.

Hulme, Peter, and Neil L. Whitehead, eds. Wild Majesty: Encounters with Caribs from Columbus to the Present Day. Oxford, 1992. This is a selection of descriptions of the Caribs, both Island Carib Amerindians and the "Black Carib," as represented by Europeans since the seventeenth century.

Jenkins, Carol L. "Ritual and Resource Flow: The Garifuna Dugu." American Ethnologist 10 (1983): 429442. An important interpretation of the relationship between economic resources and ritual performance.

Johnson, Paul Christopher. "Migrating Bodies, Circulating Signs: Brazilian Candomblé, the Garífuna of the Caribbean, and the Category of 'Indigenous Religions.'" History of Religions 41, no. 4 (2002): 301328. The essay compares types of religious dislocations and creative responses for the cases of Brazilian Candomblé and the Garifuna of Honduras and in New York City. The essay begins to elaborate and theorize the relation between migration and contemporary religious change.

Kerns, Virginia. Women and the Ancestors: Black Carib Kinship and Ritual. 2d ed. Urbana, Ill., and Chicago, 1997. A valuable text on Garifuna religion and ritual performance for its attention to women as the primary carriers and transmitters of tradition.

Melendez, Armando Crisanto. "Religious Elements of the Garifuna Culture and Their Connotations in the Americas." In African Creative Expressions of the Divine, edited by Kortright Davis and Elias Farajajé-Jones, translated by Dorothea Lowe Bryce, pp. 121128. Washington, D.C., 1991. A short, descriptive account of Garifuna beliefs from an important Garifuna choreographer, historian, and cultural activist.

Sanford, Margaret. "Revitalization Movements as Indicators of Completed Acculturation." Comparative Studies in Society and History 16 (1974): 504518. A provocative essay arguing that religious revitalization, including the Garifuna case, is correlated with general acculturation or assimilation such that revivals are possible indicators of cultural distress.

Suazo, Eusebio Salvador. Irufumali: La doctrina esotérica garífuna. Tegucigalpa, 2000. A bilingual (Spanish and Garifuna) account of the buyei' s knowledge from a Garifuna writer, acquired through interviews with practicing shamans.

Taylor, Douglas. The Black Carib of British Honduras. New York, 1951. The text offers several important chapters on Garifuna beliefs in relation to the soul and Garifuna ritual practices. Taylor brought rare linguistic depth to his descriptive task.

Paul Christopher Johnson (2005)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Garifuna Religion." Encyclopedia of Religion. . 19 Apr. 2019 <>.

"Garifuna Religion." Encyclopedia of Religion. . (April 19, 2019).

"Garifuna Religion." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved April 19, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.