The Taino male deity YokaHu, in our opinion, far from being a typical western-type paternal, immortal “almighty god” in the style of the Hebrew Jehovah, is, in fact, a much more human-like entity, con-substantial with humanity itself and subject to a very human-like life-cycle like ours which begins with birth and ends in death, and then starts all over again with a new birth. The obvious association between him and the yuca plant (manioc or cassava), evidenced by his name “Yoka Hu” (or yuca-hu), indicates that this divine entity must be subject to the rules of the biological processes that include sprouting, gradual vegetable growth and, of course, ultimate death at the moment of harvest when the life-giving roots of the yuca plant are yanked out of the ground for consumption. He was described as a son of the divine mother Atabey to the early colonial chronicler Ramon Pane by his Taino informants. The modern-day researcher Sebastian Robiou Lamarche has accurately described Yokahu as one of the two balanced halves of the Supreme being Yaya (whom we in the Caney Circle call “Yaya Guaturey”). The other half is Yokahu’s mother Atabey. This is the reason we do not agree with the perception by some in the Taino Reusrgence movement that Yokahu is the “supreme Being” himself. That is inaccurate. He is only half of the Supreme Being. It is a mistake to equate Yokahu and Yaya as if they were both the same person.
The following videos about modern-day cultivation and processing of yuca (also known as manioc, mandioca, mand-yuca, tapioc, tap-yuca and tapioca ) illustrates the way in which this food, which is the inspiration of Yoka Hu’s name, still plays an important role in the lives of the Indigenous people of the Amazon and Orinoco rainforest where the ancient Arawak ancestors of the Tainos originated.
As the divine name-sake and personification of a mortal, vegetable biological product, Yoka Hu is perceived also to be mortal and cyclical in the same way that yuca is mortal and cyclical. This does not mean that Yoka Hu is perceived in ancient Taino tradition to be in any way less than divine. It simply indicates that the perception of divinity in the ancient Taino mind is different to the perception of divinity in the western European mind. In the western mind divinity is perceived as being separate from nature, the term “supernatural” comes to mind. It indicates that the divine is “above” or “superior” to Nature because it is the creator of Nature.
In the traditional Amazonian-Orinoco Indigenous mind the divine is part of Nature, just like everything else, because all there is IS Nature, nothing is “supernatural” because nothing is beyond or above Nature. It is important to note that contrary to some modern interpretations of Yoka Hu as a Jehovah-like creator god, there is no mention in the writings of early Spanish chroniclers such as Ramon Pane of Yoka Hu “creating” anything. This was an assumption leaped at by some modern-day interpreters (including even some modern-day Tainos) because they are so influenced by their own western European-tainted perceptions of male Judeo-Christian creator divinity. Indigenous people see the divine as being part of Nature as opposed to being “above” Nature. For that reason things that would be perceived as “supernatural” by westeners, such as ghosts, spirits and deities, are perceived as normal, natural everyday elements of reality by the Indigenous mind, things that we all live in close proximity with on a natural plane, even though they may be invisible and hard to perceive without the aid of special procedures and rituals. The natural comparion is to think in terms of air, which is invisible but which we all know is there because we perceive its consequences, especially when they manifest themselves in catastrophic ways such as in the case of the gale-force wind of a hurricane. To the Indigenous mind there is no difference between the invisible air and the invisible spirit.
Traces of the ancient Taino perceptions of YokaHu, the mortal vegetable-humanoid deity who is born, rises to maturity and then dies, simply to be reborn again, are hinted at in the conclusions arrived at by the researcher Maria Proviones-Bishop who published an in-depth study of ancient Taino perception of Death and ancestor reverence in 2001, called “THE BAT AND THE GUAVA“. In this research Proviones-Bishop points out the importance that the Amazonian-Orinoco Indigenous understanding of tropical vegetable growth, death and decay plays on their perception of human life-cycle and a type of belief in re-incarnation, the belief that human life can be recycled in a divine womb and re-born as new life in the same way that vegetable life can re-sprout after dying and rotting in the entrails of the earth, the soil of the forest.
In the upper Orinoco River region there is an Indigenous nation called the Makiritare. These people tell a creation narrative called Wattuna (see Marc de Civrieux) . The Makiritare are a yuca-cultivating Indigenous people who share some of the spiritual traditions of our Taino ancestors. In an episode of their creation narrative there is a mention of a divine female called Frimenne, who is very much comparable to the divine Earth-Mother character AtaBey of Taino spiritual tradition. Frimenne is a being who, like Atabey, is identified with large constrictor snakes (see Eugenio Fernandez Mendez) and whose divine spirit eventually ends up dwelling in a sacred lake, a fact that connects her to the identification of AtaBey as a water-mother (see Arrom). When the Makiritare tell the story of how Frimenne guards unborn humanity in her womb for a while before they emerge forth, they refer to the opening of her birth cannal by using the word “cave”. By doing that they make an obvious conscious connection between women’s vaginal openings and the natural holes on the surface of the earth that lead to the sacred, nurturing, underground, inner recesses of the divine Earth-Mother.
The comparison between ancient Taino cyclical approach to ancestor reverence described by Proviones-Bishop and the Caney Circle perception of Yoka Hu as an equally cyclical being with a life-cycle is a logical one since Yoka Hu is just as much the son of the same divine Earth-Water Mother Ata Bey as humans are. The fact that humanity was perceived by the ancient Tainos as emerging from a sacred cave called Cacibajagua at the point of human creation (see Pane) is proof enough that the ancient Tainos imaged humanity as being children of the female matriarchal Earth deity (Ata Bey). YokaHu is a child born of of Ata Bey (see Pane). Humanity, likewise is born of Ata Bey.
Humans eat yuca and are thus made of yuca because they are composed of the stuff that they eat (you are what you eat). There is an obvious identification between YokaHu and human life. Yoka Hu IS human life. He is, therefore viewed as representing the energy that humans acquire from the consumption of the sacred food and which after being consumed becomes part of humanity much in the same way that the Mayas perceive themselves to be “men of maize” because that is their staple food. So the ancient Tainos were “people of yuca”. Being the high-starch, high-energy food that it is, the yuca, and by extension the spirit of the yuca (YokaHu) represents the very essence of energy manifested on Earth, including human energy (which can be described as “life”).
The ancient Tainos understood that yuca could only grow in the presence of sunlight and must have made the accurate connection that solar energy was in fact what yuca was providing to humans in the form of carbohydrate starch. They did not have to fully understand in fine scientific detail that through the process of photosynthesis green plants (including yuca) transform radiant solar energy into carbohydrate energy and store it in their tissues. But they did make the connection between the yuca’s ability to create high nutritious starch food in the presence of sunlight and thus must have arrived at the conclusion that the spirit of yuca must be in some way identified with the radiant energy of the sun. This is evidenced by the fact that this deity whose name made reference to a tuber that spends all its time deep underground was said to live in the sky (see Pane). This may appear to be a contradiction. The most important part of the yuca plant, the tuberous root remains underground during the growth process of the plant. How could a subterranian plant spirit be said to “live” in the sky? It only makes sense if one recognizes the relationship between radiant solar energy, the process of photosynthesis and the starch-energy stored in that subterranian tuber. And so Yoka Hu is not only the yuca plant but also the sun (which indeed lives in the sky) from which that yuca plant derives its very essence.
Cuban Taino representation of the sun deity “Guey” from a pictograph in Cueva De Las Mercedes cave, Sierra de Cubitas, Camaguey province.
Grating yuca tubers during the process of making casabe bread
The subterranian element of the yuca tuber’s life cycle is an obvious metaphore of the slow gradual development of a fetus in the womb of a mother. Therefore it is logical to assume that the ancient Tainos perceived the yuca plant’s development underground to be synonymous with the slow gradual development of the baby Yoka Hu within his Earth-Mother’s womb deep underground, later to be born of the Earth, sprouting forth from the terrestial surface like ancestral primordial humanity who emerged from the vaginal cave Casibajagua. Taking into consideration Proviones-Bishop’s recognition of a kind of reincarnation philosophy imbedded in ancient Taino spiritual belief, it is then also logical to conclude that the essence or soul of YokaHu, like all plants, returns down into the depths of this afore-mentioned Earth-Mother’s underground womb after death and harvesting. There, as already stated, it undergoes that process of gestation like a fetus in the watery realm of what the ancient Tainos called Coaybay. So we must accept that the ancient Tainos saw the womb of AtaBey as a kind of recycling center in which both divine life as well as human life returned after the life-cycle to be renewed and re-sprouted. It is interesting to note that in many Indigenous traditions of Central America the sun also is perceived as diving deep into the underworld realm of the Earth every evening only to be re-born again in the morning.
In Caney Circle tradition we identify the stone oval hoops of the ancient Tainos with images of AtaBey’s uterus and call them “coas” identifying them also to the ancient Taino digging stick. We are aware of ancient Taino tradition of tying three-pointed sculptures to these ancient hoops and conclude that this represents the return of Yoka Hu to his mother’s womb and the attachment of his soul there like the attachment of a fetus to the inside of a womb.