The Mother Spirit in the Spanish Caribbean

taino female figure

taino female clay imageThe historic Tainos possessed a matrifocal society. This means that women held a very honored position in their culture. They were fundamentally matrilineal, which means that the blood-line of a person and the inheritance of property was reckoned through the mother’s side of the family. As an agricultural society the control of a plot of land was fundamental in the survival of a family unit and the land was owned by the maternal lineage and controlled by the women in that lineage in a way very similar to that of the Senecas of North America. Like the Senecas also, most chiefs were men but the process of election of a chief was done with a great deal of influence from powerful women. Oftentimes as in the case of Chief Anacaona of the island of Haiti women assumed the mantle of chief.

In a society where the female influence was so pervasive it is not surprising that the chief female spirit Ata Bey was a decidedly prominent figure in the Taino pantheon. Ata Bey was perceived as the creatress from whose womb opening (represented by caves) is brought forth the primal matter of all that exists.

gua ban seh 201Ata Bey had many manifestations and was represented graphically in various forms, from the large pregnant image ready to give birth, to the reptilian figure holding up two discs representing her twin sons Yoka Hu and Guakar, to the love goddess image of the frog-like Caguana, the Taino Aphrodite, who represented the whole range of human affection, to the stern and destructive Gua Ban Sesh, who represents the uncontrollable forces of a violent Mother Nature. In this final manifestation she is represented as a long stream of all-consuming lava descending like a voracious snake from the top of a female breast-shaped volcano.

The Tainos were conquered by a Christian people who came to the Caribbean bearing a decidedly patriarchal religion that had fairly recently taken root in their home continent of Europe. The fact is that the Spanish whose ethnic roots were Keltic, Latin and Germanic had undergone a series of cataclysmic religious experiences of their own from which they were just now recovering. The ancient Celtic religion of the Iberian peninsula where Spain is geographically located shared the well-known religious tradition of their brethren in Gaul (France) and Ireland. This tradition, although somewhat patriarchal in nature, maintained a special position for the ancient Mother goddesses of primordial Europe. The position of the female in the spiritual hierarchy was relatively high. When the Romans invaded the peninsula they brought in their own version of a patriarchal religious tradition which although male-oriented, maintained strong echoes of the ancient matriarchal past from Italy. Lots of powerful goddesses and spirits survived and maintained a balancing influence in the Celto-Roman Iberian region.

When Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as the exclusive religion of the whole empire the ancient European gods suffered a very destructive persecution which affected the female goddesses and especially the female aspect of their worship quite profoundly, since the new God was exclusively male. Somehow the ancient female folkways of the old religion managed to survive these persecutions, mostly in the form of subdued undercurrents of tradition.

The Roman Empire was destroyed with the help of violent invasions by a number of pagan tribes from Germany. But upon settling in the former Roman territories of Europe, these invaders also converted to Christianity quite quickly. They had worshiped their own goddesses as part of their Germanic religion but these goddesses, powerful though they were, had also been subservient to the more powerful male gods like Odin and Thor. In this respect their religion was similar to that of the ancient Romans.

The West Goths or “Visigoths” were the Germanic tribe which conquered Spain. Soon they were forgetting their own German dialects and adopting the Latin dialect spoken by the Romanized Celts of Hispania. These people became the ancestors of modern Spaniards. They became ardent Catholics and believed a legend that the Apostle James had traveled from the holy land during old Roman times and personally converted the pagan Iberians. They erected a church in the northern Celtic town of Compostela in honor of St James and believe to this day that a part of the Saint’s body is kept there. It is amazing that even at this point of total victory of the very male-oriented Christian faith over the female cults of the ancient Spanish there remained a very strong undercurrent of faith in the female Mother spirit. This was manifested in the overwhelming devotion of Spanish Catholics for the Virgin Mary, who came to symbolize to them the image of the ancient Mother Spirit.

santiago_lgEarly in the Middle ages a southern Visigoth king named Roderic (the ancestor of the name Rodriguez) became involved in one of a constant series of inter-tribal conflicts. His enemies decided to ask the help of the Muslims in the Northern African region of what is now Algiers and Morocco. These people, the Moors, lived just across the straights of Gibraltar and it was not much problem for them to organize an invasion army and cross into southern Spain. The intentions of Roderic’s enemies was to have the powerful Moors help them in their dispute with the king and then leave, the Moors had other ideas. Led by the capable captain Al Tarik the Moors swept into Spain and conquered most of the Peninsula. They took Spain away from the Christian Visigoths and claimed it for Allah. They brought not only the extremely patriarchal Muslim faith with them but also a high degree of culture and civilization gained through their earlier conquests of some of the most important centers of civilization in the Middle East and Egypt.

It took 8 hundred years for the Visigothic Spaniards to rid themselves of their Muslim overlords through a military reconquest process known as “La Reconquista”. The old patron saint James the Apostle gained a peculiar character during this period of time as the militant symbol of a return to Christianity. He was often called “Santiago Matamoros” or “San Diego Matamoros” which means “St James the Moor-killer”. He was depicted on the war banners as a man on horseback with a sword in one hand a cross in the other riding over a fallen Moor. And yet, albeit in a secondary position, the Virgin Mary maintained her religious position of importance in the Reconquista.

The fall of the last Moorish stronghold took place coincidentally in the same year as the most catastrophic event in Taino history. At that time the powerful united forces of King Ferdinand of Leon and Queen Isabela of Castille defeated the Moorish forces of King Abu Abdulah (Boabdil) at the battle of Granada in 1492. Upon their return to their court in Madrid the victorious Christian monarchs were met by a persistent Italian mariner who had been hounding them for years to allow him to go on an expedition of discovery in the name of Spain. Now, flushed with victory, the Catholic sovereigns were in the mood to grant him his wish. It became secondary only to the more pressing matter of ridding the country of all its Jews, a people who had prospered under Moorish domination. On the same pier in the port city of Palos where they had decreed that all Spanish Jews were to be put into ships and carted off to North Africa, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabela allowed Christopher Columbus to sail forth on his historic voyage of discovery and conquest.