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Caciques and Cemi Idols

The Web Spun by Taino Rulers Between Hispaniola and Puerto Rico

Written by Jose R Oliver

Publication Year: 2009

Cemís are both portable artifacts and embodiments of persons or spirit, which the Taínos and other natives of the Greater Antilles (ca. AD 1000-1550) regarded as numinous beings with supernatural or magic powers. This volume takes a close look at the relationship between humans and other (non-human) beings that are imbued with cemí power, specifically within the Taíno inter-island cultural sphere encompassing Puerto Rico and Hispaniola. The relationships address the important questions of identity and personhood of the cemí icons and their human “owners” and the implications of cemí gift-giving and gift-taking that sustains a complex web of relationships between caciques (chiefs) of Puerto Rico and Hispaniola.


Oliver provides a careful analysis of the four major forms of cemís—three-pointed stones, large stone heads, stone collars, and elbow stones—as well as face masks, which provide an interesting contrast to the stone heads. He finds evidence for his interpretation of human and cemí interactions from a critical review of 16th-century Spanish ethnohistoric documents, especially the Relación Acerca de las Antigüedades de los Indios written by Friar Ramón Pané in 1497–1498 under orders from Christopher Columbus. Buttressed by examples of native resistance and syncretism, the volume discusses the iconoclastic conflicts and the relationship between the icons and the human beings. Focusing on this and on the various contexts in which the relationships were enacted, Oliver reveals how the cemís were central to the exercise of native political power. Such cemís were considered a direct threat to the hegemony of the Spanish conquerors, as these potent objects were seen as allies in the native resistance to the onslaught of Christendom with its icons of saints and virgins.

Published by: The University of Alabama Press


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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations and Tables

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pp. ix-xi

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pp. xiii-xviii

"The arguments presented in this book were essentially written in a rather short, intense period of just under five months, from early November 2006 to early March 2007. Yet the ideas and insights took much longer to gestate. My interest in this topic began in the early 1970s as a teenager, with my curiosity in trying to understand the potential meanings that could be elicited from rock art and iconography, ..."

Part I: Introduction and Theoretical Premises

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1. Introduction

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pp. 3-5

"In this book I will be exploring the underlying social significance of the spatial distribution of a class of religious portable artifacts—cemís—that the Taínos and other natives of the Greater Antilles (ca. A.D. 1000–1650) regarded as numinous beings and believed to have supernatural, magic powers. (A more precise definition of cemí will be provided later.) To understand the distribution of ..."

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2. Believers of Cem

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pp. 6-42

"This section serves as a background on Greater Antillean archaeology so as to contextualize, in broad strokes, the potent cemí objects and to identify, again in broad strokes, the peoples who interacted with them. It is not an easy section to write, because in the last few years our understanding of who the Taínos and their historical antecedents were have changed and continue to change dramatically—so much so ..."

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3. Webs of Interaction: Human Beings, Other Beings, and Many Things

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pp. 43-47

"All webs of sociocultural interaction, whether between oceanic islands or between islands and continents, begin with face-to-face relationships between at least two human beings or nonhuman beings and other 'things' who are embedded and act in a given social and cultural milieu. Relationships between human actors begin at home, within the residential compound of the household. As individuals ma-..."

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4. Personhood and the Animistic Amerindian Perspective

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pp. 48-52

"Before proceeding to fl esh out the contexts and relationships between human beings who express Ta

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5. Contrasting Animistic and Naturalistic Worldviews

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pp. 53-55

"On the basis of available ethnohistoric data, it can be argued that the historic Taínoan construction of personhood is fundamentally dividual and partible, and it operates in the context of an animistic perception of the landscape, of the cosmos. Animism entails the belief that beings, things, objects, and so on all can potentially have a life force or energy—a soul, or anima (in its ancient Latin sense). Persons ..."

Part II: The Form, Personhood, Identity, and Potency of Cem

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6. The Cem

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pp. 59-63

"The notion of cemí fi nds similar, though not identical, analogues in other societies around the world, such as among the Ba-Kongo of western Africa, for whom bilongo (“medicine”) is what animates and confers potency to their magic wooden idols (minkisi; see Anderson and Peek 2002; MacGaffey 1993; Voguel 1997). It is also analogous to the paired notions..."

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7. Cem

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pp. 64-66

"What is striking among the various Spanish chroniclers is that they all coincide in the diversity of forms that both iconic and aniconic objects imbued with cemí could assume and in the varied media from which they were made (Figures 13–15). Fray Ramón Pané (1990:26) makes it clear that the cemí objects/idols came in different shapes and were made of stone, wood, and other materials (e.g., human ..."

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8. Cem

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pp. 67-70

"Consider the three-pointed idols in discussing the issue of identity and representation. There are many singular icons that assume the elemental three-lobed form (Figures 2, 13: i, 14, 29: a, d, f ), but that can be further distinguished on the basis of variations in detail (Walker 1993). Among such differentiating features are details like whether or not they are simple, undecorated icons; whether the carved..."

Part III: The Social Relations and Circulation of Cem

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9. The Power and Potency of the Cem

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pp. 73-76

"The cem

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10. The Display of Cem

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pp. 77-82

"Earlier I described the aniconic cem

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11. Face-to-Face Interactions: Cem

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pp. 83-86

"When a cacique had to make strategic decisions about policies that affected governance, he usually convened a council meeting in the privacy of the caney attended by a retinue of his closest advisers, probably those of nita

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12. Hanging On to and Losing the Power of the Cem

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pp. 87-102

"I would suggest that it is in the ritual context of cohoba divination and ecstasy that a cacique’s efficacy as a leader was tested. He had to demonstrate dexterity in controlling, negotiating, extracting, and interpreting the will of all the cemís entrusted to him. As noted earlier, there is solid evidence that even powerful, reputable caciques, during times of crises, could and would lose control of their cemís. The..."

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13. The Inheritance and Reciprocal Exchange of Cem

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pp. 103-108

"If theft was a desperate measure, how were such powerful icons passed on to others under normal, peaceful circumstances? Giving, with the expectation of a future reciprocal gesture, is one way, although the sixteenth-century chroniclers only recorded it for the death of caciques. It is likely that in life caciques may have gifted cem

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14. Cem

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pp. 109-117

"Since the original formulations by Bronislav Malinowski (1992 [1922]) and Marcel Mauss (1990 [1925]), grounded on the ethnology of Trobriand islanders, reciprocity has been widely regarded by anthropologists as a central and universal feature of social systems (Mosko 2000; Sykes 2005:38–64). I bring Oceania and Melanesia to the fore in this section because (a) the theory of reciprocity is well ..."

Part IV: Stone Collars, Elbow Stones, Three-Pointers, Stone Heads, and Gua

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15. Stone Collars, Elbow Stones, and Caciques

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pp. 121-140

"The stone collars and elbow stones are visually complex artifacts, and when the lateral and upper panels are decorated, they truly display the virtuosity of Taínoan craftsmanship (Figures 3, 19–22). Like many of the other cemí idols, iconic or otherwise, both elbow stones and collars appear to have pre-Taínoan roots (i.e., the Ostionan and Elenan Ostionoid periods), possibly as early as A.D. 600 or A.D. ..."

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16. Ancestor Cem

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pp. 141-147

"Another class of cem

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17. The Gua

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pp. 148-156

"If ancestor cemís, such as skulls in calabashes and cotton idols, were the physical links between the living cacique and his relative ancestors, mutually defining their personhood, then the guaíza (face) was the extension of the living cacique’s soul to other living human beings. The Taíno term guaíza was given by Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas to refer to what the Spanish called caratona or carátula—that is, a 'face ..."

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18. The Circulation of Chiefs’ Names, Women, and Cemís: Between the Greater and Lesser Antilles

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pp. 157-188

"One of the motivations for the circulation of cem

Part V: The Battles for the Cem

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19. Up in Arms: Ta

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pp. 191-220

"This and the next section focus on two 'Spanish-Ta

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20. The Virgin Mary Icons and Native Cem

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pp. 221-231

"Antonio Curet reminded me of yet another case of a clash of idols, but this time involving two native actors in Cuba: one wielding a native cem

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21. Religious Syncretism and Transculturation: The Crossroads toward New Identities

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pp. 232-244

"The events described by Pan

Part VI: Conclusions

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22. Final Remarks

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pp. 247-256

"This study is in many ways an extended essay. In its original Latin sense, the noun exagium means 'weight.' Its verb form ('to assay') refers to the action and effects of probing and recognizing (i.e., weighting, evaluating, testing) something before using it (Diccionario de la Real Academia de la Lengua Espa

References Cited

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pp. 257-279

Photo Credits and Copyrights

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pp. 281-285


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pp. 287-306

E-ISBN-13: 9780817381172
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817355159

Page Count: 306
Publication Year: 2009

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Syncretism (Religion) -- Hispaniola.
  • Spain -- Colonies -- America.
  • Hispaniola -- Colonization.
  • Hispaniola -- Antiquities.
  • Christianity and other religions -- Hispaniola.
  • Indians of the West Indies -- First contact with Europeans -- Hispaniola.
  • Christianity and culture -- Hispaniola.
  • Stone implements -- Hispaniola -- History.
  • Icons -- Hispaniola -- History.
  • Taino Indians -- Religion.
  • Taino Indians -- Implements.
  • Taino Indians -- Colonization.
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