The Arawak/Taíno were polytheists and their gods were called Zemi. The zemi controlled various functions of the universe, very much like Greek gods did, or like later Haitian Voodoo lwa. However, they do not seem to have had particular personalities like the Greek and Haitian gods/spirits do.
There were three primary religious practices:
- Religious worship and obeisance to the zemi themselves
- Dancing in the village court during special festivals of thanksgiving or petition
- Medicine men, or priests, consulting the zemi for advice and healing. This was done in public ceremonies with song and dance
People had special dress for the ceremonies which included paint and feathers. From their knees on down they would be covered in shells. The shaman (medicine man or priests) presented the carved figures of the zemi. The cacique sat on wooden stool, a place of honor. (There are many surviving stone carvings of the cacique on his stool). There was a ceremonial beating of drums. People induced vomiting with a swallowing stick. This was to purge the body of impurities, both a literal physical purging and a symbolic spiritual purging. This ceremonial purging and other rites were a symbolic changing before zemi. Women served bread (a communion rite), first to zemi, then to the cacique followed by the other people. The sacred bread was a powerful protector (The interesting similarities between this ritual and the Christian practice of eucharist is obvious!). Finally came an oral history lesson — the singing of the village epic in honor of the cacique and his ancestors. As the poet recited he was accompanied by a maraca, a piece of hardwood which was beaten with pebbles.
There was an afterlife where the good would be rewarded. They would meet up with dead relatives and friends. Since most of the people they would meet in this paradise were women, it is curious to speculate if it was mainly women who were considered good, or if some other reason accounted for this division of the sexes in the afterlife.
There are many stone religious artifacts which have been found in Haiti. The zemi take on strange forms like toads, turtles, snakes, alligators and various distorted and hideous human faces.
The zemi, as well as dead caciques, have certain powers over the natural world and must be dealt with. Thus these various services are ways of acknowledging their power (worship and thanksgiving) and at the same time seeking their aid. Because of these powers there are many Arawak/Tanio stories which account for the origins of some experienced phenomena in myth and or magic. Several myths had to do with caves. The sun and moon, for example, came out of caves. Another story tells that the people lived in caves and only came out at night. One guard was supposed to watch carefully over people to be sure they were well divided in the land. However, one day he was late in returning and the sun caught him and turned him into a stone pillar.
Another Indian became angry at the sun for its various tricks and decided to leave. He convinced all the women to abandon their men and come with him along with their children. But, the children were deserted, and in their hunger they turned into frogs. The women simply disappeared. This left the men without women. But, they did find some sexless creatures roaming around and eventually capt