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Island Cosmology

The cosmology of the Kalinago, their perception and understanding of the world they lived in, had been inherited from generations of islanders before them. It had been transferred through tribal elders in story and song, by instruction and ceremony so that it gave them order to the chaos of the world. It was aimed at achieving balance between good and evil. It anchored the society in a symbiotic relationship with nature. It gave structure to their lives. This relationship was based on observation and a deep knowledge of their environment. The Amerindian in the islands was an integral part of the natural cycle, and the spirits which held it all in place had to be understood and placated. Without this, the people's access to, and use of, the natural resources available for gathering, hunting and horticulture would be greatly hindered.

The move to the islands meant a cultural transformation from a continental world to that of an island world. The geophysical structure of the islands determined a very different flora, fauna and marine ecology from what existed along the rivers and coastline of the continent. The cosmology had to change as well.

It was not only the techniques and resources of hunting, gathering and horticulture, which had to be restructured. The main characters that made up their mythology had to be transformed. There were no jaguars, tapirs or anacondas here and so the protagonists of the island mythology gradually took on the guise of bat, frog, gecko, owl and boa constrictor. These were important inn placing men and women's roles into the orderly cycle of life's work and the group's survival.

For the Lesser Antilles, the umbilical cord to the mainland was the Orinoco delta region and the river that rises in the hinterland beyond it. The river and its tributaries had been the primary means of communication for the pre-Columbian settlers of the Caribbean. Their river and forest cultures had long existed within a cosmology tied together by mythologically encoded perceptions of rivers, water currents, canoes and star lore (de Civrieux 1980; Wilbert 1993; Taylor 1946a). To give an example, the landmass of South America had previously extended much further north than at present and included all of the island of Trinidad. This geographical condition existed until 6,000 years ago, when the Caribbean Sea was at a lower level (Nicholson 1976:4/2; Hodell et al. 1991). Significantly this geophysical phenomenon remains registered within the mythic geography of the Warao who now live on the Orinoco delta. Their oral history, encoded in creation myths, speaks of a time when the Serpent's Mouth was dry and Trinidad was connected to the mainland (Wilbert 1993:7). The ancestral memory of a period so remote does suggest the remarkable resilience of tribal history contained in myth.

The Volcanic Peak

Volcanic Peaks The most definitive element of the landscape that represented Grenada and the islands to the north for the indigenous groups was the volcanic peak. So unusual were these high summits to the people of the delta region, that in the mythology of the Warao, Naparima Hill in southern Trinidad was considered to be a pillar holding up the sky on the edge of the Warao world (Wilbert 1993).

Coming from the flat river banks and delta region it was the volcanic peaks, rising out of the sea in a gently curving arc along their route northwards which became the main symbol in their mythic geography once they reached the islands. These peaks gave the islands life and they were the source of all the natural resources that the islands contained. The image of the volcano became the centerpiece for the cosmology of the successive waves of island-based tribes that followed the first agricultural and pottery making people now known as the Saladoid. From their arrival in the islands at the beginning of the Christian era, the volcano was represented in shell, stone and clay in the form of a religious object called a zemi. Because these particular zemies are cut, carved or moulded into the shape of the triangle of a volcanic peak, they are called "three-pointers".

volcano zemis The Saladoid had found a natural object with which to make these first "three-pointer" zemis of the volcano. In the waters around these islands lives the distinctive Strombus gigas or conch and its shell provided an image not just of single volcanic peaks as determined by Olsen (1974) but if studied carefully, the entire shell provides a rough three-dimentional map of the volcanic island cones of the Lesser Antilles. Not only have individual pieces of the points on the conch shell been found to have been cut off from the main shell and carved, but even when these are reproduced in stone or clay they are given a concave base which replicates the concave indentation underneath every conical peak on the conch shell. With the peaks on the conch representing the peaks of the islands then the giant opening of the mouth of the conch may have been interpreted as the bocas of the Orinoco River from which successive groups of indigenous islanders had come.

Once on the islands, these people were well aware of the power of the volcano. Saladoid sites in Dominica and Martinique have been found covered in volcanic ash. They would have witnessed the periodic swarms of tremors, earthquakes and the eruptions themselves. Along the chain there were fumeroles and smouldering craters and crater lakes as here in Grenada. In Kalinago myth, which was handed down through other previous occupants of the islands, there was a time when all the land was hot and soft and rose out of the sea (Taylor 1952). Animals came upon these soft islands led by the island version of the South American anaconda in the form of antillian boa constrictors. These arrival points were geological features called dykes, where volcanic forces have split the bedrock forcing the lava through the crack horizontally.

volcano zemis The three-pointer volcano zemis represented the spirit that gave fertility to the land. It made things grow, it brought rain just as the mountain peaks caused rain to fall. It balanced the dry season with the wet. It was in effect the whole bounty of the island.

Small zemis of this type were buried in fields to make crops grow, larger ones of stone were carved with the earth spirit at their base holding the volcano on the back. "The earth was an indulgent mother who furnished them with all things necessary to life" (Davies:1666:277). "Our gods have made our country and cause our manioc to grow", the Kalinago told Christian missionaries. To the zemis they make offerings of cassava and their first fruit (Davies: 1666:278-79).

 

The Cycle of the Year

Horticulture had to be even more carefully controlled and understood than hunting and gathering for food and materials for tools. Knowledge of the seasonal changes on this tropical island was crucial and it was also anchored by myth. Every year planet Earth goes through its seasonal cycles as it tilts backwards and forwards in its continuous journey around the sun. For thousands of years, all over the planet, groups of human beings have patterned their lives and their beliefs on this cycle of the seasons. Agricultural people, herders of livestock, hunters and gatherers all created religions to give order to their lives and to explain the world around them and their place within it. Most of their religious festivals were, or still are, based on these seasonal changes and apparent movements of the sun. Winter, spring, summer and autumn are the marked seasons of the temperate regions of the northern and southern hemisphere. When colonizers arrived in the Caribbean from Western Europe, they brought their own seasonal and religious perception of the temperate, Christianized world with them. As the conquerors, this "world view" was omnipotent and it was superimposed upon the tropical environment and the people who were found here.


But for those descendants of tribes who had inhabited the islands of the Caribbean for some 4,500 years previously, there was another perception of reality, another "world view". It was based on the accumulated ancestral knowledge of a tropical island world. Here in the Caribbean, the main annual changes are marked by the wet season and the dry season.


The Kalinago people, like their other Amerindian ancestors who lived on the islands before them, divided the year into these two seasons. One half of the year was male, the other half was female. The male was dry. The Female was wet. The men were represented by the image of the bat and the women by the image of the frog. The dry season was the time of the Bat Man. The wet season was the time of the Frog Woman. The time of the Bat Man begins on December 21 when the sun appears to be at its furthest point south, while the time of the Frog Woman begins on 21 June when the sun appears to be at its furthest point north.

Cycle of the Year

 

Bat Man


Up and down the Antilles from Grenada to the Greater Antilles, images of the bat and frog are found in pre-columbian archaeology. They are carved on rocks in the form of petroglyphs, they appear on decorated pottery and are crafted into shell amulets used as jewelry. To keep track of the movement of the earth in relation to the sun, natural and manmade markers helped the Kalinago, and those before them, to observe the change in its position. When carved as petroglyphs they often face east or west towards the rising or setting sun. Examples can be seen at Caguana ball courts in central Puerto Rico, in St.Kitts, Guadeloupe and Grenada.

When considering the Bat Man who represents the dry season, one may well point out that December, January and February are not dry months. But they are leading up towards it. Halfway through the time of the Bat Man, the sun is over the equator and then over the Leasser Antilles causing the climax of the dry season to set in. So from December 21, the bat Man warns us to get prepared for the dry season. It is time to select land in the forest for new gardens and time to cut clearings, so that at the height of the dry season the men can burn the fallen wood. It is time to cut trees for canoes and house posts watching also the right phases of the moon, for moon cycles must be followed within the cycles of the sun.

The bat likes to be dry, he goes out hunting and then comes back to his shelter. "Men mostly spend their time abroad, but their wives keep at home and do all that is required around the house. The men fell timber for thehouses and keep them in repair…men go hunting and fishing, women prepare the food" (Davies 1666:294)


Frog Woman


By June 21, the Summer Solstice, the dry season is coming to an end, the fields are ready and on that day we enter the time of the Frog Woman. The wet season is beginning. Frogs come out when it rains. They produce many eggs. The Frog woman represents fertility. She is always depicted in stone, shell and clay as half frog, half woman: her hands and feet are webbed; she faces us with her arms and legs splayed apart like the limbs of a squatting frog. Her navel is prominent at the center of every image made of her. Her vagina is exposed. She is ready for sex. The Amerindians were frank about such things before the influences of colonization introduced the concepts of shame, cover up and sexual hypocrisy.

The Frog woman was fertile and her time, from June 21 to December 21, was the time to plant. The rain is falling, the soil is rich with moisture. During the dry season the men had done their work and now, in tune with the cycle of the seasons it was the turn of the women to plant. Under the spirit of the Frog Woman that was their task, for only through their hands would the slips of cassava, yam, tannia and sweet potatoes prosper of the peas and corn bear fruit.

"Women take care of everything for the subsistence of the family…Women get in the manioc, prepare the Cassava and Ouicou, dress all the meat…set the gardens, keep the house clean…paint their husbands [with roucou, annatto, bixia] spin cotton. Their work is never at an end…so they are rather to be accounted slaves than companions" (Davies 1666:294).

As the sun was seen to pass south over the equator once more, halfway through the time of the frog Woman, it was the peak time (in modern day mid September) for the fearful spirit Huracan to make his appearance. With powerful winds he tears the forsts to shreds, destroys houses and raises ocean waves. The women had to have their plants safely under the ground by the time that the sun had marked its halfway path over the equator, for this marked the time of Huracan's most powerful wrath. The Kalinago festivals of December 21, at the end of the time of the Frog Woman also celebrated the end of the season of Houracan.

Integrated into these cycles of the sun, were the phases of the moon. The movement of stars were also linked with seasonal movements of wildlife. Each Kalinago constellation had its own story to explain its place in the sky. The shift of the north-east winds during the year. The movements of pelagic fish and the use of herbs from different levels of the island's vegitational zones all formed part of this wider cycle of natural events. The destruction of the Kalinago meant the eradication of this knowledge from the face of the island. Those who took over had to start from scratch, and to a large extent they were unable to retrieve the balance.

 




 

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