Important Zemi Head, Taino
Taino culture, Greater Antilles, 800-1500 AD
Height : 22 cm
Provenance : Stefanus Grusenmeyer, Ghent
Philippe Dodier, Avranches
A couple of three-pointed stones of the third type - called zemi - characterized by a similar lizard head were published in the Twenty fith annual report of the Bureau of American Ethnology in 1907. These two sculptures and the above one all differ stylistically from each other, suggesting a different period or origin. Unlike the first two zemi heads the present example has no decoration, and the animal is rendered in a more realistic manner. A closer inspection shows some binding marks on the forehead of the lizard, probably resulting from attachment to a stone collar (see below for an example illustrated in the cited publication above).
The exact function of these ellipsoid stone sculptures remains open to interpretation. In a book of reference about the subject - Taino, Pre-Columbian Art and Cultre from the Caribbean (1997) - the scholar Jeffery P. Walker discusses whether the yokes should be considered zemis, the spiritual artifacts and beings central to the Taíno religion, or whether they functioned as vehicles for displaying attached “three-pointer” stone zemis, belonging to individual caciques (chiefs), during communal rituals. Walker writes that “the stone collar represents the mythical base, the foundation on which all Taíno religion rests - a communal and common past uniting all Taíno equally.
The three-pointer, on the other hand, was owned and manipulated by the cacique as a personal power-object... a private, personally focused spirit-object.” Walker concludes that as the yokes were likely communal or clan property, “This may also explain why there was a reluctance to incorporate any three-pointer permanently into the design of a stone collar... before too long one cacique would pass on and there would be another. Zemis presumably were eternal beings. Because of the intensely personal nature of three-pointer zemis, it was not prudent or even logical to attach such an object permanently to the fundamental base of the group’s religious history - the stone collar. When a new cacique became the leader, or an existing one acquired a more potent zemi, the new object could be attached to the stone collar for rituals at any time during his rule.” (page 91)
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