Geography: Dominican Republic (?), Caribbean
Medium: Wood (Guaiacum sp.), shell
Dimensions: H. 27 x W. 8 5/8 x D. 9 1/8 in. (68.5 x 21.9 x 23.2cm)
Credit Line: The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979
Accession Number: 1979.206.380
This striking figure of a crouched, emaciated male figure clutching his knees was called a zemi or idol by the Taino people. Zemis were the most important cult objects in their society. Symbolizing social status, political power, and fertility, they represent deities worshipped by the Taino, including ancestors and the forces of nature. Produced in different forms and sizes in wood, clay, stone, shell, and bone, zemis were kept in special shrines in Taino villages and used in ceremonies that included the taking of cohoba, a hallucinogenic snuff. Cohoba snuff, made from the seeds of a local tree, is one of the strongest indigenous American hallucinogens. For ceremonies, it was often mixed with crushed shell and/or tobacco to enhance its effects. Placed on the plate on top of the zemi's head, the mixture was inhaled through tubes to the nostrils. Visions resulted which the Taino perceived as apparitions and messages of their gods and ancestors.
The Tainos believed that a pair of zemis were responsible for the sunshine and rainfall respectively. This figure is thought to portray Boinayel, the Rain Giver, the deep grooves running down from his eyes symbolizing the magical tears that created rainfall.