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Our Mother Atabey

Guabancex and Iguanaboína,
two sides of the same coin,
two halves that make up a whole.
Our universal mother with five names: Atabey Apito Guacar Yermao Zuimaco –
In her, destruction and benevolence come together;
They constitute each other,
They need each other,
They complement each other.
Atabey, my universal mother, showed me the way to embrace my whole self.
I am both destruction and benevolence.
I am both a virgin and a slut.
I am both a soul and a body.
I am both a sinner and a saint.
That’s the only way that I am one and not just half.
That’s the only way I am whole.
That’s the only way I am a completely healed human being.

In my recent research of the Taíno religion I learned that their cosmology is one of coincidence of complementary opposites. The cosmovision that guided the religious ceremonies of the Taínos, as well as their ritual space, and pantheon of cemíes (physical representations of divine spirits) considers the visible ordinary world to be opposite and complementary to the invisible extraordinary world.

This particular cosmovision is different from the notion of binary opposites that undergirds Western thought, which manifests itself in Christian liturgy and preaching. It is also different from the cosmovision that undergirds African-American worship and Native American worldviews that does not recognize any split between sacred and secular spheres. For the Taínos, the split between the ordinary world (the world of the living) and the extraordinary world (the world of the dead, the ancestors, and the sacred beings) does exist but not in opposite binaries that cannot coexist and need to be kept separate. These two spheres constitute each other, but more than that, they need each other in a complementary relationship. Without the other, each one is incomplete. The two worlds are two halves that need each other to be whole.

This notion of ‘complementary dualism’ manifests itself in the system structure of Cemíism, and in the organization of the pantheon of cemíes. Each cemí had two sides or two manifestations with names and opposite but complementary functions. The poem above reflects this complementary dualism in Atabey, who was the supreme mother in the Taíno religion. I find in this Taíno cosmology a more healthy approach to being in the world, especially being a woman.

The opposite binaries that fill Western thinking and permeate Christianity as it came to Puerto Rico during colonial times, completely separate good and evil in such a way that they cannot coexist. People are evil until they become Christians, at which point they become good; or so we were taught by colonial evangelism. In a similar fashion, women are considered evil until Christianity turns them into pure and decent women. The icons to understand this better are Mary Magdalene as a prostitute and Mary, the mother of Jesus as the eternal Virgin. As a woman growing up in Puerto Rico I felt I had to chose one of those, but being as obedient, submissive, and eternally pure and virgin like the Virgin Mary is an ideal too hard to achieve. On the other hand, anything that fell short from that ideal sent me to the Mary Magdalene / prostitute category.

Embracing the complementary dualism of the Taíno religion and of Atabey in particular is liberating news. The poem says it best. I am full of oppositions but I don’t have to get rid of them. I need them all to be whole and if I am whole I am healed.

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One Response to Our Mother Atabey

  1. Lis May 22, 2014 at 3:12 am #

    The strange woman and the wise woman of the book of Proverbs are at odds with each other but mirror and balance each other, according to this article by Homiletician John McClure:
    Strange and Wise, a complementary dualism, like the two parts of our mother Atabey.

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