Saturday, June 29, 2024

Taino Zemi Worship and Cohoba Use

Zemi wood sculpture

"Zemi" - Bahamas AI art
©A. Derek Catalano

Taino Zemi Worship and Cohoba Use

The Taino people, indigenous inhabitants of the Caribbean, including the islands of Puerto Rico, Cuba, Hispaniola, and Jamaica, practiced a rich and complex religion centered around the worship of zemis, which were ancestral spirits or deities. This religion was deeply intertwined with their everyday lives, culture, and worldview.

Zemi Worship and Beliefs

Zemis: The core of Taino religion revolved around the worship of zemis. A zemi could represent a deity, an ancestor, or a natural spirit. Zemis were believed to have control over various aspects of life, such as agriculture, weather, fertility, and health. Each zemi had a distinct personality, domain, and function.

Representation of Zemis: Zemis were typically represented in physical forms, including statues, carvings, and amulets. These representations were often made of wood, stone, bone, clay, and even cotton. The physical form of a zemi was considered to be a dwelling place for the spirit it represented.

Creation of Zemis

The creation of a zemi was a sacred and meticulous process. Artisans and religious leaders, known as behiques, were often responsible for crafting zemis. The materials and techniques varied depending on the zemi's intended purpose and the resources available.

Materials Used:

  • Wood: Hardwood was often carved into intricate shapes and figures. The wood from trees considered sacred, such as the ceiba tree, was particularly valued.
  • Stone: Stones were carved using tools made from harder stones or shells. Semi-precious stones like jade and turquoise were sometimes used for decoration.
  • Bone: Animal bones, particularly those of revered animals, were carved into zemi figures or used to accentuate other materials.
  • Clay: Clay was molded and fired to create durable and often intricately decorated zemi figures.
  • Cotton and Plant Fibers: These materials were woven into figures or used to create clothing and accessories for the zemis.

Example of a Zemi: A wooden zemi might be carved to represent a particular deity associated with fertility. The figure could be adorned with inlays of bone and stone to signify its importance. The zemi might also be decorated with paints made from natural dyes.

Cohoba: Definition and Purpose

Cohoba: Cohoba was a psychoactive powder made from the seeds of the cojóbana tree (Anadenanthera peregrina). The seeds were ground into a fine powder and mixed with lime or other alkaline substances to enhance its potency. The powder contained hallucinogenic alkaloids, primarily bufotenin and DMT.

Purpose of Sniffing Cohoba: The primary purpose of sniffing cohoba was to facilitate communication with the spirit world. It was believed to open the mind, allowing the behique to enter a trance-like state and interact with zemis, ancestors, and other spiritual beings. This practice was essential for divination, seeking guidance, and performing rituals related to healing, agriculture, and community well-being.

The Ritual of Sniffing Cohoba and Zemi Use

The ritual of sniffing cohoba was a complex ceremony involving various steps and the use of zemis.


  1. Space Cleansing: The ritual space was purified using smoke from burning herbs and other aromatic substances.
  2. Zemi Placement: Zemi figures were placed in a central position within the ritual space, often on altars made from stone or wood.
  3. Cohoba Preparation: The cohoba powder was prepared by grinding the seeds and mixing them with lime.

The Ceremony:

  1. Invocation: The behique or spiritual leader invoked the presence of the zemis, asking for their guidance and protection.
  2. Snuffing Cohoba: The behique used a specially designed snuffing tube, often made of bone or wood, to inhale the cohoba powder through the nose. This was typically done in front of the zemi figures.
  3. Trance State: The hallucinogenic effects of the cohoba induced a trance state, allowing the behique to enter the spirit world. During this state, the behique might communicate with the zemis, receive visions, and gain insights.
  4. Interaction with Zemis: The zemi figures served as focal points for the behique's spiritual journey. The behique might speak to the zemis, seek answers to questions, or ask for blessings.
  5. Conclusion: The ceremony concluded with offerings of food, tobacco, and other items to the zemis as a sign of gratitude. The behique shared the visions and messages received during the trance with the community.

Significance: This ritual was integral to Taino religion, reinforcing the connection between the physical and spiritual realms. It was a means of maintaining harmony within the community and ensuring the favor of the zemis.


The Taino religion, with its emphasis on zemi worship and cohoba rituals, was a sophisticated system that permeated every aspect of Taino life. The creation and use of zemis, along with the practice of sniffing cohoba, highlight the deep spiritual connections the Taino people had with their ancestors, deities, and the natural world. This complex belief system underscores the rich cultural heritage of the Taino and their profound understanding of the spiritual dimensions of existence.



©A. Derek Catalano/ChatGPT