Areyto – The Dance of the Taínos

Our primitive ancestors, the Indian Taínos celebrated their circumstances through a religious ceremony called Areyto. Music played a vital role in the history and culture of Borikén, named the Taínos gave to Puerto Rico, meaning in their language, the land of God.

Throughout thousands of years, the Areyto evolved into other genres of music and even when unfortunate circumstances could be devastating to the island; this art of science called music is the magical element that shifts sadness into bliss. It reminds Puerto Ricans that they can find the solutions to their problem through singing and dancing.

Starting with the national hymn of Puerto Rico, called La Borinqueña, the Indian Taínos left us a legacy of their customs and culture. The Areyto ceremony played a significant role in their social, political and religious life, and its purpose was to worship their ancestors and to seek spiritual guidance from the spirit world.

By performing dances and music, the community participated in the Areyto, and the festivities could go on for days. It usually took place in the central plaza of a village, called the Batey.  Also known as dance courts, this rectangular and vast area was surrounded by stones slabs, and decorated with carvings of zemís to hold the spirits of Yocahú and Atabey.

Petroglyph at Caguana Ceremonial Center
Petroglyph at Caguana Ceremonial Center

Taínos believed zemís had powers that affected their physical environments, such as the weather, health, death, and childbirth. The Carved zemís from stone or wood were made in all shapes and sizes, as well as adorned with gold and semiprecious stones.

Led by the cacique, which was the chief of the tribe, the Areyto was a religious ceremony, helping him the bohique, a shaman with supernatural powers. Before the ceremony, he painted or tattooed his body with zemís. Besides using medicine herbs, chants, tobacco, and maracas to create an immortal sound; magic was the most powerful element he used for healing. He understood that magic was perceived by being able to see far beyond his physical eyes. He mastered quantum physics, believing his world was a projection of his inner eyes.

Both the bohíque and the cacique inhaled cohoba seeds. The purpose of this hallucinating drug was to reach a state of mind that would transport them to the spirit world. There were times when they added the cohoba to the tobacco and ground shells, with the means to enhance its effectiveness.

Before beginning the Areyto ceremony, they would go through a purifying process by fasting or by inserting a stick in their throat to cause vomiting. Inhaling the Cohoba into the nose with tubes made of bones or wood, the bohíque, and the cacique’s state of hallucination was to communicate with their gods, hoping to receive guidance and answers.

To prepare for these ceremonies, the Taínos liked to paint their bodies with dyes made from plants and adorned their bodies with parrot feathers and jewelry made of shells. The caciques and bohíques wore capes decorated with feathers.

The Areyto began with a procession of the Taínos carrying baskets of cassava bread, and singing songs about the zemís. They also went through a cleansing process by pressing a stick down their throat and vomiting.

The woman brought cassava bread to the bohíques, who offered it to the zemís. Dancing, singing, and chanting followed, glorifying the deities and praying for prosperity and health. They created music with a wooden drum, made from a tree, called atambor. This instrument was accompanied by maracas, guiros, conch shell trumpets and flutes that were made from bones. When the indigenous were not performing, they sat on stones, while the caciques and bohíques sat on their stools.

Among the different reasons Areitos were celebrated, the visit of prominent guests was one of them. Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, a Spanish priest who lived in Puerto Rico during the Spanish colonization, described an Areyto ceremony as a beautiful and magical ritual where the Taínos expressed their essence by telling tales of their past circumstances and their ancestors to their children while they danced and sang.

Caguana Ceremonial Center, Dancing Court
Caguana Ceremonial Center, Dancing Court

Known as one of the largest Taíno settlements in Puerto Rico, the Ceremonial Plaza of Caguana was one of the preferred sites for the Taínos to celebrate the Areyto. Located in Ponce, this center is one of the largest and oldest plazas in the Caribbean, providing this site an ideal setting for archeologists to study the evolution of the Taíno culture. 

The historian believes the Areyto was a medium to escape this world and to reach higher dimensions. Even though only the cacique and the bohique were the ones establishing communication with higher spiritual realms, the purifying state they were all able to reach through the Areyto ceremony, would benefit each one of them, allowing them to receive grace, wisdom, and joy.

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