Guiana - Familiar Spirits
The cult of Familiar Spirits reached a high development among the Island Carib folk (89). Though presented with offerings and other things, these Spirits could be invoked only by the Medicine-man (90), and, being more or less intimately associated with human bones, were often called into requisition for purposes of Witchcraft and Prophecy (91). The Island Arawak people also had similar Familiar Spirits (92), the belief in whose existence is even yet traceable on the Guiana mainland (93). Familiar Spirits and Couvade (93A).
89. The cult of the Familiar Spirit would appear to have reached a high stage of development among the island tribes; at any rate, it is from these people that comparatively complete records of its existence have come down to us. Thus with the Carib Islanders: "The good spirits which are their gods are more particularly expressed as Ichĕiri (by men) and Chemin (by women): They believe that these good spirits, or these gods, are in great numbers, and in this plurality each person believes he has a special one for himself—his own particular spirit, his own familiar: They say that these gods reside in the sky, but do not know what they do there, and they themselves show no signs of recognizing them as the creators of the world and of things that are" (RoP, 471). The precise source or origin of these Familiar Spirits is unfortunately nowhere given, beyond the statement that they leave the human body at death in company with the particular spirit connected with the deceased's heart (ibid., 484). Again: The Island Caribs dedicated no temples or altars to their divinities, these Icheiri or Chemin: they made them no sacrifices. They simply made them offerings of cassava, and their first fruits. Above all, when they believed that they had been cured by them of some illness, they had a feast in their honor and offered them cassava and oüicou. All these offerings are known as anacri [alakri]: they place these at one end of the hut in vessels, according to the nature of the thing, on one or several matutus, or small tables plaited of rushes and palm leaves. Each one in the hut can make these offerings to his [Familiar] Spirit; but such offerings are not accompanied by any adoration or prayer, and consist only of the actual presentation of the gifts (ibid., 472).
90. To invoke them, however, requires the Boyé (medicine-man), together with incantations and tobacco smoke. This is the case chiefly on four occasions: (a) to be revenged on some one who has done them harm, and so draw punishment on him; (b) to get cured of some illness and learn the results of it; (c) to consult them on the p. 168 issues of their wars; (d) and to hunt away the Evil Spirit, Maboya (loc. cit.). When the Boyé has made his Familiar Spirit appear, the latter is heard to reply clearly to the questions put to him: he is heard to click his jaws as if eating and drinking the anacri, but next morning they find that he has not touched it. These temporal viands which have been soiled by these unfortunate spirits are deemed so sacred by the magician and the people whom they have abused that it is only the old men and the most illustrious among them who are free to partake of them, and even then they dare not taste them unless they have a certain cleanliness of person (RoP, 473). "They have asked me," says Father de la Borde, "sometimes to drink of it, and I have done so just to try and change their superstitious ideas, one of which is to drink of this oüicou before eating, otherwise you die, and purposely I ate first before drinking; another is to keep the cup straight so as not to spill the contents, otherwise the eyes would run water everlastingly. I purposely spilt some, and held the cup crooked" (BBR, 235).
91. These Familiar Spirits [Icheiri or Chemin] often nestle themselves inside bones taken from a grave, which are wrapped up with cotton into grotesque figures, and so give oracles: they say it is the Spirit of the Dead that talks (RoP, 473, 479). "They sometimes put the hairs, or some bones, of their deceased parents into a calabash. They keep these in their huts, and use them for some sorcery. They say that the spirit of the dead one speaks through these, and forewarns them of the designs of their enemies" (BBR, 236). More than this, bones prepared with cotton, as above mentioned, are used for bewitching their enemies, and for this purpose the sorcerers wrap them up with something that belongs to their enemy (RoP, 473).
These Familiar Spirits also enter into the bodies of females and speak through them (loc. cit.). In order to turn aside the vials of their wrath and to divert the anger of these Spirits, tobacco leaves are smoked in their honor through the agency of the Boyés, their hideous likenesses are painted on the canoes, or the Indians carry slung around their necks a small embossed effigy representing one of these cursèd spirits in the ugliest position in which it had ever put in an appearance (RoP, 479).
92. The Island Arawak also had a belief in certain supernatural beings or spirits, and possessed effigies of them; both the spirit and its effigy were known to these folk as Cemi or Zemi. Thus, in his account of the aborigines of Haiti (Santo Domingo), Columbus says:
But also in all the other islands and on the mainland [Cuba?] each has a house apart from the village in which there is nothing except some wooden images carved in relief which are called Cemis; nor is there anything done in such a house for any other object or service except for these Cemis, by means of a kind of ceremony and prayer p. 169 which they go to make in it as we go to churches. In this house they have a finely-wrought table, round like a wooden disk, in which is some powder which is placed by them on the heads of these Cemis in performing a certain ceremony; then with a cane that has two branches which they place in their nostrils they snuff up this dust. The words that they say none of our people understand. [WF, 352.]
In early writings, zemis are repeatedly called "messengers" and were in fact subordinates of the great gods; being possessed like them of magic power to make the yucca grow, to facilitate childbirth, and to cure the sick (ibid., 356).
93. These Cemi of the Island Arawaks were identical with the Chemin of the island Carib-owned women who, for very intelligible reasons, spoke an Arawak dialect. Still more interesting is the fact that, on the Guiana mainland, the Arawak designation both of the piai and of the various kickshaws and apparatus employed in the pursuit of his craft is Semi-tchihi, or Semi-sihi. Indeed, it is in the cult of the piai where traces of this belief in Familiar Spirits must be sought among the mainland tribes, and it is here where I have been fortunate enough to find some. Thus, the effigy of the Familiar Spirit of the islanders has its representative in the so-called doll) and neck-ornament of the Mainland Arawak and Warrau medicine-man, as well as in the "devil"-figure of the Galibi piai and possibly in the maize-straw figure described by Crévaux. The Spirit itself is met with in the beings invoked by the Mainland Carib doctor when called upon to treat a patient: it is indeed not so very improbable that the actual Island Carib term Icheiri) may be identical with the Mainland Carib word Iakai-a used today on the Pomeroon.
93A. While frankly admitting that I have no actual proof from the literature or from my own field-work, as to any relationship of the Familiar Spirit with the little Baby Spirit, on whose account the various forms of couvade are practised, I am nevertheless very much inclined to believe in their identity. I look on the Familiar Spirit as an early stage in the idea of the Conscious Self, the "Ego."
An Inquiry into the Animism and Folk-Lore of the Guiana Indians, Walter E. Roth, from the Thirtieth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1908-1909, pp. 103-386, Washington D.C., 1915, and is now in the public domain.[ British Guiana ][ South America ]