Collection Of Tales
Legends about the moon exist in countless
first nation cultures. A tale that extends
from Greenland to Argentina lives in the
indigenous folklore of Dominica. The
Kalinago, one of the first tribes present on
the island, tell the story of Híali, meaning
he who becomes bright, clear and serene.
Often retold by Raymon Breton, the French
linguist and missionary, the story starts with
a young girl who continues to have visits
from a lover at night. His cautious behavior
prevents her from knowing his identity.
One night, her mother waits for the mystery lover to appear. She conceals a genipa in her hands and without hesitation throws the fruit into the lover’s face. In the morning, the daughter awakes pregnant and her brother is found with genipa juice stains on his face. Overwhelmed with the shame, the brother escaped into the sky and transformed into the moon. His flight birthed the belief that the moon is a man with a dirty face. As for his child, he was named Híali and became the founder of the Carib nation. The tale proceeds to unfold when a special hummingbird, called iorótto in Carib, brings Híali to see his father, the moon. Upon introducing the two, the special creature receives the feather crest found today on the head of a foufou (Creole for iorótto).
See these sources for more about Núnų and related folklore:
Notes on the Star Lore of the Caribbees
by Douglas Taylor
Tales and Legends of Dominica Caribs
by Douglas Taylor
L’ESCALIER TÊTE CHIEN
On the east coast of Dominica, L’Escalier Tête Chien
emerges into the Atlantic Ocean, creating a natural
staircase that leads to the Amerindian village, Sineku.
This volcanic finger descends below the sea and holds
a sacred myth for one of the first people of Dominica
called Kalinago. Broadly referred to as Island Caribs
in the past, the Kalinago share ethnic ties with
indigenous Carib-speaking groups living around the
Orinoco River area in South America. It comes as no
surprise then that the main character of the L’Escalier
Tête Chien folktale also journeys across the Caribbean
Sea to find home in Waitukubuli, the aboriginal name for Dominica, meaning tall in her beauty.
In 1938, Douglas Taylor, a descendent of the Kalinago, retells a version of the legend. He learned the information from Fanfan Brunie of St. Cyr, Dominica. The tale begins with a large tête chien, a dog-headed Dominican boa constrictor, who slithered onto to the island when the Earth was still soft, forming the rocky stairwell seen today. The snake, bejeweled with a large carbuncle, a red gemstone, in the middle of his forehead, made his way to a cave on Madjini Mountain, where he still resides today. Master Boa, tête chien’s other name, can crow like a rooster, alter his size and transform into a
human male. According to the Kalinago belief,
no one should dare enter Master Boa’s cave
unless they have fasted and abstained from
sexual intercourse for three days.
In that case, two brave brothers, Màruka and
Cimanàri, from Salybia visited tête chien
quiet often. They would enter Master Boa’s
dwelling to bring him powdered tobacco,
which they burned on the blade of a paddle
in front of him. This caused tête chien to vomit
out l’envers caraibe. Taylor identifies this
substance as “a species of red maranta
whose roots are said to ‘plait’” and are exclusively used for charms. As the story continues, Master Boa disappeared for a while and then returned as a man. He appeared before Màruka and Cimanàri without revealing who he was and asked them what they desired. After speaking, tête chien taught them how to use the l’envers caraibe to make their charms. Perhaps this explains why the brothers were famous for their charms. When Màruka and Cimanàri reached an old age they decided to relocate to a distant land. They arrived on the shores of Orinoco River, emerging from the sea as two young boys. They never returned to Dominica again, but left behind on the water were two turtle shells. Though one brother has passed away, the Kalinago believe the other still lives across the Caribbean Sea.
Though Taylor writes in 1938 and again in 1952, Jacques Bouton, a French religious writer, records tête chien’s existence in 1650, suggesting that this mystical tale certainly sparked wonder in the minds of early European settlers as it continues to today for the locals and tourists alike who wander down Madjini Mountain to witness the waves crashing against the ancient stairs.
Read more about L’Escalier Tête Chien and related folklore here:
by Paul Crask
Tales and Legends of Dominica Caribs
by Douglas Taylor
In the center of San Fernando city
on the southwest coast of
Trinidad, Naparima Hill stands
approximately 639 feet tall.
Deemed as a natural landmark
in 1986 after several pleads
to protect this historic site from
quarrying, San Fernando Hill
attracts tourists and locals alike to
enjoy the trails and views from its
peak. The fountains, playgrounds and picnic tables that now cover Anaparima, the hill and area’s aboriginal name, enable many people to embrace its beauty without considering its sacredness to the Warao Amerindians who stem from around the Orinoco River delta in Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and southern Trinidad. As the first explorers of this spiritual land, Warao people know their stories hold the most significant aspects of the hill that rises at the center of a city once known as an Amerindian trading village.
Anaparima means “guardian of the waves” in Warao, the traditionally known language isolate of the Warao people, and “the single hill” in other Amerindian languages. The contrast in translation signifies the depth of connection Warao people have to this space. Warao people believe that the world floats on water in the shape of a disk. The sea stretches to the horizon, held within a narrow valley enclosed by mountains. According to Warao cosmology, the universe is separated into different realms. At the center of the subterranean realm, the four-headed serpent goddess of nadir uses her four deer-horned crowns to indicate the four cardinal directions. The Kanobotuma, the supreme spirits or grandfathers, live on these mountains that ascend as petrified trees at the four corners of the world. The Butterfly Kanobo or grandfather, who some name Warao Warao, calls the northern seas of the summer solstice home. We call it Naparima Hill.
However, Kanobo does not reside there alone. The Warao
cultural hero Haburi who created the canoe also inhabits
Anaparima. He escaped the grips of Wau-uta, then a
female piai (shaman) but now the Wau-uta frog,
with his mother and aunt on a canoe. Following
in the footsteps of Haburi, Warao people made
annual prehistoric voyages to the northern
corner of the Earth to collect magical white
crystals and shards of quartzite for their wisiratu
shamans who place these stones on their rattles,
which they shake during healing songs.
During these trips, they also traded monkeys,
beeswax and hunting dogs for tobacco, the spiritual
plant needed for wisiratu to mediate messages between those on
Earth and Kanobotuma.
Local historian Peter Harris acknowledges that Naparima Hill’s sacredness among Amerindians must have existed from BC 6500, the earliest recorded date for humans in Trinidad, suggesting that these spiritual journeys across the sea into Trinidad took place then. In the 1590s, Sir Walter Ralegh witnessed and recorded the trading habits of the Warao and visited Anaparima. Later in 1869, Charles Kinsley shared the enchanted sight of Waraos abandoning their canoes by the shore to disappear into the trees of Naparima Hill, and return swiftly and quietly through San Fernando, carrying new tokens back to their canoes, which they would use to paddle back across the Gulf of Paria. Although the Venezuelan government forbade these holy expeditions in the 1940s, they still live in the memory of the former Trinidad and Tobago president Noor Mohamed Hassanali who recalls Amerindians retreating to the Hill as several continue to do today.
Now, imagine how it feels to have one of your grandfathers splattered, used and rearranged on the streets that surround his resting place. As we visit this restored space of wonder, discovery, celebration, leisure and amusement, let us remember as the Waraos and several Amerindian tribes of Trinidad and Tobago do, the cultural stories that live there too.
Read more about Anaparima and it’s Amerindian significance here:
Intoxication in Mythology: A Worldwide Dictionary of Gods, Rites, Intoxicants and Places
by Ernest L. Abel
The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music: South America, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean;
Edited by Dale A. Olsen and Daniel E. Sheehy
The Peoples of the Caribbean: An Encyclopedia of Archeology and Traditional Culture
by Nicholas J. Sauders
The largest asphalt lake in the world bubbles and
stirs alongside the La Brea village in the southwest of
Trinidad. Pichen, as it was called in local Arawak,
meaning flow or stream, runs 250 feet deep in its
center, carrying with it the memories of the tribes
and wildlife that once flourished in its place. While
science concludes the natural lake formed when
rising oil mixed with clay and water to produce pitch,
aboriginal tales offer more astonishing explanations
The La Brea tribe remembers the fatal love affair between Callifaria, Chief Callisuna’s daughter, and Kasaka, the prince of their rival tribe Cumana. Callifaria escaped her home to be with Kasaka. This made Chief Callisuna furious, so he and his warriors waged war on Cumana and stole back his daughter by tying her to a horse and swiftly retuning home. However, Chief Callisuna’s actions infuriated Pimlontas, the winged Arawak god. As a consequence, he cursed La Brea, sinking the village into the earth, covering it instead with piche, a dark tar-like substance known today as pitch.
Yet, Señor Trinidada, an older man of Amerindian descent from La Brea retold a different tale to E.L. Joseph in 1838. He recalled the story of the Chaima tribe, a people who fled the mission villages of the Cumaná region of eastern Venezuela and the Paria Peninsula to settle in Trinidad in the late eighteenth century. One night, the Chaima tribespeople celebrated a victory in battle. They held a large party where they cooked and ate the sacred colibri, hummingbirds, which were in fact the souls of their ancestors. This angered Pimlontas, so as a lesson, he created a lake to engulf the village and all its people.
Across the ocean, however, Arawaks of the coastal zone of the Guianas
passed down the tale of Arawanili, the first Arawak shaman, to
explain the origin of Pichen. According to this myth, Arawanili
received a sacred rattle from a female water spirit and learned
how to use tobacco for curing. After accepting this grand gift,
his brother and his wife had a sexual affair. Arawanili morphed
into a colibri and sang as if crying out his brother’s name.
His brother shot at the hummingbird, but could not kill him.
As he turned his back, he saw his home was now swallowed
by a great black lake and he was left alone, standing on an island
in the middle of Pichen.
The connection to all the myths is quite clear. In all three myths, we find someone
punished for stealing something sacred away from another, whether it be a lover or a soul. Yet, the symbolism of the colibri also cannot be ignored. The hummingbird, indigenous to Trinidad and Tobago, represents a celestial bird who acts as a messenger from the Sun and assists the shaman in several Caribbean Amerindian tribes and folklore. Therefore, much like love and the souls of our ancestors, colibri must be protected and respected.
Read more about the Pitch Lake and related folklore here:
NOHI-ABASSI AND THE STARS
'"I should like to see such a woman, who can catch so many fish, and can eat them as well,’” his little brother said after receiving the news.
“‘No! I don’t care to take you with me to show her to you: you are always laughing at everything, and you might laugh at her,” Nohi-abassi answered.
The brother promised not to laugh and this persuaded Nohi-abassi to change his mind. Together they returned to the place Nahakoboni played and ate the previous day. Nohi-abassi retreated to same tree he spied from before, but his brother, more eager to get a good look, climbed a tree closer to the water. He sat and waited on a branch that hung over the stream. Finally, Nahakoboni appeared and continued her daily routine. She grabbed her fish two at a time, swallowing one and saving the other. When she reached directly below the younger brother, she noticed his shadow. Puzzled and curious, she attempts to catch dark reflection. The water splashed and crashed, but of course she had no luck. The sight of Nahakoboni caused the brother to burst into laughter. He could not stop. He went on and on as loud as he could. This sent Nahakoboni into a rage. She ordered him to come down, but the boy refused. She sent yackman ants to bite him. The stings burned so bad he had to jump straight into the water. Nahakoboni snatched him and ate him in one bite. She turned to Nohi-abassi and gave him the sameorders. He refused. She sent the ants and just like his brother he fled to the stream for relief. Nahakoboni scooped him up, placed him in her basket, tied him up tight and went home.
When she arrived home, she covered her basket with leaves and bushes. She instructed her two daughters not to touch the contents while she went to the field for cassava. As soon as the coast was clear, the two sisters opened the basket. To their surprise, they found a handsome hunter. The younger daughter was especially smitten by Nohi-abassi. They asked if he was a good hunter. Nohi-abassi explained he would “always bring them plenty of game.” Delighted and struck by his charm, the two girls fell in love. The little sister decided to hide him in her hammock.
Soon Nahakoboni returned from the field and
prepared a feast. Ready to eat and kill poor
Nohi-abassi, she opened the basket, but found
it empty. Her daughters quickly confessed and
the younger daughter admitted she already
married Nohi-abassi. Their mother granted
them a deal. If Nohi-abassi hunted for the
family daily, her daughter could stay married
The arrangement started the next day.
Nohi-abassi brought back loads of fish every
single day, but no matter the size, his mother-in-
law always ate them all, leaving only two. This
of course made Nohi-abassi’s work harder. He became very sick. His wife, desperate to relieve him of his duties, knew escaping was the only answer. On his last trip to the stream, Nohi-abassi left his catch in a canoe a bit farther out than usual. He also consulted with a shark, asking him to wait underneath the canoe. The regular routine consisted of Nahakoboni going out to the water to fetch the catch of the day. When the time came, she did so. Of course, this time was a bit different. The shark jumped out and gulped her down. In the meantime, the two lovers prepared for their trip.
Unaware of the plan, the older sister grew anxious of her mother. She went down to the water to see what had taken her so long. She discovered her dead mother and hurried home, silenced in fury. She sharpened her blade, slashing two trees until the cut went straight through. Nohi-abassi spotted his sister-in-law and knew she realized their scheme. The couple took off with great speed, but it was enough. The sister caught up in due time. In a panic, he helped his wife climb the nearest tree. He followed closely behind her heels. As he made his third step, his sister-in-law’s blade slashed his lower leg right off. It stuck to the branch, making a noise “maam.”
According to legend, the sound of his leg is the spirit of the maam, a species of birds. When someone hunts the maam, the same leg, on occasion, falls and strikes hunters, killing them. Yet, the stars help us remember the lovers. We can see Nohi-abassi’s wife climbing a tree in the constellation Kura Moku-moku or Pleiades. Nohi-abassi appears behind her as the Hyades with his leg nearby, famously known as Orion’s belt.
Read more about Nohi-abassi here:
The Animism and Folklore of the Guiana Indians
by Walter Roth
The night sky illuminates with stories from the past. The Warao
people, indigenous to the Orinoco River delta in Venezuela and parts of Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, and Suriname, explain the origin of Orion’s belt through the tale of a skillful hunter named Nohi-Abassi.
Walter Roth retells the narrative in his book The Animism and
Folklore of the Guiana Indians. The legend begins with one brother named Nohi-abassi who spent everyday hunting deeper and deeper into the jungle. One day, he climbed a tree to wait for his prey. While in the branches, he spotted an ogress in the water catching fish with her bear hands. She grabbed two at a time, eating one and throwing the other into her basket. Her name was Nahakoboni and on her head sat an upside down calabash, which she would occasionally fling into the water, making it spin like a top. She did this all day, walking right by Nohi-abassi who remained hidden in the tree. The night came and Nohi-abassi slept in the tree until the next morning. Amazed by the sight he witnessed the previous
day, he ran home to tell his brother.
KAI-TUK AND OLD KAI
Plunging off the Pakaraima Plateau with
a clear drop of 741 feet, four times the
size of the Niagara Falls in North America,
Kai-Tuk spills into the Potaro River in Guyana.
Commonly called by its Amerindian name
Kaieteur Falls, this natural wonder draws
the gaze of locals and tourists alike as it
resides on Patamona territory, despite
the presence of the Kaieteur National Park,
which has made recent headlines due to
the facility policy’s poor treatment of
indigenous people and land. The Patamona
people are one of the nine aboriginal
groups belonging to Guyana. They mostly
live in the North Pakaraima Mountains. The meaning and origin of Kaieteur Falls stem from tales of Old Kai who was undoubtedly a Patamona tribesman.
The Amerindians of this region retell two main stories about Old Kai. However, regardless of their contrasting plots, Kaieteur translates to old man’s fall, indicating that the waterfall’s name honors Old Kai. The most retold tale describes Kai as a Patamona chief who wanted to save his people from the invasions of a warring tribe. In an effort to offer a sacrifice to the Great Spirit, he rows his canoe straight off Kai-Tuk. His courage protected his people. Yet, before his boat and body crashed into the rocks, the spirits speared him by granting Kai immorality, morphing his possessions into stone and transforming his canoe into a long, pointed rock formation still seen today. According to legend, he lives in a cave tucked behind the drop and when he cooks mist appears. If the water lowers to just the right level, the rocks reveal outlines of his face.
In April 1870, Amerindians living above the falls share a different story about an elderly man with Charles Barrington Brown who had just seen Kaieteur Falls for the first time, describing his sighting as a delightful surprise and dreamlike. Walter Roth retells the folktale passed to Brown in his 1915 book. The story starts with an old man who had become a burden to himself and his family. Each day a family member needed to remove the jiggers (small fleas) from his toes, but they would accumulate more and more each day. Soon the old man’s relatives became annoyed and planned for his journey beyond the sun. They placed him and his goods into canoe and allowed the quiet tide to guide him off Kaieteur Falls to his death. Shortly after, two rock formations at the bottom of the waterfall resembled his canoe and belongings.
Read more about Kai-Tuk and the Pakaraima people here:
The Animism and Folklore of the Guiana Indians
by Walter Roth
“The Discovery of the Kaieteur Fall”
by The Geographical Journal, 80(5)