Offering Vessel in the Form of a Bat, Taíno, circa 900–1500 CE
Greenstone, 4 x 13 x 8 ½ inches (10.2 x 33 x 21.6 cm)
Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Early Americas, Exploration and Navigation, MDC PC 2020.3.33
For the Taíno, the indigenous inhabitants of the Caribbean and the first New World people to encounter Columbus, many objects represent a deity or ancestral spirit, or contain the spirit. This dish in the form of a bat has skinny arms and legs that hold a shallow inner bowl, and a small phallus below, suggestive of the bat’s fertile power as a pollinator. An important creature in Taíno religious culture, the bat is associated with death and represents the opias, the spirits of the dead, to the Taíno. Here, the bat’s exaggerated ears suggest a fruit-eating species, such as the Jamaican fruit bat, Artibeus jamaicensis, which loves feeding on guavas. Guavas were also the favorite food of the opias.
Present throughout the world, with the exception of extremely cold regions, many bats are insectivores, and most of the rest are frugivores (fruit-eaters) or nectarivores (nectar-eaters). They are important in ecosystems for pollinating flowers and dispersing seeds, and many tropical plants depend entirely upon bats for these services. Because bats live in caves—which the Taíno regard as portals to the underworld—and fly at night, when spirits are active, they are seen as messengers of the dead. Bats are representatives or reincarnations of the dead in many pre-Hispanic cultures. The Taíno also closely associated them with shamans as mediators between the living and the deceased, traveling between the two worlds.
This dish is made of polished greenstone, a hard material that could facilitate a cohoba
ritual. It may have been used to grind cohoba seeds from the cojóbana
tree (Anadenanthera) into a paste or fine particles for a ceremony in which it was inhaled through snuff tubes to produce a hallucinogenic, entheogenic, or psychedelic effect. Led by a shaman, the ritual’s participants communicated with the spirit world of the deities and of the dead. The presence of the bat on this ritual dish elevates its status from the world of nature to the realm of the spirits.
Exhibited: Culture and Change in the Early Americas, Kislak Center, Miami Dade College, May 20, 2018–January 31, 2021.
Photos by Lynton Gardiner. © Kislak Center at MDC.