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The Taino myth of the cursed creator - Bill Keegan

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Before the world of humans began, there was the world of the gods. Four brothers wandered this celestial realm. One day, the brothers snuck into a spirit’s house and spotted a giant gourd hanging in the corner. But as they tried to look inside the gourd, they dropped it. It broke apart, releasing a deluge that formed a new world. Bill Keegan details the Taino myth of Deminan and the sea.

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When Deminán and his brothers were born, their mother, Itibi Cahubaba (“Ancient One”), died in childbirth. They are forced to wander the ancient world in search of their family and knowledge of how to live. During their travels they release the sea from a gourd in the house of the supreme god, and are taught by their “grandfather” who they are and how to live. How do we learn life lessons?

Origin Stories
Every culture has its own story of how the world was created and their place in the world. In a second version of the story told here, the gourd contains the bones of the son (Yayael) of the chief god (Yaya). When the gourd breaks open the bones are transformed into the sea, fishes, and all of the creatures who live in the sea. The world in which the native peoples of the Caribbean Islands lived is thus a gift from god. The story goes on to describe how human beings emerged originally from two caves on the island of Hispaniola. The “Taínos” emerged from the Cave of the Jagua (named for a plant whose seeds produce a black body paint). The rest of humanity, including all of us, emerged from a second cave whose name means the cave “without importance.” This clearly distinguishes them as the true people.

Engaging the diversity of cultures through origin stories is an important and entertaining way to highlight our similarities and differences. We all share the same questions, but have come to many different answers. There is a website that provides a lesson plan for exploring this topic. 

Kinship
One of the most important gifts that Deminán and his brothers received was the gift of kinship. Kinship is the ways in which people trace their ancestry and it strongly influences who you live with and who you can count on for help. For example, some societies trace descent through women (matrilineal), others through men (patriliny), and still others through both. The Hispanic practice of using the surnames of both parents is an example of the latter. In addition, some people tend to live with their mother’s kin (matrilocal), others with their father’s kin (patrilocal), or neither (neolocal). There are many variations on these simple themes. It may be a bit technical, but Bill Keegan's article on native Caribbean kinship in the Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology describes the ways that kinship structured the lives of the people who created the origin myth.

In a technical article published in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, we highlighted how kinship influenced the role of children in gathering snails and clams for dinner in the ancient Caribbean. Martha Stewart Living brought the story up to the present.

Kinship is a topic that we do not discuss very often because is such a basic part of who we are. As access to personal DNA testing has become easier, there is renewed interest in where we came from and how we got here. There are numerous websites that address the topic. Tracing individual ancestry, through family history or DNA testing, is another way to explore diversity.

Teacher's Note:
Myths tell stories in a special way. I like to compare them to speaking a second language in the way that you do not translate every word to find meaning, but instead know the meaning by the flow of words in your mind. In this regard, myths are like paintings. You don’t separate colors, brush strokes, content, etc. It is the entire image, and not its particular elements, that conveys meaning. Like art, myths often have somewhat different meanings to different listeners. It is worth remembering that these are spoken presentations, and were not written to be read (except by interested foreigners who recorded them and added their own layer of interpretation). The storyteller is as important as the story itself. The way a story was told from memory, and how it was presented by different people and in different situations, means that every telling was as different as was every listening.

The Origin of the Sea story was recorded by the Spanish friar Ramón Pané soon after Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas (1494). It was recorded in only one place, and among people who were known as Macorix (“Mah co ree”). It often is associated with the Taíno, but Macorix was not a Taíno language. There is some debate as to which Native Caribbean peoples told this particular story. However, it is part of a large group of myths that use a great flood as the beginning of the story (for example, Noah’s Arc). This is clearly shown in the collection of different versions of essentially the same story in the book Watunna by Marc de Civrieux (below).

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