Updated: Dec 27, 2022
In an earlier post on this blog, I wrote that hurricanes have always been a fact of life in the Caribbean. They have existed since time immemorial and shaped the lives and consciousness of all who have lived on these islands, and anywhere else their force has been felt, from the dawn of time to the present. And they have left their traces in art and culture.
The Importance of Fernando Ortiz
In 1947, the Cuban anthropologist, Fernando Ortiz, published the first important study of the cultural manifestations of hurricanes, The Hurricane: Mythology and Symbols. As I discussed in my earlier post, the Spanish colonizers of the Caribbean gave the names of Christian saints to the hurricanes, assigning to each storm the name of the saint whose name day it was when the storm hit. Ortiz's great achievement over the course of his long career was his recognition and documentation of the many contributions of indigenous and African traditions and beliefs to Caribbean culture, and his recognition in the 1940s, at a time in which Eurocentric views prevailed among the elites in the Caribbean, that Caribbean identity was mestizo or mulatto. As he wrote in 1946, "The history of the Americas cannot be understood without coming to know the histories of all the ethnicities that have fused on this continent, and without appreciating the result of this reciprocal transculturation." He is most known for his extensive documentation of Afro-Cuban culture and traditions, but, in his book on hurricanes, he begins with an archeological approach in which he documents and interprets the significance of symbols found in indigenous cultures across the world for millenia.
According to Ortiz, spirals are one of the oldest designs reproduced as petroglyphs in cultures across the world, dating back to the neolithic period. They appear across the globe in cultures that never interacted with each other. This is not surprising since they are abundant in nature. Spirals can be observed on seashells, the shells of snails, and in the movements of spinning galaxies, whirlpools. cyclones and hurricanes.
And spirals are very present in Taino petroglyphs found in the Caribbean:
Jurakán for the Tainos
In Taino culture, the spiral is used to represent the snail, while water is represented by two intersecting spirals moving in opposite directions, as if to suggest its dynamic force. Ortiz notes the associations made in some cultures between phenomena that rotate, spin or gyrate, like storms and hurricanes, and animals such as snails and snakes. The symbol
for the god Jurakán, however, is not just a spiral. It is more developed. In the case of the Taino ideogram for the hurricane that Ortiz found in Cuba, and which appears at the beginning of this post, s-shaped extremities extend outwards from a head with two vacant staring eyes and an open mouth. It represents the centripetal force of the hurricane that propels it along a curved path, and personifies it, since it is also a representation of the fearsome god Jurakán.
Today, we associate hurricanes with superhuman, unstoppable, destructive force. Jurakán knows no mercy. That's why the boxer Rubin Carter was called The Hurricane. You can also see this in Mayan videogames. Jurakán is also a god in Mayan culture, and today he can be the powerful avatar a gamer chooses to fight his or her opponent.
Hurricanes are an impersonal force of nature but, because of their destructiveness, they are frequently associated with malevolence. This is most probably why they are used to evoke impossible situations and impending doom and destruction in art. The Mexican writer Fernanda Melchor, for example, draws on these associations to evoke the oppressive and disturbing violence of both the weather and the culture in the state of Veracruz, on the Caribbean coast in her novel, Hurricane Season:
"They say that the heat is driving people crazy. How is it possible, they say, that at this point in May it hasn't rained a single drop? Hurricane season is coming strong. Bad vibes, they say, are to blame for so much misfortune: decapitated bodies, chopped up and bagged, that appear at the bends in the roads or in hastily dug graves."
Jurakán is still with us, in the Caribbean and elsewhere, literally and figuratively, in life and in art. There are many more examples and plenty more to say about this. What would you add?