Monday, November 1, 2021



Messengers to the Spirits

 © by Michjael Auld

In a Taíno story, Agueybaba, Father Sky, turned a fly into a tiny honored messenger bird, the colibri or hummingbird. Who also is a healer and a symbol of rebirth.

In this hemisphere we tend to take the hummingbird for granted. In the northern climes most of 15 of the 365 types of these tropical birds fly north in a short time from Mexico and Central America to breeding grounds in the United States and Alaska. Some species stay as an endemic kind in their own island and their southern mainland homes. However, “the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, which weighs little more than a penny, can make the 500 mile journey across the Gulf of Mexico in less than a day.”  Except for the Anna’s Hummingbird which remains on the Pacific Coast all year round, certain varieties go back and forth following the flowering, insect and seeding seasons. 

The story of these magnificent birds was only known in the Americas until 1492, when the Spanish, arriving in the Caribbean who thought of them as witchcraft or as magical birds which could hover or fly backwards. These attitudes towards hummingbirds have continued to represent messengers, warriors, and spiritual beings in some Amerindian cultures, even until this day. Who are these creatures whose glittering feathers, first encountered in the Taíno culture of the Caribbean Americas, and were thought of by them as the representation of shimmering gold?


Figure 1: Titled, “Guanin” this hummingbird sculpture representing the Island of Gold, from the Taíno story’s symbol for guanin/gold, exemplified by the shimmering feathers of the sacred colibri/hummingbird, as a healing messenger of the gods. Called the Doctorbird in the island, this bird is both Jamaica’s national bird and a symbol for the Yamaye Guani Taíno nation of Yamayeka/Jamaica. Sculpture by the Author.

Figure 2: (AJamaica’s national bird, the scissors-tail hummer. (B) Symbol of the Jamaican Yamaye Taino’s Hummingbird Tribal Nation. (See the introduction by the Kacike Niborni Kaimam of Yukayeke Guanija


Hummingbird (hum-ing-berd)

AColibrí /ko-lee-brí/ n. 1. The Taíno name for a small brightly colored bird of the Caribbean, North, Central, and South America that can beat its wings rapidly, making a zum-zum or humming sound. 2. Kolibrie is the Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Dutch words for hummingbird originating from the Taíno language. Family: Trochilidae 3. also Zum Zum, (from Cuban Taíno) apparently from the sound made by the bird’s wings while in flight. 

B. Called the hummingbird in English /húming-bird/ n (a). An English word which is derived from the humming sound made by the bird’s rapidly beating wings. (b) The tiny hovering bird called colibrí by the Taíno. (c). A small jewel colored bird found only in the Americas related to swifts and having narrow fast beating wings, a long slender bill, and extended tubular tongue for drinking nectar. (d). Also called a “hummer” by some American bird lovers.

How hummingbirds are viewed

Figure 3: Hummingbird Images: (1) Huitzilopochtli, the Mexica’s (Mé-she-ka) hummingbird-warrior and sun-god. (2) Jamaica’s national bird, the Stream-tailed or “doctorbird”. (3) Cuba’s bumblebee-sized hummingbird superimposed on an image of the biggest hummer, the swift-sized South American Patagonia gigas. (4) Jamaican Taíno sculpture of what appears to be a hummingbird man. (5) A Victorian woman wearing a hat with stuffed hummingbirds attached to it. (6) Gigantic image of a hummingbird from the famous Nazca of the Pampa region of Peru, South America. This etching is one of 300 large linear earthwork designs created between 200 BC and 600 AD. The images were made by scraping away the top layer of iron-oxide coated surface pebbles to reveal the lighter color underneath in order to create drawings that are only recognizable from the sky. (Nazca Lines and Culture, (7) Hummingbird Magic for attracting the opposite sex. Like Polvo de Chuparrosa or "powdered hummingbird" this is an image of a premixed cologne or perfume, one of the items along with votive candles and amulets, sold in Mexico and South America.
The hummingbird is believed to be reincarnated warriors, emissaries to deities, identified with a supreme god of the sun and war, worn as earrings by chiefs, sought after for their jeweled pelts by shamen and Victorians, used as love potions, and the major character of many indigenous American mythologies. These are only a few of the descriptive qualities of the world's smallest bird. This indigenous native of the Americas was called colibri and zum-zum by the Taíno and hummingbird by English speakers. The name colibri is still used in Spanish since they were the first non-natives in the Americas to see a bird which they too gave mythical qualities. Hummingbirds are comprised of 365 species and 16 of these live in the Caribbean. They are the second largest family of birds in the Western hemisphere and are found throughout the Americas from Tierra del Fuego in the south to the Arctic Circle in the north. nown as "feathered jewels" the hummingbird has a mystical reputation. The light reflective quality of its tiny feathers turns to dark hues in the shadow and become brilliant faceted colors in the sunlight. The Taíno associated the colibri with the glitter of their highly prized 14k gold called guanin. The reflective sheen of the hummingbird's feathers was like the bright copper-yellow guanin used to render the eyes of some sculptures. Metallic brilliance was associated with a spiritual gate between two worlds. The reflective sheen provided a crossable bridge into the cohoba world of the cemis (spiritual icons). To the Taínos the hummingbird was seen as an important crescent shaped symbol and was associated with similar forms such as the quarter moon and the rainbow. An image of this geometric shape was also achieved when the male of some specie fly in a perfect arc during its mating ritual.

"Aruacs (Taínos) regarded the Humming-bird as the incarnation of their dead warriors, and the name God-bird also applied to it, and the Supernatural awe attached to it suggests that the Amerindian belief has been taken up by the Blacks in a modified form, and that 'doctor-bird' is a 'medicine man’s bird'."

The Jamaican national bird is the specie (Trochilus polytmus) which is the unique Streamtailed hummingbird called a doctorbird. Hummers in Jamaica are called doctorbirds since their beaks are used like a doctor's lance, when collecting nectar and insects from flowers, and may be a loaned Taíno concept. The male of this specie has two long, black tail feathers which make the bird measure 10 inches in length. As noted above in the 1847 description, the Jamaican folk mythology surrounding the doctorbird seemed to have Taíno origins. One Jamaican folk song warns, "Doctor bud a cunny bud, a hard bud fi dead". Or, “a hummingbird is a cunning bird which is difficult to kill.”


Figure 4: Images of  Huitzilopochtli the Mexica “Hummingbird of the South,” or the “Blue Hummingbird on the Left.”

A similar belief by the Aztecs (or Mexica pronounced, Me-shee-ká) was that Huitzilopochtli (Wit-see-low-poach-tlee), the warrior sun god, was associated with the hummingbird. They believed those four years after dying in battle, or as a sacrifice, the spirit of the warriors left the brilliant retinue of the sun god to forever live in the bodies of hummingbirds. Hummingbirds were placed on the graves of warriors.

The ferocious spirit of the hummingbird can cause it to attack an intruding hawk and even humans. The added solitary habit of this territorial bird is, as seen, is identified with Huitzilopochtli. The first part of this Mexica god's name Huetzilin means hummingbird and he is sometimes depicted as this bird. The second half of his name opochtli, means "from the deep south" or the spirit world. In his Nahuat (spiritual) disguise he appears as an eagle. He is the sun, a relentless warrior-god and each morning he rises in the east to subdue those siblings who had plotted his death while still in his mother's womb, his sister is the moon and his brothers are the stars. He was born fully grown and vanquishes them each day. Among the Maya there is also a god who is in the form of a hummingbird.

The Mayan creation story goes, that “When they thought they had completed the job of construction of the universe (again reinforcing the fallibility of Mayan gods), they realized they had failed to do something very significant. They had forgotten to provide a messenger to transport their thoughts and desires from one place to another. For this new creation, the Mayan gods decided to create their messenger with something special. They took a jade stone and began to carve in it an arrow. This arrow was designed to represent a journey. After a few days, the stone arrow was ready. When they blew on the stone to get rid of the dust caused by their carving, they blew so hard that it flew into the sky. As the arrow flew, it turned into a beautiful multicolored hummingbird which they called Al xts'unu'um.”--

To conserve the high energy used for darting and flying it is the only bird that can become torpid. This habit of going into a deep sleep of suspended animation when resting at night and its reinvigoration by the morning sun's rays is associated with attributes of "reincarnation". The use of its beak to penetrate flowers is associated with powers of healing and love. Amulets were made from body parts of the hummingbird and worn in medicine bags (that are still used as love potions in some areas of Central America). The Arawaks of Venezuela, who are related to the Taínos, believed that their ancestors obtained their first tobacco seeds from Trinidad through the ploy of a hummingbird. There are hummingbird tales from the Taíno, Apache, Aztec, Maya, Mohave, Chayma, Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Cherokee, Cochti and many more peoples of the Americas.

Figure 5: North American hummingbird design.

In the 15th century Castilians (Spanish) in the Caribbean saw the hummingbird for the first time. They were fascinated with its diminutive size and brilliant, iridescent colors. The birds were compared with precious stones and gems which have given rise to such names as 'topaz', 'sapphire' and 'ruby'. They wrote that the hummingbird never landed and even nested in the sky. Queen Isabella of Spain, Columbus' benefactor, was told by the Spanish upon their return from the Caribbean that the hummingbird was a cross between a bird and an insect. Specimens were taken to Europe as part of the curious objects from the "New World". Both scientists and the public were captivated by this unusual bird. Stuffed hummingbirds were in great demand through the Victorian era. In 1888 400,000 hummingbird skins were sold as clothes decoration and for jewelry in London alone. Unfortunately, this was one of the ways that the variety within the hummingbird specie was scientifically counted. During this era having encased specimens to adorn one's home was the rage. The exportation of millions of hummingbird skins from the Americas has dramatically slowed but contemporary habitat destruction has endangered the species. Live specimens are difficult to keep and some that were more hardy in captivity have been exported to areas outside of the Americas.

Upon the arrival to the Americas of English speaking Europeans this unique bird was named for the humming sound made by its rapidly moving wings. The wings of each type of bird make a different humming sound. They are most numerous in Columbia and Ecuador where 130 species exist. Hummingbirds are related to swifts and belong to the order Apodiformes and the family Trochilidae. The largest is the Giant Patagona gigas of western South America and is as big as a large sparrow while the smallest, which could pass for a bumble bee, is the Bee hummingbird (called Guani by the Taíno) from Cuba in the Caribbean. Because of their speed some are found impaled on thorns. Their size causes them to fall prey to frogs, praying mantis, and spider's webs (which some hummers use as material for building nests).

The Ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) is the most widely known of the species. It winters in the Caribbean and Central America and in the Spring migrates to eastern North America (from Labrador to eastern Mexico and westward to central South Dakota) where it breeds. During the Fall the Ruby-throated return south in swarms. From spring to fall the Rufous hummingbird flies 2,000 miles between Central America and Alaska.

Of the 16 specie in the Caribbean some are only found on one particular island. For example, the worlds smallest bird, the male bee hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae), is only found in certain parts of Cuba. The Bee hummingbird measures just over two inches from bill to tail (the giant hummer is over 8 inches long). The male which weighs around two grams is slightly smaller than the female. The female is shimmering green, matte taupe with flecks of golden yellow. The male is a showier taupe, with black, aqua, and beads of rose colored head and neck feathers.

The humming bird is the only animal to have truly mastered flight and it has no match in aerobatics. For example, the wings of the ruby-throated hummer normally beat 90 times per second and 200 times per second during courtship. Few other birds can fly backwards and upside down and hover like the hummingbird. It is able to achieve its unusual flying ability because it is capable of rotating the main parts of its wing in all directions. By positioning its body almost vertically and tracing a figure-eight with the tips of its wings, it produces lift and hovers. In order to maintain its flying performance the bird must consume its weight in food each day.

It feeds on nectar which provides high energy sugars and will eatch some insects and spiders. The ability to collect the quantity of needed nectar comes from the variety of flowers they visit. For example, the ruby-throated hummingbird is attracted to at least 31 different flowers. They can be lured to feeders which contain red-colored sugar water. Some plants depend on the hummingbird for pollination. Pollen is transferred to the bird via the stamen which comes in contact with the bird's head during feeding. Many North Americans are avid hummingbird watchers who hang out feeders for the yearly migrants. A few hummingbirds have been known to hang around in northern climes during the winter. A news story in January, 2000 reported a case in Virginia where a Rufus hummer (rarely seen in the Eastern United States) continued to visit a local feeder which then attracted many hummingbird watchers to the site. There are many books and sites on the Internet with stories and information on hummingbirds.

Figure 6: Jamaican hummingbird sculpture, with details, honoring Sir Alexander Bustamante the island's first prime minister who had Taino ancestry. Materials: welded bicycle parts; inlaid etched and colored Plexiglass; One Dollar bill. By the author,