Concerning the Indians’ images of the devil, their idolatries, areytos and other sung-dances, and the way that they preserve in memory the things of the past that they wish to pass down to their descendants and their people.

Translated by Dahlia Chroscinski ’19

In my travels through the Indies, both in these islands and on the Main, I have tried very attentively, by all the means at my disposal, to discover in what way or form the Indians remember the tales of their origins and ancestors, and whether they have books, or through which signs and traces they strive not to forget the past. On this island, as I understand it, those songs they call areytos are the only book or memorial passed down from person to person, from parents to children, and from those presently living to those still to come, as will be told here. And among this generation, I have not found anything more anciently painted, sculpted or carved in relief, anything more centrally respected and revered, than the abominable and unholy figure of the devil, painted or sculpted in many diverse ways, in groups with many heads and tails, deformed and with frightening fangs, ferocious teeth, and disproportionate ears, with the fiery eyes of a dragon or a predatory serpent, and in many different guises—depicted in such a way that even the least frightening inspires much dread and awe. These figures are considered so unexceptional and commonplace that they not only display them in their houses, but also on the stools on which they sit (which they call duho), to signify that it is not only he who sits, but he and his adversary. They sculpt and carve him out of wood, clay, gold, and other materials, as many as they can use, or paint him hissing and looking very ferocious, just as he is. He is the one they call cemí, whom they have as their God and whom they ask for water, sun, bread, or victory against all their enemies, and anything else they wish; they think that the cemí only grants their wishes when it pleases him and appears to them as a ghost in the night. And they have certain men among them called buhití, who serve as divining doomsayers and haruspices; these men lead others to believe that the cemí is the lord of the world, of heaven and earth and all the rest, and that his figure and image is in fact the ugly one I have described, even uglier than one could think or say, but always different, as they depict it in such a variety of ways. And these diviners told them many things that the Indians accepted as true and which worked either to their advantage or disadvantage; and even though often enough the cemís made liars out of them, they did not lose their credit because they gave them to understand that the cemí had changed his mind, either because it was to their benefit or to exercise his will. These men, for the most part, were great herbalists and knew the properties of many trees, plants, and herbs; they healed many with such arts and they were held in great veneration and esteem, as if they were saints, as priests are held among Christians. They always brought with them the cursed figures of the cemí, and because they carried these images they were often given the same name, being called cemís more often than buhitís. On the mainland, they not only happily depict such unholy and diabolical images in their idols of gold, stone, wood, and clay, but even paint them on their own persons (perpetually dyed in black or carved on their skins and flesh, marked for as long as they live, becoming one with his damned effigy). So, like a stamp that is already imprinted within them and in their hearts, he is never forgotten by them or their forbearers, even if they name him in different ways.

             In this island of Hispaniola, as I have explained, cemí is the same being that we call the devil; and such was the one depicted in the Indian’s jewels, on their fans and fly swatters, and on their thresholds and other places mentioned, as well as elsewhere, as it took their fancy or their purpose required it. One thing I have noticed in what I have written about the practices of these people is that among them the art of divination (or of predicting things to come), and the many useless prophecies the cemíes communicate to the people, went along with medicine and the magic arts, which I think coincides with what Pliny says in his Natural History, where he acknowledges that although it may be the most fraudulent and deceptive of all arts it has sustained a grand reputation across the world throughout the centuries.[1]

             It is no wonder that this art has acquired such widespread authority, because it alone embodies three other arts, which reign, more than any others, over human life. In principle, no one doubts that this art has been drawn from medicine, as a more sacred and excellent practice than medicine, and so its promises, so desirable and praiseworthy, have joined those of religion. And afterwards, it joined the mathematical arts, which hold great influence over men, always eager to know the future and believing that it can truly be understood from reading the heavens. Therefore, such an art, having bound the senses of man with three knots, has attained such heights or sublimity that even today it holds sway over most people, and in the East it boasts the king of kings, since there is no doubt that this art was born in the region of Persia and its first prophet was Zoroaster, a matter on which all writers agree. All that I have said comes from Pliny and is related to what Isidorus claims in his Etymologiae—that the first of the wise men was Zoroaster, king of the Bactrians.[2] In these parts of our Indies such beliefs are widespread, and the Indians practice them alongside their medicine, so their principal doctors are also their divining priests, and their religious leaders lead their idolatries and their vile and devilish ceremonies.

             Let us continue to the areytos or songs, which is the second thing promised in the title of this chapter. These people had a pleasant and charming way of remembering past and ancient things; this was through their songs and dances, which they call areytos, and which we call sung-dancing. Livy [Titus Livius] says that the first dancers came to Rome from Etruria and they arranged their songs by synchronizing the voices with the movement of the person. This was first done to help dispel the grief caused by the deaths from pestilence on the year Camillus died; this, I declare, is just like the areytos performed by these Indians. They performed areytos in this way: when they wanted to enjoy themselves, while celebrating some notable festivity or even without a festivity, just as a pastime, the Indian men and women came together (sometimes only men, and sometimes only women); the same was done during general celebrations, for marking a victory or the defeat of an enemy, or for the wedding of a chief or king of the province, or for any occasion in which pleasure was shared by all, so that the men and women interacted. And to further extend their happiness and delight, they would sometime take each other by the hand, or join together arm in arm, or form a line (or likewise a circle), and one of them would lead (it could be a man or a woman) and would take certain steps forwards and backwards, in the manner of a very orderly contrapás,[3] and the others would do the same (following closely), and they would go around, singing in the high or low tones that the guide harmonized, and they all did as the guide did and said, the coordination of the steps with the verses and words that they sing being very measured and organized. And as the guide leads, the crowd responds with the same steps, words, and order; while they respond the leader is silent, although he does not stop performing the contrapás. After the response, which repeats or says what the guide has done, it proceeds without pause or delay to another verse and words that the circle of people then repeat; like this, without stopping, the dance lasts three or four hours or more, until the teacher or leader finished his story, and sometimes it went from one day to the next.

             Sometimes they add a drum to the singing, which is made from a round piece of wood, hollowed, concave, and more or less as thick as a man, or as thick as they want it to be; it sounds like the muted drums that the Negroes make, but they do not put leather on it, rather a few holes or lines carved deep into the hollow, and which produce an ungracious racket. And in this way, with or without the accompaniment of such a bad instrument, in their song (which is spoken) they speak their recollections of past histories, and in these songs they speak of the ways former caciques (or tribal lord) perished and who they were and how many there were, and other things that they do not want to be forgotten. Sometimes they replace the guides or leaders of the dance; he continues the same story, changing the tone and the contrapás, or tells another (if the first one has ended) at the same or at a different pace.

             This form of dance looks something like the songs and dances of the farmers, when in some parts of Spain men and women play the tambourine to enjoy themselves in the summer; in Flanders I have seen the same form of singing, men and women dancing in many circles, responding to the one who guides them and leads the singing. In the time when Commissioner Frey Nicolás de Ovando governed this island, Anacaona, cacique or king Caonabo’s woman (who was a great lady), performed an areyto in which more than 300 young maidens, all of them Anacaona’s handmaids and yet to be married, participated; she did not want a man nor a married woman (or one who had known a man) to participate in the dance or areyto. So, returning to our topic, this way of singing in this and the other islands (and even in many parts of the mainland) is an effigy of history and remembrance of the past, from times of war to moments of peace, because with the perpetuation of such songs, feats and events are not forgotten. These songs, rather than books, tell the stories and remain in memory; through this form they recite the genealogies of their chiefs, kings, and masters, and the deeds that they accomplished, and the good and bad storms that they have experienced or have yet to pass, and other things that they want children and adults to understand and know well, and carve into their memories. For this reason, these areytos continue, so they do not forget their past, especially the tales of famous victories on the battlefield.

             On the subject of the areytos there will be more to say when it comes to the practices on the Main; the songs and dances native to this island, when I first witnessed them in the year 1515, did not seem as notable as those I had seen before on the mainland and those I saw afterwards in other places. I trust that what has been described here will not appear barbaric to the reader, since in both Spain and Italy they do the same, and in Christian lands (and even among infidels) I think it must be so. What else are the romances and songs founded on truths, other than part of the collective memory of the past? Those who cannot read can at least learn through songs that it was when he was in the noble city of Seville that the desire was born in King Alfonso’s heart to besiege the city of Algeciras. So says the romance, and in truth this is what took place: King Alonso XI left from Seville when he seized Algeciras on March 28, 1344. Therefore, since it is now the year 1548, this areyto has been sung for two hundred and four years. Through another romance one learns that King Alonso VI established his court in Toledo in order to bring justice to Cid Ruy Diaz against the counts of Carrión; this king died on the first day of the month of July in the year 1106 after the birth of Christ. Four hundred and forty-two years have passed until now, the year 1548, since the counts of Carrión had held that court and carried out their duels, andnd yet another romance recounts that King Sancho of León, first of his name, called on Count Fernán González, his vassal, to go to the court of León; this King Don Sancho took the throne in the year 924 after the birth of Christ and reigned for 12 years, dying in the year 936 of the Redeemer. Therefore, in Spain, this areyto has endured for six hundred and twelve years. And in Castile we recall similar ancient songs, but we must not forget that Italian song or areyto that reads:


A la mia gran pena forte,

dolorosa aflitta e rea,

diuiserunt vestem meam

et super eam miserunt sortes.


To my great and grievous sorrow

To my anguish and affliction

They have torn apart my raiment

And cast lots for who shall take it.  (Gerbi 145)


This song was composed in the year 1501 by his serene highness King Frederick of Naples, who lost his kingdom because the Catholic Kings of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella, joined forces with King Louis of France, the ancestor of King Francis, against Frederick and divided his kingdom among them. So this song or areyto about the partition I have described has existed for forty seven years, and it will be remembered for many more years to come.

And in the prison of the same King Francis, another song or areyto was composed that reads:


Rey Francisco, mala guia

desde Francia vos truxistes;

pues vencido d presso fuistes

de españoles en Pavia.


King Francis, a bad guide

You brought from France

As you were vanquished and imprisoned

By Spaniards in Pavia.


So it is well known that it happened in this way, given that King Francis of France was reigning over Pavia with full powers, having laid siege and placed in great need that invincible and brave Captain Antonio de Leiva, who defended it in the name of the Emperor King, our lord, and who was later rescued by Caesar’s imperial army (of which the Duke of Bourbon was the vicar and principal captain, and whose regiment included Mingo Val, a great knight and viceroy of Naples, and the heroic marquis of Pescara, Don Fernando of Avalos and Aquino, and his nephew the marquis of Guasto and other excellent military men) on Friday February 24th, 1525, the day of St. Matthias the Apostle, the day the very king of France was imprisoned, and along with him all of his most princely lords and men, including the best and brightest of the cavalry and power of the house of France. Thus, the song or areyto is this: history will never forget such a glorious day among the triumphs of Caesar and of his Spaniards, nor will the children and old folks stop singing the same areyto, as long as the world exists. Even today, people carry these and other memories both old and new; although those who sing the histories may not know how to read, the stories still get passed on. The Indians have been good enough to use this method, but because they lack letters for writing, they use their areytos to maintain a collective memory; through their songs, they are able to learn about things that happened centuries ago.

             While these songs and contrapases and dances continue, other Indian women and men go around offering drinks to the dancers, none of whom stop moving in order to drink, but continue shifting their feet as they swallow the drinks they are given. And what they drink are certain beverages they prepare and which leave most of them, when the celebration ends, drunken and senseless, sprawled out on the ground, lying there for many hours. When a dancer falls drunk, the rest pulls him out and the dance continues in such a way that the general drunkenness concludes the areyto. This happens when the areyto is solemn and celebrates weddings, funerals, battles, marked victories, or feasts; the Indians perform other areytos very often without getting drunk. And so, some because of their attachment to this vice and others through a desire to learn this type of music, everyone understands this form of recording history, and sometimes similar yet new songs and dances are invented by those who among the Indians are considered to be more discreet and in possession of greater talent for such endeavors.

The form that the aforementioned drum tends to take is as shown (Lám. 1. fig. 3.): it’s made out of the trunk of a round tree, as big as they want to make it, and it remains sealed everywhere except at the spot where they play it by hitting it with a stick, like in a kettledrum that uses the carving shown here to produce its sound (Lám. 1. a fig. 5.a). The other carving, which looks like this (Lám. 1. a fig. 6.a), is the opening through which they empty the inner part of the log when they carve it; this second carving has to be placed against the earth, unlike the other one above, which they hit with the stick; this drum has to rest on the ground because it cannot make a sound while open to the air. In some parts or provinces these drums are larger and in other places they are smaller; and in some parts they cover them in leather, with the skin of a deer or another animal (but the leather covered ones are used only on the mainland); in this and other islands, as there were no animals to provide leather, they use the drums I have just described. And both are used today in the mainland, as will be told later in the second part when I will return to this same matter or to others pertaining to drums.

[1] Pliny, Book XXX, Chapter I.

[2] Isidorus. Ethim., Book VIII, Chapter IX, De magis. Magorum primus Zoroaster, rex Batrianorum. Author’s note.

[3] A Catalan chain dance of ceremonial origin with grapevine steps varied in rhythm and direction according to the province.

Book 1, V, 1 (Spanish Original)