THE GUANCHES AND DEATH

(Note: all Guanche words and names follow the rules of  Spanish pronounciation)

 

Guanche Mummy. Archaeological Museum of Tenerife A Guanche "mummy". The natives of Tenerife embalmed their dead to preserve them longer.



When a Guanche died, especially if he were an achimencey or noble, a long period of mourning and preparation for the afterlife began.

We do not know precisely what the Guanches believed about death. Reports from the chroniclers say they believed there was another life after death, and that the spirits of evil men lived in Teide, or Echeyde (the Ominous One), while the spirit of those who had been good lived in the region of Aguere, the paradise valley which is now the location of the city of La Laguna.

But these stories appear already to be colored with the Christian vision of the afterlife. The Guanches were submitted to a slow process of cultural indoctrination at the hands of Christian missionaries which lasted at least a century before the Guanches were finally conquered.

A more ancient ritual seems to have consisted in removing the inner organs from the body of a dead Mencey and placing them in a basket. A young volunteer would then throw himself from the top of a cliff into the sea with the basket. Before committing the act of ritual suicide, the youth would be entrusted with messages for the dead: news about each family, about how the livestock had increased in number, about the health of friends and relatives. This youth was the messenger between the land of the living and the world of the dead.

It is certain, however, that they did seem to have some concept of an afterlife for which they carefully prepared the bodies of their dead.

Guanche Mummy. Anthropological Museum, Madrid
When a Guanche died, his body was washed and filled and refilled day after day with ointments prepared from various plants and minerals according to a formula now lost to us. The body was placed in the sun over a period of several weeks until thoroughly dried, thus becoming a mummy or xaxo. Throughout this lengthy process the family and friends of the dead continued their mourning.


Once prepared, the xaxo was wrapped in skins painted or marked in such a way as to permit later identification. The skins were then sewn up to form a tight casing. Finally the body was placed in the cave which served as the family tomb, on raised boards to keep it off the ground. Offerings were placed alongside the body: ornaments (collars of clay beads and pigs teeth), clay gánigos, limpet shells and spears. If the dead were a Mencey, he was buried with his añepa, the sceptre which symbolized his royal power.

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