Mid 15th century;
With the treasure houses of Mexico and Peru nearly exhausted, the Spanish conquistadores turned their attention in the mid-sixteenth century to the heart of the South American continent, a land of vast, seemingly endless rivers, Surrounded by impenetrable jungle, and inhabited by unknown tribes. Their interest was Fueled by rumors of a hidden civilization in the interior of the continent, an empire rich In gold that was ruled by a race of fearsome warrior-women, known As The Amazons.
By 1500 the Spanish had already begun exploring the river mouths on the coast of Brazil and Venezuela. Yet penetrating the rivers to any great distance was a problem. Many explorers attempted to locate a central channel and sail upstream, but the colossal size of the river estuaries, spilling out in even.” direction, meant that finding the main branch of a river was like looking for a needle in a haystack. Problems were aggravated by the hostile climate and often aggressive natives.
The first sight of the interior came only in 1544, when Francesco de Orellana and his party pulled off a feat of exploration that was as audacious as it was foolhardy. Starting from Peru on the opposite coast of South America, they spent ten months fighting their way through mountain and forest into the interior. They eventually came to the source of a major river, the Maranon, built boats, and spent nine more months sailing down it to the Atlantic coast and safety. Of all the adventures that befell them as they explored the interior of Brazil, their brush with the mysterious Amazons drew the most attention.
According to the expedition’s chronicler, as de Orellana’s party were sailing down the Maranon River, they rounded a bend in the river and saw “on the shore ahead many villages, and very large ones, which shone white. Here we came suddenly upon the excellent land and dominion of the Amazons.”
Forewarned of the arrival of the Spanish, natives ran to the shore mocking and threatening them, “that they were there to seize us all and take us to the Amazons.” The Spanish opened fire, and when they beached their boats were counterattacked by an army of Indians, led by a dozen or so female “captains,” described by the expedition’s chronicler as “very white and tall.” He continued: “They are very robust, and go naked with their private parts covered, with bows and arrows in their hands, doing as much fighting as ten Indian men.” A captive taken during the fighting told them more: these warrior women, or Amazons, mated with men once a year, kept only the female children that resulted, and Seared off their right breast, to make shooting with a bow easier.
After this incident de Orellana renamed the Maranon the “Rio das Amazonas,” or Amazon River, and so it remains today.
Stories of the American Amazons arose as soon as Columbus’s first voyage of discovery. On his way home, in January 1493, he was told by the Carib people of Hispaniola (now known as Haiti) that a nearby island, called Mantinino, was entirely populated by women: they supposedly imported men at certain times of the year, then sent them away, keeping only the daughters that were born to them. The women were devoted to warfare, wore brass armor, and were accomplished archers. Though he looked for it on subsequent voyages, Columbus never found the mysterious island of women; indeed, to this day Mantinino has never been located. Yet the rumors of the warrior-women continued. Only their supposed location changed, moving progressively westward into increasingly remote areas as the elusive Amazons stubbornly refused to be found.
By de Orellana’s time the Amazons had been relocated deep in the Brazilian jungle. It was not mere curiosity about this female tribe that interested the conquistadores. In the words of one Spanish writer of the time, “if these are the Amazons made famous by historians, there are treasures shut up in their territory which would enrich the world.” Another claimed that there was so much gold and silver in the realm of the Amazons that even chairs and household utensils were made from them.
The only legend that could compete with the South American Amazons was that of El Dorado (“the gilded man”), the king of another hidden empire, who was supposed to have plastered himself with gold dust as if it were talcum powder. Sir Walter Raleigh, the ill-starred English explorer and founder of Virginia, was convinced that both El Dorado and the Amazons were real. He led two expeditions to find them, in 1595 and 1616. Raleigh found neither, and earned himself only public contempt at home.
Likewise the Spanish and Portuguese made repeated attempts to find the Amazons, but were no more successful.
As early as 1553 one Spanish chronicler, Francisco Lopez de Gomara, had scoffed: I do not believe that any woman burns or cuts off her right breast in order to be able to shoot with a bow: for they shoot very well enough with [both breasts]. . . . No such thing has ever been seen along this river, and never will be seen! Because of this imposture many already write and talk of the “River of the Amazons.”
South American women undoubtedly fought alongside their menfolk to defend their villages against the marauding Spanish, but that did not make them members of an Amazon race.
Furthermore, when explorers such as Columbus and de Orellana interrogated the natives they had to use interpreters, who often may not have been genuinely acquainted with the languages involved. With the interpreters keen to please their masters, and with the interviewees under threat of torture, it is easy to see how, by one means or another, the Spanish were told not the truth but what they wanted to hear: confirmation of their belief that there were fabulous hidden kingdoms ruled by warrior-queens awash with gold. It is clear from their journal entries that they paid little real attention to the actual customs of the tribes whose villages they were ransacking for clues of “lost empires.”
So what was the source of these Spanish dreams?
Why did they expect to find a lost Amazon empire in Brazil?
It was not because of the River Amazon, which was named after the legendary race, rather than the other way around.
What the Spanish “heard” from their sources, tortured or otherwise, was simply the rehearsal of a much older legend, drawn from the classical writers of the Old World.
Everything the sixteenth-century Spanish said about the warrior- women of Brazil had already been said two thousand years earlier by the ancient Greeks.
How did the Amazons of classical legend come to be relocated in faraway Brazil, a land (as far as we know) completely unknown to the ancient Greeks?
As a matter of fact the name Amazon lies behind the Greek interpretation of
the name “Amazons” (from a, “without” and mazos, “breast”) .
The growth of the legend is an extraordinary tale in itself, which takes us halfway across the globe and back again. At the end of the trail there is, amazingly enough, evidence that there were real Amazons, though they lived a long way from the Brazilian jungle (which we will ride through in my next blog post!!!)