amazon women -- 3/30/21
Today's selection -- from River of Darkness by Buddy Levy. Francisco de Orellana (1511-1546) led one of the greatest expeditions in world history when he and his men traversed the length of the Amazon, by far the world’s longest river. One part of his lengthy and largely reliable report on his expedition tells of the Amazons, an all-female tribe who if “they felt desire for men … assembled a large army with which they went to make war on a neighboring chief and brought his warriors by force to their villages where they kept them for as long as they wanted. Then, when they were pregnant, they sent their prisoners back unharmed. If when their time came they bore a male, they killed him or sent him to his father.”:
"Under the glimmer of a new moon Orellana questioned [a] trumpeter [he found along the river] about where he came from, asking for details about the village from which he had been taken. The Indian replied that the village was his home, and it was ruled by a powerful overlord named Couynco, whose domain and reach were considerable. Orellana wished to know more about the women with whom they had done battle, and the trumpeter relayed a remarkable tale, a story with details so fantastic and incredible that it would become by far the most controversial passage in Carvajal's expedition journal and would raise questions for Orellana to answer and explain, and attempt to comprehend, from that moment on:
The Indian answered that they lived in the interior seven [in another copy, four or five] days' journey away and that, since Couynco was subject to them, they had come to guard the shore. The Captain asked if they were married, and the Indian said no. The Captain asked how they lived, and the Indian answered in the interior, and that he had been there many times, and seen their customs and way of life, since he had been sent there by his chief to carry the tribute. The Captain asked if they were numerous, and the Indian answered yes, and that he knew seventy of their villages by name. He then named them before those of us who were present, and said that he had been to several of them. The Captain then asked if their houses were made of straw, and the Indian answered no, that they were built of stone, and had proper doors, and that the roads ran between these villages that were walled on both sides, and that they had guards at intervals along them, to collect dues from those who used them. [Another version describes these walls as paneled with silver all around for half a man's height from the floor, and against them were placed silver seats, which they used for their worship and their drunken feasts. There is the addition, too, of a temple ceiling lined with variegated feathers of parrots and macaws.]
The Captain asked if their villages were large, and the Indian answered that they were. He asked if they bore children, and the Indian answered yes. The Captain asked how they became pregnant, since they were not married and no men lived in their villages. He said that at certain times they felt desire for men and assembled a large army with which they went to make war on a neighboring chief and brought his warriors by force to their villages where they kept them for as long as they wanted. Then, when they were pregnant, they sent their prisoners back unharmed. If when their time came they bore a male, they killed him or sent him to his father. If they are girls they rear them carefully and train them to war. He said their queen was called Conori, and that they had great quantities of gold and silver, and that the principal women are served on gold and silver plate and have gold and silver vessels, while the common women use earthenware, otherwise wood.
He said that in the principal city, where the queen lived, there were five very large buildings used as temples, and sacred to the Sun. He added that they call these temples caranain, and that they contain gold and silver idols in female shape, and that from three feet above the floor these temples are lined with heavy wooden paneling painted in various colors. He said that they have many gold and silver vessels used in the divine service, and that the women are clothed in very fine wool. For in that land there are many llamas like those of Peru. Their clothing is a blanket, worn either girded across the breasts or thrown around the neck, or secured at the front with a pair of cords like a cloak. They wear their hair down to the ground and golden crowns on their heads, as wide as two fingers.
The Indian informed us further that no man is permitted to remain in the women's villages after sunset but must depart for home at that time, and that many provinces bordering on these women's lands are subject to them and pay tribute and services to them. But with others they remain at war, and particularly with that tribe from which they seize men that are to get them [with] child. He added that these women are white and of very great stature and numerous.
"The trumpeter concluded his amazing story by assuring Orellana and the others listening that he had seen these women many times personally, all his life, and that he often had daily interactions and communications with them. He mentioned specifically two saltwater lakes from which the women harvested salt -- a fact that might well have reminded Orellana of stories of the salt lakes and salt manufacture around Lake Texcoco, in Tenochtitlan, Mexico.
"Orellana and the others took in all the details, which certainly were similar to and reminiscent of the Inca wealth of Peru, as well as the wonders of Montezuma's Tenochtitlan. [Friar] Carvajal noted also that it all sounded plausible since he and his compatriots had been hearing tales and reports as early as Quito: the women warriors were so famous that in order to see them, some Indians traveled over 3,500 miles just to behold them, 'and anyone who should take it into his head to go down to the country of these women was destined to go a boy and return an old man.' The priest also explicitly stated that he found the Indian trustworthy and credible, 'because he was an Indian of much intelligence, and very quick to comprehend.'
"As soon as the priest had heard the story -- he may well have been there, albeit not in the best shape, having only the day before lost his eye to an arrow -- he began officially referring to these women as Amazons, although as he observed, incorrectly:
Amazon in the Greek language means 'having no breasts,' in order that they might have nothing to hinder their shooting with the bow .... But these women we are dealing with here, although they do use the bow, do not cut off their breasts nor do they burn them off, albeit in other matter, such as in taking men unto themselves for a certain period of time for propagation of their kind and in other respects, it does seem as if they imitate those whom the ancients called Amazons."