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  • Amazons 5#: Some Truths? Don’t Count On It… May 2, 2013

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback


    In 1542 Francisco de Orellana crossed from Chile (under Pizarro) and then passed down the Amazon to the sea with fifty men. It was an extraordinarily dangerous and uncomfortable journey and it says something for the courage and ruthlessness of the Spaniards that most were still alive when the Amazon vomited them into the Atlantic seven months later. In their travels, Gaspar de Villar, a Dominican friar (sent to preach to the Indians?!) gathered impressions together and later wrote these into the best account we have of Orellana’s fluvial jaunt. In Villar’s work there are four precious references to a tribe of warrior women, naturally christened by the Spanish as ‘Amazons’: a first rumour; a second rumour; a visit to a village allegedly controlled by the Amazons; and a battle in which the Amazons played (very well) for the other side. As noted before here either the Amazons were a legend that the Spanish imagined into reality or the Amazons were a reality that have since been imagined into fantasy by historians and anthropologists. Which is most likely? Beach cannot offer much in the way of wisdom here, but the following are some considerations that have bounced, like five or six squash balls, in his skull while writing and reading Villar’s Spanish and trying to translate the same.

    Amazon Myth: If a Martian was to read GdV’s report and if this was the only report he was ever to read from planet Earth then he would take it at face value. However, we know something he does not. We know that there are many legends of Amazon warriors around the globe, particularly from pre-Columbian Latin America, and that most of these legends are just that, legends. For reasons we do not understand there seems to be some human need – particularly in more ‘primitive’ or ‘savage’ or ‘pristine’ societies – to have Amazons living over the hill, ready to kill boy babies, copulate with lucky warriors and burn off their breasts for the good of female warriordom. Let’s leave the worrying why to Frazer and his ilk. But let’s also accept that these legends are wallpaper in many tribal societies and that any careless visitors may confuse the topless ladies on said paper with the gentleman with bone ear-rings on the settee.  

    Amazon Fact: We must also recognize though that there are authenticated examples of groups of female warriors, from the modern US army to the Ahosi of the Dahomey in Benin. Note, however, that these female warriors exist within a male hierarchy. There is nothing in reliably documented history of a female tribe living on its own, let alone dominating its terrified male neighbours. This is not to say that this could not happen – why couldn’t it? But we don’t know that it ever has, whereas legends of Amazons are as common as acorns under an oak. If there is a fact at the bottom of this account, it is likely that there were female warriors within a male-dominated society – there are later examples of this from the Amazon basin – and that the Spanish met them in battle and assumed that they were the mythical Amazons of which they had heard so much higher up the river.

    Explorer’s Forteana: A paper could be written on the frequency with which European conquistadors and ship’s captains (in distant waters) report unlikely things. This is not just a question of romantically-inclined bullshitters making up stories about men with dogheads. These are normally reliable eye-witnesses saying ‘yesterday I saw something impossible’. So, to take two examples examined previously in this blog, there are Patagonian giants and Columbus’ mermaids, both of which run contrary to our understanding of reality. Here it must be remembered that these eye-witnesses are in a foreign and dangerous environment where their senses are hyper-sensitive. Orellana’s sail on the Amazon must be placed into this category: we have Europeans in the swimming bath so far out of their depth that the chlorine is getting in their eyes, blurring everything that they see.

    Lost in Translation: In the four episodes quoted there are four conversations with Indians described or implied: three with chiefs and one with the trumpeter prisoner after the battle with the Amazons. It is important to note here that the Spanish did not know any of the native languages and learnt only words. The Indians knew, meanwhile, no Spanish. Communication must have been rudimentary. Sometimes communication must have been close to nil. For example, GdV alleges that just before the Amazon attack, hostile Indians on the river shouted that the Amazons were waiting for the Spaniards downstream. How on earth did the Spanish understand this?! Presumably the Spanish decided on this remembering what had happened in retrospect? In other cases, where Spaniard and Indian were sitting side by side and muskets were nowhere in sight communication must have been easier. But how, for example, did the Indians explain the concept of ‘woman’? Cupped hands around the chest… A mincing gait… A finger pointed towards a nursing mother… In all this there was plenty of room for understanding, but also plenty of room for each side to confirm preconceived ideas. Indian touches his hip three times where a European’s pocket would be: ‘Francisco, he’s saying that these chicks have lots of gold…’

    Respect: Beach is not a big fan of Spanish conquistadors. The conquest of the Americas, North and South, is, all too often, a case of adding insult to genocide: all these lives so horribly spent… But he also finds it irritating when historians who have gone lilly-white from overexposure to library lamps treat men with swords in great peril as idiots or worse call them ‘naive’. Orellana was probably not someone that you would want to marry your daughter off to. But he and his crew of ruffians lived experiences that most of us (thankfully?) will never come close to. Gaspar de Villar was there and he saw with two eyes – a single eye after the Indians shot out one the day after the Amazon attack… – the things he describes. Maybe he glimpsed realities that were impossible for him to grasp fully, maybe he misconstrued, maybe he unconsciously exaggerated. But let’s not treat him like a cretinous stickbleback. Beach has tried to offer up the testimony of these fifty warriors with respect. If at any times in these five posts he has failed then he apologises not to his readers but to the ones who made it home, five hundred years ago, and to the bones of those who were left whitening on the banks of the Amazon.  

    We’ve gathered below some of the best comments from readers. We will put all Amazon comments here unless they refer very specifically to one post or another: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    2 May 2013: [important note, these were general comments relating to the first four posts, the authors had not seen the thoughts above] KR is in an ironic mood. So, dear Beach, here we find evidence that the first Europeans to discover the New World were the Eastern-European Amazon warrior-woman tribes, first noted in written records by the classical Greeks, and many centuries later rediscovered by the Conquistadores as the goddess-rulers of the Indians on the greatest river in South America. No doubt they got sick of the constant wars in eastern Europe and sailed to the New World and right up the Amazon river centuries before written histories say that men did that. ;)’ In fact, there are lots of wild theories that we’ve not dignified including a scholar who used the Amazons as proof for Chinese penetration into the Amazon basin! Sword&Beast writes:  Even though this myth reappeared in some other accounts of early European travellers to Brazil, it was never taken seriously by Brazilian historians. Most of them discredited them as pieces aiming to raise curiosity in the distant tropics, full of riches and mysteries. But the origin of the myth – if European or Amerindian – has remained an open question. Nonetheless, I put forward another option: recently, a Brazilian anthropologist has suggested that these accounts refer to women warriors of a particular tribe, which are known to have regularly fought alongside the male warriors. They were known as çacoaiambaeguira.’ The Count now with some very general very stimulating thoughts. ‘I’d not previously heard the story that the River Amazon was named after the supposed presence of actual real live warrior women thereabouts – I’d just assumed it was the kind of random mythical association that got Brazil named after a place in the middle of the Atlantic that’s about as real as Pepperland, or caused Mount Olympus (or more properly, Olympus Mons) to end up as an extinct volcano on Mars. Though in the latter case, it’s by far the biggest mountain in the known Universe, so that’s fair enough. And given the number of sightings of Greek gods in recent centuries, perhaps they did in fact move there. After all, Mars has pyramids (in this instance the conspiracy theorists have a point, because Doctor Who paid a visit to them when he was Tom Baker, so it must be true). Anyway, considering the mythological motifs that crop up in just about every tribal culture – for example, the notion of a secret society of very stealthy and usually troublesome “little people”, or the existence of huge, physically powerful but intellectually challenged brutal humanoids who are usually no longer around because they were destroyed by one or more comparatively puny but quick-witted humans, warrior women are extremely uncommon. That’s probably because primitive warfare doesn’t really lend itself to female participation, owing to the inescapable fact that nearly all primitive weapons rely on the strength of the wielder’s arm. In a straight fight, a woman facing a man will be at a huge disadvantage, so it makes sense to keep war a men-only business. In a flat-out battle between all the adults in two tribes, half the women will end up fighting other women on equal terms, and half will fight men who will almost certainly beat them, so getting on for 75% of your female soldiers will, all things being equal, lose their first fight, as opposed to 50% of the men. These are not good statistics if your tribe wants to carry on breeding! This was especially true in the Bronze Age, when armour and weapons had to be very thick and heavy to be effective. Famous women who took part in battles usually did so in a way that made their physical weakness irrelevant. Boudicca rode a chariot whose projecting blades meant that she just had to point it in the right direction, and Joan of Arc was present on the battlefield to boost morale, but didn’t actually fight. In feudal Japan, the wives of samurai, whose husbands were frequently away for extended periods, were trained in the use of an emergency defensive weapon the name of which I forget, but basically it was a pointed cleaver on a six-foot pole. The idea was to make one desperate all-or-nothing lunge, and impale the intruder before he got within sword range. Not bad for home defense, but lousy in melee. South American tribal warfare in the jungle, on the other hand, would be less of a problem for women than most types of lo-tech combat. The primary weapon was a very primitive type of bow, used almost entirely at fairly short range, ideally from ambush. Not much physical strength is needed to use such a weapon, and if these ladies were good at spotting their enemies coming and riddling them with arrows from a safe distance, they’d be at no disadvantage at all. It’s easy to imagine a situation where the entire adult male population of a tribe went off to war and got slaughtered, with maybe a handful of stragglers making it back to warn the remaining villagers that the victors were on the way to kill or enslave them. And then, when a totally unexpected last-ditch defense by women with bows proved extremely effective, the ladies who now constituted almost the entire adult population looked at one another and had the interesting idea of seizing the opportunity not to be the property of men any more.Modern studies have shown that, in situations where physical strength isn’t a factor, women make excellent soldiers. And since pulling a trigger requires a lot less strength than swinging a two-handed broadsword hard enough to pierce plate-mail, there’s a place for them in modern warfare. The Israeli army did a lot of pioneering research in this field, since, being a small and constantly threatened country, they were especially keen on anything which might instantly double the number of potential soldiers. Apparently female soldiers are more emotionally stable than men, and therefore, although they aren’t as aggressive, they’re better at keeping their heads in difficult situations, following orders in a disciplined fashion, and being brave in a cool but efficient kind of way. Also, they’re a lot more stoical when they’re wounded. In terms of strength, a low-powered bow is basically a gun. If these Amazonian Amazons had good leaders, they might well have been capable of setting up an ambush and waiting patiently for just the right moment to spring the trap in a coldly efficient manner utterly unfamiliar to their male adversaries, whose idea of tactics was probably to run at full tilt towards the enemy howling blood-curdling battle-cries. Also, they’d presumably ignore the established code of conduct for male warriors, whatever it was – there’s usually some kind of warrior code, however basic – and do whatever seemed most efficient. I can imagine them being genuinely formidable adversaries. And there’s nothing else about their way of life that seems implausible. Of course, as one tribe with a lifestyle both aberrant and abhorrent compared to all the more traditional tribes that surrounded them, they’d have to win every single battle. That’s a tall order, and presumably one day they didn’t, which is why we don’t hear much about them any more. One other point. These Amazons were supposed to have incredible amounts of gold, as was another tribe led by a fellow called Ira, though no more was heard of this lot because the myth wasn’t anywhere near as interesting. I think this is a side-issue. Once the natives of South and Central America caught on that these brutal and extremely dangerous white men wanted gold above all else, their standard response to demands for the stuff was to explain that, although they had a little bit of it, vastly larger amounts were possessed by some other tribe a long way away. Whether these tribes existed or not was beside the point – what mattered was that the Spaniards went somewhere else. What the natives appear to have been saying here was that instead of bothering them, the conquistadors should check out those women with the weird lifestyle who were alarmingly good at killing people. They were almost certainly thinking that, with a bit of luck, the Amazons would slaughter the Spaniards. And in a worst-case scenario, the Spaniards would slaughter the scary lesbians, and then some excise could be found for the absence of vast amounts of gold – maybe they’d hidden it. Or maybe every year they threw it all in a lake? Presumably this Ira character was a powerful chief who they didn’t like very much either. The Pueblo Indians got more creative than anyone. They told the conquistadors about The Seven Cities Of Gold allegedly to be found in California, and pointed in the direction of a very large desert. It worked extremely well. Needless to say, no trace of even one golden city has been found as yet. Though there are probably a few nuts still looking’ Thanks Count, KR and S&B!!!