Monday, 21 May 2007

Amazon Women

"Not in strength are we inferior to men; the same our eyes, our limbs the same; one common light we see, one air we breathe; nor different is the food we eat. What then denied to us hath heaven on man bestowed." ( Queen Penthesilea of the Amazons, before being killed by Achilles under the walls of Troy).
We all know about the Amazon river. No need delve into the statistics or start a geography lesson. It’s an amazing river - period. Those who are DSTV enabled will be able to conduct lengthy debates on a bunch of topics relating to the river.
But, why is it called the Amazon, and who gave this natural wonder the name.
After scratching around a bit it became obvious that one has firstly to understand the concept of Amazon and then who and when the river was named.
My understanding was that the river was named after a bunch of indigenous warrior women living in the surrounding jungles. These women were expert archers and had one of their breasts removed to ease the pain and trauma from the whiplash of bowstrings. Even today Amazon women are considered as muscular freaks. Anyhow …… my understanding was that these warrior women kicked some serious Spanish butt, and the Spanish named the river after these genetic mutations.
An interesting definition of Amazon is derived from preface “a” meaning “without” and “mazos” meaning “breast”, ergo without breast. This supported mythology that the “Amazons” cut off one breast to facilitate archery. This does not make much sense, as double-breasted Olympic lady archers seem to be getting on fine today.
A further group, notably the South Americans themselves, believe that the name Amazon comes from a local word amassona, which means, “ Boat killer”. This is from the tidal wave that is experienced at regular times over a great distance of the river and virtually wipes out everything in its path. This tidal wave, or Bore (pororoca), rushes down the river at a speed of between 15 and 25 km/hour and a height of between 5 to 15 feet.

Furthermore it appears that the South Americans have a number of names for different parts of the river, each one a river in its own right. The Amazon is only a part of the river, and the sum components of all the rivers can be called the Amazon for simplicity if you want to.
Somehow, I like the last one.

Now to reality. When in doubt, consult the book
Pronunciation:'a-m&-"zän,-z&nFunction:nounEtymology: Middle English, from Latin, from Greek AmazOn
1 Capitalized : a member of a race of female warriors of Greek mythology
2 Often capitalized : a tall strong often masculine woman.

So, how did Greek mythology end up in South America? To understand this one needs to understand the concept and origin of the mythological amazon women. According to Homer, the Amazons were a horde of warrior women who strived against men, and with whom conflict was considered dangerous, even to the bravest of the brave. Two queens jointly ruled the country, one was in charge of defence and the other was responsible for domestic affairs. They became a conquering nation and undertook numerous expeditions and conquered a number of neighbouring territories. They fought both on foot and on horseback, carrying crescent shields and wielding spears, bows, battle axes and swords.
Conquered males ensured procreation; sons were killed, sold as slaves or otherwise disposed of.

All of this is mythology. Now archaeologists have found burial grounds somewhere in Inner Mongolia that are about 3,000 years old that support the thought that Amazons existed. They are still working on this one, but the evidence is not to be doubted. They did exist. (This also gets back to Greek mythology, and how much was mythology and how much fact.)
Maybe this was the first women’s lib movement, and can be seen as the earliest symbols of society’s fear of feminism. Possibly questioned the order of life and rose against it. (There is a streak of Amazon in every woman I have met.)

It would appear as though a certain Yáñez Pinzón, a Portuguese mariner was the first to “discover” the river. He named it, "Río Santa María de la Mar Dulce". This was around the late 1400’s, when he was the he was the captain of the Nina.

Still no reference to the Amazon.

Then in about 1542, Francisco de Orellana, was sent east from Peru to explore. He came upon the upper regions of the Amazon, built a boat, and paddled his merry way Eastwards, all the way to the ocean. During this expedition they were attacked by an army of boobless women. Friar Gaspar de Carvajal was the scribe during this journey, and he made first reference to the river as the Amazon, based on Greek mythology. It would appear as though this was the first and last reference to these woman.

Rumour also has it that the Friar had a bag of Coca leaves to help alleviate the boredom of the trip.

The end


Anonymous said...

I was surprised to learn that penthesila(sp?) was a real women . in the book Queen Of The Amazons I thought she was another made up charcter . nice to know now that she wasn't. you really learn new things everyday.

Arras said...

Addressing the previous comment, Penthesilea's existence as a "real" (i.e. historical) person is all but impossible to prove, but she was certainly a character referenced in Homer's Iliad, which I suppose makes her as "real" as Helen, Paris, Hector, Achilles, or Ajax--or the gods and goddesses themselves.

It's important to remember that the Iliad is more like a novel than a history book. It aims to tell a story in the same way that a modern war movie does, complete with patriotic bluster and replete with insights about the human condition. Elements of the "real" world are surely interwoven with the fiction, however--real places, real customs that audiences of that period would have recognized.

It's a bit like watching a movie like "Pearl Harbor" and asking yourself whether the film's protagonists really existed. Was Ben Affleck's pilot an historical person? What about Kate Beckinsale's nurse? The truth is that they were merely composites--characters created by merging the stories and traits of multiple real people into a single character to simplify the storytelling.

As such, it's likely no different with Penthesilea or any of the other characters mentioned in the Iliad. There were doubtless real people of that period whose personalities and actions inspired Homer to construct these characters, but identifying those real people is all but impossible given the scarcity of written works from the period (the Iliad itself was originally sung, and only transcribed much later).

Arras said...

Regarding the naming of the Amazon River, it's important to recognize that the sailors of the 1500's were traveling to the edges of the world, to places marked on maps only as "terra incognita" (unknown land).

There was great anxiety about what they might encounter--sea monsters, dragons, mermaids, waterfalls at the end of the world, and so on. This was an age of exploration, with the European naval powers regularly returning with outlandish stories about their discoveries in far-off lands. It would be a bit like having crews of astronauts return to Earth from multi-year voyages to other planets, bringing with them strange souvenirs and fascinating stories about the alien peoples they encountered.

For the crews of these vessels these were anxious times--a lot of sitting around and waiting, and worrying about what kind of monster was about to devour them the next day--many of the ships that left Europe never returned, after all.

This climate motivated authors in Europe to begin writing nightmarish fantasies about what sailors might be encountering out there, and their novels naturally made their way into the sacks the sailors themselves carried with them to help pass the time on their journeys. Many of these men were not literate, but the officers were, and at night they would indulge themselves with a good story.

Amazons came into the picture as one of the many types of "monsters" featured in these popular novels the Spaniards brought with them. Even in Homer's time, Amazons had been said to live at the edges of the known world--a common bit of xenophobia. If Amazons existed at all, it was easy to reason that they must exist in places that are far-flung and unexplored. The New World fit the bill perfectly.

With that in mind, when the Spaniards reached South America and began traveling up its largest river in search of civilizations (which will generally be found along coasts and rivers), they were bringing with them some wild expectations coloured by the novels they'd been reading.

What the Spaniards actually saw and what they thought they saw were very likely different things. The indigenous tribes living in that area reacted with some hostility to these strange invaders, but it's not clear that the spear-throwers and archers were actually female. The sailors saw short, slender warriors with hairless chests, for instance, and simply assumed that these must be women, since they looked nothing like European men. We now know that the tribes native to most of South and Central America have genetic, environmental, dietary and customary reasons for being shorter and less hirsute than Europeans, so it seems entirely possible that what the Spaniards saw were actually male warriors.

Given their preconceptions and expectations though, it was only natural for the Spaniards to draw the connection to the Amazons they'd been reading about (and perhaps hoping to find and ravish, after so many months at sea without access to women), and the river was thus marked as such on their maps--a warning for future explorers.