On June 24, 1542, in what is today Brazilian territory, a small group of lost Spaniards sailed in search of a place to hold the festival of Saint John. They were commanded by Francisco de Orellana, who had participated in the conquest of the Incas. They came from Quito, now the capital of Ecuador, from where they had left the previous year. Following rumors, they were in search of a region rich in cinnamon and the long-awaited golden country, from which they would extract easy treasures. They walked down the river not knowing where they were going. With great trouble, they discovered it was the longest river in the world.
Hungry and ragged, the Spaniards stole food from several villages. They attacked indigenous people who defended themselves, and did not find the places they wanted, not even a port for the party. At this point in the journey, the expedition encountered an armed group made up of a dozen tall, muscular women with long braids in their hair, who furiously commanded a native army. The chronicler of the journey, Friar Carvajal, wrote that the expedition ended up in “a good land and domain of the Amazons”. The imagination of the conquerors had found a place to set news promoted in Antiquity.
According to the ancient Greeks, an all-female nation, the Amazons, inhabited the eastern Mediterranean Sea. According to them, the agile nomadic archers, fascinating horse-riding warriors, would be the daughters of the war god, Ares, and worshipers of the hunting goddess Artemis, as well as the creators of cavalry and trousers. According to American historian Adrienne Mayor, an expert on the subject, the Amazons legend was inspired by the Scythian people’s female warriors. The Greeks were fascinated by the barbarians of the steppes, where gender roles were so diverse, and appropriated their image.
Recently, archaeological research has unearthed the real basis of these legends, and archaeologists have also excavated the bones of Scythian women warriors in buried tombs from the Ukraine to Central Asia, and skeletons of women ages 10 to 45 showed evidence of warring activity.
Forged in the contact between the Greeks and the Scythians, the image of the Amazons persisted and migrated. Since the early days of the colonial invasion in Brazil, the idea of a nation of warrior women, free from men, was present. As early as January 1493, just three months after his arrival to America, Christopher Columbus collects information about an island called Matininó, inhabited only by women. In order to get pregnant, they imported men from the Caribe island. The theme spread in the New World, appearing in reports from other places, but the so-called Amazons were not just an old myth installed by Europeans in the so-called New World. The indigenous people validated the invaders’ ideas, contributing to the naming of the Amazon River.
In 1637, another expedition to the Amazon was carried out, coming from Maranhão and commanded by a Portuguese man. Its chronicler was Cristóbal de Acuña, a Spanish Jesuit. The expedition obtained, from all over the river, ample news about the female warriors of manless societies. Since the information was repeated by different peoples, Acuña observed that “it is not believable that a lie could have taken root in so many languages and so many nations.” To this day, indigenous peoples tell of figures similar to the Amazons. It is the case of the Icamiabas in the Amazon, of the spirit women among the Maxakalis, in Minas Gerais, and the hyperwomen among the Upper Xingu peoples, in Mato Grosso.
Although some have questioned it, the struggle of Orellana’s fleet against the so-called Amazons may have been real. In 1576, in the First History of Brazil, Pero de Magalhães Gândavo reports on transgender warriors among the Tupis on the coast. Born in women bodies, they abandoned female tasks and followed trades alongside men. With a male haircut, carrying bows and arrows, they fought and hunted “always in male company.” They even married women.
If in ancient Greece the Scythian warriors stirred up fables, here the narratives around female warriors may have revived the belief in a province of women without men. The fable absorbed the truth. The Amazon River had already been called, in 1500, Santa Maria do Mar Doce (St. Mary of the Sweet Sea). Some have tried to call it Marañón, or name it after the aimless conqueror: Orellana’s River. None of them took hold. And the river became Amazon.