Of all the “wondrous tribes” European explorers reported to exist in the Americas, the Amazons are probably the most obviously human. They have the requisite number of eyes, legs, and other body parts. They don’t have the heads of animals. They’re just culturally anomalous—at least in sixteenth-century European terms.
Of course, the Amazons existed in Greek mythology long before Columbus. Actually, there were at least two distinct tribes of Amazons. First, there are the more famous ones associated with eastern Anatolia, whose most famous queen was Hippolyte. There was also a tribe of female warriors reputed to live in Libya.
As with the cynocephali, the first report of Amazons in the Americas comes from Christopher Columbus. In 1493, As Guy C. Rothery writes in The Amazons (1910), as Columbus was about to return to Europe from his first voyage, the people of the island of Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and Dominican Republic) told him of another nearby island called Mantinino that was inhabited solely by women. These women were accomplished archers who spent their time hunting and going to war.
Once a year, he was told, the women of this island receive male Carib visitors. The next year, the Caribs take away the male children such visits produced. The same custom was noted in ancient times among the classical Amazons of Themiscyra in Anatolia.
The island of Mantinino was a mystery, always “just over there” no matter who told the story. As Europeans explored more and more of the Caribbean, their mysterious island home continued to evade discovery. The Amazons seemingly retreated before these newcomers, defying any attempts to encounter them, eventually landing in the interior of South America.
In 1540, Francesco de Orellana undertook to travel through Peru to the Atlantic Ocean through the Amazon River basin. At that time, the river was known as the Marañon. Along the route, de Orellana heard fabulous stories of numerous wondrous tribes: pygmies, men with tails, men whose feet were turned backwards, etc. Most persistently, de Orellana heard about a tribe of warrior women who lived apart from any men.
Eventually, de Orellana’s party indeed encountered a warlike tribe somewhere upriver of the Trombetas River. Among them, de Orellana observed women who seemingly acted as leaders of the men. This wasn’t precisely what had been reported to them, but it was apparently close enough. Before long, de Orellana had renamed the Marañon River as the Amazon.
The story caught on, of course. Peruvian-born chronicler Garcilaso Inca de la Vega later said these women were tall, robust, fair-skinned, and wore their long hair twisted over their heads. By the end of the century, the report of warrior women in the rain forest was “confirmed” (as it were) later by Sir Walter Raleigh. In his 1595 The Discovery of Guiana, he reports the existence of a tribe of Amazons called the Aikeambenano—a word said to mean “women living alone”: that is, without men. The Aikeambenano lived in the upper Orinoco region of Guiana, so not awfully distant from de Orellana’s Amazons.
The Amazon myth was probably compelling for the early modern Spanish for the same reasons it was for the ancient Greeks: the idea of a self-sufficient tribe of women who violated expected gender roles by hunting, fighting, and being aggressive in their relationships with men was shocking in the extreme. For the Greeks, the Amazons served as a counterpoint to their supposedly more proper division of labor, a bogeyman—or bogeywoman—to warn men of what can happen if the natural order of things is ever violated.
Did any of these Amazon tribes actually exist in history? I seriously doubt it. But the idea of Amazon society continued to inhabit the fancies, and likely the nightmares, of patriarchs both ancient and modern.