While researching the truth and myth around ancient warrior women called Amazons for my book The Amazon Pattern, I stumbled into unexpected territory —Amazon warrior women—Icamiabas—in South America. It soon became clear that I was sitting atop a huge mountain of information that I did not have the bandwidth to explore at the time. I created notes called “Part 2 Amazon Pattern—Amazons in South America,” and set them aside.
The legends that caught my attention are about women who lived without men at the lake of the Mirror of the Moon on the Rio Nhamundá, a tributary of the Rio Amazon in northern Brazil. They were initially compelling to me because they have a resonance with legends surrounding a place across the ocean: Lake Nemi situated South of Rome.
Lake Nemi is surrounded by a grove of oak trees sacred to the Goddess Diana. Lake Nemi is also called the Mirror of Diana or the Mirror of the Moon. Diana is a Goddess from my own personal lineage, the lineage of the Italian Strega. The rites performed at the Lake of Mirror of the Moon on the Rio Nhamundá and the Mirror of Diana South of Rome have remarkable similarities.
I will write more about Diana and Lake Nemi in the following post. For now we will stay in Brazil with the story of the Icamiabas, the warrior women of what came to be called “the Amazon,” their lake of the Mirror of the Moon and the jade pendants or figurines they are famous for: the Muiraquitãs.
Warrior women sightings in South America
When the Europeans arrived in the Americas in the 1500s, the continent was heavily populated, not the untouched wilderness it was long purported to have been. There were many indigenous peoples and civilizations thriving in the Americas, north, central and south. In the Amazon Basin, at the time of contact, lived millions of humans. 90% of them were destroyed by disease within two generations.
Traveling with the Spanish conquistador Francisco de Orellana in 1541 on the river that would come to be called the Amazon, near Rio Negro and between current day Santarém and Manaus, was Dominican Friar Gaspar de Carvajal. Carvajal, the assigned record keeper of the journey, wrote extensive reports of a large and thriving population along these waterways.
In his book The Wayfinders, Wade Davis elaborates:
“The farther the Spaniards drifted downstream, the more elaborate were the settlements. At the mouth of the Rio Tapajós, near the modern Brazilian town of Santarém, the expedition was met by a flotilla of two hundred war canoes, each carrying thirty men in full regalia, with brilliant cloaks of feathers and coronas that shone like the sun. Thousands more inhabitants stood warily along the shore. The riverbanks for a hundred kilometers were dense with houses and gardens, and away from the shore there were signs, as Carvajal wrote, of “very large cities”(82).
On the Rio Nhamundá, Carvajal also describes, in detail, encounters with large warrior women with long coiled hair riding camels and shooting their bows and arrows with extreme precision. When he asks the locals about them, Carvajal is told they are the leaders of their tribe. The main leader, whom the Europeans dubbed “the Queen,” had the name of Conori.
Through his European lens, knowing the myths and stories told by the Greeks of the Sauromatian and Scythian Amazon women living on the banks of the Black Sea, Carvajal could only interpret these women warriors as Amazons. And so he reported them as such.
According to Greek legend, the Amazon women were warriors who rode horses, lived without men, cut one breast off for better shooting abilities and held ceremonies where they would procreate with men on certain nights only in order to reproduce, returning any male children produced from these encounters back to the men.
Some believe the word Amazon means “moon women,” others believe it means “one breasted.” The Rio Amazon carries its name because of Carvajal’s encounter with these warrior women.
This specific piece of information as well as his reports of large and thriving societies on the banks of this part of the Amazon and its tributaries, discredited Carvajal in his time. No one believed him. There could not have been that many people living there and there certainly could not have been women leaders of organized societies who were also warriors. What nonsense.
His journals were subsequently ignored for generations, along with this information of the cultures and peoples who were thriving on the banks of this fertile river at this time. His manuscript remained unpublished until 1894.
Alex Shoumatoff’s search in 1984
Yet the legends of the South American Amazon warrior women persisted. In 1984, Alex Shoumatoff, a writer for The New Yorker Magazine, went in search of these women. This journey is fascinatingly detailed in his book, In Southern Light. Shoumatoff is told the Amazon women are still alive and gathers many local legends about them.
He is told that the Icamiabas lived on the “Mountain of the Moon” which rose above the “lake of the Mirror of the Moon.” Legend says these women were also parthenogenetic (able to reproduce without copulation) and that there were 5 original women who gave birth parthenogenetically to all the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Their names are: Tiaruui, Amacoco, Carawiki, Coyatinu and Woru.
Other local people tell Shoumatoff of the muiraquitãs: sacred talismans made of jade stone mostly in the form of the frog. Amazon-like women come, once per year on a particular full moon to the lake of the Mirror of the Moon and carry out rituals in which they offer a drop of their own blood to the beings that live in the water and are gifted back with muiraquitãs. Because the name for frog in the Amazon is the same as slang for women’s genitalia, it is believed the frogs represent female genitalia.
In Obidos, Shoumatoff is told about the Kaxuiana Indians who lived on a tributary of the Trombetas and had a connection to the Icamiabas. After contact, the tribe suffered many deaths from disease until there were only about 70 of them left. 64 of them went to live with another tribe, the Tirió, seven of them remained and went up the Nhamundá.
After hearing that the best place to find muiraquitãs is at Faro, at the mouth of the Nhamundá, a local woman reveals that:
“She had once gone there and within an hour fifty people had come to the plaza with pieces of muiraquitãs to sell her. They were in pieces because, as she understood it, the chief of the tribe that had made them would give one to a couple on the eve of their marriage and after the wedding night the husband was supposed to strike it; if it shattered, this was taken as a sign that the marriage had been consummated. Above Faro there was a lake called the Mirror of the Moon. She had not been there but, the water, she understood, was limpid, and was where the muiraquitãs came from and where the Amazons had lived. The women would come down to the Amazon, visit men from other tribes and go back pregnant. The male children would be sacrificed and thrown into the lake or would be turned over to the men. The women lopped off their right breast”(46).
Shoumatoff and his travel partner decide to go upriver looking for the Lake of the Mirror of the Moon. They go to Terra Santa. There they meet a man named Dantona who tells them he has been to the Lake of the Mirror of the Moon.
“It wasn’t far above Faro, on the right bank, and under a mountain. ‘It isn’t very big,’ he went on, ‘just a few hundred yards across. The day I saw it there was no ventilation, and the water was dead calm, full of leaves, and pretty dirty. As I understand it, it was called the Lake of the Mirror of the Moon because the Indians used to make up their faces in it before ceremonies”(68).
They proceed to Faro. In Faro, Felicia, a ninety year old woman explains that:
“The women without husbands got their muiraquitãs which they gave to the men who fathered their children, from the Lago Jacyuaruá, the Lake of the Mirror of the Moon; the muiraquitãs were alive, Felicia said, swimming around in the form of various animals. When a woman saw a muiraquitã that she wanted, she would cut herself and let her blood drip into the water over the creature, which would stun it, and as she brought it up into the air it would turn to stone”(70).
Dantona then takes Shoumatoff to the Serra do Espelho, the Mountain of the Mirror, and they find the lake of the Mirror of the Moon, which is really a pond. They do not find any Amazon women there but a man who lives across the lake tells them that a German man named Rossy who logged rosewood for a long time on this land found many muiraquitãs in the lake.
At the end of a long and harrowing journey, Shoumatoff meets Kauka, a man whose father told him stories of the Amazon women from whom his people, the Kaxuiana, are descended. Shoumatoff asks him about the name Conori and is told that it is the name of a local tribe and also the last name of Kauka and his father. Shoumatoff decides that these men are descendants of the sons of the Amazons, given back to the men who fathered them to raise.
Shoumatoff’s journey ends with a lot of ambiguity. Were these stories real or fabricated? There were so many compelling clues and connections. I was left feeling he found something but it was unclear exactly what.
More recent research: moving forward from 1984
Since Shoumatoff wrote his book, there have been excavations and research in the same area of the Amazon basin that have revealed burial mounds, remains of highly developed cultures and a greater understanding of terra preta. Terra preta is a black earth that reveals evidence of human habitation, cultivation and deliberate working of the soil. It often contains ceramic remains in the form of broken potsherds.
“One of the biggest patches of terra preta is on the high bluffs at the mouth of the Tapajós near Santarém . . . suggesting evidence of wide spread human habitation—exactly what Orellana saw. The plateau has never been carefully excavated, but observations by geographers Woods and Joesph McCann of the New School in New York City indicate that it is thick with ceramics. If the agriculture practiced in the lower Tapajós were as intensive as in the most complex cultures in precontact North America . . . ‘you’d be talking something capable of supporting about 200,00 to 400,00 people”— making it at the time one of the most densely populated places in the world”(Mann 349).
Geo glyphs, geometric earthworks, exposed by recent deforestation, are being exposed in Brazil, indicating forest management and construction of ceremonial centers containing large mounds and ditches dating 1000-2000 years ago.
It seems that Carvajal was telling the truth after all.
If he was telling the truth about who lived there, why wouldn’t he be telling the truth that some of the human population he saw had female leaders who were warriors?
Yet the disbelief continues. Some scholars even promote the idea that what Carvajal saw were men in ritual attire that “looked like women,” as though the mere idea of women leaders and women warriors is absolutely impossible. Just like it is not possible that precontact there were intelligent people with complex societies on the American continent. That outrageous.
Those scholars just don’t know their history, or should I say their herstory? The myths and stories about the Scythian and Sauromatian Amazons on the banks of the Black Sea that the Greeks told have been proved to be based on true and accurate information. Numerous excavations of burials of women warriors in and around the famed locations have revealed that this was no mere myth, male fantasy or fear. More and more burials of women held in high esteem by their community, many of them buried with weapons and horses, are being excavated all over the globe. You can read about that in my book: The Amazon Pattern: A Message from Ancient Women Diviners of Trees and Time
In the chapter titled “Amazonia” from Charles C. Mann’s book 1491:New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, we learn of a Painted Rock Cave near Santarém on the river Tapajós excavated by Anna Roosevelt in 1992. The cave contains layers of human habitation, thirteen thousand years old, with remnants of the “oldest known pottery in the Americas”(340).
In the same area Carvajal reported on, human made earthen mounds with “roughly forty million potsherds to a single mound” (340) are being excavated. The potsherds were used deliberately to help hold the soil up into the burial structures. These mounds contain burial urns dating to 1000 CE.
Charles R. Clement, an anthropological botanist has tracked and traced the Peach Palm trees throughout the basin and documented evidence of intentional cultivation of “orchards” by inhabitants thousands of years ago.
At the time of the publication of Mann’s book in 2005, archaeologists working at a site on the Rio Negro were reporting a settlement with two waves, 360 BCE and 1440 CE, with a quarter mile plaza and a large permanent settlement. Another project reports the remains of “nineteen large villages linked by a network of large roads . . . with bridges, artificial river obstructions and ponds, raised causeways, canals and other structures…a highly elaborate built environment, rivaling that of many contemporary complex societies of the Americas and elsewhere”(348).
Mann reports that more than 2000 years ago, Arawak speaking groups moved into this area from the south and the west.
Amazons of South America as descendants of the Arawak peoples
It was an interesting journey, retracing the steps of my previous research and seeing where I left off. I returned to Shoumatoff’s book and reread the passage about the Amazons, I reread the chapter ‘Peoples of the Anaconda’ in Wade Davis’ book The Wayfinders, I reread the ‘Amazonia” chapter in Mann’s book and then I remembered another book that was on my shelf, Matriarchal Societies: Studies of Indigenous Cultures Across the Globe by Heide Goettner-Abendroth.
I had the pleasure of meeting Abendroth at an event hosted by a local group I was a member of in 2013. Her book, originally published in German had recently been translated to English. In it Abendroth details studies she has carried out of matriarchal cultures around the globe, some historical, others current. In chapter 11: “Matriarchal Cultures in South America” I hit the mother lode.
Or rather she did and I got to benefit from it.
Abendroth tells us that the first indigenous people Columbus encountered were “the Arawak, then living in what is now the Greater Antilles and Lesser Antilles. On these islands they had created a highly developed culture, now called Taino culture”(211).
The Arawak are some of the first settlers of the Americas and have circulated and moved across vast areas of South America, from the islands of the Caribbean into the waterways of Orinoco basin of the Rio Negro, up into the headwaters of the Rio Amazon.
She believes the Icamiabas are a sub group of the Arawak peoples.
Arawak peoples still live in Bolivia, Peru and into the high Andes. They all share the same language base and similar social organization and beliefs. They are matrilineal and matrifocal, living in matriarchal clans. They believe in Mamona, an Earth Goddess who rules with a moon goddess.
Abendroth details the cultural organizations of many of the Arawak peoples still in existence. The mother of the clan leads the community with one of her brothers as clan representative to the outside world. Sometimes there are male chiefs who rule beneath the mother leader. Matriarchal clans contain men and live in community with men, unlike the Amazons or women who live without men, Icamiabas. Matrilineal means descent through a woman, matrifocal means women centered—the clan focused around the mother—matriarchal means that the culture in general is organized by a female leader. It does not mean men are disempowered and have no authority. It is not the reversal of patriarchal systems at all.
Arawak women fought alongside the men as warriors in battles with the conquistadors. The Arawaks also had an ongoing struggle with the Caribs who were patriarchal. These struggles and territory wars threatened the matriarchal Arawak people long before the arrival of the Europeans.
The Arawak believe in
“an ancient earth goddess, who had five names and five different animal heads, and she was worshipped in caves. Reflecting her, every human being has five souls, bound to the earth with bonds of varying strength. After death, the brightest, most celestial soul of these five wanderers through the spirit realm is then reborn. Just as ancient as the earth goddess is the moon goddess, Amana. The “Moon Mother” and the “Stone Mother”(earth) are the ancestral mothers of all the Arawak.
Amana, the Moon Goddess, is the virgin mother who is the creatrix of the entire universe. No one gave birth to her, but she gave birth to everything. She can take any and all shapes, but usually she takes the shape of a marvelously beautiful young woman whose body ends in a snake’s tail. Her skin is white as the moon, she has long, black hair, and sparkling eyes, and her forehead is adorned with seven stars . . . Amana’s palace is the Pleiads, the seven stars, they are the Head of the Stars”(220).
The Arawak are said to have brought pottery to South America. Megalithic construction has been found in the areas they lived. Many of the megaliths contain petroglyphs and are still cared for by them today.
There were more than one tribe of Amazon women in South America, many existing well before Columbus arrived. There were women warriors in female only societies on an Island called Matenino.
Amazon societies are said to have a more “highly refined” culture than the other rainforest people, building urban centers from stone with pottery and “domestic arts.” After contact they retreated up to the area of the Sierra Parima in current Venezuela and there built their fabulous cities.
Stories told of the Amazons locate them in the same areas as the Arawak, and their cultures are similar. Abendroth comes to the conclusion the Amazon women of South America are Arawak peoples that broke off to form an “Amazon realm” in response to the encroachment of patriarchal cultures.
“Over the millennia, co-evolution between a matriarchal culture and influx of ever more strongly encroaching patriarchal peoples demonstrates how a peaceful agricultural society could have given rise to certain realms of female warriors. Amazonian social patterns develop in the long, difficult, painful transitional eras when nascent patriarchal structures collide destructively with ancient matriarchal cultures”(230).
Abendroth emphasizes the wholesale erasure of the evidence of Amazon women and their societies as a pattern of arrogance and bigotry in traditional historical scholarship. She writes:
“A long-established, biased and misleading practice on the part of patriarchal researchers has repeatedly consigned such clear and constant accounts—by eyewitnesses or indigenous informants—to the domain of fiction and legend. The point is, these accounts from South America are not unique in human cultural history. With regard to the Amazons of the Amazon, any remaining doubts should be laid to rest after the eye-witness account of the only white man who has even been allowed to speak to them. This happened in the 1950s—that is, in our own time”(226).
That white man is Brazilian Eduardo Prado from Manaus who, in 1954, found information about women called the “Ycomiabas” women without husbands, living at the headwaters of the Rio Nhamundá and Rio Trombetas. He is told of the Lake of the Mirror of the Moon where the Amazons were “celebrating their ceremonies and taking green stones, or amazonite, from the water to give as talismans to their lovers”(226).
Prado organized an expedition and found them. By that time the Amazons had fled the northern mountains and were now settled here. This move had changed their lifestyle. However many of the traditions remained the same.
Upon meeting Prado and his team the Amazon women thought they were suitors who had come to engage in sacred ceremony with them. After this misunderstanding is corrected, the Amazons invited them in, treating them as valued guests, and explained to them their way of life.
He describes them as “strong women with proud bearing, dark brown skin and luxurious black hair that hung down their backs; from the hips down they were clothed only in body paint and tattoos”(227).
Prado and company are taken on a hunt with the women and he watches young women using a short spear to slay a Jaguar. Then he is able to witness their ceremonies with men who come from other tribes as suitors just as many of the stories have told for centuries.
Thirty years later when Shoumatoff shows up, the women Prado met are no longer there. Had they moved to another site? Are the Icamiabas still there somewhere?
And what were they doing with the muiraquitãs?
Stay tuned for the next post where we head to Italy and the Mirror of the Moon south of Rome to further explore an ancient rite that was happening in more than one location.
© Theresa C. Dintino 2022
Davis, Wade. The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World. Toronto, House of Anansi Press. 2009.
Goettner-Abendroth, Heide. Matriarchal Societies: Studies on Indigenous Cultures Across the Globe. Translated by Karen Smith. New York, Peter Lang. 2013.
Mann, Charles C. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. Vintage Books, 20025.
Shoumatoff, Alex. In Southern Light: Trekking through Zaire and the Amazon. Vintage Books, 1986.