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Volume 43, Number 3May/June 1992

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Ponce de Leon and an Arab Legend

Written by Paul Lunde

As Columbus threaded his way through the islands if the Caribbean, he was alert for giants, griffins, men with tails, huge snakes, dog-headed men and Amazons.

Those were all features of the mythical geography of Asia, with which he was familiar from reading Marco Polo and the fables of Sir John Mandeville. The presence of such phenomena would show Columbus that he was on the right course for Cipangu - Marco Polo's name for Japan - "where the palace of the emperor is roofed with sheets of gold the way we roof our churches with lead, and the walls of the rooms are plated in gold two fingers thick...."

Columbus himself did not discover the giants. That was left to his compatriot Amerigo Vespucci in 1499, who discovered giant footprints on the Isla de los Gigantes, modern Curaçao. Giants were associated in the classical authors with pearls, and indeed, it was not far from Curaçao that the Spaniards did first find abundant pearls. The "giant's bones" so bravely investigated by Arab traveler Elias ibn Hanna al-Mawsili in the cave near Santa Elena, in present-day Ecuador, are perhaps the last echo of this early obsession. (See "The New World Through Arab Eyes" in this issue.)

Griffins were first sighted in the interior of Cuba in 1494, although also not by the embassy which Columbus sent there to the emperor of Japan. Rumors of men with tails and of dog-headed men were rife, and on November 4,1492, Columbus heard of men with the muzzles of dogs who ate human flesh; these were later identified with the Carib Indians. Dog-headed men were a feature of the Land of Darkness through which, in the Arab legend, Alexander the Great traveled in his search for the water that would give him immortality.

According to that legend, Alexander set off on his journey to the farthest West, into the Land of Darkness, shortly after marrying the queen of the Amazons in al-Andalus. Others, among them the Arab geographer al-Idrisi, located the Amazons on an island in the Atlantic. "In the Sea of Darkness are many islands," says al-Idrisi,

... many uninhabited, others inhabited. Among the inhabited islands are the two islands of the fire-worshiping Amazons. The westernmost island is inhabited by men only; there are no women at all. The second island is inhabited only by women; not a single man lives there. Every year the men cross the passage between the two islands in their boats in the springtime. Every man seeks out a woman.... They stay about a month, then the men return to their island until the next year.... This is a long-established custom among them.

Columbus first heard of this island on January 6, 1493, just as he was about to sail back to Spain: "At a certain time of the year," he wrote, "men from the island of Carib come to the women of this island, which is said to stand ten or twelve leagues away. If the women have a male child, they send it to the island of the men; if the child is a girl, the women keep the child with them." Eight days later, Columbus learned that the island was called Matinino, present-day Martinique. He very much wanted to land and capture some of the Amazons as a gift for the King of Spain, but his ships were leaking and he decided instead to sail directly home.

Behind the legendary form in which references to Amazons are cast in Columbus's journal, and in other contemporary writings, there was a reality. The women of the Carib Indians fought alongside their men, and it was in the Caribbean that the Spanish explorers first came into contact with matriarchal societies - societies they were ill-equipped to understand. As more was discovered about the islands, the myth of the Amazons was displaced to other regions, until today it survives only as the name of the great Brazilian river, so-called by the Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana because of the fierce Tupaya women he encountered there.

Always in the back of Columbus's mind was the idea that he was not far from the Earthly Paradise, which his reading had indicated was to be found near Cipangu. It was not until his second voyage that he discovered its whereabouts, but from the moment he landed at Guanahani, his journal makes clear that he thought he had reached a land of eternal spring and perhaps eternal youth.

As he did throughout his voyages - and like many explorers since, even in our own times - Columbus fitted what he found into the structure of beliefs he brought with him, interpreting and even describing the New World in terms of the legends of the old.

Thus he describes the natives of Guanahani, his first landfall: "They go naked as the day their mothers bore them.... None of them is more than 30 years old, very well made, with handsome bodies and good faces...." Two days later, on October 13,1492, he again stresses in his journal the youth of the Indians: "As soon as day broke, there came to shore many of these men, all youths, as I have said, and all of a good height, very handsome people. Their hair is not curly, but loose and coarse as the hair of a horse; all have very broad foreheads and heads, more so than any people I have ever seen. Their eyes are big and pretty... Their legs are very straight.... They have no paunches, but very good figures."

Thirty, or some said 33 - Alexander's age when he died - was the ideal age of man. This emphasis on the Indians' youth, coupled with the imagery of spring so characteristic of the early pages of Columbus's journal - "Near the said islet, moreover, there are the loveliest groups of trees I have ever seen, all green and with leaves like those of Castile in the month of April and May..." - make it clear that Columbus hoped - possibly believed - he had reached a land where no one grew old and where springtime reigned eternal.

Several late medieval maps mark an island in the Atlantic called "The Island of Jove" with the inscription, "Here nobody dies." Columbus and his brother Bartholomew were both cartographers, and at various times in their lives had made a living copying and selling maps. They were almost certainly familiar with the "Insula Jovis."

But it was not until the mainland of North America was discovered in 1513 that the legend of the Fountain of Youth took shape and astonished the Spanish court. Although the peninsula of Florida is clearly marked on the Juan de la Cosa map of 1502, perhaps indicating early voyages of which we know nothing, it was not until Juan Ponce de León received royal permission in 1513 to seek the legendary island of Bimini that the mainland of North America was officially discovered.

Like Columbus before him, Ponce de León was not aware that he had discovered the mainland. He called the northern part of the peninsula - which he thought was an island - Florida, allegedly because he discovered it on Easter Sunday, or Pascua florida, as it was called in Andalusia. The southern part, also thought to be an island, he called Bimini, a name now applied to a very different place, in the Bahamas.

Peter Martyr d'Anghiera, the Italian-born historian to whom we owe so much of our knowledge of the early Spanish discoveries, was a learned and skeptical man. He first mentions the Fountain of Youth in the tenth letter of his second Decade, just after describing the voyage of Juan Díaz de Solís. Among the new lands he found, "at the distance of 325 leagues from Hispaniola, those who have explored the interior say there is an island which is called Boyuca or Ananeo, where there is a fountain which has the virtue that by drinking its water, old men are rejuvenated." Somewhat later, this island was identified with the coast of Florida explored by Ponce de León.

Peter Martyr goes on to say that "all the people, and not a few men distinguished by virtue or fortune, hold this to be true," and that the news had been avidly received by the Spanish court.

Ponce de León may have encouraged the spread of the story of the existence of a Fountain of Youth in order to get royal permission to found a colony in Florida. What lent the story credence was that it was vouched for by a Lucayo Indian, who claimed his own father had gone to Florida as an old man, bathed in the magical waters and been rejuvenated. Peter Martyr met this Indian, who had been captured in a slave raid and taken to Spain, where he learned Spanish and where he was baptized Andres Barbudo - his last name derived from the circumstance, unusual among the Lucayo Indians, that he was bearded.

The story was backed up by respectable witnesses, like Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón, a high official in Hispaniola. These witnesses said, however, that they had been prevented from seeing the magical waters themselves because of the ferocity of the Indians of Florida, who had already beaten off a number of Spanish attacks.

Vázquez de Ayllón had another Indian servant, captured in a raid on the coast of Chicora - probably southern Georgia - who was named Francisco Chicorano. "This Chicorano is by no means stupid," says Peter Martyr, "and has learned Spanish with relative ease." Like Andres Barbudo, Chicorano came to Spain in Vázquez de Ayllón's suite, and had a number of conversations with Peter Martyr, the semi-official chronicler of events in the New World. Peter Martyr, incidentally, was the first to realize that the lands discovered by Columbus were indeed a new world and not the island fringe of Asia. Chicorano told a number of tall tales to his enthralled listeners. He said that on the other side of the gulf from the land of Chicora was a place called Duhare; the inhabitants were white and had long red hair. Their king was a giant, named Datha. The queen was of almost equal stature, and the couple had five sons. Nearby was a region called Xapida, where pearls were found in abundance - as they almost always are where giants are to be found. These people had great herds of domesticated deer, which they milked. They also made deer-milk cheese.

There was another region on the mainland called Inzingnanin. Long ago a people arrived in this place by sea; they had inflexible tails, like crocodiles. In order to sit down comfortably, they used stools with a hole in the middle. If these were lacking, they made a hole in the earth the length of their tail, and thus could repose in comfort. They ate only raw fish, and because this was lacking in their new home, they quickly died out, leaving no issue.

In the province of Duhare, Chicorano said, everyone was the same age, for the old were continually rejuvenated - presumably by drinking the waters of the Fountain of Youth.

It is obvious that Francisco Chicorano and Andres Barbudo were having a great deal of fun at the expense of the Spaniards. It is also possible, however, that men like Vázquez de Ayllón were not as gullible as they might appear. These stories were calculated to awaken official interest in the mainland, until then unexplored. Vázquez de Ayllón wished to found a colony there - and he evidently had another, secret, purpose as well.

By 1513, the year Ponce de León discovered Florida, the Lucayo Indians were virtually extinct and their islands, the Bahamas, uninhabited. Between 1509 and 1513, 40,000 Lucayos had been transported to work in the mines and sugar plantations; most had died. It was not the search for the Fountain of Youth that drove Ponce de León to Florida, but the labor shortage resulting from the extermination of the Lucayos, which he intended to alleviate by illegal raiding for slaves. Rumors of a Fountain of Youth were instrumental in gaining royal approval to explore and settle the mainland.

Although there are classical legends of an island of eternal youth, the principal - perhaps only - source of the legend of a fountain of youth is the Oriental romance of Alexander the Great, particularly the Arabic version of the story of al-Iskandar Dhu al-Qarnain, "Alexander the Two-Horned." Alexander is referred to in the Qur'an by the epithet "Dhu al-Qarnain" because he traveled to the two ends, or "horns," of the earth - or possibly because of two locks of hair that hung to his shoulders. We have already seen how the legend of the islands of the Amazons is derived from this romance.

In the Arabic Alexander romance, Alexander sets off for the Land of Darkness to find the "Well of Life," as it is called in Arabic, because he has learned that his allotted span is almost up and he wishes to prolong his life. In some versions, he is accompanied by his cook - named Andreas in the Syriac version, Idris in the Arabic - or by a mysterious figure named al-Khadir. Al-Khadir means "Ever Green"; floridus would be a good Latin translation. Alexander's companion unexpectedly finds the Well of Life when a dried fish he soaks in it suddenly comes to life and swims away. He bathes in the spring, and then runs to tell his master. Both men return, but they are unable to find the magical spring again. The cook is immortal, and Alexander must die.

This episode from the immensely long Arabic romance was, and is still, well-known throughout the Islamic world; there are versions of it in languages as widely separated as Mongolian and Javanese. The European versions of the legend were equally popular in the European Middle Ages - but only the Oriental versions contain the episode of the Well of Life.

The story of Alexander was popularized in the Islamic world both by poets of the stature of Firdawsi and Nizami, in elaborate Persian poems, and in less pretentious versions in simple Arabic prose. Two of these prose versions are known from Spain, one in Arabic and one aljamiado, that is, in a form of Spanish written in the Arabic alphabet.

The story must have been of particular interest in Islamic Spain because so much of its action was set "in the farthest West" - Spain's position in relation to the Muslim world. It undoubtedly penetrated Andalusian folklore, as did so many other Oriental tales, and in fact it is probably from Spaniards in the New World that the Indians Francisco Chicorano and Andres Barbudo first heard of the "Fountain of Youth" - and of giants and men with tails. These stories were in their turn believed by the Spaniards, because they fitted into a pre-existing mythical framework.

In succeeding years, the Spaniards' closer contact with the natives of Florida does not seem to have turned up any further legends of giant kings, men with tails or the Fountain of Youth. This is because the stories were never indigenous to the Americas; rather, they were brought there by the Spanish conquerors themselves, who in turn had borrowed them from the Arabic Alexander romance.

Historian and Arabist Paul Lunde, author of the whole issue of Aramco World , is a frequent Contributor to the magazines with some 50 articles to his credit over the past two decades, including special multi-article sections on Arabic-language printing and the history of the Silk Roads. His immediate research for this issue was carried out in Seville, Rome, London and Cambridge, and he wrote from his base in Seville’s Barrio do Santa Cruz, a stone’s throw from the city’s cathedral—once a mosque—and from Alcázares Resales, the Moorish palace complex that remains today one of the residences of Spain’s Christian kings.

This article appeared on pages 42-46 of the May/June 1992 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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