(Note: all Guanche words and names follow the rules of Spanish pronounciation)
It is an ordinary morning of the second half of the XVth century. You arrive on a
beach of Chenech, Tenerife. Its the beach of Añaza on which the
Castillians will found the city of Santa Cruz of Tenerife -future Islands' capital- on May
Long before landing on shore, the shepherds in the mountains begin to sound the alarm on the bucios, the large conch shells they used as trumpets (see picture). The deep sound resonates from valley to valley, up to the very peaks of the mountains. If, instead of arriving alone, you were to arrive with a fleet of gujon (as they called the European naval vessels), the alarm could travel the breadth of this island of 2,036 sq.km (785 sq.miles) in a matter of minutes.
Several shepherd-warriors approach. They go naked to war, although normally they wear tamarcos, capes of goat skin to protect them from the cold of the mountains. On some islands they also wore skirts made from palm fibers. Depending on the season, the activity and the social class, other pieces of clothing are also worn: xercos (pigskin shoes or sandals), huirmas (pieces of leather worn like sleeves to protect the arms), guaycas (leather leggings covering the area between the ankle and the knee), and the ahico (a type of leather shirt).
The Guanches approach warily. Ever since the second half of the XIIIth century Europeans (Genoans, Portuguese, Castillians) have landed on these shores, stealing livestock and capturing lone shepherds to carry them off in their strange ships to sell them as slaves in far-off Europe. Islands like Lanzarote and Fuerteventura have suffered a devastating loss in men and livestock due to these attacks. The situation, however, has been even more serious since the beginning of the XIVth century. The Kingdom of Castille began conquering the island of Lanzarote by means of an expedition led by the Norman mercenaries Jean de Bethencourt and Gadifer de La Salle. Its the year 1402. Between this year and 1478, the Castillians will conquer Fuerteventura, El Hierro and La Gomera. Castille and Portugal enter into rivalry over the right to conquer the islands, but in 1479 Portugal renounces to the Canaries in the Treaty of Alcaçovas. In 1478, the Catholic King and Queen, Isabel and Ferdinand, order the conquest of Gran Canaria. Conquering this island was no easy task, as the Canarians resisted heroically. Finally, La Palma was conquered in 1493, likewise after cruel and bloody battle. Almost a century has past since the conquest of Lanzarote, and Tenerife is still holding out against the invaders. Several attempted armed landing have ended badly for the would-be invaders. In 1494, however, the Castillians come ashore with a determined will to conquer... Still they will need two more years (and an initial military disaster which will force the conquistadors to retreat) before obtaining the surrender of Tenerife.
The warriors obey a Sigoñe (military chief), and are armed with a banot (wooden spear) and stones, many of which are polished down to have sharp edges. They are genuine masters at throwing these missiles. They also have teniques, or stones wrapped in leather held in place by thongs, which they use as deadly bludgeons. They proved their strength and prowess by defeating and destroying nearly all of the Castillian expeditionary force in 1494 at a place in northern Tenerife which they called Acentejo (Running Waters) and where later was founded the village of "La Matanza de Acentejo" (the Massacre of Acentejo).
You are in the territory of Anaga. According to old legends and traditions, the island of Tenerife was once governed by a single Mencey or king called Tinerfe the Great. It appears he lived in the region of Adeje in the southwestern corner of the island. After his death, the island was divided up between his sons and grandsons. The fact is that, upon the arrival of the Europeans, Tenerife had 9 independent Menceys. Their minuscule kingdoms were called Anaga, Tegueste, Tacoronte, Taoro, Icod, Daute, Adeje, Abona and Güimar. These kingdoms (or Menceyatos) extend from the seashore high up the slopes of the central mountain chain. The very tops of these central mountains, including Teide, seem to have been common mountain land used by the shepherds of the various Menceyatos to pasture their herds during the summer months when the vegetation in the coastal areas dried up and grew scarce. This upper region was essential to the desert Menceyatos in the south of the island (Adeje, Abona and Güimar), where the lack of rainfall makes the annual transfer of the herds to the mountains a necessity. In contrast, the "rich" neighbors to the north seem to be able to allow themselves the luxury of raising small, but flourishing, crops of wheat, barley, peas and beans alongside their herds. Anaga is a special Menceyato. It occupies the eastern peninsula of the island and includes all the area from the coast right up to the top of the land mass which forms it. The Guanches used the word Guañac (gwan-yac) to refer to what Europeans call "Fatherland", State or republic.
Although all the Menceys are independent and supreme lords over their lands, one of them - the Mencey of Taoro - appears to have played the role of first among equals. The capital of his lands is located in the Valley of Arautava or Arautapola, today known as the Valley of Orotava. His territory, which centuries later is still praised as a sort of paradise, seems to have been the heart of Tenerife during the war for conquest. The Mencey of Taoro was given the special honorific title of Quevehi, "Your Majesty", "Your Highness".
Since you are unarmed and show signs of being friendly, the Guanches do not seem to
consider you to be dangerous. This people will maintain right up to the end a profound
sense of hospitality. In the dialect spoken on Gran Canaria, they would probably greet you
with the traditional Tamaragua (good morning, welcome). The greeting used on
Tenerife has been lost.
Your new acquaintances lead you toward the nearby mountains of Anaga. You penetrate one of the deep ravines which mark the mountainside, and start your ascent toward the peaks. You are amazed at how agile your new friends are in jumping long distances from stone to stone, using their shepherd staff like a pole vault. Europeans even thought at times that the Guanches could fly. And "fly" they did, for on many occasions, just when the conquistadors thought they had them cornered, the Guanches would simply vanish into thin air. Even many years after the conquest, the European colonists were unable to dominate completely what they called the "rebeled Guanches" or natives who, refusing to settle in the new colonial villages, continued to live in the ways of their forefathers.
Numerous herds of ara and haña can be seen on the mountain slopes. These are special breeds of small goats and sheep with straight wool. They graze on armenine, or pasture land. The cancha (dogs) bark at you furiously. Some of the herds are tended by shepherds, but part of the animals are called guanil or loose livestock which grazes freely. Although the livestock is not marked, the shepherds know each and every one of their animals, and in the middle of a large herd can easily recognize the babies of each mother. This skill in the Guanche shepherds was a source of constant amazement to the European settlers.
Should you happen across a lone woman in a deserted area, do not even think of
speaking to her. No man who valued his integrity, no brave warrior, would dare break the
taboo which forbids a man to speak to a woman on her own without her first allowing it.
Although Guanche society is patriarchal, the role of women is very important. On several
islands, inheritance rights are passed down from the mother and women are responsible for
the transfer of royal power. Such is the case on Gran Canaria where Queen Atidamana
is still remembered. Similarly, when finally Gran Canaria surrenders to the Castillian
troops, they do so bringing out a young girl, the daughter of the last Guanarteme
(King of the island), to present her with the highest honors to their new overlords. She
represents the power and legitimacy of the peoples sovereignty. In other instances,
the women are so fierce during combat, or in encouraging and helping their men in combat
that the conquistadors speak of the "the amazons" of the island of La Palma. Or
they tell legendary tales of Guacimara, royal princess of Anaga (Tenerife)
who took part in the struggle against those who tried to land on the beaches of Añaza.
Women also played an important role in stories mixed with legend which tell of the heroism
displayed by princesses and aristocrats who preferred to throw themselves from the cliffs
rather than be taken captive by the Europeans. This ritual suicide, symbol of love for
freedom, was practiced not only by women, but also by some men of the royal families, and
was preceded by the cry Vacaguaré! (I want to die!).
Women in Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, however, seem to have played a more submissive role, where they were given as a sign of hospitality to guests to accompany them to bed. Nor did women have an easy time in times of scarcity or overpopulation. When the population reached greater numbers that what was felt the land could sustain, female infanticide was practiced on the islands of La Palma and Gran Canaria. They killed all new born female babies unless it was the first born of the family. In this case, the child was respected as the perpetuator of the family line.
Although you cannot see any houses, you are
nearing a village. Women are gathering water in gánigos (clay jars) from the eres
(pools at the bottom of the ravine), or from small man-made ponds built of stone. Women
normally go with their breasts uncovered. Children play noisily, throwing stones, jumping
with poles, and fighting with toy banots and other pastimes which will turn them
into agile warriors.
You arrive at a widening of the ravine. The people come out to see you. The village consists of series of caves in the surrounding slopes. The volcanic lands of Tenerife are rich in caves and tunnels formed by the lava. As a result, only rarely will you find any kind of building on Tenerife. When the absence of caves requires it, small structures are built of stones with no mortar and then covered with a roof of branches and leaves. In contrast, the art of building is more advanced on the island of Gran Canaria. Dwellings were dug in areas of granular volcanic soil, and it is said that the walls of the homes of the Guanartemes (kings) were covered with wooden planks. The walls of houses and caves were also often painted with geometric designs on this island. The cave dwellings of Tenerife usually had part of their opening covered over with a wall of stone, leaving only enough room to go in and out. Most of the time, life took place in the open air.
This village life surrounds you and astounds you everywhere. News of your arrival
has been voiced far afield and constitutes an important event in the life of the
Several women are working with clay, forming gánigos of various sizes and shapes: round, oval, with or without handles. A few are decorated with a pointed stick in rough geometric, linear designs or with solar symbols. Other women work at gathering wild fruits and plants such as pinion nuts, ferns or toya and mocán (the fruit from one of the trees which make up the laurisilva); or they are working at harvesting the tano or taro (barley), irichen (wheat), hacichey (peas) and broadbeans. Preparing the soil for planting is work for the men who use plows made from goats horns to perform the task. Sowing the crop is left to the women as a sign of fertility.
The men are also responsible for fashioning tools and weapons: awls, cutting stones, grind stones and mills, etc.
They tan and cure the hides of goats and sheep with stone and bone tools, and sew them using tendons or thin strips of leather for thread and bone needles. The tabona is a highly prized tool, sort of sharp cutting knife made from shards of obsidian (volcanic glass).
The shepherds milk the goats and sheep. They feed the pigs in their goros (corrals).
The Guanche diet is based on their livestock. Meat is not an everyday food, especially in the lower classes. But on holidays and at feast time, sheep, goat and even dog meat are a delicacy within reach of everyone. One very savory dish is tamazanona or barley cooked with meat and lard. Milk (ahof) is a staple food, as is the famous Canarian gofio, or flour ground from roasted grain. Barley gofio is called ahoren. Lard (amulán) and cheese are also daily foods. Fruits and roots are often found in the diet and babies are given, in addition to mothers milk, a sort of pudding made of fern roots dipped in lard called aguaman.
You are lucky enough to have been accepted as an important member of Guanche
society. For this is a society of classes at the top of which stands the Mencey.
Under him are the achimencey (nobles), who justify their status through their
family ties with the royalty. The cichiciquitzos form an intermediary social level,
and at the bottom of society are the achicaxna, or plebe. All the land and
livestock belong to the Mencey who distributes them every year among the upper
classes according to the merits and needs of each family group. The Mencey,
therefore, fulfills the important economic role of redistributing the wealth, given that
he covers the costs of the public festivities and ceremonies for which the food comes from
the royal stores.
Tenerife does not appear to have had a priestly class as this function was performed by the Mencey (for the public ceremonies of the Guañac or State). However, the figure of the Guañameñe existed, which was a kind of prophet or soothsayer who command great respect and veneration.
You are called to attend a the most solemn of Guanche meetings, the Tagoror
or Council, in which the important decisions affecting the Menceyato are made. These
meetings are held in a special place where the stone seats are arranged in a circle. In
many parts of the island, the Tagoror is held near sacred rocks or trees. The
dragos (dracaena drago), a tree endemic to Macaronesia which often live for several
centuries and which has a blood red sap with medicinal properties, are often chosen as
places with special meaning.
You arrive at the stone circle of the Tagoror and the achimenceys take their places. The common people watch quietly. Suddenly you hear the sound of the bucios, the conch shell horns, and a tremor shudders through the crowd: The Mencey is coming!
The Mencey marches in, escorted by an honor guard, and, as always, preceded by a herald holding aloft a finely carved wooden staff. This is the añepa (anyepa), the scepter, the symbol of royal power. Everyone bows down before the añepa and the Mencey following it. You will see an añepa in these pages used as the separating line between portions of text.
In moments of special enthusiasm, cries of Achit Guañot Mencey! (Long live our King and Protector!) fill the air.
The Guanches believed in the existence of a supreme god, whom they identified as Magec
(the Sun), but whom they referred to in many different ways: Achaman (The Heavens),
Achuhuran Achahucanac (Great and Sublime God), Achguayaxerax Achoron Achaman
(the Sustainer of Heaven and Earth). They also seem to have had a Mother Goddess, Achmayex
Achguayaxerax Achoron Achaman (The Mother of the Sustainer of Heaven and Earth), or Achguayaxiraxi
(Preserving Principle of Live). This Mother Goddess was rapidly identified with the Virgin
Mary of the Christians, even to the point where the conquistadors found a statue of Our
Lady of Candelaria - brought to the islands by missionaries - which the Guanches
worshipped in a cave in the Menceyato of Güimar.
Likewise, the Guanches also maintained cultic relations with a god of evil, Guayota (identified as the devil by the Christian conquistadors), which lived in Echeyde, the Teide, which means "the Ominous One". Guayota does not appear to have been loved, but rather feared and respected. By night it took on the form of a solitary dog; an encounter with him was very dangerous. This of course, is easy to understand: what could be more destructive than an active volcano, or more harmful than a lone, ownerless dog free to attack the herds of livestock?
In addition to these major gods, the Guanches practiced a religion based on naturalist polytheism. They left offerings on rocks and in caves and other natural openings. All the islands had sacred places formed of mountains or rocks which held the Earth and the Heavens in equilibrium. In Tenerife, Teide always held the privileged position in this cult. Throughout the surrounding region, which nowadays is the National Park Las Cañadas del Teide, offerings of clay vessels and tools are still discovered as they were when deposited in their nooks and crannies. These rituals were practices on the island to become one with the spirit of the natural forces or to appease them in their anger. The family unit also had very rude figures which served as small idols for family worship. These normally had reference to fertility and the good health of men and animals.
There were four major ceremonies in Guanche society. One was the ceremony of proclaiming a new Mencey. Another was the ritual practiced in times of drought. The other two were cyclical rites which were repeated every achanó or year. These were the festivals celebrating the New Year at the arrival of Spring, and the Great Annual Festival of Beñasmen - the Harvest Festival.
The Proclaiming of the New Mencey
When the Mencey died, his heir was proclaimed as the new Mencey. But the succession was not necessarily from father to son. The title could also be passed from brother to brother. In any case, it was the duty of the Tagoror (Council) to elect the new King.
The proclamation included the impressive ceremony of the ancestors bone. A bone of the most ancient ancestor of the dynasty was carefully guarded, wrapped in fine skins. This bone was brought forth ceremoniously and kissed by the new Mencey. Then, each member of the Tagoror recognized him as King, pronouncing the words "Agoñe Yacorán Iñatzahaña Chacoñamet" (I swear by this bone of He who made you great).
The Rain Ritual
In periods of drought, the entire village fasted and abstained from dancing and other entertainment. They marched in procession with their livestock, to certain elevated places. There they separated the baby goats and sheep from their mothers. Everyone cried and screamed while the distraught animals bleated. They believed that in so doing the gods would take pity on the people and their livestock and would send rain. Several of these special places are still called Bailadero or Baladero, from the Spanish verb "balar", to bleat.
The Feast of the New Year
The Guanches used a lunar calendar. The Guanche achanó (year) began toward the end of April, beginning of May and coincided with the spring festivals when the new livestock was in full vigor. The period was celebrated with feasts, dances and sports events.
The Harvest Festival
The Great Annual Festival was, without a doubt, the Beñasmen or Harvest Festival which was celebrated between July and August. All wars and skirmishes between the various Menceyatos had to end and a sacred truce went into effect to facilitate the people coming together in banquets, dances and competitions. The Mencey fulfilled the role of redistributing the wealth by feeding the entire population during the festivities.
In times of festival, the people adorned themselves and their villages with flowers, leaves and branches. Important sports contest were held to test the competitors skills in running, jumping, climbing, throwing and avoiding spears, hand-to-hand combat with poles, etc. They practiced a form of wrestling similar to that of Greece and Rome which, centuries later, is still alive and well and is known as Canarian Wrestling. It consists in throwing ones opponent to the ground or outside a defined area by making him lose his balance.
The Guanches had few musical instruments: sticks to beat together, conch shells, small stones in a clay jar, and their hands. However, they enjoyed singing and dancing. One Guanche dance which is still performed today by Canarians is the Tajaraste. Another Guanche dance became famous in the XVIth century when a refined version of it became fashionable in all the courts of Europe under the name of "El Canario" ("the Canary", or "the Canarian").
Return to Canary Page