The impetus for this post came to me the other day when I was again asked about the name of my employer.
“Where did the name Amazon come from? The river?”
I usually answer, “Yes, from the Amazon River. Although the official corporate charter name is AMAZON.COM, INC.”
I might then go on to add, “However, Amazon is not the original name of the company. The first name of the company was ‘Cadabra’ which is short for the magical word ‘abracadabra.’ When Jeff Bezos learned that people were hearing ‘Cadabra’ as ‘cadaver,’ he and others began a search for a new name. A few domains were registered: Awake.com, Browse.com, Bookmall.com, but only one of those domains still remains, Relentless.com.” (Click on the link Relentless.com and guess where you are directed?) “One day Bezos went through the dictionary in search of a name. He started with the A’s. And, not too far in, he came upon ‘Amazon,’ and the rest is history.”1
But that is not the wholestory…
Perhaps in the story of the name “Amazon” there is a bit of herstory in the history. As always, one question leads to another question.
“How did the river that is called 'Amazon' receive the name Amazon?”
The river already had a perfectly good name, El Río Marañón; a name given to it by the first Spanish explorers, with Marañón probably a Spanish approximation of a local tribe’s name for their part of the mighty river. Another question.
Sometimes when asked the Corporate Name Question I feel a little playful and respond with, “The name for the company Amazon.com comes from a tribe of ancient, middle-eastern warrior-women who cut off one of their breasts in order to more easily draw a bowstring.” Imagine the look on faces with that conversation piece. And then another question.
“How is it that innumerable indigenous tribal names for the largest river on earth become subsumed into one name which comes from an even earlier tribal period of human her(his)tory where one-breasted women rode in cavalry-formation picking off their enemy male counterparts with bows and arrows?”
Frightful, in my mind. Imagine the warpaint on those warrior-women. And yet, all this is not true in the factual sense of true according to current scholarly historical thinking. The idea of a group of one-breasted-bow-bearing-women-warriors comes from folk and mythical story which at one point in time was deemed historically “true.” The thinking of the scholarly historians of old was that “Amazon” is a combination of two words in the Greek language: “a” (without) and “mazos” (breast). (Aside: Does ‘mazos’ rhyme with ‘bezos’?) It was from this mythic understanding of “Amazon” as women-warriors that the El Rio Marañón received the name Rio Amazonas. And another question.
“How in the world does a mythical name for a middle-eastern, Scythian tribe of women-warriors come all the way across the Atlantic Ocean to the equatorial region of a newly ‘discovered’ continent?”
Enter the colonial era. The Spanish Explorer Francisco de Orellana remembered his Herodotus and the tales of the warrior-women of old when, after an attack by a native tribe where the women fought alongside the men, Orellana introduced the name “Amazonas.”
And there it is…where Jeff Bezos saw fit to give his company the name of the world’s largest river, in actuality, I work for a company whose name derives from a dynamic collective process whereby a Spanish colonialist conqueror leading an expedition in search of the Land of Cinnamon down an ‘unknown’ river is attacked by a tribe of men and women defending their homes and, as a result proclaims, “Amazonas,” which itself is an ignorant understanding by the expert historians of his era who truly believed that the name of an ancient group of fighting women was Amazon.
1 A summary of the naming of Amazon.com, Inc. found in The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon by Brad Stone; which itself is a part of the story that is being added to the Myth of the Amazon.