It seems that readers weren’t too keen on the question of whether a cache of supposedly medieval maps and documents shows that Marco Polo explored Alaska, but I found that Benjamin Olshin’s book The Mysteries of the Marco Polo Maps, which I reviewed yesterday, raised a number of fascinating questions, albeit questions that had little to do with the question of whether Polo visited Alaska. In the book, Olshin makes reference to an island of women mentioned on the (likely hoax) Marco Polo maps promoted by science fiction author and document hoaxer Marcian Rossi. The text accompanying the maps, in Olshin’s revision of Bagrow’s translation, describes it as follows:
On this world map, one can see more clearly how Master Marco Polo sailed from the Gulf of the Mangi to the east as far as the Peninsula of the Stags, where he met the pilot Sirdomap, who then guided him to the Island of Women, situated to the north and west.
This island of women also appears on the Fra Mauro map of c. 1450, a likely source for the hoaxer of the Marco Polo maps.
Marco Polo famously described just such an island of women in his Travels, where in 3.31 he (or, rather, the ghostwriter who compiled his story) describes a pair of islands named Male and Female:
In the Island however which is called Male, dwell the men alone, without their wives or any other women. Every year when the month of March arrives the men all set out for the other Island, and tarry there for three months, to wit, March, April, May, dwelling with their wives for that space. At the end of those three months they return to their own Island, and pursue their husbandry and trade for the other nine months. (trans. Henry Yule)
Polo placed the story to the south of the inhabited world, in the Indian Ocean south of Pakistan. What’s interesting is that this story isn’t clearly identified with that place. A full century before Marco Polo, the Muslim-Sicilian geographer Al-Idrisi (2.433) recorded the same story, but placed it in the Atlantic Ocean:
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.
Sadly, I know this passage only secondhand, from appearances online and in the Revista de historia de América, but it is referenced often enough by others (among them Charles Leland, author of Fusang) that I assume the above version is substantively correct. I can, though, tell you that in 1493, Columbus, who knew the story from one or both sources applied it to the Caribbean:
The Admiral also heard of an island further east, in which there were only women, having been told this by many people. […] He, however, believed the story, and that, at certain seasons, men came to them from the island of Carib, distant ten or twelve leagues. If males were born, they were sent to the island of the men; and if females, they remained with their mothers. (Journal of the First Voyage, January 6 and 16, 1493, trans. Clements Markham).
What’s interesting is that this story is reminiscent of the Classical Greek story of the Lemnian women. In that story, the women of the island of Lemnos killed all of the men and lived alone, reproducing when the Argonauts pulled ashore and took up with them. According to Walter Burkert, this was a mythological remnant of an ancient pre-Greek ritual of spring in which men symbolically took up residence on another island for a period before returning to procreate with the women. In the Middle Ages, this story seems to have become conflated with the story of the Amazons as told by Strabo, who related that the all-female Amazons had annual relations with the all-male Gargarians in the Caucasus mountains:
The Gargarians also, in accordance with an ancient custom, go up thither to offer sacrifice with the Amazons and also to have intercourse with them for the sake of begetting children, doing this in secrecy and darkness, any Gargarian at random with any Amazon; and after making them pregnant they send them away; and the females are born are retained by the Amazons themselves, but the males are taken to the Gargarians to be brought up; and each Gargarian to whom a child is brought adopts the child as his own, regarding the child as his son because of his uncertainty. (11.5.1, trans. H. L. Jones)
It is fascinating to see the way a Classical myth became folded into Arabian lore and then fed back to Europe through Marco Polo’s repurposing of the Arabian tale. It remains, then, to note that the Chinese (and the Malay) had a version of the story, too, recorded in the Liang Shu alongside the tale of Fusang. According to the story, written in 635 CE but attributed to 499 CE, there was a land of women 1,000 Chinese li to the east of Fusang, and the women were white colored and exceedingly hairy. They became pregnant by bathing in a certain river, and suckled their babies from their nutritious hair. Some have suggested that this element of the story derives from Arabian lore carried by traders from the Middle East. But since it bears so little similarity to any of the Classical or medieval versions of the island of women, I’d be more likely to call it a coincidence.
[Update: Much later, in 1225, Chau Ju-Kua tried noted the similarity between the traditional Chinese tale and that of the Arabs, and suggested there were two all-female lands, one a continent in the east and the other an island in the west (Chu-fan-chi 1.38.2).]
Olshin suggests that it is evidence that the author of the Rossi collection of supposed Marco Polo materials was displaying knowledge of Chinese geographic ideas, but the hoaxer of the maps was likely working from a version of the Fusang narrative, so that doesn’t really prove anything. The inclusion of an island of women seems like a fortuitous conflation of the Chinese reference with the genuine passage from the Travels and Classical sources. It’s worth noting that in the Liang Shu, the land of women wasn’t specified as an island (it’s apparently part of a semi-fictional mainland with Fusang), whereas in Classical and Arabic sources it is.
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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