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The Guanches: Taboo subjects 

There are two things one cannot talk about in polite society without the risk of causing offence – Religion and Politics, so here we go.

(Be warned, this article, while containing many facts, is intended to be satirical and humorous, so if you’re of a sensitive disposition – don’t read it. A.R.)

The Guanches, like Christians, Muslims and others, worshipped only one god, known to them variously as Achahurahan, Achahucanac or Achguavaxerax, (pronunciation is attempted best after a couple of pints), all of which generally mean ‘the sustainer of heaven and earth’ – in essence not much different from the nameless Christian God. They knew about the devil and called him Guayota. They knew about Hell and called it Echeyde. They also knew precisely where it was; it wasn’t like our vague underground Hell – theirs was in the peak of Teide, which of course belched out smoke and flame occasionally, as the Christian Hell does, so I’m led to believe, not having been there.

The Guanches had a priestly class, like our clergy, who, for example, but unlike our clergy, when the rains failed would collect the flocks of sheep in certain places, then they separated the lambs from their mothers which caused them to start bleating. This, it was hoped, would be heard by their God and draw his (assuming he was male) attention to the plight of the people and to send them rain. Religious women weren’t left out. There was a ceremony that might have been a form of baptism whereby, on the birth of a child, a woman whose function it was, was called in to wash the baby. This woman had to remain un-married (nun-like) and she was not to be treated “dishonestly”.

If the conquerors of the Canary Islands had been the pagan Romans, with their whole football team of gods, including reserves, they wouldn’t have interfered with the Guanche system, they would simply have said, “Your god is the same as one of our gods, only the name is different. Let’s amalgamate the names and worship together”, as they did in Britain. Not so with the Christians, we’re an intolerant bunch. We just have to convert the savages, in this case the Guanches, by fair means or foul, and that’s what happened. Luckily for the Gaunches they seemed to convert quite readily (it’s interesting how tolerant pagans are), but even though they became Christians it did not protect them from being captured and shipped to mainland Spain to be sold as slaves, while their children were taken from them and given to Spanish Catholic families. (To maintain the balance, it has to be said that Britain was still doing this in the 1950’s, sending ‘orphans’ to Australia.) Of course 300 years later, when the British Empire was at its height in Victorian times, God was an Englishman, and quite right too, sometimes C of E, sometimes Methodist, but there you are, nobody has actually asked God which denomination he or she belongs to. But there again, a lot of Islamists seek to convert us all, and there are quite a few Jedi knights around as well. “In my father’s house there are many mansions”, as the holiest Jew in the world once said (John, 14.2). Ho-hum, poor old Achahurahan, or Achahucanac, or Achguavaxerax.

Religion now blurs into politics: The Gaunches believed, as the Victorians did and certain elements of modern society still do, that God created man from earth and water and specified the order of society, which was stratified as in medieval and later society, and of course suited the people at the top who benefited from the system. There was the lord (mencey or prime minister), and his descendants, the nobles (achimencey, or cabinet), followed by the knights (cichiciquitzo or party donors), and finally the peasants (achicaxna, us). (If you’ve pronounced all that lot you’ll be in need of a throat lozenge.)

Legend has it that some time before the conquest Tenerife was governed initially by a single king or lord, who reigned at Adexe. The king had nine sons who each then governed a part of the island and called themselves menceys, or lords. Batzenuhya took Taoro, now Orotava, Acaymo was lord of Guimar, Atguaxona lord of Abona, and Arbitocazpe was lord of Adexe. The others, whose names have been lost, were lords of Anaga, Tegueste, Tacaronte, Icod and Daute. The lord of Taoro was recognised as the overlord. Succession was by inheritance by brothers until there was no brother left, then to the eldest son of the first brother. The king, or lord, owned all the land and granted it to his subjects according to their worth (and, dare it be said, whether their face fitted), much like kings of medieval England.

Guanche parliaments were held in venues called tagorors. The site was marked out by a circle of stone with one larger than the others (does this sound familiar?), to denote the place for the mencey, whose word was law. In the coronation ceremony a new mencey had to hold a bone of the oldest ancestor (presumably a dead one) over his head and swear an oath. This was followed by a feast. (Should we tell Prince Charles?)

Politics can often include warfare, as does sport. For the Guanches, leaping, running, throwing and stick fights were all sports that doubled as training for war. (I wonder if they played football?) Political disputes between menceys usually arose over uncertain territorial boundaries and incursions by unauthorised movement of livestock. If the dispute led to fisticuffs, to summon the troops the alarm was sent by smoke signals or by whistling. The warriors included the whole male population of each district, 6,000 warriors for the lord of Taoro, who went in to battle with small wooden shields (tamarcos), lances (banots), and stones (tabonas) for throwing. Stone throwing sounds tame but it is deadly, as offending Muslim women in certain parts of the world find out to their cost. The Guanches were so adept with their primitive weapons that they could hurl a spear or stone and never miss. Women went to battle with their menfolk to support them but, unlike modern, ‘civilised’ warfare, women and children were not included in the repercussions, they were not harmed in the aftermath.

We don’t know when Guanche society began, but we can put a specific date to the end of it. In 1494 the Spanish fought their second battle against the Guanches and won, having lost the first one. Some natives fled to the hills, but the majority surrendered and Tenerife became part of the Spanish Empire. Guanche tradition was oral, nothing was written by them or recorded by their conquerors until a hundred years later, and so the memory of their way of life was lost.