After centuries of solemnly Europeans "re-discovered" the Fortunate Islands in
the first half of the XIVth century. They found living there a people who later came to be
known as the Guanches, and who are still the object of great mystery. They had to have
arrived by sea and they arrived with their domesticated animals: goats, sheep, pigs and
dogs. They brought with them wheat and barley. They came from North Africa,
originating from the same stock as the Berbers of the Atlas mountains. The ancestors of
the Guanches arrived by sea, colonized the islands... and then "forgot" how to
sail! When the Europeans landed on the Canaries, they discovered a stone age culture based
on shepherding, fruit gathering and a very limited agriculture. This same base was common
to all the islands, but each island had developed into its own microcosm to the point
where even the language had differentiated into distinct dialects. The islands were cut
off one from the other as the natives did not know the art of navigation. They fished only
in coastal tidal pools. This is one of the great enigmas of the Guanches. How was it
possible for a race of people to reach the shores of these tiny islands by sea, live
surrounded by ocean with - on several islands - enormous forests of tall trees for raw
material and yet ignore the sea, living as it were with their back turned to it? Several
possible answers to this mystery have been offered. Perhaps the people of the Canaries
were simple shepherds who had been transported to the islands by a sailing people and
later forgotten and left to fate. Other explanations might be found in the extraordinary
difficulty of navigating the oceans surrounding the Canaries due to the strong currents
flowing to the West and the trade winds blowing as strongly almost year round.
Though most vocabulary had been forgotton, even in todays life some words can be tracked
directly to aboriginal heritage, most visible in some of the islands' name. Guanche was
the name by which the natives of Tenerife called themselves. Guan Chenech meant
"Man from Chenech", or man from Tenerife. With the passage of time, the term
Guanche became identified with all the native peoples of the Canaries.
The names of the different islands and of
their inhabitants (for those that are known) are as follows:
||Chenech, Chinech or Achinech.
It would seem that the natives of La Palma, seeing the snow-covered peak of the Teide on
the horizon, called that island Ten-er-efez, "White Mountain" (from Ten,
teno, dun, duna = mountain, and er-efez = white). Achenech was inhabited by
the Guan Chenech, the men from Chenech.
||Maxorata, inhabited by the Majoreros
||Tamaran, also called Canaria,
was inhabited by the Canarii.
"Ben-Ajuar", and meaning "from the tribe of Ahoare" (tribe of the
African Atlas). Island inhabited by the Auaritas.
||Gomera, inhabited by the Gomeros.
||Hero, inhabited by the Bimbaches.
According to the tales of the European conquerors, the Guanches were a "highly
beautiful white race, tall, muscular, and with a great many blondes amongst their
numbers" Their great height must be understood in relation to the average height of
Europeans at that time. As for the presence of blondes, even today after many centuries of
invasions and intermarriage, a heritage of blond hair and blue eyes is easily found among
modern day Berbers of the Atlas region in Africa.
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) extended from the seashore high up the slopes of the
central mountain chain. The very tops of these central mountains, including Teide, seem to
hab 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 seemed to be able to allow themselves the luxury
of raising small, but flourishing, crops of wheat, barley, peas and beans alongside their
herds. Anaga was a special Menceyato. It occupied the eastern peninsula of the
island and included 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 were
independent and supreme lords over their lands, one of them - the Mencey of Taoro -
appeared to have played the role of first among equals. The capital of his lands was
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",
The warriors of the Guanches obeyed a Sigoñe (military chief), and were armed with
a banot (wooden spear) and stones, many of which were polished down to have sharp
edges. They were genuine masters at throwing these missiles. They also had teniques,
or stones wrapped in leather held in place by thongs, which they used 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). Warriors went naked to war, although normally
they wore 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 had been 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).
Although Guanche society was patriarchal, the role of women was very important. On several
islands, inheritance rights had been passed down from the mother and women were
responsible for the transfer of royal power. Such was the case on Gran Canaria where Queen
Atidamana is still remembered. Similarly, when finally Gran Canaria surrendered to
the Castillian troops, they did 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
represented the power and legitimacy of the peoples sovereignty. In other instances,
the women were so fierce during combat, or in encouraging and helping their men in combat
that the conquistadors spoke of the "the amazons" of the island of La Palma. Or
they told 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
Usually a village consisted 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 buildings had been found. When the absence of caves required it, small structures
were built of stones with no mortar and then covered with a roof of branches and leaves.
In contrast, the art of building was 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
Every Day Life
Women formed gánigos (vessels) of various sizes and shapes: round, oval, with or without handles. A few had been decorated
with a pointed stick in rough geometric, linear designs or with solar symbols. It was
their work as well to gather 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
worked at harvesting the tano or taro (barley), irichen (wheat), hacichey
(peas) and broadbeans. Preparing the soil for planting had been the work for the
men who used plows made from goats horns to perform the task. Sowing the crop had been
left to the women as a sign of fertility. Men were also responsible for fashioning tools
and weapons: awls, cutting stones, grind stones and mills, etc. Some men played the role
as shepherds guarding large herds of ara and haña on the mountain slopes.
These were special breeds of small goats and sheep with straight wool. They grazed on armenine,
or pasture land. Some caddle are called guanil or loose livestock which
grazed freely. Although the livestock was not marked, the shepherds knew each and every
one of their animals. This skill in the Guanche shepherds was a source of constant
amazement to the European settlers. The shepherds tanned and cured 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 was a highly prized tool, sort of sharp cutting
knife made from shards of obsidian (volcanic glass). The shepherds milked the goats and
sheep and fed the pigs in their goros (corrals).
The Guanche diet was based on their livestock. Meat was not an everyday food, especially
in the lower classes. But on holidays and at feast time, sheep, goat and even dog meat
were a delicacy within reach of everyone. One very savory dish was tamazanona or
barley cooked with meat and lard. Milk (ahof) was a staple food, as was the
nowadays famous Canarian gofio, or flour ground from roasted grain. Barley gofio
was called ahoren. Lard (amulán) and cheese were also daily foods. Fruits
and roots wereoften found in the diet and babies were given, in addition to mothers milk,
a sort of pudding made of fern roots dipped in lard called aguaman.
Ceremonies, Rituals and Beliefs
On top of the society stood the Mencey. Under him were the achimencey
(nobles), who justified their status through their family ties with the royalty. The cichiciquitzos
formed an intermediary social level, and at the bottom of society were the achicaxna,
or plebe. All the land and livestock belonged to the Mencey who distributed them
every year among the upper classes according to the merits and needs of each family group.
The Mencey, therefore, fulfilled the important economic role of redistributing the
wealth, given that he covered the costs of the public festivities and ceremonies for which
the food came 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. In the Tagoror or Council the important
decisions affecting the Menceyato were made. These meetings were hold in a special place
where the stone seats were arranged in a circle. In many parts of the island of Tenerife ,
the Tagoror is hold near sacred rocks or trees. The dragos (dracaena drago), a tree
endemic to Macaronesia which often lives for several centuries and which has a blood red
sap with medicinal properties, were often chosen as places with special meaning. The
arrival of the Mencey was announced with bucios, conch shell horns. The symbol of
royal power was the añepa (anyepa), a scepter of carved wood.
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.
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.
1.) 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
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).
2.) 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.
3.) 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.
4.) 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
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 Lucha Canaria (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").
When a Guanche died, especially if he were an achimencey or noble, a long period of
mourning and preparation for the afterlife began. It is not known precisely what the
Guanches believed about death. Reports from the chroniclers say they believed there was
another life after death, and that the spirits of evil men lived in Teide, or Echeyde
(the Ominous One), while the spirit of those who had been good lived in the region of Aguere,
the paradise valley which is now the location of the city of La Laguna. But these stories
appear already to be colored with the Christian vision of the afterlife. The Guanches were
submitted to a slow process of cultural indoctrination at the hands of Christian
missionaries which lasted at least a century before the Guanches were finally conquered. A
more ancient ritual seems to have consisted in removing the inner organs from the body of a dead Mencey
and placing them in a basket. A young volunteer would then throw himself from the top of a
cliff into the sea with the basket. Before committing the act of ritual suicide, the youth
would be entrusted with messages for the dead: news about each family, about how the
livestock had increased in number, about the health of friends and relatives. This youth
was the messenger between the land of the living and the world of the dead. It is certain,
however, that they did seem to have some concept of an afterlife for which they carefully prepared the bodies of their dead. When a
Guanche died, his body was washed and filled and refilled day after day with ointments
prepared from various plants and minerals according to a formula now lost to us. The body
was placed in the sun over a period of several weeks until thoroughly dried, thus becoming
a mummy or xaxo. Throughout this lengthy process the family and friends of the dead
continued their mourning. Once prepared, the xaxo was wrapped in skins painted or
marked in such a way as to permit later identification. The skins were then sewn up to
form a tight casing. Finally the body was placed in the cave which served as the family
tomb, on raised boards to keep it off the ground. Offerings were placed alongside the
body: ornaments (collars of clay beads and pigs teeth), clay gánigos, limpet
shells and spears. If the dead were a Mencey, he was buried with his añepa,
the sceptre which symbolized his royal power.
Ever since the second half of the XIIIth century Europeans (Genoans, Portuguese,
Castillians) had 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, had been even more serious since the beginning
of the XIVth century.
The Kingdom of Castille had began conquering the island of Lanzarote by means of an
expedition led by the Norman mercenaries Jean de Bethencourt and Gadifer de La Salle in
the year 1402. Between this year and 1478, the Castillians conquered Fuerteventura, El
Hierro and La Gomera. Castille and Portugal entered into rivalry over the right to conquer
the islands, but in 1479 Portugal renounced to the Canaries in the Treaty of Alcaçovas.
In 1478, the Catholic King and Queen, Isabel and Ferdinand, ordered 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 pasted since the conquest of Lanzarote, and Tenerife was still holding out against
Alonso Fernández de Lugo arrived from Gran Canaria and landed at Añaza Beach, in the
boundary between the Menceydoms of Anaga and Güimar. He arrived with Spanish troops, but
also with a considerable number of natives of Gran Canaria who have been christianized.
Their island had been part of the Kingdom of Castile for the last 20 years. On 3 May 1494
a solemn mass was hold at the beach, and the "Adelantado" (official title of
Fernández de Lugo), putting in a wooden cross, founded the Royal Camp of Santa Cruz de
Tenerife -Holy Cross of Tenerife. It is the city of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, which was the
capital town of the Canary Islands along the 19th century, and which is now -more than
200.000 pop.- the seat of the Islands' Parliament.
First War and Spanish Defeat
Prior to the landing on Tenerife, the Spaniards had established an agreement with four of
the nine Menceys of the island: Güimar, Anaga, Abona and Adeje. These four
"kingdoms" let them do, possibly because they had been indoctrinated by Spanish
missionaries since long time ago.
However, the Great Mencey of Taoro and Island's Main King, Bencomo, refused to
accept the occupation and, allied with the kingdoms of Daute, Icod, Tacoronte and
Tegueste, facing the invaders. Together they formed a power to be reckoned with; they were
the richest and most populated parts of Tenerife. Alonso Fernández de Lugo penetrated
into the island, crossed Aguere Valley and arrived at the North shore. Nowhere did
he find enemies. The population had "vanished". Therefore he proceeded
unsuspectingly his way to Taoro, the rich heartland of resistance. The Spaniards
got into the ravine of Acentejo ("Pouring waters") and there they met
disaster. Guanches attacked them from the slopes. They used stones and spears against the
Spanish arquebuses and bombards, and they fought naked while the conquistadors wore
armours and shields. However, the Spaniards suffered a terrible defeat. Four of each five
soldiers were dead. Some time later a town was founded in this place, "La Matanza de
Acentejo" -the Slaughter of Acentejo. Fernández de Lugo, surviving by miracle,
retreated harassed by the Guanches and was forced to reembark and sail back to Gran
Canaria. The Guanches had won. For the moment.
Second War and First Spanish Victories
Alonso Fernández de Lugo had to sell all his properties in order to organize a new
expedition. In 1496 he landed again in Añaza, where he rebuilt the destroyed fort
of Santa Cruz. More cautious after the experience, he advanceed gradually and he built
another fort in the way to the interior of the island: the fort of Gracia (Grace). A
little above Guanches and Castilians met in the plain of Aguere. At the place where
the University of La Laguna raises now took place a battle where the Guanches were
decimated. Their mistakd has been to fight in the plain, where the cavalry -terrible and
unknown for them-, distroyed them. Even Mencey Bencomo and Sigoñe -Military
Chief- Tinguaro died. The Spaniards advanced along the North shore and the Guanches faced
them again in Acentejo, near the place of the Slaughter. This time -thanks to past
experience- the Spaniards won, and they founded there the town of "La Victoria de
Acentejo" -The Victory of Acentejo.
Surrender at Los Realejos
The conquistadors arrived at the rich Arautava Valley (La Orotava), heartland of
Taoro and the real hardcore of resistance. Bencomo's son, Bentor, had been
proclamied Mencey. But the situation among the Guancheswass catastrophic. An
epidemic, called by the Spaniards "Guanche Drowsiness", broke out and decimated
the population killing them by hundreds in a few weeks. It was probably a sickness against
which the immunitary system of the Guanches had been unprepared, for the illness didn't
affect the Spaniards. In the place now known as the town of Los Realejos (Little
"Reales" or military camps) took place the surrender of the Guanches and the
annexation of Tenerife to the Crown of Castile. The three-times repeated protocolary
proclamation, "Tenerife for their Highnesses the Catholic Queen and King Doña Isabel
andDdon Fernando" marked the historic moment. However, some sources of resistance
still remained. Skirmishes continued now and then during several years. Mencey
Bentor withdrew to the cliffs of Tigaiga, at the foot of Teide volcano and above
his former kingdom of Taoro. He threw himself from the Heights, full of sorrow for the
loss of Freedom and Guañac, Country.
The New Society
Guanche rebels were enslaved and many were sold on European auction blocks. But many of
them, after having been baptized, appealed to the Crown. In many cases they were freed and
allowed to return to the islands against the opinion expressed by colonists. The latter
tried constantly to convince the Crown about the danger of the Guanches, always fearing a
revolt. Many Guanches refused to live in the towns and villages which were built all over
the island and prefered to stay as free shepherds in the mountains following their
traditional ways of life. They were called "rebellious Guanches" (Guanches
alzados). The conquistadors distributed land and founded towns and villages. Some
estates were given to Guanche aristocrats of the tribes which had been friendly to the
Spaniards. The natives of Gran Canaria and other islands who helped to the conquest also
received homesteading rights. Alonso Fernández de Lugo's crown jewel was the town of San
Cristóbal de La Laguna, built in delightful Aguere Valley. The seat of the Island's
Cabildo (Council) was established in the brand-new capital, and in time also the first
Islands' university and Tenerife's cathedral and bishop palace. Most Guanches were
baptized. They took christian names and the family names of their conquistadors godfathers
and godmothers. Those baptisms en masse made disappear -literally overnight- Guanche names
among the island's population. Just a few Guanche family names are still present centuries
later. They are some of the direct descendants of the Great Mencey of Taoro,
Bencomo. At the contrary, names of places, towns, valleys, rocks and mountains are still
mostly of Guanche origin: Teide, Ucanca, Tejina, Tegueste, Tacoronte, Orotava,
Chimiche, Arico, Adeje, Isora, Arona... Guanche culture "disappeared"
quickly. Language was lost in just a century. Just a few words of the daily life were
This is logic if we remember that the clash was between an European culture of the
Renaissance and a neolithic culture. Nor the European historic or moral values of the
time, neither the Guanche means for cultural transmission allowed the cultural survival.
Population became mixed after a short period of time, with a large influx of European
immigrants from several countries. The 16th century, the century of the colonization of
the Canaries, is the time of the Great Spanish World Empire. Flemish, Germans, Italians
and Portuguese changed of countries, but not of sovereign, when they established
themselves in Tenerife. Anyway, the Guanche culture and the biologic heredity are
still present in today's Canarian society. It is a cultural and people melting pot, not
just Spanish and Guanche, but also with important influences from Portugal, Flanders,
Ireland, etc... Historians and anthropologists have prooved the survival of the Guanches
in many rites and ceremonies, customs, believes, superstitions and folklore of all kind of
the present Canarian society. An European society... in which the heart of the ancient
Guanches is still beatin.