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Bartolomeu Dias Museum Complex

(29.03.2001 , South Africa, Mossel Bay )
Research Information: PORTUGUESE MYTHOLOGY (Adamastor)

During its "golden age" Portugal amazed the world with its great voyages of discovery. It was therefore appropriate that an epic poet of the time should record the achievements of his contemporaries for posterity. That poet was Luis Vaz de Camoes (c. 1524 - 1580), the prince among Portuguese poets and creator of the timeless epic Os Lusiadas (The Lusiads). In this heroic poem Camoes, through his brilliant depiction of Adamastor, created an enduring myth.

There are different theories about Camoes's motivation in creating the Adamastor myth. Vasco da Gama's grim battle against the howling south-easter off the Cape in November 1497 undoubtedly inspired the poet more than half a century later. The similarity between Camoes's fatal love for a lady-in-waiting at the royal court in Lisbon and his consequent exile to the East and that of Adamastor's love for Thetis and his exile to the southern tip of Africa seems to be more than mere coincidence. When the Sao Bento, the galleon in which Camoes sailed to the East in 1553, rounded the Cape, the sea was particularly stormy and the south-easter caused heavy clouds to hang over Table Mountain. This frightening personal experience had a profound effect on Camoes and thus the giant Adamastor probably took shape in his agitated mind. Some commentators think that Camoes created the being Adamastor because of the scorn and abhorrence he felt towards the continent of Africa, feelings which arose when he tried to return to Portugal from his exile in the East but on account of illness and poverty had to spend the years 1567 to 1569 in Mozambique. Whatever the case, Camoes was eminently suited to being the writer of the epic of Portugal because he not only knew the history of his country but was also well versed in Greek and Roman mythology, which must have inspired the creation of Adamastor.


Adamastor, A Lopes Mendes, B.X. Coutinho, Camoes e as artes plasticas II

The name "Adamastor" may be of Biblical origin, as "Adam" is obviously part of the appellation. However, it may also have a classical derivation. For many years it was thought to derive from the Greek word adamastos which means "untamed" or "wild''. In the Aeneid of Virgil (70-19 B.C.) there is in fact an Adamasto, but Adamastor is found only in the Gigantomachia of Claudian and in
Carmina by Apollinaris Sidonius, both Latin authors from the 4th century A.D. Or Camoes may have taken it from Rahelais who in the second half of his Gargantua, gives the genealogy of the
giants who were the forebears of his Gargantua and Pantagruel. Among them is Adamastor, who had a hundred heads, or Camoes could, like Rabelais, have taken the name from Officina (1522) by the French Renaissance author Ravisius-Textur (1480-1524).

In his epic poem Os Lusiadas or The Sons of Lusus Camoes depicts both the glory and the decline of the Portuguese empire. The essence of the narrative is Vasco da Gama's epoch-making voyage to India, but the poet has ingeniously woven the earlier history of Portugal into the course of the narrative by making Da Gama relate the history of his people to the friendly king of Malindi on the eastern coast of Africa. The events following Da Gama's voyage are told partially by Da Gama himself, but also by the sinister prognostications of Adamastor.

In Canto V of his Os Lusiadas, stanzas 37 to 60, Camoes tells the story of Adamastor. He describes the initial phases of Da Gama's voyage, the first clash between the white man and the
natives, the Cape storms and the appearance of the monster, Adamastor.

When Vasco da Gama and his fleet approach the Cape of Storms a dark, terrifying cloud appears overhead, taking the shape of a powerful, monstrous being. The misshapen, bearded figure has an evil, menacing expression on his face, his hair is covered with mud and the teeth in his black mouth are a dirty yellow. In a hollow, fearsome voice the giant threatens the mariners who sail the seas over which he has long held solitary sway. He has a grudge against the Portuguese because he envies them their freedom of movement, their boldness and their excellence. He predicts disasters, shipwrecks and loss of life for those who dare to sail round the Cape of Storms.


Death of Leanora de Sepulveda and her two children, J C Pereira (red.), Dicionario ilustrado da historia de Portugal II

Adamastor tells of his revenge on Dias for being the first navigator to sail these waters, the grave he has prepared for d'Almeida, and the fate that will overtake Sousa de Sepulveda and other castaways on the South African coast. Bartolomeu Dias (c. 1450-1500), the first victim of Adamastor's vengeance, was to perish in 1500 as a member of Pedro Alvares Cabral's expedition to the east during a mighty cyclone in the South-Atlantic Ocean. Francisco d'Almeida (c. 1450-1510), founder of the Portuguese empire in the East, viceroy of India and second victim of Adamastor's vengeance, went ashore at the present Saldanha Bay on his return journey to Portugal in 1510. Manuel de Sousa de Sepulveda (c. 1505-1553), a Portuguese nobleman and his wife were to be the third victims of Adamastor's revenge. De Sepulveda was the commander on board the Sao Joao, a Portuguese ship which stranded on the coast of Natal on 8 June 1552, also on its return voyage from India.


Adamastor captured at the southern tip of Africa, Carlos Reis, Museu Militar Lisboa

While Adamastor, the terrifying monster of proportions so huge that one is astounded by his fearful size, continues his prophecies about the misfortunes awaiting the Portuguese, Da Gama interrupts him brusquely and asks him who in fact he is. Adamastor rolls his black eyes, his mouth becomes distorted and with a mighty roar in a voice heavy with bitterness replies that he is the great hidden cape called the Cape of Storms by the Portuguese. The monstrous creature then tells the terrified sailors that he is one of the giants, a child from the marriage of Titan and Earth, who rebelled against the gods of Olympus. He tells them the pitiful tale of his love for Thetis, the seductive sea nymph whom he wooed but who spurned him because of his repulsive appearance.

Because of his rebellion against the gods of Olympus and his illicit love for Thetis, Adamastor was punished by the gods. They changed him into a rugged mountain at the southern tip of Africa, where he has to guard the southern seas and bring death to the sons of Luso who want to sail past him.

In Adamastor Camoes created a new mythological figure, the only great figure added to mythology since the classical period. By placing him at the Cape of Storms the poet brought southern Africa into the realm of the classical gods.

According to the South African author Stephen Gray the figure of Adamastor is at the root of all subsequent white semiology invented to cope with the African experience. Adamastor is ominous and hostile and is observed across a divide: he belongs to an older but conquered culture and may annihilate the new European enlightenment if he is allowed within its borders.


Adamastor sculpture, Julio Vaz Junior, Miradoura de Santa Catarina Lisboa

His fallen state is inescapable but he turn against those who deprived him of his birthright, so his power has to be opposed by means of superior ingenuity. Vasco da Gama and Adamastor, as depicted by Camoes, were therefore, in Gray's view, the beginning of the racist mythology on which white supremacy in South Africa is based. The Portuguese author Antonio Figueiredo differs from this viewpoint and points out that Os Lusiadas and the Adamastor legend are above purely human and racial antagonisms and that they serve rather as a symbol of man's defiance of the elements. The Adamastor myth represents the triumph of the Portuguese over the untamed forces of nature as well as their reward which lay in their becoming the rulers of the oceans.

On a magnificent belvedere, the Miradouro de Santa Catarina, Bairro Alto, stands one of the most impressive public sculptures in Lisbon. It is a six metre high figure of Adamastor, created in marble, by the Portuguese sculptor Julio Vaz Junior. It was unveiled in 1927.

- Kindly sponsored by SAMWEB Creations (information obtained from various literature sources at the Bartolomeu Dias Museum Complex)





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