Jean de Léry, from History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil (1578)

[Click on image to enlarge] Jean de Léry's account of a year spent living among the Tupinamba Indians of Brazil ranks among the masterpieces of early modern ethnography. The influence of Léry's book has extended from the sixteenth-century essayist Michel de Montaigne to the twentieth-century anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, who arrived in Brazil with a copy of Léry in his pocket.

Léry was a Huguenot (French Protestant) living in an era when France, together with much of Europe, was gripped by religious turmoil. He trained for the ministry in Geneva, the heartland of the Calvinist church. In 1556, he and thirteen other Calvinists journeyed to Brazil, responding to an invitation from Nicolas Durand de Villegagnon, who was attempting to plant a French colony in Brazil. But Villegagnon, a Catholic, soon repented of the invitation and plotted against the Calvinists. Fearing for their lives, Léry and his comrades took shelter in a small trading post in Tupi territory until they were able to embark again for Europe. History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil was published some twenty years later, by which point the brutality and inhumanity Léry had witnessed in strife-torn France far outweighed anything he had observed among the Tupinamba.

Though Léry is at once more observant and more sympathetic than most European travelers of his age, his biases are clear and pervasive. As a Calvinist missionary, he sees the Tupinamba above all as potential converts to his faith. In the course of his account, he swings repeatedly between pessimism on this point (as when, in, the passage below, he suspects them of Satanism), and sudden optimism (as when he learns that they have a tradition of the Flood).

This English translation of Léry was printed in the massive Hakluytus Posthumus or Purchas his Pilgrimes (1625), a collection of travel narratives modeled on Hakluyt's Principal Navigations.


The Tupinambaltians have this custom, that every third or fourth year they assemble together. At which assembly, as shall immediately be declared, I was present unawares: concerning which I am to report that which followeth.

I, with a certain Frenchman named Jacobus Ruffus, and also a certain Neustrian interpreter >> note 1 turned in to a certain village to lodge. The next day after, we prepared ourselves early in the morning for our journey, at which time we saw the borderers >> note 2 come flocking thither from all places. So, the inhabitants of the village joined themselves with them that came, and presently we saw six hundred gathered together in a certain void plat >> note 3 of ground. We demand the cause of that meeting, and saw the multitude divided into three parts. All the men went into a certain cottage, the women into another, and the children also went into the third. I, who had seen certain Caraibes >> note 4 intermingled with the men, suspecting that some unaccustomed and strange thing should be done by them, earnestly entreated my companions, that they would stand still there with me to observe the whole matter: which I obtained from them.

The Caraibes, before they departed from the women and children, with great care forbid the women to go out of their cottages, but diligently to attend to the singing, and also charged us to keep ourselves close in that cottage where the women were. Being earnestly busied about our breakfast, and ignorant of those things which they purposed to do, we heard a certain low and soft muttering noise breaking out of the house into which the men had severed themselves (for that cottage was almost thirty paces distant from ours). The women, which were about two hundred in number, standing, and giving ear, gather themselves as it were on an heap. But the men lifting up their voices by little and little, so that their distinct words were never heard of us exhorting, and likewise repeating this interjection,

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we heard the women presently, with a trembling voice, singing the same interjection again, he, he, he, etc. And they lifted up their voices with so great vehemency of mind, and that for the space of one whole quarter of an hour, that they drew us who were the beholders into admiration. >> note 5

And surely, they did not only horribly howl, but also leaped forth with great violence, and shaked their paps, and foamed at the mouth, nay some of them (not unlike unto those that are troubled with the falling-sickness >> note 6) fell down dead. So that I think, that the Devil entered into their bodies, and they suddenly became possessed with the Devil. Moreover, plainly perceiving those things which Bodinus writeth, in the book which he called Daemonomania, >> note 7 concerning the ecstasy of witches, which he affirmeth to be common to all witches who have made an express covenant with the Devil, and who are often violently carried away in spirit, the body remaining void of all sense, although also sometimes they are carried away, both in body and mind. Add, sayeth he, that they never meet together in any place, but they dance, among which, as far as he could gather by the confession of certain witches, they all cry out together, "Har, har" (which agreeth very well with the "He, he" of our Americans). . . . These things, I say, being certainly known, I gather that Satan is lord of them both. . . .

At length those cries were ended, the men being somewhat silent, the women and children together also altogether holding their peace. Presently the men began to sing so sweetly, and with so great harmony, that I was wonderfully desirous to see them. But when I would have gone out of the cottage, I was both kept back by the women, and also admonished by the interpreter, that he (who had already lived seven years among the barbarians) durst never to come to those solemn meetings; and lastly, that if I went unto them, I should not do wisely. Whereby he caused me to stay a while, for fear of danger. Yet, because he alleged no probable reason thereof, the women and interpreter somewhat resisting, I went forth, relying upon the friendship of certain ancient men, inhabitants of that village.

Going therefore unto the place where I heard that musical harmony, I made an hole through the roof of the cottage, that I might better perceive what was done within. For they are somewhat long, and round, after the manner of our country garden arbors, and covered with grass from the top to the bottom. Then, making a sign with my finger, I called my companions, and at length we entered into that cottage. As soon as we saw that the barbarians were not moved through our presence (which thing the interpreter suspected would have been done), and that they kept their order very well, and proceeded with their verses, we went apart into a certain corner, and beheld them without fear.

These are their gestures in dancing. They were ordered in a round circle, standing close each to other: yet so, they took not one another by the hand stooping, with their body somewhat bending downward, shaking only one of their legs, to wit, the right, with their right hand laid upon their buttocks, and the left hanging down, and after this fashion they both danced and sung. . . .

The celebrating of these rites and ceremonies was prolonged for the space of two hours, those men continually dancing and singing. And their tuneable singing was so sweet, that to the unskillful it is scarce credible, how excellently well that harmony agreed, especially seeing that the barbarians are utterly ignorant of the Art of Music. And surely, although in the beginning I was stricken with a certain fear, as I lately mentioned, yet contrarily I was then so much overjoyed, that I was not only ravished out of myself, but also now, as often as I remember the tuneable agreement of many voices, both my mind rejoiceth, also my ears seem continually to ring therewith. But especially the burden >> note 8 of the song yielded a pleasing sound unto the ears, which at the end of every verse, they sung after this manner.

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. . . Then because I did not yet plainly understand their language, and conceived >> note 9 not many things which had been spoken by them, I entreated the interpreter that he would declare them unto me. He signifieth, that these men first lamented their dead ancestors, who were most valiant, but in the end were hereby comforted, in that they hoped that after death they should at length go unto them beyond the mountains, and dance with them, and celebrate merry meetings. And that afterward they most grievously threatened the Ouetecates (which are a people not far removed from them, with whom they have perpetual enmity, whom also they could never overcome), and foretold that it should shortly come to pass that they should be taken and devoured, as the Caraibes luckily guessed. Moreover, I know not what they intermingled with their songs concerning a flood, that the waters in times past so overflowed that they covered the whole earth; and that through that inundation all men perished except only their ancestors, who climbed up into exceedingly high trees. Which last thing cometh very near unto the sacred history, and I never once heard it from them before.

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