Who Were The Amazons?

Some days I think I would have made an awesome Amazon – by Amazon I mean the all-female warrior society of Greek myth and legend. The idea of being this lithe warrior revered and feared by all men is pretty appealing if you ask me.

Greek Artifact

Looks

Amazons were never portrayed as muscular, like a modern-day female weight-lifter, rather they were portrayed as boy-like (very different from the classical Greek idea of feminine beauty). Lithe, athletic, attractive, they’re reported to have only one breast, but are often portrayed in art with two. They were said to sear one breast off as infants to help them better draw the bow. Ow. There are reports of breast-ironing still today so the idea of the practice should not be dismissed entirely out of hand. The Amazons were proud, fierce, man-hating, oriorpata (man-slayers). Warriors so beautiful a man would grow heart-sick with just one glance – sounds a bit like Sirens and Mermaids doesn’t it?

Warriors

Amazons were said to be excellent warriors, fearless, and effective. They were proficient with many battle tools but excelled with the bow. Excellent archers, they could shoot rapid fire from horseback riding backwards if need be. Amazons are given credit for crafting the double-bladed battle axe called a bipennis. And while archaeologists haven’t been able to prove the existence of an all-female society of warriors near the Black Sea, there is much evidence that supports the idea of female warriors in Scythian and Sarmatian graves (ancient Iranian peoples based in modern-day Ukraine). One of the most documented examples of actual female warriors are the warrior women of Dahomey – a group of militarized female warriors in modern-day Benin. And, of course, the relative freedom and athleticism of the free Spartan woman.

Dahomey Women Warriors - Benin - 6,000 strong their last battle was in 1892

Amazonomachy: art portraying battles between Greeks and Amazons

Children

The Amazons are perhaps most famous for being celibate (or lesbians depending on the story teller) but spent up to two months in spring or summer with their Black Sea neighbors, the Scythians, to get pregnant each year. Virgins were said to wear belts, and removed their belts to copulate and get pregnant. They could not join in the Rites until they had killed a man. The Amazons had no use for their male offspring, and by some accounts the boys were returned to their fathers, and by others the boys were either killed or left to die of exposure. Herodotus, the father of history, claims that Amazons landed on the shores of the Sea of Azov after being defeated by Hercules. They intermarried with the Scythian men they found there, but refused to join Scythian society. Instead, the Amazons and their men struck out on their own and formed a new peoples called Sauromatai (Sarmatians, Sauromatians).

Myth

In Slavonic mythology, Amazons wounded or those ill with epilepsy became mermaids. It was said that the god Ares gifted the Amazon queen Hippolyte with a belt that Hercules was then commanded to steal (the accounts of what happened at that point vary greatly). The Amazon queen Thalestris was reported to have visited Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) during one of his Asian campaigns to conceive a daughter by him. She supposedly stayed with him for 13 days.

Amphora depicting scene from Illiad where Achilles slays the Amazon queen Penthesilea

I remain unconvinced about whether there was a true Amazon all-women warrior society during the time of the Greeks. What I find so fascinating is that to the Greek man, the Amazon seemed to be the equivalent of the boogie man. In every battle where Amazons are reported to have taken part, they’re on the losing side. They are reported to have been at Troy – fighting against the Greeks of course. They are defeated by Hercules (Herakles), and their queen Antiope is abducted (or chose to leave Amazon life depending on the story teller) by Theseus. The Greeks tell stories of these vicious barbarian women living outside normal society, savages, but are continually intrigued by them at the same time.

I first learned of the Amazons watching Wonder Woman, and later Xena: Warrior Princess. As a child, I gravitated to these strong female characters who were the equal of men, could meet them in battle and prevail. I was also a huge fan of She-Ra, but she wasn’t an Amazon. Regardless of whether you believe that Amazons existed, it still makes for a great story.

Ancient Iranian Women Warriors. Watercolour by Shapour Suren-Pahlav

What Ancient Writers Say About Amazons

Women the equal of men – Homer

Those famous Amazons, who live without men and feed on flesh. – Aeschylus

Virgins fearless in battle – Aeschylus

Golden-shielded, silver-sworded, man-loving, male-child slaughtering Amazons. – Hellanicus

They have no right breasts…for while they are yet babies their mothers make red-hot a bronze instrument constructed for this very purpose and apply it to the right breast and cauterize it, so that its growth is arrested, and all its strength and bulk are diverted to the right shoulder and right arm. – Hippocrates

Violent resisters of masculine rule, they fought ruthlessly, they killed or mutilated their male offspring, and they had promiscuous, anonymous sex in order to get pregnant. They were as beautiful as they were cruel. – Homer

Whom the Scythians call Oriorpata – man-slayers. – Herodotus

What do you think? Did Amazons really exist?

Lisa

I’m on Twitter and G+, but I hang out on Facebook – would love to chat. :) If you’re a writer, I post great writing links everyday on my Facebook page. Consider signing up for the monthly newsletter I write with my cowriter – Marcy Kennedy.

 

Comments

  1. says

    I believe these legends are based on some sort of fact, so yes, I believe at one time there was probably a society of women warrior and they kept their men barefoot in the kitche.

    Thanks for such an informative post, Lisa!

  2. says

    I don’t know if it’s all true – probably some truth, as all legends. But just wanted to comment to say I love this post.

  3. says

    It is definitely interesting. I love stories about history, and myths and legends. But I would never want to be an Amazon. Cut off a breast? No thank you. I can barely handle a hang nail! Pain is not my thing.

  4. says

    Xena didn’t cut off a breast! Harsh!

    I really enjoyed this post Lisa. I think there may be some truth from which the legends were born. I also used to watch those old shows. As a kid I would fantasize about being one strong Amazon warrior just like those women. Still wouldn’t mind it – if the strength and know how came to me magically. :D Yeah – right.

  5. That Guy says

    I feel that if the Amazons did exist, their society as interpreted in the myth was an exaggeration and, in reality, would have been little different from the Greeks themselves, save for being matriarchal. That is, women would have been soldiers, statesmen, and rulers, while men were the ones who carried out “women’s work” such as tending the home, raising children, and so on. The opposite of the patriarchal Greek society, basically. Therefor, the killing of mates and male children was an attempt to “discredit” women as being irrational because they were viewed as everything that was wrong with Greek society. This I view is why the Amazons in the myth were always on the losing side against the ancient Greeks, because it was the “rational” sex triumphing over the “irrational” sex.

    • Mara says

      I completely agree with you. You always hear about them losing to powerful men, but their strength was equal. Then the whole man-hating baby-killing thing makes them seem irrational, because that is what has been told to us. I so much agree with what you think.

    • Anonymous says

      That Guy: Your post sounds pretty logical. Archeology is providing evidence that fierce women warriors actually existed. Cutting off one breast would be counter intuitive; what choice did they have but to bear children if their tribes were to survive? (There were no supermarkets selling baby formula!) Killing male children makes no sense; that was probably a rumor spread to make them sound inhumane and irrational. Male children were more probably sent to live with their fathers once old enough to be away from their mothers.

      Today’s lesbians didn’t just pop out of nowhere. The “man-hating” part, and the fact that they were always defeated, were convenient tropes to scare uppity women who might be considering a life lived independent of men. It’s true, persecuted groups tend to congregate, forming “ghettos” where they feel safe, mutually respected and culturally accepted. Who is to say that such tribes were not bands of lesbians or independent women who lived in their own villages where they felt protected from an otherwise hostile or even misogynist world. The status of women in Ancient Greece was pretty low. Women were often sold to slavers, even by their families. The bible even allows for the selling of one’s daughters to get out of debt! (Exodus 21:7…) Yuck!

      Don’t forget that prior to the advent of Christianity, people in the known world were pagans. Their beliefs were far less rigid and patriarchal. In the first century AD an obvious attempt was made by Judeo/Christian thinkers to move away from female centered worship to leave behind the goddess/goddesses so as to bring the fold under the “one (male) god” ideology, infinitely more favorable to an empire such as Rome…

      A new book by Adrienne Mayor is set to be released in September of 2014: The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World. It will be interesting to find out what new evidence has emerged.

      • That Guy says

        I’ll be on the lookout for that book, thank you.

        The status of women in Greek society actually differed from state to state. There are records of women in Delphi, Gortyn, Thessaly, Megara, and Sparta owning land, which was quite prestigious. Women in Sparta, although formally excluded from military and political life, enjoyed considerable status and power and ran estates (both their own as well as those belonging to male relatives) while the men were away with the army. In the 4th century BC, around 40% of all Spartan land and property ownings actually belonged to women and by the Hellenistic Period, some of the wealthiest Spartans were women. They were also permitted to divorce their husbands without losing their personal wealth and weren’t required to or discouraged from remarrying.

        As far as the bible goes, there’s a lot of hypocrisy and cruelty inside those pages. Aside from selling one’s daughters to settle debts, off the top of my head there’s Joshua slaughtering every man, woman, child, and animal alive within the city of Jericho, Lott offering his daughters to an angry mob to protect a pair of strangers, Judah paying Tamar for sex and then ordering her to be burnt to death, and let’s not forget what God did to poor Abraham. But that’s irrelevant to the topic, so my apologies to the blog author for running off on it.

Trackbacks

  1. […] She’s captured men’s imaginations across the ages, as the Amazons have. She takes lovers, but likes the appearance of being chaste. She rides, hunts, wields swords, tempts and traps men, and defies kings. She surrounds herself with a court of women (though later texts have men in her court). She’s both the embodiment of female sensuality and power, and at the same time a cautionary tale of women left to their own. She definitely sounds very Amazon-like to me – perhaps this explains the enduring fascination with her character? Read more about the Amazons. […]

  2. […] Archaeologists have never found evidence of an all-female warrior society. However, across the Ukrainian steps female warriors have been found. Women with legs bowed from riding, buried with weapons and items usually only found in male graves, with injuries that tell of violent wars and gruesome battles. Read the Truth About Amazon Warriors here. […]

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