The myth says that they were the most powerful women ever. In the ancient times, they were said to be a tribe of independent, mighty women who had rebelled against the men-dominated society. They used to live in isolate places, exclude men from their society and make wars against them. Today, we can call them as the first extreme feminists.
Little is known about the legendary Amazons, most of which is taken from myths. Only a few historical facts have been discovered to prove the existence and developement of an Amazon culture. Some believe that they were just a fable told to comfort the oppresed women of the antiquity. Others say it is a fable that shows the superior of manhood, as in any battle between men and women, men seem to win. Another interesting point is that the legend of the Amazons appears in myths of many tribes. Whatever the case, the truth is that this ancient story has captivated many historians, writers, filmakers and has intriqued the mind of all people...
Discover the myth of the Amazons
The culture of the Amazons
The myth says that they lived in the city of Themiscyra, off the river Thermodon in Asia Minor, and they were a race of mighty warrior women. Their society was governed strictly and exclusively by women, providing a fascinating contrast to the male-dominated society of the ancient times. Men were not allowed to become members in their society, unless it was for the specific purpose of mating or for slavery. Perhaps, this is why Homer describes them in the Iliad as "women who go to war like men" and Heredotus uses the term "Androktones" for them, which means "killers of men".
They indeed lived like soldiers and their life purpose was to make wars against men. From childhood, the girls were taught the nuances of warfare. The bow and arrow, the librys (a kind of double-edged axe) and a shield in the shape of a crescent were their weapons. The Amazons showed unsurpassed skill and excellence as horse-tamers and riders. Peculiar, but perhaps justified from the Amazons perspective, was the removal of a girl's right breast. While still a girl, the right breast would be cauterized using a searing hot bronze tool. It was thought to be a necessary evil, to mutilate and remove all possible hindrances to using a spear or drawing an arrow.
This practice may has attributed them the name Amazons from the Classical Greek word "Amazoi", which translates to either breast-less, full-breasted or not-touching men. "Full-breasted" appears to be a paradox, but that is precisely how the Amazons have been depicted, whether in sculptures or paintings. These women were more in tune with warfare than with feminism. An Amazon was not allowed to get married, because they thought it to be a kind to slavery to a man. However, to carry on their race, they would very often mate with men from nearby societies or with handsome prisoners of war. Once their purpose was fulfilled, the prisoners would be used as slaves or killed.
A male offspring suffered a fate akin to his father. If a boy was born, their mothers would kill him or sent him away. Sometimes he was kept alive to grow up and be used for sexual pleasure or as a provider of human seed. In the contrary, when a girl was born, she was taken care of, nourished and raised essentially as a warrior, but nevertheless, as a fine woman. The modern popular imagination has settled them in isolate forestall regions, where they could protect themselves from men invasions and has dressed the Amazons with leather clothes that cover a few parts of the body. However, in the ancient ceramic vessels, they were depicted wearing long dresses that reach the knee.
The moon, since time immemorial, has been the symbol of everything that is feminine and beautiful. The Amazons were not just beautiful women who led an untamed life. They also used to worship the moon. Their name may have resulted from contact with the ancient Circassians who were known to worship the moon too. The word Amazon in the ancient Circassian language meant "moon-mother" or "mother of the forest".
The relationships of Amazons with famous heroes
The Greek mythology has a number of well-known myths related to the life of the Amazons and their interaction with men and the rest of the world. Here we are mentioning a few of them to get a view of their life, culture and beliefs.
Theseus and Antiope - Another myth says that on his way to the land of the Amazons in search of Hippolyta's girdle, Hercules was accompanied by his friend Theseus. Theseus was the King of Attica and was seduced by Antiope, one of Hippolyta's sisters, whom he abducted and carried back to Athens. Though she detested him at first, she eventually fell in love with and married him. To them was born a boy whom Antiope named Hippolytus, in memory of her sister. She was the only Amazon to have abandoned the Amazon tribe to get married.
Many years passed, and one day, the Amazons attacked Athens in the hope of rescuing the abducted Antiope. Although it was considered impregnable, the fortress of Theseus was infiltrated by Molpadia. She found Antiope and wanted to take her back, but Antiope didn't intend to leave her husband. In a fit of rage, Molpadia ran her spear through Antiope. The battled went in favor of the Greeks and Molpadia herself was killed by the enraged Theseus. This legendary battle between the Amazons and the Greeks was later portrayed in relieves and known as Amazonomachy, depicting the triumph of a civilized race over those considered barbarians.
Hercules and Hippolyta - This is perhaps the most well-known myth regarding the Amazons. Hercules, the mightiest warrior in Greek mythology, is known for his twelve tasks. The ninth of these tasks was that he had to bring to king Eurystheas of Tyrins, the Girdle of the Amazon Queen, Hippolyta. Queen Hippolyta was very pride for her golden girdle, gifted by her father Ares, the God of War. When Hercules approached her, she willingly consented to give him the girdle.
However, Hera, distinguished into an Amazon herself, approached the women and told them that Hercules was there to steal the girdle, so that before he could leave, they declared war on him. Hercules, believing Hippolyta to be the one to set him up, killed her and then found himself engaged in a massive battle with the Amazons. When the battle was over, only Hercules was alive. With the girdle of Hippolyta safely in hand, Hercules returned to Tiryns to continue his labours.
Achilles and Penthesilea - Penthesilea was the greatest warrior woman amongst the Amazons. An extremely skilled warrior, she was also renowned for her wisdom. One day, while she was hunting, she accidentally killed her sister, Hippolyta II. Bereaved at her loss and in search of redemption, she left her tribe and joined the Trojan War. Accompanied by twelve brave women, she joined the war on the side of the Trojans and together, they killed many of the Greeks. Fate however, had other plans, for Penthesilea ultimately came face to face with the invincible Achilles. No matter how she tried, she couldn't win him. Achilles triumphed and when he removed his enemy's helmet, the sight that greeted his eyes brought him to his knees in dismay: he had killed a woman.
However, such was Penthesilea's beauty that Achilles' grief was overcome by waves of lust and finally Achilles desecrated her lifeless body. Many years after the Trojan War, the Amazons mounted an expedition in search of Achilles' ashes, to avenge their dead Queen Penthesilea. Their quest took them to the mouth of the river Danube and the island of Leuke, where the sea-nymph Thetis, mother of Achilles, had scattered the ashes. The Amazons did not get very far because an apparition blocked their way; it was the ghost of Achilles. The terror-stricken horses ran amok and threw their riders to the ground. The Amazons were forced to retreat in shame.
Thalestris and Alexander the Great - Another myth refers to the relationship of an Amazon Queen and Alexander the Great, the famous Macedonian king. Around 320 BC, there was none to challenge the brilliance of Alexander and the greatest conqueror to have ever walked the earth. Thalestris, queen of Amazons, had convinced herself that a union with Alexander would result in a daughter, who would grow up to be the greatest warrior woman ever born. 300 women followed Thalestris to where Alexander was encamped.
Hearing her plan, Alexander agreed and the two spent 13 days together. The Amazons were moon-worshippers and considered 13 an auspicious number. Thalestris, with Alexander and her 300 warrior-women, along with Alexander's army, spent their days hunting and making love. The Amazons soon returned to Themiscyra and eagerly awaited news from Alexander, but none came. This relationship had an unfortunate end and Thalestris died without an heiress.
The sexuality of the Amazons: Passion and Warfare
The Amazons were not known to be favorably disposed towards the institution of marriage. Nevertheless, they did engage in sexual activities to justify the continuity of their race, whether with men of neighboring clans, prisoners-of-war or random men they would meet. Taking a cue from their wild and untamed existence, Amazon sexuality was animal-like: under the cover of darkness, isolated and nihilistic, that is without taking any pleasure of the act.
They may have seen passion and warfare as reflective of each other, warring with passion and loving with a passion that bordered on almost-aggressive. Sex was merely a medium, wholly dispensable unless the consequence was to the advantage of the warrior-women, that advantage being the birth of a girl child, who was fiercely guarded and raised as warriors and successors. When a boy was born, they killed him, blinded him or if the boy was lucky enough, it was sent away to live with his father.
Herodotus however claimed that the Amazons and ancient Scythians shared an intimate relationship. A Scythian man would make amorous advances towards an Amazon only when she was alone. Once it became evident that she was not averse to his approach, they would engage in sexual intercourse. This is indicative that the craving for sexual contact would overcome their hate for men. In this approach, the Amazons were tamed, bringing in an aspect of wanting and loving at their aggressive nature.
Strabo's account simply stated that any Amazon would take on any man and vice-versa. Plutarch's thought of Amazon sexuality tends towards a woman’s basic instincts, that of naturally desiring to be with and being submissive to a man. In overall, the three narratives vie in establishing the Amazons as promiscuous and hubristic or simply, as women with natural, earthly desires.
Moreover, stories of Greek heroes in contact with the Amazons do at times bring about a shadow of depravity. Hercules' task of obtaining Hippolyta's girdle may be interpreted as removal of the last vestige of denial by a woman. Theseus' abduction of Antiope and her initial dislike but consequent love for him and the birth of their child, could possibly suggest sexual predation.
Penthesilea's death and violation of her lifeless body at the hands of Achilles is testament to an Amazons incomparable beauty and strong sexuality. It would not be amiss to surmise that such acts were the implementations of sexual fantasies, by which men gave vent to their willing to dominate over women. In essence, it could have also been ancient Greek vainglory and portrayal of women as the weaker, subjugated race.
The Amazons would avoid sexual encounters while they served in the army or in times of war. It was an unwritten law for them to excel in warfare and prove themselves worthy before mating. Apparently, a virgin warrior meant that she was as yet unexposed to the desires of the flesh and therefore would not give in to a man's advances. It may be speculated that their pent up anger when they served in the army, before being able to fulfill their sexual needs, contributed to the aggression they displayed as warriors.
On the other hand, retaining their virginity while in the army may have been a form of self-denial, which made them feel less inclined towards feminine desires and put them on an equal footing with men. Marriage for the Amazons would only teach the women to become subservient and that is why they were thinking of marriage as a form of slavery: slavery to your husband, your husband's family and your children.
The Gods of the Amazons
The Gods that the Amazons used to worship were related to their beliefs and ideals. God Ares was certainly male but yet he was honoured by the Amazons as the God of War, since their life was devoted to fighting. Artemis, the female Goddess of War, was also honoured as the goddess of the hunt, childbirth and nature. In fact, Artemis may have been a more cultivated representation of an Amazon type of women, as she was believed to be virgin and fierce. Cybele was also another protector of the Amazons as she used to be worshipped as the Goddess of the moon, the symbol of the Amazons, and fertility.
Myth or Reality?
The origins of the Amazons are still unknown and whether they existed at all or not is under a heavy shroud of doubt. They may have lived in Libya, the Anatolian Peninsula of modern day Turkey or in the Black Sea region. The Amazons may have been a purely fictitious race, concocted by the male dominated society of ancient Greece to further boost their inflated ego.
This is explainable from the fact that there was never any mention of the Amazons having won a single battle or being victorious. Conversely, the Amazons may have been real women warriors who actually fought alongside men. This may have earned themselves a highly esteemed reputation and a position of power in society. However, it would be unfair to discredit the Amazons as an invention of convenience.
An interesting connection to the Amazons can be found in the Altai Mountains of Siberia, which had for centuries kept safe its secrets until excavations began in the mid 1990s. The archaeologists unearthed the burial grounds of an ancient race of people known as Pazyryk. The Kurgans, as the log-barrows they were interred in were known, have revealed several mummified remains of mostly women. One such Kurgan contained the well preserved remains of a woman who had been interred with her resplendent feathered headgear, intricate body art and sacrosanct artifacts. She has since been called the "Siberian Ice Maiden".
The mummy has been dated back to 5 BC, precisely the time Herodotus spoke of the Amazons. Several other kurgans were excavated and revealed mummified women displaying scars and wounds perhaps inflicted in battles. Most remains are bow-legged, an indication of years of riding on horseback. Bizarre but true are the remains of horses found at these Kurgans, some sacrificed and propped up on stakes, others interred with the dead.
Closer research has revealed remarkable similarities amongst the Pazyryk and the ancient Scythians. In his commentary, Herodotus stated that the Amazons were a genus of Scythians that had journeyed to Themiscyra and thrived there from the 8th to the 5th century BC. Hence, the warrior-women of the Pazyryk may well have been the Amazons, who were also skilled equestrians, horse-tamers, horse-riders or fighters on horseback.
Of particular interest also, is the ancient Greek city of Myrina on the island of Lemnos,