Amazons | Myths & Reality of the Greek Warrior Women

herakles-fighting-amazons

The Amazonian warriors are one of Greek mythology’s most well-explored and long-lasting myths. These fighting women featured in stories by almost every Greek writer, and in all forms of ancient Greek art.

 

The Amazonomachy – the battle between Greeks and Amazons – is even depicted on some of Greece’s most iconic buildings, including the Athenian Parthenon and the Temple of Apollo. The heroes Achilles, Jason, Herakles and Theseus all encounter them in various stories. Clearly, they represented a great and noble enemy to the Greeks.

 

So, let’s jump into why their myths were so widespread and so popular! And how much truth there was to the tales.

 

The reality of women warriors

Riding Amazon. One side of an Attic red-figure neck-amphora, ca. 420 BC

 

The Amazons were not a real warrior race. But they were inspired by real women, probably found on an early Greek writer’s travels and changed and added to over the hundreds of years that these women remained an important foe in Greek literature and art.

 

One such individual (who came much later than the myth, but bolsted it) is Herodotus. The 5th century Greek historian Herodotus observed on his travels that the Lycians were an uncommonly matrilineal people. They were named according to maternal lines, and the social standing of the mother determined her children’s status. All of this led Herodotus to believe that these were the descendants of the fabled Amazons.

 

Scythians – real women warriors

More importantly though, evidence has been found across thousands of nomad graves of the Scythian/Sarmatians of an Amazon-like existence. Female skeletons have been found with deep battle scars, buried with their spears, bows and arrows. In fact, a full third of Scythian females whose remains have been found were buried with weapons! Their territory seems to have ranged from the Caucasus mountains to the Eurasian steppes of the Magyars.

 

While these women did not live in isolated, manless societies, they were certainly impressive fighters, and could have inspired the myth of the barbarian Amazons in Greek mythology.

 

Mythology of the Greek warrior woman

 

Amazons have remained figures of fascination both for ancient audiences and modern ones. This is due in part to their independent and powerful representation in a notably patriarchal, even misogynist society where a woman’s place was almost singularly the home; particularly in Athens.

 

This patriarchal society is very well documented, but one reference for us is Plutarch writing ‘between the sexes, the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject’. They weren’t very coy about it. Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that society and culture was structured and reasoned totally differently those thousands of years ago, so there’s no point holding it against them.

 

The epithet used to describe the Amazons, ‘antianeirai’, has been translated in various ways, including ‘opposites of men’, ‘against men’, ‘opposing men,’ and ‘man hating’. But the most correct translation of the term is largely considered to be ‘of equal value to men’. They are impressive fighters, vicious and headstrong, and equally capable.

 

What are the women and their society like?

The mythical Amazon women are archers, warriors and hunters. They regularly undertake military raids, and are a nomadic culture. Because the Greek kingdom expanded, they never have a specific origin place for long – rather, they are imagined to roam at the edge of the known world. Over time, this extended from Scythia to Arabia.

 

The Amazons live in a society of only women. Most of the women spend their time ‘ploughing, planting, pasturing cattle, and particularly in training horses, though the bravest engage mostly in hunting on horseback and practise warlike exercises’ (Strabo). These women meet with a nearby clan of men at times to reproduce. The boys they kill or return to this clan, the girls they keep.

 

Other writers imagined a society like theirs, just turned on its head. In these stories, there are men in the village – and they raise the kids and cook the food and attend to the home.

 

One-breasted Amazons

These warrior women are perhaps most famous for cutting off one of their breasts in order to better throw a spear. A high level of dedication to the art of war! In other versions, the young women’s breasts ‘were seared that they might not develop at the time of maturity’ (Diodorus Siculus).

 

But Amazons didn’t always have only one breast. In fact, it was only in 490 BC when a Greek historian claimed that the word ‘Αμαζόνια’ translated directly to the Greek ‘mazon’ (breast), and ‘a’ (without). And therefore, the Amazons must have cut off one breast. It was decided that this was done because a breast would kind of be in the way when trying to shoot an arrow (it’s not). While this was partially accepted at the time, you’ll see that none of the ancient art actually features single-breasted Amazons.

 

Ares, mythical father of the Amazons

In some stories, Ares is the father of the Amazons. More commonly though, he is the father of their queens, and the Amazons are his devotees. With prayers and offerings they win his favour, and ‘evermore the spirit of the War-god thrills them through’ (Quintus Smyrnaeus).

 

This relationship with the Greek god of war validates their warrior prowess and removes the shame of defeat from the men who fight them. They aren’t simply fighting girls (and in many of the stories, the Amazonian warriors were specifically pubescent women). They are fighting daughters of Ares, the war god.

 

They actually sound a lot like descriptions of father Ares, too! Apollonius Rhodius describes the women as ‘by no means gentle, well-conducted folk; they were brutal and aggressive’. This really accentuates their barbarity, as opposed to the Greek civility.

 

In The Life of Theseus, Plutarch states that the war with the Amazons seemed ‘to have been no trivial nor womanish enterprise for Theseus’ despite Theseus being a hero himself. They are powerful, heroic and worthy enemies of the Greeks.

 

There was even an enemy cult of the Amazons! According to Plutarch there was a ‘sacrifice which, in ancient times, was offered to the Amazons before the festival of Theseus’. I’ve added the story of Theseus and the Amazons below, which explains why they’re associated with him.

 

Amazon women & the realm of the masculine

Fleeing Amazon. Tondo of an Attic red-figure kylix, 510–500 BC

 

While this sounds like a thesis topic, it’s an interesting thing to keep in mind about the actual social motivations behind the myth of the Amazons. In the stories, the fact that they are women is an integral part of their barbarity. The picture of their warrior matriarchy was used as a tool to compare the Greek ideal of civilization with a barbaric opposite. And for ancient Greeks, a female-led society was just the right picture of horror.

 

You can see this in descriptions of the Amazon tribe. A tribe where men sometimes do exist, but they hold the roles of women. They have no ‘exercise of free citizenship in the affairs of the community by virtue of which they might become presumptuous and rise up against the women’ (Diodorus Siculus). It’s a perfect opposite of Greek society, where women were largely without any rights.

 

The warriors are also specifically impressive because of their masculine traits, not any feminine ones. Lysias, a 3rd c. BC orator, sums it up nicely: ‘Amazons were counted as male for their bravery rather than as female for their nature, so much more did they seem to excel men in spirit than to be at a disadvantage in their form’.

 

Amazonian iconography

4th century AD Romain mosaic showing an Amazon warrior engaged in combat

 

The Amazons’ iconography changed a lot throughout the centuries. In some of their earliest representations they’re depicted much like Hoplites (foot soldiers armed with spears and shields). They look very masculine, with only their white skin indicating their femininity in black figure vases during the Archaic and early Classical period. The men were a more reddish-ochre.

 

This representation gradually transforms to represent a more oriental and feminine depiction, with patterned pants and peaked caps.

 

While Amazons were often called one-breasted, they were almost never depicted that way in their iconography. Rather, they usually had one of their breasts bared, often with some flowy, impractical garment.

 

Stories of the Amazons

There are a great many stories about the Amazons – mostly about their four queens, and always told so many times by so many authors that there are a dozen different versions. But favourites have a tendency to survive, and these three tales are some of the best. Each is woven around the tale of a Greek hero, as that was the main context of the Amazons’ myths.

 

Penthesilea and Achilles

 Achilles and Penthesilea, 1st c. AD

 

Penthesilea is the sister of Hippolyta, Antiope and Melanippe, the leaders of the Amazon women and mighty daughters of Ares.

 

In this tale, Penthesilea had killed her sister Hippolyta when the pair were out hunting, and Penthesilea struck her with a spear. She was horrified by this accident, and spent a long time wishing to die for it – but the only honourable death for an Amazon warrior is in battle. So, when the Trojan War was taking place, Penthesilea led her Amazons in battle to support King Priam.

 

Penthesilea fought like an animal, taking down many of her enemies in a swirl of murderous activity. When he saw this, Achilles couldn’t help but fall in love with her as he fought opposite her.

 

So the famous hero fought his way towards the queen, cutting down enemies in his path. Finally he reached her, but he was the enemy, and so Penthesilea fought him as she’d fought the others – furiously and without mercy.

 

But Achilles was the greatest warrior of his time, and he killed the warrior queen with his sword. Achilles gently laid her body down (in other stories, it is only at this point, as he takes off her helm, that he sees and falls in love with her – but I definitely prefer the other version).

 

The warrior Thersites mocked Achilles for his gentleness and stabbed out Penthesilea’s eyes. For this, Achilles killed him immediately, and he allowed Penthesilea’s body to be returned to her people for proper burial.

 

Theseus & the abduction of Hippolyta

This is one of the most varied myths in Greek mythology – every ancient writer and playwright has provided a different version, changing characters, events, motivations, etc.

 

But in one of the main versions of the tale, Theseus was seeking a wife with whom to rule Athens. He set off for the island of the Amazons, and there he found Hippolyta, the beautiful young warrior queen.

 

The Amazon women invited Theseus and his friends with open arms, throwing them a great feast. And at this feast, Theseus asked the queen to marry him. But Hippolyta was a warrior, fiercely free and uninhibited, and she had no interest in being anyone’s wife. So she thanked him for the honour and declined.

 

However, Theseus was really taken with her and clearly wasn’t used to not getting what he wanted. So, as his hosts slept, he kidnapped Hippolyta, carrying her off and setting sail for Attica!

 

When they woke up the next morning, her people realised that their queen… and their honoured guest, were gone. Realising she’d been abducted, the Amazons immediately set sail for Athens themselves, refusing to lose their queen to Theseus. They arrived at night, and Theseus was to be wed to Hippolyta at dawn. And there they ambushed the Athenians, beginning the fabled Attica War.

 

Now, here’s where the stories diverge most. In some tales, the Amazons took back their queen, sailed back to their island, and were much more wary of visitors in the future. In others, Hippolyta had fallen in love with Theseus during their journey, and fought alongside him, betraying her Amazons and dying at her sister’s sword. In another, she turned on Theseus and it was he who killed her. And in yet another, she is unharmed and marries Theseus, and the Amazons return to their island in the Black Sea.

 

Herakles and the magical girdle

Herakles fighting the Amazons, Attic red-figure kantharos, ca 490–480 BC

 

Herakles’ ninth labour (of twelve, which he accomplished as penance for King Eurystheus and Hera) was to steal the girdle. The girdle, which Ares had gifted to the queen of the Amazons, Hippolyta. It was a sort of leather belt which Hippolyta wore across her chest and carried her sword and spear in, and King Eurystheus wanted it as a gift to his daughter.

 

So Herakles and his friends sailed to the land of the Amazons, prepared to battle Hippolyta and her Amazons for their prize. When they arrived, Hippolyta walked down to meet them, and asked what brought them there. When Herakles told the young queen, she agreed to simply give him the girdle.

 

But the goddess Hera did not like for Herakles’ labours to be so easy. So she disguised herself as an Amazon and walked among them, telling them that Herakles had come to carry off the queen and take them for fools. Enraged, the Amazonian warriors geared up and charged the ship, demanding their queen back.

 

Herakles feared that Hippolyta had betrayed him. So he kissed her briefly, and stabbed her. Ripping the girdle off her lifeless body, they hastily set sail and narrowly avoided her avenging warriors.

 

Last thoughts on the Amazons

The Amazons are quite an incredible foe in Greek mythology. Depicting a brand of chaos and barbarity that the ancient Greeks were particularly afraid of – the female kind – they are unique and enduring.

 

It’s wonderful to know that while the Amazon women were a myth, there really were female fighters in humanity’s ancient history, as well as strong matriarchal cultures. But the Amazons were never an early branch of feminism. Strong and capable as they may have been, their strengths were always masculine ones, and they were always the defeated foes.

 

I hope you feel like you now know more about the Amazons in Greek mythology! And if I’ve missed anything, please let me know – I’d love to add it.

 

Ancient sources

Aeschylus, Eumenides

Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 

Diodorus Siculus, Library of History

Herodotus, Histories

Lysias, Funeral Oration

Plutarch, The Life of Theseus & Politics

Strabo, Geographica 

Quintus Smyrnaeus, Fall of Troy 

 

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