What are Amazon Women? In Greek mythology, the Amazons were a race of warlike women noted for their riding skills, courage, and pride, who lived at the outer limits of the known world, sometimes specifically mentioned as the city of Themiskyra on the Black Sea. Their queen was Hippolyte, and although Homer tells us they were ‘the equal of men’, they most famously fought and lost separate battles against three Greek heroes: Hercules, Theseus, and Bellerophon.
Scenes from these battles were popular in Greek art, especially on pottery and in monumental sculpture adorning some of the most important buildings in the Greek world, including the Parthenon of Athens. Intriguingly, archaeological investigation of tombs across Eurasia has shown conclusively that many women of nomadic steppe tribes were indeed warriors, particularly around the Black Sea area.
What are Amazon Women?
I loved watching the “Wonder Woman” TV series when I was a girl. I never wanted to dress like her—the idea of wearing a gold lamé bustier and star-spangled blue underwear all day seemed problematic—but the Amazonian princess was strong and resourceful, with a rope trick for every problem. She seemed to be speaking directly to me, urging, “Go find your own inner Amazonian.”
When I read the news that Wonder Woman was going to be resurrected for a blockbuster movie in 2016, Batman vs. Superman, it made me excited—and anxious. Would the producers give her a role as fierce as her origins—and maybe some shoulder straps—or would she just be cartoon eye candy?
The fact that she isn’t even getting billing in the title makes me suspicious. It wouldn’t have pleased Wonder Woman’s creator either. “Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world,” declared the psychologist and comic book writer William Moulton Marston, offering a proto-feminist vision that undoubtedly sounded quite radical in 1943.
“Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are.”
Over the years, the writers at DC Comics softened Wonder Woman’s powers in ways that would have infuriated Marston. During the 1960s, she was hardly wondrous at all, less a heroic warrior than the tomboyish girl next-door.
It was no longer clear whether she was meant to empower the girls or captivate the boys. But the core brand was still strong enough for Gloria Steinem to put her on the cover of the first newsstand issue of Ms. magazine in 1972—with the slogan “Wonder Woman for President.”
The creators of Wonder Woman had no interest in proving an actual link to the past. In some parts of the academic world, however, the historical existence of the Amazons, or any matriarchal society, has long been a raging issue. The origins of the debate can be traced back to a Swiss law professor and classical scholar named Johann Jakob Bachofen.
In 1861 Bachofen published his radical thesis that the Amazons were not a myth but a fact. In his view, humanity started out under the rule of womankind and only switched to patriarchy at the dawn of civilization. Despite his admiration for the earth-mother women/priestesses who once held sway, Bachofen believed that the domination of men was a necessary step toward progress. Women “only know of the physical life,” he wrote. “The triumph of patriarchy brings with it the liberation of the spirit from the manifestations of nature.”
Who were the Amazonian women in Greek mythology – and were they real?
The ancient Greeks absolutely knew that Amazonian women were real – or, at least, that they had been. Heroes of old had encountered Amazons in the martial women’s kingdom, Themiscyra, on the southern shores of the Black Sea. Amazons had invaded Greece, their advance halted in a great battle. Herodotus related how they had been captured, carried away in Greek ships and escaped to the banks of the river Don, where they intermarried with Scythian tribesmen.
No one knew where the name ‘Amazon’ came from, so the Greeks made up an etymology, claiming it derived from a-mazdos – without a breast: these fearsome women cut off their right breasts to remove an obstruction to the bowstring, it was claimed. How could all this not be true?
Well, most of it – including the supposed etymology – wasn’t. It was folklore. There was no kingdom of Amazons. But there was a kernel of truth. In the grasslands of inner Asia, from the Black Sea to western China, Scythian women had the same skills as their men: wielding bows, riding and herding animals, fighting – and dying from their injuries. Their remains have been found in tomb-mounds from the Crimea to western China.
Meanwhile, the Greek myth planted itself in the European imagination, finding expression in novels, plays and art. It was transported to the New World by Spaniards who, while exploring a great river, heard vague reports of female warriors, and named the mighty waterway after them. In due course, the world’s greatest river gave its name to the world’s most dominant online sales machine.
These warrior women, it was reputed, lived on the river Thermedon (today’s Terme), on the southern shores of the Black Sea. In legend they captured men whom they used as studs, rearing only female children and killing the males. Despite the prevalence of the a-mazdos etymology myth, in truth the Greeks must have known this to be nonsense – their artists always depicted the Amazons as intact.
According to the legend, Hercules met Hippolyte, seized her girdle (with or without a fight – versions vary), perhaps or perhaps not killing her, and escaped back to Greece.
Thalestris: the sex-hungry Scythian warrior queen
Is there evidence that Greeks actually met any ‘Amazons’? One story about Alexander the Great suggests that they did.
In 330 BC, the ambitious Macedonian warrior had conquered Persia and was advancing eastward along the shores of the Caspian Sea (in present-day Iran). In a first-century-BC version of the story, an Amazonian queen named Thalestris marched out from her homeland and demanded to meet the great Alexander.
Attended by 300 women, she made an extraordinary request: she wanted “to share children with the king, being worthy that he should beget from her heirs to his kingdom”. Alexander was – according to Plutarch’s pen-portrait – quite small, not athletic and not much interested in sex. But Thalestris persisted – and prevailed. “Thirteen days were spent in satisfying her desire. Then she went to her kingdom,” never to be heard of again.
The early form of the story was written by one of Alexander’s aides, Onesicritus, as an eyewitness account. So could there be any truth in it? Not much. For one thing, the episode’s purported location on the Caspian is 1,500km from the Amazons’ legendary Black Sea base; to make that meeting, the Amazons would have needed to set off long before Alexander reached the Caspian. In addition, the main source, Onesicritus, was a notorious self-promoter who had good reason to tell a tale that flattered his boss.
If there is any truth to the story, it could be this: Alexander was approached by a group of Scythians who included women, one of whom was their leader. The Greeks ‘knew’ from ancient stories that Amazons were real, so naturally saw the Scythians as Amazons. There was no common language.
The ‘Amazons’ were not hostile. The Greeks were hospitable. The Amazon ‘queen’ spent time in Alexander’s tent. The group then vanished back into the heart of inner Asia, leaving the way open for the creation of a dramatic tale that provided a Greek name for a sex-hungry Scythian queen.
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