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Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Amazon - The Ancient Wonder Woman

Amazon and Centaur by Franz von Stuck.
Image courtesy www.paleothea.com.
Amazons were fierce female warriors, described by the ancients as independent and powerful women.  One of the many myths about them states that men were not allowed to live in their territories or have sexual relations with them, except for one night a year.  At that time they visited an all-male tribe, the Gargareans, who lived in the south Caucasus.  The male children that resulted from this night of union were either given to the Gargareans, killed, or left in the wild.  The female children were reared and taught the art of war, hunting, and agriculture.  Some stories say they captured the finer specimens of men they conquered and used them as slaves and for breeding purposes.

Currently in the Louvre, this mosaic depicts an Amazonomachy,
or battle between Greeks and Amazons.  This is from Antakya, now
Antioch, in Turkey, dated second half of the 4th century CE.

But the most salacious myth about Amazons is that they cut off or burnt their right breasts, the better to use a bow with or cast spears.  There is no evidence of this in any extant artwork, perhaps because of a squeamish reluctance on the artist's part, however the right breast is often covered.

The legend of the Amazons even inspire more
modern artists, as this statuette by Erté proves.
Image courtesy of www.paleothea.com.

The etymology of their name is debated.  The Iranians have an ethnonym, "ha-mazan", meaning "warriors".  Another theory states the name came from a different ethnonym, "Amazigh", which refers to what some Berbers call themselves, meaning "free people".  An interesting idea is that the name came from an Iranian word meaing "virility-killing" or "ama-janah".  The most popular explanation is that the name came from the Greek "amazoi" or "breast-less". Herodotus called them "androktones" or "killers of men". In the Iliad they were referred to as "antianeirai" - "those who fight like men".

An Amazon in battle.  Image courtesy of www.spauda.it.

Even more perplexing is trying to figure out where they came from geographically. Although they mostly are said to have been from the Pontus area, near the Euxine (Black) Sea, some ancient writers attest that they originally came from Scythia. They were claimed to be the founders of many cities, including Ephesus, Smyrna, Sinope, Cyrene, Myrina and Paphos.  There is a possibility that there were several groups dispersed geographically who were known as Amazons.

They worshipped Ares, the god of war, and Artemis, the goddess of hunting.  They were born of Ares and an ancient goddess, Otrera.  Otrera is also considered the founder of the temple of Artemis at Ephesus.  Sometimes she is mentioned as the daughter of Ares.  They were excellent on horseback, and this fact is attested to by use of "hippo" - "horse" in Greek - in some of their names.

An Amazon surrounded by griffins.  Attic red-figure (and
black-figure) pottery gives us much of what we know of
 Greek society as few paintings survived except what is found
on everyday earthenware.  Attica is a historic Greek region.

Their most famous queen is perhaps Hippolyta, she of the girdle given to her by the god Ares, and the taking of which became the ninth labor of Heracles.  Some versions of the myth claim Heracles killed her.  Others claim that his friend Theseus, who had accompanied him, married her and had a son named Hippolytus.  In other versions Theseus marries her sister, Antiope.  Another notable Amazon queen was Penthesilea, also a sister of Hippolyta along with Melanippe.  Penthesilea had accidently killed Hippolyta while hunting, and although she wanted to kill herself the only honorable way for an Amazon and queen to do that was in battle, so she fought in the Trojan War on the side of Troy. She was then killed by Achilles.

An Amazon, by Franz von Stuck.

The saddest queen was Thalestris.  She was the cream of the crop of Amazons, and lived during the time of Alexander the Great.  Since he was the best of the best of men, she talked him into having sex with her in order to give birth to a superior child.  He agreed as long as a male child would be given to him.  Alas, despite spending 13 days (a sacred number) together hunting and having sex, she did not conceive.

Achilles killing Penthesilea on the tondo of an Attic
red-figure kylix from Vulci, circa 470-460 BCE.

Amazons were said to have invaded areas from Scythia to the northern coasts of Africa, including some Aegean islands.  Their existence was even debated by ancient authors, and it is posited that rumors of women from the some of the tribes of the Caucasus, who performed duties traditionally done by men, gave rise to the idea of an independent race of warrior women.  The concept of Amazons may also have come from the priestesses of Artemis, who like many priestesses of very ancient times, were somewhat autonomous, going back to a time more matriarchal (if there ever truly was one!) than patriarchial.

Side B of an Attic red-figure amphora circa 420 BCE featuring an Amazon.

There is evidence in the archaeological record of warrior women.  Whenever an ancient burial of a warrior is found, it has always been assumed that it was a male. But there are modern archaeologists who are looking at going through the evidence from all of those burials and sexing the skeletons to ascertain if any of them were women.  In the Altai Mountains of Siberia there have been mummified burials of women found in kurgans, some of them buried with the gear of war - weapons, headgear, etc. - with legs bowed from riding and with battle scars.  These ancient people - the Pazyryk culture - also buried horses, some of which had been sacrificed.  This culture goes back to the approximate time that Herodotus wrote of Amazons.  Warrior graves on the lower Don and lower Volga from the Scythian-Sarmatian Iron Age culture are about 20% women, buried with weaponry and saddles.

This Pazyryk mummy is known as the "Ice Maiden".  She was found in
1993 by archaeologist Natalia Polosmak, along with six sacrificed
horses.  This is from the 5th century BCE.  Note the tattoos.

But much as modern women would love to claim them as role models, most likely their purpose was the opposite.  For they were everything that a "good woman" ought not to be in ancient Greece, and in all their battles, particularly against Athens, they were the losers.  A lesson, for sure, but one that is a cautionary tale against stepping out of assigned gender roles.  But it must have been an exciting idea for the ancient Greeks; even more exciting to vanquish them.

An Amazon in front of an altar.  Attic
red-figure lekythos, circa 475-450 BCE.

However, there are tales of great warrior woman in many cultures.  Celtic legends have many strong and warring women.  The Irish hero Cúchulainn was sent for warrior training with the woman Scáthach.  This leads to another problem - either few women in ancient times wrote, or else their writing has not survived.  There is the slimmest of hopes that some writings attributed to men were authored by women.

At any rate, the concept of strong, independent, capable women has survived and beguiled up to the present time.  Although the thought of taking up arms, not to mention cutting off the right breast, may not appeal to modern women, Amazons are still a symbol of the once and future liberated and emancipated woman.

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of Wikipedia.

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