Who were the Amazons the warrior women in Greek mythology?

Modern statue of an Amazon

The Greeks myths remain popular because of their remarkable stories of heroes, gods, and strange peoples. Some of the most remarkable of these are the tales of the Amazons. These were a race of female warriors who were often the enemies of the Hellenes.

The Greeks were clearly fascinated by the Amazons, as seen in the many references in poetry and the many representations of the female-warriors in art. It appears that, like many myths, the narratives about a race of martial women could have been based on fact. The Amazons' stories are important as they allow us to understand the Ancient Greek mindset and their values.

Who were the Amazons

References to the Amazons first appear in the Iliad, composed by the legendary blind-singer Homer.[1] Many later poets and writers referred to them, especially their interactions with the Greeks and their Gods. According to the sources, the Amazons were a race of female warriors, and they were ruled by a Queen.[2]

It was a society dominated by females and which had no males. Women would mate with men from a neighboring tribe once a year only to perpetuate the race. They would expose the male children and only rear the female children. When the female children were older, they were taught military skills.

Many ancient writers state that female society hated men. The Amazons were feared warriors, and it is claimed that they cut off or burnt off their right breast so that they could draw the string of a bow. These women-warriors were renowned archers, and they were often depicted riding horses. In Greek myths, Amazons came from the Black Sea coast in what is now modern Turkey.

However, as they began to colonize the area, different locations were proposed for their mythical homeland. One source states’ that they originated from Libya and another that they came the Steppes of what is now Ukraine and Russia. Academics have argued that the female warriors' myth may have been based on a matriarchal society that flourished in the Black Sea area. Some believe that the Amazons were based on Scythian or Sarmatian female warriors, who were Iranian-speaking nomads. It is known that they were a war-like people and that they had female rulers.

For example, the Massagetae, who were related to the Scythians, were ruled by a warrior Queen, credited with slaying Cyrus the Great, the Persian Empire's founder. There have been numerous archaeological finds of women's burials from 16-30 who bear injuries associated with blunt force trauma and weapons. These graves are believed to be female warriors who possibly died of war wounds. [3] Many of the artistic depictions of Amazons have them attired like the Eurasian nomads.

The Trojan War and the Amazons

Amazonomachy frieze

The Trojan War was a 10-year conflict between the Greeks and Trojans over the abduction of Helen of Troy in legend. Both sides enlisted their allies in their cause. The Amazons were allied to the Trojan King during the conflict. This is even though Priam had defeated them and expelled them from Phrygia previously. After Achilles had killed the great Trojan hero Hector, the Amazons felt that they had to intervene. The female warriors, especially their Queen Penthesilea, are shown as great warriors and killing many Greeks in the Iliad. Penthesilea was the daughter of the God of war Ares. Achilles eventually killed her.

In one account, he saw the dying Queen after she removed her helmet and he fell in love with her. This scene was depicted in many famous works of art in the Classical era. According to some accounts, a number of Amazon women escaped from Troy after the death of their Queen and settled in Scythia. This has been seen as the Greeks trying to rationalize and make sense of female nomadic warriors' customs on the Eurasian Steppe.

Myrina- the great Amazon warrior queen

Myrina was a queen of the Amazons and a great conqueror. It was claimed that she traveled as far as modern-day Libya, defeated a powerful kingdom, and destroyed their capital city. She then turned her attention to another neighboring kingdom, which she devastated. Later this Amazonian Alexander the Great defeated the Egyptians and campaigned as far as Arabia.

The queen also conquered Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and many Aegean islands. It is claimed that she founded many cities here, such as Mysia. Myrna was later defeated by two semi-legendary Thracian and Scythian heroes. The Amazonian ruler's tomb is mentioned in Homer’s Iliad as being located near Troy.[4]

Bellerophon and the Amazons

Bellerophon was regarded as the greatest hero before Hercules. He was a renowned slayer of monsters, and he killed the Chimera, and he captured the winged horse Pegasus. In one myth, he is ordered by a King of Lycia to attack the Amazons. The ruler believed that the fierce women warriors would kill bellerophon. However, to the amazement of the king, he managed to defeat an army of Amazonians. Bellerophon also killed the Queen of the Amazons in a personal duel and eventually overthrew the Lycian king.

Hercules and the Amazons

Perhaps the best-known Greek hero was Hercules, renowned for this super-strength. He was driven mad by the Queen of the Gods, who hated him. In his insanity, Hercules killed his wife and child. To atone for his crimes, he asked an oracle what he should do? He was told to follow the instructions of King Eurystheus, who set him twelve labors. One labor or task was to seize the girdle of the Amazonian queen Hippolyta.

In some versions of the myth, Hercules is accompanied by Theseus, the great Athenian hero. Hercules persuaded the Amazonian to give him the girdle, which had been given to her, by her father, Ares. However, Hera took the form of the queen and initiated a war between Hercules and the Amazons. The female warriors. They were defeated, and their queen was killed. Hercules then obtained the girdle.

The Battle of Athens

Alexander the Great and the Amazons

In many myths, the Amazons invaded Athens. Most myths believe that they invaded Attica because Theseus had abandoned his Amazonian wife Antiope, whom he had abducted during the war between Hercules and the Amazons.[5] The female warriors attacked the Athenians to rescue Antiope.

In the battle, the Athenians, who were all males, emerged triumphantly and totally vanquished the Amazons. This battle was celebrated in a great many artworks, and they are known as the Amazonomachy. Indeed, there were once many scenes from this battle between the Athenians and the Amazons on the friezes that adorned the Parthenon and the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. [6] It was widely believed that the nation of female warriors was permanently weakened and was no longer a threat after their defeat by Theseus and the Athenians.

Dionysus and the Amazons

Dionysus was the god of wine, religious ecstasy, fertility, and theatre. According to legend, he was driven mad by Hera. [7] He traveled around Asia, making it as far as India, during which he had many adventures. Eventually, he was cured of his madness, and he returned to Greece. He demanded to be recognized and worshipped as a God, but the Amazons refused. Dionysus chased the Amazons, far and wide. Eventually, he cornered them on the island of Samos, and with the assistance of the Samians, he massacred them. Bacchus thanked the Samians for their help by showing them how to grow grapes and make wine.[8]

Alexander the Great and the Amazons

Greek Vase with Amazon

Alexander IV of Macedon, better known as Alexander the Great, was a great world-conqueror in history. He made himself master of much of the known world in the 4th century BC. Many legends were told about the Macedonian, who won victories from the Danube to the Indus. In one source, entitled the Alexander Romance, the Queen Thalestris and 300 of her companions visited the Macedonian King. The Amazons hoped to have children with the great general and his men. The Queen reputedly wanted to have a daughter with the great conqueror, and she would become her heir. However, many scoffed at the claims in the Romance.

The meaning of the Amazon myths

Myths are not just entertaining stories but typically have some significance. The Amazonian myths were important in the Greek world as they were used to define social norms and impart values. They helped pre-scientific society to understand their world and history. The Amazon myths are often thought to express the male Greek’s elite fear of the female. Classical society believed that women had to be controlled because they were irrational and dangerous to social stability. The stories of the Amazons was, used to demonstrate the dangers inherent in uncontrolled females. Stories of female warriors and their attacks on men were part of a discourse to justify their subjugation and the continuation of male hegemony. There is no one interpretation of a myth, and the fabled battles between the Greeks and the female warriors are often seen as representing the Hellenic conquest of nature and the victory of civilization.[9]

Many Athenians saw the Amazons' defeat as the victory of the civilized and rational males over irrational women, which was vital for the development of society and culture. Moreover, the women were the archetypical barbarian, which was contrary to the Greek male citizen class. The Athenians and other Greeks later adapted the cycle of stories to represent the Persians.

In many works of art, the Persians are equated with the Amazons, who were defeated when they invaded Greece. The Persians of Xerxes and Darius were like the female warriors, irrational barbarians and their defeat also saved civilization.[10] Later the Romans used the stories of female warriors to determine what was socially acceptable. During Augustus' reign, images of women such as the Antiope were used to represent Rome's enemies.

Conclusion

The Amazons and their stories have been very influential. The Romans adopted the cycle of tales, and medieval writers later used them. They remained influential in the Early Modern period, and many genuinely believed that they were a race of women warriors in distant lands. Indeed, the Amazon River was allegedly named after some female warriors whom the Spanish conquistadors encountered in the 16th century.

The Amazon myth was very influential in the history of Classical art, and depictions of Amazons were made all over the Graeco-Roman world. The female warriors' stories also offered insight into Greek male fears of females and were used to justify women's repression. These tales of the fearsome warriors who hated men were also used in allegories. They were used for political propaganda by both the Greeks and the Romans. The Amazons were important in Greek culture as they were designated as the ‘other’ and were used to define Athenians' and others' identities in the ancient world.

Further Reading

Graves, R. The Greek Myths (London, Penguin Classics, 2012).

Bell, Robert E. Women of classical mythology: A biographical dictionary. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1991.

References

  1. Homer, Iliad (London, Penguin, 1998), p 201
  2. Carabatea, M. Greek Mythology (Pergamos, Peania, 2007), p 112
  3. Fialko, Elena E. "Amazon's burials in the lands of steppe Scythia." Mousaios 14 (2009): 47-59.
  4. Blok, p 119
  5. Blok, J. The early Amazons: modern and ancient perspectives on a persistent myth (The Netherlands, Brill, 1994), p 113
  6. Carpenter, T.H. Art and Myth in Ancient Greece (London, Thames & Hudson, 1991), p 89
  7. Bagnall, R. (ed). The Encyclopedia of Ancient History (London, Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), p. 34
  8. Hope Moncrieff, A.R. Classical Mythology. Senate, London, 1994), p 134
  9. Hornblower, S. The Oxford Classical Dictionary (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 67
  10. Hornblower, p 134