According to Homer [Il. 6, 168-195], when the Greek hero Bellerophon travelled to Lycia in southwestern Anatolia, the king of the country ordered him to accomplish three tasks:
[He] first commanded Bellerophon to kill the savage monster, the Chimera, who was not a human being but a goddess, for she had the head of a lion and the tail of a serpent while her body was that of a goat, and she breathed forth flames of fire; but Bellerophon slew her, for he was guided by signs from heaven. He next fought the far-famed Solymi [a savage tribe], and this, he said, was the hardest of all his battles. Thirdly, he killed the Amazons, women who were the peers of men ....
So Homer already knew of warrior women who were the 'peers of men' (though he located them in Anatolia and not to the north of Thrace and across the steppe, as many later writers did). In fact, the Bellerophon story -- told as a tale-within-a-tale -- could be an 'echo' from a pre-Homeric epic. If so, the Amazon myth, too, might date back to an even earlier tradition. Whatever its ancestry, Homer clearly considered Bellerophon's defeat of the Amazons as equal to his other epic deeds. Our hero, thus, is monster-slayer, barbarian-slayer, and Amazon-slayer.
That rings a bell....
Fast forward to Athens, 447-432 BCE.
When the Athenians rebuilt the Parthenon on the Acropolis -- which had been burnt down by the Persians 33 years earlier (480 BCE) -- they decorated its sides with carved marble panels (metopes), each showing a mythological victory over a major enemy. The East side showed the Olympian gods defeating the evil giants and beginning their reign over the world. On the South (left), Theseus, legendary king of Athens, battled the monstrous centaurs. The North had scenes of the Trojan War, the Greeks’ epic triumph over the Trojans, their ultimate enemies. And the West metope? The West pictured the ancient Athenians fighting the Amazons.
They never forgot their war against women. Almost 100 years later, the orator Lysias began his praise of Athens by citing as first of their ancestors' great deeds their hard-fought victory over the Amazons. Naming the Amazons as 'daughters of Ares [Mars]', Lysias declared that in ancient times
... they alone of the people round about were armed with iron, and they were first of all to mount horses.... They were accounted as men for their high courage, rather than as women for their sex; so much more did they seem to excel men in their spirit than to be at a disadvantage in their form....
[After enslaving all the tribes in their own country, seeking greater glory, they rode on to conquer Athens].
They would not return home ... for they perished on the spot, and were punished for their folly, thus making our city's memory imperishable for its valor; while owing to their disaster in this region they rendered their own country nameless.*
Thus, the great Amazon empire vanished.
Did the Athenians really believe this guff? Evidently. For them, the Amazon invasion of Attica in the distant past was an historical fact.
Certainly, it was a true enough part of their past for them to commemorate the defeat of the Amazons not only on the Parthenon metopes but, again, on the great shield (above; once an estimated 4 m [12'] high) held by Athena on the massive gold- and-ivory statue of the goddess dedicated in her temple in 438 BCE.
But, surely, we are not going to believe such an outlandish tale. Is it really any more than a 'Just So' story? ("Why, Daddy, are women subordinate to men?" "Because our ancestors beat the uppity Amazons, son.") And, just so, the Greek social order re-established its authority. Thereafter, the tale is endlessly embellished, as only the Greeks could, through their love of story-telling
Or might there possibly be some kernels of truth in it, after all?
Adrienne Mayor, in her new book, The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World, argues that there is real-world history behind the obvious folklore.
Amazons were modeled on stories of self-confident women of [Scythian] steppe cultures who fought for glory and survival and enjoyed male companionship, on terms that seemed extraordinary to the ancient Greeks.Among the nomads of the steppes, girls and boys would wear the same practical clothing and learn horseback riding and archery, so that, later, a woman could ride her horse to hunt or care for the herds, or skirmish with enemies, as necessity demanded, alongside other women, or together with men. Scythian society was certainly not female-dominated, but simply woman had a more equal status -- if only because female participation was essential in that harsh, unforgiving landscape.
The popularity of Amazon stories and images suggests that Greek women and men enjoyed imagining heroes and heroines interacting as equals and seeking adventure and glory in hunting and battle.
Self-sufficient women were valued and could achieve high status and renown. It is easy to see how these commonsense, routine features of nomad life could lead outsiders like the Greeks -- who kept females dependent on males -- to glamorize steppe women as mythic Amazons.
Horse riders, archers, fighters, Scythian women were sexually free, armed, and dangerous. As The Amazons amply demonstrates, many Scythian graves contain battle-scarred skeletons of women buried with their weapons, horses, and other prestige items. That strong, ambitious women could lead raiding parties was exaggerated in Greek myths into a kind of war of the sexes, pitting powerful Amazon queens against great Greek heroes (like Theseus, Herakles, and Achilles).
Mayor's book is popular history at its best. Much of her archaeological evidence is new -- such as her descriptions of 'Scythian' female graves with horses and weapons. She chooses wonderful illustrations which makes the book enjoyable and easy to read. However, I am not the only one to notice that she combines testimony from hundreds of years apart without weighing the problems of transmission ... and covers tribes spread over thousands of miles and separated by many centuries as if they were neighbours and could have been known to the ancient Greeks (and Romans).
True, we have to deal with the evidence as we have it. That means relying on Greek and Latin texts (many fragmentary; more quite late) because the tribes of the steppes left nothing at all in writing. Perhaps, too, nomadic life didn't change much, even over long periods of time and great distances.
But the Greek view of nomads -- and thus of the Amazons -- certainly did change. Very early vase paintings show the warrior women dressed and armed just like the Greeks, wearing short chitons (exposing one breast) with crested helmets, breastplates, and large round shields. That suggests to me that the original stories did not associate the Amazons with Scythians. By the end of the sixth century, as Mayor convincing argues, the Greeks were becoming more familiar with the nomad groups around the Black Sea and beyond, whose women and men rode horses and dressed alike. Accordingly, pictures of Amazons melded into Scythian horsewomen and they were now depicted with leggings or trousers, sometimes tattooed, and armed with a full range of steppe weapons: battle-axe, a quiver full of arrows, a pair of light spears, a crescent shield, and a sword.
In the Greek myths Amazons are always defeated and either killed or, very rarely, domesticated by marriage. They always die young and beautiful. Despite their bravery, erotic appeal and prowess, they are doomed. But a short splendid life and violent death in battle was also the perfect heroic ideal in myth. Compare the sad fate of Bellerophon whose story began this post: he was thrown by his flying horse, Pegasus, and ended up a blind, lame hermit.
Stories about Amazons were amazingly popular in antiquity. Though more than a thousand Greek vases depicting Amazons still survive, that's only a tiny fraction of the Amazon-related paintings and sculpture that once existed. Only Herakles was pictured more often. Women warriors undoubtedly fascinated the Greeks and they do not cease to fascinate us today. The Amazons has just brought them one step closer to reality.
Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World
Princeton University Press
Hardcover | 2014 | $29.95 / £19.95 |
536 pp. | 6 x 9 | 10 maps. |
eBook | ISBN: 9781400865130 |
*Lysias Funeral Oration 2.4-6 (translation via Perseus)
Top: Amazon warriors hunting on horseback. 5th century mosaic from Nile House, Sepphoris, Israel. Photo credit:
Upper left: Centaur and Lapith in combat. From the Parthenon South metopes. Photo credit: Wikipedia
Second left: Terracotta volute-krater (bowl for mixing wine and water): Attributed to the Painter of Woolly Satyrs, c. 450 BCE. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1907, 07.286.84. On the neck, battle of centaurs and Lapiths; around the body, Amazonomachy (battle between Greeks and Amazons). Photo credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Centre: Copy of the shield of the statue of Athena in the Parthenon. British Museum GR 1864.2-20.18 (Sculpture 302). Strangford Collection. Photograph courtesy of the British Museum
Lower left: Amazons. Apulia 4C BC. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen. Photo credit: www.maicar.com
Below left: Wounded Amazon. Roman marble copy (c. 150 CE) of Greek bronze original (mid-5th centur) Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1932. Accession No. 32.11.4. Photo credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art.