Dispelling Some Myths: The Amazons
Updated: Aug 18, 2021
For those studying the ancient Greeks, you will undoubtedly come across tales of the Amazons, the fearsome, man-hating warrior women of Greek legend. Ignoring the obvious connection to a large online retailer, popular interest in the Amazons was given a boost with the release of the film 'Wonder Woman' (2017) and its more recent spin-offs. Based on the DC comic book heroine, the film mashes several 'facts' into the narrative, but just how much is true. For example, were the Amazons a solely female based society? Where did they come from? Did the Amazons really hate men, and did they really cut off a breast to be better archers?
Greek mythology The Greek legend of the Amazons first emerged 'more than twenty-five centuries ago [when they] appeared in the writings of some classical scholars and writers' (Guliaev, 2003, 113). These early writings created a foundational mythology which remained popular throughout Greek history.
To the Greeks, the Amazons were a tribe of warrior women thought to dwell in Asia Minor at the edge of what the Greeks considered their 'civilized' world. According to Apollonius Rhodius and other ancient authors , the Amazons were the daughters of Ares, the god of war, and his lover Harmonia , a nymph  of the Akmonian Wood. In his 'Argonautica', Rhodius described the Amazons as brutal and aggressive, and their main concern in life was war.
Homeland To the Greeks, the story of the Amazons represented a distant land populated by a people whose culture was organised oppositely from their own (Kuiper, 1998). Precisely where the Amazons resided necessarily became more remote as Greek geographic knowledge developed. Most ancient Greek authors associated them with the area around the southern coast of the Black Sea, particularly the city-state of Themiskyra. For the historians Herodotus, and later Strabo, this was on the plains of the Thermodon River  in Asia Minor. Indeed, the foundation of many settlements in Asia Minor were credited to the Amazons most notably Ephesus where it was thought they had sacrificed at the temple to the goddess of hunting, Artemis, and performed war dances, a ceremony repeated annually thereafter. Other Amazonian settlements included Cyme, Sinope, Priene, Myrina, Smyrna, and Mytilene on the island of Lesbos. When Greek colonists first reached Amazon territory, however, none were found there and so it became necessary to explain their apparent disappearance. Thus, when the Greek hero Herakles (Hercules) was tasked with his Labour to obtain the girdle of Queen Hippolyte, he was said to have conquered and, conveniently, expelled the Amazons from their homeland.
In the 1st-century BC the Greek geographer, philosopher and historian Strabo confirmed the original homeland of the Amazons on the plains by the Thermodon river. Discovering, however, that they were long gone and not seen again during his lifetime, it was alleged that the Amazons had retreated into the mountains. Strabo, however, added that other authors, among them Metrodorus of Scepsis and Hypsicrates, claimed that, after abandoning Themiskyra, the Amazons had chosen to resettle beyond the borders of the Gargareans. Once again, this explanation resolves the problem of procreation for a women-only society. The Amazons and Gargareans, an all-male tribe native to the northern foothills of the Ceraunian Mountains, had met in secrecy once a year during two months in spring for many generations with the aim of producing children. These encounters would take place in accordance with ancient tribal customs and collective offers of sacrifices. Accordingly, all female infants were retained by the Amazons themselves, while boys were returned to the Gargareans.
Warrior women-only Regardless of where they resided, Amazon society was thought of as Greek male-society in reverse and so they were attributed traditionally male-dominated activities such as horse-riding, hunting, and warfare. This warlike society of women, living on the borders of the known world, were thus renowned for their archery and riding skills, and considered experts at ambush and cavalry charges. According to Lefkowitz, Amazon women who could 'hunt on horseback alongside men, often wear men’s clothing, and even fight in wars' were only hunters and warriors while virgins and were not allowed to marry until they had killed one to three men (Lefkowitz, 1986, 18). Yet the idea that this women-only society, where men were welcomed only for breeding purposes and all male infants were killed (Cartwright, 2017), has a significant problem. If the whole nation consisted of women, how did it not die out in a generation? Subsidiary tales therefore grew to explain why. The most common of these we have met before: the Amazons mated with men of another people (the Gargareans?), kept the resulting female children, and sending the male children away to their fathers (Guliaev, 2003, 113).
Such tales clearly became ever more gruesome in the retelling. Accordingly, it was said the Amazons would disjoint the lower extremities of male infants to render them lame (Lefkowitz, 1986, 18). While any captured male soldiers would sometimes be used to conceive Amazon children, but always be killed (Guliaev, 2003, 113). Without corroborating evidence, it is conceivable that these stories are fabrications intended to shock and titillate readers. Consequently, whether they have any basis in truth is debatable, but it does raise the question as to why lurid tales of the Amazons were told.
Much of the surviving myth stems from Athens and would have been created by men, which seems a compelling argument. Lefkowitz, for example, suggests (Lefkowitz, 1986, 26): 'it is possible to view the myths of Amazons and other wild and destructive women who oppose men […] as expressions of the psychological conflict imposed by the customary segregation of the sexes in Athenian society and men’s apprehensions about female sexuality.' Consequently, and despite describing the Amazons as a race of warriors, almost every myth of them depicts them losing to male-dominant armies, especially those from Greece (Lefkowitz, 1986, 20). In this light, the portrayals of legendary battles between Greeks and Amazons, known as Amazonomachiai (Ancient Greek Ἀμαζονομαχίαι, or Amazonomachies), becomes part of Athenian propaganda to portray their enemies as weak .
Yet, the fascination with the Amazons extends beyond just Athens to many other Greek city-states where the myths may have had an underlying message. Perhaps these fearsome, destructive warrior-women were a warning to Greeks not to disrupt the traditional family structure (Lefkowitz, 1986, 27). Many ancient Greeks, especially the men, may have been alarmed by a race of extremely tough and unforgiving women. It follows that one possible counter would have been to promote traditional Greek culture and reinforce the distinctive roles between men and women.
In contrast to Amazons, Athenian women were not traditionally educated and only learned skills while in the home (Seltman, 1956, 97). An Athenian wife and her daughters were tied to the home, as they were expected to do domestic work, such as caring for the children, running the home and controlling the servants (Seltman, 1956, 94-97). She could not own property and great importance was placed on her fertility and chastity. Pressured by society to conceive, for the typical Athenian woman, her lifestyle was far more restricted than the Amazons or even the Spartans.
Mastectomy myth One example of just how different these warrior women were is revealed by the belief the Amazons burnt off their right breast to better use a bow and throw a spear. At first sight one might be tempted to think such stories make some sense but take a moment longer and this lurid tale begins to unravel. Consider just how many modern-day female archers or javelin throwers have elected for this extreme procedure to improve their skills - very few, if any. With proper archery form, it is common to draw the bowstring to the chest. This is especially true when shooting the sort of recurve bow typically seen in depictions of ancient archers. Today, therefore, many archers, both women and men, use a chest guard to help keep their chest out of the way. Perhaps some form of breast binding may have been employed by an Amazon archer to the same effect. Yet, by applying the appropriate technique and with practice even this would not be essential. So, where might the legend come from?
The explanation is not as straight forward a tale as one might think. The ancient Greeks gave the name 'Amazon. a popular origin from the combination of a- (ἀ-) and mazos (μαζός) to mean 'without breast' or 'breast-less' . Alternative meanings include 'one breast' or 'not breast-fed' (Cartwright, 2017). Much later this sense of the meaning was given further credence by Roman historian Marcus Junianus Justinus . He followed the practise giving credence to the allegation that Amazons cut off or burnt out their right breast. Even with Justinus’ assertion, it seems the myth most likely came from the false etymology, especially as there is no supporting historical evidence and certainly no indication of the practice in ancient Greek art.
In the latter, Amazons were often depicted in battle ('amazonomachies') with Greek male warriors; the confrontation between Theseus and the Amazons was a particular favourite. In early classical art the women are most often depicted riding a horse and wearing hoplite armour similar in style to that worn by the goddess Athena. Interestingly, the most common weapons shown are the bow and spear, but there are also examples where Amazons carry axes and crescent-shaped shields. In later artworks Amazons were portrayed more like the goddess Artemis wearing a thin dress, girded high for better freedom of movement . On painted vases their dress is often peculiarly Persian presumably in an attempt to link the Amazons with another enemy of the Greeks. Significantly, from such artwork it appears that Amazons were more likely to have been fully breasted, horse-riding Scythian warriors.
The link to the Scythians As we have seen, the precise location of the Amazonian homeland remained elusive. Originally placed 'in the north east of Asia Minor, on the southern coast of the Black Sea, between Sinop and Trabzon' (Guliaev, 2003, 113), its whereabouts continued to change, moving continuously farther from the Mediterranean to regions such as Ethiopia or Scythia (Lefkowitz, 1986, 22). The latter location is all the more interesting because in modern times, archaeological discoveries of burial sites with female warriors on the Eurasian Steppes hints that Scythian women may have inspired the Amazon myth. Herodotus (c. 484 BC - 425/413 BC), writing in his Histories (Book IV, 110-117), gives a lengthy description of a meeting between Amazons and Scythians. Young warriors of the latter group persuaded several visiting Amazons to set up a new society together, with the women insisting neither they nor their offspring would change their lifestyles at all. This new race was considered the origins of the Sarmatians in southern Russia, appropriately enough, a people famous for their horses and military aggression (Cartwright, 1998).
Archaeological excavation of Sarmatian tombs and those of other nomadic tribes elsewhere, especially in Kazakhstan, and dating to the time of Herodotus suggests some of these women were indeed warriors. Female skeletons were found not only with weapons, armour, and horse trappings but also signs of injury from blades and arrowheads. One particular Scythian grave, dating to the 4th-century BC and located near ancient Tyras on the Dniester River on the northern coast of the Black Sea, contained a female skeleton with a wound in the skull probably caused by a battle-axe and a bronze arrowhead firmly stuck in one knee. The deceased had been surrounded by two iron spears, twenty arrows with bronze arrowheads and a bronze knife, as well as pieces of body armour. Far from being unique, however, some 370 steppe nomad graves, spread across territories from Turkey to Russia, contain the remains of women. Dated to the 5th- to 4th-century BC, many of the women had survived or succumbed to injuries typical of violent one-on-one combat. The parallels with the Amazons of Greek mythology are uncanny so it is just possible that tales of these Scythian women, or actual contact with them, were the inspiration for the legend.
Conclusions It seems that Greek myth-makers, historians and artists were inspired not only by their imaginations when they created and depicted the Amazon legends but perhaps by the historical reality of Scythian fighting women. That said, it seems that only the Greeks were aware of their existence (Lefkowitz, 1986, 22) as other contemporary cultures appear not to mention Amazons in their histories. So, despite the many ancient Greek pseudo-historical narratives that survive, the origin of the Amazons and the existence of their culture remains largely a fiction. Mythical they may be, but there is something about the idea of strong, independent women threatening the 'established patriarchy' that resonates even today. In the struggle for equality in the largely male-dominated western societies, perhaps that is why the Amazons endure as inspiring icons.
1. Lysias, Isocrates and Philostratus the Elder also say that their father was Ares.
2. In Greek mythology, Harmonia (Ancient Greek: Ἁρμονία) is the immortal goddess of harmony and concord. Her Roman counterpart is Concordia. Her Greek opposite is Eris, whose Roman counterpart is, perhaps unsurprisingly, Discordia.
3. Apollonius of Rhodes claims Harmonia was a naiad, a type of female spirit, or nymph, presiding over fountains, wells, springs, streams, brooks and other bodies of fresh water.
4. A short river, now known as the river Terme, in Samsun Province, Turkey that drains into the Black Sea
5. It was popular in ancient Athenian literature to compare various races in Asia to the Amazons so that they would seem weaker and more effeminate (Lefkowitz, p. 19). Using the myth in this way meant the Athenians could affect opinions on foreign and domestic issues.
6. The historian Adrienne Mayor suggests the literary confusion comes from the similarity between mazon and the Greek word for breast mastos.
7. Marcus Junianus Justinus was a Roman historian who flourished 3rd-century AD and was the author of Epitome. This work was an abridgment of the Historiae Philippicae et totius mundi origines et terrae situs (known as the “Philippic Histories”) by Pompeius Trogus, whose work is lost. Nothing is known of Justin’s personal history other than his work on Trogus’s book (chiefly a history of Macedonia and the Hellenistic monarchies, with Parthia), which preserves material that has proved valuable to students of the Hellenistic world.
8. In some depictions one breast, quite often the right, is uncovered.
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Cartwright, M. (1998), 'Amazon Women', Ancient History Encyclopaedia, (accessed May 3rd, 2020).
Fennell, D. (2017), 'The (Not-So) Ancient Amazons', (accessed May 3rd, 2020).
Lefkowitz, M. R., (1986), 'Women in Greek Myth', The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore (in Fennell, D., op. cit.).
Kuiper, K., 'Amazon Greek Mythology', Encyclopædia Britannica, (accessed May 3rd, 2020). Seltman, C., (1956), 'Women in Antiquity', Pan Books Ltd, London (in Fennell, D., op. cit.).
Guliaev, V., (2003), 'Amazons in the Scythia: New Finds at the Middle Don, Southern Russia', World Archaeology 35(1), pp. 112-125 (in Fennell, D., op. cit.).