Single-breasted women who swear off men and are incredible warriors certainly sound like the stuff of fiction, don’t they? They’ve certainly been in a fair share of myths from Heracles, and his 12 labors, the story of Troy, and even in stories of Atlantis! However, as more researchers and historians begin to look more closely at these stories and compare them to archeological finds, it becomes more and more evident that they may have in fact been real in some way. If there WERE really, then who were they, and why did they have such a fearsome reputation?
As I mentioned, the Amazons show up all over Greek mythology, always as a female warrior culture, that had little to no interactions with men. In the story of Heracles, one of his twelve labors involved obtaining the girdle/belt of the Amazonian queen, Hippolyta. Now, I would like to pause to point out that this was a leather girdle/belt used to hold her sword and shield, not for any sort of body shaping purposes, just for clarifications sake! What fascinates me about this story is that she willingly gave Heracles the belt, without issue. It was the apparently the Goddess Hera, that spread the rumor that he intended to kidnap the Queen, thus starting a battle that left much of the Amazon’s dead. The fact the Heracles literally means “The Pride of Hera”, is a funny point in and of itself, and worth a conversation at another time. I DO want to point out the interference of the Gods, namely Hera in this case. What we see in much of the mythology of these older civilizations is the idea that the Gods no only interfered, but they directly interacted with the humans, and even had some human qualities themselves. Could this simply be humans trying to anthropomorphize the Gods they believed in, or were these things actually happening? If you ARE interested in this question, be sure to keep reading the posts here and under “Ancient Civilizations”, because these are really the questions that am looking to answer…so continue with me on this journey. This story of Heracles, leads directly into the myth that involves Theseus, who was WITH Heracles to obtain the belt. When leaving the island, Theseus, King of Attica, abducted one of Hippolyta’s sisters, Antiope. While she did eventually fall in love with Theseus, and have a son named for her sister, here Amazonian warriors attached Athens to rescue her. This is not really end well for the Amazons, for Antiope did not want to leave her husband, and in some versions of the story ends up being killed by her own people for choosing the Greeks. The final major myth (there are many others!) that I wanted to touch on, brings us closer to history, the Trojan War. In my previous post on Mythology, I touched briefly on the Trojan War, once considered a myth, until the archaeological site was discovered to the chagrin of skeptics. The Amazons are said to have come to the aid of King Priam, in the defense of Troy from the Greeks. According to the myth, the Amazons had previously met a young Priam in battle, and lost. However, once Agamemnon and his army came to destroy Troy, the Amazons came to the aid of the city, lead by their greatest warrior Pentesilea. Unfortunately, she was no match for Achilles, she apparently did not try an arrow to the foot. To his credit, Achilles was incredibly distraught when he discovered that he killed a woman, but his lust apparently took over any they say he desecrated her body? I’m not sure about that part of the story, Achilles lover had just been killed in the Trojan War, so it’s unlikely that unless he had some weird rebound emotion going on that this happened.
This leads to the sexuality of the Amazons. With regards to Achilles, I believe that the desecration part, could be looked at less from a literal standpoint, and more as a representation of power loss more than anything. In fact, when it comes to the Amazons, their sexuality comes up just as much as their fierce warrior traits. Perhaps, it’s meant as a juxtaposition, that if they have this internal passion driving their fighting instincts, that same passion is likely to also make them sexually passionate. Another likely possibility and perspective is that since the majority of those telling and recording these stories were men, that they couldn’t fathom women who didn’t need men. They MUST be sexually frustrated! In fact, it was stated that the Amazons remained chaste during war or while as part of the army. This could be for two reasons, one being that any virgins who had never engaged in sexual acts would be less likely to succumb to male advances. In other words, they wouldn’t be seduced by an enemy male if they didn’t even know what they were missing out on. For those that WERE familiar with sexual activities, the idea was that the pent up sexual energy, and frustration would make for more aggressive and fearsome fighters. Once they WERE able to engage in activities, they felt that the only reason to meet with a man was for procreation purposes. Once per year, they were said to have met with a nearby culture, and reproduce in total darkness. They would then return home for their pregnancy childbirth. The female children would become Amazons, while the male children had a few different fates. Some would be returned to their father’s people, some would be kept as slaves, and others would not quite fair so well. One of the anecdotes with regards to the Amazons that is, in my opinion, more recent and tied to a historical figure, rather than mythological one, involves Alexander the Great. It is said that the Amazon queen Thalestris had heard of Alexander and his feats, and was in short, impressed. She apparently took an army with her to his camp, and spent some time there with the intention of impregnating herself to create the greatest warrior woman ever born. Unfortunately, she did not end up with an heiress, and some contest the story. However, for me, this story brings some authenticity to the Amazon story, for there to have even been the possibility of them meeting with Alexander in 320 BCE, makes it so much more real. We KNOW Alexander the Great was real, during recorded Classical Antiquity. With this anecdote, suddenly the Amazons have gone from a Bronze and Iron again myth, to a rumor during a time when we have records of events. When then begs the question…were they real?
According to researcher, Adrienne Mayor, the answer to that question is…yes. There is archaeological evidence supporting this idea, the Scythian Culture. Digging up graves in the area, located in the bottom section of central Eurasia, has turned up nearly 37% women who are dressed and seemed to operate on an equal level with men. They were horse women who fought alongside their men, using bows and arrows. These women were buried with the same weapons as men, and their bodies show injuries that are consistent with fighting in battle. Mayor also states that the Scythian women were pretty bad-ass showing evidence of consuming strongly alcoholic fermented mare’s milk, and smoking cannabis…as well as being heavily tattooed. To add another layer to this story, Greek historian, Herodotus, documented the Amazons and described where they came from. He recorded that at one point Greek men went to Turkey, and after coming across a group of Amazon warrior women, decided to kidnap them to take them home to Greece. Unfortunately for those men, these skilled women managed to escape and kill their kidnappers. Since the women were horseback riders and NOT sailors, they were unable to sail home, and instead landed in the Crimea. It was there they stole horses and managed to loot and build a community. It was there near the Steppe, that they caught the attention of the Scythian men who wanted to partner with these fiery women. Herodotus stated that after eventually building a relationship between the two cultures, a third was born, the Sarmatians. This was a culture where women and men had equal power and roles in society. This point even further to the theory that not only did true Amazon’s exist, but they did so on their own terms.
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