the historical origin of the amazons -- 6/13/17

Today's selection -- from Amazons by Adrienne Mayor. With the current success of the movie Wonder Woman, who is presented in the movie and in comic books as having come from among the Amazons, we take a brief look at the origin of the these warriors:

"Who were the Amazons?

Amazon wearing trousers and carrying a shield

c.470 BC, British Museum, London.

"In Greek myth, Amazons were fierce warrior women of exotic East­ern lands, as courageous and skilled in battle as the mightiest Greek he­roes. Amazons were major characters not only in the legendary Trojan War but also in the chronicles of the greatest Greek city-state, Athens.

"Every great champion of myth -- Heracles, Theseus, Achilles -- proved his valor by overcoming powerful warrior queens and their armies of women. Those glorious struggles against foreign man-killers were re­counted in oral tales and written epics and illustrated in countless art­works throughout the Greco-Roman world. Famous historical figures, among them King Cyrus of Persia, Alexander the Great, and the Roman general Pompey, also tangled with Amazons. Greek and Latin authors never doubted that Amazons had existed in the remote past, and many reported that women living the life of Amazons still dwelled in lands around the Black Sea and beyond. Modern scholars, on the other hand, usually consign Amazons to the realm of the Greek imagination.

"But were Amazons real? Though they were long believed to be purely imaginary, overwhelming evidence now shows that the Amazon traditions of the Greeks and other ancient societies derived in large part from historical facts. Among the nomad horse-riding peoples of the steppes known to the Greeks as 'Scythians,' women lived the same rug­ged outdoor life as the men. These 'warlike tribes have no cities, no fixed abodes,' wrote one ancient historian; 'they live free and uncon­quered, so savage that even the women take part in war.' Archaeology reveals that about one out of three or four nomad women of the steppes was an active warrior buried with her weapons. Their lifestyle -- so dif­ferent from the domestic seclusion of Greek women -- captured the imagination of the Greeks. The only real-life parallels in Greece were rare instances of wives forced to defend their families and towns against invaders in the absence of their husbands.

A helmeted Amazon with her sword and a shield bearing the Gorgon head image,

Tondo of an Attic red-figure kylix, 510-500 BC

"The myth of Atalanta [a heroic woman in Greek lore] seems to suggest that a girl raised in a natural state would grow up to be something like an Amazon. In reality, 'going Amazon' was an option for girls who had been raised since childhood to ride horses and shoot arrows on the steppes. The 'equalizing' combi­nation of horseback riding and archery meant that women could be as fast and as deadly as men. Whether by choice or compelled by circum­stances, ordinary women of Scythia could be hunters and warriors without giving up femininity, male companionship, sex, and motherhood.

"The universal quest to find balance and harmony between men and women, beings who are at once so alike and so different, lies at the heart of all Amazon tales. That timeless tension helps to explain why there were as many love stories about warrior women as there were war stories. ...

"And the Greeks were not the only ones to spin tales about Amazons. Thrilling adventures of warrior heroines of the steppes were told in many ancient cultures."



Adrienne Mayor


The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World


Princeton University Press


Copyright 2014 by Adrienne Mayor


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