Sunday, December 1, 2013

Warrior Women I - The Amazons

I am starting a series of Warrior Women posts. I love a good kick-ass heroine in a book and thought that my readers might be interested in some of the 'real' kick-ass women of times past.

Today's Warrior women are those most iconic...


We've all heard of them to some degree - and I know you're all thinking Xena Warrior Princess - or maybe you're envisioning Hercules with Amazons? Either way, with very little variation the Amazons are known as group of ancient, tall, strong, powerful and fiercely independent warrior women...

 But did they really exist?

'Golden shielded, silver-sworded, man loving, male-child killing Amazons,' wrote the 5th Century BC Greek historian Hellanicus.

Bands of fierce female warriors are mentioned throughout the ages in various countries around the world - yet are most persistent in legend around the Mediterranean and Near East.

Herodotus (who should never be taken all too seriously) placed them as coming from the Slavic regions of Europe (Ukraine / Southern Russia / Kazakstan).

Described primarily as women warriors who took men only for the purpose of siring children, killed their male babies and kept their female ones - the original myth seems to have hailed from Libya[Cross & Miles, 2011, Warrior Women, Quercus, pp 8). Here rock drawing has been found that appear to depict women fighting with bow and arrow, and date to approximately 2000BC. From there, carvings and memorials are seen in Greece from 1600BC, yet their heyday appears to have been in the age of the Greek Heroes 1250BC.

According to myth and legend, Amazons were famous horse tamers and allegedly were the first people to actually fight from horseback.

Ironically however, the famous Amazon's during the Greek Heroic age seem to have met with rather dismal and brutal ends.

Also it pays to remember that there are multiple versions of these myths out there and today I am just retelling one.

 Meaning: Stampeding Horse
 (many of the Amazon's have 'hippos' (Greek: Horse) in their name)

Hippolyta was an Amazon Queen who caught the notice of the famous Greek Hero Heracles somewhere around 1250BC. (FYI, Heracles is the Greek version of the Roman Hercules... as if you didn't know!)
Heracles quested for Hypolyta's girdle (it was one of his labors)  - the girdle being a symbol of sacred feminine sexual power and symbolic of Amazon royalty. Typically, he initially simply demands she hand over her girdle to him  The Amazons were incensed by this sleight and rose up against him. Hippolyta fought him in a pitched battle. Alas, she was thrown from her horse - landing most unfortunately at the 'hero's' feet. Naturally a gentleman, Heracles offered to spare her life if she had sex and submitted to him.
Hippolyta was no fool, she knew such submission would be rape and result in a lifetime of slavery to the man. She declared she would rather die than submit to him.
Enraged, Heracles killed her immediately, stripped her girdle and began to slaughter her Amazon bretheren.

When almost all the best warrior women were killed, Hippolyta's commander Melanippe (meaning: Black Mare), sought a truce with Heracles.
True to form, Heracles demanded her girdle. Knowing to refuse meant death, Melanippe handed over her girdle. Heracles then raped her and let her go - to continue a life a humiliation until her natural death.

(There are other versions of Hippolyta's death; where it is Hippolyta's sister Penthesilea who accidently kills her - which leads Penthesilea to quest later on.)

The Greeks however, lead many more such assaults upon the Amazons - in a brutal attempt to impose their patriarchal systems over them.

(meaning: compelling men to mourn)
Penthesilea was one of Hippolyta's sisters, who for varying reasons (depending on which myth you read) caused her to travel to battle at Troy soon after Hippolyta's death.
Here she fights with great distinction on the Trojan side against the Greeks. It is here, on a number of occasions she fought against the hero Achilles. (Penthesilea it is important to remember is the one who ultimately stabbed Achilles in the heel eventually resulting in his death.)
In Achilles' final horrific encounter with Penthesilea at Troy, he stabs the Amazon and kills her. Then, surprisingly, and most of all disturbingly, it is alleged he strips her dying body of its armour. He then discovers that his long time adversary was actually... a woman.
In most accounts, it is noted that Achilles falls in love with her corpse...  and then has sex with it while it was still warm. He then continued to grieve and fixate on the dead Amazon. For many years after, Achilles was taunted for his sexual perversion (necrophilia) particularly by his fellow Greek Thersites.
There are other versions of the this tale that suggest that Thersites gouged out Penthesilea's eyes whilst she was alive... to which Achille's then killed Thersites for the insult.
Yet another version suggests that Diomedes (a relative of Thersites) mutilated Penthesilea's body and tied it to his horse and proceeded to drag it around the battlefield.  Achilles came to the body's rescue an gave her a proper burial - all because he was in love the corpse.
It is said that Penthesilea was the last true Amazon.
So, are these just stories? Or is there a grain of truth here?
(let's hope not for Penthesilea's corpse anyway)
The actual term Amazon, some say comes from the Greek a (without) and mazos (breast), and this fits in the myth that Amazon women sliced off a breast to allow greater ease in shooting arrows and throwing javelins - though this is hotly contested.
Many historians throughout the ages have dismissed these tales for what they appear to be - myths.
However, it has been suggested that due to the prolific nature of Amazon mythology there may well be grains of truth to the stories. Famous ancient historians such as Plutarch, Aeschylus, Strabo, Pliny all take the Amazon's existence as fact.
In later Roman times, Roman commanders record encountering women in the ranks of their enemies especially the Scythians whose women regularly fought along side their men. Were these the real Amazons perhaps?
Who knows...
But one thing is certain, equality for women has been a tricky path ever since.
 In fact the Athenians, who coined the term democracy - deliberately omitted women and slaves from its definition. There was, from this time forth, a notable move towards the subjugation of women in society.  Where once, in the early days of ancient Greece and Sparta, girls were free, fit and trained in the arts of war, they slowly became property, cossetted pretty things to be protected as they became socially and physically less able to protect themselves.
As civilization grew, the fixation on the masculine grew too, and it left no place for the free, powerful independent Amazons. Thus, they have faded into myth - their very existence now questioned. 
Whether you believe in them or not, it cannot be understated that they are a poignant reminder to the women of today - not to take for granted the freedoms we have, and not to fall into the highly sexualised world that has we now live in (particularly in the West). Where once the world was masculinised, now it is sexualised, and this, in my humble opinion is just as damaging - but not just for women but men too.
WU CHAO - from child concubine to self proclaimed ''Supreme God"
Have a great day.


  1. Gotta love Xena!!

    Thank you for sharing your first instalment in Warrior Women, Nicola, I enjoyed reading the history.


  2. I LOVED Xena, every Saturday night at 7:30! Awesome show.

  3. I loved my Jesuit prep school education. In sophmore and junior years, I had koine Greek. In addition to the Anabasis in sophmore year, we read The Aeneid in in the original Greek of Homer. We had Latin all 4 years and i developed my love of the there.
    If I could have a dinner party for the ages, I would invite Jeff Bezos and ask him about Amazon.
    Great column, Nicola!

  4. Thanks! I'm jealous Mikey. I've always wanted to learn Latin, but have never got around to it. They certainly don't have it as part of the Australian Curriculum!
    I'm currently learning Old Norse - just because... :) Thanks for the comment :)