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Amazons

[am-uh-zon, -zuhn]

The Amazons (in Greek, Ἀμαζόνες) are a nation of all-female warriors in Classical and Greek mythology, who were possibly historical. Herodotus placed them in a region bordering Scythia in Sarmatia. Notable queens of the Amazons are Penthesilea, who participated in the Trojan War, and her sister Hippolyta, whose magical girdle was the object of one of the labours of Hercules. Amazonian raiders were often depicted in battle with Greek warriors in amazonomachies in classical art.

In Hellenistic and Roman era historiography, there are various accounts of Amazon raids in Asia Minor. The Amazons become associated with various historical peoples throughout Late Antiquity. From the Early Modern period, their name has become a term for woman warriors in general.

Etymology

This word is probably derived from an Iranian ethnonym *ha-mazan-, "warriors". A connected word is probably Hesychius of Alexandria's gloss ἁμαζακάραν· πολεμεῖν. Πέρσαι (hamazakaran: "to make war" (Persian), containing the Indo-Iranian root kar- "make" also in kar-ma). Among Classical Greeks, amazon was given a naive etymology as from a- (privative) + mazos, "without breast", connected with an etiological tradition that Amazons had their right breast cut off or burnt out, so they would be able to use a bow more freely and throw spears without the physical limitation and obstruction; there is no indication of such a practice in works of art, in which the Amazons are always represented with both breasts, although the right is frequently covered.

Greek mythology

Amazons were said to have lived in Pontus, which is part of modern day Turkey near the shore of the Euxine Sea (the Black Sea). There they formed an independent kingdom under the government of a queen named Hippolyta or Hippolyte ("loose, unbridled mare"). The Amazons were supposed to have founded many towns, amongst them Smyrna, Ephesus, Sinope, and Paphos. According to the dramatist Aeschylus, in the distant past they had lived in Scythia, at the Palus Maeotis ("Lake Maeotis", the Sea of Azov), but later moved to Themiscyra on the River Thermodon (the Terme river in northern Turkey). Herodotus called them Androktones ("killers of men"), and he stated that in the Scythian language they were called Oiorpata, which he asserted had this meaning. In some versions of the myth, men were permitted to have sexual encounters or reside in Amazon country; but once a year, in order to prevent their race from dying out, they visited the Gargareans, a neighbouring tribe. The male children who were the result of these visits were either killed, or sent back to their fathers or exposed in the wilderness to fend for themselves; the females were kept and brought up by their mothers, and trained in agricultural pursuits, hunting, and the art of war.

In the Iliad, the Amazons were referred to as Antianeira ("those who fight like men").

The Amazons appear in Greek art of the Archaic period and in connection with several Greek legends. They invaded Lycia, but were defeated by Bellerophon, who was sent against them by Iobates, the king of that country, in the hope that he might meet his death at their hands (Iliad, vi. 186). The tomb of Myrine is mentioned in the Iliad; later interpretation made of her an Amazon: according to Diodorus, Queen Myrine led her Amazons to victory against Libya and much of Gorgon.

They attacked the Phrygians, who were assisted by Priam, then a young man (Iliad, iii. 189). Although in his later years, towards the end of the Trojan War, his old opponents took his side again against the Greeks under their queen Penthesilea "of Thracian birth" (Quintus Smyrnaeus), who was slain by Achilles, in the Aethiopis that continued the Iliad. (Quintus Smyrn. i.; Justin ii. 4; Virgil, Aeneid i. 490).

One of the tasks imposed upon Heracles by Eurystheus was to obtain possession of the girdle of the Amazonian queen Hippolyte (Apollodorus ii. 5). He was accompanied by his friend Theseus, who carried off the princess Antiope, sister of Hippolyte, an incident which led to a retaliatory invasion of Attica, in which Antiope perished fighting by the side of Theseus. In some versions, however, Theseus marries Hippolyta and in others, he marries Antiope and she does not die. The battle between the Athenians and Amazons is often commemorated in an entire genre of art, amazonomachy, in marble bas-reliefs such as from the Parthenon or the sculptures of the mausoleum of Halicarnassus.

The Amazons are also said to have undertaken an expedition against the island of Leuke, at the mouth of the Danube, where the ashes of Achilles had been deposited by Thetis. The ghost of the dead hero appeared and so terrified the horses, that they threw and trampled upon the invaders, who were forced to retire. Pompey is said to have found them in the army of Mithridates.

They are heard of in the time of Alexander, when some of the great king's biographers make mention of Amazon Queen Thalestris visiting him and becoming a mother by him. However, several other biographers of Alexander dispute the claim, including the highly regarded secondary source, Plutarch. In his writing he makes mention of a moment when Alexander's secondary naval commander, Onesicritus, was reading the Amazon passage of his Alexander history to King Lysimachus of Thrace who was on the original expedition: the king smiled at him and said "And where was I, then?"

The Roman writer Virgil's characterization of the Volscian warrior maiden Camilla in the Aeneid borrows heavily from the myth of the Amazons.

Lists

There are several (conflicting) lists of names of Amazons. Quintus Smyrnaeus (Posthomerica i) lists the attendant warriors of Penthesilea: "Clonie was there, Polemusa, Derinoe, Evandre, and Antandre, and Bremusa, Hippothoe, dark-eyed Harmothoe, Alcibie, Derimacheia, Antibrote, and Thermodosa glorying with the spear."

Names of Amazons listed by ancient authors include:

  • Ainiaan, enemy of Achilles and an Amazon, one of the twelve who accompanied Penthesilea to the Trojan War. Her name means "swiftness."
  • Antianara, succeeded Penthesilea as Queen of the Amazons. She was best known for ordering her male servants to be crippled and castrated "as the lame best perform the acts of love".
  • Antibrote, one of the twelve followers of Penthesilea in Quintus Smyrnaeus's Posthomerica (book i)
  • Antiope
  • Asteria, sixth Amazon killed by Heracles.
  • Cleite, one of the twelve followers of Penthesilea . Her ship was blown off course and she landed in Italy, founding the city of Clete.
  • Helene, daughter of Tityrus. She fought Achilles and died after he seriously wounded her.
  • Hippolyte, the Amazonian queen who possessed a magical girdle she was given by her father Ares, the god of war.
  • Melanippe, sister of Hippolyte. Heracles captured her and demanded Hippolyte's girdle in exchange for her freedom. Hippolyte complied and Heracles let her go.
  • Otrera, the consort of Ares and mother of Hippolyta and Penthesilea.
  • Penthesilea
  • Thalestris, a queen of the Amazons in the Alexander Romance.

Hero cults

According to ancient sources, (Plutarch Theseus, Pausanias), Amazon tombs could be found frequently throughout what was once known as the ancient Greek world. Some are found in Megara, Athens, Chaeronea, Chalcis, Thessaly at Scotussa, in Cynoscephalae and statues of Amazons are all over Greece. At both Chalcis and Athens Plutarch tells us that there was an Amazoneum or shrine of Amazons that implied the presence of both tombs and cult. On the day before the Thesea at Athens there were annual sacrifices to the Amazons. In historical times Greek maidens of Ephesus performed an annual circular dance with weapons and shields that had been established by Hippolyte and her Amazons. They had initially set up wooden statues of Artemis, a bretas, (Pausanias, (fl.c.160): Description of Greece, Book I: Attica).

In art

In works of art, battles between Amazons and Greeks are placed on the same level as and often associated with battles of Greeks and centaurs. The belief in their existence, however, having been once accepted and introduced into the national poetry and art, it became necessary to surround them as far as possible with the appearance of not unnatural beings. Their occupation was hunting and war; their arms the bow, spear, axe, a half shield, nearly in the shape of a crescent, called pelta, and in early art a helmet, the model before the Greek mind having apparently been the goddess Athena. In later art they approach the model of Artemis, wearing a thin dress, girt high for speed; while on the later painted vases their dress is often peculiarly Persian – that is, close-fitting trousers and a high cap called the kidaris. They were usually on horseback but sometimes on foot. They can also be identified in vase paintings by the fact that they are wearing one earring. The battle between Theseus and the Amazons (Amazonomachy) is a favourite subject on the friezes of temples (e.g. the reliefs from the frieze of the temple of Apollo at Bassae, now in the British Museum), vases and sarcophagus reliefs; at Athens it was represented on the shield of the statue of Athena Parthenos, on wall-paintings in the Theseum and in the Stoa Poikile. There were also three standard Amazon statue types.

In historiography

Herodotus reported that the Sarmatians were descendants of Amazons and Scythians, and that their females observed their ancient maternal customs, "frequently hunting on horseback with their husbands; in war taking the field; and wearing the very same dress as the men". Moreover, said Herodotus, "No girl shall wed till she has killed a man in battle". In the story related by Herodotus, a group of Amazons was blown across the Maeotian Lake (the Sea of Azov) into Scythia near the cliff region (today's southeastern Crimea). After learning the Scythian language, they agreed to marry Scythian men, on the condition that they not be required to follow the customs of Scythian women. According to Herodotus, this band moved toward the northeast, settling beyond the Tanais (Don) river, and became the ancestors of the Sauromatians. According to Herodotus, the Sarmatians fought with the Scythians against Darius the Great in the 5th century B.C.

Hippocrates describes them as: "They have no right breasts...for while they are yet babies their mothers make red-hot a bronze instrument constructed for this very purpose and apply it to the right breast and cauterize it, so that its growth is arrested, and all its strength and bulk are diverted to the right shoulder and right arm." But experts agree that the Amazons would not have had the medical knowledge to manage the inevitable massive hemorrhage or infection if such ablation of the breast actually occurred. Others claim that amputation of the breast followed by cauterization could have been performed with instruments specifically designed for this purpose. (See also breast ironing, a current practice in which breast growth is deliberately stunted.)

Amazons came to play a role in Roman historiography. Caesar reminded the Senate of the conquest of large parts of Asia by Semiramis and the Amazons. Successful Amazon raids against Lycia and Cilicia contrasted with effective resistance by Lydian cavalry against the invaders (Strabo 5.504; Nicholas Damascenus). Gnaeus Pompeius Trogus pays particularly detailed attention to the Amazons. The story of the Amazons as deriving from a Cappadocian colony of two Scythian princes Ylinos and Scolopetos is due to him. Diodorus relates the story of Hercules defeating the Amazons at Themiscyre. Philostratus places the Amazons in the Taurus mountains. Ammianus places them east of Tanais, as neighbouring the Alans. Procopius places them in the Caucasus. Although Strabo shows scepticism as to their historicity, the Amazons in general continue to be taken as historical throughout Late Antiquity. Several Church Fathers speak of the Amazons as of a real people. Solinus embraces the account of Plinius. Under Aurelianus, captured Gothic women were identified as Amazons (Claudianus). The account of Justinus was influential, and was used as a source by Orosius who continued to be read during the European Middle Ages. Medieval authors thus continue the tradition of locating the Amazons in the North, Adam of Bremen placing them at the Baltic Sea and Paulus Diaconus in the heart of Germania.

Renaissance literature

Amazons continued to be discussed by authors of the European Renaissance, and with the Age of Exploration, they were located in ever more remote areas. Francisco de Orellana in 1542 reached the Amazonas River, naming it after the warlike women he encountered there. Amazons also figure in the accounts of both Christopher Columbus and William Raleigh.

Medieval and Renaissance authors credit the Amazons with the invention of the battle-axe. This is probably related to the Sagaris, an axe-like weapon associated with both Amazons and Scythian tribes by Greek authors (see also Aleksandrovo kurgan). Paulus Hector Mair expresses astonishment that such a "manly weapon" should have been invented by a "tribe of women", but he accepts the attribution out of respect for his authority, Johannes Aventinus.

Ariosto's Orlando furioso contains a country of warrior women, ruled by Queen Orontea; the epic describes an origin much like that in Greek myth, in that the women, abandoned by a band of warriors and unfaithful lovers, rallied together to form a nation from which men were severely reduced, to prevent them from regaining power.

Historical background

Classicist Peter Walcot spoke for most mythographers when he wrote, "Wherever the Amazons are located by the Greeks, whether it is somewhere along the Black Sea in the distant north-east, or in Libya in the furthest south, it is always beyond the confines of the civilized world. The Amazons exist outside the range of normal human experience.

Nevertheless, there are various proposals for a historical nucleus of the Amazons of Greek historiography, the most obvious candidates being historical Scythia and Sarmatia in line with the account by Herodotus, but some authors prefer a comparison to cultures of Asia Minor or even Minoan Crete.

Speculation that the idea of Amazons contains a core of reality is most recently based on archaeological findings from burials, pointing to the possibility that some Sarmatian women may have participated in battle. These findings have led scholars to suggest that the Amazonian legend in Greek mythology may have been "inspired by real warrior women", though this remains a minority opinion among classical historians.

Scythia

Archaeological evidence seems to confirm the existence of Women-Warriors, as Sarmatian women's active role in military operation and social life. Burial of armed Sarmatian women comprise about 25 percent of the military burial in the group, and are usually buried with bows.

Russian archaeologist Vera Kovalevskaya points out that when Scythian men were away fighting or hunting, nomadic women would have to be able to defend themselves, their animals and pasture-grounds competently. During the time that the Scythians advanced into Asia and achieved near-hegemony in the Near-East, there was a period of twenty-eight years when the men would have been away on campaigns for long periods. During this time the women would not only have had to defend themselves, but to reproduce and this could well be the origin of the idea that Amazons mated once a year with their neighbours, if Herodotus actually intended to base this on a factual base.Before modern archaeology uncovered some of the Scythian burials of warrior-maidens entombed under kurgans in the region of Altay Mountains and Sarmatia, giving concrete form at last to the Greek tales of mounted Amazons, the origin of the story of the Amazons has been the subject of speculation among classics scholars. In the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica speculation ranged along the following lines:

"While some regard the Amazons as a purely mythical people, others assume an historical foundation for them. The deities worshipped by them were Ares (who is consistently assigned to them as a god of war, and as a god of Thracian and generally northern origin) and Artemis, not the usual Greek goddess of that name, but an Asiatic deity in some respects her equivalent. It is conjectured that the Amazons were originally the temple-servants and priestesses (hierodulae) of this goddess; and that the removal of the breast corresponded with the self-mutilation of the god Attis and the galli, Roman priests of Rhea Cybele. Another theory is that, as the knowledge of geography extended, travellers brought back reports of tribes ruled entirely by women, who carried out the duties which elsewhere were regarded as peculiar to man, in whom alone the rights of nobility and inheritance were vested, and who had the supreme control of affairs. Hence arose the belief in the Amazons as a nation of female warriors, organized and governed entirely by women. According to J. Viirtheim (De Ajacis origine, 1907), the Amazons were of Greek origin [...] It has been suggested that the fact of the conquest of the Amazons being assigned to the two famous heroes of Greek mythology, Heracles and Theseus [...] shows that they were mythical illustrations of the dangers which beset the Greeks on the coasts of Asia Minor; rather perhaps, it may be intended to represent the conflict between the Greek culture of the colonies on the Euxine and the barbarism of the native inhabitants."

Minoan Crete

When Minoan archeology was still in its infancy, nevertheless, a theory raised in an essay regarding the Amazons contributed by Lewis Richard Farnell and John Myres to Robert Ranulph Marett's Anthropology and the Classics (1908), placed their possible origins in Minoan civilization, drawing attention to overlooked similarities between the two cultures. According to Myres, (pp. 153 ff), the tradition interpreted in the light of evidence furnished by supposed Amazon cults seems to have been very similar and may have even originated in Minoan culture.

In fiction

These women, similar women of this nature have been and continue to be depicted in fiction.

See also

Sources and notes

Bibliography

  • Andreas David Mordtmann, Die Amazonen (Hanover, 1862)
  • W. Stricker, Die Amazonen in Sage und Geschichte (1868)
  • A. Klugmann, Die Amazonen in der attischen Literatur und Kunst (1875)
  • H. L. Krause, Die Amazonensage (1893)
  • F. G. Bergmann, Les Amazones dans l'histoire et dans la fable (1853)
  • P. Lacour, Les Amazones (1901)
  • articles in Pauly-Wissowa's Realencyclopadie, and W. H. Roscher's Lexikon der Mythologie
  • George Grote, History of Greece, pt. i. ch. 11.
  • Lexikon Iconographicum Mythologia Classica, vol. I, s.v. "Amazones".
  • Dietrich von Bothmer, Amazons in Greek Art (Oxford University Press) 1957.
  • Josine H. Blok, (Peter Mason, tr.)The Early Amazons: Modern and Ancient Perspectives on a Persistent Myth (1995)

External links

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