I loved the buzz Wonder Woman received from the launch of the 2017 Film, which is finally out now on DVD, and now Leigh Bardugo’s new book in the DC Icon Series, Wonder Woman: Warbringer. So I thought I would write a blog post on the inspiration behind Princess Diana’s Amazonian World, but also shed some light on the ‘mythical’ and ‘real’ Amazons in ancient history.
While at Macquarie University I studied the unit in my Ancient History major, Women and Gender in the Ancient World. I absolutely loved the course, but the one guest lecture we had from Dr Ian Plant on the History and Myth of the Ancient Amazons was a stand out. So here’s a few points on the ‘mythical’ and ‘real’ Amazons that I wanted to share.
History and Myth of the Ancient Amazons
Who they were – Ancient Greek literature
The Ancient Greeks constantly referenced the Amazons in their work.
The Amazons live near the Thermodon. They are daughters of Ares and Harmonia, the nymph and Naiad. The most famous are Hippolyte, Antiope, whom Theseus abducted, Anaia, Andromache, Glauke, Otrere, and Penthesileia, her daughter. In the time of Mygdon, son of Akmon, and Otreus, son of Dymas, they plundered the neighbouring districts, riding on their fire-breathing horses, and later overran Phrygia for booty. They were so called because they lacked one breast—for they cauterized it to prevent it from getting in the way when they used their bows, or because they did not eat bread [maza], but tortoises, lizards and snakes. Some say that they are the same as the Sarmatian women. [Antianeirai] means equal to or hostile to men.
Scholia on Iliad (from 3rd C. BC on)
They were also called ‘Sauropatides’ (lizard crushers) because they trampled on lizards and ate them, or Sarmatians because they lived in Sarmatian Skythia. There is also a city Amazonia in Messapia.
Steph. Byz. Ethnika, s.v. Amazones
Blok, J.H. The Early Amazons (Leiden, 1995)IX
Then in the 5th century BCE the details changed with the Amazons:
- They were without men
- Aeschylus Suppliant Women play – showed them armed with a bow, which closely resembled meat eating Amazons. Meat eating meant they were barbaric. (Nice aye?)
- Aeschylus Prometheus Bound play – they were now viewed as man-hating Amazons
- They lived in Thrace in the north, then moved to Amazoneion – another name for Kyme, where they lived. Hekataios records the name in book IX of his work on the Aiolid.
- They are still seen as Thracians even though they moved.
- However, there was a real society of people who lived in this area called The Sauromataes – Scythians, who were nomadic people.
- There are different places that have claimed to be the Amazon’s homeland.
Amazonian Lifestyle Invented
- Hallanikos of Lesbos and Diodorus stated that the Amazons cauterized their chest with an iron to prevent their breasts from growing. (Clearly DC comics didn’t replicate this!).
[…]they are called Amazons because they cut off their right breast to prevent it from getting in the way when they use their bows. This is untrue, because that would have been fatal to them. Hellanikos and Diodorus [II.45.3] says that they cauterized the spot with an iron object before it [the breast] began to grow, to prevent it from growing.
Hellanicus of Lesbos (c. 480-400 BC) cited by Plutarch in Theseus 27
- The Amazons had children because apparently men stalked them.
- Men liked them because they were different (like the Spartan women who were seen as ‘thigh flashers’ – love it!).
- The Amazon women didn’t want to live with men because they were not nomadic for women’s work and they wanted to hunt.
- They grew to be big and strong because of the climate of the region. It was suitable for them to grow and develop their physical physiques.
- To ensure that Amazonian women were always on top they would crush the limbs of men. (Yikes!)
- Apparently they didn’t lay aside their virginity until they killed 3 of their enemies. (An initiation rite within other tribes throughout history).
- The Greek geographer and historian, Strabo, wrote his work Geography where he tried to make the Amazonian mythology realistic by saying that they fought with a bow, Scythian axe and light shield. And that the Amazons lived on the other side of a mountain next to the Gargarians (an all-male tribe). And apparently, every 2 months in a year, they would ‘get’ together. The Amazons would keep the female offspring and the Gargarians kept the male offspring. (Sound like a utopia to you?)
- The Roman historican,Quintus Curtius Rufus, wrote the Histories of Alexander the Great and said that Alexander the Great met the Queen of the Amazons. She apparently spent 13 days with him. (To beget children, who knows?)
Views from the Ancient World about the Ancient Amazons
Some notes juxtaposing the Mythical Amazons & Traditional Ancient Greek Women
Ancient Greek Women
|Race of martial women
||Greek women not martial
|Race of women alone
||Greek women live with men
||Women = subordinate
|Women in men’s roles
||Women in women’s roles
|Women care for children
||Women crush the limbs of boys
|Don’t live by agriculture = civilization
|| Agriculture = bread civilization
|Eat meat, lizards, tortoises = wild, matriarchy
||Eat bread = tamed, patriarchy
|Live outdoors, not indoors
Development of Amazons Over Time
In the beginning in Greek literature the Amazons started as equal to men then, they became warriors and fought heroes (and were defeated by heroes as well).
Then they developed a homeland on the edge of the Greek world and made a way of life for themselves. They could have represented the foreign enemy (for example Athens’ enemy was Persia), and then they became Scythian.
Interpretation of the Amazon Myth
- Historical Evidence:
Were they Scythians?
An early iron age site in southern Ukraine provides archaeological evidence at Pokrovka. Perhaps they were the Sauromatians.
- Structural Evidence in Literature:
Definition of the Self by creation of the Other.
- Combining Greek History and Myth:
The ancient Greeks invented the Amazons as creatures of mythical imagination. Then the ancient Greeks met the ‘Sauromations’ and their mythical Amazons took on the characteristics of these nomadic women.
Iconography and Amazonomachy
- The Greeks invented the Amazons so they wore Greek clothing and used Greek weapons.
- They then developed the Amazons to wearing non Greek costumes (patterns, pants, different helmets and weapons) to show that they were Scythians, Eastern, Northern, Phrygian, and Thracian.
- They then feminised their warrior costume.
Amazonian Archaeology / Sauromatians Archaeology
- The evolution of the Amazons is reflected in the Sauromatians culture, who were nomadic people.
- There are multiple burial mounds in Kurgan that imitates the Amazonian lifestyle. For example, women were buried with weapons and armour, and were also buried with their husbands and children.
- 20% of Sauromatian and ancient Sarmatian tombs have women buried with weapons (usually arrows, but occasionally with swords and spears).
- There is evidence in these tombs showing contact with the Ancient Greeks:
- Greek pottery – amphora
- Bracelet – Greek beads
- The burial graves date from the 5th to 4th century BCE which dates well with the homeland of Herodotus’ Amazons and Scythian immigrants.
- Dr Jeannine Davis Kimble’s research in Pokrovka in Russia identifies 3 classes of women from excavating and researching burials in this area.
- Feminine and Domestic = 28 burials
- Feminine and domestic goods such as spindle, whorls, mirrors, stone and glass beads.
- Priestess = 5 burials
- Cult goods such as clay and stone altars, bone spoons, bronze mirrors, and seashells.
- Warrior = 7 burials
- Weapons include iron swords, daggers, bronze arrow-heads, whetstones, and a quiver.
- 1 skeleton had an arrow found in her.
For more information about the real Amazing Amazons check out:
Interview with Dr. Jeannine Davis-Kimball
Amazon Warrior Women: Background
Interactive: Amazon Warrior Forensic Facial Reconstruction
Plant, Dr Ian. (August 2011). “Amazons: Myth and History.” Lecture given at Macquarie University, NSW.