In Greek mythology the Amazons, the fifth Greek women story in Natalie Haynes book ‘Pandora’s Jar: Women in Greek Myths’, were a tribe of women warriors known for their skills in riding, for their pride and courage. Natalie Haynes argues that the amazing Amazons are maligned and reduced in significance in many Greek mythological writings. She argues for a better and fuller description of Amazon heroes using lesser known and used texts of various Greek and Roman ancient historians.
The Amazons were apt with weapons like bows, spears and most popularly depicted as skilled with the axe. They were known to live on the outer limits of civilization, the city of Themiskyra on the Black Sea was often mentioned.
In the age of declining sex ratios it is difficult to imagine a tribe of all women warriors. The Amazons have been described by Hellanikos, a 5th century historian, as “a bunch of golden-shielded, silver axed, man loving, boy-killing women”. Clearly, Hellanikos did not mean this description as a compliment. The boy killing character of Amazons comes from the fact that they were an all-woman tribe. Men were invited only for breeding and a logical explanation for lack of boys was a reverse infanticide practice.
The Amazons are popularly depicted on Greek vases, about a 1000 of them, about 60 with their names painted on to the vase. However, the most popular stories of Amazon warriors refer to only three women, Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, Antiope and Penthesilea. The Amazons were shown to dress, not in the long tunics with bare legs as the men did. They wore short tunics, with tight leggings. The tunics, often with long sleeves, and leggings had incredible designs, chequered, zig zagged and diamond shaped. Such ornately clad women on horses are shown in paintings on vases, fighting Greek men cowering behind his shield.
Natalie Haynes, in her re-interpretation of the Greek mythological women, states that an important characteristic of Amazons was that they fought as a collective. It was part of their tribal nature which also helped to keep them alive. This was in contrast to the male ethos of the ‘winner takes all’. She gives many examples of Achilles and Odysseus from the Trojan Wars. Quintus in his ‘Fall of Troy’ lists the names of twelve Amazons who fought with Penthesilea when she decides to fight Achilles.
Hippolyta and Hercules: The most popular story is of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons and daughter of Ares, God of War. She inherits his war like nature and also her celebrated belt, the belt of Ares. The famous story is of Heracles (Hercules by the Romans) being assigned the task of acquiring this ‘girdle’ of Hippolyta. Use of the term ‘girdle’ when this was a war belt, is again belittling of the worth of the Amazon woman in Greek mythology.
Eurystheus, King of Tiryns or Argos, orders Heracles to bring Hippolyta’s belt for his daughter Admete. Heracles is undertaking this labour as penance for killing his wife and children. When Heracles arrives in Themiskyra, he is not attacked. In 4th century BCE pottery he is shown as being received by Hippolyta, wearing her belt, and her women armed with axes. Hippolyta does not argue with him, rather strangely promises to give it to him. But Amazons fight the Greeks anyway, instigated by goddess Hera, who dislikes Heracles born of her husband out of wedlock. Hera, dressed as an Amazon, instigates them insinuating that Heracles has come to abduct their queen. Hippolyta was talking to Heracles on his ship, but on seeing the Amazons charging on their horses, he simply kills the queen takes her belt and fights the Amazons. In Pausanias’ ‘Description of Greece’ Theseus is seen fighting alongside Heracles.
Antiope and Theseus: Theseus is said to have abducted Antiope in this battle. Other versions imply that Theseus received Antiope as a reward for his bravery in the battle, or took her in deceit. Still other versions state that he sailed to Themiskyra after Heracles.
This is the cause of the second Amazon war, when the Amazons invade Athens to reclaim their sister Antiope. The Amazon invasion is impressive. The formidable warriors first capture the surrounding country, set up camp and then attack the city. In spite of Theseus having full control of the city, the battle lasts for three months. The Amazons are also imagined to have built a citadel in the Hill of Ares to rival what Theseus had built. Natalie Haynes argues that the Amazon battle was not just a scrap, but an all-out siege.
There are multiple versions of this story. In a story that shows Antiope in weaker light, Theseus falls in love with her and she surrendered to him. In a sense she betrays her Amazon sisters. This story was reassuring to the Athenians, who found the idea of women supporting women disconcerting.
Penthesilea and Achilles: The story of Penthesilea is long. According to Natalie Haynes, Penthesilea is an Amazon who is granted high status in the Greek mythology. For one, she is introduced with her parentage, daughter of Ares, an honour generally given to the male heros. She was a hero of the Trojan wars. She was the inventor of the two faced axe used by the Amazon warriors, she battles the greatest of Greek warrior Achilles, which places her on par with Hector, the hero of Troy, who dies at his hands. She is fighting for glory like Achilles, except that she is not fighting for her city. She does not fight alone, but is accompanied by twelve Amazons who are named.
In an earlier post I wrote about the much maligned Helen of Troy, and whether she or Paris can be considered the reason for the battle of Troy, the Trojan wars. The battle of Troy rages, many are killed on both sides. Greek myths name the list of warriors who died at the hands of Penthesilea. She is so inspiring that the Trojan women, who have essentially been held hostage for ten years and seen their men folk go out to war and not come back alive, take up arms. But are discouraged as they are told that Penthesilea is the daughter of Ares and they are not, hence cannot fight like her?
Achilles and Penthesilea fight. Achilles tries to scare her with tales of his viciousness in war. Achilles throws his spear at her and she begins to bleed. Achilles drives another spear into her horse and then into her. She is cut down and the Trojans panic. As she dies, Achilles is filled with remorse, and according to Quintus (a Roman historian), gazing at Penthesilea he feels love and sorrow as he did when his friend Patrochus died.
Penthesilea is honoured in death because they give her body back to the Trojans for a funeral. This was unusual for the Greeks in the Trojan wars. The fallen Amazon is carried from the battlefield by the Greeks. There are many depiction of this battle in ancient vases. In one Achilles carries Penthesilea on his left shoulder, that is a Greek carries his enemy. Her body is handed over to Priam, the Trojan King. There is no bargaining, no arguing, and Priam and his men burn her on a funeral pyre. Penthesilea is a hero even in death.
As Natalie Haynes shows, the Amazons were Heroes, but are not represented enough and in good light in Greek mythology.