Out of the Gynaeceum: A New Look at Ancient Greek Society

The Amazons: Mythical Creatures?

By Violaine Sebillotte Cuchet

Héraclès combattant des Amazones

Fig. 1: Hercules fighting the Amazons, Attic black-figure neck amphora, attributed to the Atalanta Painter of Munich, 550-500 B.C., Munich, Antikensammlungen, Inv. J584 / 1541. © Munich, Antikensammlungen. Photo:  DR.

Today, the term “Amazon” may be used to refer to a rebellious or independent woman who rejects male domination, whether political, social, or sexual. The word refers to the ancient myth of the Amazons, women warriors depicted in epic poems (1), represented on thousands of vases, and sculpted into the stone of Greek temples. Since Antiquity, these fabulous figures have excited the imagination, all the more so because women from the cities were rarely allowed to serve as warriors. The Amazons of the epic poems were a group located at the borders of the Greek world (Asia Minor or the Black Sea). In these texts, the women warriors do not reject male power in general—rather, they are shown aiding their allies, avenging an affront, or preserving the autonomy of their people (2). When traces of women warriors were found within the confines of the known world, the Greeks saw them as descendants of warlike foremothers. The Amazons of the epics bore personal names (Andromache, Penthesilea, Antiope, etc.); thus, they could be individualized like the heroes they fought alongside, whose bravery and excellence was on par with their own (3). Like goddesses, the Amazons constituted a fascinating image of a power superior to that of mere mortals, whether male or female. 

(1) Homer, The Iliad III, 189; VI, 186.
(2) Herodotus IV, 110-117; Diodorus of Sicily, The Library of History II, 45; III, 52-55; XVII, 77.1-3; Historia Augusta, Life of Aurelian, XXXIV (“de Amazonum genere”).
(3) Josine H. Blok, The Early Amazons. Modern and Ancient Perspectives on a Persistent Myth, Leyden, New York, Cologne, 1995.

One Breast Cut Off?

“Why are they called Amazons? Because they cut off their right breast, so that it might not be an impediment to archery (ὅτι τὸν δεξιὸν μαζὸν ἔτεμνον, ὅπως μὴ πρὸς τὰς τοξείας ἐμποδὼν γένηται). But this is false, for they would die. But Hellanikos and Diodoros of Sicily (2.45.3) say that before the breast develops, they burn the site (i.e. of the breast) with iron, in order to prevent it from developing” (F. Jacoby, Die Fragmente der grieschischen Historiker, Leiden: Brill (1923-1958; repr. 1954-1969), 4 F 107. Thus, Hellanikos, a Greek historian from the 5th century B.C., refutes a popular belief of his time: the Amazons do not amputate their breasts, which would result in death, but cauterize the site to prevent the breast from developing. Actually, representations of Amazons always show them with their chests intact; the misconception is an example of the tendency of some Greeks to try to rationalize fantastic stories.

L’expansion des kourganes

Fig. 2: Map. The spread of kurgans, funeral mounds in which women were sometimes buried along with weapons. © Wikimedia Commons.

The Tombs of the “Amazons” 

Archeological digs undertaken since the end of the 1990s, particularly of kurgans, in the regions of the Caucasus, proves that the steppe was inhabited by horse-riding peoples from the end of the Bronze Age until at least the time of the Roman Empire. Among these peoples, men and women hunted and fought together. The most recent technology (DNA analysis) proves that some of the deceased whose bodies are marked by war wounds and who were buried along with their weapons were women. It must be added, however, that only 20% (maximum) of women’s tombs found northeast of the Black Sea (particularly between the Don River and the Volga River) dating from the 6th century B.C. onward contained weapons. There were women warriors in the area of the Don beginning in the 6th century, but they accompanied men and constituted a “class” determined by a particular social status and age. While these may not have been Amazons in the epic sense, they certainly were women warriors.

Iaroslav Lebedynsky, Les Amazones. Mythe et réalité des femmes guerrières chez les anciens nomades de la steppe, Paris, Errance, 2009.
Les Amazones du Dahomey

Fig. 3: Postcard: Dahomey Amazon veterans. © Wikimedia Commons. Photo: DR.

Modern Amazons 

It has been a custom since Antiquity to refer to combative women judged to be exceptional as Amazons. Already for the Greeks, such women were modern Amazons—that is, descendants of warlike and mythical foremothers. Thus, Artemisia, the queen of Halicarnassus, who fought the Athenians in the battle of Salamis in 480 B.C., was a warrior woman who really did exist: she lived in Asia Minor, in Halicarnassus, the home town of Herodotus, who dedicated several passages of his Histories to her. Artemisia’s contemporaries already associated her with the Amazons in the sense of a female warrior who resisted the social order (Aristophanes, Lysistrata, 675). There have been many other modern Amazons with no connection to the ancient Amazons of poetry, who mythically represent the potential strength and autonomy of women in all domains of social life.

The Amazons: Mythical Creatures?