Hippolyte and the Amazons of Ancient Greece
By Mark Cartwright
In Greek mythology, the Amazons were a race of warlike women noted for their riding skills, courage, and pride, who lived at the outer limits of the known world, sometimes specifically mentioned as the city of Themiskyra on the Black Sea. Their queen was Hippolyte, and although Homer tells us they were ‘the equal of men’, they most famously fought and lost separate battles against three Greek heroes: Hercules, Theseus, and Bellerophon. Scenes from these battles were popular in Greek art, especially on pottery and in monumental sculpture adorning some of the most important buildings in the Greek world, including the Parthenon of Athens. Intriguingly, archaeological investigation of tombs across Eurasia has shown conclusively that many women of nomadic steppe tribes were indeed warriors, particularly around the Black Sea area.
Origins and Name
In mythology, the Amazons were daughters of Ares, the god of war. They were members of a women-only society where men were welcomed only for breeding purposes and all male infants were killed. They were thought to dwell at the edge of what the Greeks considered their ‘civilized’ world and were most often associated with the area around the southern coast of the Black Sea, particularly the city-state of Themiskyra. Another Anatolian connection was at Ephesus, where it was thought Amazons had sacrificed to the goddess of hunting Artemis at her temple there and performed war dances, a ceremony repeated annually thereafter. Indeed, the foundation of many settlements in Asia Minor was credited to Amazons, notably Ephesus, Cyme, Sinope, Priene, Myrina, Smyrna, and Mytilene on Lesbos.
Herodotus (c. 484 – 425/413 BCE), writing in his Histories (Bk. 4, 110-117), gives a lengthy description of a meeting between Amazons and Scythians. Young warriors of the latter group persuaded a number of visiting Amazons to set up a new society together, with the women insisting neither they nor their offspring would change their lifestyles at all. This new race was considered the origins of the Sarmatians in southern Russia, appropriately enough, a people famous for their horses and military aggression.
Essentially, the society of the Amazons was thought of as Greek male-society in reverse and so they pursued such traditional male-dominated activities as horse-riding, hunting, and warfare. In legend (with no supporting historical evidence), the Amazons burnt off their right breast in order to better use a bow and throw a spear, indeed, the term a-mazon was popularly understood as meaning ‘breastless’, although alternative meanings include ‘one breast’ or ‘not breast-fed.’ Another alternative origin of the name is that it comes from Persian and means simply ‘warrior.’ One final interpretation is that the name derives from the Armenian, meaning ‘Moon-goddess’, and refers to priestesses of the Moon on the southern shores of the Black Sea who did, on occasion, bear arms. Interestingly, Amazons are not depicted in ancient Greek art with a missing breast. The historian Adrienne Mayor suggests that the literary confusion, therefore, comes from the similarity between mazon and the Greek word for breast mastos. In art, Amazons are most often depicted wearing hoplite armour and they frequently ride a horse. The most common weapons are the bow and spear, but there are also examples where Amazons carry axes. They were not only regarded as capable warriors but also particular experts at ambush and cavalry charges.
Fighting Greek Heroes
Hercules and Hippolyte
The first meeting between Greeks and Amazons, according to mythology, was when Hercules was sent by Eurystheus, the king of Mycenae, Tiryns, and Argos, on one of his celebrated twelve labours (the 10th), this time to fetch the girdle of the Amazon queen Hippolyte. The girdle was given by her father Ares, and the task was set by Eurystheus precisely because it was an impossibly dangerous endeavour. In some versions of the story, Hercules goes alone, but in other accounts, he first assembles an army led by the finest Greek warriors, including the hero Theseus. In some versions, the taking of the girdle turned out to be rather easier than expected when Hippolyte willingly handed it over, but in other versions, Hera – always against Hercules because he was the fruit of her husband’s illicit affair with Alkmene – stirred up the Amazons to give the Greek hero and his army a hot reception. Fine fighters though the Amazons were, they were no match for the invincible Hercules who took the girdle back to Eurystheus.
Intriguingly, our earliest depictions of the story in pottery predate the literary sources for the tale by two centuries, and they sometimes show Hercules fighting an Amazon named Andromache or Andromeda, and in none is a belt ever depicted. This is, once again, evidence that the oral myths were more complicated and varied than the literary versions that have survived. A more definite plot element is that during this expedition Theseus fell in love with and abducted (or eloped with) the Amazon Antiope, an action which would lead to a second encounter between Greeks and Amazons.
Hercules fighting Amazons was represented in sculpture on the frieze of the Treasury of the Athenians at Delphi (490 BCE), on the Temple of Apollo at Bassae, on the Hephaisteion of Athens (449 BCE) and on metopes on the Temple of Zeus at Olympia (470-456 BCE). The throne of the statue of Zeus at Olympia, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, was also decorated with scenes from this famous myth.
Theseus and Antiope
Theseus eventually became the ruler of Athens, but the Amazons had not forgotten the loss of one of their members and so launched an expedition to rescue Antiope. Theseus defeated the barbarian invaders but during the battle, Antiope was killed. Theseus abducting Antiope is the subject of the pediment from the Temple of Apollo at Eretria (c. 510 BCE) and on the metopes of the Treasury of the Athenians at Delphi. Athens was also the location of annual sacrifices to the Amazons.
Bellerophon and Amazons
Bellerophon was involved in a third meeting between Greeks and Amazons. He was another hero who had to perform impossible tasks in service to a king. This time Proitos, king of Argos, outraged at (false) accusations from his wife that Bellerophon had attacked her, sent the hero to serve Iobates, king of Lycia. It was he who set the hero the task of killing the Chimera – a fantastic creature which was a fire-breathing mix of lion, snake, and goat – and when Bellerophon managed that feat, he was told to go off and fight the Amazons. Naturally, the Greek hero won the day and was even made heir to Iobates’ kingdom on his victorious return.
Achilles and Penthesilea
A fourth and final meeting with Amazons came towards the end of the Trojan War. In the Epic Cycle, we are told that the Amazon Penthesilea, daughter of Ares and the Amazon Otrere, aided the Trojans but was killed in battle by Achilles. In some accounts, Achilles fell in love with his victim when he removed her helmet just as she expired. The scene is captured on a celebrated black-figure vase by Exekias (c. 540 BCE).
More general Amazonomachies (battles with Amazons) were present on the shield of the cult statue of Athena Parthenos inside the Parthenon (438 BCE), on the west pediment of the Temple of Asclepius at Epidaurus (395-375 BCE), on the Temple of Athena Nike on the Athenian Acropolis (c. 425-420 BCE), on the Tholos of Delphi (380-370 BCE), and on the Temple of Ares in the agora of Athens. The oldest depiction of a warrior fighting an Amazon is on a terracotta votive shield from 700 BCE. Hercules fighting Amazons is the hero’s second most popular labour depicted on Greek black-figure pottery (after the Nemean lion) with almost 400 surviving examples. Amazons fighting unnamed warriors were common throughout the 6th and 5th centuries BCE both on black- and red-figure Greek pottery.
In particular, during the 5th century BCE in Athens, these mythological battles with Amazons came to represent contemporary events, i.e. the battles between Greeks and the invading Persians during the Persian Wars. The armies of Darius I at Marathon (490 BCE), Xerxes at Salamis, and the Persian attack on Athens itself in 480 BCE came to be represented by Amazons as the ultimate in barbarous foreigners; indeed depictions of Amazons on pottery in this period are shown actually dressed in Persian costume. Public buildings and their accompanying sculpture were, without doubt, an important method of mass communication, and depictions of heroes fighting Amazons reminded ordinary people that the political leaders had successfully defended Greek culture against the threat of foreign, and in Greek eyes less civilized, invaders.
Amazons in Archaeology
Archaeological excavation of Sarmatian tombs and those of other nomadic tribes elsewhere, especially in Kazakhstan and dating to the time of Herodotus, has revealed the likelihood that some of these women were warriors. Female skeleton remains were not only found with weapons, armour, and horse trappings but also signs of injury from blades and arrowheads. One particular Scythian grave, dating to the 4th century BCE and located near ancient Tyras on the Dniester River on the northern coast of the Black Sea, contained a female skeleton with a wound in the skull probably caused by a battle-axe and a bronze arrowhead firmly stuck in one knee. The deceased had been surrounded by two iron spears, 20 arrows with bronze arrowheads and a bronze knife, as wells as pieces of body armour.
Far from being unique, skeletal analysis and study of their accompanying objects reveal that of over 1,000 such steppe nomad graves, spread across territories from Turkey to Russia, an impressive 37% were warrior women, many of whom had survived and/or succumbed to injuries typical of one-on-one violent combat. Most graves date to the 5th-4th century BCE and the women are, like the Amazons of Greek mythology, always young – between the age of 16 and 30 years old. It certainly seems then, that once again, Greek myth-makers, historians and artists were inspired not only by their imaginations when they created and depicted the Amazon legends but by the historical reality of Eurasian fighting women.
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Originally published by the Ancient History Encyclopedia, 11.14.2019, under a Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.