In Greek literature and art, the Amazons are a tribe of women, said to be descended from the god Ares and living on the geographical margins of the Greek world, near the river Thermodon or, alternatively, in Libya. Their primary activity is fighting, and their social organization reverses patriarchal norms. First mentioned in the Iliad, they play a part in the legends surrounding Achilles, Hercules, and Theseus. As a collective enemy to Athens, they offer in the classical period a foil for Athenian self-definition. Herodotus and later anthropological writers develop an account of their customs, and some writers record contact between the Amazons and Alexander the Great. Literary and anthropological strands of Amazon lore survived into the Middle Ages and beyond. Scholarly debate over the Amazons remains a testing ground for issues of gender and culture in classical studies. While scholars have attempted to find a historical basis for the Amazons, even casting them as reflections of an original matriarchy, scholarship at the turn of the twenty-first century tends to agnosticism on the historical basis of the myth and focus on its cultural deployment as a reflection of the self-definition of patriarchal Greek culture through a fascination with or repudiation of its opposite Other.
Amazons are mentioned in the Iliad as women "equivalent to men," with whom male heroes have military encounters. In the Iliad these encounters are in the poem's past (Priam's youth, the inset story of Bellerophon), reflecting already a tendency both to integrate the Amazons into the lives of various heroes and to posit them as long ago and far away. The existence of an Amazon tomb outside Troy is an early literary glimpse of the attribution to Amazons the origins of tombs and cities scattered through the Greek world.
The fullest early account of Achilles' fight with an Amazon is lost: the Aethiopis, an installment of the post-Homeric epic cycle (7-6th century bce), told the story of Penthesilea, the Amazon queen who came in on the Trojan side of the Trojan War after the death of Hector. Achilles defeats Penthesilea and later kills the Greek Thersites for suggesting that Achilles had been sexually attracted to her for mocking Achilles. The (probably) third-century ce Quintus of Smyrna develops this episode (Posthomerica, Book 1).
The role of the Amazons in the legends of Hercules and later Theseus reflects the ambivalent status of the female warrior in the mythic tradition. One of the tasks of Hercules is to steal the girdle of the queen of the Amazons; this involves a military encounter (Euripides, Hercules Furens ln. 408-411 and Heraclidae ln. 217; Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica ln. 2.966-969; the legend is better attested in visual art than in early literature). To the function of Amazons as male-equivalent opponents for the hero is added the ambiguity of their femininity, for the stealing of the girdle, an emblem of the loss of virginity, figures the violence of Hercules's Amazon encounter as rape rather than warfare. In the Theseus legend this is explicit, as Theseus rapes and carries off the Amazon queen Hippolyta, with a twofold effect: The Amazons invade Attica to recover their queen and are defeated by the Athenians; and the Amazon concubine/wife bears Theseus a son, Hippolytus, whose rejection of marriage may reflect his Amazon heritage. (Theseus's Amazon encounter is told in another lost source, the Theseid; among extant sources, see Plutarch's Life of Theseus.) Both the individual combats of Achilles, Hercules, and Theseus with Amazons and pitched battles involving Amazons are frequent subjects in Greek art. Athenian propaganda, both verbal and visual, links the Amazon invaders of Attica to the Persian invaders of Greece.
The myth of an all-female society of Amazons generated anthropological literature that posited a female-dominated society that must nonetheless have negotiated a relationship with men to secure its propagation. Herodotus (4.110-117) recounts an initially hostile encounter between Amazons and Scythian men that leads to marriage and the formation of a new people, the Sauromatians. The Amazons, resisting integration into patriarchal society, insist on keeping their military customs. According to the first-century bce historian Diodorus Siculus, Amazon society includes men, but men are subordinated and allotted the "female" tasks of child care and household management (3.53.1-3). Another arrangement appears in the work of the geographer Strabo, who declares that the Amazons live by themselves, but have set encounters with a people called the Gargarians for purposes of conception (11.5.1-2). A common anthropological datum is that Amazons cauterize the left breast in order to wield the bow and javelin; they are also sometimes said to kill or mutilate male children. Thus an exclusively or dominantly female society is defined by violence visited on both male and female bodies. Yet the portrait that emerges from the anthropological accounts is of a constructively functional society, capable of civilized negotiation from a position of strength.
Several authors (Diodorus Siculus, Justin, Quintus Curtius Rufus) record Alexander the Great's encounter with the Amazon queen Thalestris, who strikes a bargain whereby she preserves her independence and has an opportunity to conceive Alexander's child, though ancient opinion on the incident remained skeptical (see the works of Arrian and Plutarch). The negotiation of childbearing reflects the anthropological interest in the propagation of Amazon society; it also allows the male-equivalent Amazons of the mythical tradition a fully functional sexuality and an encounter with a male hero that features neither doomed combat nor rape.
In the Middle Ages Amazons continued to provide a venue for thinking about gender construction and essentialism within culture. The encyclopedist Isidore of Seville (560–636) cites two traditional etymologies of "Amazon." One, derived from "without breast," emphasizes the constructed and sacrificial aspects of the femininity-wounding experiment in the autonomous femininity that the Amazons represent; the other, derived from "living together," stresses instead the communal completeness of an all-female society. Two literary treatments of the Amazon from the twelfth century consider similar dichotomies. Joseph of Exeter in his Troy epic the Ylias makes Penthesilea's aristeia (her display of prowess in a series of combats) and death a showcase for gender in epic. While allowing her opponent to mock her for shaming Mars by wielding male weapons, the narrator shares with the reader anthropological data that accounts for Penthesilea's nature while bypassing gender: the cold climate she comes from, the reader is told, makes her hardy and warlike. At the moment of her death, however, the poet borrows from Virgil and Ovid to reassert Penthesilea's biologically embodied and culturally coded femininity. Pierced through the nipple like Virgil's Camilla, she gathers her garments around her as she falls in a gesture borrowed from Ovid's sacrificed Polyxena. Another twelfth-century epic, Walter of Châtillon's Alexandreis—adapting Quintus Curtius Rufus's account of Alexander's encounter with Thalestris, and playing on themes of concealment and display, appearance and reality—transfers the gaze at least temporarily from Alexander to the Amazon Other, and suggests that the mutilation to which Amazons subject their bodies marks a positive cultural reconfiguration of the imposed lack of femininity.
Bachofen, Johann Jakob. 1948. Das Mutterrecht. Basel: Schwabe.
Blok, Josine H. 1995. The Early Amazons: Modern and Ancient Perspectives on a Persistent Myth. New York: Brill.
von Bothmer, Dietrich. 1957. Amazons in Greek Art. Oxford, UK: Clarendon.
Townsend, D. 1995. "Sex and the Single Amazon in Twelfth-Century Latin Epic." University of Toronto Quarterly 64: 255-273.
Sylvia A. Parsons