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In Greek mythology, the Amazons were a race of warlike women noted for their 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 Hippolyta and although Homer tells us
they were ‘the equal of men’, they fought and lost separate battles against three Greek heroes: HerculesTheseus 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
In mythology, the Amazons were daughters of Ares, the god of war. They were a women-only society where men were welcomed only for breeding purposes and all male infants were killed. In legend, the Amazons burnt off their right breast in order to better use a bow and throw a spear, indeed, the word amazon may signify ‘breastless’. Interestingly though, Amazons are not depicted in Greek art with a missing breast. They are most often depicted wearing hoplite armour and frequently ride a horse. The most common weapon is the bow and spear but there are also examples where Amazons carry axes.


The origin of the word is uncertain. It may be derived from an Iranian ethnonym *ha-mazan- “warriors”, a word attested indirectly through a derivation, a denominal verb in Hesychius of Alexandria’s gloss. “ἁμαζακάραν· πολεμεῖν. Πέρσαι” (“hamazakaran: ‘to make war’ in Persian”), where it appears together with the Indo Iranian root *kar- “make” (from which Sanskrit karma is also derived).
It may also be derived from *ṇ-mṇ-gw-jon-es “manless, without husbands” (a- privative and a derivation of *man- also found in Slavic muzh) has been proposed, an explanation deemed “unlikely” by Hjalmar Frisk. 19th century scholarship also connected the term to the ethnonym Amazigh. A further explanation proposes Iranian *ama-janah “virility-killing” as source.
The Hittite researcher Friedrich Cornelius assumes that there had been the land Azzi with the capital Chajasa in the area of the Thermodon-Iris Delta on the coast of the Black Sea. He brings its residents in direct relation to the Amazons, namely based on its name (woman of the land Azzi = ‘Am’+ ‘Azzi’ = Amazon) and its customs (matriarchal custom of promiscuous sexual intercourse, even with blood relatives). The location of that land as well as his conclusions are controversial. — Gerhard Pollauer
Among Classical Greeks, amazon was given a folk etymology as originating from a- (ἀ-) and mazos (μαζός), “without breast”, connected with an etiological tradition once claimed
by Marcus Justinus who alleged that Amazons had their right breast cut off or burnt out. There is no indication of such a practice in ancient works of art, in which the Amazons are always represented with both breasts, although one is frequently covered. Adrienne Mayor suggests the origin of this myth was due to the word’s etymology.
Greeks also used some descriptive phrases for them. Herodotus used the Androktones (Greek: Ανδροκτόνες, singular Ανδροκτόνα, Androktonα) (“killers of men”) and Androleteirai (Greek: Ανδρολέτειραι, singular Ανδρολέτειρα, Androleteira)
(“destroyers of men, murderesses”), in the Iliad they are also called Antianeirai (Greek: Αντιάνειραι, singular Αντιάνειρα, Antianeira)
(“those who fight like men”) and Aeschylus in his work, Prometheus Bound, used the styganor (Greek: στυγάνορ) (“those who loathe all men”).


Herodotus and Strabo placed them on the banks of the Thermodon and Themiscyra. Herodotus also mentions that some Amazons lived at Scythia because after the Greeks
defeated the Amazons in battle, they sailed away carrying in three ships as many Amazons as they had been able to take alive, but out at sea the Amazons attacked the crews and killed them, then these Amazons landed at Scythian lands. Strabo writes that the original home of the Amazons was in Themiscyra and the plains about Thermodon and the mountains that lie above them, but were later driven out of these places, and during his time they were said to live in
the mountains above Caucasian Albania (not to be confused with the modern Albania), but he also states that some others, among them Metrodorus of Scepsis and Hypsicrates, say that after Themiscyra, the Amazons traveled and lived on the borders of the Gargarians, in the northerly foothills of those parts of the Caucasian Mountains which are called Ceraunian. Diodorus giving the account of Dionysius of Mitylene, who, on his part, drew on Thymoetas states that before the Amazons of the Thermodon there were, much earlier in time, the Amazons of Libya. These Amazons started from Libyapassed through Egypt and Syria, and stopped at the Caïcus in Aeolis, near which they founded several
cities. Later, he says, they established Mitylene a little way beyond the
Caïcus. Aeschylus, at Prometheus Bound, places the original home of the Amazons in the country about Lake Maeotis and they later moved to Themiscyra on the Thermodon. According to Pseudo-Plutarch, the Amazons lived in and about the Tanais (Greek: Τάναϊς) river (modern Don river),
formerly called the Amazonian or Amazon (Greek: Ἀμαζόνιος) river, because the
Amazons bathed themselves therein. The Amazons later moved to Themiscyra (modern Terme) on the River Thermodon(the Terme river in northern Turkey). Plutarch, mentions that the campaign(s) of Heracles and Theseus against the Amazons was
at Euxine Sea (modern Black Sea). Homer tells that the Amazons were sought and found somewhere near Lycia.
The Amazons were supposed to have founded many towns, amongst them Smyrna, Ephesus, Cyme, Myrina, Sinope, Paphos, Mitylene. At Patmos there was a place called
Amazonium. Also, on the island of Lemnos, there was another Myrina. The cities of Myrina had this name after the amazon Myrina.
Apollonius Rhodius, at Argonautica, mentions that at Thermodon the Amazons were not gathered together in one city, but scattered over the land, parted into three tribes. In one part dwelt the Themiscyreians (Greek: Θεμισκύρειαι), in another the Lycastians (Greek: Λυκάστιαι), and in another the Chadesians (Greek: Χαδήσιαι).


Greeks also used other names for
them. Herodotus used the Androktones (Greek: Ανδροκτόνες, singular Ανδροκτόνα, Androktonα)
(“killers/slayers of men”) and Androleteirai (Greek: Ανδρολέτειραι, singular Ανδρολέτειρα, Androleteira)
(“destroyers of men, murderesses”),  in the Iliad they are also called Antianeirai (Greek: Αντιάνειραι, singular Αντιάνειρα, Antianeira)
(“those who fight like men”) and Aeschylus used the Steganor (Greek: Στυγάνορ)
(“those who loathe all men”)
Herodotus stated that in the Scythian
language they were called Oiorpata, oior means “man”, and pata means “to slay”


The first meeting between Greeks and Amazons was when Hercules was sent by Eurystheus, the king of MycenaeTiryns and Argos on one of his celebrated twelve labours, this time to fetch the girdle of the Amazon queen Hippolyta. 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 Theseus. In some versions, the taking of the girdle turned out to be rather easier than expected when Hippolyta 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 cult statue of Zeus, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, was also decorated with scenes from this famous myth.
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.
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, the king sent the hero to serve Iobates. 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 in Lycia on his victorious return. 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 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 and the scene is captured on a celebrated black-figure vase by Exekias (c. 540 BCE).


In some versions of the myth, no men were permitted to have sexual encounters or
reside in Amazon country; but once a year, in order to prevent their race from dying out, they visited the Gargareans, a neighbouring tribe.
Strabo, giving credits to Metrodorus of Scepsis and Hypsicrates, mentions that at his time the Amazons were believed to live on the borders of the Gargareans. There were two special months in the spring in which they would go up into the neighboring mountain which separates them and the Gargareans. The Gargareans also, in accordance with an ancient custom, would go there to offer sacrifice with the Amazons and also to have intercourse with them for the sake of begetting children. They did this in secrecy and darkness, any Gargareans at random with any Amazon, and after
making them pregnant they would send them away. Any females that were born are
retained by the Amazons themselves, but the males would be taken to the Gargareans to be brought up; and each Gargarean to whom a child is brought would adopt the child as his own, regarding the child as his son because of his uncertainty. He also stated that the Gargareans went up from Themiscyra into this region with the Amazons, then, in company with some Thracians and Euboeans who had wandered thus far, waged war against them. They later ended the war against the Amazons and made a compact that they should have dealings with one another only in the matter of children, and that each people should
live independent of the other. In addition, he states that the right breasts of all Amazons are seared when they are infants, so that they can easily use their right arm for every needed purpose, and especially that of
throwing the javelin and use the bow.
Herodotus mentions that when Greeks defeated the Amazons at war, they sailed away carrying in three ships as many Amazons as they had been able to take alive,
but out at sea the Amazons attacked the crews and killed them. But the Amazons
knew nothing about ships so they were driven about by waves and winds and they
were disembarked at the land of the Scythians, there they met first with a troop of horses feeding, they seized them and mounted upon these they plundered the property of the Scythians. The Scythians were not able to understand them because they did not know either their speech or their dress or the race to which they belonged, and they thought that they were men. Scythians fought a battle against them, and after the battle the Scythians got possession of the bodies of the dead, and thus they discovered that they were women. After the battle Scythians sent young men and told them to encamp near the Amazons and to
do whatsoever they should do. If the women should come after them, they were not to fight but to retire before them, and when the women stopped, they were to approach near and encamp. This plan was adopted by the Scythians because they desired to have children born from them. When the Amazons perceived that they had not come to do them any harm, they let them alone; and the two camps approached nearer to one another every day: and the young men, like the Amazons, had nothing except their arms and their horses and got their living, as the Amazons did, by hunting and by taking booty. One day a Scythian and an Amazon came close. They could not speak to each other because they were speaking different languages but the Amazon made signs to him with her hand to come. Later the young Scythians and the Amazons joined their camps and lived together, each man having for his wife her with whom he had had dealings at first. The men were not able to learn the language of the Amazons, but the
women learned Scythian.
Apollonius Rhodius, at Argonautica, mentions that Amazons were the daughters of Ares and Harmonia (a nymph of the Akmonian Wood). They were brutal and aggressive, and their main concern in life was war. According to him, the Amazons were not gathered together in one city, but scattered over the land, parted into three tribes. In one part dwelt the Themiscyreians (Greek: Θεμισκύρειαι), in another the Lycastians (Greek: Λυκάστιαι), and in another the Chadesians (Greek: Χαδήσιαι). Also, he mention that on an island, the Queens of the Amazons, Otrere (Greek: Ὀτρηρή) and Antiope (Greek: Ἀντιόπη),
built a marble temple of Ares. On this desert island there were ravening birds, which in countless numbers haunt it. Argonauts passed by Themiscyra on their journey to Colchis. Zeus sent Boreas (the North Wind), and with his help the Argonauts stood out from the shore near Themiscyra where the Themiscyreian Amazons were arming for battle.
The King Iobates sent Bellerophon against Amazons, hoping that they would kill him, but Bellerophon killed them all.
The Amazons appear in Greek art of
the Archaic period and in connection with several Greek legends. The tomb of Myrine is mentioned in the Iliad; later interpretation made of her an Amazon: according to Diodorus, the Amazons under the rule of Queen Myrina, invaded the lands of the Atlantians. Amazons defeated the army of
the Atlantian city of Cerne, treated the captives savagely, killed all the men, led into slavery the children and women, and razed the city. When the terrible fate of the inhabitants of Cerne became known among the other Atlantians, they were struck with terror, surrendered their cities on terms of capitulation and announced that they would do whatever should be commended them. Queen Myrina bearing herself honourably towards the Atlantians, established friendship with them and founded a city to bear her name in place of the city of Cerne which had been razed; and in it she settled both the captives and any native who so
desired. Atlantians presented her with magnificent presents and by public decree voted to her notable honours, and she in return accepted their courtesy and in addition promised that she would show kindness to their nation. Diodorus also mentions that the Amazons of Queen Myrina used the skins of gigantic snakes, from Libya, to protect themselves at battle. Later Queen Myrine led her Amazons to victory against the Gorgons. After the battle against the
Gorgons, Myrina accorded a funeral to her fallen comrades on three pyres and raised up three great heaps of earth as tombs, which are called “Amazon Mounds” (Greek: Ἀμαζόνων σωροὺς).
One of the tasks imposed upon Hercules by Eurystheus was to obtain possession of the girdle of the Amazonian queen Hippolyta. He was accompanied by his friend Theseus, who carried off the princess Antiope, sister of Hippolyta, an incident which led to a retaliatory invasion of Attica, in which Antiope perished fighting by the side of Theseus. In some versions, however, Theseus
marries Hippolyta and in others, he marries Antiope and she does not die; by this marriage with the Amazon Theseus had a son Hippolytus.
In another version of this myth, Theseus made this voyage on his own account, after the time of Heracles. The battle between the Athenians and Amazons is often commemorated in an entire genre of art, amazonomachy, in marble bas-reliefs such as from the Parthenon or the sculptures of
the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus.
Plutarch, in his work Parallel Lives-The Life of Theseus, mentions that Bion said that the Amazons, were naturally friendly to men, and did not fly from Theseus when he touched upon their coasts.
Amazons attacked the Phrygians, who were
assisted by Priam, then a young man. In his later years, however, towards the end of the Trojan War, his old opponents took his side
against the Greeks under their queen Penthesilea “of Thracian birth”, who was slain by Achilles.
The god Dionysus and his entourage fought the amazons at Ephesus, the amazons fled to Samos, but Dionysus pursued them and at Samos he killed a great number of them on a
spot which was, from that occurrence, called Panaema (Greek: Πάναιμα), which means blood-soaked field. In another myth Dionysus united with the Amazons to fight against Cronus and the Titans.
The Amazons are also said to have undertaken an expedition against the island of Leuke, at the mouth of the Danube, where the ashes of Achilles had been deposited by Thetis. The ghost of the dead hero appeared
and so terrified the horses, that they threw and trampled upon the invaders, who were forced to retire. Pompey is said to have found them in the army of Mithridates.
They are heard of in the time of Alexander, when some of the king’s biographers make
mention of Amazon Queen Thalestris visiting
him and becoming a mother by him (the story is known from the Alexander Romance). However, several other biographers of Alexander dispute the claim, including the highly regarded secondary source, Plutarch. In his writing he makes mention of a moment when Alexander’s secondary naval commander, Onesicritus, was reading the Amazon passage of his Alexander history to King Lysimachus of Thrace who was on the original expedition: the king smiled at him and said “And where was I, then?”
The Roman writer Virgil’s characterization of the Volscian warrior maiden Camilla in the Aeneid borrows heavily from the myth of the Amazons.
Jordanes’ Getica (c. 560), purporting to give the earliest history of the Goths, relates that the Goths’ ancestors, descendants of Magog, originally dwelt within Scythia, on the Sea of Azov between the Dnieper and Don Rivers.
After a few centuries, following an incident where the Goths’ women successfully fended off a raid by a neighboring tribe, while the menfolk were off campaigning against Pharaoh Vesosis, the women formed their own army under Marpesia and crossed the Don, invading Asia. Her sister Lampedo remained in Europe to guard the homeland. They procreated with men once a year. These
Amazons conquered Armenia, Syria, and all of Asia Minor, even reaching Ionia and Aeolia, holding this vast territory for 100
years. Jordanes also mentions that they fought with Hercules, and in the Trojan
War, and that a smaller contingent of them endured in the Caucasus Mountains until the time of Alexander. He mentions by name the Queens Menalippe, Hippolyta, and Penthesilea.
In the Grottaferrata Version of Digenes Akritas, the twelfth century medieval epic of Basil, the Greek-Syrian knight of the Byzantine frontier, the hero battles with and kills the female warrior Maximo.


More general Amazonomachies (battles with Amazons) were present on the shield of the cult statue of Athena Parthenos in the Parthenon (438 BCE), on the west pediment of the Temple of Asklepios 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 Athens agora. 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 both on black and red-figure 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 Persian Armies of Dariusat Marathon (490 BCE), Xerxes at Salamis and the Persian attack on Athens itself in 480 BCE. In this sense, Amazons came to represent 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.



By Johnson Okunade

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