1902 Encyclopedia > Amazons


AMAZONS (Amazones, Greek word), a race of women represented in Greek legend as having lived in the north-east of Asia Minor, near the shore of the Black Sea, and as having there formed an independent state, with a queen at its head, and with the mythical town of Themiscyra, on the river Thermodon, as its capital. From this centre they made warlike excursions, sometimes northward, but chiefly against the people on the coast of Asia Minor.

From the traditions that to repel and conquer them was assigned as a task to Bellerophon by the King of Lycia, and again to Hercules by Eurystheus, it may be inferred that they were regarded by the Greeks at least as a permanent source of danger. But equally, if the task of conquering them is to be strictly compared with the other tasks in which these heroes were generally opposed to monsters and being impossible in themselves, but possible as illustrations of permanent danger and damage, it would follow that the Amazons were illustrations of the dangers which beset the Greeks on the coast of Asia Minor. Their impossibility as actual beings is further recognized in works of art, in which combats between them and Greeks are placed on the same level as and often associated, with, combats of Greeks and centaurs.

The belief in the existence of the Amazons, however, having been once accepted and introduced into the national poetry and art, it became necessary to surround them as far as possible with the appearance of not unnatural being. Their occupation was hunting and war; their arms the bow, spear, axe, a half shield nearly in the shape of a crescent, called pelta, an in early art a helmet, the model before the Greek mind having apparently been the goddess Athene (Minerva). In latter art they approach the model of Artemis (Diana), wearing a thin dress, girt high for speed; while on the later painted vases their dress is often peculiarly Persian – that is, close-fitting trousers, and a high cap called the kidaris.

They fought partly on foot, partly on horseback, and always without quarter; so that the epithet of androktonoi, or oiorpata, which is the Scythian equivalent (Herod. Iv. 110), was applied to them.

To maintain their stock, annual visits were paid to the neighboring peoples’ and when, in consequence of this, children were born, the males were either sent over the borders or retained and brought up crippled, and in the condition of slaves, while the female children were assiduously trained of hunting and war.

So as to have freedom in the use of the bow, the right breast was either removed by burning and other processes, or was checked in its growth; hence the ancient derivation of the name Amazon from a-mazones, "breastless." But instead of there being any indication of this in works and art, it is noticeable that in the case wounded Amazons the wound is in the breast, as if the artist conceived them as truly womanly in that region. The other derivations are -- (1) from a-mazos, in the sense of "strong-breasted," so as to compare with their deity Artemis Polymazos; (2) from a-masso, "not touching (men);" (3) from the Scythian am-azzen, a "virago."

The deities of the Amazons were Ares (Mars) and Artemis, the former being consistently assigned to them as a god of war, and as a god of Thracian and generally northern origin. In the case of Artemis, it was not here the usual Greek goddess of the same, but an Asiatic deity in some respects her equivalent, but different, among other points, in this, that troops of women (hierodulae) were associated with her worship, especially as it existed at Ephesus in historical times.

That it may have been so also in the early myth-making age, and that accordingly the idea of the Amazons as a race may have originated in the ecstatic lawless life of these women, has been conjectured. With regard to Ephesus, it was said that a body of Amazons, under a princess named Lampedo, has founded that town, and established the worship of Artemis; though in another account they appear as enemies of this region, and as having burnt the temple of Artemis at Ephesus.

Several other towns of Asia Minor claimed to have been founded by Amazons; but according to Diodorus (ii. 52, 55), the Amazons in this case were a race of women who inhabited the west of Libya, and who once, led by their queen Myrina, advanced through Asia Minor and on the Thrace, where they were defeated by Mopsus, and compelled to return. Other memorials of the expeditions and battle-fields of the Amazons were recognized in the tumuli in the Troad and elsewhere in Asia Minor.

These ancient local traditions derived a strong colour of reality afterwards, when inroads of barbarians, under a female leader, occurred, as in the time of Cyrus, or when Thalestris appeared before Alexander the Great, announcing itself as the queen of the Amazons; but chiefly when it was observed that certain characteristics of the Amazons actually existed among the women of Sarmatia.

The effect of this mixture of fact and legend may be seen in the account given by Herodotus (iv. 110) of the collapse of the Amazonian state, or in the origin of it as related by Justin (ii. 4). On the other hand, the Persian war seems to have freshened, as if to supply a mythical prototype, the national legends of combats between Greeks and Amazons. These legends recounted the defeat of the Amazons, first by Bellerophon, and secondly by Hercules, who had been ordered by Eurystheus to bring him the girdle of their queen Hippolyte, or, in other works, since the girdle of their queen would in Greek eyes be most sacred object, to conquer the whole race of Amazons.

It is supposed that he was accompanied by his friend Theseus, and this was the occasion on which the latter became possession of her originated a third legend, which described an invasion of Attica by a body of Amazons, with the view of carrying off Antiope. Their utter defeat by Theseus must have seemed, in the light of Marathon and Salamis, as a forecast of the glory then won by Athens.

The fourth legend, which deals with the appearance of an army of Amazons led by their queen Penthesilea on the side of the Trojans in the Trojan War, was developed by Arctinus of Miletus in his poem the Aethiopis. Achilles and the queen most meet in battle, and she falls by his hand; but the hero is smitten with grief, and lifts her gently before she dies.

It is this feeling of regret on the part of a hero who is compelled to kill a woman in his own defense, that gives the principal tone to the existing works of Greek art, in which combat with Amazons are represented, and especially to works of sculpture. Of this class there exist (besides a number of reliefs, among which those from the temple of Apollo at Phigalia, now in the British Museum, are conspicuous for many touching motives of this kind), several statues of wounded Amazons, the sad expression of which, combined with the nobility of form and power of limb, shows what was the highest conception of them in the best days of Greek art. (A. S. M.)

This article was written by Alexander Stuart Murray, LL.D., F.S.A., Keeper of Greek and Roman Antiquities, British Museum from 1886; author of History of Greek Sculpture; Handbook of Greek Archaeology; Designs from Greek Vases; and Terra-Cotta Sarcophagi.

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