Who are the Amazons in Greek Mythology?
In Greek mythology, the Amazons (or also known as the Amazonian Women) were a tribe of female warriors, supposedly descended from ARES, the Greek god of war, and the Naiad Harmonia. Their home was situated beyond the Black Sea, a city called Themiscyra. It was thought that their name refers to their breastless conditions, for the Amazonian women voluntarily removed their breasts so that they might more easily draw a bow.
The ancient Greeks believed these fierce warriors periodically mated with the men from another tribe, afterwards rearing their female children but disregarding or maiming all the males.
During the Trojan War, they fought against the Greeks. Although Achilles killed the Amazon queen Penthesilea, he never succeeded in shaking off the rumour that he had been in love with the queen. He even slew a comrade who mentioned it.
The adventures of both Heracles and Theseus involved battles with the Amazons. One of Heracles’ famous labours was the seizure of a girdle belonging to the Amazon queen Hippolyta, a theft that required considerable nerve.
Let’s find out more about the Amazons. Enjoy!
In Greek mythology, we see warriors everywhere. Whether it’s a god, demigod, hero or even just a well-trained immortal. There is no shortage of conflict and war, so it’s not a surprise that there are so many tales of brave warriors.
Outside of Athena and a few other examples, these figures are almost exclusively male. However, there was a tribe that consisted of nothing but female warriors, who were given their island out of fear.
With this tribe, we certainly have a unique and interesting story, and that is why today we are looking at the Amazons—Greek mythology’s most feared female warriors.
Where did the Amazons Come From? — The Genesis
Who were these mysterious women? Where did they come from? And, wherein Greek mythology did they appear? The majority of Greek scholars agreed that this tribe descended from the god Ares and a nymph named Harmonia.
One of the most famous pieces of work detailing this would be “the Argonautica”—the story of Jason and the argonauts, as told by Apollonius. He portrays them as brutal and aggressive. Their only concern is war, as that is what they were bred for.
It’s not often we see women in Greek mythology portrayed in this way, even if we take the most famous Athena as an example. Although she is a goddess associated with war and took part in many battles, that’s only one side of her. She’s also creative, strategic and calculated. She’s not particularly aggressive or brutal.
So, if Athena represented strategic warfare, then Ares is the other side of the coin. He represents the more physical, aggressive and gritty part of the war. Much of the time, he’s driven by bloodthirst and raw emotion—everything Athena is not.
When you take the nature and temperament of their father into consideration, the way these women are portrayed is no longer a surprise. It’s what you would expect.
Where did the Amazonian Live?
The home of the Amazons is something that differs drastically depending on your source. If we go with the Argonautica, Jason and the Argonauts came across a port that belonged to the amazons just off the river Thermodon, which would place them around modern-day Turkey.
Here, they had a capital city known as Themiscyra, which Heracles visited during his 12 labours. This is where the Amazons lived.
Some believe they instead migrated from Libya, and others placed them much further north around Ukraine and Russia. Regardless of the location, it’s always isolated and just outside of what the ancient Greeks considered the civilized world, which fits their wild and unpredictable nature.
Men were not allowed to live on this island, and for the most part, they lived isolated entirely from the male populace, except when it came to reproduction and war.
How Did the Amazons Reproduce?
When it came to keeping the tribe populated, once a year, they would visit a nearby all-male warrior tribe known as the Gargareans.
When the children were born, if they were male, they would be sent to the Gargareans; if they were females, they would be raised by the amazons in Themiscyra.
There is also a story that states the two tribes once lived in Themiscyra together, but after war broke out, they agreed to go their separate ways and only concern each other with matters of reproduction.
In the same way, we’ve grown accustomed to the spartan way of life being that of a warrior. The Amazons raised their children in the same vein. This upbringing would not have been for the weak hearted.
They were so committed to this way of life that they would even go as far as searing the breasts of new-born children, giving them a more comprehensive range of motion, making using a bow and throwing a spear much easier.
The Queens of the Amazons and Their Stories
Over the years, the amazons had many different queens. One of the main issues of going to war so often is that your leader’s chances of being killed in battle are significantly increased. And so, there would always have to be someone ready to step up and assume the queen’s mantle.
As we’ve already mentioned the Argonautica and the labours of Heracles, maybe we should start with those stories first.
Jason and the argonauts didn’t have much interaction with the Amazons themselves. As they journeyed through the black sea in their quest to find the golden fleece, they stopped off at a port to rest.
When they found out that they had docked in Amazon territory, they quickly fled and set sail. Luckily for them, this went unnoticed as the amazons were still dealing with the aftermath of Heracles visiting their city.
For his ninth labour, Heracles was told to travel to Themiscyra and retrieve a magical girdle given to the then amazon queen Hippolyta by her father, Ares. A task that would not be easy to fulfil without bloodshed.
This was then made even more complicated when the goddess Hera disguised herself as one of the Amazons and started spreading rumours that Heracles was there to kidnap their queen.
When Heracles and his men arrived on their shores, they were attacked immediately. And so, with the option of diplomacy no longer available, Heracles killed Hippolyta, took the belt and sailed away, leaving the amazons to find a new leader.
In an alternative version to this story, Heracles and Hippolyta came to a peaceful agreement regarding the girdle. You’d imagine Heracles being a big strong warrior would have meant there was some kind of mutual respect between the two.
Unhappy with how successful these negotiations were, the goddess Hera would once again intervene, spreading rumours that these guests were here to kidnap Hippolyta, and the rest of this story plays out the same way as the first.
There is much more to Hippolyta, though than just this story. Some say that when the hero Theseus visited her kingdom, she fell in love and agreed to leave her people behind. She travelled to Athens, got married and bore his child. This made her the first and only Amazonian to wed.
This angered the rest of the Amazons enough to declare war on Athens, which was referred to as the Attic war.
In other renditions, Theseus changed his mind and chose to marry the Cretan princess Phaedra. Hippolyta then rallied the Amazons and attacked Athens during their wedding ceremony. In this battle, Hippolyta once again dies. Either at the hands of Theseus, Achilles or accidentally by her sister.
It’s a bit confusing, in all honesty, because she appears in so many different stories, and she’s always a slightly different person. Some even started to assume that this must have been referring to more than just one woman. So, you may as well just pick the story you like best.
The Amazonian women were also mentioned regarding the trojan war, where they swap sides halfway through. Showing they don’t care for allegiances or politics. If there were a war nearby, they would participate with very few questions asked.
Towards the end of the trojan war, the amazons were under the rule of Hippolytus sister, queen Penthesilea. She decided to switch sides and fight against the Greeks, which would end rather poorly.
Her encounter with Achilles is detailed in Aethiopis, one of the lost epic cycles that made up the trojan cycle.
The queen arrived on the battlefield with 12 other amazons. And after a day, she confronted Achilles. Just like many before who thought they could best Achilles, she died in combat. But after removing her helmet, Achilles saw a woman that he fell in love with.
One of his fellow soldiers, known as Thersites, made sure to show his disapproval of Achilles falling in love during combat and even questioning whether his ability to lead had been compromised. In some accounts, he even went as far as to tear out the eyes of Penthesilea to make the point; and that he certainly did.
Achilles turned his love and sorrow into anger and killed the soldier where he stood. This led to him then having to journey to the island of Lesbos to be cleansed of this murder before rejoining the battle.
The Stories the Amazons were Involved in
Bellerophon and the Amazons
It does almost seem to be a mandatory requirement that they will encounter the Amazons at some point in a Greek hero’s life. One of the stories we haven’t mentioned is in the redemption arc of Bellerophon.
Here the amazon tribe is located near Lycia, and Bellerophon is sent to quell the uprising by the king of Lycia in the hopes that he will be killed during this task. With the help of Pegasus, he’s able to defeat the Amazons and the nearby tribe by flying above and dropping boulders on them.
Dionysus and the Amazons
There are also numerous stories involving Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and festivity. One where a conflict between him and the Amazons results in a full-blown war, where he chases them from island to island, killing most of them on what would later be dubbed the blood-soaked field.
During his conquest of India, they were also listed amongst those who fought alongside Dionysus against some of the titans. Homer’s Iliad mentions the tomb of Myrina, an amazon queen who in later interpretations was said to have conquered parts of Libya when she invaded Atlantean cities.
The most famous of these being the city of Carney, which the Amazons sacked. All of the men were then murdered, and the women and children were forced into slavery. Myrina, however, showed considerably more compassion towards the people than the rest of the amazons and agreed to look upon the city with kindness.
Those who wish to settle and live in peace with the natives did so, and those who were more bloodthirsty took their talents elsewhere.
The poet Diodorus believed Myrina and the rest of the amazons charged into battle accompanied by gigantic snakes. And even went as far as to describe a fight between the Amazons and the Gorgons, from which the Amazons emerge victoriously.
The Amazons’ Depictions
It’s also quite common to see these women riding horses into battle, and this is reinforced by the notion that the Amazons were amongst the first to ride cavalry into battle.
The author Palaephatus wrote a text trying to rationalize many aspects of Greek mythology. He believed the Amazons might not have even been women. Instead, they could have been men mistaken for women because of their clothing, hair tied back in headbands, and their shaven facial hair.
It’s a theory that makes sense if these tribes ever existed. But from a mythological storytelling standpoint, it’s not one that many poets agree on.
A much more common explanation is that the Amazon legend may have been inspired by the real-life warrior women of the surrounding nations, such as the Sarmatians and Scythians.
Despite which explanation you prefer, there are many named Amazons in Greek and Roman mythology. Some of these may be no more than a name on a piece of paper, and others, having elaborate stories of their conquests and battles.
Wonder Woman — The Amazons in DC Comics
I can’t really make an article about the Amazons and not mention the massive influence they had on DC comics, especially with wonder woman.
Over the years, the origin story of wonder woman has been retconned and rewritten a few times, but the influence Greek mythology had on these comics is plain to see.
The DC Amazons live on Paradise Island, which is also known as Themiscyra. An island isolated from the rest of the world.
Hippolyta is the queen of the Amazons, and Penthesilea is also a name that appears in the comics and the movie. The amazons in these comics are super-fast, strong, durable, and can use all manner of weapons. They also never age as long as they remain in Themiscyra.
War is something that we see all the time in Greek mythology, and it is often men leading these battles. So, it’s interesting to have an all-female tribe, the Amazonian Women (or the Amazons), that also conquered parts of the world and took part in every war they could, even if they were just men mistaken for women or women mistaken for men.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that wherever the Amazons went, there was bloodshed and death.
Image Sources: SYNDIII (HQ), Satine Zillah, Tuan Anh Vu Le.