In Our Time: The Amazons

The Amazons are a staple of Greek mythology. The In Our Time episode about them talked about the sorts of myths that were told about them, whether there was any factual basis for these myths and how they’ve lasted into the modern day. The experts talking about them were Paul Cartledge (Cambridge University), Chiara Franceschini (University College London and the Warburg Institute) and Caroline Vout (Christ’s College, Cambridge).

The Amazons are mentioned in Homer’s poems in a couple of places, and stories are told about them through into Roman times – so they have about a thousand years of appearing in “current” mythology. The feel was consistent across the centuries, although the details often changed. They were a tribe of warrior women who are always situated somewhere on the periphery of the known world – where exactly depends on what parts of the world are best known. Even down to close to the modern day this is true – the Amazon river is named after this myth because an early European explorer came back with tales of being attacked by warrior women as he travelled down the river.

As well as “the people on the periphery” Amazons are women who live apart from men, and so women fulfil the functions that in “proper” Greek society are filled by men – they are warriors and leaders. Vout made the point that the Amazons are one of the “others” that the ancient Greeks defined themselves against. There are reliefs and art depicting Amazons in the same way and the same places that there are reliefs and art of Centaurs. Centaurs are the barbaric people that the Greeks are not – Cartledge told the myth where the Centaurs attend a human wedding and get drunk & try to rape the female guests, sparking a battle. That’s a display of “how not to behave”, the moral is to be Greek not barbarian. In a similar fashion the Amazons are the feminine against which the Greeks prove their masculinity. All three experts talked about particular myths where a Greek hero goes to visit the Amazons & wins over the Amazons or falls in love & brings home an Amazon Queen. The specific legends they mentioned were Hercules stealing the belt of Hippolyta, Penthesilea and Achilles fighting but falling in love as (or after) Achilles kills her, Theseus bringing Hippolyta back to Athens to marry her.

Franceschini talked about the iconography of the Amazons – they are always shown fully dressed. At first in Greek style clothing, but later in a style of outfit that she described as like a jumpsuit. They carried weapons, normally bows & arrows. They were often (particularly later) shown on horseback.

Herodotus was sure they existed – he places them towards the Black Sea, intermarrying with the Scythians. This is one of the legends as to how they managed to have children, another is that often they are depicted as living on an island where men cannot go and they go out into the world to find a man to become pregnant by. Girls are brought up by the Amazons, boys are killed or returned to their fathers depending on the legend.

Cartledge was keen to say that he thought the myths were complete invention – that the Greeks needed no “kernel of reality” to make up their stories from. But there is archaeological evidence in the area roughly where Herodotus places the Amazons for a culture where 20% of the fighting force were women and Vout (I think it was) said she thought this might be the origins of the initial stories. (And that percentage reminded me of this article about how it shouldn’t be a surprise to find women in fighting forces stretching right through history, yet somehow the stories we tell ignore this.)

The programme ended by very briskly moving us up from Roman times to the modern day, talking about how the myths have changed yet stayed a part of the culture. Franceschini was talking about how Queens were often represented with iconography that recalls that of the Amazons – concealing clothing, weapons, on horseback. She said that the chastity of the Amazons (often one of their virtues in myths) is what was intended to be evoked with this. Right at the end Cartledge name checked Xena: Warrior Princess for a modern representation of Amazons.

I was left at the end wondering about other modern re-workings of the Amazons – there’s a sub-genre of SFF that I tag in my head as “worlds run by women”, that’s feminist science fiction written in the 70s or so. A brief look on wikipedia backs me up that this is actually a thing not my invention. Which is just as well coz I can’t actually remember the names of any specific books I’ve read that precisely fit that category. However, what springs to mind are Sherri S. Tepper’s “The Gate to Women’s Country” and Elizabeth Bear’s “Carnival” which are both more recent than the 70s and more in dialogue with that sub-genre than part of it from what I recall. Anyway, I was left curious what debt that sub-genre owes to the Amazon myth and what is “convergent evolution” so’s to speak.