On the Amazons

Greek mythology is our source on the Amazons, a tribe of warrior women who have no use for men.  Bellerophon fights them; Jason knows them; Heracles (Hercules) kills one of their queens, Hippolyte, to get her girdle as one of his twelve labors; Theseus abducts another of their queens, Antiope (or a different Hippolyte), who bears him a son;  Homer has Priam describing them as ‘a match for men in war’ in the Iliad.  We know their queens through the myths:  Antiope, Hippolyte, Melanippe, Myrine, Penthesileia (some share the same name).  They were very war-like, fierce in battle, and united by one common bond: their loathing of men.  The myths originally placed their homeland along the southeastern shores of the Black Sea, with Themiscyra their main city.  The more the Greeks learned of geography, the further remote they placed their domain into central Asia, keeping them on the outer edge of the known civilized world.  

In the Trojan myths, Penthesileia and her Amazons come to Troy’s assistance a short time after Hector’s funeral and do a lot of damage.  Achilles kills her and is said to have fallen in love with her dying or dead body; he is mocked for this by Thersites, an interesting disfigured malcontent among the Greeks, and so also kills him (in front of Polyxena in my novel, shocking her to the core).     

The name Amazon means ‘breastless’ and was given them because they supposedly seared off their right breast so it would not interfere with bowstrings when firing arrows. According to Hippocrates, this was done while the girls were still babies with a red-hot bronze instrument constructed for this purpose.  They were horse-soldiers, often depicted in art on horseback, and may actually be western civilization’s earliest description of an all mounted force, with the bow and arrow their weapon of choice, although they also wielded javelins, and carried axes and a crescent shaped shield for close-order combat.  They perpetuated their culture by having sexual contact with the men of neighboring tribes at periodic intervals, by some accounts permitting only a third of their numbers to engage in each of these so that eventual pregnancies would not impede their ability to fight.  They reared only the girls, the boys being sent back to their father’s tribes, killed, mutilated (emasculated), or enslaved (to do womanly duties).  Training and discipline was harsh, exposing the girls to rigorous exercise and extremes of weather to inure them to a hard warrior’s life.  They worshipped Ares, God of War, and Artemis, virgin Goddess of Wildlife and Hunting.   To this day, they continue to fascinate us.

 Although there have been archaeological attempts to prove the Amazons existed, it is generally held that, as written about, they are purely mythical.  Evidence has been found that there were women of prominence in some ancient cultures, namely the Scythians and Sarmatians, but none of these findings confirm an exclusively female society. 

 For one-third of my novel, Polyxena is away from Troy, most of that time spent with the Amazons.  I am more benign to the Amazons than the myths suggest, with Polyxena finding some appeal in their culture and falling in love with Antiope, a chief commander in Penthesileia’s army.


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