1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Amazons

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AMAZONS, an ancient legendary nation of female warriors. They were said to have lived in Pontus near the shore of the Euxine sea, where they formed an independent kingdom under the government of a queen, the capital being Themiscyra on the banks of the river Thermodon (Herodotus iv. 110-117). From this centre they made numerous warlike excursions—to Scythia, Thrace, the coasts of Asia Minor and the islands of the Aegean, even penetrating to Arabia, Syria and Egypt. They were supposed to have founded many towns, amongst them Smyrna, Ephesus, Sinope, Paphos. According to another account, they originally came to the Thermodon from the Palus Maeotis (Sea of Azov). No men were permitted to reside in their country; but once a year, in order to prevent their race from dying out, they visited the Gargareans, a neighbouring tribe. The male children who were the result of these visits were either put to death or sent back to their fathers; the female were kept and brought up by their mothers, and trained in agricultural pursuits, hunting, and the art of war (Strabo xi. p. 503). It is said that their right breast was cut off or burnt out, in order that they might be able to use the bow more freely; hence the ancient derivation of 'Αμαζονες from ά-μαζός, “without breast.” But there is no indication of this practice in works of art, in which the Amazons are always represented with both breasts, although the right is frequently covered. Other suggested derivations are: ά (intensive) and μαζός, breast, “full-breasted”; ά (privative) and μάσσω, touch, “not touching men”; maza, a Circassian word said to signify “moon,” has suggested their connexion with the worship of a moon-goddess, perhaps the Asiatic representative of Artemis.

The Amazons appear in connexion with several Greek legends. They invaded Lycia, but were defeated by Bellerophon, who was sent out against them by Iobates, the king of that country, in the hope that he might meet his death at their hands (Iliad, vi. 186). They attacked the Phrygians, who were assisted by Priam, then a young man (Iliad, iii. 189), although in his later years, towards the end of the Trojan war, his old opponents took his side against the Greeks under their queen Penthesileia, who was slain by Achilles (Quint. Smyr. i.; Justin ii. 4; Virgil, Aen. i. 490). One of the tasks imposed upon Heracles by Eurystheus was to obtain possession of the girdle of the Amazonian queen Hippolyte (Apollodorus ii. 5). He was accompanied by his friend Theseus, who carried off the princess Antiope, sister of Hippolyte, an incident which led to a retaliatory invasion of Attica, in which Antiope perished fighting by the side of Theseus. 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. They are heard of in the time of Alexander the Great, when their queen Thalestris visited him and became a mother by him, and Pompey is said to have found them in the army of Mithradates.

The origin of the story of the Amazons has been the subject of much discussion. While some regard them as a purely mythical people, others assume an historical foundation for them. The deities worshipped by them were Ares (who is consistently assigned to them as a god of war, and as a god of Thracian and generally northern origin) and Artemis, not the usual Greek goddess of that name, but an Asiatic deity in some respects her equivalent. It is conjectured that the Amazons were originally the temple-servants and priestesses (hierodulae) of this goddess; and that the removal of the breast corresponded with the self-mutilation of the galli, or priests, of Rhea Cybele. Another theory is that, as the knowledge of geography extended, travellers brought back reports of tribes ruled entirely by women, who carried out the duties which elsewhere were regarded as peculiar to man, in whom alone the rights of nobility and inheritance were vested, and who had the supreme control of affairs. Hence arose the belief in the Amazons as a nation of female warriors, organized and governed entirely by women. According to J. Vürtheim (De Ajacis origine, 1907), the Amazons were of Greek origin: “all the Amazons were Dianas, as Diana herself was an Amazon.” It has been suggested that the fact of the conquest of the Amazons being assigned to the two famous heroes of Greek mythology, Heracles and Theseus—who in the tasks assigned to them were generally opposed to monsters and beings impossible in themselves, but possible as illustrations of permanent danger and damage,—shows that they were mythical illustrations of the dangers which beset the Greeks on the coasts of Asia Minor; rather perhaps, it may be intended to represent the conflict between the Greek culture of the colonies on the Euxine and the barbarism of the native inhabitants.

In works of art, combats between Amazons and Greeks are placed on the same level as and often associated with combats of Greeks and centaurs. The belief in their existence, 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 beings. Their occupation was hunting and war; their arms the bow, spear, axe, a half shield, nearly in the shape of a crescent, called pelta, and in early art a helmet, the model before the Greek mind having apparently been the goddess Athena. In later art they approach the model of Artemis, 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 were usually on horseback but sometimes on foot. The battle between Theseus and the Amazons is a favourite subject on the friezes of temples (e.g. the reliefs from the frieze of the temple of Apollo at Bassae, now in the British Museum), vases and sarcophagus reliefs; at Athens it was represented on the shield of the statue of Athena Parthenos, on wall-paintings in the Theseum and in the Poikile Stoa. Many of the sculptors of antiquity, including Pheidias, Polyclitus, Cresilas and Phradmon, executed statues of Amazons; and there are many existing reproductions of these.

The history of Bohemia affords a parallel to the Greek Amazons. During the 8th century a large band of women, under a certain Vlasta, carried on war against the duke of Bohemia, and enslaved or put to death all men who fell into their hands. In the 16th century the Spanish explorer Orellana asserted that he had come into conflict with fighting women in South America on the river Marañon, which was named after them the Amazon (q.v.) or river of the Amazons, although others derive its name from the Indian amassona (boat-destroyer), applied to the tidal phenomenon known as the “bore.” The existence of “Amazons” (in the sense of fighting women) in the army of Dahomey in modern times is an undoubted fact, but they are said to have died out during the French protectorate. For notable cases of women who have become soldiers, reference may be made to Mary Anne Talbot and Hannah Snell.

See A. D. Mordtmann, Die Amazonen (1862); W. Stricker, Die A. in Sage und Geschichte (1868); A. Klügmann, Die A. in der altischen Literatur und Kunst (1875); H. L. Krause, Die Amazonensage (1893); F. G. Bergmann, Les Amazones dans l'histoire et dans la fable (1853); P. Lacour, Les Amazones (1901); articles in Pauly-Wissowa's Realencyclopädie and Roscher's Lexikon der Mythologie; Grote, Hist. of Greece, pt. i. ch. 11. In article Greek Art, fig. 40 represents three types of Amazons, and fig. 70 (pl. iv.) a battle between Amazons and Greeks.