A couple of weeks ago, I went ice-skating with my family. While dad and I were waiting in the car for my partner to get some gear from the garage, we talked about modern feminism. We wanted to put its meaning in the right words because the term usually carries a negative connotation within the older generations. I said we needed to break those stereotypes. So we tried to find an inspiring female figure to go as an example. My dad suggested the mythical Amazons. How bizarre, I thought. The Greek Amazons? But there was something about them that kept me restless.
When we arrived home, I could not help but wonder. Strong female warriors equal to men, portrayed as respectable beauties on the antique pottery. Who were they? And did they really exist?
Since the dawn of civilization, they have appeared in various legends. Theseus, the fabled founder of Athens, defeated Amazon Antiope. Achilles even fought the Amazonian queen Penthesilea, only to fall in love with her as soon as he killed her. Homer, on the other hand, referred to the Amazons as antianeirai.
The term was differently translated as ‘antagonistic to men,’ or ‘equal to men.’
As the Amazons were becoming a significant part of the Athenian identity, the Greeks searched for evidence that they existed. In the fifth century B.C., the historian Herodotus located the Amazonian capital as Themiscyra, a fortressed city near the Black Sea coast. Amazons would go on pillaging expeditions to lands as far as Persia, and they even founded several towns such as Smyrna, Ephesus, Sinope, and Paphos.
However, the Amazons got in trouble and were captured by the Greeks at the battle of Thermodon. When the Greek force was sailing back to their homeland with three ships of forceful, lady prisoners, the fleet ran aground by the Scythian shore. The Amazons managed to escape and eventually assimilated with the Scythians.
Their descendants became nomads, who soon grew into an independent nation known as the Sarmatians.
The Sarmatian society led an egalitarian lifestyle. All members of a nomadic group took part in defending the party and ensuring survival. Both men and women and children knew how to ride a horse and use weapons. Moreover, everyone dressed alike — tunics and pants, which made hunting and riding comfortable. Greeks were certainly astonished by their customs. Could Sarmatian women, then, have been the ones who inspired the Amazons?
Up until the 19th century, the Amazons were believed to be just a myth. There were multiple theories to explain the presence of Amazons in Greek literature. That they were used as propaganda by the Athenians during political quarrels, for instance, or that they were created just to be killed off by Greek heroes.
They obviously could not battle ordinary women, but the dangerous and powerful ones. Amazons themselves did not possess any heroic status.
Others say that they were brought into existence to display hatred and fear of women. After all, Greek society was patriarchal. Those arguments supported their belief that men must dominate women.
In 1861, a Swiss law professor and scholar, Johann Jakob Bachofen, published a thesis in which he claimed that Amazons were real. According to him, humanity started off under the rule of women. Those were later replaced by men, who lead the civilization towards progress. Nonetheless, there was no physical evidence to support Bachofen’s theory.
In the early 1940s, burial mounds called kurgans were discovered on the Scythian excavation sites in Ukraine, south Russia, Caucasia, and Central Asia. Archeologists found human remains accompanied by weapons, such as spears, axes, and arrows. The bodies were assumed to have belonged to males. Only decades later, some of them were identified as females. Were those the bodies of the mythical Amazons?
We will probably never know. But my dad had a good point — Amazons are indeed a great example of feminist figures. Fierce and beautiful, brave and inspiring. No wonder the Greeks were so obsessed with them. And so we are until today. Many modern heroines actually ground on them. Wonder Woman, for example, was given superpowers by Greek gods.
The myriad myths are universal stories with progressive visions. Whether the Amazons existed or not, their essence will from now on seem to lie in equality for me.