Hot Flanks and Her Sisters

James Romm

  • The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World by Adrienne Mayor
    Princeton, 512 pp, £19.95, October 2014, ISBN 978 0 691 14720 8

‘We wield bows and arrows, throw javelins and ride horses; we know nothing of woman-ly tasks,’ the Amazons said of themselves, according to Herodotus. He had learned the legends of the women warriors on a trip to the southern outskirts of their territory – the region the Greeks called Scythia, the vast steppe lands to the north and east of the Black Sea. Herodotus shows the Amazons acting peaceably, even amorously in a sexual rendezvous with neighbouring Scythians, but he also mentions a Scythian name for the tribe that suggests a darker side: Oiorpata or ‘man-killers’. The notion of female power was both alluring and scary for Greek and Roman men, judging by the treatment of the Amazon legend in their writing.

Herodotus wasn’t the first Greek man to fall under the Amazons’ spell. The author of a now lost epic poem from archaic Greece depicted Penthesilea, an Amazon queen, leading her troops to the defence of Troy. The poem, often referred to as the Cypria but also known as Amazonia, is intended as a sequel to the Iliad: it imagines Achilles, fresh from his victory over Hector, fighting and killing Penthesilea in single combat. As he delivers the fatal spear-thrust, Achilles locks eyes with his victim and feels his battle-rage suddenly replaced by a desperate longing. That moment of violence and eroticism was portrayed in around 540 bce by the painter Exekias on a vase now in the British Museum; the image perfectly captures the Amazon’s dual role in Greek myth: both lethal enemy and irresistible object of lust.

Many Greek heroes had encounters with Amazons. Heracles journeys to their land to retrieve a zoster from Queen Hippolyta – a piece of armour ‘something like a massive concho belt’, Adrienne Mayor writes, and nothing like a ‘girdle’, though that’s how it’s often translated. Whether Heracles rapes Hippolyta, as the forcible removal of a belt might imply, is unclear. But his companion on the mission, the Athenian king Theseus, certainly either rapes or elopes with Hippolyta’s sister, Antiope, and takes her back to Athens as his wife. (In A Midsummer Night’s Dream Shakespeare, following a minor variant of the myth reported by Plutarch, calls her Hippolyta, not Antiope.)

The idea that an Amazon queen once ruled their land fascinated the Athenians, as did the notion that their ancestors had fought off an Amazon invasion triggered by the abduction of Antiope. The legend of Amazonomachy crystallised during the mid-fifth century bce. Friezes on the Parthenon’s façade, and on the shield of the statue of Athena inside the temple, depicted a heroic clash between naked Greek warriors and Amazons clothed in leggings and flowing tunics. Hundreds of vase paintings of the same subject survive. Theseus was thought to have won the battle, though not without a fierce fight in which Antiope, in some versions at least, was killed trying to protect her new husband.

Their son Hippolytus, the world’s first Greco-Amazon baby, grew up to resemble his mother in several unfortunate ways: as a perversely chaste young man, who loved hunting but reviled women, he incurred the wrath of Aphrodite. In a story told by Euripides, Seneca and Racine, Hippolytus spurns the advances of his stepmother Phaedra, who, inflamed by passion, accuses him of rape, driving him to take his own life. Hippolytus is destroyed by his father’s curse before he can clear his name. The spawn of an Amazon, the myth implies, had no safe place in the traditional polis.

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