Episode Twenty: The Amazons, Part Two
The legend is that, around 1250 BCE, an army of Amazon women attacked Athens.
Plutarch, who lived in the first century CE, tells us that in his time at Athens there were still graves of warrior women, temples dedicated to them, and a neighborhood called Amazoneum.
I’m a believer. Are you?
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That [the Amazon army] encamped in the heart of [Athens] is certain …
–Plutarch, Life of Theseus
Could the legend of the Amazons be true? Is it possible that a race of warrior women, mounted on horseback, trained from birth as fighters, armed with the bow, the spear, and the double-bladed throwing axe … could they have, as the legend declares, attacked Athens and nearly conquered it?
Let’s consider the story, as it comes down to us, and see if it rings true.
Around 1200 B.C.E. there was a king of Athens named Theseus. He was a contemporary of Heracles and Jason, a little before the time of the Trojan War. It was Theseus who slew the Minotaur – the half-bull, half-man monster – in the Labyrinth on the island of Crete.
According to legend, Theseus, seeking adventure, led an expedition by ship to the Black Sea (much like Jason and the Argonauts seeking the Golden Fleece). He came, the tales say, to the land of the Amazons and there he encountered the Amazon queen, called in some versions Hippolyta and in others Antiope. Sure enough, she fell in love with Theseus. He took her back to Athens as his queen.
In some stories, Theseus kidnapped Antiope/Hippolyta. In others, she came willingly. Whichever version we prefer, the Amazons, outraged at the loss of their queen, organized a full-scale expedition to march on Athens—three months by land across Thrace and northern Greece—to redeem their honor and bring their sovereign back.
Now we come to the part that fascinates me.
I’m going to quote Plutarch from his Life of Theseus. But first a word or two about Plutarch himself and why we should give credence to his testimony. Plutarch was a Roman. He lived in the first century A.D. In other words, about thirteen hundred years AFTER the supposed Amazon attack on Athens. But Athens in Plutarch’s day was still very much a going concern. It had been built up and was much bigger than in Theseus’ era but it was still in essence the same city. Plutarch lived there. He knew the city and all its neighborhoods well.
Plutarch too was uncertain about the historical reality of the Amazons. No one in hundreds of years had seen or encountered a living Amazon. There was no Amazon homeland to which one could travel and examine artifacts or relics. All we had were stories. Were these female warriors real? Or were they legend? Here’s what Plutarch wrote in his Life of Theseus:
This was the origin of the Amazonian invasion of Athens, which would seem to have been no slight or womanish enterprise. For it is impossible that the Amazons should have placed their camp in the very city and joined battle close by the Pnyx [the site of the Athenian Assembly] unless, having first conquered the country around about, they had thus with impunity advanced to the city. That they encamped there is certain, and may be confirmed by the names that the places thereabout yet retain, and the graves and monuments of those that fell in the battle … For indeed we are also told that [a number] of the Amazons [who] died were buried there in the place that is to this time called Amazoneum.
In the two thousand years since Plutarch’s time, Athens has changed drastically. Earthquakes, fires, construction … the contemporary city is not the city that Plutarch knew. But if we believe him (and why shouldn’t we?), we have to ask, “Why would the ancient Athenians build temples to the Amazons and erect monuments, not to mention name entire parts of the city after them, if they hadn’t existed, if the attack on Athens hadn’t happened historically.
The parallel I like to cite is to the Native American names of so many places in our contemporary U.S—Seattle, Cheyenne, Kansas, Iowa, on and on. Would our forefathers have picked these names out of the blue sky? Would they have come up with names like Oneonta or Allegheny (or even Chicago and Manhattan) if Native American peoples had never existed and given these names to those places?
The sad epilogue if the Amazon invasion of Athens is that the race of warrior women was beaten back at last. On the three-month-long retreat to their homeland on the Black Sea, their weakened force was attacked over and over by the male tribesmen and warrior bands who sought the glory of defeating these legendary fighters. Much like another horse culture, that of the Sioux and the Cheyenne and the Comanche and others of the American Great Plains, the Amazons faded away, band by band, until nothing remained but the lore and the legend.
I’m a believer though. We’re examining in this series the Warrior Archetype, and I believe that an indelible part of that construct is female. I believe there once was–and who knows, it may come again—a race of warrior women who could stand toe-to-toe with men, as their equals physically, and fight it out to the death in real-time.