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.
I went to my copy of Last of the Amazons, recalling that among my underlining and highlighting, there was some passage that I’d marked “Wow.” Found it…
“When one of tal Kyrte [the Amazons’ name for themselves] misses steppe and sky, she longs not just for their beauty but also their cruelty. For among the free people [again, what they call themselves] the foreawareness of one’s death, and heaven’s indifference to it, is the keenest and most brilliant pleasure, rendering all precious. This the supreme mystery, the fact of existence itself, before which mortals may only stand in silence.”
Splendid…thank you for sahring.
Didn’t National Geographic Magazine have a section a few years ago on the groups of armor/women/horse skeletons found in Ukraine and the surrounding regions? So slowly, the legends will become accepted history.
There are certainly women thru history and today who would have fought well against the Athenians. I’m thinking of my mother, who enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1943 and was a Sgt in the group who wrote the Death Letter after every island campaign. Her unit’s mission was to ensure as good a letter as possible was sent out ASAP, and she transferred that dedication to teaching writing and literature -and ensuring that reading and writing was high on my ‘must do well’ list. In her final years, she knew a few family member and the death count for every battle from Saipan thru Okinawa. And Maj Megan McCLung, USMC, killed in Ramadi, Dec 2006 in an IED blast. Certainly these two ladies would have served admirably under Hippolyta.
Two thoughts: An aspect of the Amazons and Athenians brought out in Last of the Amazons was that each society represented opposing cultural forces: The Amazons saw themselves as free and unbound, living off the land like the Native peoples of North America. The Athenians represented the new social structure of the city-state, with division of labor, commerce and organization, a walled city instead of an open plain, and a male-dominated aristocracy instead of a community of women bound by tradition and tribal equality. Steven insightfully conveyed the fatalism of the surviving Amazons of their awareness that their way of life would be overcome by the trappings and power of the coming civilization. You could imagine the same dread of Native Americans watching from a distance as a railroad is being built through their traditional hunting grounds. I’ve often thought that Last of the Amazons is one of Steven’s best works, both lyrical and down-to-earth, and utterly believable.
Second thought: I seem to recall Homer saying that the Amazons fought on the side of Troy during the Trojan War. Troy was known as a horse-breeding city, so that connection with the Amazons seems plausible. 1200 – 1300 BC is considered the approximate date of the Trojan War, and was soon thereafter that the Mycenaean (early Greek) civilization collapsed into the Dark Ages. Cities like the Athens of Theseus were overrun, with roving bands of outlanders sweeping through the Bronze Age territories. Why not Amazons being part of this invading force?
You look like a man who is out standing in his field.
Every good wish, ~md
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