The Amazons: From Herodotus to Wonder Woman
A lot of the best myths start with a simple premise: Somewhere, far away, there’s a society very different from our own.
Let’s think about what an ancient Greek person would have known about the world. They’d have some familiarity with nearby cultures like Persia and Egypt; they might have met someone from there, or know someone who had traveled to such lands. They would understand that these societies were quite different from their own; their knowledge of them would likely be a combination of fact, hearsay, and speculation. A Greek would be vaguely aware that other civilizations were out there, as well — in India, say, or Ethiopia. These faraway societies would essentially be a blank canvas. The Greeks could project whatever fantasies or fears they wanted onto them.
One of the most persistent Greek myths of a land far away was their collection of stories about the Amazons. The Greeks loved to tell tales about a land somewhere to the east — maybe just beyond the Black Sea — with a society inhabited only by women. And they weren’t just any women; the Amazons were a race of fierce warriors, perhaps better than any Greek men, with whom the greatest male Greek heroes — Heracles, Theseus, etc. — had to contend.
There may have been a real-life model for the Amazon myths — archaeologists have found quite a few graves of Scythian warrior women in Central Asia, and it’s possible that the Amazons are based on stories about the Scythians. But the Amazons are more projections and fantasies of the Greeks than the actual depiction of real people.
Though many ancient Greek writers referred to these women as “Amazons” (which may derive from a Persian word), other authors were more disparaging; Herodotus called them “man-killers.” You don’t exactly have to be Sigmund Freud to understand why a repressively patriarchal society like Greece would have spent so much time simultaneously entranced and horrified by the question, “What if women had political and military power?”
Anyway, I’m less interested in psychoanalyzing the ancient Greeks than in looking at how they depicted the Amazons, and how the idea of an all-female band of warriors continued to fascinate people for millennia.
The Amazons show up a lot in ancient Greek art. Sometimes, they appear alone, as in this image from around…