The Amazons of the classical world and their history have fascinated scholars and non-academics for years. Legends tell that the Amazons were a race of warrior-women, descended from the Greek god of War, Ares, and had no breasts or actually removed their breasts in order to improve their archery skills. Through the use of archaeological remains and literary sources, I will examine who the Amazons were and what we know of their way of life.
Homer is the first to mention the Amazons in the Iliad. Priam, king of Troy, recalls to Helen how he had camped with the Phrygians when they were attacked by the Amazons. He uses the epithet antianerai, ‘a match for men’, ‘man-like’; the implication being that in war they have the appearance and fighting strength of men (Hardwick, p.15). Since Homer wrote the Iliad in the 9th or 8th century BCE, it is not unreasonable to assume that Homer’s audience would have known whom he was talking about, and so there are implications that the Amazons were known to the Greeks long before the Iliad was first recorded.
Herodotus also mentions them in his Histories, where he places them in Scythia, an area in Eurasia. He recounts his history of the Amazons as a rationalization for the bizarre customs of the Sauromatian people. These women hunted on horseback, dressed in the clothing of men, and went to war. He traces their origin to the union of Scythians with Amazons captured by the Greeks after their defeat on the Thermodon. Put into ships, the Amazons rose up against the Greeks and slayed them, but due to their ignorance of sailing, they are at the whim of the sea until finally coming ashore in Scythian territory. Here they stole horses and lived by plundering. At first, the Scythians fought with the Amazons, whom they call Oiorpata (man-killing). However, having discovered their sex through the corpses they examined, they chose not to kill them any longer but to camp near them and did exactly what they did. They lived the same life as the women, hunting and plundering, and approached or fled the Amazons in accord with the latter’s movements, hoping to have children by them (Brown & Tyrrell, p.298).
It has been suggested that the Scythians’ pursuit of the Amazon women to bear their children was to convert these warrior-women into rightful Scythian wives and civilized mothers of warrior-men who were the model of Greek society, and thus only a symbolic reference of the ideal Greek woman.Brown and Tyrrell sums this up in their article, when the say “Viewed in this light, the Scythians are representations of Greek women, for outside of patriarchal marriage, it was the female who was considered by definition to be in a state of savagery and bestiality, since within patriarchal marriage, she was, equally by definition, in a state of civilization, i.e., tamed. Greek polar vision allowed for nothing in between” (Brown & Tyrrell, p.18).On this level the sex roles are clearly reversed, for the Amazons behave as males, the Scythians as females.
Some sources tell that the Amazons had no breasts. Scholars have debated whether a race of women possessing such unusual genetic characteristics would have actually existed, and if it did, would have been breed out through the mating with ‘normal’ males. Whereas, if women removed one or more breasts for the purposes of archery, this would have been more difficult. The mortality rate for these early cultures would have been quite low – if they had survived the surgery, there was then a 40% chance of gangrene setting in. It is possible that this rumour of Amazons removing their breasts was symbolic, a way of explaining their mammary equipment, as well as emphasizing their sexual-sadist features that characterise their legends.
Written sources available give a considerable amount of information about the supposed geographical location of the Amazons, their customs, and life-style. Such detail does not imply that they actually existed, nor even that the Greeks thought they did. The Greeks, in fact, knew comparatively little about their past, or even their neighbours.
To understand the ‘way of life’ of the ancient Amazons, one has to understand that the Amazons’ existence has not yet been established to any scholars’ satisfaction. It is probably more correct to ask the question, how the role of the Amazons affected the lives of the ancient Greeks.
Brown, Frieda and Tyrrell, Wm. Blake (1985) A Reading of Herodotus’ Amazons, The Classical Journal, The Classical Association of the Middle West and South Inc.
Hardwick, Lorna (1990) Ancient Amazons – Heroes, Outsiders or Women? Greece and Rome, Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Classical Association.