Saturday, 28 February 2009

The Role of the Amazons in Ancient Greek Society

A patriarchal society existed in most of ancient Greece, including Athens, in which men dominated politics, economic activity, and the judicature. Necessary only for the production of an heir, women occupied a subservient role in relation to men and were expected to be modest, chaste, and obedient. They could not inherit property, make wills, and had the legal status of a minor. The manner in which society regarded women altered over time, from one of respect and admiration in the Homeric period of the eight century BC to a more rigid and critical attitude in the Archaic and subsequent periods, but women were never allowed absolute freedom or political power. Women were viewed as a threat to patriarchy because their loyalty was divided between their original family and that of their husband. With the potential of creating illegitimate heirs, women could pollute the purity of a patriarchal family line. Women "were excluded from the city yet necessary for its reproduction. They came to represent a potentially dangerous, even poisonous force which was both within the city and without it" (duBois, 5).

The myths of the Amazons, which emerged several centuries before the Homeric period, represent the sexual tension within ancient Greece and justify the patriarchy through demonstrating the dangers of an Amazonian matriarchy. The Amazons as warrior-women who refuse to allow men into their society, maim male infants, battle important Greek heroes, and ignore their maternal duties, provide a rationale for the subservience of women and the institution of marriage. Through association with Heracles and Theseus in later myths, the Amazons increase the importance and prestige of male-controlled Athens.

The Amazonian myths emerge in approximately 1000 BC, but images of the Amazons do not appear in art until the sixth century BC. On many black-figure vases dating from approximately 575 BC, the battle between Hercules and the Amazons is depicted. The Amazons appear in literature in the Homeric epic, The Iliad, of the eight century and their myths occupy a vital role during the Athenian wars with Persia from 490 to 479 BC. In each of these eras of Amazonian importance, male heroes, including Belleraphon, Hercules, Achilles, and Theseus defeat the Amazons. Although the Amazon legends gain increased significance during these time periods, myths of the Amazons were a constant presence in Greek society.

The description and geographical location of the Amazons undergoes alteration between the Homeric epics and the Persian Wars. During the time of Homer, the family became the nucleus of society. Although men considered women to be naturally inferior, the domestic duties of women were very important and women were needed to produce warriors. Men could also receive property and position through marriage. Homer depicts women, such as Odysseus' wife, Penelope, not only as modest, chaste, and loyal, but also as wise and capable of managing a large estate. In The Iliad, Homer portrays the Amazons as "a horde of warrior-women who strive against men, and with whom conflict is dangerous even to the bravest of heroes" (Bennette, 2). The Amazons are allies of Troy and battle against Greece. However, the Greek hero, Achilles, falls in love with an Amazon after slaying her. He is in awe of her power and beauty. While Amazons appear as brutal, fierce women, they command respect. Homer does not indicate a specific homeland of the Amazons; he claims that they are from an Asiatic area. By the fifth century, however, the Greeks have geographically located the origins of the Amazons. They believe that the Amazons are from western Asia, Pantus along the Euxine River, and/or Scythia. During this time period, the polis has emerged as the center of Greek life and the family is only important because of the reproductive needs of the city. Women are not allowed to leave the home without an escort and occupy the back rooms of the home so that visiting men will not be able to view them. In the city, the government is important and women are not allowed to participate in politics. The sexual tension increases during this period and therefore the Amazons, who represent the dangerous power of women, are considered to actually exist in certain areas. Hellanicus, an Ionian scholar of the fifth century BC, describes the Amazons in his history of Attica as "golden-shielded, silver-axed, female, male-loving, male-infant-killing" (Tyrrell, 21) women. In myths concerning the Amazons, they kill men, seduce males indiscriminately in order to reproduce, maim male infants, force their crippled male servants to raise the female children, ride horses, refuse to marry, wear girdles of chastity, and indulge in orgiastic feasts. However, while "men never invoked the Amazons to praise them, they described her as strong, competent, brave, fierce, and lovely - desirable too" (Kleinbaum, 1). These adjectives, although seemingly positive, were not appropriate for women in ancient Greece. Male heroes should be brave and competent while women should be docile and obedient.

Many myths also portray the Amazons as being single-breasted. The ancient Greeks believed that the Amazons actually existed and considered the women on Scythia to be an Amazonian tribe, despite the fact that these women were married. The women of Scythia reportedly cauterized their right breast to better utilize a bow. The ancient Greeks thought that masculinity increased from the right side and therefore the Amazons became more male by removing the right breast. The removal of a breast also emphasizes the lack of maternal feeling in the Amazons. The breast is "the mother's last resort in appealing to her adult child to obey her. As much as possible, the Amazons are released from maternal attachments" (Tyrrell, 49). However, "nowhere among extant remains of Greek art is there a representation of a single-breasted Amazon" (Bennette, 3). While the word "Amazon" can mean "without breast", it can also mean "without barley bread". As the Amazons did not practice agriculture, they would not have had barley. The name can also refer to the their opposition to men or to the chastity belt which the Amazons wore. Although the description of Amazons removing a breast may not valid, artists did portray Amazons with one breast bared in order to demonstrate their femininity and provide an exciting detail to a male audience. Regardless of the truth concerning breast removal, the idea of a woman without a breast conveys a lack of feminine qualities and maternal concerns and coincides with the view of Amazons as warrior-women who refused to accept their natural position as females.

Because of their association with war and matriarchy, the Greeks believed that the Amazons worshipped not only the "Mother of the Gods" (Bennette, 17), but also Cybele, Artemis, under the names of Ephesia, Tauropolos, Lyceia, and Astrateia, Apollo, and Ares. Cybele is connected with fertility while Artemis is a virgin huntress. Ares represents war and Apollo is a symbol of male power. The Amazons are warriors primarily, and "in their warlike character [they] are reflexes of the women whom they worship [Artemis] . . . [Amazons] carry the battle-ax, and in this they are shown to be closely related to the religion of pre-Crete of which the weapon is a conspicuous symbol" (Bennett, 75). Through their religion, Amazons possess the power to cripple and destroy men. Just as men "rape and sexually kill Amazons [in myth], Amazons through their religion castrate and sexually kill men" (Tyrrell, 87). Ironically, the Amazons do not worship Athena. Athena is a powerful goddess associated with wisdom and battle. However, because she weaves, she also represents the women's social role. The Amazons cannot worship Athena because she is associated with the domestic sphere of women and, more importantly, because she is the protector of Athens with whom the Amazons battle. Associated with primitive forms of Greek religion, which stress the importance of women, the Amazons possess a culture that did not evolve with the rest of Greece. They are the primordial matriarchy with the potential of destroying the imposed patriarchy of later centuries. Because of the threat of matriarchy, the men must defeat the Amazons in every myth.

Through the myth of Theseus' battle with the Amazons, the danger of a matriarchy as well as the power of Athens is revealed. Theseus' encounter with the Amazons dates from the sixth century BC, although this myth is a derivation of an earlier battle between Heracles and the Amazons. In the myth, Theseus travels to Themiscyra with a friend, Pirithous. In Themiscrya, he rapes and abducts the Amazon, Hippolyta. Theseus brings Hippolyta to Athens and the other Amazons, angered by the rape, declare war on Athens. After a brief, but fierce battle, Hippolyta successfully negotiates a treaty between the Amazons and Athenians. However, after the sixth century, the Amazons become associated with the Persians, and the myth of Theseus and the Amazons alters during the Persian wars of 490-479 BC. In the new version of the myth, Theseus does not rape Hippolyta and she dies while fighting either for or against the Amazons during their battle with Athens. Athens wins the war through violence, not a treaty. By changing the myth, the Athenians remove Persian justification for war (the rape) and demonstrate that a peaceful settlement could not have been reached (the treaty). The Persians have no motivation for the war and the Athenians become righteous men whose violent actions are forgiven. "The story of the attack on Athens by formidable warrior-women is an excellent example of how the Greeks . . . used the idea of a combat with the Amazons to enhance their own image and to reinforce their perception of themselves as historically significant" (Kleinbaum, 11). The myth of Theseus and Hippolyta conveys the nobility and prestige of Athens while demonstrating the danger of a matriarchal society.

Ultimately, the Amazons provide a negative role model for the women of ancient Greece; their actions demonstrate the need for marriage, female subservience, and patriarchy. "Whatever its historical status, in the classical period matriarchy functioned as a tool for thinking about, explaining, and validating patriarchal customs, institutions, and values by postulating the absurdities and horrors of its opposite" (Tyrell, 28). The Amazons never win their battles against male opponents, signifying the greater power and ability of men. Their refusal to marry and their choice of masculine behavior becomes ludicrous, as they are constantly defeated. Women, therefore, must marry and exist within a patriarchy because they do not possess the intelligence and control necessary to govern a society. The Amazons cannot even grow their own food. These myths provide a reason for the painful separation of families through marriage and the subsequent subservient position of the woman.

The Amazonian myths not only provide rational for female acceptance of patriarchy, but also force males to maintain their power in society and keep women in the proper sphere. The Lemnian women, who become associated with the Amazons, murdered their husbands and the later Greeks who lived within the polis emphasized this myth. For the polis to be safe and secure, women must be repressed. Also, all of the children of the Amazons were illegitimate. Men greatly feared illegitimate children inheriting their wealth. "Marriage acts to contain the sexual passion of women, thereby protecting society and family from the pollution of bastardy" (Tyrrell, 30). According to the Amazon myths, men must marry to prevent this pollution. Not only do these legends force men to protect the patriarchy, but also "a man who has never envisioned harming a woman can freely indulge his fantasies of murdering an Amazon" (Kleinbaum, 1). Men also reduce strong women to nubile girls and mothers by murdering and raping Amazons. They feel that they are in control of women because of these myths and that this type of control is natural and justified. The Amazon myths, therefore, not only illustrate the need for women to marry and remain subservient members of society, but also reflect the male desire for domination and power.


1 comment:

Wolfy said...

I enjoyed your history of Amazons very much. It was more erudite then most that I've read, and I've them all. My theory on the origin of the word, Amazon, is that it's Persian and not Greek in origin.

The ancient Persian word, Ha-Mazon, means "fierce woman warrior" in their language. I believe that there was a powerful matriarchy that flourished in pre-Islamic Iran. I believe that the misogynism of the Muslims is a direct reaction to the conquests of Middle Eastern and Black Sea lands by armies consisting largely of women.

Many areas of the world that worshiped the Mother Goddess from the early Bronze Age through the advent of Islam and Christianity were reknown for their fierce and noble female warriors.

I would like to invite you to visit my "Werewolfking's Howl" women-warriors blog at Nothing X-rated, I assure you. And, I have on my blog the finest Amazon vs Greek battle scene ever drawn, in my opinion. Besides my wonderful art collection, I also have stories and a huge vid clip collection of from Amazon movies and other sources.