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Amazons in Ancient Literature

The story of the Amazons was one of the most popular themes for Greek writers and artists. In fact, there is mention of eighty-two different Amazons in Greek mythology.

The word Amazon is of unknown origin, however folklore explained the word as being derived from two words "a-", meaning "without", followed by "mazos", meaning "breast". This folk etymology was supported by the folktale that Amazons cut off one breast to make using a bow easier. However, this is most likely a story designed to discourage women from taking up archery.

Historically, Amazons were portrayed as beautiful women in Amazonomachies, which was an artform showing battles between the Amazons and Greeks. Amazons were trained to use all weapons and especially in single combat. They were honorable, courageous, brave and represented rebellion against sexism. Because they were fearless combatants, only the most famous Greek heroes such as Heracles (Hercules' Greek name), Achilleus (Achilles) and Theseus were able to defeat them. Besides being courageous and bold, they were also looked upon as warriors with dignity. Amazons are never shown as cruel, deceitful or cowardly. There are also scenes of Amazons bringing in their injured comrades, risking their own life for helping others.

An Amazon carrying an injured comrade from the battlefield.

Two of the most popular themes found in both Greek literature and their art are the heroic fight between Heracles and Hippolyte, Queen of the Amazons, and the life-and-death struggle between Achilleus and Penthesilea at Troy.

Hippolyte was an Amazon Queen, daughter of Otrera and Ares, God of War. Herakles' ninth labor was to take Hippolyte's war girdle (a gift from her father). When Herakles came, Hippolyte was impressed with his strength and so gave him the girdle. When Hera, Queen of the Gods and step-mother to Herakles saw this, she told Hippolyte's Amazons, that Herakles was there to abduct their Queen. The Amazons attacked Herakles, and during the battle, Hippolyte was killed. Her name means, "Of the Stampeding Horse."

Amazon rider.

Penthesilea was the daughter of Orithia and Ares. She was known for her bravery, her skill in weapons and her wisdom. During a hunt, she killed her sister, Hippolyte II. She was so filled with grief that she set out for Troy (which she liberated), but Achilles retook it. Penthesilea's Amazons fought for Troy again. Since she was the daughter of Ares (God of War), she was able to kill many warriors at Troy, including Machaon and the great Achilles. Penthesilea fell at Troy. Her name means, "Compelling Men to Mourn."

But Amazons were also desirable, so Antiope, Queen of the Amazons, was abducted by the Athenian hero Theseus. According to legend, Antiope was an Amazon Queen when Theseus attacked. When she was defeated, she married Theseus and had his son, Hippolytus (named after Queen Hippolyte). In one tale, Antiope survived the battle between the Amazons and Theseus, only to be betrayed by the Athenian king, who married another. Antiope attacked the day of the wedding with her Amazons. She had planned to massacre the guests. It took Theseus, his companions and the invincible Herakles to kill her. Her name means, "Confronting Moon."

The myths of the Amazons are a significant part of human culture. The Amazon myth was embraced by Greece. They were the earliest symbols of a society's fear of feminism. They questioned the order of life and rose against it. They would not allow themselves to be treated as less than human.

Perhaps it was Queen Penthesilea who said it best when she was quoted at Troy, as saying, "Not in strength are we inferior to men; the same our eyes, our limbs the same; one common light we see, one air we breathe; nor different is the food we eat. What then denied to us hath heaven on man bestowed."

Herakles fighting against the Amazon Andromache.

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