The Amazons And Their Murdering Ways OR The Evolution Of Brutality, Part One

Since Wonder Woman #7 came out last week and revealed that the Amazons seduced and murdered sailors and then traded their male children for weapons, I’ve been thinking about the ancient stories of the Amazons.  Not only did the Amazons kill the men, but one of Hephaestus’ spared Amazon sons says that the Amazons would have just killed them if Hephaestus hadn’t taken them in, which is pretty brutal.  There have been a lot of interesting reactions to Wonder Woman #7 that mention the ancient stories about them killing the men they had sex with and their male children, and I thought it might be fun to look at some of those stories directly.

There are all sorts of ancient references to the Amazons, but I’ve compiled all of the sources I could find that mentioned their mating and child-rearing practices.  What’s fascinating about these ancient sources is that the stories of the Amazons get worse and worse as they go along.  It seems that the legends grew, and the tales of the warrior women became fiercer and more bloodthirsty as the years passed.

NOTE: Of course none of this is actual history.  It’s all myths and legends with a constant misogynistic bias on account of that’s just how the ancient world rolled.  But it’s all we’ve got to go on, Amazonwise.

We’ll start in fifth century Athens, the height of ancient Greek civilization.  Athens was the political and culture center of ancient Greece, so it’s no wonder our first three sources come from there.  Also, the Athenians HATED Amazons.

Around this time, the Athenians built the famous Parthenon, a temple to their patron goddess, Athena.  Each side of the Parthenon had a series of metopes, or carved marble panels, that showed an important victory over a major enemy.  The East side showed the Olympian gods defeating the evil giants and beginning their reign over the world.  On the South, the ancient Athenian king Theseus slaughtered vicious centaurs.  The North had scenes of the Trojan War, the Greeks’ epic triumph over the thieving Trojans, their ultimate enemies.  And the West?  The West was the ancient Athenians fighting Amazons.

To be in the company of giants who opposed their gods, brutal centaurs, and the epic villainy of the Trojans shows you how poorly the Athenians thought of the Amazons.  They didn’t just dislike the Amazons because of the rampant misogyny in their culture… they saw the Amazons as one of the chief villains in the history of their city.

So it’s sort of surprising that Herodotus wrote a relatively cheery portrait of them.  Dating to around 440 BC, Herodotus’ The Histories detailed how the Amazons merged with the Scythians.  The Scythians wanted to marry the Amazons, but the Amazons replied:

“We could not live with your women- our customs are quite different from theirs. To draw the bow, to hurl the javelin, to bestride the horse, these are our arts of womanly employments we know nothing. Your women, on the contrary, do none of these things; but stay at home in their wagons, engaged in womanish tasks, and never go out to hunt, or to do anything. We should never agree together. But if you truly wish to keep us as your wives, and would conduct yourselves with strict justice towards us, go you home to your parents, bid them give you your inheritance, and then come back to us, and let us and you live together by ourselves.”

And that’s just what the Scythians did.  They intermarried, moved far away, and became the Sauromatae (aka. the Sarmatians).  Herodotus continued:

The women of the Sauromatae have continued from that day to the present to observe their ancient customs, frequently hunting on horseback with their husbands, sometimes even unaccompanied; in war taking the field; and wearing the very same dress as the men.

So we’ve got no killing of men, no killing of babies, and a generally harmonious society where the Amazons have husbands but can still hunt and go to war like they love to do.  Herodotus has been called the “Father of History” so we should give this account a lot of weight, but no one ever does.  This version of the Amazons doesn’t come up all that much (though in terms of comics, it’s very reminiscent of Kanigher’s Silver Age Wonder Woman).

Soon after Herodotus came this account from Hippocrates, from around 400 BC.  You probably know Hippocrates from the Hippocratic Oath.  He was actually a physician and not a historian, but his medical work led him to a story about the Amazons:

Some tell a tale how the Amazons dislocate the joints of their male offspring in early infancy – some at the knees and some at the hips – that they may, so it is said, become lame and the males be incapable of plotting against the females.  They are supposed to use them as artisans in all kind of leather or copper work, or some other sedentary occupation.

This is getting a little darker.  Now the Amazons are busting up the limbs of their male children so they can’t rise up against them later in life.  However, no one’s getting killed.  The poor fellows may have been a little mangled, but they were nonetheless raised by the Amazons and served an important role in the society.  Plus, the account is qualified with “some tell a tale”.  Hippocrates adds: “For my part, I am ignorant of whether this is true.”

But it seems that the story was fairly well known.  Writing around 400-375 BC, the historian Xenophon told a similar tale.  This is part of his account of the rise of the Amazon’s first queen and their society:

Growing in bravery and fame, she campaigned ceaselessly against nearby peoples.  Her fortunes prospered, and she took on lofty aspirations.  She called herself the daughter of Ares and assigned to the men the spinning of wool and the domestic work of women.  She established laws according to which the women went to the contests of war, and humility and slavery were fastened on the men.

The Amazons mutilated the legs and arms of the males who were born, rendering them useless for war.

Now we’ve got mutilation AND enslaved men.  But again, no killing.  The men couldn’t fight, but they were alive at least, and just like with Hippocrates they played an important part in Amazon society.  I’m certainly not trying to suggest that slavery was good, but it sounds like a much better time then being dead.  After the initial crippling, anyway.  That probably sucked. 

So with our ancient Greek sources, the ones who would be most antagonistic towards the Amazons AND the ones who date the furthest back so they’d have the best grasp on the tales of the Amazons that had been passed down for generations, the Amazons didn’t kill their sexual partners or their children.  In two of the three, they weren’t very nice to them, but they raised them and the men were part of their society.  No partner/baby killing from the Greek sources is pretty significant.  They regularly described the Amazons as vicious, violent warriors, but they only killed in battle, not in cold blood.

Tomorrow, in Part Two, we’ll look at Roman historians.  Sometime after the rise of the Roman Empire, the legends of the Amazons got a lot more brutal.

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9 Responses to “The Amazons And Their Murdering Ways OR The Evolution Of Brutality, Part One”

  1. Kyrax2 (@kyrax2) Says:

    This is really interesting! I want to point out that, except for the mutilation and/or joint dislocation, in a couple of these accounts the male role in Amazonian society sounds like it was awfully close to the female role in Greek society. As I understand it, women were slaves, property who were expected to fulfill certain roles. The crippling of the men detail really strikes me as a bit put in to explain why the men, presumably born strong since their mothers were, didn’t simply rise up against their Amazonian mistresses. Other than that, though, you have a fairly straight role reversal: “Humility and slavery were fastened on the men.” It says a lot about what the Greeks though of women.

    • Tim Hanley Says:

      Yeah, mutilating babies is pretty bad, but at the same time it’s a way to physically impose on males the same limitations that were societally imposed on females everywhere else in the ancient world. And I totally agree that it’s kind of fascinating that humiliation meant having to do domestic chores like a woman… the accounts almost read like having to do “woman’s work” was worse than the mutilating!!

      • Rob Buckley (@RobBuckley) Says:

        We should distinguish between ‘Greek society’, which largely didn’t exist, and the societies of the individual city states or polises, which did exist but varied over time from the late Bronze Age through the Greek Dark Ages into the archaic through classical to Hellenistic and then Roman times – a period of over 1,000 years.

        For example, we have considerable evidence of children – both male and female – being exposed by many polises at some times throughout the period. However, in Sparta, for most periods, where there is evidence, we only have evidence (cf Sarah B Pomeroy’s Spartan Women) of male children being exposed and some evidence that girls were not exposed at all.

        The idea that women were as good as slaves in Sparta, while true of Athens (indeed, female slaves probably ostensibly had greater freedoms in some areas than Athenian women), is obviously untrue of Sparta, where women pretty much ran the country (much to the disgust of the Athenians, including Aristotle).

        So to quote Hill Street Blues, let’s be careful out there.

  2. Ben c Says:

    Homer (arguably tenth to eighth century bc) alsowmtioned them in the Iliad as allies of the Trojans. If I recall, they were treated fairly respectfully.

    • Tim Hanley Says:

      I think there’s some debate about whether the inclusion of the Amazons in The Iliad was original or added later, but in many accounts they fight with the Trojans and are well presented, even though they all die. I’m not sure if it’s from The Iliad or other accounts of the Trojan War, but there are stories of Achilles falling in love with the head Amazon, Penthesilea, and mourning her death after he kills her in battle. Generally, there’s a lot of begrudging respect for the Amazons as strong, capable warriors in the ancient writings. I kept this post limited to sex and child rearing, but there were so many other interesting things written about them.

      • Rob Buckley (@RobBuckley) Says:

        The Townley scholia to The Iliad says that in some versions of The Iliad there was an additional line that shows the arrival of Penthesileia as a link to the next poem in the Epic Cycle, the Aithiopis (now lost). In that, Thersites supposedly reviles Achilles for being in love with her, so Achilles kills her in anger.

        Hellanikos apparently states (according to Tzetzes) that the Amazon queen has come to Troy to win glory in battle against men so that she can marry, although the (much) later Diodoros and Apollodoros have different ideas.

        Generally though, you’re right that the Amazons are treated well by myth.

  3. martrodd Says:

    Have you ever read “Firebrand”? It is a historical novel of the Trojan War from Cassandra’s point of view. In it she is apprenticed to the Amazon queen and their lifestyle is explored from her point of view. A great read and Marion Zimmer Bradley always does her research well.

  4. Free Circassia Says:

    Amazon is the Circassian word for “A -mez – an.” (The God of the Forest)

    Most of Greek and Indian mythology is based on Circassian mythologies as Greeks and Circassians were actively trading along the Black Sea coast from time immemorial. This includes Prometheus chained to Mount Elbrus in the Caucasus and the Golden Freece.

    Circassians are one of the most ancient people living today and there are about 6 million worldwide with most living in diaspora and outside the homeland. This is due to the Genocide committed by Russia (first genocide in modern history) in the mid 1800s. The language and culture are at risk of being endangered due to assimilation and continual genocide by Russia (cannot repatriate or speak language in schools). It is sad that one of the oldest cultures and languages alive is endangered.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nart_saga

    Thawegepso

  5. Amazon enthusiast! Says:

    I love the history of the Amazons. This is a fictional novel which looks into how the Amazons came about which is a great read for anyone interested. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Amazon-Origins-R-H-Kent/dp/1481785591/ref=sr_1_sc_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1367165032&sr=8-1-spell&keywords=amazon+origins+rh+kent

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