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

Yesterday, we looked at some ancient Greek sources that talked about the Amazon’s sex and child rearing practices.  While there was a bit of enslaving and some child mutilation, surprisingly no one got killed.  The Amazons didn’t cavalierly kill their sex partners or throw their male babies to the wolves.  Women were in charge, and often weren’t too nice about it, but men played an important, more domestic role in their society.  And again, nobody was killed.

So now we jump ahead several hundred years to the Roman Empire and their historians.  For some reason, as more time passed the Amazons became more brutal.  But the earlier Roman accounts of Amazon sex and child rearing weren’t too bad.

Just before the era of the Roman Empire began, though, there was one last Greek historian who wrote about the Amazons.  In his Historical Library, dating to roughly 50 BC, Diodorus Siculus had this to say about the rise of the Amazon’s first queen:

To the men she assigned the spinning of wool and such other domestic duties as belong to women.  Laws also were established by here, by virtue of which she led forth the women to the contests of war, but upon the men she fastened humiliation and slavery.

And as for their children, they mutilated both the legs and the arms of the males, incapacitating them in this way for the demands of war.

So basically, Diodorus read some Xenophon and pretty much copied him.  That’s not so cool of him.  Nonetheless, it brought Xenophon’s old account of the Amazons from hundreds of years before back to the minds of Roman era historians.

However, it seems that no one really cared because our next historian, Strabo, came up with a whole new story for the Amazons.  Strabo was born in Turkey, but he spent a lot of time in Rome and toured the nascent Roman Empire extensively.  His major work, Geography, dates to about 10-20 AD, and he told this story of the Amazons:

[The Amazons] have two special months in the spring in which they go up into the neighboring mountain which separates them and the Gargarians. The Gargarians also, in accordance with an ancient custom, go up thither to offer sacrifice with the Amazons and also to have intercourse with them for the sake of begetting children, doing this in secrecy and darkness, any Gargarian at random with any Amazon; and after making them pregnant they send them away; and the females that are born are retained by the Amazons themselves, but the males are taken to the Gargarians to be brought up; and each Gargarian to whom a child is brought adopts the child as his own, regarding the child as his son because of his uncertainty.

No killing OR enslaving OR mutilating.  This is the most upbeat story since Herodotus.  Once a year, the Amazons get it on in the dark with random Gargarians, go home and have babies, keep the girls, and give the boys back to the Gargarians.  Everybody lives, no one gets their legs broken, and Amazon society can carry on.

So we’ve reached the Common Era, and no one’s mentioned the Amazons killing their sexual partners or their male babies.  That’s about to change, but it’s sort of fascinating that the Amazons haven’t killed anybody yet.  Most of the stories aren’t terribly cheery, but no one’s died.

But then Justin came along.  No one’s exactly sure when his Philippic History was written, but most scholars date it around the 3rd century AD, a couple hundred years after Strabo.  Justin was very to the point in his description of the Amazons’ baby making:

Having thus secured peace by means of their arms, they proceeded, in order that their race might not fail, to form connexions with the men of the adjacent nations. If any male children were born, they put them to death.

While “connexions” sounds a lot more consensual than slavery, the Amazons were now killing their male children.  Roughly six hundred years after Herodotus first discussed Amazon procreation, finally someone was killed.

Around 500 AD, we have another copycat in Paulus Orosius.  In his Seven Books of Histories Against the Pagans, he basically echoes Justin’s account of the Amazons:

Then, after obtaining peace by force of arms, the entered marital relations with foreigners; they killed male children as soon as they were born.

I guess plagiarism was less of a big deal back then, or maybe everyone just stopped caring after the original author died.  Regardless, there’s another account of the Amazons hooking up with some of the dudes around them and killing their male children.

Soon after that, it appears that the historian Jordanes, based in the empire’s new capitol of Constantinople, was confused about whether to go with Strabo or Justin.  So, being a thorough sort of fellow, he mentioned both stories in Getica from 550 AD:

Fearing their race would fail, the Amazons sought marriage with neighbouring tribes.  They appointed a day for meeting once in every year, so that when they should return to the same place on that day in the following years each mother might give over to the father whatever male child she had borne, but should herself keep and train for warfare whatever children of the female sex were born.  Or else, as some writers maintain, they exposed the males, destroying the life of the ill-fated child with a hate like that of a stepmother.

It’s kind of interesting to see that the evil stepmother thing dates so far back.  Anyway, Jordanes included both the annual hook up of Strabo and the succinct male baby killing of Justin and Paulus Orosius. 

There were, of course, many more references to the Amazons in writings from the time of the Roman Empire, but these are the only ones I could find that mentioned sex and children.  Same with the Greek sources from yesterday.  There may well be more… this is a blog post, not a scholarly journal.  However, from these several noteworthy sources there seems to be a definite pattern.  Generally speaking, the legend of the Amazons gets much darker over time.  While there’s some slavery and child mutilation in a few Greek and early Roman sources, no one, sexual partner or baby, gets killed in any of these accounts until the 3rd century AD, and sexual partners were never killed.

With myths and legends, people tend to conflate ancient accounts, ignoring the order in which they appeared and creating a more streamlined meta-narrative that incorporates some aspects from each.  This meta-narrative is usually prefaced by a very general “in the myths…” that views mythology as monolithic and fails to acknowledge that the stories evolved.  Because the Amazons were fierce warriors, their simplified history often focuses on the darker, violent aspects and ignores the more peaceful stories. 

As a result, discussions of the Amazons can sometimes lack nuance.  It’s easy to conflate the stories and describe the mythical Amazons as “violent”, a society known for killing people, particularly men.  However, this fails to acknowledge the difference between their warrior skills on the battlefield, which were a constant theme in everything written about the Amazons, and cold-blooded murder, which was a much later addition to their legend.  Killing other soldiers in war and murdering newborn babies are two VERY different things.

In the earliest and thus most “accurate” accounts, ie. the ones that were the least removed from the original oral legends at the genesis of all of Greco/Roman mythology, the Amazons didn’t kill their kids, and enslaved men were mentioned only twice.  And in the very earliest, they had husbands and families!!  For some reason, the stories got more violent as time progressed, and Wonder Woman #7 continues this tradition.

In none of the ancient accounts did the Amazons kill their sexual partners and kill their male babies.  The story got stepped up a notch in Wonder Woman #7, except that Hephaestus saved the male children from certain death.  While this change to the Wonder Woman mythos has no real basis in actual mythology, it definitely continues its trends.  The Amazon story gets more violent and brutal as time progresses.

Well, now I’m sort of worried about the inevitable next revamp.

NOTE: If you want to learn more about the Amazons, I suggest Lisa Smedman’s history of the Amazons, presented here in PDF form.  You’ll want the “Scythian Amazons” chapter.  The site is super old and Smedman is far too keen on the historical reality of the Amazons, but the chapters consist of MASSIVE chunks of text from all kinds of ancient sources, all about the Amazons.  She’s compiled some great stuff.

Published by Tim Hanley

Tim Hanley is a comic book historian and the author of Wonder Woman Unbound, Investigating Lois Lane, The Many Lives of Catwoman, and Betty and Veronica: The Leading Ladies of Riverdale.

5 thoughts on “The Amazons And Their Murdering Ways OR The Evolution Of Brutality, Part Two

    1. Thanks, Jeffrey! I listened to the podcast tonight, and it was great. Much as I didn’t care for Wonder Woman #7, it’s inspired some really fascinating conversations about Wonder Woman and feminism at least. Thanks for the shout out on the podcast!

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