Amazons

Female Warriors of the Amazon: A Literary Approach

(Read the article on one page)

Whilst reflecting on how to go about writing this article, I realised that there are a variety of ways to approach this interesting topic. As the title has indicated, I have opted for a literary approach, focusing on some Classical sources, the narratives of Alexander the Great, and the medieval Alexander Romances .

One of the earliest references to the existence of a race of warrior women called the Amazons can be found in Homer’s Iliad. In Book 6 of that epic, the Greek hero, Diomedes comes face to face with a Lycian captain, Glaucus, the son of Hippolochus. Diomedes proceeds to ask Glaucus of his lineage. Accordingly, Glaucus gives an account of his ancestors, one of them being Bellerophon. It is through this character that Homer makes a reference to the Amazons, as he wrote: “Then for a third test he brought the Amazons down, a match for men in war.”

Although Homer does not mention the Amazons as allies of the Trojans, this idea was picked up by later writers. For instance, in Virgil’s Aeneid, “The Amazons were there in their thousands with their crescent shields and their leader Penthesilea in the middle of her army, ablaze with passion for war. There, showing her naked breast supported by a band of gold, was the warrior maiden, daring to clash with men in battle.”

A detail from a 3rd century CE Roman sarcophagus showing the amazon Penthesilea and the Greek hero Achilles in a scene from the Trojan War.

A detail from a 3rd century CE Roman sarcophagus showing the amazon Penthesilea and the Greek hero Achilles in a scene from the Trojan War. Photo source: Wikimedia

From the realm of Greek epic, the Amazons were transported to that of history in Herodous’ Histories. In Book 4, Herodotus wrote about the origins of the Sauromatae, a nomadic tribe living around the Balkans. According to him, this tribe was the result of a union between the Amazons and the Scythians. Herodotus supports this claim by claiming that “And ever since then Sauromatian women have kept to their original way of life (i.e. the Amazonian way of life): they go out hunting on horseback with or without their husbands, they go to war, and they wear the same clothes as the men do.”. Furthermore, Herodotus also mentions that “The Sauromatae speak Scythian, but ungrammatically, as they always have done, because the Amazons never learnt it properly.” 

Although the Amazons are frequently depicted as a motif on Athenian vases and other forms of artwork, their next literary appearance can be found in the narratives of Alexander the Great. In Quintus Rufus Curtius’ History of Alexander the Great of Macedon , Justin’s Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus , and Diodorus Siculus’ Library of History , a meeting between the Queen of the Amazons, Thalestris, and Alexander the Great is mentioned. These three narratives are similar, as all claimed that Thalestris visited Alexander for the purpose of begetting a child, a desire that is granted by Alexander. Slight differences, however, can be picked out in these narratives. In Curtius’ account for instance, the pseudo-ethnology of the Amazonian race is expanded upon, while Justin attempted to tie up the loose ends of the story.

The fictional encounter, especially Curtius’ version of it, is later adopted by the Medieval Christian and Islamic Alexander Romances . In these literary works, the Amazons are once again transformed. For instance, in the Christian versions, the sexual element is completely removed from the story, and a reversal of roles can also be seen. As for the Islamic Romances, Alexander visits the Amazons not as a conqueror, but as a seeker of knowledge. Hence, while the idea of the Amazons being warrior women is still prevalent in the literature on Alexander the Great during the Middle Ages, certain aspects are changed in order to suit the tastes of the audience.

By studying the literature, one is able to say that the Amazons were important enough to be retained by generations of writers for such a long period of time. What inspired them to do so would altogether be another question, and the reasons for Homer to introduce the Amazons in the Iliad would certainly be different from that of the Alexander Romances . Even today, echoes of these warrior women can still be heard in our society, if we look hard enough, and I believe they’ll be here to stay for a long time to come.

Featured image: The female fighters of the Amazons. Photo source .

By Ḏḥwty

References

Herodotus, The Histories , [Waterfield, R. (trans.), 1998. Herodotus’ The Histories . Oxford: Oxford University Press.]

Comments

speak Scythian---- but what is the Scythian languages ?d is the Hunic ?

Hi Again,

I thought about this, and looked at women in modern times, as with men there ARE aggressive men/women, gentle men/women and surely some women who were of strong (Tom Boys we called them when I was young) demeanor, decided to become fighters, and baring their breasts might be a way to shock the guys they fought, that this was a Woman and brave/strong enough to fight them.

Just my thoughts, can't base it on facts but premise.

Hi,

I think they believe that the so called Celts (Wales, Ireland etc), have Roman accounts of them baring their bits in battle. I can't see it myself, but some crazy warrior cults around. So certainly can believe it is so.

Spartans training warriors from 7yrs old. Masai warriors killing a lion. Beserkers, Samurai all have rituals/rights so the accts could be true, but not for all I'd imagine especially on cold days ;-)

There are recent archeological finds that refute the painting and support your concerns. Female warrior burial sites including full armor and pants as clothing items were found in southwest Russia. Included in the documentary were girls dolls dressed in pants and armor.

That painting seemed weird...women in battle baring their butt? Sorry, but the reality and cold weather, plus the chafing of horse riding had to spell wool or felt trousers or other leg coverings. I don't think any warrior would go to war baring the private parts. Doesn't sound soldier-like....Was that painting researched as far as the real facts about their clothing? How come the male soldiers are clothed where they have to be, and with armor?

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Top New Stories

“Lord Rama got fed up with asking a non-responding Varuna (God of the oceans) to help him and took up the Brahmastra.” (Fair Use) Ram Setu – a natural phenomenon or perhaps a manmade bridge built to save a queen?
Built by a king and his army to save a queen from the clutches of a rival? Or maybe a bridge to a land which led Adam to his atonement? While both of these ideas are far-fetched, current research suggests the Ram Setu link between India and Sri Lanka is not natural as most people have been told to believe, but is a man-made bridge which is thousands of years old.

Human Origins

Map of sites and postulated migratory pathways associated with modern humans dispersing across Asia during the Late Pleistocene.
Most people are now familiar with the traditional "Out of Africa" model: modern humans evolved in Africa and then dispersed across Asia and reached Australia in a single wave about 60,000 years ago. However, technological advances in DNA analysis and other fossil identification techniques, as well as an emphasis on multidisciplinary research

Ancient Places

The eerie mansion that is today known as Loftus Hall.
Driving along the isolated road that runs down the scenic Hook Peninsula in Ireland’s Ancient East, it is easy to spot the mansion that has earned itself the reputation as the most haunted house in Ireland. If ever a building fit the stereotype of a home haunted by its bloody and tragic past, this was it...

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article