Who was the Powerful Amazon Queen Orithyia and What Drove Her to Launch a Fated Attack on Athens?
Orithyia was one of those dangerous women whose beauty was so often described by terrified and excited men that it became legendary. For centuries, the Amazons were believed to be nothing more than a legend, but nowadays researchers more often accept them as real. The Amazons were like a sensual dream about warrior women, whose exquisite bodies were like dangerous machines and a magnet for the blind desire of men.
The remarkable tale of Orithyia is fragmented but remains a fascinating story about a brave woman, whose roots and achievements stand out among other myths. Every story about one of these incredible women is full of battles, including skills in warfare that terrified the bravest armies, and of the power that they gained through collaboration with gods.
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Wounded Amazon of the Capitol, Rome. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Orithyia and her Family
Orithyia’s story is connected with the lives of her mother and sister, or sisters. Her mother was Marpresia, the Queen of the Amazons. Marpresia shared her power with a few other Amazons. One of them was known as Lampedo, meaning ''burning torch''. She was Marpresia’s sister. They shared their reign with Hippo (''the horse''). It is possible that there were more Queens of Amazons in this period, but their names were lost through the passing of time.
According to the known story, Marpresia helped to establish the city of Ephesus and the city located in the Caucasus Mountains. One of her greatest achievements was creating the great barrier that separated the lands on the north and south, known as the Caspian Gates in Cappadocia.
Antiope was Orithyia’s sister. Her father was Ares. It is possible that Orithyia’s other sisters were Melanippe and Hippolyte, but not all researchers agree on this. As Adrienne Mayor, in her book about the Amazons, described in a piece related to Heracles:
''In Orosius’s telling, the Amazon queen Orithyia was away at war, leaving her sisters, Hippolyte, Antiope, and Melanippe, with only a small force to defend Pontus. But Heracles was so daunted by the idea of confronting Amazons face-to-face that he prepared a surprise attack. “After estimating his forces, Heracles decided to suddenly surround the Amazons when they had no suspicion of attack,” wrote Orosius. The Greeks ambushed the women when they were “unarmed and indolent in the care-free existence of peaceful times.” (Mayor, Pages 252-253)
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It must be pointed out that it is possible that ''sisters'' meant not a blood-relationship, but belonging to the circle of Amazons. It is believed that Antiope was the wife of Theseus and mother to Hippolytus, but some sources claim that she had a daughter. She appeared in a variation of the story about the ninth labor of Heracles. There are many different versions of her story; some present the love story of Antiope and Theseus as the perfect love story, while others claim that Theseus left her for Phaedra. Regardless of the details of the story, the consistent theme is Antiope’s life was based on loyalty to her sister Orithyia. In ancient times, the tomb of Antiope was a well-known place in Athens.
‘Wounded Amazon’ by Franz von Stuck, 1903. (Public Domain)
Warrior Princesses of their Own Domain
The name Orithyia meant ''woman raging in the mountains''. Such a sophisticated and poetic name was common among the Amazons. Her rule was shared with Antiope, but the story of Orithyia is not only through her connection with her sister. She was a famous Amazon-virgin, whose authority was immense among her servants. She was known as a skillful warfare tactician. The war techniques she created improved the fighting methods of Amazons. Moreover, her military power and remarkable personality brought many benefits to her community.
The life of Orithyia is well-known from the Justinus's Epitome of Trogus Pompeius' “History of the World”. The story of Orithyia is related to the famous story of Theseus, who kidnapped Antiope. As Adrienne Mayor explains:
''It was Theseus’s kidnapping of Antiope that ignited the war. When Queen Orithyia returned to Pontus from her war campaigns, Melanippe described the murder of Hippolyte by Heracles and Antiope’s abduction. Enraged by these acts of aggression, Orithyia requested aid from Sagylus, a Scythian chieftain north of the Black Sea. She told Sagylus that the Amazons of Pontus “were of Scythian origin,” that long ago, “after their husbands had been massacred, the women had taken up arms and proved by their valor that Scythian women were as spirited as their men.” She explained her reasons for waging war on Athens. “Stirred by national pride,” Sagylus agreed to help his long-lost countrywomen. He designated his son Panasagoras to head a large contingent of mounted Scythian warriors to join Orithyia’s forces. Diodorus’s account is briefer but essentially the same: “The Scythians joined forces with the Amazons, and thus an impressive army was assembled, led by the Amazons.” This story, preserved by Justin and Diodorus (and Isocrates, below), shows that the Greeks identified Amazons as Scythians and that another Scythian tribe joined the Amazons’ war on Athens.'' (Mayor, Page 272)
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Theseus and the Amazon Antiope. (CC BY-NC SA 2.0)
The Forming of the Amazons
What were the roots of the Amazons? Some researchers believe that they were Scythian women, others connect them more with Athenians. The story of Orithyia might shed some light on this question. During her lifetime she negotiated with the Scythian rulers, and it seems that she was doing it from the position of a neighbor and not a servant – so supporting the Athenian connection. However, the end of her life occurred during the expedition she led from the Kimmerian Bosphorus to the area of Thrace. She besieged Athens, and during the battles, her sister was killed. Soon after, Orithyia also died of her injuries.
The legend about Orithyia and Antiope inspired famous writer Giovanni Boccaccio, who included them in his work ''Famous Women''. The chapter about the two Amazons appeared among the stories about women like Zenobia of Palmyra and Cleopatra VII.
Do you believe in Amazons?
This question sounds a bit like ''Do you believe in fairies?''. However, nowadays we are beginning to be more convinced that the Amazons existed. Although the most skeptical researchers still have their doubts, the growing list of archaeological artifacts is beginning to lend weight to the past existence of Amazons. However, that is an entirely different story...
Top Image: ‘Die Amazonenschlacht’ by Anselm Feuerbach, 1873. Source: (Public Domain)
Mayor A., The Amazons, 2014.
Famous Members of the Amazon Nation by Carla Osborne, available at: http://www.amazonation.com/FamousAmazons.html
Bothmer D., Amazons in Greek Art, 1957.
Rothery G. C., The Amazons in Antiquity and Modern Times, 1910.