Amazons (ancient Greek Ἀμαζόνες Amazónes) are the name given in Greek myths and legends to a number of peoples where women went into battle “like men”. There are accounts of Amazon queens and city founders. Amazons are always described as normal mortals; they are often defeated in battles, and in some cases their burial places are mentioned. Numerous works of Greek art preferably depict Amazons on vases from about 550 B.C. onwards as daring fighters and equestrian warriors.
The Greeks and Amazons
The Amazons, a warlike race of females who established a republic among themselves, were originally inhabitants of Sarmatia, where they fixed their residence on the banks of the river Tanais. They afterwards dwelt in Pontus, near the river Thermodon, and in course of time spread themselves over a great part of Asia. According to Strabo, they built the cities of Ephesus, Smyrna, Cuma, Myrrhina, and Paphus; and Diodorus Siculus mentions, that they built the cities of Cyme, Pitane, Prynea, and Mitylene.
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The word Amazon is commonly supposed to have been derived from a “privative”, and “a breast” because it is said that the Amazons, when young, underwent the loss of their right breast, which was burnt off, in order that they might be able to draw the bow with greater force. Eustathius derives the word from a privative, and bread, from the savage mode in which these females lived, feeding on the flesh of wild animals. Others again suppose they lived together without the society of the other sex.
Several other derivations of the term might also be given, but without entering farther into the labyrinth of etymology, particularly in a case which admits of so much doubt, we will only remark, that the manner in which the Amazons were represented by the ancients, in their works of art, by no means confirms the etymology which has been so generally acceded to respecting the name of these heroines.
The Amazons are invariably represented with both breasts entire, but, like the attendants on Diana, they generally have one exposed, and the other concealed by drapery; and it is not, perhaps, a very unwarrantable conjecture, that it was from this circumstance, the fable of their having but one breast derived its origin, rather than from the improbable account related by Hippocrates, Diodorus Siculus, and others. A learned writer conjectures that ” by giving the full prominent form of the female breast on one side, and the flat form of the male on the other, the artist meant to express the union of the two sexes.”
The battles of the Amazons, like those of the Centaurs and Lapithae, were often repeated by the Greeks in their sculptures and paintings. Pausanias informs us, that the combat between Theseus and the Amazons was represented on the base of the statue of Jupiter, at Olympia; and we learn from Pliny, that the same subject was engraved on the shield of the statue of Minerva, which stood in the temple of Theseus at Athens. From Pausanias we also learn that the battle of the Athenians and Amazons was painted on the walls of the temple of Theseus, and we know that Micon painted the defeat of the Amazons by his countrymen, on the walls of the Poecile, and that the same subject was also represented in the Acropolis.
The battles of the Amazons are frequently depicted on the Greek fictile vases, and form some of the most beautiful designs which we meet with on those highly elegant and interesting remains of ancient art.
Although the Amazons in their pursuits of conquest, were engaged in a succession of hostilities with different countries, it will not, we think, be difficult to determine the particular people with whom the sculptor intended to represent them fighting on the Phigalian frieze. The battle here exhibited was that fought between the Amazons and Athenians, as may be inferred from the circumstance, that the architect of the temple was himself an Athenian, and from the frequency with which the same subject was represented, as we have already seen, at Athens. This supposition is in some measure confirmed by the shape of the shields and by the costume of the male warriors, which are similar to those of the Athenians on the frieze of the Parthenon.
A remarkable diversity is apparent in the dresses of the Amazons; sometimes they are represented in long tunics reaching to the ground, sometimes in a short vest reaching only to the knees, and in one of the bas-reliefs an equestrian Amazon has her arms covered with long sleeves, and her lower limbs covered with a kind of trowsers; all which dresses, as we know from the testimony of ancient authors, were in use among the Amazons. In some instances their heads are without any covering, while in others they are defended by a close helmet; one of these females has her hair fastened up in a knot at the top of her head. Their legs, with only one exception, are invariably protected by boots, which reach up nearly to the knees; their robes are uniformly fastened round their waists by a zone, and they have often one or two belts passing over their shoulders, and crossing in front between the breasts.
It is to be regretted that none of the offensive arms with which the Amazons fought, are here preserved; but we perfectly know, that they assailed their enemies with swords and battle axes in close combat, and that they annoyed them at a distance with spears and bows and arrows. In the Phigalian frieze, they are represented as using the two former weapons only; the use of the sword is indeed clearly determined by the circumstance of a scabbard being fastened to the belt of one of the Amazons, and by the hilts which are left in the hands of some of the figures; and we may reasonably conclude from the action of a few other figures, that they also fought with the battle-axe.
But the almost total loss of the weapons used by the combatants in this frieze, renders it extremely probable that they were for the most part executed in bronze, the holes into which they were inserted being still visible in many places. The Amazonian shields are rather larger than usual in these bas-reliefs; they are of an oval shape, and a semi-circular piece has been cut out at the edge of the upper part, probably for the purpose of furnishing a loop-hole through which they might watch the motions of their enemy. These shields were called peltae, and from the semi-circular piece cut out at the edge, they are frequently described as having the form of a half moon.
The Amazons are said to have been very skilful in the management of horses; they are here sometimes represented righting on horseback, though more frequently on foot.
The dress of the Athenians, with whom the Amazons are engaged in combat, consists of a kind of cloak or robe which covers the left shoulder, leaving the right bare; it is fastened round the waist by a belt, and reaches no lower than the knee. In many instances, this robe is nearly disengaged from the body, being either simply secured round the neck by a fibula, or thrown loosely over the left arm.
The offensive weapons of the Athenians appear to be swords, except in the particular case of Theseus, who, as the avowed imitator of Hercules, is here properly represented fighting with a club, and bearing on his arm the skin of a lion instead of a shield. Their defensive armour consists of helmets and shields.
Combats Between Greeks and Amazons.— One of the slabs, now in the British Museum, of a frieze depicting the War of the Greeks and the Amazons. From the Mausoleum at Halicarnassos, built c. 350 B.C.
The latter are large and circular, with a broad border round the circumference; they resemble in form the shield on which the names of the Ephebi of Athens are engraved, a description of which we have already given in a former volume. Of the helmets there are four kinds ; one which fits the head closely, without either visor or crest; another which differs from the former only in having a crest; a third with a long pointed visor; and a fourth of an oval form, with flaps descending on each side of the face, for the protection of the cheeks and ears.
Group of Amazons warrior.
The front of a sarcophagus representing a group of Amazons sitting upon the ground; each resting upon one hand which holds a bipennis (*1). In the centre of the composition is a shield with a bow and quiver apparently suspended from the wall. On either side are two Amazons having between them a sort of trophy consisting of two helmets and two peltae (smaller, lighter crescent-shaped shield), upon which each rests a hand. Behind the outer Amazon of each of these pairs is suspended a shield and sword in its sheath; and the composition at each end is closed by an Amazon resting her head upon her hand in an attitude of grief, with a shield, battle-axe and helmet before her.
One end however of the sarcophagus has, by some former owner been cut off to fit it into some particular space, and the symbols and legs of the Amazon do not appear in the plate; the piece however has been discovered, and the parts are reunited in the new building of the British Museum London. Each Amazon has her hair plaited along the sides of her head and collected into a knot behind; they are clothed in a tunic of rather scanty dimensions, bound round the waist with a zone, drawn off the right shoulder leaving one breast exposed.
On the legs are boots of soft leather, turned back at the top and twisted round the calves like those worn by the riders on the frieze of the Parthenon. This group is nearly identical with the bas relief on the lid of a sarcophagus in the Museum Capitolinum, the front of which is ornamented with a combat of Greeks and Amazons, and it is therefore probable that the monument before us belonged to a similar sarcophagus, and that on both the design of the lid is a continuation of that of the front and represents the Amazons reposing after the contest. The Amazonomachiae or battles of the Amazons formed a favorite subject in ancient art, see Museum Marbles, and are seen on several other extant bas reliefs from sarcophagi, all probably of Roman times.
This bas relief was purchased from the Camaldoli, near Frascati.
Length 5 ft. 9 in. Height 1 ft.
*(1) Greek, λάβρυς, lábrys, lat. bipennis, also Amazons ax or Labrys. In the context of female life forms, Labrys is a symbol of the lesbian homosexuality, but also takes place in the context of feminist matriarchal using. According to the findings in the palace of Knossos on Crete, the Labrys was a ceremonial weapon of priestesses, a symbol of fertility and one of the most sacred symbols of the Minoans. In the feminist context, the double ax stands also for a matriarchal society. It is directly related to the etymological notion of the labyrinth, which means something like “House of the Axe”. In Mycenaean daburinthos means “Lady of the Labyrinth”.
Head of an Amazon warrior
This head is called that of an Amazon from its resemblance to that of a statue engraved in the Museum Capitolinum, and it originally perhaps belonged to a similar statue. That figure represents a wounded Amazon, the head is bent forward, and there is an expression of melancholy and of pain very similar to that in the countenance before us. On both the hair is similarly arranged, being accurately separated along the top of the head; the front and side locks are drawn towards the back of the head where they are passed beneath the hair which is turned up behind, having the end curled inward apparently within a band, which however is not visible. The throat and shoulders are modern, as is also the end of the nose.
This head was brought from Rome by Mr. Lyde Browne, and is thus described in his Catalogue. ” No. 49. Amazonis vulneratae caput egregium.” There is another statue of an Amazon having a very similar head, which was formerly in the Villa Mattei, but which is now preserved in the Vatican. See Mus. Pio Clem. 8vo. tom. ii. tav. 38., and another, Clarac, Description des Antiquités du Musée, No. 281. a supposed copy of the of the Amazon of Ctesilas. Height of antique portion 10 in.