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"Golden-shielded, silver-sworded, man-loving, male-child slaughtering Amazons." That is how the fifth century Greek historian Hellanicus described the Amazons, and they have fascinated society ever since. Did they really exist? Until recently scholars consigned them to the world of myth, but Lyn Webster Wilde journeyed into the homeland of the Amazons, and uncovered astonishing evidence of their historic reality.
North of the Black Sea she found archaeological excavations of graves of Iron Age women buried with arrows, swords, and armor. In the hidden world of the Hittites, near the Amazons' ancient capital of Themiscyra in Anatolia, she unearthed traces of powerful priestesses, women-only religious cults and an armed bisexual goddess - all possible sources for the ferocious warrior women.
Combining scholarly penetration with a sense of adventure, Webster Wilde has explored a largely unknown field and produced a coherent and absorbing book, which challenges our preconceived notions of what men and women can do.
Essence of Amazon
THE STOLEN GIRDLE
In Britain, until recently, if you wanted to relax on a Saturday nightyou could switch on the television and treat yourself to an hour ofHercules followed by an hour of Xena, Warrior Princess. Both programmespresented swashbuckling tales set in a mythical Greek darkage in which evil battled with good and good eventually won. The twoheroes, Hercules and Xena, with their magical strength and dry, self-deprecatinghumour, seemed to exist in the same realm, to fight on thesame side — the side of the good. But in fact, in the world of Greekmyth, the Amazons and Hercules were sworn and bitter enemies. Sohow could Amazonian Xena and Hercules both be fighting on the sideof right?
The `golden-shielded, silver-sworded, man-loving, male-childslaughtering Amazons' were worthy opponents of the great hero,Hercules. For the ninth of his Twelve Labours he was required to goon a mission against them, to steal the girdle of Hippolyta, their queen.Because they were daughters of Ares, the god of war, the Amazons'queen was entitled to wear Ares' golden girdle. This girdle, a kind ofsnake made of fabric, leather or metal, is a symbol for sexual power,channelled and kept within civilised bounds. In Greek marriage ceremonies,when the bridegroom loosed the bride's girdle it signified theend of her free maidenhood and the opening of her body to her husbandand to pregnancy. If you look at the little Minoan snake-goddess (seeillustration) you will see how two of the three snakes she wears actuallyform the girdle that goesround her hips and covers her womb. She is agraphic illustration of what a `girdle' can actually signify. For theAmazons, that band of women warriors who lived without men, it wasalso a symbol of their self-sufficient shakti-power. The loss of theirqueen's girdle would mean the end of their independent existence.
In Diodorus of Sicily's version of the story, Hercules sails toThemiscyra, the Amazon capital on the Black Sea coast, and demandsthe girdle from Hippolyta. She refuses, and there follows a bloodybattle in which all her champions are slain one by one. They all havebeautiful names: Aella, which means `whirlwind', Philippis, Prothoe,Eriboia, Celaeno, Eurybia, Phoebe, Deianera, Asteria, Marpe,Tecmessa and Alcippe, who had vowed to remain a virgin all her life,and died keeping her vow. Only after Hercules had slaughtered nearlyall of these brave warriors and more or less exterminated the race ofAmazons did Melanippe, their commander, admit defeat. The storytells how Hercules let Melanippe go `in exchange for her girdle'; inother words, he raped her, knowing that this would be a worse humiliationthan death, and he gave Antiope, who was a princess, toTheseus, in thanks for his support.
Meanwhile Theseus, the Athenian hero who had accompaniedHercules on the trip, had returned to Athens with Antiope, and madeher his slave — meaning, of course, his concubine. Perhaps, outside theheat of battle, he was not such an uncivilised man, because it seemsthat Antiope grew fond of him. But the remaining Amazons did notknow this and banded together with Scythian allies from the other sideof the Black Sea, and set off to attack Athens and rescue Antiope. Theycame by way of the Cimmerian Bosphorus, through Thrace to Attica,and pitched their camp on a hill outside Athens (see map 2). In thebattle that ensued, Antiope, who by now had a son with Theseus calledHippolyte, fought on the Athenian side. She died fighting bravelyagainst her own sisters while the Amazons were routed, the remnantsof their army returning to Scythia with their allies.
In another, later, version Hippolyta comes aboard Hercules' shipwhen it first arrives in the harbour at Themiscyra, falls in love withhim, and offers him the girdle as a gift. All could have been well, butthe goddess Hera, Hercules' mother, goes around the city spreadingthe rumour that these Greek pirates are planning to abduct Hippolyta,and so the Amazons mount their horses and attack Hercules' ship. Atthis point he kills Hippolyta and strips her of her girdle and battle-axe,which he presents to Queen Omphale (something of an Amazonherself), who puts it amongst the sacred regalia of the Lydian kings.
Whichever version you opt for, this story marks a decisive shift inthe psyche of Western man: he ceases to be the mother's son, andbecomes instead her master. He literally steals the girdle that embodiessexual power, the shakti, from the Great Mother — who has hithertobeen seen as the source of all things, the ultimate power in theuniverse. Masculinity was only a small thing in relation to her encompassingfemaleness. Camille Paglia writes: `Masculinity flows from theGreat Mother as an aspect of herself and is recalled and cancelled byher at will. Her son is a servant of her cult. There is no going beyondher. Motherhood blankets existence.'
This is not a situation that a hero can tolerate. Hercules embodiesthe spirit of the patriarchal Dorians who arrived in Greece around1200 BC, took power, and gradually shaped the old goddess-worshippingcultures into a new form. Hercules is the Dorians' mythical representative,an agent of change, the man who performs the necessaryacts to transform a society still held fast in the grip of the earth mysteries.Masculine man begins to control and subdue feminine natureand the society that results from this transformation is ClassicalGreece, which produced Socrates, democracy, tragedy and rationalism,and whose spirit still informs our own civilisation.
The Amazons are the key to a forgotten country way back in timebefore this decisive step was taken in favour of our sort of civilisation.I do not believe that this step was automatically a bad thing: it wasprobably a necessary thing, and it cannot be undone. The time in whichthe idea of Amazons was created and perpetuated was the periodrunning up to and including Classical Greece, 700-400 BC, and it wasa borderland time between two realities, one ancient and one modern;one mysterious and almost unknowable, the other familiar. To knowabout the nature of the Amazons it is necessary to plunge back into thatunknown world, bearing in mind that we have to avoid the strongtemptation to project our own longings and fantasies into it.
THE NAME AND THE MYTH
As an introduction to the spirit of the Amazons, it is instructive toconsider all the different meanings that have been given for their name.The commonest explanation is that the word is Greek and means`without breasts, breastless', perhaps referring to the reportedAmazon custom of searing off a breast in childhood in order to be ableto draw the bow-string back unimpeded, or to divert all their strengthinto the right shoulder and arm which would be used in wieldingweapons. Of course they may have appeared breastless because theybound up and flattened one of their breasts with a wide leather or linenstrap so that it would not get in the way, as contemporary femalearchers sometimes do, or because they were simply very well-exercisedbow-women whose shoulder and back muscles had developed soas to minimise their breasts.
The second most common explanation of the word `Amazon' is thatit is Armenian and means `moon-women'. This leads into a wholeworld of possibilities as to their origin as priestesses of various moon-goddesses.Donald Sobol thinks the name could refer to the Indiangoddess Uma and gives Uma-Soona=`children of Uma'. Amastris (anearly Black Sea settlement) then becomes `Uma's women'(Stri=woman). Another derivation for Amazon could be PheonicianAm=`mother', and Azon or Adon, `lord', giving `mother-lord'. He suggestsAmazons could be women of Ephesus who `gave up reaping forwar', giving amao=`reap' and zonai='wearing girdles'. An epithet thatHerodotus attaches to them is Oiorpata, meaning `man-killers', andAeschylus calls them `man-hating' and `manless'.
Nothing about the Amazons may be taken too definitely or literally:the myths are not simple or clear and the travellers' tales may or maynot be true — there is no way of knowing. For instance, there are otherversions and variations of the Hercules/Hippolyta/Theseus/Antiopemyth recounted above: many writers from Homer's time to ours haveadded theirs, each changing details and adding elements. RobertGraves's virtuoso performance in The Greek Myths has been enormouslyinfluential, but whereas he wrote it in a speculative, tricksterishspirit, perhaps already in thrall to the `White Goddess', a wholegeneration of literal-minded feminists have repeated some of hiswilder ideas as if they were gospel truth.
There are two questions we have to ask before we can begin tosearch intelligently for the source of the Amazon myth; first, whatkind of society created, embellished and relished the Amazon image?And second, exactly when and where were the `real' Amazons supposedto have lived?
AMAZONS AND THE ATHENIAN SPIRIT
Greece between 700 and 400 BC was a society in the throes of excitingand turbulent change and the Athenians were the instigators of it. Butit was also a period in which women gradually lost the relative freedomand status they possessed in the Heroic Age (1600-1100 BC), as portrayedby Homer and the other writers of epics, and were turned intoa servile underclass, along with the slaves with whom they sharedmuch of their lives.
A girl would normally be married at the age of fourteen to a man ofabout thirty whose previous sexual experience would have been eitherwith slaves or prostitutes, or with other men. The bride, however, hadto be a virgin. This system may have evolved because of the low proportionof females in the population, probably as a result of the custom of`exposing' girl babies (letting them die) in favour of male offspring. Ayoung widow could serve as a wife in a series of marriages until shereached menopause or died in childbirth. One study of skeletal remainsfound the average adult longevity in Classical Greece to be forty-five formales and thirty-six for females, which implies that a significant proportionof women did die in childbirth, since in a modern developedsociety women on average live three years longer than men. A typicalAthenian woman might bear five or six children in the course of her life.
The Athenian girl remained in someone's protection throughouther life, whether he be a father, husband, son or a male relative.However, her dowry was to remain intact throughout her lifetime — itcould be used for her support, but her guardian could not dispose ofit. Divorce was easy to get, with no stigma; all a man had to do was sendhis wife away from the house. A woman seeking divorce, however, hadto get a male relative to intercede and bring the case before the archon(magistrate). Only three cases are known of in the classical periodwhere divorce proceeded from the wife's side. Children were the propertyof the father and remained in the father's house when a marriagewas dissolved through death, and probably also in the case of divorce.
Boys had extensive mental and physical education but girls, becausethey married young, missed out except for the domestic arts. The agedifferential made husbands paternal, and indeed the wife had thestatus of a minor vis-à-vis her husband under Athenian law. The sexeslived separately — women and slaves upstairs, men downstairs. Freewomen were usually secluded so that they would not be seen by menwho were not close relatives. Distance between husbands and wivescould therefore be great: Socrates, for instance, dismissed his wife, themother of his children, from his deathbed. Men had a public life inbeautiful and spacious public buildings where they could go to exercise,discuss politics and philosophy and consort with their lovers,while women stayed in dark, often squalid and unsanitary homes withchildren and slaves for company. Women of all social classes workedmainly indoors or near the house in order to guard it, and better-offwomen sent slaves out to do errands and go to the market, missing outon the freedom that at least poorer women had to go out to fetch water,wash clothes, borrow utensils. Women could not buy or sell land, andthere were not many respectable trades open to them. Male guardiansmanaged their property.
Respectable women probably did not attend the theatre — whichmust have been one of the great pleasures of Greek life — althoughhetairai did. Hetairai were `companions to men', who could be, at thetop end of the social scale, educated and beautiful courtesans. Themost famous woman in fifth-century Athens was Aspasia, the companionof Pericles, the Tyrant of Athens. She started life as a hetairaand ended it as a madam, but was widely respected: Socrates visitedher and brought along pupils. Pericles cherished Aspasia and wouldkiss her on leaving and returning home. Clearly it was an unconventionalrelationship and Aspasia must have been a very strong-mindedand independent woman.
Female slaves were freely available to their masters and theirmasters' friends for sex. Men could have a concubine on much thesame basis as a wife. Homosexual love, usually between an older manand a young boy, was considered normal — and indeed even superiorto love between a man and a woman. Under Solon's law, the guardianof a woman caught in flagrante had the right to sell her into slavery.The penalty for rape was monetary but the wronged husband did havethe legal right to kill his wife's seducer. Intercourse three times amonth was deemed sufficient for women. Since most men were likelyto be either having homosexual encounters or sleeping with slaves, wecan guess that the sexual experience of most women was somewhatunsatisfactory. Unsurprisingly, masturbation occurred and wasacknowledged — some vase paintings depict phallic instruments beingused by women for self-stimulation, and it is also mentioned inAristophanes' play, Lysistrata.
Looking back on a society where the aristocratic women had almostno freedom and the high-class courtesans were the only category ofwomen who were able to meet and talk to men on equal terms, it wouldbe possible to argue, as Mandy Merch does, that the Amazons weresimply a creation of the newly powerful patriarchs: `The Amazons areintroduced into myth not as an independent force but as the vanquishedopponents of heroes credited with the establishment and protectionof the Athenian state — its founding fathers, so to speak.Patriotism reinforces patriarchalism.'
Merch notes that life for Athenian women was `short, arduous andsecluded', and that `the resulting tension between the Athenian stateand its female members found its way into artistic expression, particularlyin the tragedies which show women rebelling ... the Amazonmyth can be interpreted as an expression of this unease'. She claimsthat `the Amazon myth resolved this tension by representing such arebellion as already concluded in deserved defeat'. Merch puts itwell, and it is easy to be convinced by her arguments, but the fact thatthe Athenians were fascinated by the idea and image of the Amazons,that they picked it up and embellished it in art and story, does notmean that there were no `real' prototype Amazons — nor that therewere no roads to freedom at all for Athenian and other Greek women.
THE SECRET FREEDOMS OF WOMEN
There was one area in which the suppressed and secluded class ofwomen — and also slaves and some foreigners — were allowed to functionas equals with men: the Eleusinian mysteries. Each year in theautumn, the nine-day long ceremony was held in which, in theClassical Age, any sincere person could come and be initiated into themysteries of Demeter, as long as they spoke Greek and had not sulliedtheir hands with human blood. At the heart of the mystery was therelationship between the earth-goddess Demeter and her maidendaughter Persephone, or Kore. Kore is picking flowers in a meadowwhen she is abducted by Hades, the lord of the Underworld. Demetermourns her loss violently and seeks her throughout the universe, withdrawingher benevolence from the natural world so that everythingwithers and fails. The myth tells how they are eventually re-united ingreat joy and fertility is restored to the world. In the course of the ceremonythere was also a sacred marriage in which a sacred child is conceived:these mysteries were a legacy of old pre-Dorian, earth-basedrites, possibly originating in Crete, in which the female as earth-goddesswas paramount. Sophocles wrote `thrice blessed are thoseamong men who, after beholding these rites, go down to Hades. Onlyfor them is there life; all the rest will suffer misery.'
Nobody knows exactly what happened at the climax of the rites — andindeed without the long slow preparations that were designed toalter the state of consciousness it would probably mean little to us ifwe did — but the important matter for us is that the Eleusinian mysterieswere not only open to women, but preserved the essence of theold matri-potestal religion at the heart of increasingly patriarchalGreece for nearly 2,000 years, from their inauguration in about 1350BC until they ended three centuries after the birth of Christ.
Slightly earlier in the year was the three-day festival ofThesmophoria, a very ancient and mysterious rite in which pigletswere sacrificed. It was only for women. Only free women of unblemishedcharacter were allowed to participate. They had to be chaste forthree days in preparation, but were required to indulge in foul languageand obscenities as part of the rite. Wealthy husbands wereobliged to bear the cost of the festival.
On an even more earthy level there were the rites of Dionysus, thegod who was brought up as a girl and whose main followers werealways women. In the late 500s AD there are vase paintings of fierceand brutal Dionysiac rituals where maenads (female followers of thegod Dionysus) inflamed with wine or other substances would tearanimals apart with their bare hands.
Then there were the oracles, the most famous perhaps those atDelphi and Dodona. In earlier times these sites were probably sacredsimply to the goddess whose priestess-prophets would commune withher and give oracles. Delphi was named after the female serpentDelphyne, who used to live in the chasm there with her mate, thePython. The god Apollo killed the Python and made the Delphicpriestess work in his service. She would sit on a tripod, breathe fumesfrom a crack in the earth, go into a trance and make her utterances,which would then be interpreted by a priest. The oracle of Zeus atDodona was thought to have been brought from Egypt by a kidnappedpriestess. The ancient priestesses of the shrine went barefoot, neverwashed their feet, and slept on the bare ground (all symbolic ways tokeep in touch with Mother Earth). They listened for the words ofZeus in the rustlings of the leaves and the clinking of brass vesselshanging from the branches of the oak tree sacred to the god. In latertimes, they too were joined by priests as the Dorian incomers madesure their father gods `married' the local mother-goddesses.
Although they secluded and circumscribed their women, theGreeks must have been strongly aware of their power, whether sexualand earthy as in the Dionysian rites, or prophetic as in the oracles, orcomforting and transcendent as in the Eleusinian earth-goddess,Demeter. Indeed, Athens belonged to Athene, the great warrior-goddess,and Artemis, the virgin huntress, was worshipped under herdifferent names all over the Greek world. She was of course theAmazons' main goddess, and it was said that they had founded hertemple in Ephesus. Therefore in the religious and spiritual sphere thefeminine was still powerful.
Thus in Athens in the sixth and fifth centuries BC we have a societyin which democracy is evolving, art and philosophy flowering, womenare utterly suppressed, and misogyny is rife — and yet in which thereis a strong subliminal recognition of feminine power as expressed inreligious rites. This provides an interesting contrast to our own societyin which women are regarded as equals but have only recentlyacquired any public religious role, as women priests. To find out wherethe Amazons stand in relation to this we need to consider the spiritualaspects of their myth. Apollonius Rhodius, who wrote about Jason andthe Argonauts in the third century BC, associates the Amazons withthe worship of Ares:
Then all together they [Jason and his men] went to the temple of Ares to offer sacrifice of sheep and in haste they stood round the altar, which was outside the roofless temple, an altar built of pebbles, within which a black stone stood fixed, a sacred thing, to which of yore the Amazons all used to pray. Nor was it lawful for them, when they came from the opposite coast, to burn on this altar offerings of sheep and oxen, but they used to slay horses which they kept in great herds.
There is a hint here of a religious role for the Amazons that I willexplore in detail later, but for now notice only the black stone, normallyassociated with the great goddess Cybele from Phrygia, inwestern Anatolia, and the horse-sacrifice that links them with thehorse-people of the Steppes. The association of Amazons with horsesis there in many of their names: Hippolyta — `of the stampeding horse';Melanippe — `black mare'; Alcippe — `powerful mare'.
THE STRONG WOMEN OF SPARTA
In Athens and most of the civilised Greek city-states women weretreated primarily as breeders, but Sparta was very different. Eventhough Spartans were supposed to be Dorians — that is, of Hercules'patriarchal line — and though they honed the notion of warriorship toa sharp and lethal edge, women were actually much freer there than inAthens. This was partly because they were valued as `mothers of warriors'and therefore needed to be nourished and exercised as well asthe boys. Spartan women married later, at around eighteen, whichmeant they were physically more mature when they had their firstchild, and much less likely to suffer complications. Xenophon praisedthe Spartans for nourishing girls as well as boys, for it was unusualamongst the Greeks to do so.
Excerpted from On the Trail of THE WOMEN WARRIORS by Lyn Webster Wilde. Copyright © 1999 by Lyn Webster Wilde. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Introduction: Who Were the Amazons?||1|
|1 Essence of Amazon||11|
|2 The Secret of the Steppes||37|
|3 Artemis, Bright and Dark||69|
|4 The Medusa Face of the Goddess||91|
|5 The Hittite Sphinx||107|
|6 The Source||133|
|7 The Ghost-dancers||157|
|8 The Last Amazons||177|
Posted March 18, 2001
I have always been intrested in the history of the Amazon women so I was excited when I came across this book. I 've read a lot of history books but this one is my favorite. The author doesn't bore you with details or events that really don't feed into the story. She keeps you entertained with her style of writing, it's like your on the quest to find the Amazons with her. I recommend this book to anyone.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.