The empowered female seemed to be an elusive specimen in Greek society. Arguably, this sad fact makes the role of strong women in mythology all the more endearing. Out of these goddesses and monsters, Amazonian women warriors are understandably one of the most intriguing subjects. At first glance, their matriarchal society and exceptional strength in battle could be seen as a rare example of feminism in Greek mythology. They flourish under their own, feminine command and even manage to challenge some fairly prominent heroes before meeting their demise. However, excerpts on the Amazons from Herodotus’s “Histories” seem to indicate that their role in mythology might not have been nearly as empowering as one would hope. This brings up a number of broad questions. Are all human women in Greek mythology seen as cautionary tales or allegories for the feminine ideal? If this is the case, how should we perceive the Amazons and their society?
Herodotus details how the Scythians came to marry the Amazons in brief narrative. Essentially, after years of fighting between the two groups, a number of young men copulate with the Amazons in order to ensure peace. They take the Amazons as their only wives, but they continue to live under Amazonian traditions and eventually migrate to a new region where they can maintain this hybrid lifestyle. This story proves somewhat difficult to interpret. On the one hand, the Scythians more or less forced the Amazons into surrendering their fight through a sexual encounter that could be interpreted as rape and then colonizing them. After ceasing the fight, the Amazons married the Scythians and gave up some key elements of their culture such as language. All these elements of the story seem rather bleak for the Amazons. However, the Amazons were allowed to maintain their status as warriors and were not forced to live amongst the Scythian women docile housewives. In their encounters with heroes like Hercules and Theseus the Amazons are wholeheartedly defeated and ostensibly treated as monsters. Herodotus’s narrative, however, seems to shed light on a more ambiguous side of the warrior women.
One important point to consider is whether the Amazons real or mythological. If the Amazons were in fact a real group of women, it would not be not be a huge leap to assume they may have been a relatively distant society that a select few Greeks encountered. Helene Foley mentions in her article “Amazon Women in Control” that archaeological evidence suggests that Scythian women would fight in battle, which gives some validity to the existence of the Amazon. It would make sense if these fighting women were somewhat exaggerated as they were incorporated into Greek myth the way foreigners and natural phenomenon were made into monsters in the Odyssey. Either way, it seems quite likely that the takeaway from these myths was not necessarily to arouse inspiration but to portray these strong women as a threat to women’s domestic, submissive role in society. This sends a signal that a strong man will always be capable of thwarting powerful women and that a combative woman is comparable to a monster.
Bearing all of this in mind, it can be useful to consider how Greek men’s perceptions of women in mythology compared to their relationships in reality. A number of ancient sources, such as Pericles and Xenophon, mention that the ideal woman is the wife who keeps her house in order and otherwise stays out of sight. This is obviously in direct contradiction to the behavior of the Amazons. So then, what role do the Amazons serve in Greek mythology? What is the moral of their story? The message from Amazonian lessons can be eschewed somewhat differently if the Amazons were completely fictitious. If they are entirely the product of myth, then it seems as though men created them only to be defeated by Hercules and Theseus. If they were real though, the goal may have been to diminish their desirability so that women could not draw any inspiration from their lifestyle. Though no account from a Greek housewife exists, it would be fascinating to hear her perspective on the Amazonian women. Perhaps the silent, domestic caretaker would have yearned to be a warrior after all.