How Athenian Mythmaking about Amazons reveals Knowledge about the Conventional Social Roles in Athens and Men’s Attitude towards Women
The image of Amazons in Greek myths contradicts the patriarchal Athenian principles of the order of things and the Athenian way of life, and therewith reveals knowledge about the conventions that existed in Athens. This paper intends to examine in how far this statement is valid, and additionally, what meanings underlie the fact that Amazons often are slain by mythical heroes. At first, a short description will be given on how Amazons are generally depicted in Athenian myths. Then several outstanding features of Amazons will be discussed and connected with their impact on the inversion of social roles. Furthermore, examples of heroes and their successful victory will be analysed in terms of their meaning for Athenian gender roles and male supremacy.
The first thing to say about the depiction of Amazons in myths is that they do not have female weaknesses (cf. Tyrell, 88/89). In several myths, the Amazons are described as “men’s equals...” (Homer, Iliad 3.189), or women, “who fight men in battle” (ibid. Iliad 6.186). Diodorus of Sicily mentions that the Amazons along the Thermodon river “held the supreme power” over their people, and “performed the services of war just as did the men” (World History 2.45). They are attributed with “prowess in war” and “bodily strength” (ibid.). Furthermore, they “subdued in war some of the neighboring peoples”, and let their men do “the spinning of wool and other domestic duties as belong to women” (ibid.). The sovereign calls herself “Daughter of Ares” - who is the God of War -, and she establishes laws, which privilege women whom “she led forth [.] to the contests of war”, whereas “upon the men she fastened humiliation and slavery” (ibid.). She even is said to have mutilated both the legs and the arms of the males, incapacitating them this way for the demands of war, and in the case of the females they seared the right breast that it might not project when their bodies matured and be in the way (ibid.).
According to Diodorus, “it is for this reason that the nation of the Amazons received the appellation it bears” (ibid.) Moreover, Justin notes that the Amazons “relinquished all thought of marrying [...], saying it would be slavery, not matrimony” (Justin, 2.4). He reports that the women “established their government without the aid of men”, and even put all males in the surrounding area to death (ibid.). However, “in order that their race might not fall”, they had children with “the men of the adjacent nations” (ibid.). The Amazons are said to have killed their male children, whereas they raised the girls in “the same mode of life as themselves, not consigning them to idleness, or working in wool, but training them to arms, the management of horses, and hunting” (ibid.). According to Herodotus, the Scythian term for “Amazon” is “Oeorpata” which means “mankillers” (4.110 ff.). In his myth, the Amazons describe themselves as very different from Scythian housewives, as they are riders, handling “the bow and the spear”, but knowing “nothing of women’s work” (ibid.). They refuse to settle down with the Scythian men, and retain their own lifestyle, with “their weapons and their horses, [...] hunting and plundering” (ibid.)
The depiction of the Amazons reveals how contemporary women were not supposed to behave, and what - on the contrary - actually was expected from Athenian females. Generally stated, women in Athenian society had to be submissive and subordinate to men (cf. Tyrell 92/93, 102/103, 112). Daughters were not allowed to have a will of their own and had to be married off to another man (ibid. 93, 112). Amazon girls were privileged in contrast to the boys, who would have to work in the house and suffer from “humiliation and slavery”, as Diodorus tells us (World History, 2.45). The girls and women are trained for hunt and war; they are described as free and worthy members of the Amazon society, who do not want to get married as for them marriage is “slavery” (Justin 2.4). However, “order” in Athenian society means “women in marriage, [...] that is tamed, civilized, defeated” by men (Tyrell 103). Amazons do not fit into the “role prescribed for Greek women” (Tyrell 92). They are female warriors who lead a lifestyle that would rather be attributed as male.
Moreover, Amazons invert the conventional social roles because of their androgyny. The Greeks were familiar with oriental androgynous deities, who were “made up of elements drawn from sexuality, fertility, and the cycle of life and death” (Tyrell 89). Those bisexual, foreign gods were perceived as being fearful and strange, and also very different from the Greeks’ single- sexed gods. So, this perception might also have been valid for the Amazons. The fact that Amazons are characterized by male and female features, gives them a status beyond the average Greek male or female person: “They share in the strengths of both sexes and so are stronger than either” (ibid). Amazons are no subdued women, but subdue men themselves, and maintain as little dependence on males as possible. When Homer lets Priam say that Amazons are “men’s equals”, he therewith stresses the difference of them from Athenian women. Men and women in Greek society were not equal. As Tyrell, for example, maintains: “Marriage with a whole person and equal partner was unthinkable [,..].”(92) As indicated before, the Amazon’s bodies are depicted as female, but with manly strength. Thereby, they challenge the male’s ego, as the men have to face up to the possibility that they might not be the strongest sex/power among the human beings. Since the Amazons are extremely fierce warriors in battle, many mythic heroes are challenged to fight against them (ibid.).
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- Christina Gieseler (Author), 2007, How Athenian Mythmaking about Amazons reveals Knowledge about the Conventional Social Roles in Athens and Men’s Attitude towards Women, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/148699