Were the Amazons real?
Though there may be a kernel of truth to the myth of the Amazons—modern archaeologists have indeed discovered evidence of nomadic female warriors in the Caucasus and the Eurasian steppes—it is impossible to know how substantial that kernel is. The majority of the myths about the Amazons and their adventures are almost certainly just that: myths.
Were the Amazons Greek?
Ancient Greek ethnicity is a complex issue, and one that has evolved over many centuries. Yet the ancient Greeks appear to have regarded the Amazons as emphatically non-Greek, or even anti-Greek; this race of female warriors, from which men were actively excluded, represented the polar opposite of the male-dominated (and deeply misogynistic) Greek world.
Were the Amazons immortal?
Though they were thought to be descended from the god Ares, the Amazons were not immortal themselves.
The Amazons were a race of warrior women famous for their military prowess and bravery. The Greeks, whose society (and mythology) was dominated by the ideal of the male warrior, grudgingly referred to them as “equal to men.” The Amazons lived somewhere at the edge of the Greek world, around the Black Sea. Their queens were said to have been descended from Ares, the god of war.
The adventures and military expeditions of the Amazons brought them into conflict with many of the greatest Greek heroes, including Heracles, Bellerophon, Theseus, and Achilles. Though the Amazons were formidable foes, the rather misogynistic Greeks tended to highlight stories in which male Greek heroes defeated their female Amazonian counterparts. Indeed, the female-dominated, fiercely independent Amazons can be understood as a foil to the male-dominated Greek world.
The etymology of the name “Amazon” or “Amazons” is uncertain.
Among the ancient Greeks, a popular folk etymology derived the name from the word amazos, meaning “breastless.” This was connected with the belief that the Amazons cut off their right breasts to make themselves more effective fighters. Other ancient folk etymologies suggested that the Amazons got their name because they were amaza—that is, “without bread”—eating only tortoises, lizards, and snakes. Others suggested the name came from amazoosai, meaning “living together.”
Modern scholars have generally turned to non-Greek languages to explain the Amazons’ name. Some have tried to trace the name to the Persian word *ha-mazan, meaning “warrior.” Others have sought similar words in early Caucasian languages or Hittite. The matter continues to be debated, and no hypothesis has gained widespread acceptance.
Amazon, Amazons Ἀμαζών, Ἀμαζόνες
[A-muh-zaan, -zaanz] /ˈæm əˌzɑn, -zɑnz/
According to Herodotus, the Scythians (warlike tribes that lived around the Black Sea) referred to the Amazons as Oiorpata. This supposedly translates to “man-killers” in the Scythian language.
Titles and Epithets
The earliest attested epithet of the Amazons was antianeirai, “equal to men.” This epithet came to define the warlike Amazons, who often rivaled the most impressive male heroes of Greek mythology. Other epithets for the Amazons included androktones, androloteirai, and androphonous, all different ways of saying “man-slaying;” styganōres, “man-hating;” and philippoi, “horse-loving.”
The foremost attributes of the Amazons were their bravery, independence, and warlike nature. Their entire lives were dedicated to war and the war god Ares, from whom they claimed descent.
Some myths about the Amazons were particularly outlandish. A common (if controversial) belief was that the Amazons cut off their right breast so that it would not get in the way when they used their bows or spears.
The Amazons were master warriors and horsewomen. In literature and the visual arts, they were often represented handling spears, swords, and battle axes. They were usually imagined as carrying a kind of light shield called a pelta. Vase paintings of Amazons tended to show them in exotic armor and costumes with elaborate patterns.
The earliest sources were vague about the homeland of the Amazons. Epic authors seem to have located them somewhere beyond Thrace and Troy, where their military activities brought them into conflict with the Trojans and the Greek hero Bellerophon.
During the seventh and sixth centuries BCE, the Amazons were increasingly associated with the region of Scythia, located north of the Black Sea. It became common for artists, for example, to depict the Amazons in Scythian dress.
By the fifth century BCE, however, the Greeks had invented a more definite location for the Amazons: Themiscyra, a town on the southern coast of the Black Sea near the mouth of the Thermodon River. It was soon widely accepted that this was the Amazon homeland.
Even after the Amazons came to be associated with Themiscyra, certain details remained hazy. Some authors, for example, imagined that the Amazons had originated somewhere on the northern coast of the Black Sea before heading south to Themiscyra. Others reversed the migration, so that the Amazons originated in Themiscyra but later moved north, to the region around Scythia and the modern-day Sea of Azov.
Some sources further subdivided the land of the Amazons into geopolitical units. In the epic the Argonautica, for example, the third-century BCE poet Apollonius of Rhodes claimed that the Amazons living on the Thermodon River were divided into three tribes: the Themiscyreians, the Lycastians, and the Chadesians.
The Amazons were also regarded as the founders of several cities on the coast of Asia Minor (modern Turkey), including Cyme, Ephesus, Myrina, and Smyrna.
Wherever they made their home, the Amazons had a very distinctive way of life. All Amazon women were trained to hunt, ride, farm, and—most importantly—fight. Their society was matriarchal and matrilineal, with a queen representing the highest source of power and authority. Their most important gods were Ares and Artemis.
The Amazons lived without men. According to Strabo, they used the neighboring, all-male tribes of the Gargarians to procreate and ensure the continuation of their race. Every year, the Amazons would spend a few months with the Gargarians, choosing consorts for the purpose of becoming pregnant. After the children were born, they would keep the girls but send all boys back to their fathers.
According to the common myth, the first Amazon queen was named Otrera. In some traditions, Otrera was the daughter of the war god Ares and the nymph Harmonia (not to be confused with Ares’ daughter Harmonia). In others, she was herself a lover of Ares and by him the mother of the Amazon queens.
The Phrygians, Bellerophon, and Dionysus
The early adventures of the Amazons are largely obscure. The Iliad mentions a war between the Amazons and the Phrygians, during which the young Trojan king Priam fought on the side of the Phrygians. The Greek hero Bellerophon, most famous for slaying the Chimera, also battled and defeated the Amazons.
The Amazons also encountered the god Dionysus in several myths—sometimes as allies, and other times as adversaries.
In one tradition, Dionysus drove the Amazons from Ephesus, a city on the coast of Asia Minor, to the island of Samos. There, he proceeded to fight and kill many of them. So much blood was shed in the battle that the site was named Panhaema (meaning “Blood-Drenched” or, more literally, “All-Blood”).
In other traditions, the Amazons were allied with Dionysus in his various adventures. According to Diodorus of Sicily, they helped him fight the Titans, led by Cronus, in northern Africa. The military historian Polyaenus wrote that the Amazons also helped Dionysus when he fought the Indians.
The Ninth Labor of Heracles
The great hero and strongman Heracles had to face the dreaded Amazons for one of his Twelve Labors (the ninth labor, according to the canonical sequence). Heracles was sent to retrieve the magical girdle of the Amazon queen Hippolyta.
In many traditions, this labor was another of Heracles’ hack jobs: the hero sailed to the land of the Amazons, demanded the girdle, and killed Hippolyta and her Amazon warriors when they resisted.
But there was one version of the myth in which Heracles nearly convinced Hippolyta to hand over the girdle peacefully. The fighting could have been avoided entirely, but Hera, Heracles’ most resolute enemy, wanted blood. Thus, she disguised herself as an Amazon and convinced Hippolyta’s warriors that Heracles was planning to lure Hippolyta into a trap. A fight broke out, in which many Amazons (including Hippolyta, in some versions) were ultimately killed.
In both versions, Heracles ultimately took the girdle and sailed back to Greece.
Theseus and the Athenians
The travels of the Athenian hero Theseus took him to the land of the Amazons as well. In some traditions, he traveled there with Heracles to help him carry off Hippolyta’s girdle, but in most accounts this was a separate adventure.
Theseus fell in love with the Amazon queen—usually called Antiope, but sometimes cited as Hippolyta, Melanippe, or Glauce—and took her back with him to Greece (whether she went willingly or by force varied by the source). The Amazons were furious and attacked the Athenians in order to retrieve their queen.
The resultant war nearly destroyed Athens. The Amazons besieged the city and proved more than a match for Theseus and his army. In the common tradition, the war only ended when Antiope was killed in battle.
The Trojan War
The Amazons had one more famous encounter with the Greeks. In the tenth and final year of the Trojan War, the Amazons came with a small but well-trained force to help the city of Troy defend itself against the Greek army. They were led by their queen, Penthesilea (who, like other Amazon queens, was a daughter of Ares).
Penthesilea briefly wreaked havoc on the Greek army. Eventually, however, she was slain by Achilles, the greatest of the Greek heroes at Troy. After killing Penthesilea, Achilles took pity on the beautiful young queen (in some traditions, he even fell in love with her). But it was too late: Penthesilea was dead.
Between Myth and History
Rationalizing the Amazons
Even in antiquity, many wondered about the historical reality of the Amazons.
Palaephatus, a paradoxographer (that is, a kind of professional “myth-buster”), insisted that the Amazons never existed—or at least, not in the form popularized by myth. He claimed that the “Amazons” were actually male warriors who were sometimes mistaken for women because they shaved their beards, wore long gowns, and tied their hair into headbands.
But Palaephatus was unable to convince many of his contemporaries. Most ancient authorities appear to have regarded the Amazons as at least partly historical.
Scythia and Beyond
Herodotus, one of the earliest Greek historians, claimed that the Amazons originated in Themiscyra, on the Thermodon River, but eventually reached the north coast of the Black Sea on Greek ships. There, they mingled and assimilated with the Scythians who inhabited the region, thereby becoming the ancestors of the Sauromatians, one of the Scythian tribes.
Centuries after Herodotus, the geographer Strabo recorded the belief that the Amazons inhabited the mountains of the Caucasus, north of the Black Sea (this belief persisted even to his day, the second century CE). Though Strabo expressed some skepticism about the Amazons, he never explicitly denied their existence.
Another Greek historian, Diodorus of Sicily, described the histories of a few different groups of Amazons. The most familiar group—the Amazons who battled the Greek heroes and took part in the Trojan War—lived by the Black Sea. But Diodorus spoke of another race of Amazons that lived in Libya, also fearsome warrior women. According to Diodorus, they fought wars against several ancient powers, including the Atlantians and the Gorgons.
Alexander the Great
Some imaginative ancient authors (along with a handful of less reputable historians) even claimed that the Amazons encountered Alexander the Great during his campaigns in the fourth century BCE. This may be the best illustration of how persistent the Amazon myth remained even well into the historical period.
As the story usually went, Alexander the Great met the Amazons while campaigning in Thrace, an ancient region located in the northeastern Balkans. The Amazon queen Thalestris supposedly approached Alexander herself, hoping to have a child by him who was as strong and brave as he.
Archaeologists and historians have unearthed more and more evidence to suggest that the myth of the Amazons was built upon an underlying kernel of truth. In southern Ukraine and Russia, numerous graves have been found with the bodies of armed warrior women. Many of these are located in the territory of the ancient Sarmatians—almost certainly the same tribe as the Sauromatians that Herodotus connected to the historical Amazons.
Of the warrior graves discovered in this region, somewhere between 20 to 40 percent belonged to female warriors. Thus, there was almost certainly a factual basis to the Amazons of Greek mythology, even if the most memorable characters—such as Hippolyta, Antiope, and Penthesilea—were probably fictional.
The Amazons have continued to exert a huge influence on modern pop culture. Over time, they have come to represent more than just the rivals of male Greek heroes; nowadays, Amazons are seen as a feminist symbol for the subversion of outdated gender stereotypes.
In literature, the Amazon myths have inspired a number of works. Theseus’ abduction of the Amazon queen Antiope has been the subject of several historical fiction novels, most notably Mary Renault’s The Bull from the Sea (1962) and Steven Pressfield’s Last of the Amazons (2002). Other Amazon queens, such as Hippolyta and Penthesilea, have also appeared in novels, poems, and dramas by various authors (e.g., Heinrich von Kleist, Robert Graves, Christa Wolf, and Marion Zimmer Bradley, among others). The Amazons can likewise be found in Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians novels.
The myth of the Amazons was also the inspiration for DC Comics’ Wonder Woman series. The character of Wonder Woman, also known as Diana Prince, is an Amazon from the mythical land of Themiscyra who fights alongside other powerful superheroes, including Batman and Superman.
In film, the Amazons have been depicted in The Loves of Hercules (1960), War Goddess (1973), Amazons (1986), Deathstalker II (1987), and Hercules (2014), to mention just a few examples. They have made regular appearances in television, too, including Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1995–1999), Young Hercules (1998–1999), Xena: Warrior Princess (1995–2001), and Supernatural (2005–2020).
The Amazons are also behind the various cinematic representations of Wonder Woman, including the recent DC Extended Universe films Wonder Woman (2017), Justice League (2017), and Wonder Woman 1984 (2020).
The Amazons have been featured in many role-playing and video games, including Diablo, Rome: Total War, Final Fantasy, Legend of Zelda, and Yu-Gi-Oh.
Finally, the Amazons have inspired the names of various landmarks, organizations, and, of course, military units composed of or led by females. Perhaps the most famous of these namesakes is Brazil’s Amazon River, which received its name after a female-led army of natives attacked a sixteenth-century European expedition sent to explore the area.