Embracing the Amazons

Wonder Woman hails from a tribe of Amazons—and while Patty Jenkins’ film presents a strong female lead seemingly worthy of feminist praise, this representation of the comic book legend is a powerful reminder that Western culture remains exceptionally wary of these warrior women.

I suspect that this is not surprising to anyone who has taken even the briefest glance at the study of women’s history, but it’s not often that the mirror reflecting this fear is so clear, or so disappointing. When Wonder Woman enters the world of men, the response from those that meet her is disbelief: How could there could be a whole island populated by others like her?! Soon, we can’t help but wonder if the fog around the otherworldly utopian oasis protects the Amazons from the outside, or the outside world from them.

This sentiment is nothing new. Since antiquity, women who assumed leadership positions or engaged in philosophical discourse found themselves labeled as unnatural Amazons. Women who pushed the boundaries of gender norms evoked a tremendous amount of fear and often a fundamental questioning of their identity as women.

Greek mythology placed the tribe of Amazons in a variety of places, but they were always beyond the civilized world. The etymology of the label comes from the Greek word “a-mazos,” meaning “without a breast,” which may, as Hippocrates described, refer to a practice of removing the right breast to better throw javelins. This was a physical mark of otherness amongst women who the historian Herodotus described infamously as “killers of men.” The Greeks also wondered if they might be Persians, their bitter enemies, as is evident from depictions of the warrior women wearing Persian style pants. There is a complex history of women who dared to wear pants, and this is the just the tip of that iceberg.

Feared or not, wearing pants or not, these women appeared freely in cultural production. In Homer’s epic The Iliad, the Amazons fought like men and went to war against the Greeks in the Trojan war. Their leader Queen Penthesilea, the daughter of Ares, was so fierce that it took mighty Achilles himself to kill her. Later, Hellenistic Greek tradition rumored that the Amazon Queen Thalestris bore the child of Alexander The Great. These followers of Athena and Artemis were often a thorn in the side of antiquity’s heroes from Achilles to Hercules. And they weren’t just the killers of adult men—myth said they would visit neighboring tribes to become pregnant, but expose their infant sons and raise only their daughters to farm, hunt and engage in war, bringing their maternal role into question.

The Romans, like the Greeks, both admired and feared the Amazons. Virgil based the warrior Camilla in his epic The Aeneid on the myth of the Amazons. Roman historians described women Goths, known for their ferocious tenacity, as descendants of the Amazons. Pliny the Elder and Julius Cesar discussed Amazon settlements and their conquest.

Although the Amazons were considered historical through late antiquity, the doubts of their existence grew during the Middle Ages. In Strabo’s Geography, he discussed how women rulers were simply not believable. But other medieval writers continued to talk about them as a real threat. Paulus Diaconus and Adam of Bremen tried to pinpoint their place of origin across three centuries, and thought that maybe the ancients had it wrong and Amazons came from the north. Regardless, many were convinced that nations suffered under the rule of women. Overwhelmingly in much Medieval lore, the only good Amazon was a dead Amazon.

While I would love to suggest that the Renaissance, which is still often considered the birth of what we recognize as modernity, reconsidered these women as admirable, I hesitate. The narrative remains the same. Renaissance authors Palulus Hector Mair gave Amazons credit for the battle ax and Orlando Furioso famously included a rather demonic wolf-riding Amazon queen named Erifilla. When women like Laura Cereta attempted to engage in humanist philosophical debate, they were often written off as Amazons who posed a dangerous challenge to their sex. Renaissance literary giant Giovanni Boccaccio ushered the Amazons into modernity as the vicious daughters of Mars, the god of war—as outsiders from civilization and objects of terror.

To find an Amazon admired, we need to look through the eyes of the first professional woman writer, Christine De Pizan. Born in Venice in 1364, she reacted against Boccaccio and his disparagement of these women. She rejected the label of unnatural female behavior, and she described the plight of Amazons as one of courage. They did not turn on men, but assembled courageously to maintain their independence. They did not want to be subject to the rules of the patriarchy, so they had to banish the patriarchs which left them living under a long line of capable queens. She rewrote the story to give women virtue and incorporated her own identity as a woman fighting a battle. Feminist self-awareness collapsed the gap between the Amazons of the past and the present and set the path for Wonder Woman.

Unfortunately, we’ve backpeddled from De Pizan’s brave embrace of Amazons. When the most recent incarnation of Wonder Woman is softened in battle by stopping in the trench to coo at a child, she is made more palatable for an audience who otherwise would balk at the woman as warrior. The film’s love story also softened her, and serves to rewrite the Greek playwright Aeschylus’ acrid comments that Amazons were “mateless” and not surprisingly “flesh devouring.”

Labeling Wonder Woman as an Amazon illustrates our continued abject fear of the “warrior queen,” even if the perceived threat that she represents is muted. Though she might save us, her intentions are still questionable. She is just another woman who wears the classic label for women who broke the rules.

When women continue to be the other, they remain an alternative to dominant culture. Otherness makes Amazons a permanently transgressive category of women. In the end, Wonder Woman is a lone wolf, an outsider, because we can’t add an Amazon to our social narrative and stir—even in the context of a Marvel comic.

Christine De Pizan pled with us to acknowledge that the Amazons were not inferior, deformed or incomplete, yet we have once again been reminded that Western culture still has an uneasy and rather anxiety-stricken relationship with female power. This summer we are reminded that we harbor a lingering fascination with the Amazon, even if she fails to save the world. We just want to keep her at arm’s length.

Christine Contrada has a Ph.D. in history from Stony Brook University in New York.  While she’s taught about every historical topic under the sun, the experience of women during the Italian Renaissance is her jam. She writes about history in popular culture, and you can follow her adventures at www.wiselyawayward.com.

Comments

  1. This is a wonderful article that captures our present day social condition. The historical connections and atributes makes this an absolute must read for anyone seeking to better understand where pop culture and and history intersect.
    I hope to read more articles so well written.

  2. Most classicists do not accept the a-mazos etymology — one of many — and historical linguistics says that the word is not of Greek origin. The ancient Greek claim that Amazons removed the right breast (or cauterized it!) is now recognized as a fable. As Adrienne Mayor has pointed out, none of the many hundreds of vase paintings and sculptures depicting Amazons is missing a breast (though many are depicted with clothing falling aside to sexually display a breast).

    Mayor’s book The Amazons provides a corrective to the idea, long current in academia, that Amazons were nothing more than fantasy. She shows that as Greeks came into greater contact with peoples of the Eurasian steppes, they found that women rode, hunted, and went to war, and began depicting these women as they really dressed, in non-gendered pants, long sleeves, boots, and Phrygian caps. She also demonstrates the historical basis to Greek stories of women warriors, by surveying archaeological finds of these women, including some who died of axe blows or arrows in the ribs. A significant proportion of women in Ukraine, the Kuban, the Caucasus, and west/central Asia were buried with weapons and armor.

    So we are looking at two things: actual women warriors, and the (patriarchal) mythologizing about them, and often, pornification of the. The Renaissance and Baroque representations sexualize the Amazons to a greater degree than the Greek ones, and that continues to be an issue, in the comic books and other media today.

  3. I’ve been studying Amazons for 48 years. My visual talk Amazons and Warrior Women shows how widespread these stories about female warriors are, in Turkic Central Asia and Brazil and North Africa. There are reliefs showing women warriors in the Udyagiri caves in Odissa, eastern India, and stories about women warriors among the Czechs, in Sassanian Iran and Burkino Faso, and of course the famous Amazons of Dahomey. Lozen, medicine warrior of the Chicahua Apache, has counterparts among the Cheyenne, Lakota, and Kiowa. See http://www.suppressedhistories.net/presentations/warriorwomen.html for pictures of some of them.

  4. Deborah Stolzenburg says:

    I would like to add my thoughts on the authors point/ possible critic of the directors choice to allow Wonder Woman to take a moment with a baby in the trenches. You see for me I think this was a brave choice for the director. How can we ever have equality if women feel to be taken seriously as a leader or, warrior in wonder woman’s case, they need to cut away any reaction or feeling that could be considered ‘ inherently female’ ? I feel this is why the world is still not gaining from having women in leadership positions on the world stage. Because they are always having to behave like the men they are surrounded by, what is the point of that?! Yes Wonder Woman shows vulnerability, compassion, but aren’t these strengths..aren’t these the assists we are missing when we sit around a table with world leader and discuss whether we need to go to war..whether we spend that money on guns or medicine. We are missing out on so much if we are never going to allow women to be truely themselves.

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