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.

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