The Amazons were a tribe of female warriors living in the Greek Classical period (5th and 4th centuries BCE). Ancient historians and artwork portray Amazons as expert with all weapons, battling Greek men with considerable skill. Some legends report Amazons as the first to ride horses, though the practice more likely originated thousands of years earlier.
Men had no standing in fabled Amazonian society, serving as slaves or domestic servants. In order to produce daughters, Amazons would breed with travelers or captives. What they did with baby boys is contested; some believe they were abandoned at nearby villages, while others suspect their mothers simply killed them.
The origins of the word “Amazon” are likewise hazy. It might come from the Iranian ha-maz-an- meaning “(one) fighting together.” Widely known myth suggests “Amazon” is from the Greek a–mazos, meaning “without breast.” This etymology refers to the alleged Amazon practice of cauterizing or severing the right breast, allowing these women to throw spears and shoot bows without interference. However, scholars doubt that Amazons had the medical know-how to prevent the inevitable bleeding and infection, and no Greek artwork of Amazons depicts them as one-breasted. Some authorities even suspect this self-mutilation was fabricated to discourage Greek women from battle, as women today shoot and throw perfectly with both breasts.
Amazons feature in some of Greece’s most famous myths. The famous twelve tasks of Heracles – Hercules is his Roman name – included stealing the golden girdle of Amazon Queen Hippolyta. When he attempts the task, Hippolyta’s sister Antiope (or in some versions, the queen herself) falls in love with Heracles’ companion Theseus. Sadly, the jealous goddess Hera causes battle to break out, forcing Heracles to kill Hippolyta to escape with his prize. Later, Amazons fought against Greece in the Trojan War. In another tragic turn, Achilles slayed Queen Penthesilea (also Hippolyta’s sister) in battle – yet fell in love with her after she fell and grieved over her body.
Despite their prevalence in myth and art, there is serious debate whether the Amazons existed and where. Some hold they were ancient Scythians (modern Ukraine), while others favor Turkey, India, or Libya as the Amazonian homeland. Recently, burial mounds of female warriors have been unearthed in the Russia; these women lived in the right time period, and were laid to rest in full battle dress, some with bowed legs from a lifetime on horseback.
Regardless of their history, Amazons still hold serious cultural significance. Many Women’s Rights groups view Amazonian might as empowering. Others resent these legends as male-created myths meant to belittle women: although constantly fighting Greek men, the Amazons never manage a victory. Even if these women warriors didn’t really exist, the Amazons’ lasting influence prove that a story doesn’t have to be “true” to truly affect the people who hear them.