While warfare has traditionally been considered a masculine pursuit, Greek legend contains accounts of the Amazons, an all-female tribe of powerful warriors. While they were often said to live in Asia Minor, they were sometimes located in Africa or the modern-day Ukraine instead. Since they conquered several lands and were credited with founding a few cities, they must have gotten around a lot. Herodotus located their capital at Themiscyra, a Greek town near the mouth of the Terme River in Asia Minor, not far from Troy. Bellerophon, the hero who rode Pegasus, successfully repelled their invasion of Lycia. One of Hercules‘ labors was to retrieve the girdle of the Amazons’ ruler, Queen Hippolyte.
This same queen (or possibly her sister) was later kidnapped by Theseus, who had a bad habit of running off with attractive women.
She married him and bore him a child, but when he married another woman, she had her warriors launch an unsuccessful attack on Athens. This became an important bit of symbolism in Athenian history. Although known as the birthplace of democracy, the Athenians were never all that nice to women. Priam of Troy aided the Phrygians in fighting the Amazons, but they later became his allies in the Trojan War. Achilles killed their leader Penthesilea, Hippolyte’s sister, but fell in love with her as she was dying.
That must have been awkward. Another legend has Alexander the Great impregnating the Amazon Queen Thalestris.
The tribe was considered to be descended from Ares, with Hippolyte and Penthesilea being his children by Otrera, daughter of the East Wind.
So how would a tribe made up entirely of women survive? The mythical explanation was that, once a year, they’d have sex with the neighboring Gargareans. They were an all-male tribe, so any baby girls would go to the Amazons, while the Gargareans took the boys. It’s also said that there were some men in the Amazon tribe, but they held subservient roles. It’s not really known how the term “Amazon” originated, but Greek folk etymology held that it meant “without breast,” referring to the women’s custom of cauterizing the right breast in order to better handle weapons. That said, they were usually depicted in art with both breasts intact. This Smithsonian article tells of the discovery of women buried with weapons in the Ural region, so it’s certainly possible that the ancient Greeks did have some encounters with female fighters. A Russian archaeologist apparently suggested that the Scythian women, said by Herodotus to be descended from the original Amazons, might have taken up defending their territory while the men were away on foreign campaigns. It’s hardly a far-fetched idea.
As I mentioned a few days ago, the Wonder Woman comics have some basis in the Amazon myths. Their ruler, and Wonder Woman’s mother, is the legendary Hippolyte, even though some of the mythological tales have it that she was accidentally killed by her own sister.
Although their all-female homeland was originally called Paradise Island, it was renamed Themiscyra in the 1980s, after the town where Herodotus said the Amazons lived. The myths have inspired many other groups of warrior women in various media. In Dragon Quest IV, there’s a town inhabited entirely by women, except for a priest and a few eunuchs.
While the original English translation called the place Gardenbur, the DS version changes it to Femiscyra.
Whether this is referencing the original Greek tales or the comics, I couldn’t say. In Final Fantasy IV, there’s the Kingdom of Troia, ruled by eight priestesses and defended by female guards.
The name might refer to how the Amazons were sometimes considered allies of Troy. And the Zelda series has the Gerudo tribe, which is all female aside from one man born every century.
Perhaps Glinda’s army in the Oz series was also inspired by the Amazons, although that might be a topic best saved for another post.
Regarding more modern uses of the term “Amazon,” the river in South America was allegedly named that by the Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellano because he found a tribe of warrior women near there. And the website apparently got its name because it sounded exotic and began with the first letter of the alphabet. That sounds a little fishy to me. I might be more inclined to believe Rick Riordan’s explanation in the Heroes of Olympus series, which has it that the company is actually run by Amazon warriors.