Cover image for On the trail of the women warriors : the Amazons in myth and history
On the trail of the women warriors : the Amazons in myth and history
Wilde, Lyn Webster.
Personal Author:
First U.S. edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Thomas Dunne Books, 2000.

Physical Description:
xi, 213 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm
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Material Type
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BL820.A6 W55 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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"Golden-shielded, silver-sworded, man-loving, male-child slaughtering Amazons." That is how the fifth century Greek historian Hellanicus described the Amazons, and they have fascinated society ever since. Did they really exist? Until recently scholars consigned them to the world of myth, but Lyn Webster Wilde journeyed into the homeland of the Amazons, and uncovered astonishing evidence of their historic reality.

North of the Black Sea she found archaeological excavations of graves of Iron Age women buried with arrows, swords, and armor. In the hidden world of the Hittites, near the Amazons' ancient capital of Themiscyra in Anatolia, she unearthed traces of powerful priestesses, women-only religious cults and an armed bisexual goddess - all possible sources for the ferocious warrior women.

Combining scholarly penetration with a sense of adventure, Webster Wilde has explored a largely unknown field and produced a coherent and absorbing book, which challenges our preconceived notions of what men and women can do.

Author Notes

Lyn Webster Wilde is a broadcaster and filmmaker with a degree in English Literature from Cambridge University. She is married and lives in London. This is her third book.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Webster Wilde has written an intriguing and thought-provoking account of her physical and mental journeys to discover the truth behind the mysteries surrounding the history of the ancient tribe of the Amazons. The Greek myth of the Amazons is an often exaggerated tale about a tribe of extremely powerful and brutal warrior women who lived almost exclusively without the company of men. It appears that such women did exist long ago, though not always living as the mythology portrays them. Webster Wilde's travels take her to the plains of Anatolia and the northern steppe regions of the Ukraine. She explores the excavation sites and the remains of what are or could quite possibly be the ancient Amazon women, their ancestors, or their descendents. She often quotes Heroditus' descriptive history of the ancient world and recounts the traditional tales that have been passed down through many generations. On the Trail is a highly enjoyable and educational account about women from the ancient world. --Julia Glynn

Publisher's Weekly Review

Pursuing her elusive subjects like a detective, Wilde exults in the process as well as in her discoveries, contending that the idealized Amazons of recent feminist lore are the real myth, and that they were actually capable of intense violence. Her book will no doubt cause significant controversy among anthropologists, archeologists and historians, many of whom argue that women warriors never existed. Yet Wilde, a broadcast journalist and filmmaker, writes with authority as she interviews archeologists, examines antiquities (e.g., sixth-century black-figure vases), myths and scholarly works to discover who the Amazons actually were. Traveling from the labyrinthine stacks of the London Library to the sites of former Greek colonies on the Black Sea and in the Ukraine, she delves into Greek and Anatolian myths, revealing that androgyny, gender bending and role reversal were also part of the Amazonian persona. Drawing on archeological grave digs in the Ukraine and Moldova that, she says, uncovered women warriors, Wilde theorizes that the Amazon myths, based on real female warrior groups, were part of an evolutionary process from a society oriented toward the Mother Goddess to a patriarchal one. She also explains how warrior women were revered as goddesses and priestesses by the Greeks, Sumerians, Hittites, Africans in Dahomey and others, even as women were subjugated in those same societies. Wilde's passionate, well-researched treatise on the Amazonian warriors of the classical Greek world illuminates myth and history. 16p b&w photos, 4 maps and 1 chart. (July) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

An intellectual, spiritual, and physical adventure, this book recounts the author's search for the origins of the Amazon myth. Wilde is a broadcaster and film producer rather than a professional historian or academic; her unbounded enthusiasm and thrill of discovery is refreshing, but her tendency to see relationships to her subject wherever she looks diminishes her findings. After an introductory chapter detailing the role of women in classical Greece and particulars about the Amazon legends, the author embarks on a grand tour of this region, looking for evidence of cultures that could have inspired the myth. She finds links in the Ukrainian steppes, where ancient grave sites include the remains of women buried with weapons; in Mediterranean priestess cults; in the ritual dancing of dervishes; in the power exerted by ancient Hittite queens; and in matriarchal African tribes that existed into the last century. Well written and fast paced, the text is exhausting in its breadth but intriguing in its suppositions. This interesting work could serve as the catalyst for more definitive explorations of the subject and as such is recommended for both academic and public libraries.DRose Cichy, Osterhout Free Lib., Wilkes-Barre, PA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One Essence of Amazon THE STOLEN GIRDLE In Britain, until recently, if you wanted to relax on a Saturday night you could switch on the television and treat yourself to an hour of Hercules followed by an hour of Xena, Warrior Princess . Both programmes presented swashbuckling tales set in a mythical Greek dark age in which evil battled with good and good eventually won. The two heroes, Hercules and Xena, with their magical strength and dry, self-deprecating humour, seemed to exist in the same realm, to fight on the same side -- the side of the good. But in fact, in the world of Greek myth, the Amazons and Hercules were sworn and bitter enemies. So how could Amazonian Xena and Hercules both be fighting on the side of right?     The `golden-shielded, silver-sworded, man-loving, male-child slaughtering Amazons' were worthy opponents of the great hero, Hercules. For the ninth of his Twelve Labours he was required to go on a mission against them, to steal the girdle of Hippolyta, their queen. Because they were daughters of Ares, the god of war, the Amazons' queen was entitled to wear Ares' golden girdle. This girdle, a kind of snake made of fabric, leather or metal, is a symbol for sexual power, channelled and kept within civilised bounds. In Greek marriage ceremonies, when the bridegroom loosed the bride's girdle it signified the end of her free maidenhood and the opening of her body to her husband and to pregnancy. If you look at the little Minoan snake-goddess (see illustration) you will see how two of the three snakes she wears actually form the girdle that goes round her hips and covers her womb. She is a graphic illustration of what a `girdle' can actually signify. For the Amazons, that band of women warriors who lived without men, it was also a symbol of their self-sufficient shakti -power. The loss of their queen's girdle would mean the end of their independent existence.     In Diodorus of Sicily's version of the story, Hercules sails to Themiscyra, the Amazon capital on the Black Sea coast, and demands the girdle from Hippolyta. She refuses, and there follows a bloody battle in which all her champions are slain one by one. They all have beautiful names: Aella, which means `whirlwind', Philippis, Prothoe, Eriboia, Celaeno, Eurybia, Phoebe, Deianera, Asteria, Marpe, Tecmessa and Alcippe, who had vowed to remain a virgin all her life, and died keeping her vow. Only after Hercules had slaughtered nearly all of these brave warriors and more or less exterminated the race of Amazons did Melanippe, their commander, admit defeat. The story tells how Hercules let Melanippe go `in exchange for her girdle'; in other words, he raped her, knowing that this would be a worse humiliation than death, and he gave Antiope, who was a princess, to Theseus, in thanks for his support.     Meanwhile Theseus, the Athenian hero who had accompanied Hercules on the trip, had returned to Athens with Antiope, and made her his slave -- meaning, of course, his concubine. Perhaps, outside the heat of battle, he was not such an uncivilised man, because it seems that Antiope grew fond of him. But the remaining Amazons did not know this and banded together with Scythian allies from the other side of the Black Sea, and set off to attack Athens and rescue Antiope. They came by way of the Cimmerian Bosphorus, through Thrace to Attica, and pitched their camp on a hill outside Athens (see map 2). In the battle that ensued, Antiope, who by now had a son with Theseus called Hippolyte, fought on the Athenian side. She died fighting bravely against her own sisters while the Amazons were routed, the remnants of their army returning to Scythia with their allies.     In another, later, version Hippolyta comes aboard Hercules' ship when it first arrives in the harbour at Themiscyra, falls in love with him, and offers him the girdle as a gift. All could have been well, but the goddess Hera, Hercules' mother, goes around the city spreading the rumour that these Greek pirates are planning to abduct Hippolyta, and so the Amazons mount their horses and attack Hercules' ship. At this point he kills Hippolyta and strips her of her girdle and battle-axe, which he presents to Queen Omphale (something of an Amazon herself), who puts it amongst the sacred regalia of the Lydian kings.     Whichever version you opt for, this story marks a decisive shift in the psyche of Western man: he ceases to be the mother's son , and becomes instead her master . He literally steals the girdle that embodies sexual power, the shakti , from the Great Mother -- who has hitherto been seen as the source of all things, the ultimate power in the universe. Masculinity was only a small thing in relation to her encompassing femaleness. Camille Paglia writes: `Masculinity flows from the Great Mother as an aspect of herself and is recalled and cancelled by her at will. Her son is a servant of her cult. There is no going beyond her. Motherhood blankets existence.'     This is not a situation that a hero can tolerate. Hercules embodies the spirit of the patriarchal Dorians who arrived in Greece around 1200 BC, took power, and gradually shaped the old goddess-worshipping cultures into a new form. Hercules is the Dorians' mythical representative, an agent of change, the man who performs the necessary acts to transform a society still held fast in the grip of the earth mysteries. Masculine man begins to control and subdue feminine nature and the society that results from this transformation is Classical Greece, which produced Socrates, democracy, tragedy and rationalism, and whose spirit still informs our own civilisation.     The Amazons are the key to a forgotten country way back in time before this decisive step was taken in favour of our sort of civilisation. I do not believe that this step was automatically a bad thing: it was probably a necessary thing, and it cannot be undone. The time in which the idea of Amazons was created and perpetuated was the period running up to and including Classical Greece, 700-400 BC, and it was a borderland time between two realities, one ancient and one modern; one mysterious and almost unknowable, the other familiar. To know about the nature of the Amazons it is necessary to plunge back into that unknown world, bearing in mind that we have to avoid the strong temptation to project our own longings and fantasies into it. THE NAME AND THE MYTH As an introduction to the spirit of the Amazons, it is instructive to consider all the different meanings that have been given for their name. The commonest explanation is that the word is Greek and means `without breasts, breastless', perhaps referring to the reported Amazon custom of searing off a breast in childhood in order to be able to draw the bow-string back unimpeded, or to divert all their strength into the right shoulder and arm which would be used in wielding weapons. Of course they may have appeared breastless because they bound up and flattened one of their breasts with a wide leather or linen strap so that it would not get in the way, as contemporary female archers sometimes do, or because they were simply very well-exercised bow-women whose shoulder and back muscles had developed so as to minimise their breasts.     The second most common explanation of the word `Amazon' is that it is Armenian and means `moon-women'. This leads into a whole world of possibilities as to their origin as priestesses of various moon-goddesses. Donald Sobol thinks the name could refer to the Indian goddess Uma and gives Uma-Soona =`children of Uma'. Amastris (an early Black Sea settlement) then becomes `Uma's women' ( Stri =woman). Another derivation for Amazon could be Pheonician Am =`mother', and Azon or Adon , `lord', giving `mother-lord'. He suggests Amazons could be women of Ephesus who `gave up reaping for war', giving amao =`reap' and zonai ='wearing girdles'. An epithet that Herodotus attaches to them is Oiorpata , meaning `man-killers', and Aeschylus calls them `man-hating' and `manless'.     Nothing about the Amazons may be taken too definitely or literally: the myths are not simple or clear and the travellers' tales may or may not be true -- there is no way of knowing. For instance, there are other versions and variations of the Hercules/Hippolyta/Theseus/Antiope myth recounted above: many writers from Homer's time to ours have added theirs, each changing details and adding elements. Robert Graves's virtuoso performance in The Greek Myths has been enormously influential, but whereas he wrote it in a speculative, tricksterish spirit, perhaps already in thrall to the `White Goddess', a whole generation of literal-minded feminists have repeated some of his wilder ideas as if they were gospel truth.     There are two questions we have to ask before we can begin to search intelligently for the source of the Amazon myth; first, what kind of society created, embellished and relished the Amazon image? And second, exactly when and where were the `real' Amazons supposed to have lived? AMAZONS AND THE ATHENIAN SPIRIT Greece between 700 and 400 BC was a society in the throes of exciting and turbulent change and the Athenians were the instigators of it. But it was also a period in which women gradually lost the relative freedom and status they possessed in the Heroic Age (1600-1100 BC), as portrayed by Homer and the other writers of epics, and were turned into a servile underclass, along with the slaves with whom they shared much of their lives.     A girl would normally be married at the age of fourteen to a man of about thirty whose previous sexual experience would have been either with slaves or prostitutes, or with other men. The bride, however, had to be a virgin. This system may have evolved because of the low proportion of females in the population, probably as a result of the custom of `exposing' girl babies (letting them die) in favour of male offspring. A young widow could serve as a wife in a series of marriages until she reached menopause or died in childbirth. One study of skeletal remains found the average adult longevity in Classical Greece to be forty-five for males and thirty-six for females, which implies that a significant proportion of women did die in childbirth, since in a modern developed society women on average live three years longer than men. A typical Athenian woman might bear five or six children in the course of her life.     The Athenian girl remained in someone's protection throughout her life, whether he be a father, husband, son or a male relative. However, her dowry was to remain intact throughout her lifetime -- it could be used for her support, but her guardian could not dispose of it. Divorce was easy to get, with no stigma; all a man had to do was send his wife away from the house. A woman seeking divorce, however, had to get a male relative to intercede and bring the case before the archon (magistrate). Only three cases are known of in the classical period where divorce proceeded from the wife's side. Children were the property of the father and remained in the father's house when a marriage was dissolved through death, and probably also in the case of divorce.     Boys had extensive mental and physical education but girls, because they married young, missed out except for the domestic arts. The age differential made husbands paternal, and indeed the wife had the status of a minor vis-à-vis her husband under Athenian law. The sexes lived separately -- women and slaves upstairs, men downstairs. Free women were usually secluded so that they would not be seen by men who were not close relatives. Distance between husbands and wives could therefore be great: Socrates, for instance, dismissed his wife, the mother of his children, from his deathbed. Men had a public life in beautiful and spacious public buildings where they could go to exercise, discuss politics and philosophy and consort with their lovers, while women stayed in dark, often squalid and unsanitary homes with children and slaves for company. Women of all social classes worked mainly indoors or near the house in order to guard it, and better-off women sent slaves out to do errands and go to the market, missing out on the freedom that at least poorer women had to go out to fetch water, wash clothes, borrow utensils. Women could not buy or sell land, and there were not many respectable trades open to them. Male guardians managed their property.     Respectable women probably did not attend the theatre -- which must have been one of the great pleasures of Greek life -- although hetairai did. Hetairai were `companions to men', who could be, at the top end of the social scale, educated and beautiful courtesans. The most famous woman in fifth-century Athens was Aspasia, the companion of Pericles, the Tyrant of Athens. She started life as a hetaira and ended it as a madam, but was widely respected: Socrates visited her and brought along pupils. Pericles cherished Aspasia and would kiss her on leaving and returning home. Clearly it was an unconventional relationship and Aspasia must have been a very strong-minded and independent woman.     Female slaves were freely available to their masters and their masters' friends for sex. Men could have a concubine on much the same basis as a wife. Homosexual love, usually between an older man and a young boy, was considered normal -- and indeed even superior to love between a man and a woman. Under Solon's law, the guardian of a woman caught in flagrante had the right to sell her into slavery. The penalty for rape was monetary but the wronged husband did have the legal right to kill his wife's seducer. Intercourse three times a month was deemed sufficient for women. Since most men were likely to be either having homosexual encounters or sleeping with slaves, we can guess that the sexual experience of most women was somewhat unsatisfactory. Unsurprisingly, masturbation occurred and was acknowledged -- some vase paintings depict phallic instruments being used by women for self-stimulation, and it is also mentioned in Aristophanes' play, Lysistrata .     Looking back on a society where the aristocratic women had almost no freedom and the high-class courtesans were the only category of women who were able to meet and talk to men on equal terms, it would be possible to argue, as Mandy Merch does, that the Amazons were simply a creation of the newly powerful patriarchs: `The Amazons are introduced into myth not as an independent force but as the vanquished opponents of heroes credited with the establishment and protection of the Athenian state -- its founding fathers, so to speak. Patriotism reinforces patriarchalism.'     Merch notes that life for Athenian women was `short, arduous and secluded', and that `the resulting tension between the Athenian state and its female members found its way into artistic expression, particularly in the tragedies which show women rebelling ... the Amazon myth can be interpreted as an expression of this unease'. She claims that `the Amazon myth resolved this tension by representing such a rebellion as already concluded in deserved defeat'. Merch puts it well, and it is easy to be convinced by her arguments, but the fact that the Athenians were fascinated by the idea and image of the Amazons, that they picked it up and embellished it in art and story, does not mean that there were no `real' prototype Amazons -- nor that there were no roads to freedom at all for Athenian and other Greek women. THE SECRET FREEDOMS OF WOMEN There was one area in which the suppressed and secluded class of women -- and also slaves and some foreigners -- were allowed to function as equals with men: the Eleusinian mysteries. Each year in the autumn, the nine-day long ceremony was held in which, in the Classical Age, any sincere person could come and be initiated into the mysteries of Demeter, as long as they spoke Greek and had not sullied their hands with human blood. At the heart of the mystery was the relationship between the earth-goddess Demeter and her maiden daughter Persephone, or Kore. Kore is picking flowers in a meadow when she is abducted by Hades, the lord of the Underworld. Demeter mourns her loss violently and seeks her throughout the universe, withdrawing her benevolence from the natural world so that everything withers and fails. The myth tells how they are eventually re-united in great joy and fertility is restored to the world. In the course of the ceremony there was also a sacred marriage in which a sacred child is conceived: these mysteries were a legacy of old pre-Dorian, earth-based rites, possibly originating in Crete, in which the female as earth-goddess was paramount. Sophocles wrote `thrice blessed are those among men who, after beholding these rites, go down to Hades. Only for them is there life; all the rest will suffer misery.'     Nobody knows exactly what happened at the climax of the rites -- and indeed without the long slow preparations that were designed to alter the state of consciousness it would probably mean little to us if we did -- but the important matter for us is that the Eleusinian mysteries were not only open to women, but preserved the essence of the old matri-potestal religion at the heart of increasingly patriarchal Greece for nearly 2,000 years, from their inauguration in about 1350 BC until they ended three centuries after the birth of Christ.     Slightly earlier in the year was the three-day festival of Thesmophoria, a very ancient and mysterious rite in which piglets were sacrificed. It was only for women. Only free women of unblemished character were allowed to participate. They had to be chaste for three days in preparation, but were required to indulge in foul language and obscenities as part of the rite. Wealthy husbands were obliged to bear the cost of the festival.     On an even more earthy level there were the rites of Dionysus, the god who was brought up as a girl and whose main followers were always women. In the late 500s AD there are vase paintings of fierce and brutal Dionysiac rituals where maenads (female followers of the god Dionysus) inflamed with wine or other substances would tear animals apart with their bare hands.     Then there were the oracles, the most famous perhaps those at Delphi and Dodona. In earlier times these sites were probably sacred simply to the goddess whose priestess-prophets would commune with her and give oracles. Delphi was named after the female serpent Delphyne, who used to live in the chasm there with her mate, the Python. The god Apollo killed the Python and made the Delphic priestess work in his service. She would sit on a tripod, breathe fumes from a crack in the earth, go into a trance and make her utterances, which would then be interpreted by a priest. The oracle of Zeus at Dodona was thought to have been brought from Egypt by a kidnapped priestess. The ancient priestesses of the shrine went barefoot, never washed their feet, and slept on the bare ground (all symbolic ways to keep in touch with Mother Earth). They listened for the words of Zeus in the rustlings of the leaves and the clinking of brass vessels hanging from the branches of the oak tree sacred to the god. In later times, they too were joined by priests as the Dorian incomers made sure their father gods `married' the local mother-goddesses.     Although they secluded and circumscribed their women, the Greeks must have been strongly aware of their power, whether sexual and earthy as in the Dionysian rites, or prophetic as in the oracles, or comforting and transcendent as in the Eleusinian earth-goddess, Demeter. Indeed, Athens belonged to Athene, the great warrior-goddess, and Artemis, the virgin huntress, was worshipped under her different names all over the Greek world. She was of course the Amazons' main goddess, and it was said that they had founded her temple in Ephesus. Therefore in the religious and spiritual sphere the feminine was still powerful.     Thus in Athens in the sixth and fifth centuries BC we have a society in which democracy is evolving, art and philosophy flowering, women are utterly suppressed, and misogyny is rife -- and yet in which there is a strong subliminal recognition of feminine power as expressed in religious rites. This provides an interesting contrast to our own society in which women are regarded as equals but have only recently acquired any public religious role, as women priests. To find out where the Amazons stand in relation to this we need to consider the spiritual aspects of their myth. Apollonius Rhodius, who wrote about Jason and the Argonauts in the third century BC, associates the Amazons with the worship of Ares: Then all together they [Jason and his men] went to the temple of Ares to offer sacrifice of sheep and in haste they stood round the altar, which was outside the roofless temple, an altar built of pebbles, within which a black stone stood fixed, a sacred thing, to which of yore the Amazons all used to pray. Nor was it lawful for them, when they came from the opposite coast, to burn on this altar offerings of sheep and oxen, but they used to slay horses which they kept in great herds.     There is a hint here of a religious role for the Amazons that I will explore in detail later, but for now notice only the black stone, normally associated with the great goddess Cybele from Phrygia, in western Anatolia, and the horse-sacrifice that links them with the horse-people of the Steppes. The association of Amazons with horses is there in many of their names: Hippolyta -- `of the stampeding horse'; Melanippe -- `black mare'; Alcippe -- `powerful mare'. THE STRONG WOMEN OF SPARTA In Athens and most of the civilised Greek city-states women were treated primarily as breeders, but Sparta was very different. Even though Spartans were supposed to be Dorians -- that is, of Hercules' patriarchal line -- and though they honed the notion of warriorship to a sharp and lethal edge, women were actually much freer there than in Athens. This was partly because they were valued as `mothers of warriors' and therefore needed to be nourished and exercised as well as the boys. Spartan women married later, at around eighteen, which meant they were physically more mature when they had their first child, and much less likely to suffer complications. Xenophon praised the Spartans for nourishing girls as well as boys, for it was unusual amongst the Greeks to do so. (Continues...) Excerpted from On the Trail of THE WOMEN WARRIORS by Lyn Webster Wilde. Copyright © 1999 by Lyn Webster Wilde. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.