AMAZONS

The Amazons, a mythical nation of women warriors, appear in many legends of the ancient Greeks. Called “man-haters” by the Greek playwright Aeschylus, Amazons were believed to live somewhere near the Black Sea on the edge of the known world.

Descended from Ares, the god of war, the Amazons were famed for their skill in battle. They fought with bows and arrows, axes, spears, and crescent-shaped shields. Although the Amazons lived in a society that was entirely female, they bore children after mating with men from other nations. However, they raised only their female offspring, sending away, killing, or making slaves of their male children.

The Amazons are featured in many of ancient Greece’s enduring stories. In the Greek epic tradition that includes Homer’s Iliad, the Amazons take the side of the Trojans in the Trojan War. The myth of Heracles includes a description of his journey to the land of the Amazons. One of Heracles’ labors was to take the girdle (belt) from Hippolyte, the queen of the Amazons. Another myth tells how the Greek hero* Theseus kidnapped an Amazon queen, an act that led the Amazons to attack the city of Athens.

According to one story, the name Amazon came from a Greek word meaning “without breasts,” because the Amazons were said to have cut off their right breast in order to draw their bows more easily. Another story suggested that the name meant “without grain” because the Amazons relied on hunting rather than agriculture for their food.

The legend of these female warriors continued into the modern world. Spanish explorers of the 1500s named the longest river in South America the Amazon. They were reported to have seen native women there who served as war captains, leading their men into battle. Even today, strong, powerful women are sometimes referred to as Amazons. (See also Homer; Iliad; Myths, Greek.)

THE GRAVES OF AMAZONS?

The Greek legends of Amazons may have been inspired by real women. Archaeologists in central Asia have recently discovered the graves of women buried with swords and daggers, indicating that they had been warriors. These women, however, were probably not as ferocious as the Amazons of myth. Scholars believe they carried weapons chiefly to protect their herds and their land.

* hero in mythology, a person of great strength or ability, often descended from a god

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