RUNNING through the works of early Greek writers we find a moving and circumstantial story of the rise and fall of a nation of women, who, having been deprived of their husbands, sons, and brothers through the fortunes of battle, and then persecuted by the cruelty of their enemies, took up arms to avenge their wrongs. Thus having tasted blood, these women, we are told, acquired an unappeasable longing for the lust of carnage, and spurred on by the exaltation of victory, they decided to forswear the rule of man and become their own mistresses. Banishing, or mutilating, the few males left in their midst, they set about laying the foundations of a state, and, either through the necessities of the case or a liking for the calling, adopted arms as a national career. This monstrous experiment succeeding, the boundaries of the state were, if we are to believe various writers, vastly extended, the fame of the women warriors flying swiftly before their advancing legions, carrying terror into distant countries. Occasional war alliances were then formed with neighbouring people, to enable far-off and hazardous expeditions to be undertaken with greater ease. The women swept west as far as Bohemia, and some say into Gaul, reached the Mediterranean,
penetrated India with conquering Dionysius, invaded Northern Africa to make treaties with Horus, son of Osiris and Isis, attacked Attica, actually sat down before proud Athens and almost beat her to the dust, founded colonies in Europe and Asia Minor, and built many cities renowned in history. Here, indeed, was a theme to inspire poets with eloquence, to be dwelt upon, embroidered and otherwise ornamented with diverse fantastic details by chroniclers; to endow the brush of painters, the chisel of sculptors with a fine frenzy, which has left us sometimes quaintly grotesque but frequently loftily conceived works of art.
It is a curious tale this story of the Amazons, disturbingly elusive when the positive evidence of monuments or other contemporary records are inquired after: a tale full of contradictions and pitfalls for the unwary, yet in its main outline consistent enough. It is impossible to date the story, though many compute it to have commenced between 2500 and 1500 years before our era, and others much earlier, taking into account the far-off expeditions and their merging into the realms of mythology. At all events, in some nebulous period and in an equally cloud-obscured region, the distant lands north-east of the Caucasus barrier, a conspiracy arose among the Scythians against two of their princes, named, we are told, Hylinos and Scolopotos, with the result that the milder alternative of banishment was resorted to. The princes and their families, their followers and their families, their partisans and their families--a nation in miniature--were pushed over the borderland, and came rushing to the foot and up the slopes of the Caucasus like the swollen yellow flood of an overfull river. Naturally they slew
and stole, settling down to fill places high and places low of the dispossessed. Then, as we might expect, came an uprising of the oppressed when least looked for, but an uprising so successful in its first deceptive appearance that the festering sore caused by the implanted strangers was well-nigh wiped off the face of the land. The slaughter of the Scythian men was terrific, and of a thoroughness characteristic of those good old times. But the women of the hardy race, inured to hardships by their tribe's recent experiences, retired fighting to the dark mountains. In exile from their own ancestral homes, suddenly deprived of their mankind, and fearing the dire humiliation of subjugation by the vanquishers, in the solitude of their mountain refuge, they came to the desperate resolve to form a women's state. Their first step was to adopt the sacred girdle, that almost universal symbol in the east and Eastern Europe of the unmarried condition; then expelling or mutilating the few males left in their midst, they elected two queens, who alternately presided over home affairs while the other organised defence. But from the defensive the dauntless women soon took the offensive and reconquered their late homes. Such a condition of affairs naturally leading to constant reprisals, the manless state insensibly became organised on a perpetual war footing, an organisation which inevitably led to conquests beyond the original borders. Hence a new problem in statecraft: the ravages of time and the sword woefully thinning the population brought urgently under the attention of their rulers the imminence, more or less postponed by possible recruits, of complete extinction. A remedy had to be found. So truces
were periodically declared, and those of the younger members of the state who had slain men in battle, discarding their girdles, visited their neighbours and formed temporary unions, then returning, reassumed the magic circlet. Of the children born of such unions, the males (some report) were sacrificed, or (as others say) mutilated and retained as serfs or sent back to their fathers. The girl babes being fed on mares' milk, on the pith of water-reeds, and as speedily as might be on the flesh of game, were brought up rigorously, and early made acquainted with hardship, with the use of arms, and with horse exercise. They wore a scanty tunic, protected themselves with small shields, and wielded the bow and arrow, the lance and the battle-axe. The better to secure the utmost freedom in archery, the right breast was either amputated or atrophied by searing with red-hot irons, or by close binding; and so the Greeks, when they came into contact with them, called them Amazons, or the breastless. With reminiscences of the steppes of their ancestral home, they cultivated horse exercise assiduously, and are said to have fought equally well on foot and on horseback. Thus were various precautions taken against the dying out of the race.
With a war organisation perfected and adopted as the basis of the social economy, and a population on the increase, conquest became necessary to the community. Great queens arose who led forth the restless swarms. Marpesia is among the first named of these militant rulers, riding at the head of armies to seize upon adjacent kingdoms, making good their hold on the Caucasus. Climbing the comparatively easy northern slopes, they descended the rugged
southern declivities and overran Cappadocia, finally settling on the Thermodon, which empties itself into the Euxine (Black Sea), and built thereon their capital of Themyscira, which became the second and greatest cradle of their race. Thence they pushed their way down to the Ægean Sea, swept over most of Asia Minor into Syria, founding many towns, such as Ephesus and Smyrna. We are told of their ever-restless energy, of their organising harassing expeditions, threatening both ancient and rising civilisations, clashing with the armed Trojans in Phrygia, reaching Egypt by way of Syria, and in the train of Dionysus passing through Parthia and so on into India, where, some say, they founded colonies, and then, after harassing the Grecian settlements, flaunted Athens itself.
Ancient writers mostly speak of the Caucasus as a continuation of the Taurus range, entirely within Asia, something far away and little known, but others give graphic descriptions of this the original home of the Amazons. Pliny says that it is "of immense extent, and separating nations innumerable; after taking its first rise at the Indian Sea, it branches off to the north on the right-hand side, and on left towards the south. Then, taking a direction towards the west, it would cut through the middle of Asia were it not that the sea checks it in its triumphant career along the land. It accordingly strikes off in a northerly direction, and forming an arc, occupies an immense track of country, nature, designedly, as it were, every now and then throwing seas in the way to oppose its career: here the Sea of Phnicia, there the Sea of Pontus; in this direction the Caspian and Hyceanian, [Western and Eastern Caspian], and then opposite to
them the Lake Mæotis. Although somewhat curtailed by these obstacles, it still winds along between them, and makes its way even amidst these barriers, and victorious after all, it then escapes with its sinuous course to the kindred chain of the Riphæan mountains. Numerous are the names which it bears, as it is continuously designated by new ones throughout the whole of its course. In the first part it has the name of Imaus [Hindu Kush], after which it is successively known by the names of Emodus, Paropanisus, Circius, Cambades, Paryadres, Choatras, Oreges, Orandes, Niphates, Taurus, and, where it even outtops itself, Caucasus. Where it throws forth its arms as though every now and then it would invade the sea, it bears the name of Sarpedon, Coracesius, Cragus, and then again Taurus. Where it opens and makes passage to admit mankind, it still claims the credit of an unbroken continuity by giving the name of gates to these passes. . . . In addition to this, when it has been cut short in its onward career, it retires to a distance from the seas and covers itself on the one side and the other with the names of numerous nations," so that, among the many others, there were the Amazonian and the Scythian chains. He mentions two flaming mountains (probably due to natural gas or naphtha) in Syria. Strabo places the Amazons among the most eastern developments of the Caucasus, overhanging the Caspian Sea arid forming a barrier between the Albanians and Iberians. He also points out that the plains of Scythia and the whole coast of Themyscira, "named the plain of the Amazons," are alluvial, and offer a strange contrast to their mountain refuges. Pliny, speaking of the geography of this
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PHIGALIAN FRIEZE, GREEKS AND AMAZONS. BRITISH MUSEUM
locality in his day, says: "Upon the coast" [of the Euxine] "there is a river Thermodon, which rises at the fortified place called Phanara" [Thermea?] "and flows past the foot of Mount Amazonius" [Mason Dagh?]. "There was formerly a town of the same name as the river, and five others in all--Amazonium, Themyscira, Satira, Amasia, and Comana." It will be seen from all this the vastness and uncertainty of the whole great black range which connected the Pontus with the far-off regions hidden in a mysterious chaos of mountains, forests, network of rivers and seas and dreary plains.
All the numerous nations referred to above were equally awe-inspiring. Strabo says: "The Amazons are said to live among the mountains above Albania. Good authors, however, say they live at the foot of the Caucasian mountains. When at home, they are occupied in performing with their own hands the work of ploughing, planting, pasturing cattle, and particularly in training horses. The strongest among them spend much of their time in hunting on horseback and practise warlike exercises." In his own day the people living on the south side of the Caucasus were pirates, who left no peace to their neighbours; divided into small tribes, ruled over by tyrants, they lived by brigandage.
Strabo also refers to certain "perfectly barbarous tribes of the Caucasus who worshipped the earth (the Mother), and offered and ate human sacrifice, though they would neither sacrifice nor eat females of any kind. Clearly the underlying principle impelling these earth-worshippers in this matter was the desire to secure a continuation of species. To this preoccupation
we must attribute the honour they meted out to their aged of being strangled by near kinsfolk, here too the males being eaten, while the women were returned to the bosom of the great Mother Earth. The same regard to the bearing principle in nature distinguished the Albanians and Iberians, whom some said were the near neighbours of the Amazons. For these people, though they worshipped chiefly two gods, the sun (Jupiter)--probably "The Unknown God," Creator--and the moon, paid special devotion to the latter, as being the closer influence. There was a temple to the moon near Iberia, and here the priest of the pale goddess was next in importance to the kin, and had governance over extensive and popular tracks of sacred land attached to the shrine. Many the temple attendants and others were given prophecy. If any one became violently possessed an went about the woods alone, he was seized, bound by the priest in consecrated fetters, and maintained in luxury for a year. Then he was brought forth and placed among the other victims for sacrifice. As the victims stood before the shrine, an attendant of the moon goddess, armed with a sacrificial lance, emerged from the ranks of the encircling crowd, and advancing, struck the sacrifice to the heart, the presiding priest standing by prognosticating from the manner of the fall and the gushing of blood. After which the body was removed to an appointed place, and there trampled upon by the people, so that they might be purified by the gore of the hallowed scapegoat.
Herodotus declares that the Tauri sacrificed all
shipwrecked persons and all Greeks who happened to be driven to take refuge in their ports, these human offerings being made to a virgin goddess. The victim was struck on the head with a club. the head then was severed and nailed to a tree, and the body flung over the rocky cliffs. Prisoners taken in warfare had their heads struck off, which were then placed on tall poles above their houses. Herodotus adds: "The reason that the heads are set up so high is in order that the whole house may be under their protection," which is precisely the same argument used by the head hunters of Borneo and many another savage race. We have earlier hints of this in the ancient "Argonautic," attributed to Orpheus, but almost certainly written by Onomacritus of Athens, who flourished 520-465 B.C. Herein we read much concerning dangerous and ferocious peoples who dwelt round about Lake Mæotis and farther south, among them being the Tauri, a homicidal race, who performed direful sacrifices to Artemis, filling the consecrated cup with human blood. Of the Scythian stock we have terrible tales. They too worshipped the sun and moon and minor gods of the elements--air, fire, water--with sacrificial rites. Scalps of fallen enemies floated as an awful fringe to the bridles of their war-horses. That powerful and mysterious race, the Hittites, came from the Caucasus, and no doubt originally from the same Scythian stock. They worshipped some nature goddess such as Ashtoreth, and their monuments in Asia Minor show that they sacrificed human lives in their religious ceremonies, had guards of priests and priestesses,
and observed certain orgies at the vernal season. These Hittites were probably the true founders of Ephesus. They carried the double-headed axe, wore short tunics and high boots with upturned toes. These are snow-shoes, which betray their northern origin. And it is curious to find Pliny writing of dwellers in the higher ranges of the Caucasus who wore boots of untanned leather, with turned-up toes, so that they might walk over the snow. This form of the boot is often seen worn by Amazons depicted on pottery, and is analogous to the Mongolian shoe still worn in China.
Strabo's casual remark as to what the women did "when at home" has almost a sarcastic ring about it, for it would appear as though they were very seldom so peacefully occupied, so varied are their movements, so widespread their influence, according to a general chorus of ancient scribes. In fact, three centuries of ceaseless warfare and adventure are said to have elapsed between the rise of the Amazons and the period of their greatest activity in Asia Minor, when, we are told, the pressure became so intolerable to the Greeks that Bellerophon (redoubtable descendant of Helios, the sun god, and Poseidon, the sea god), fresh from slaying the Chimæra, was sent by the King of Lycia to repel their advance. This task too, like others of great difficulty, he brought to a successful issue, breaking up the Amazon power for the time being.
But events showed that the encroaching power of barbarism had merely been pushed back. Bellerophon gone, the bulwark against the restless
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FRIEZE OF MONSOLUS.
tide was removed. Again the Amazonian threat became insistent. Greece was so hard pressed that the queens and their doings rose into an overshadowing prominence, and one of the twelve labours imposed upon Hercules by Erysthesus, king of the Mycenæ, was the extraordinarily hazardous duty of capturing the girdle of the Amazon leader, that girdle which was so thoroughly symbolical of Amazonian ideal, and, therefore, most sacred to them. It was the opening up of great events. Hercules, most of the authors agree, was accompanied on his expedition by Theseus, King of Athens, and the flower of Greek youth, who all embarked on a fleet of splendid galleys. Sailing over the Ægean Sea, they passed through the Bosphorus and Black Sea, and reached the mouth of the Thermodon unmolested. They made their way up the river to Themyscira before Antiope, the home-keeping queen, had time to prepare for effective resistance, or recall Orithya, her sister and co-queen, who was away on some distant war expedition. With all due ceremony, heralds were dispatched by Hercules to Antiope, demanding the surrender of her girdle, which was tantamount to a demand to capitulation, a request promptly refused. So both parties made ready for battle. The Greeks laid siege and attacked in regular form. On their side the weakened garrison of Amazons defended their capital with great obstinacy, and under the leadership of the queen sallied forth to deliver a bloody onslaught. The fighting was fiercest round about Hercules and Theseus. Hercules, invulnerable under his lion's skin, did wondrous deeds, slaying
with his own hand eleven Amazon captains who with undaunted valour came on one after the other to the attack. Diodorus Siculus, indeed, tells us that Hercules challenged the foremost of the leaders to single combat. Aëlla, the swift-footed, he slew as she turned and fled; Philippis fell at the first blow; and Prothoe, who had killed many men in hand-to-hand fights, was no luckier; Artemis, the huntress, and several others were quickly tripped up and their spirits sent to the Shades: still Hercules remained untouched. In the end victory rested with the Greeks, who were by no means slow to reap the reward thereof, as their own writers testify. Many prisoners were made and much booty taken. Hercules for his part had captured Menalippe, sister of the two queens, while a fourth sister, Hippolyta, fell into the hands of Theseus. Hercules, mindful of his quest, restored his fair captive in exchange for Antiope's girdle; but Theseus, surrendering to his love for fair Hippolyta, took her as his wife, and decided to carry her off. There are those, Diodorus among them, who say that Hercules put Menalippe to flight, and capturing Antiope, bereft her of her girdle and then handed her over to Theseus, who bore her away to Athens, where she became the mother of Hippolyte. Apollodorus Atheniensis adds a touch of the supernatural. According to him, Hippolyta wore the girdle of Mars, which she was willing to give up to Hercules; but Juno, assuming the form of one of the warrior women, appeared in their midst and stirred up the Amazons to resist the Greeks, whom she declared had come to carry off their queen. Nevertheless,
the companion of Jove was unable to stay the Grecian success. Hercules, not content with taking possession of the queen's girdle, also carried off her arms, including her formidable double-headed war-axe, a symbol of leadership of which we shall hear more later on. The Greeks, thus variously loaded with spoils, re-embarked and set sail for home.
When Orithya came hurrying back with her army, it was to find the city in ruins and to listen to the tales of woe uttered by Antiope or Menalippe. Determined to recapture Hippolyta and the other precious spoils, the war queen made an impassioned appeal to her army. What good was it, she asked, for them to be mistresses of Pontus and Asia if, notwithstanding their successes, they remained exposed to the insolence of the Greeks, who dared to flaunt them in the heart of their own state? Were they to submit tamely to murder and rapine? Then, realising the magnitude of her task, she appealed to Sagillus, king of the Scythians, reminding him that they came of the same stock and were threatened by the same ambitious people. This cry for aid was hearkened to, Sagillus dispatching his son Penasagoras at the head of a strong body of horse. Orithya herself gathered a great army, and with her allies marching down the Black Sea coast, passed over that narrow part known as the Cimeran Bosphorus on the winter ice. Others say she marched round the Black Sea, crossing the Danube, and staying long enough on an island called Ares to build a temple which they dedicated to Mars. The lesson seems to be that peril to Greece from the barbarians lay chiefly through an invasion by
way of Thessaly. At all events, most of the authors agree that this daring irruption into Attica came by way of Thessaly. Orithya made a swift march, carrying everything before her, though not without occasional sharp fighting. Arriving before the city of Minerva, which then occupied the site of the Acropolis, she encamped her army on ground renowned as the ancient Athens of Cecrops, and then demanded from Theseus the return of Hippolyta and the sacred girdle. Theseus sent her heralds empty away, and, marshalling his army, sacrificed to the god of Fear, whose temple was never opened except in times of grave peril. The Athenian king supplicated the god not to trouble the Greeks, but prayed that he should invade the ranks of the enemy and carry dismay to their hearts.
The siege was close and lasted for upwards of a month, diversified on the one side by sudden sorties, and on the other by fierce assaults; but little of a decisive nature was accomplished until Theseus prepared to sally forth in force. The Amazonian army presented an extended front, the left wing lying far off on a spot subsequently known as the Amazonium, or the plain of the Amazons, the centre occupying the Æreopagus and the right resting on the Pnyx. The Athenians delivered the attack from the Museum, but were turned by the Amazons and driven back to the Temple of Eumenides. Greek reinforcements hurried up from the Palladium, Ardethis, and Lyceum. Then a stubborn hand-to-hand fight took place, the women being so hard pressed that they were at last compelled to seek refuge in their camp. That this feat was only
accomplished by putting forth the most strenuous efforts is a point insisted upon by chroniclers. All traditions lay stress on the deadly character of the conflict, and these helped to produce the deep-seated impression so vividly brought home to us when we study the spirited sculptures in which these combats are portrayed. The carnage was terrible and seemed to be never-ending. Both sides fought desperately "for hearth and home," until Hippolyta made her appearance to act as mediatrix between the troops of her victorious but almost exhausted husband, and the defeated, though by no means routed, army of her sister. Ultimately peace was sworn, and the Horcomosin, or Oath House, erected as a memento of the ceremony. Then the slain having received honourable burial, the remnant of the army, having been in Attica some four months, was led back through Greece under a truce. We are told that Hippolyta died and was buried at Megara, where her tomb was long to be seen, while other tombs of Amazons were shown in Athens, in Botia, and in Thessaly; but of these, and of the Temple of the Amazons at Athens, no traces have been discovered in modern times.
Certain historians, Plutarch being among the number, hold that Theseus did not accompany Hercules to the Thermodon, that expedition being supposed to have kept the Amazons quiet for a long time. But it is said that Theseus at a later date either invaded the Amazon state in force, or went there by stealth and by stratagem possessed himself of Queen Antiope, by whom he had Hippolyte. These authors hint that the Amazon irruption into
[paragraph continues] Attica was due to other reasons than the recapture of a girl, and agree that the incursion was a most serious affair. According to these accounts, Antiope when she rushed forward to shield her husband was killed by an arrow shot by Molpadia, who in her turn was slain by Theseus. Otherwise the incidents of the siege are told much in the same way, though some say that it was the Amazons who were driven back to the Temple of the Furies.
If we accept the general version, Orithya's army, beaten--though not without honour, for they were retreating with their arms and under the safeguard of a sworn peace--and having erected images in several temples as thanksofferings, were nevertheless ashamed to go back to Themyscira with the mission unfulfilled. Passing with the male Scythian allies once more through Thessaly, they reached Scythian settlements in Thrace, where a new Amazon state was founded, which later on sent offshoots farther west. Apparently these settlements were formed under laxer laws, for the organisation gradually broke up, and, merging into the surrounding population, this branch of the warrior women returned to a natural mode of life.
Pausanias in his description of Megara states that in his day near the shrine of Pandion in that city there was the tomb of Hippolyta, and he repeats the Megarian account of the events leading up to her death: "When the Amazons marched against the Athenians on account of Antiope, and were vanquished by Theseus, most of them died fighting; but Hippolyta, who was sister to Antiope and at that time held the command of the women, escaped with
a few others to Megara. There, however, the disaster which had overtaken her army filled her with despondency at the situation in which she found herself, and with despair of ever returning safe home to Themyscira, she died of grief, and they buried her. Her tomb is shaped like an Amazon shield" (or, according to some renderings, "is adorned with an Amazonian shield").
There was much controversy as to the alleged founding of towns by the Amazons during their incursions into Asia Minor and other quarters. As regards Ephesus, Pausanias corrects Pindar, who attributes the erection of the sanctuary to them. He argues that "it is true that the women from Thermodon, knowing the sanctuary of old, sacrificed to the Ephesian goddess, both on this occasion [when hurrying away from Athens] and when they fled from Hercules, and some of them had sacrificed there at a still remoter time when they fled from Dionysus and sought the protection of the sanctuary. But it was not by them that the sanctuary was founded." This invaluable Murray or Baedeker of the ancient world has much to say that is worth noting, for many of the great public and sacred buildings at Athens, Olympia, and other places were adorned with paintings or sculpture, often by most renowned artists, showing the different events in this momentous war, and Pausanias gives descriptions, though often tantalisingly succinct, of most of these. We cannot do better than follow this guide, who relates what he actually saw and the tales that were current.
At Athens itself there was prominently enough the fine paintings on the walls of the Market Colonnade,
representing Theseus and his fellow-Athenians fighting the Amazons, who were mostly shown on horseback. Pausanias comments: "It would appear that their intrepidity was not abated by reverses," for, great events awaited the Amazons after Theseus had done with them and had departed to the Shades. These paintings were by the famous Micon, who flourished 460 B.C., and were to be seen down to the middle of the fourth century of our era. "Beside the Gymnasium," says our cicerone, "is a sanctuary to Theseus, with paintings of the Athenians fighting the Amazons." But the great attraction in this matter was on the south wall of the Acropolis, where there were "figures two cubits high, dedicated to Attalus. They represent the legendary war of the giants who once dwelt about Thrace and the Isthmus of Pallone, the fight of the Athenians with the Amazons, the battle with the Medes at Marathon, the destruction of the Gauls at Mysia." It has been conjectured that this Attalus was the second of that name, and, moreover, that these figures, which appear to have been of light-weight bronze (for Plutarch speaks of one of them having been blown over by wind), were reductions from larger sculptures erected to Attalus I. in Asia Minor. Replicas in marble of these have been traced to the museums of the Louvre, Aix, Venice, and Naples, in which last-named place there are recumbent figures of a dead Gaul and an Amazon, who is shown lying on her back, the right leg bent at the knee and partly drawn up.
At Olympia, we are told, most of the deeds of Hercules were shown, and among others his wresting the girdle from the Amazon queen. This was
repeated in a sculptured group "not far from the offering of the Acheans," where Hercules was shown fighting the queen, who was on horseback. This group was due to the chisel of Aristocle the Cynodian, whom Pausanias reckons as among the most ancient of the sculptors. In his graphic description of Olympian Zeus, whose statue and throne were adorned with gold, ebony, ivory, and precious stones, he says there was much sculpture and painting. Between the feet of the immense throne were three bars bearing images. On one of these bars "is the troop that fought on the side of Hercules against the Amazons. The total number of figures is twenty-nine. Theseus is arrayed amongst the allies of Hercules." Barrier-like walls kept the populace from passing under the throne, and on three sides of these walls were paintings, the fourth side being blue, like the sky; "the last paintings are Penthesilea giving up the ghost and Achilles supporting her." Then, on the footstool, with its golden lions, was the "battle of Theseus wrought in relief on it. This battle was the first deed of valour done by the Athenians against a foreign foe." Next he tells us that at Pyrrhicus were two temples, one to Artemis-the-putter-of-an-end-to-the-War, because here the Amazons were stopped from further warfare, and the other to Apollo-Amazonius. "Both have wooden images, and tradition says they were votive offerings of the women that came from the Thermodon." Their name crops up again and again in his painstaking itinerary. All of which unmistakably testifies to the importance attributed to these events by the Athenians. To them they were not only memorable wars, but worthy of
being commemorated as among the most glorious of their actions. Herodotus, too, makes the Athenians boast of this in their angry war of words with the Tegeans as to which of them should have the honour of occupying the left flank when facing the Persian army. The sons of Athene exclaim: "Another noble deed of ours was that against the Amazons when they came from their seat upon the Thermodon and poured their hosts into Attica." This sentiment of pride in their stand against the fighting women is repeated over and over again. It is, indeed, a sentiment felt in common by the sober chronicler, the poet, and the artist.
Another subject for wonder and admiration on the part of the Greeks is the stubbornness of the Amazons, who, surviving the crushing expeditions of Bellerophon and Hercules, their defeat by Theseus, yet remained as a formidable fighting organisation able to attack near and far kingdoms, and even to venture once more to measure their strength with the Greeks when they met before the walls of Troy. No wonder that Pausanias records with some astonishment: "Their intrepidity was not abated by reverses." We hear of an attack on the Phrygians, who implored assistance from their neighbours, and among others Priam, King of Troy. Long after that war, Priam, when viewing the Greek army from the walls of his doomed capital, told Helen--
"In Phrygia once were gallant armies known
In ancient times, when Otreus filled the throne,
When godlike Mygden led the troops of horse,
And I, to join them, raised the Trojan force
Against the man-like Amazons we stood,
And Sangar's stream ran purple with their blood."
[paragraph continues] In spite of this spilling of blood, however, it would seem that the victory remained with the Amazons, for though we are told of the death of their queen Myrina during the campaign, their influence on Persia is one of the points insisted upon by ancient historians, and is supposed to have subsisted down to the days of Alexander of Macedon. Strabo tells us that in the Ilian plain there was a hill dedicated to Myrina, the "Bounding," so called because this enterprising queen was a great horsewoman, who is supposed to have been buried here beneath a great cairn. It was through Phrygia that they invaded Syria and passed into Egypt, though, if we are to accept the legend of their forcing an alliance upon Horus, this must be credited to an earlier expedition, or chronology would be put hopelessly out of joint. Some years after the exploit of Priam on Sangar's gory banks, the Amazons were in alliance with the Trojans against the Greeks; but whether this was due to their admiration of the father-in-law of Helen, or to their undying hatred of the countryman of Bellerophon, Hercules, and Theseus, it is hard to say. At all events, at the call of Priam Penthesilea arrived before Troy with a small band of Amazons, while the venerable king was celebrating the funeral rites of Hector, but recently slain by Achilles. The queen was received with great joy by Priam, who was as much struck by her beauty as by her courage; but Andromache warned this self-confident warrior that she would not find Achilles, who had killed her own lord and many another valiant captain, an easy foe to conquer.
Undaunted by prophecies of evil, Penthesilea,
clothed in light armour and wearing a helmet, armed with sword, bow, and arrows, the formidable double-headed axe in her right hand, a couple of lances and a shield in her left, mounted her charger and went forth to battle at the head of her twelve warriors. As the Amazons advanced, the Greeks stood still, astonished at what they beheld, and somewhat fearful. Penthesilea, throwing a dart by way of signal, dashed to the fray, and with her terrible axe killed eight of the leading Greek captains. But several of the notable Amazons also fell, and the queen redoubled her furious attack, urging her followers and allies to the slaughter. The fight was at its height and the Greeks wavering, when the din of battle reached the cars of Achilles and Ajax, who were offering sacrifice to the manes of Patroclus. Arming themselves, they hastened to the very thick of the mêlée, and endeavoured to stay the advancing tide of Trojan forces. Then the Greek heroes came face to face with the Amazons. Penthesilea, turning to the new arrivals, and recognising them as the most doughty leaders, threw a dart at Achilles, who parried it with his famous shield. Turning her anger against Ajax, the queen again saw her effort frustrated. As the two contending armies paused to watch this heroic duel, Penthesilea advanced, and claiming to be a daughter of Mars, told the Greeks that they were always aggressors, and though their armour had turned aside her avenging darts, they would not be able to escape the wrath she was about to visit upon them with the aid of her axe, which would thus bring relief to groaning Troy. Achilles, on his part, chiding the queen for her vainglorious speech and her unpardonable
temerity, told her not to imagine herself invincible, for if she was the daughter of Mars, the Greeks were sons of Jupiter, the lawgiver to gods and men. Hector had fallen to his lance, and she could only hope for a like fate, as the sons of Jupiter were more powerful than the daughters of Mars. So saying, Achilles threw a dart, which pierced her right breast, covering the queen with blood. Then the mighty Greek captain thrust at her horse, and as it fell he vaulted from his own charger, and with his lance ran his prostrate foe through the body. Withdrawing his weapon, he bent over to despoil her of her armour. As he thus stooped over her Achilles was overcome by the glorious beauty of the dying queen, and, reflecting on her courage, he raised Penthesilea gently in his arms, and gazing on her calm face, blamed himself for having dealt the fatal blow to so peerless a creature. The Grecian army stood by in respectful silence; only Thersites ventured to raise his voice to reproach his leader for these softer feelings. Achilles, not deigning to use his weapons against such a creature, struck him in the face with his open hand, hurling him to the ground a dead man. Then once more raising the lifeless body of the Amazons' queen, he gave it into the honourable keeping of the Trojans.
It is one of the incidents that most deeply impressed itself upon Hellenic thought and its expression in art. It formed the central motive of the "Æthiopia" of Arctinus of Miletus, long supposed to be a precursor of the Homer cycle, but who really flourished about 770 B.C., and whose great poem was a continuation of the "Iliad." Indeed, it was occupied
with describing the combats between the Greeks and the Amazons and the final acts of Achilles. Tradition says that its finest passages related to the great duel between the Amazon queen and the Greek leader, the latter's anger followed swiftly by sentiments of respect and pity as he contemplated the beautiful woman whom he had slain. The "Æthiopia" has only come down to us in insignificant fragments, though its influence is seen prominently both in literature and art, where it represents the later feelings of the Grecians when they had grown out of the terrors that had inspired the growth of the myth.
Quintus Smyrnus probably gives the best rendering of this last legend, though he adds certain marvels. According to him, Penthesilea is moved not so much by hatred against the Greeks as from a personal grief, she having accidentally killed her sister while out hunting. So
"Her crime to expiate, with her sword
To offer victims to the Furies dire,
Who, tho' unseen, pursu'd her to avenge
Her sister's blood; for with unwearied speed
They chase the guilty, tracking all their steps."
[paragraph continues] Spurred on by this terrible need for atoning by offering human victims to the ghost of the dead and to the outraged deities, Penthesilea goes forth with her twelve companions, and is welcomed by Priam. On the fatal morn,
"when Aurora, rosy-ankled, smil'd,
Penthesilea left her couch, and cloth'd
Her limbs in armour sheen, the gift of Mars;
First to her snowy legs she fitted close
The golden greaves, and on her tender breast
Bound the strong plate of variegated mail. p. 47
Then from her shoulder the huge sword she slung
Proudly, its sheath all exquisitely wrought
With ivory and silver. Next she took
Her crescent buckler, like the horned moon,
When, gleaming o'er the waves, she climbs the sky
With half-replenished lamp. Her helmet last,
Its nodding crest beropt with gold, she plac'd
Upon her head. In this array she shone
Refulgent, as the forky fires that Jove
Hurls to earth, the red vaunt-couriers
Of the big rain-drops, and the roaring winds.
In her left band, behind the shield, she bore
Two jav'lins snatched in haste, and in her right
An axe with double edge, which Discord gave
To the maiden's great defence in war."
[paragraph continues] Then she hurries to the fray, carrying slaughter among the Greeks, and at last espying Achilles and Ajax, she flies to meet them, and after the inevitable war of words, she is slain by Achilles, who, stooping to remove her armour,
"felt exceeding grief
As on the body of the maid he gaz'd,
Mourning her not less than for the death
Of his belov'd Patroclus."
Quintus adds that Mars rushed down from Olympus, alighting on Mount Ida, which rocked and streamed with fire, and the war god would have attacked the Greeks had he not been restrained by the thunder and lightning of angered Jove.
In all this we see the Greek feeling as to the inevitableness of tragedy. Mere mortals are driven by Fate, the sport of the gods, while struggling with this sentiment there peeps out the old cruel doctrine that outraged gods can be appeased alone by personal or vicarious sacrifice of life. And so the scene closes on a note of pity.