MUCH as these writers had to say of the Amazons in the era of their glory, they are equally eloquent and entertaining when dealing with the wondrous women in the days of the community's decadence. One of the most picturesque incidents relates to the Amazonian hatred for the Greeks. After the death of Achilles and the fall of Troy, we are told, the dead captain-demigod reigned over an enchanted isle in the Black Sea at the mouth of the Danube, which must, therefore, have been close to that Isle of Ares where the Amazons, on their way to Athens, erected a temple to the god of war. When Thetis was lamenting over the funeral pyre of Achilles, Neptune consoled her by the promise--
There is an island in the Euxine Sea
Where, by my power, Achilles shall be deem'd
A god; and him with sacrificial rites
The neighbouring nations shall adore."
[paragraph continues] Whatever the exact position of the island may have been, tales of the glory of this shadowy kingdom reached the Amazons in their capital on the Thermodon, and there, maddened by fierce hatred for Queen Penthesilea's slayer, they determined to follow the hero even in this dominion of ghosts. So they
Click to enlarge
SECTION OF PHIGALEIAN FRIEZE. COMBAT OF GREEKS AND AMAZONS.
laid violent hands on certain navigators who came up the river, and compelled them to build a fleet of galleys. They embarked thereon a strong force of horse, and bade the sailors to steer them to the mysterious isle. The vengeful and impious armada reached the beautiful shores clothed with stately groves. A safe landing was effected, but as the Amazons approached a magnificent temple half hidden in a luxuriantly growing wood, their horses gave every sign of anxiety, which, as they advanced, waxed into ungovernable terror. Curveting and rearing, they threw their exhausted riders, who, as they lay on the ground, were trampled upon and bitten by the demented steeds as they turned and bolted to the cliffs, where, not pausing an instant, they dashed themselves to destruction among the raging waves. A terrific storm of wind and lightning sprang up, involving the Amazons in the havoc created by the raging tempest. Few escaped the warring elements to convey the tidings to Themyscira.
Apollonius Rhodius in his "Argonautic" gives us glimpses of two forms of Amazons. He tells how the bold navigators going in search of the Golden Fleece visited the island of Lemnos, which they found inhabited solely by women and ruled over by the gentle Hypsipile. Jason and his companions were received with a considerable show of suspicion, for the women appeared in battle array--
Hypsipile assum'd her father's arms
And led the van, terrific in her charms."
But when it became evident that the Argonauts had no evil intentions, the youthful queen told them
a pitiful tale. Lemnos, she said, had been invaded and all the men killed. This was not an account to raise the suspicions, though it might kindle the pity, of the Greeks, who were invited to stay in the island and fill the places of the slain. The truth was, however, that the men of Lemnos had been killed by their own womenkind, a crime brought about by a neglect of the gods. Venus, forgotten by the women, took her revenge by causing them to become obnoxious to their husbands and lovers, who, turning in loathing away from them, brought girl slaves from the mainland. Angered by this course of affairs, the women slew all males and the slaves, then assumed arms, daily expecting that, their exploits having been noised abroad, men from adjacent countries would come to punish them. To the guilty spouses and daughters the Argonauts as they first appeared were a cause of dread, then, as their pacific intentions became known, a source of hope; and so the women did their best to make the intrepid explorers forget their dangerous quest. However, after some little delay, the Argonauts sailed away, and passing through the Hellespont, creeping up the Euxine, they wisely
"flee the Amazonian shore,
Else Themyscira soon, with rude alarms,
Had seen th' assembled Amazons in arms."
[paragraph continues] Such was the repute of these women, who were more to be dreaded than the armies, powerful kings, and magic spells Jason and his following had to face.
Of another momentous maritime adventure we have many details from Herodotus, who, speaking
of the Sauromat, says that after the battle of Thermodon, which was the second strenuous effort of the Greeks to drive back the women barbarians, three galleys were loaded by Hercules with Amazon prisoners. These galleys becoming separated from the fleet, they sailed for the Bosphorus on the way to Greece; but suddenly the prisoners mutinied, and succeeded in killing their guards and the sailors. It was a victory which threatened to cost them dear, for the women, having slain the navigators, found themselves helpless owing to their lack of knowledge of ships, which drifted about at the mercy of the elements. The galleys were blown in a northerly direction, and passing through dangerous straits, reached the Palus Mæotis (Sea of Azof), there running ashore, close to certain "white cliffs," which have not been identified. Scrambling ashore on a strange coast, the women seized the first herd of horses they encountered, and thus mounted, feeling more at home, began exploring the surrounding country. They fell upon the unsuspecting Scythians, slaughtering and pillaging right and left. The Scythians could not tell who these raiders were dress, language, and all were quite unfamiliar to them. On the other hand, the Amazons mistook the shaven inhabitants for bands of youths. But in the fights some of the Amazons fell, and then the truth was revealed, and this made the men loath to repel the invaders with arms, so they hit upon a deep and poetic stratagem. They sent youths, lightly armed, to watch them. Camping at some distance from the Amazons, following their every movement at a respectful distance, the chances
of the chase brought members of the two forces together; and as the youths did all in their power to show their pacific intentions, the camps gradually drew nearer. There were meetings, designed on the part of the young men, and at last the warrior women, realising that there was no danger from this quarter, hastened opening up communications, with the result that what could not be done by Scythian valour was speedily accomplished by the sarkless blind boy with his invisible darts. Mistrust gave way before love, the two camps blended, and the women soon acquired the local tongue. Then the youths desired to go home and settle down--they wanted no other wives than the Amazons. But to this proposal their companions replied: "We could not live with your women--our customs are quite different to theirs. To draw the bow, to hurl the javelin, to bestride the horse, these are our arts--of womanly employments we know nothing. Your women, on the contrary, do none of these things, but stay at home in their wagons, engaged in womanish tasks, and never go out to hunt or to do anything. We should never agree!" So they suggested that the young men should go to their parents and ask them for their inheritance, to enable them to form separate camps. This the youths agreed to do, and coming back with their property, ceded by the politic fathers, offered it to the strange women. Then these said that they were ashamed to remain in the country, for, not content with killing and robbing the inhabitants, they had now stolen sons from their fathers: to dwell in peace they would have to go elsewhere.
[paragraph continues] This also was agreed upon. Crossing the Tanais, they journeyed eastward a distance of three days north from that stream, and then again northward another three days' march. From this it would appear that the camp was first formed in what is now Europe, but the new nation subsequently moved north-east.
Herodotus adds: "The women of the Sauromat have continued from that day to the present to observe their ancient customs, frequently hunting on horseback with their husbands, sometimes even unaccompanied, in war taking the field, and wearing the very same dress as the men." It was of these people that Pliny also had much to say. We are here on somewhat more solid ground, and can see how the marvellous grew out of the natural. Certainly this account of Herodotus destroys the extravagant claims put forth by some historians as to the widespread nature of the Amazonian conquests. For, after all, the Palus Mæotis is not very far from the Thermodon, and, as we see, Herodotus makes both parties absolutely unknown to each other, which could scarcely have been the case if we follow Diodorus Siculus or Apollonius Rhodius and many another of the rhetorical school of writers. Some foundation there was, however, for there is no smoke without fire.
We must not wonder too much that all kinds of traditions concerning the Amazons lingered on. References to them in many directions are found in the pages of chronicles and geographical treatises. Justinus says that when Alexander the Great was in Hyrcania he was visited by Thalestris, queen of the Amazons, who came at the head of 300 horse-women,
travelling twenty-five days through populous and dangerous countries to ask favours from the Macedonian conqueror. She remained thirteen days with Alexander, and returning to her country, died shortly after, and with her passed away the glory of her race. Quintus Curtius is even more circumstantial, but Arrian says Thalestris, who, according to him, came with a following of 100 Amazons all armed with double-headed axes and carrying half-moon shields, was sent as a present to Alexander by the governor of the neighbouring province. Arrian quotes with caution, and says that if these women did really come into the Macedonian camp, they must have been other warriors than the famous Amazons, in which opinion others agree with him, while many altogether dispute the truth of the alleged incidents. Plutarch says that Clitarchus, Policritus, Onesicritus, Antigenes, Ister, and several more give the story as an authentic fact, while Aristobulus, Chares of Theangela, Ptolemy, Anticlides, Philo the Theban, Philip of Theangela, Hecatus of Eretria, Philip of Chalcis, and Duris of Samos treated the matter as a pure fable. He reports that Lysimachus, ridiculing the story when read out to him by Onesicritus, laughingly asked, "Where was I at that time?" which Plutarch thinks conclusive coming from so important a lieutenant of Alexander, one who must have been privy to any such event.
Though we hear of women coming armed into battle long after the conquests of Alexander, we are told very little more about the Amazons by the Greeks themselves.
Many of the later Greek writers treated the whole Amazon story as a myth, to be placed on the same level as the gigantomachia, the tales of the Gorgons, centaurs, and so on; which is probably true--that is to say, they must be looked upon as symbolical exaggerations of certain ancient facts. Strabo, Herodotus, and Pliny have been blamed by these later authors for giving credit to the legends. This is not fair so far as regards Strabo. No doubt he has much to say about the Amazons, their places of dwelling and their exploits, but in all this he is merely acting as reporter, recording the opinions of other authors and local traditions. Of his own attitude to the subject there can be no doubt, for in an outspoken passage he says: "There is a peculiarity in the history of the Amazons. In other histories the fabulous and the historical parts are kept distinct. For what is ancient, false, and marvellous is called fable. But history has truth for its object, whether it be old or new, and it either rejects or rarely admits the marvellous. But with regard to the Amazons, the same facts are related both by modern and ancient writers; they are marvellous, and exceed belief. For who can believe that an army of women, or a city, or a nation, could ever subsist without men? and not only subsist, but make inroads upon the territories of other people, and obtain possession not only of the places near them, and advance as far as the present Ionia, but even dispatch an expedition across the sea to Attica?" Plutarch, as we have seen, while discrediting the story of Thalestris's visit to Alexander, is not found among, those who doubt the existence
of the Amazon state, as may be gathered particularly in his handling of the life of Theseus. While we need have little compunction in regarding Quintus Curtius and Diodorus Siculus as romancers, the reports recorded in such manner as Strabo and Herodotus do must cause us to hesitate before passing a rash judgment, and send us to inquire into the philosophy of the obscure subject.
Both writers and artists have given a fairly consistent idea of the costumes and equipments of the Amazons. In the early stages of their history they wore a scanty chiton, or tunic, caught up at the waist by the celebrated girdle, so that it scarcely reached the knees, the upper part being fastened over the left shoulder, leaving the right breast bare. But at a later period the robe is more ample and flowing, which probably denoted the transition from the habit of fighting on foot to the general use of the horse. It is said that the early chitons were nothing more than the skins of beasts killed in hunting. Strabo specially mentions that "they make helmets and coverings for the body, and girdles, of the skins of wild animals." Of course untanned pelts have in all times and places been used for clothing, for the special reason that they afforded some sort of defence against darts and other weapons; so the use of skins of wild beasts in Asia, and of serpents in the case of the African women, merely pointed to their power having arisen while they were still in the early barbarous stages of development. In art, with the possible exception of the primitive fictile specimens, however, the drapery is generally of the nature of a textile. For defensive
armour they are given low breastplates, sometimes, in the late examples, the queens' cuirasses being adorned with the Medusa mark; greaves for the front parts of the legs, thigh plates, and helmets. The helmets at first appear to be of the Minerva type, tall, with the protecting comb, and often plumed; then they are lighter, more approaching the shape of the head; and after the Eastern adventures the high kidaris or Phrygian-like cap, occasionally with points falling over the ears and the nape of the neck, is worn. To the greaves are added sandles, a strap over the ankle to hold the spur, and in default of leg armour the lacings of the sandle may be carried half-way up to the knee. Sometimes we see, as in the interesting fragment of terra-cotta in the Towneley Collection at the British Museum, Amazons in short chitons and wearing high boots with turned-over tops and lion's face at the front and turned-up toes, which footgear is suggestive of Eastern influence. In the best specimens of art the feet and legs are bare, only the ankle strap for the spur being shown. After the conquests in Phrygia and expeditions to Persia, we find the Amazons in Persian raiment, consisting of close-fitting tunic and trousers, high boots, and either skull-cap helmets or the kidaris. Their shields, known as the pelta, are small, and either half-moon shaped or showing a double crescent, the outer edge forming a nearly complete circle, while the inner one is dented so as to present two concave curves and three horns; often, however, we see the completely circular target. All these three forms have been regarded as lunar emblems.
Their offensive arms consisted of the bow and arrow, the dart, javelin, and the long lance, the latter being merely the adaptation of the missile spear to the need of cavalry fighting at close quarters. A characteristic weapon was the double-headed axe, to which many attributed a symbolical meaning. It was undoubtedly looked upon as an emblem of authority, originally of divine authority, being analogous to the double thunderbolt. As a weapon, it was of Asiatic origin, and appears to have been introduced into Asia Minor by the terrible Hittites. It created great terror among both Greeks and Romans when first met with by those fighting races in the hands of Eastern hordes. Quintus Smyrnus repeats a tradition that Hercules, having ravished the sacred double-headed axe from the Amazonian queen, bestowed it on Omphale, Queen of Lydia. It is said that the axe was preserved as an emblem of regality down to the days of Candaules, last of the Heraclidæ. The sword is only rarely mentioned in connection with the Amazons, which points to extreme antiquity, or at least primitive customs. Of their skill with the bow and arrow many are the wondrous tales that are recorded. Their darts flew as rapid as a glance, as quick as thought, and so the soldiers of Marcus Crasus at a much later date said of the "strange sort of arrows" used against them by the Parthians. These weapons, the distressed Romans found, were "swifter than lightning, reaching their mark before you can see they are discharged." The barbarians drew the arrows to the feather, and let fly with such force that they pierced light armour, fastening feet to the ground, pinning hands to shields as they transfixed the
enemies' limbs. Much the same is told us of the women warriors, for there was little protection against their strength, unless the magic of the Nemean lion's skin or a talismanic shield was there to protect a Hercules or an Achilles.
At first, according to the accounts, tactics similar to those of the old Scythians and Parthians fighting at a distance, common, indeed, to most of the early barbarians, were adopted. There was a swift rush forward, a discharge of arrows and darts, and then a speedy retreat, but a retreat which was as dangerous to the enemy as an advance, for they covered their strategic movements to the rear by a flight of arrows, aiming over their shoulders or turning half round as they fled. Every arrow had its billet. As Plutarch says of the Parthians and Scythians: "It is indeed an excellent expedient, because they save themselves by retiring, and, by fighting all the while, escape the disgrace of flight." This retreat and advance seems to have been accompanied by a mazy dance as part of the tactics, in which swiftness and uncertainty of movement was the essential factor. We are told that, besides the use of trumpets, they advanced to combat to the music of the systrum, which would be in keeping with the semi-sacred, semi-barbarous dance, the waving helmet plumes, and the startling Medusa heads on the leaders' shields. With their wider conquests we find a partial abandonment of the swift advance and retreat strategy, which was supplemented by the advance in force, entailing the adoption of the lance and double-headed axe for use at close quarters. But, as we have said, the sword was rarely associated with the Asiatic Amazons. From early times the
horse was made the companion of the youthful warrior, and the prowess of the Amazons on horseback won the admiration of all beholders, when it did not inspire terror. Theirs was always light cavalry, the horses practically without trappings save a simple bridle, and swift manuvring being adhered to. They used the bow and arrow and the dart, as well as the lance and axe, when mounted, aiming backwards as they retreated, and even vaulting round on the horses' backs to fight, facing the enemy though retiring. So artists have depicted the Amazons, and sculptors too have shown us these and many other tricks, which we know are quite consistent with barbarian tactics. It was one of the Greek ways of insisting upon the origin of these warriors from the bleak steppes. And so we are told that when the prisoners escaped from the galleys of Hercules, their first action on landing on the Sarmatian shore was to seize horses, and then, like wildly beautiful she-centaurs, descend with disconcerting suddenness upon the unsuspecting inhabitants.
In the writings of certain authors we find brief allusion to the use of nets among Amazons when in battle, the nets being thrown over enemies, who were then strangled or dispatched with the lance. No doubt this accretion to the picturesque legends is due to a poetical metaphor, symbolising either entanglement through feminine wiles, or the bewildering enveloping movements of the agile warriors, who harassed the enemy on all sides, but swiftly retired to renew the attack, so that they encompassed their opponents like the meshes of a net, out of which there appeared to be no way, for, subtly yielding, they
could not be reached or cut through. That barbarian gladiators (the retiarii, who carried tridents) did use nets in combats in the arena we know, but there is no mention of their employment in actual warfare. On the other hand, the use of entangling nets and knotted thongs by gods and supernatural creatures in their struggles among themselves or against man is a commonplace in most mythologies, and is closely associated with incantations and magic.
All these niceties of detail have reached us through the minor lights of art and literature, for it is to be observed that in the best of Greek art that has come down to us the Amazons are always treated with pleasing simplicity. The costume generally consists of short tunic; the arms, legs, head, and part of the bust are bare, though occasionally in the later sculptures the chiton is worn long, reaching well below the knee, and is somewhat ample, while sandles are shown. There is little evidence of defensive armour beyond the rare use of helmets and the small shield. The weapons are the bow and arrow, the lance, and the double-headed axe. Elaboration only comes into minor art. No doubt this studied simplicity was largely due to the desire to convey an idea of the remoteness of the scenes shown; so the Greek warriors are seen either entirely naked or very scantily clad, though they wear fine helmets and carry large shields.