Amazons: The Myth, History, and Cultural Connotations

The Amazons were a tribe of women warriors that commonly appeared in ancient Greek myths. They were descended from the Ares the God or war and Harmonia  the Naiad. The name Amazon was given allegedly because  of their one breast. It was thought that amazons removed one their breast to improve archery. The one breast definition may not be a completely accurate description. The etymology of the Greek word Amazones is the only evidence to the possible origins of the word. mazos refers to breasts and ama means without.The myths that were told are often contradictory or have multiple versions.  There are some theories that the amazon myth was based on actual women warriors. Historians and scholars have attempted to solve the puzzle through archaeology. Although their has been some leads evidence does not seem conclusive. While their may be a myth of Amazons, the word has cultural connotations. They have appeared in film, comics, and television. One connotation describes an amazon as ” a tall, aggressive, and  strong willed woman.” This connotation has some negative attributes,but  others are more positive.

       The Amazons when they appeared in Greek myth were not there to celebrate the strength of women, but to glorify men. A great feat of a Greek hero was that they were able to slay an Amazon. According to Geek myth the Amazons fought against the Greeks in the Trojan War. The encounter between the Achilles and Penthesilea represents  the typical battle between hero and amazon. The amazon queen fought Achilles the hero in combat only to be killed by him. Hercules had to in one of his twelve labors steal  the girdle of Hippolyta. Thesus had adventures in which he fought amazons as well. These stories reveal the nature of gender relations in the classical world. They were used as a warning to women not to violate the gender order. These strong Amazon women in various tales either faced defeat or death. Although it appears that there was condemnation of such strong women, there are case in which they were praised. Atlanta although not an Amazon represented their war like spirit and independence in myth. Men challenged Atlanta to foot races for her hand in marriage and if they lost they would be put to death. Hippomenes beat her only with the assistance of Aphrodite . Dropping apples distracted Atlanta and he was able to win.

An amphora depicting Achilles killing Penthesilea (540 B.C.E).

 The subtle message in some of the myths is that an independent woman was an anomaly.  Gender roles were in ancient Greek civilization were rigidly defined. A majority of women were usually married by the age of 18. They would live in a system of male guardianship until being passed to the the supervision of her husband. Freedom and legal rights were limited, but in some city-states women had some freedoms which others could not enjoy.  Sparta allowed women to engage in physical activity and gain some education. This was not because the society was progressive, but they were attempting to create healthy women who who produce warrior offspring. Athens saw this as repulsive, which had long time conflict with Sparta. It could be possible that some of the Amazon myths were lampooning Spartan women. The amazon myths were probably not just designed to warn women to stay in their place, but also to criticize non-Greek peoples. Women according to ancient Greeks should not resemble the “barbarian” peoples. Although used to justify xenophobic or sexist views of women there are times they were seen in a different context.

      Amazons normally are considered a Greek invention, but there are instances of mythical warrior women be mentioned in other civilizations. This wider context is the the image of  the mythical warrior woman. The theme appears in Africa, Asia, and Arabia. Some of these mythical figures could have been based on actual living people. Khutulan was a Mongol princess who was the great-granddaughter of Genghis Khan was known to wrestle suitors.  Besides that sources reveal that she excelled at horseback riding and archery. Marco Polo even wrote accounts of her exploits. She allegedly beat every man in wrestling and picked a man to become her husband. Khutulan later became a commander in her father’s army. This story almost parallels the Atlanta myth.

  When examined from a larger international perspective, warrior woman becomes interchangeable with amazon. China has a long history of warrior women both historical and legendary. This documentations go back as far as the warring states period (246-221 B.C.E). Mulan has been an enduring legend  of folklore in Chinese culture. There were accounts of warrior like women in Africa after the Persian conquest in the 6th century B.C.E. Herodotus and Diodrous  wrote accounts of women engaged in warfare. There seems to evidence of a  this in the Kushite Kingdom and Nubia. The Kandakes were the ruling queens of Kush and were known to lead armies into combat. Amanitore  and Shanakdakheto  were known to engage in warfare against invaders. There was the problem of Roman and Greek incursions.

Amenirenas was fighting a war against Romans from 27 to 27 B.C.E according to Strabo’s accounts. The Romans also faced defeat at Syene ( the Aswan region). The Romans would continue to be challenged by the Kushites in Africa. Warrior women also appeared in Arabia. Nomads formed a confederation to fight Assyrian dominance in the 700s B.C.E. Zabibi, Samsi, and Zenobia fought Egyptians, Assyrians, and later Roman invaders. The Quedarites confederation produced these fighters. Their rebellions were not always successful, but they had a lasting impact; they inspired many and were remembered through oral traditions.

Amenirenas depicted with her sword.
Zenobia sculpture

These women did not live together or were man haters as the Amazon myths state. Seeing as their efforts were impressive a legend developed around them. History does have the tendency to glorify certain individuals almost to the extent they become mythical. Upon further investigation the idea that there existed a tribe of warrior women seems unlikely. It is even more unlikely that there was an established matriarchy.

      The possible explanation for the alleged existence of Amazons is that it developed by Greek contact with other peoples. The Scythians and Sarmatians  were Central Asian peoples who also were nomadic. The term Scythia was sometimes used in a broader context to mean a cultural zone which included nomad and seminomadic groups that were beyond Thrace. This did include areas such as the Black Sea,  northern Anatolia to the Caucus Mountains, passing the Caspian and all the way to Central Asia. Scythians were masters of the Eurasian landmass during a time in antiquity.  It appears based on sources from Herodotus that there were multiple Scythian tribes. Pliny claimed there were at least twenty tribes. There tradition was an oral based documentation of history, so one has to be mindful of solely believing a Greek perspective. One interpretation cannot describe in detail the life and civilization of a people. The names for the Scythian tribes included the Saka, Massagetae, Xiongnu, Yuezhi, Sai, and Xianbei. The Greeks would in Herodotus’ words collectively call them Scythians. Women did ride horses and knew archery in Scythian culture. Sarmatians  also had women doing these activities. Archaeology suggests that women warriors in this culture was not a rarity.

Achaemenid_and_Iranic_Peoples_in_the_Ancient_World_600 Many of the Greek myths about Amazons take place in the setting surrounding the Black Sea. There is a possibility that these stories were exaggerations about actual Scythian women warriors. Burial sites provide clues to where these women warriors roamed and fought. Skeletal remains found in Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and the Black Sea region suggests that their reach was quite far. Archaeologists were puzzled at times finding female skeletons with weapons in burials. The assumption was that they were either males or slaves captured during conquest. It can be deduced that captives would never be berried with weapons. This custom was done for warriors. This subject of study is still new and requires further research. The Scythian tribes declined in power by 500 C.E. and with them went a long history beginning in the 7th century B.C.E.. The history and the myths still continue and have had a profound impact on culture.

         Amazon as a word continues to be used in negative and positive connotations. The more negative connotation is that it refers to a masculine woman or a woman who is unlady like. With a change in sex politics brought on by the feminist movement, rigid gender roles were challenged. This did not only happen in the West, but anti-colonial feminist ideology became prevalent in the global south. Being strong was not considered a horrible attribute for women. One of the most radical changes besides women entering the public sphere was that entered was thought to be a solely male domain of professional sports. From the rise of Title IX  to present women began enjoying sports and physical skills. There has been no point in history in which women have physically developed themselves to the extent of the modern day athlete. While it is true athletic and muscular women did exist before professional sport, they did not have a forum or space for their talent. Women were denied access and opportunities to play sports or develop their physical skills. Now women compete in the Olympics from around the world. The term amazon has in recent history emerged as something more positive. Amazon then becomes a term referring to a physically strong and beautiful woman.

Among fans of athletic and muscular women the term is used in a more laudatory manner. Other than the term amazon the word goddess is commonly used in these circles to describe the women’s power and beauty. These two terms are do of course have different meanings.  The goddesses of mythology were immortal and the Amazons were mortal warriors. Thus when the term goddess is used it means a woman athlete has achieved something beyond normal human feats. It should be understood that connotations are not definitions. Connotations imply meanings of words, definitions are precise in their description. When the term is being directed at women in modern times it falls under a connotation. Few of these women are warriors or soldiers. The more negative definition of “tall strong masculine woman” does not fit either. Women who are muscular or athletic vary in height. Masculinity can be defined culturally depending on what time period and social mores. Strong women are still women even though they do not conform to what a culture expects them to be. The only part of the Merriam-Webster definition that seems to be common is the word strong. However, merely having large muscles does not equal immense strength. Weightlifters may have more functional strength than bodybuilders. This is because for bodybuilders the goal is sculpting a physique and inducing muscular hypertrophy.

Strong when used in the context of ancient myths would correlate to skilled in battle. Iconography shows that in art amazons were rarely depicted as muscular. They were shown displaying athletic feats and in combat.  Amazons were the most popular art subjects after artistic renditions of Hercules. These art pieces ranged from amphora to relief sculptures in Greek civilization. Athenian art depicts amazons normally in foreign clothing that resembles that of the East. This could suggest that they were making the association with Persians.

Hercules fights the amazons (520-500 B.C.E)

This may have been a tactic to get public support from the Greek population for wars against the Persians. Although the term can be confusing to decipher, it can have multiple means to various people. It is however wrong to say the definition is that of ancient Greek and Roman writers which claimed amazons were “single breasted warrior women.” The art of the classical world does not depict amazons as being single breasted. The one breasted attribute did not appear until the fifth century B.C.E.. The idea was that the amazons removed one of their breasts to become better archers and javelin throwers. A simple understanding of anatomy makes one realize that breasts do not prevent women from throwing javelins or being archers. Seeing as mostly the arms and upper body are utilized, this would be the most important factors in being an archer or throwing a javelin. This attribute placed in the Greek myth could be designed to symbolize amazons were barbarian and not part of the normal or acceptable sphere of womanhood. Artemis the goddess of hunting according to myth had both breast and never had a problem with archery. Although not an Amazon, this reveals further meanings in the single breasted definition.

 The single breasted element could mean that the Amazon women were hostile to men and motherhood. It was said in legends that Amazons would kill their male children. This seems to be contradicted by myths in which Amazons were lovers of men. Strabo’s myths claimed that Amazons would select  men of the Gargarian tribe. Overtime definitions and folklore change dramatically. It continues to have an impact on contemporary culture.

       Tropes have been a part of literature, TV, comics, and other forms of media. The Amazon has a presence in media. The Amazonian beauty is a common trope that can be easily spotted. The female protagonist ( or antagonist)  is either strong or muscular and happens to be attractive. Her strength is not seen as a negative attribute. Rarely the damsel in distress, she is quick to fight and go to the action. Wonder Woman is an example of the amazonian beauty. She is an protagonist and is admired by the public in the DC universe timeline. Other cartoon and comic characters fit this mold. She Hulk being both tall and formidable in the physique department is another recognizable Amazonian beauty.

 This does not only appear in printed media, but in film, video games,  and animation. These women who display the heroic physique are normally in action or comedy genre s. Chun li and Cammy White from the Street Fighter series spot athletic physiques. The design choice seems like an obvious one seeing as they are skilled in combat. Fighting games and action adventure games now feature heroines. It seems the Amazon folklore continues in the arts.


There is a trope that also compliments the Amazonian beauty. The  Amazon chaser deliberately seeks out the strong and muscular woman. This also extends to fighting skills. The male protagonist or ally like the idea that the female protagonist is capable. What can be seen with this trope is the channeling of the warrior’s spirit. Among the strong woman tropes the Amazonian beauty is the most recognizable. These characters from various media are products of ancient myths. The warrior woman seems to appear in various cultures around the world. The Amazonian beauty although more prevalent in animation and video games can be seen in film. These appearances may either be longer roles or short cameos. The presentations either vary from positive, indifferent, or negative. There seems to be a level of comfort or discomfort with the presence of physically strong women in fiction and in real life.

Tatiania Anderson appears in American Pie Beta House.

 The folklore continues in various formats and changes depending on what period of history. Myths and legends can be based on actually events. This explains what scholars may think their was at one point some sort of matriarchal society.

     The study of Amazon myth have lead a minority of scholars to think that matriarchies may have existed. There were cased in which academics claimed that the Amazons were real. Johann Jacob Bachofen formulated a thesis that humanity began with the rule of womankind, yet switched over to patriarchy. The rise of civilization made this possible according to his thesis. The classical scholar said “women only knew the physical life”  and that “the triumph of patriarchy brings with it the liberation from the manifestations  of nature.” Although his theories demonstrate an obvious bias, he was correct in one regard. Women’s positions society fluctuated depending on the time period and civilization. There are indications that in Minoan civilization women had  higher status. Women had more freedom in Egyptian civilization compared to their Greek counterparts . What really advances a society or civilization is not patriarchy, but science, innovation, and ideas. Dogmatic thought and superstition stifle the advancement of human civilization. The rise of monotheistic religion saw the decreased status of women, because they demanded women’s obedience. The goddesses or gods were discarded in favor one male God. The problem with Bachofen’s theory is that their is no archaeological evidence to support it. The documentation of the Scythians  shows that this was not a matriarchy. There has been a tendency to label certain societies matriarchal when women have some freedoms. This was the case when studying African civilizations, when inheritance ( of a throne or property) was matrilineal. These were still male dominated societies. As far as historians and archaeologists know there has never been a society of matriarchy.

A depiction of an Amazon from classical Greece. 

 The women of Sparta were not part of a matriarchy, but a warrior culture. The point of their vigorous physical activities was too breed stronger warriors. They did have a degree of sexual and legal freedom. This did not mean equality or say in the public sphere. There are several explanations for why patriarchy became dominant. The first would be the rise of property. Men throughout history controlled most of the property and women were either denied access or lost their own in marriage. The legal and political systems favored men and women were not considered citizens or people. Education was denied to women and equal opportunities for employment. The women of the 21st century still face challenges, but their is a shift to women having more power.

        The Amazon folklore can be seen in the concept of the warrior woman. This theme can be seen in media and instances in history. Women have been fighting in wars in the past and present. Historical figures such as Queen Nzingah  or Joan of Arc are documented as soldiers to their nations of origin.

 There is a long tradition of women warriors from around the globe. it has only been recently with the advances in women’s history that scholars began to give them serious investigation. Women served in the American Civil War disguised as men. This happened in both the Union and Confederate armies. The unfortunate aspect was they could not receive veterans benefits because women were not allowed to be part of the military. Women would continue to advance and by 2013 the ban on women in combat was lifted. This did not mean women did not see combat. The Iraq and Afghan war proved the nature of warfare is ever changing. It is a mistake to assume that warrior automatically means male. This notion still is present. Gradually, it will change as more women become involved in conflicts.

 An American woman disguising her self for combat duty during the American Civil War


Mino warrior with the head of her slain opponent. 

The attitude toward women in war either is hostile or supportive. This divide in opinion seems to parallel in Greek myth the feelings toward the Amazons. The differences here is that the historical figures are not myths. History can be lost if it is not documented through an oral tradition, collection of artifacts,  or written account.  The word Amazon was used to describe the Mino warriors in Dahomey in the 19th century. Dahomey ( modern day Benin)  was another one of history’s warrior cultures similar to Sparta and japan. The difference was that women were allowed to be warriors and during this period fought to keep the French Empire at bay. They could not withstand French fire power and Dahomey fell in 1890. The Mino warriors fought with great skill and tenacity. The French recognized this in their accounts. If one examines history their should be little debate on women in combat. It has been done before; the question is whether or not the military institutions will change their views on women’s roles.

        The examination of myths and history leads to a conclusion in the discourse. There has emerged a new Amazon. This image is a positive one rather than negative. The new Amazon embraces physical strength and does not see it as a male only attribute. Amazon feminism emerged out of the myths and real life women of strength. This feminist theory embraces promoting physical prowess among women as means of gender equality. It seeks to challenge the weaker sex stereotype and embrace the image of the strong woman. Most importantly the theory and belief  wants to show that women can be powerful and feminine.

There is also a change mentality. Now that women have found the benefits and joys of exercise or physical activity, they want to develop their physical skills to the maximum. Crossfit and weightlifting are becoming more appealing to a female demographic. Although this is a small circle, there is a level acceptance that has not been witness before. The image they present makes a powerful and dramatic statement. They may not realize it shows the possibilities of women’s physical capacities. The timid or helpless image of women is dismantled by their acts. Women often say they gain a new sense of confidence in their new found abilities. Body image issues do not bother them as much and they have a new feeling of well being. It is clear that the Amazons of Greek legend did not exist. but there are women who are more Amazon than any ancient Greek could imagine. Although it seems the highly developed physiques are still not accepted, there are a group of men who find it attractive. Some muscle on women has been accepted by the general public to an extent. There seems to be a small movement toward body acceptance. The women and men who dislike societal beauty standards choose their own . This group of women embrace a strong and muscular look doubtless of what others think.

The women athletes of the modern times are the manifestations of the amazon feminism that believed women should have physical prowess. Myths and folklore have a huge impact in language, culture, and history. The Amazon myth continues to have a presence, even though many do not have an understanding of its origins. The word itself can be confusing. If world civilization were to collapse now it could be possible that in the future it would difficult to convince people that women like this existed. There are civilizations and groups that may never be known about because there are no artifacts to prove they existed. While the Greek writings are myths, there were women warriors among the Scythian tribes. The Steppes hold  vast hidden history waiting to be uncovered. The fascination with strong women is not a recent phenomenon, but a longtime theme that has continued through the ages.


Mayor, Adrienne. The Amazons Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across The 

             Ancient World. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2014.

Wilde, Lyn.  On The Trial of Women Warriors The Amazons in Myth and History.

           New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

Fantham, Elaine.  Women in the Classical World. New York : Oxford University Press,


Foreman, Amanda. “The Amazon Women: Is There Any Truth Behind the Myth?” Smithsonian Institution, 01 Apr. 2014. Web. 15 May 2017. <;.

Amazons: The Myth, History, and Cultural Connotations

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