Amazons have also featured as individuals, and in more specific myths, some of which are unrelated to the Amazonomachy. They have been quite popular figures for the sculptor, including this copy of a statue in Rome, whose original might date right back to before 400 BCE.
Statue of the Wounded Amazon is thought to be a copy of the original figure(s) made by Phidias (c 480-430 BCE) and Polyclitus (c -420 BCE) in bronze for the great temple of Artemis at Ephesos, said by Callimachus to have been founded by the Amazons. There are several copies in marble which fall into four main types. Like the others, this perpetuates the bizarre myth that Amazons dressed to expose one breast – a ‘fact’ supported by all manner of bogus explanations.
The Ninth Labour of Heracles
Heracles (or Hercules) was the ultimate swashbuckling hero, charged with performing a dozen near-impossible feats as penance for killing his wife and children. Having brought back the mares of Diomedes, who ate human flesh, he was ordered to retrieve the belt (or girdle) of Hippolyta, the queen of the Amazons, for the daughter of King Eurystheus.
After a couple of misadventures in transit, on the island of Paros and at the court of Lycus, which required a few gratuitous killings, Heracles reached Themiscyra, where the Amazons lived. Strangely, Heracles impressed Hippolyta, who was on the verge of giving him her golden girdle, until the goddess Hera sowed distrust among the Amazons.
Thinking then that Heracles intended to carry Hippolyta away, the Amazons confronted him on horseback. Heracles suspected that they had intended this all the time, so he killed Hippolyta, removed her belt/girdle, and made off with it.
Nikolaus Knüpfer’s Hercules Obtaining the Girdle of Hippolyta, from the first half of the seventeenth century, shows the hero restraining the Amazon’s arm, as she tries to move away from him. As convention dictated, her right breast is bared quite incongruously, and she hardly has the bearing of a fierce warrior.
The Trojan War
It was Hippolyta’s sister, Penthesilea, who succeeded her as queen of the Amazons following Heracles’ killing of Hippolyta. However, the unrelated myth which tells of the Amazons’ involvement in the Trojan War gives a different account of events: when the sisters were out hunting deer, Penthesilea had accidentally killed Hippolyta with her spear.
Penthesilea’s grief was so profound that all she wished to do was die as honourably as possible, in battle. She was therefore easily convinced by the Trojans to join them in defending their city against the Greeks. Penthesilea took a dozen Amazon warriors as company, and promised the Trojans that she would kill Achilles, the lead warrior of the Greeks.
Penthesilea and her companions acquitted themselves well in battle, but when she came up against Achilles, she was completely outclassed: he pierced her breastplate with his first blow, then impaled her to her horse. When he removed her helmet, he felt great remorse at having killed such a beautiful woman.
Tischbein’s Achilles and Penthesilea from about 1823 is a highly romanticised depiction of Achilles’ remorse, the Amazon’s body miraculously showing not a single mark despite its earlier impalement by a spear. Penthesilea’s right breast is bared.
Theseus and Hippolyta
For those preferring a different ending to the mythical reign of Hippolyta, she was also claimed to have been seduced or abducted by Theseus, either together with or instead of Heracles in his ninth labour. She was brought back to Athens, where the couple married. Theseus (another swashbuckling serial sex offender) then abandoned her for Phaedra.
Alternative accounts have Theseus marry Antiope, sister of Hippolyta and Penthesilea. Either by Hippolyta or Antiope, Theseus had a son, who was named Hippolytus.
Pierre-Narcisse Guérin’s painting of Phaedra and Hippolytus (1815) shows the more complex situation which develops between Phaedra (seated, right) and her step-son the effeminate Hippolytus (standing, left): Phaedra falls deeply in love (or lust) for Hippolytus, who rejects her. The pair then commit suicide.
Thalestris and Alexander the Great
The final stories involving individual Amazons in times of relative peace concern Thalestris, queen of the Amazons in about 330 BCE when this is claimed to have happened, and Alexander the Great. With the Amazons’ territory far to the north of Alexander’s expanding empire, Thalestris and Alexander were no threat to one another.
But Thalestris heard of his reputation, and brought three hundred of her finest warriors to Alexander in the hope that she and her Amazons could become pregnant with a strong and fresh generation of Amazon children. Thalestris is said to have spent thirteen days and nights with Alexander to ensure that she conceived, then rode off with her three hundred Amazons to return to their lands and hope for the resulting children.
More reliable historians of the day, such as Plutarch, dismissed the story as fiction.
Pierre Mignard’s The Meeting Between Alexander and the Queen of the Amazons (c 1660) shows Thalestris being attended to by her maids, with Alexander holding her hand. In the air above them, Cupid is poised with an arrow which is about to strike Alexander. But most telling of all is the wry smile on a nurse’s face at the right edge, with her index finger held to her lips.
This seems to be one of the few images of an Amazon both of whose breasts are covered, although the warrior maid behind Thalestris has her left breast exposed.
My surprise masterpiece for this article is Johann Georg Platzer’s magnificent Rococo The Amazon Queen, Thalestris, in the Camp of Alexander the Great, painted on copper towards the middle of the eighteenth century. It is hard to know where to start looking at this exquisitely detailed painting, in which there are so many glimpses of subsidiary stories.
At its centre are the figures of a monarch who could be Thalestris, at the far left of this detail, wearing her crown, waving with her right hand to the arriving Amazons, and showing a fine pair of legs. Next to her is Alexander, who seems to be talking to or about the horse to the right of him (on his left), who could be Alexander’s mount Bucephalus.
Behind Alexander are older courtiers and advisors, and his generals. In the centre of the painting is an Amazon who is not wearing a crown, but a warrior’s helmet, and a golden girdle, who could also be Thalestris. She has a long blue train which is borne by two Amazons, and several other attendants. Behind her are mounted Amazons, who form a dense queue stretching along a twisting and rocky path into the distance.
Weapons – axes, spears, bows, quivers, and shields – are piled in the foreground, and brandished by Alexander’s men and the arriving Amazons.
My final illustration is an unusual Japanese print which shows a heroine who follows an Amazon model, originally from a mediaeval Chinese folk tale.
Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s 歌川国芳 Boyasha Sonjiro, the Amazon or Boyasha Sonjiro Subduing an Enemy (1827-30) shows this ‘Amazon’, a member of a group of outlaw bandits, wrestling an enemy to the ground, in the snow. His horse is also subdued, and he is then bound with rope. Boyasha Sonjiro ran a tavern with her husband Saiyenshi Chosei, where they drugged and robbed passing travellers, then killed them and turned them into meat pies for their customers.
As the Amazons failed at war with the Greeks, the legends which tell of their adventures in peace result in their subjugation or loss: Heracles kills Hippolyta, Achilles kills Penthesilea, and Theseus abandons Hippolyta for another woman. Although Thalestris has her way with the Macedonian Alexander, she and her three hundred warriors vanish off to an unknown future.
The classical Greek male could breathe a sigh of relief. Whatever else might change, he could still expect the womenfolk to stay at home where they belonged, spinning and weaving, while he got on with being a Heraclean hero, or following in the footsteps of Theseus, his role models. And we are still struggling to get over those myths.
Man, John (2017) Amazons, The Real Warrior Women of the Ancient World, Bantam Press. ISBN 978 0 593 07759 7.