Ancient Warriors: The Amazons in Greek Mythology

In Greek mythology, the Amazons were a tribe of strong lady warriors. In some versions of the myth, they lived in isolation, at the edge of the civilised world, and only communicated with men in order to reproduce. Proud to live in their own community, the Amazons didn’t allow men to enter their country, and would only meet them once a year to prevent their community from dying out. After giving birth, they only kept their female babies, leaving the boys with the neighbouring tribe.

Statue of an Amazon, Capitoline Museums
Greek Amazon, copy after Phidias’ orginal, Capitoline Museums

1. The Amazons and their love for war

The Amazons were known for their brutality, courage and aggressiveness. And while most Greek women spent their time taking care of the education of their kids, the Amazons’ main concern in life was war. Most Greek artists and sculptors depicted them on horseback, clad in hoplite armour. And some mythological legends recounted that they liked battle so much that they even cut off their right breast in order to be able to use a bow more efficiently!

A greek Amazon in full armour
Greek Amazon in full armour, 510-500 BC, Staatiliche Antikensammlungen

2. The Amazons and Theseus

To the Greek eye, the Amazons were a great threat. So it’s no surprise that they appear in many myths and legends, fighting with some of the most celebrated Greek heroes. One famous story is that of Theseus, who angered the Amazons by abducting and marrying one of their companions, Antiope. The Amazons didn’t like the idea of losing one of their own, and attacked Athens in order to rescue her. Theseus and his forces defeated them, but during the battle Antiope was accidentally killed by Molpadia, another Amazon, who, in turn, was killed by Theseus.

Vase with image of Theseus and an Amazon woman
Red-figure Hydria with Theseus (?) and an Amazon, 500-490 BC, Walters Art Museum

3. The Amazons and Hercules

An even more famous story is the battle between the Amazons and Hercules, the greatest of all Greek heroes. Eurystheus, the King of Tyrins, asked the hero to bring him the belt of Hippolyte, the Amazon Queen. Not an easy task for Hercules: Ares, the God of war himself, had given Hippolyte the belt because she was the best warrior of all the Amazons. Hercules and his fleet reached the land of the Amazons, killed Hippolyte and took her belt. Yes, the Amazons had lost again… but not before proving their strength and astuteness in a great battle.

Vase with image of Hercules fighting the Amazons
Hercules fighting Amazons, 520 BC, Metropolitan Museum

4. Greek Amazons as a metaphor for the uncivilised world

The Greeks were smart enough to use the Mythological stories of the Amazons to their advantage. As well as losing in all the legendary battles against the Greeks, the warrior women and their cultural practices embodied the idea of the “uncivilised”. The tale could therefore serve the ideological goal of the Greeks and show everyone that they were strong and unbeatable. And so, Greek artists and sculptors started to decorate their buildings with battles of Amazons against Greek winning warriors. Such wars are called “Amazonomachies”, and there’s a great example on a frieze of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, at the British Museum.

Marble slab of the Amazon frieze from the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, at the British Museum
Marble slab of the Amazon frieze from the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, British Museum

5. Learning about great women of the past

The Greek Amazons were a bit like the Wonder Women of the past. And while history is often read from a male perspective (most rulers, writers and artists of the past were males), there are some interesting stories about women too. For example, The British Museum’s Mausoleum of Halicarnassus commemorates the king and his wife (and sister!) Artemisia. Some say that after the death of her husband she inherited the throne and ruled on her own. Girl power!

Want to know more about her? Learn more about her with our Treasure Hunt at the British Museum. If you’re visiting Paris, women are also the protagonists of our Ladies at the Louvre Treasure Hunt.

Portrair Statues of Mausolos and Artemisia
Portrait Statues of Artemisa and her husband (and brother) Mausolos, around 350 BC, British Museum

If you enjoyed this post, check out our Art History class on the Amazons below. We have several Art History classes for kids and adults over on our Instagram and Facebook pages, and the blog (including how the Greeks handled a health crisis!)

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Art-history class 2: The Amazons in Greek Mythology

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