Amazons in Greek Mythology: Depiction, Location, Queens & Famous Battles
The Amazons in ancient Greek mythology refer to a group of female warriors and hunters that were revered for their physical prowess and sheer strength comparable to the bravest of men.
According to the myths, the Amazons were led by some very astounding queens like Otrera, Hippolyte (or Hippolyta), Penthesilea and Thalestris. In many ancient epic poems – such as the Labors of Hercules, the Argonautica and the Iliad – the Amazonians were noted as the offspring of Ares, the Greek god of war, and the nymph Harmonia who lived in the Akmonian Wood. They resided in cities found on the edge of the civilized world, and only socialized with the known world for the purpose of procreation.
Most ancient Greek artists and sculptors depicted this group of trained female warriors in scenes where they battled fiercely with a number of Greek heroes like Achilles, Heracles and Theseus. It was even claimed that the Amazons, led by Queen Penthesilea, fought bravely on the side of the Trojans during the Trojan War.
Who are the Amazon female warriors in Greek mythology?
First and foremost, the Amazons were believed to have trained themselves right from childhood in the art of war, archery, horse riding, combat techniques and hunting.
Often led by very powerful queens, the Amazons generally went on military expeditions around the world. According to many ancient Greek poems, the Amazons took expeditions into places like Thrace, Asia Minor, Scythia, and Aegean Islands. Some authors even claimed that these mythical warriors embarked on military campaigns as far as Arabia, Egypt and Libya.
In terms of courage, pride and determination, the Amazons possessed traits and techniques that took their enemies by surprise. It was believed that they donned battle armor (hoplite armor) similar to the short ones worn by Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and strategic warfare, and Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt. Popular depictions of the Amazons show them on horseback, carrying weapons such as bow, light double axes, spear, and a half-shield.
According to Marcus Justinus – a Latin writer of the Roman Empire – the Amazons often cut of their right breast in order to be more efficient with the bow during battles. It must be pointed out that there exists no historical evidence in the ancient world of any tribe of warrior women cutting of their right breasts.
Often times, the Amazons erected temples in honor of some Greek deities like Dionysus and Artemis. Along their campaigns, they also established cities like Smyrna, Sinope, Myrina, Pygela, Ephesos, and Magnesia.
It was not uncommon for scenes from Amazons’ battles (Amazonomachies) with popular Greek heroes – like Heracles and Theseus – to be depicted in Greek art. Many of those art appeared on magnificent sculptures and pottery in the various Greek city-states.
Did you know: The Parthenon of Athens contains some depictions of battle scenes of Amazons?
How did the Amazons procreate?
It was generally well known by the ancient Greeks that the Amazons forbade any man from venturing into their territory. The question that begs to be answered is: How then did the Amazons keep their population thriving?
It was believed that the Amazons socialized with men for the sole purpose of procreation. They met in secrecy with the Gargareans – an all-male tribe of the Ceraunian Mountains – once a year, during the months of spring.
Once the children were born, the Amazons either killed their sons or sent them to their Gargarean fathers. Only the female children could stay. It was also claimed that the Amazons did not feed their babies with the right breast.
As stated above, a peculiar thing about the Amazons was their very strong and powerful queens who maintained discipline at all times.
Many ancient Greek poets and writers suggested a number of places where the Amazons most likely resided. Places in and around Asia Minor often get brought up; for example Lycia and Caria. It was also suggested (by the Greek poet Bacchylides and Herodotus) that they might have lived along the southwestern shores of the Black Sea, or possibly in Libya or in Pontus in northern Anatolia.
One thing was always clear: the location of the Amazons was always on the fringes of the known world. It was believed that Amazons had thriving cities that were not within the range of our experience.
However, Homer begged to differ, stating that the Amazons resided at a place within the physical world. The writer suggested a place near Lycia in Asia Minor to be where the Amazons lived.
5th-century BCE Greek historian Herodotus stated that some Amazons lived in Scythia. According to Herodotus those Amazon women warriors made their way to Scythia after they had been taken prisoners by the Greeks on three ships. During the journey, the Amazon women took over the ship and killed the crews before sailing to the Scythian shore.
Themiscyra – capital city of the Amazons
According to the myths, the capital city of the Amazons was Themiscyra (Themiskyra), a place on the banks of the Thermodon River (located in modern-day Samsun Province in Turkey). Themiscyra was also the place the Amazon queen had her residence. Located in modern-day Samsun Province in Turkey, the Thermodon River is known today as Terme River (Turkish: Terme Çayı); it drains into the Black Sea.
Meaning of their name
The meaning of the name “Amazons” is shrouded in a bit of uncertainty. Some scholars have stated that it was derived from the Iranian ethnonym Hamazan which means ‘warriors’. Other scholars have opined that it came from a Greek term that translates to ‘manless, without husbands’.
According to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484 – c. 425 BCE), the name ‘Amazons’ was derived from the Greek word Androktones, which in translates into ‘killers/slayers of men’ or ‘destroyers of men, murderesses’. According to Herodotus, the Amazons had titles such as Oiorpata, which means ‘man slay’.
The Amazons were also called Antianeirai, which means ‘equivalent to men’. The famed ancient Greek author Aeschylus described them as Styganor – ‘those who loathe all men’.
Did you know: In Prometheus Bound, an ancient Greek tragedy written by Aeschylus, Amazons were described as ‘the unwed, flesh-devouring Amazons’?
Myths about the Amazon Queens
The following are some major examples of mythical characters and queens that were part of the Amazons:
The Amazons were the descendants of Greek god of war Ares and the nymph Harmonia. As a result, Harmonia, the nymph/demigod who resided in the Akmonian Wood, was regarded as the mother of all the Amazons.
From the union between Harmonia and Ares came the first Amazon queen called Otrera, also known as the creator of the Amazons. Aside from her numerous military exploits, Otrera is believed to have founded the shrine of Artemis in Ephesus. According to the ancient Greek author Apollonius of Rhodes (also the author of the Argonautica), the temple of Otrera was one of three temples located in a desert island.
Queen Otrera was also the consort of the Olympian god Ares. She bore a number of children for him, including Antiope, Melanippe, Hippolyta, and Penthesilea. The latter two were famous queens of the Amazons.
The daughter of Queen Otrera and Ares, Queen Hippolyte was one of the most famous Amazon figures in Greek mythology. Her name was derived from a Greek word that means “horse” and “let go” – a symbolic representation of what the Amazons were all about.
In the Hippolytus tragedy – written by the Greek playwright Euripides – Greek hero and Queen Hipplyta gave birth to a son called Hippolytus. This explains why in the myths of Hippolytus, the character Phaedra calls Hippolytus son of Theseus, i.e. ‘the son of the horse-loving Amazon’. After a confrontation with his stepmother Phaedra, who by the way had professed her love for him, Hippolytus falls of his chariot and dies tragically.
Queen Penthesilea and Trojan War
The Amazonian queen Penthesilea was the daughter of the Greek god of war Ares and Queen Otrera. Penthesilea’s siblings were fellow Queen Hippolyta, Antiope and Melanippe. In one account of the myth, Penthesilea mistakenly kills Hippolyte during a hunting exercise.
However, the most popular myth about Penthesilea was the story about her during the Trojan War. Homer’s Trojan War epic poem, the Iliad, stated that Penthesilea fought bravely on the side of the Trojans during the war. Her participation in the war came against the backdrop of the death of Hector, the famous Trojan princess and warrior.
According to the Aethiopis – an epic of ancient Greek literature – the Amazonian queen led a group of twelve fierce Amazon women warriors to defend Troy against the Greeks.
Queen Penthesilea was killed by Achilles during a one-on-one combat with the mighty Greek hero. However, just before Penthesilea departs from the land of the living, Achilles is believed to have fallen madly in love with the Amazonian queen. Penthesilea is later given a befitting burial of true warrior; she is also honoured by Achilles.
According to the famous Greek traveller and geographer Pausianias, the scenes of Achilles killing Penthesilea can be found on the throne of Zeus at Mount Olympus.
Often called the last famous Amazon queen, Thalestris is believed to have met Alexander the Great around 330 BCE. This claim was made by some of the early biographers of Alexander. According to those writers, the two warriors met either at the Gates of Alexander, which is around the Caspian Sea, or Thermodon region.
Although many biographers of Alexander, including Plutarch, categorically reject the above claim, it did not stop some stories in Alexander Romance from claiming that Alexander and Queen Thalestris had a child together.
According to ancient Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, Amazon queen Myrina once led a strong military campaign into Libya. The queen was in the company of famous Amazon women warriors like her sister Mytilene, Priene, Pitane, and Cyme. For their bravery and commitment to the expedition, Queen Myrina is believed to have named a number of cities in honor of those four Amazon women warriors.
According to Diodorus, Amazon queen Myrine once marched into the Atlantian city of Cerne and sacked it. Homer’s Iliad states that Myrine’s place of death was at Troy.
The Amazons versus Greek hero Bellerophon
Aside from the Amazons’ famous exploit during the Trojan War, the battle against Bellerophon – grandfather of the Trojan War warriors Glaukos and Sarpedon – was also famed for depicting the bravery of Amazon women warriors.
According to the epic poem, the Amazons fiercely fought against Bellerophon at a place in Lycia. Hoping to get rid of Bellerophon, King Iobates sent Bellerophon to fight the Amazons. Instead Bellerophon ended up killing several Amazon warriors.
Amazon queen Hippolyte’s girdle and Hercules
Hippolyte’s reputation came from the numerous military campaigns that she led. Another reason of her fame stemmed from her girdle, which represented her dignity.
In the Labors of Heracles (Hercules), Hippolyte’s girdle was a highly sought-after item that demigod Heracles needed to complete his ninth labor. The Mycenean princess and daughter of King Eurystheus Admete sent Heracles out to get the girdle of Hippolyte. Depending on which version of the story, Hippolyte either gives the girdle to Heracles without any fuss, or she dies fighting with Heracles over the girdle. In the end, Heracles secures the girdle and proceeds to complete his other labors.
According to one of the myth, Heracles never intended to kill any Amazon women; however, a misunderstanding between Heracles and the women went up and so a bloody fight ensued. Heracles had no other option than to kill his way through if he were to obtain the girdle. The surviving Amazons were simply to afraid and just handed Heracles the belt.
Another version states that Heracles kidnaped Hippolyte’s sister Melanippe and then exchanged her for the girdle.
The Amazons and Theseus
According to one myth, the hero Theseus abducts Queen Hippolyte and takes her to Athens, where the two get married and give birth to a son called Hippolytus.
A different version of the story states that Theseus rather kidnaped Antiope – the sister of Queen Hippolyte. In an act of revenge, the Amazons mobilize themselves and march into Greece, ravaging the cities along the coast of Attica. The women warriors also lay siege to Athens. However, in the end, Queen Hippolyte dies in one of the battles.
Amazons versus Dionysus
In some accounts of the Greek philosopher and historian Plutarch, the Greek god of wine, Dionysus, and his companions once fought against the Amazons at Ephesus. Completely overwhelmed by Dionysus’ forces, the Amazons ran to Samos. Dionysus does not give up, and he pursues and kills many of the Amazons at a place called Panaema.
Another account of the story states that Dionysus recruited a number of brave Amazon women warriors to fight for the Olympians during the battle (i.e. the Titanomachy) against Cronus and the Titans. According to Polyaenus, a 2nd-century CE Greek author, Dionysus went on to bring the Amazons under his command to fight against the people of Bactria in Central Asia.
More Amazons Facts
Many of the stories and myths about the Amazons were perhaps inspired by the horse cultures of Scythian, Sarmatian, and Hittite women settlements in and around ancient Greece. We know this because of a 2019 archeological finding of burial spots of female Scythian warriors.
In 2019, archeologists unearthed a tomb with several generations of women Scythian warriors. Archeologists believe the tomb, which had several arrowheads and golden headdresses, goes back to about 2,500 years in the past.
In 1542, Spanish explorer and conquistador Francisco de Orellana (1511-1546) named the Amazon River in South America after becoming the first-known person to navigate the full length of the river. Prior to the river getting its current name, it was called “Rio de Orellana” in honor of Francisco de Orellana.
Francisco de Orellana claimed that he once met and fought against the tribe of Icamiabas – a tribe of warrior women. The explorer claims to have fought them on the Nhamundá River – a tributary of the Amazon River.
The Amazon warrior queen Hippolyta can be found in William Shakespeare‘s plays A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Two Noble Kinsmen (co-written with John Fletcher).
Many historians and archeologists have noted that ancient Greeks weren’t the only people fascinated by Amazon warrior women. Across the Mediterranean and even way into places like India, Persia and China, tales of fierce warrior women cultures abound.
In addition to Alexander the Great, there are a number of stories about historical figures such as Roman general Pompey and Cyrus of Persia encountering warrior women tribes.