the characters of strength in myth
The Amazons were a nation of women descended from Ares, the god of war, and the nymph Harmonia. Their kingdom was located to the North, on the slopes of the Caucasus mountains, in Thrace, or in Scythia, on the banks of the Danube. They lived alone, treating their menfolk as slaves and entering into union with foreigners in order to perpetuate their race. They killed their male children as soon as they were born, and operated on the bodies of the females, cutting off the right breast, which would impede the use of the bow and the throwing of the spear. This custom explains their name: the Greek a-mazon means 'without breast'. They worshipped the goddess Artemis, for they lived like her - without a husband, in the countryside, through war and hunting.
The myth of the Amazons is the image of a worid turned upside down: women who scorn their female role as housewives and mothers-companions, who devote their time to preeminently male activities, including bringing up their daughters as warriors, and who are ruled alone by their own queen.
In ancient poetry and the iconography of the visual arts, most of the scenes that depict individual, named women do not mark a break between imagination and the everyday reality experienced by the artist. Scenes in which Thetis gives Achilles his armour, images of Penelope at the loom, or of Alcestis and Eriphyle in the house, are extensions of everyday reality that are elevated to the level of myth simply by virtue of the names of the characters being recorded; they might otherwise be titled 'woman and warrior' or simply 'woman'.
In contrast, the upside-down images of the Amazons or the Maenads overturn reality and consequently, whether they are named or not, they have to be wild and barbarian, foreign and contrasted with the model of the good woman. Named Amazons, queens like Antiope, Hippolyta or Penthesilea have to surrender their arms, to be annihilated or abducted, in order to preserve the certainty of male authority, the balance of the social structures of the city-state, and the superiority of the Greeks over foreigners and barbarians.
The victory of the male brings affirmation, and aggressive sexuality lies in wait, finding expression at the level of warfare and founded in competition and force, its symbols referring to earlier, mythical periods when women were independent and therefore dangerous. The subjugation of women pacifies Order, restores Balance.
The heroes allow themselves to fall in love the moment that the women are powerless. The final, dying glance of Penthesilea inspired a buming erotic love in the loveless Achilles, just before she crossed forever the threshold to non-existence.
With love's remorse to have slain a thing so sweet,
Who might have borne her home, his queenly bride,
To chariot-glorious Phthia; for she was
Flawless, a very daughter ot the Gods,
Divinely tall, and most divinely fair.'
Quintus of Smyrna 1, 666-674
From Medea to Sappho - Radical Women in Ancient Greece
Athens, National Archaeological Museum - 20 March - 30 June 1995