Back in the 90s, I read Men Without Women, a collection of short stories by Ernest Hemingway about boxers, big game hunters, matadors and other blokes doing macho things in macho situations. Well, this week I’ve been looking ahead to the third book in my Heracles trilogy. One of his later labours was to acquire the golden belt of Hippolyte, Queen of the Amazons, so I’ve been refreshing my knowledge of this fierce tribe of women without men.
Tribe is the best word to describe them, as there’s something savage about their character. They tend to wear animal furs instead of leather or bronze armour, and – like the Spartans of the Classical Era – the only culture they’re interested in is the culture of war. Forget the muscle-bound, man-punching femme fatales of modern cinema. The Amazons could not match male warriors in a toe-to-toe slugging fest, so concentrated on skill at arms. They were most feared for their abilities as horse archers and cavalry. They were so advanced as mounted fighters that they conquered most of the territory around the Black Sea, and captured Troy when Priam was just a boy. They established three cities – one for each of their tribes – around the River Thermodon on the south coast (though they take their name from the River Amazon on the north coast, where they originated)
Despite their prowess as warriors, they are best known for their attitudes towards men. There wouldn’t be any #MeToo movement for the Amazons – any man who dared touch them would be killed. They claimed descent only through the mother, and so that no man could assert paternity over any child, they would sleep with several men at a time when they wanted to become pregnant. If the resultant child was a girl, all well and good (apart from having their right breast cauterised so that it wouldn’t grow and get in the way of throwing spears or firing arrows!) But if it was a boy, then the child was destined for slavery. He would have an arm and a leg broken so that he wouldn’t be able to fight the Amazons or run away. No man held any status above that of a slave.
There’s no solid evidence for a real culture of female warriors in the Ancient Greek world. These men-hating, child-abusing viragos were a kind of fairytale bogeyman (or bogeywoman), designed to warn men of the dangers of what would happen if women had power. The Greeks who created these myths imagined them as women taking on male roles, and portrayed them as aberrations of nature. Were they right or wrong? What would a city run by women have looked like in the Mycenaean period, if it had existed?
For one thing, like all cities and civilisations, they would have had to defend themselves from hostile invasion; and to expand their territory, they would have needed to be able to invade others. So, yes, they would have been a race of warriors. And knowing the natural tendency of men to take power and keep it, they would have needed to keep the males in their society subjugated – possibly by crippling them to even out their physical advantages. And as power was to remain in female hands – and power was dynastic in those days – then to deny men knowledge of who their fathers, brothers and sons were would keep them from forming blood alliances to challenge Amazon rule. But to cripple and disown their sons, the Amazons would have had to suppress their nurturing instincts, a fundamental part of the female character. And so the spiral continues. Perhaps the moral of the tale is that a society of women without men, and men without women, just wouldn’t work.
I bought The Mycenaean World by John Chadwick today. It’s an old book and I’ve not read it before, but I’m looking forward to it. The risk is that I’ll pick up something new and realise I got it wrong in my previous books. Too late to change anything now, though.