Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM the OXFORD CLASSICAL DICTIONARY ( (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

Subscriber: null; date: 21 September 2018


Amazons, mythical race of female warriors. The name was popularly understood as ‘breastless’ (maza, ‘breast’) and the story told that they ‘pinched out’ or ‘cauterized’ the right breast so as not to impede their javelin-throwing (Apollod. 2. 5. 8, Strabo 11. 5. 1). No real etymology is known.


Amazons exist in order to be fought, and ultimately defeated, by men in an Amazonomachy (‘Amazon-battle’). Already in the Iliad we hear of Bellerophon killing them in Lycia (6. 186), their defeat at the river Sangarios (near Pessinus, 3. 189), and a tomb of Myrrhine outside Troy (2. 814, cf. Strabo 12. 8. 6). In Arctinus' Aethiopis their Thracian queen, Penthesilea ‘daughter of Ares’, arrives to help the Trojans, but Achilles kills her (and Thersites for alleging Achilles loved her). Heracles' ninth labour was to fetch the girdle of the Amazon queen, Hippolyte, resulting in another Amazonomachy (Apollod. 4. 16). Theseus joined Heracles and as a result had to defeat an Amazon invasion of Attica, a story told in a late 6th-cent. bceTheseid (story in Plut. Thes.26).


Amazon tombs are frequent in central Greece, presumably because of local Amazonomachy myths. They are found at Megara (Paus. 1. 41. 7), Athens (Paus. 1. 2. 1), Chaeronea and Chalcis—as well as in Thessaly at Scotussa and Cynoscephalae (Plut. Thes.27). There was an Amazoneum (shrine of Amazons, implying tombs and cult) at Chalcis and Athens. At Athens there were annual sacrifices to the Amazons on the day before the Thesea. Many Asia Minor settlements were founded by Amazons: Amastris, Sinope, Cyme, Pitana, Priene, Mytilene (Lesbos), Ephesus, Smyrna, Myrina (Diod. Sic. 3. 55. 6, Strabo 11. 5. 4). At Ephesus Hippolyte and her Amazons set up a bretas (old wooden statue) of Artemis and established an annual circular dance with weapons and shields (Callim. Hymn 3. 110; Pind. fr. 174 Snell–Maehler), as performed in historical times by maidens.


Amazons, appropriately for a group inverting normal Greek rules, live at the edge of the world. Their usual homeland is next to a river Thermodon in the city of Themiscyra in remote Pontic Asia Minor (Aesch. PV 723–5, Pherec. FGrH 3 F 15), see pontus. Real Amazons would need men for procreation. Diodorus (3) Siculus' Amazons at the Thermodon cripple their male children (2. 45), but his second set, in Libya (3. 53–4), have house-husbands to whom they return (like Greek males) after their period of military service. In Pseudo-Callisthenes, Alexander Romance (2. 25), they keep men across a river. It is part of the mythologizing of Alexander (3) the Great that stories were quick to surface that he had met Amazons and threatened (Arr. Anab. 7. 13; Plut. Alex.46) or pleasured (Diod. Sic. 17. 77) their queen.

Matriarchy and message

Especially since J. J. Bachofen'sMutterrecht (1859), Amazons have been used as evidence for an actual matriarchy in prehistoric times. This has seemed an attractive counter to modern male prejudices, but mistakes the nature of myth. Women warriors and hunters are quite frequent in myth and folk-tale (Stith Thompson F 565) and inversely reflect the actual distribution of roles between the sexes. It may be that such inversion in Greece goes back to rituals of the initiation of maidens (cf. Ephesus) and youths (cf. the Thesea), where the definition of gender roles is at issue.


Amazonomachies and genre studies of Amazons are represented copiously in art from the late 7th cent. on, propelled by their special importance at Athens. LIMC catalogues 819 items.


P. Devambez, Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae 1 (1981), 586–653.Find this resource:

    W. B. Tyrrell, Amazons: A Study in Athenian Mythmaking (1984).Find this resource:

      J. H. Blok, The Early Amazons (1994).Find this resource:

        K. Dowden, Rheinisches Museum für Philologie 1997.Find this resource:

          Do you have feedback?