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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 282 - Amazons

Sunday, March 17, 2024 - 20:43

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 282 - Amazons - transcript

(Originally aired 2024/03/17 - listen here)


Last month, in the favorite tropes episode on Bluestockings and Amazons, I explicitly said I was not talking about the classical concept of Amazons, but specifically the use of the term for a “sporty” woman, especially one associated with equine activities. So when I was casting about for a topic for this month, it occurred to me that I hadn’t ever done an episode on classical Amazons. So I’ll fill that gap now.

Amazons show up regularly in sapphic historic fantasy set in the ancient world, reflecting a modern association with homoeroticism. But when did that association begin? And why are Amazons a continuing theme across western history?

The mythic Amazons had two distinguishing features: they were warriors, and they lived in all-women societies, interacting with men once a year for the purpose of procreation, and raising only female children. When Amazons were taken up as a literary motif or an iconic image, one or both of those features might be emphasized, but the purpose for which those images were used shaped what other feature might be assigned to these women.

Classical Amazons

When we look back into history for Amazons, there are two layers to the evidence. One is the image of the legendary warrior women such as Penthesilea and Hippolyta, the other is the archaeological and cultural evidence that suggests what the legend may have been founded on.

 The more historic side is addressed by authors such as Adrienne Mayor in The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World, and Lyn Webster Wilde’s On the Trail of The Women Warriors. To sum up: there is strong evidence from the region around the Black Sea of nomadic, horse-riding cultures in which women had high status and participated in warfare. These motifs can be associated with the Scythians and Sarmatians, but similar finds can also be identified in a broader geographic area. While the motif of women warriors has solid evidence among these groups, there is no evidence for single-sex cultural units.

How did that motif arise? One can only speculate, but the supremely patriarchal Greek states must have been a bit traumatized by encountering groups in which women warriors were an ordinary phenomenon—traumatized enough that Amazons became something of an icon of wild peoples living on the fringes of what they considered the civilized world. In Greek art, these warrior women, dressed in trousers and jackets and mounted on horseback, represented the antithesis of Greek culture and must be shown to be defeated in battle to set the world right. (Later Greek art shifts to depicting Amazons in short chitons, similar to what Greek men wore—possibly to allow for showing a bit more skin.)

Still speculating, if you’re a Greek man in a patriarchal society, it might be a natural conclusion that the only context in which women could be warriors would be if there were no men around to put them in their place. In any event, it became a standard part of Amazonian myth that the women lived without men. They needed men to get pregnant, so the idea arose that they met periodically with men from a neighboring tribe—in some versions, men who also lived in a single-sex community—and from the resulting children, raised only the daughters. In some versions, they handed the boys over to their fathers; in a darker version, they killed the boys. Other misogynistic features of the legend are more clearly later additions, such as the idea that the Amazonian archers would cut off their right breast to make it easier to draw a bow.

One popular type of Amazon story in Greek literature was that of the male Greek hero who subdues an Amazon queen, as Heracles or Theseus does with Hippolyta. Or maybe it was Heracles and Melanippe. Or Theseus and Antiope. There are a lot of different versions. Another motif is that of the band of Amazon warriors showing up to participate in Greek wars, as Penthesilea’s band does in the Trojan war. Some of the more legendary biographies of Alexander the Great involve the Amazon queen Thalestris bringing a band of 300 women warriors to join him and having sex with Alexander in hopes of begetting a heroic daughter.

In addition to the legends of Heracles and Theseus, Homer’s Illiad, and the fictionalized Romance of Alexander, Amazons are treated as entirely historic in the 5th century BCE writings of Herodotus, and the 1st century BCE writings of Diodorus Siculus and Strabo. As we move into the common era, references more clearly locate Amazons in the distant past. Virgil brings them into his Aeneid, Suetonius says that the Amazons once ruled a large part of Asia, and many other writers mention them as an accepted part of history, including repeating references to specific named queens and lists of their companions. This fictionalizing tradition in which named Amazons are integrated in both historic and literary works continues on long after the classical era as we shall see.

But what is missing from classical stories about Amazons is any reference to female homosexuality. From one angle, this isn’t entirely surprising. As Sandra Boehringer takes pains to point out, male-authored classical Greek literature is for the most part uninterested in what women might do in bed together. To the extent that Greek writers considered the Amazons historic, it might not have occurred to them that a society of women would have any purpose for sex outside of procreation. And to the extent that Greek writers were telling fictional stories, the purpose of Amazon characters was to be subdued and sexually dominated by men.

It isn’t until later that writers start giving their Amazon characters same-sex desires.

Classical Amazons in Post-Classical Literature

Post-classical references to Amazons alternate between treating them as historical fact and using them as a convenient literary trope. John Mandeville’s highly fanciful 14th century travelogue describes, “Beside the land of Chaldea is the land of Amazonia, that is the land of Feminye. And in that realm is only woman and no man; not as some may say, that men may not live there, but because the women will not suffer men amongst them to be their sovereigns.” Despite the clearly fictional nature of many of Mandeville’s details, the book represents itself as factual.

In contrast, most of the Amazonian references in medieval literature are playing with motifs that, on some level, are recognized as part of a fictional tradition, interweaving them with mythic figures, legendary plots, and Arthurian characters.

Sarah Westphal notes that Amazon characters in medieval and Renaissance literature, rather than functioning as the uncivilized, anti-patriarchal Other of Greek depictions, served as an idealized chivalric figure, combining masculine military ideals with “feminine” characteristics of diplomacy and pragmatism, essential for statecraft. In these stories, we may see a contrast between characters identified as Amazons and those simply identified as female knights. The “lady knights” more often participate in heterosexual love stories—although they may feature as an object of desire for other female characters—while the Amazons represent an overturning of social norms.

A classic example appears in Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. A sub-story within the poem describes a country of Amazon warrior women, ruled by Queen Orontea that struggles with the hazards of accepting men. But the prominent “warrior woman” characters of Bradamante and Marfisa are not “Amazons” in the sense of belonging to a woman-only culture, even though it is common for them to be referred to as such due to their martial prowess. (On reviewing my notes, I see that in previous episodes I have referred to Bradamante as an Amazon, but on stricter review she doesn’t seem to fall in the strict definition.)  Bradamante does become an object of female desire by the Princess Fiordispina who initially mistakes Bradamante for a man. After this gender confusion is resolved, Fiordispina continues to proclaim her love for the warrior woman and express frustration and uncertainty on how to proceed until all is resolved through Bradamante’s convenient twin brother.

Another contrasting appearance of “lady knights” and Amazons occurs in Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queen where the virtuous (and hetero-romantic) Britomart is set in opposition to the Queen of the Amazons, Radigund, who has enslaved a number of male knights and degraded them by forcing them to do women’s work. But Radigund’s misandry is framed as the wrath of a woman scorned by a man. It is Britomart who—like Bradamante—unintentionally attracts female desire when taken for a man.

Often, medieval Amazon characters are borrowed from author to author across the centuries. Giovanni Boccaccio’s poem Teseida takes up the story of Hippolyta and Theseus, when the Scythian women break away from men and elect Hippolyta as their queen. Theseus sets out to rectify this situation, forcing Hippolyta to surrender and become his queen, also taking captive Hippolyta’s sister Emilia. Two noble prisoners of Theseus fall in love with Emilia (who only wants to remain single) and bloody tragedy ensues in the fight for Emilia’s hand. Geoffrey Chaucer takes up the story in The Knight’s Tale, following a similar storyline, in which the Amazon Emilia—who petitions the goddess Diana to remain single—becomes the prize in a vicious competition between two suitors. It’s only when William Shakespeare adapts the tale in Two Noble Kinsmen that Amazonian Emilia’s disinterest in her male suitors is hinted to be motivated by mourning the death of her beloved, Flavina. Once again she prays to Diana to allow her to remain unmarried…unsuccessfully. Given Shakespeare’s rather hands-off treatment of female homoeroticism, the intensity of the language used to describe Emilia’s devotion to the late, lamented Flavina is significant and can reasonably place this in the “lesbian Amazons” category.

The framing of Amazons as somewhat essentially masculine contributes to the Amazon romance theme in Sir Philip Sidney’s poem The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia (1590), where a man disguises himself as an Amazon in order to gain access to his love object who is being secluded from men. The choice of an Amazon as the vehicle of disguise may reflect the idea that it would be less suspicious for an Amazon to act “manly” than for an ordinary woman. Flipping the script on Bradamante, where the maiden mistakenly believes the Amazon is a man and falls in love, in Arcadia, the maiden Philoclea gradually recognizes her desire for the supposed Amazon and struggles with accepting this non-normative romance. Only after Philoclea declares her love is the disguise revealed. Arcadia was adapted multiple times for the stage, as in John Day’s The Isle of Guls (1606) and James Shirley’s The Arcadia (1640) although neither plays out the homoerotic plot quite as satisfyingly.

Denise Walen explores the use of Amazons in 17th century drama to explore themes of praiseworthy versus condemned versions of female homoeroticism, contrasted within the same play. One example of this is The Female Rebellion (1657-59) which uses a mythological Amazonian setting to examine various relationships between women. The Amazon Queen Orithya is being plotted against by her generals, but supported by the loyal Nicostrate who infiltrates the rebels. The rebels believe (and are allowed to believe) that the bond between Nicostrate and Orithya is sexual, requiring Nicostrate to create a plausible reason for Orithya to have discarded her (and so turned Nicostrate against the queen), but in the end it is made clear that their love is pure, noble, and non-sexual. The villainous Amazon generals, however, are portrayed as openly erotic with each other. The spectator is left to draw the expected relationship between homoerotic desire and villainy, and the two chaste and noble Amazons are redeemed with marriages to Scythian men.

Madeleine de Scudéry’s History of Sappho vacillates between following the heteronormative Phaon myth and concluding that the only true form of love is based in female friendship. Her story concludes with Sappho escaping to a utopian land ruled by Amazons and with her male lover accepting the role of devoted female companion.

So we see that while lesbian themes begin to be interwoven in the larger context of Amazonian and pseudo-Amazonian themes, we are only introduced to the possibility of homoerotic desire among Amazons, rather than establishing it as an expectation.

Identifying with Amazons

The prevalence of Amazon imagery in literature made it available to apply to actual women who stepped outside of prescribed roles in similar ways. The Greek historian Niketas Choniates described European women accompanying the second crusade in Amazonian terms: “…riding horseback in the manner of men…bearing lances and weapons as men do…more mannish than the Amazons. One stood out from the rest as another Penthesilea….” Some historians interpret this as a reference to Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Some of Joan of Arc’s defenders excused her cross-dressing with references to the legends of Amazons, as well as biographies of transvestite saints and biblical stories of heroic women such as Deborah and Esther.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, when individuals assigned female who participated in the military as men were discovered, positive publicity might invoke comparisons to Amazons, while negative reactions leaned on religious prohibitions.

While the literary Amazons discussed previously have been authored by men, when we get to an era when women’s writing is more visible, we see them adopting the Amazon tradition for their own purposes. As Elizabeth Wahl points out, French women active in the Fronde conflict against King Louis XIV saw themselves as part of a tradition of Amazons, although reaction against them resulted in the Amazon becoming a negative trope, not only in political contexts but in any sort of public intellectual activity. But images of all-female societies had symbolic meaning for many women intellectuals.

The fashion for—and anxiety about—secret societies in 18th century France was heightened when female societies were involved. One female Freemason lodge specifically titled its leader “Queen of the Amazons” and raised the specter of women forming communities independent of men—a specter that also invoked suspicions of homosexuality.

Extending the Amazon Label

For the most part, in this episode, I’ve been focusing on the image of the Amazon using that name. There is a larger context of individuals or groups of warrior women within patriarchal societies that aren’t directly connected with the Greek legends of the Amazons, but perhaps where westerners applied that label when encountering them.

While Amazons had been restricted to literature for many centuries, during the age of European explorations, imaginations were piqued by the possibility of discovering genuine colonies of women warriors. In an early 16th century sequel to the medieval romance Amadis of Gaul titled The Adventures of Esplandián, Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo writes, “Know ye that at the right hand of the Indies there is an island called California, very close to that part of the Terrestrial Paradise, which was inhabited by black women without a single man among them, and they lived in the manner of Amazons. They were robust of body with strong passionate hearts and great virtue.” These Amazons were ruled by a queen named Calafia, who takes her army of women warriors, mounted on griffins, to join a battle at Constantinople.

Fiction and reality cross streams, for when Hernán Cortés and his men were poking around the west coast of Mexico, they mistook a long peninsula for an island and named it California after the mythic land. Although it doesn’t appear that Cortés encountered any female warriors, the situation was different when a 16th century colonizing expedition in South America led by Francisco de Orellana was attacked by a band led by women, resulting in the river there being dubbed Rio Amazonas.

Europeans encountering troops of fighting women in Dahomey and other places in Africa, were quick to label them “Amazons” as well, though without an assumption that the represented a gender-separatist culture.

A 17th century account of a Persian court tells that the shah’s harem “went hunting with him dressed as Amazons,” by which we might understand that they appeared to be dressed in masculine clothing for masculine-coded sports. There were traditions of warrior women in Arabic literature, similar to European literature. Both Sahar Amer and Samar Habib discuss the motif of the warrior woman within medieval Arabic literature, identifying the figures as Amazon-like, although the Arabic terms are different. These figures are sometimes depicted as rejecting men and desiring women.  They also often appear as non-Muslim, and the stories’ resolutions typically involve both a religious and sexual conversion to “orthodoxy”, similar to the heteronormative resolutions found in medieval European literature. An example of this character type appears in the story cycle of Dhāt al-Himma in the figure of Nūrā.

Amazons and Lesbians

While modern popular culture, in our more progressive age, tends to see the image of the Amazon as inevitably linked with the idea of same-sex relations, we can see that across history those motifs have played something of a coy dance with each other. Stories of separatist societies of warrior women did not necessarily interrogate the question of what that meant for sexual desire. And when Amazons did have homoerotic encounters in literature, there often seems to be an underlying explanation that it is due to their masculine natures. One book I wish I’d had time to read for this episode looks like it addresses those questions in more detail. This is Kathryn Schwarz’s Tough Love: Amazon Encounters in the English Renaissance. She notes, “Imagined as embodiments of female masculinity, Amazonian figures stimulated both homoerotic and heteroerotic response…[and] their appearance in narratives disrupted assumptions concerning identity, gender, domesticity, and desire.”

While modern Amazonian fictions such as Xena: Warrior Princess and Wonder Woman in many ways continue the long tradition of the Amazon as a disruptive figure in conventional action-adventure tales, they also bring in—with varying degrees of overtness—a much stronger assumption that homosociality breeds homoeroticism, and that women warriors aren’t necessarily just waiting around for that annual procreative meet-up with the men who are excluded from their society.

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: