The truth about the Amazons – the real Wonder Women
Associate Professor of Ancient History and Classical Languages, University of Newcastle
The long-awaited film version of Wonder Woman opens this week, starring Gal Gadot as the indomitable superhero.
As Princess Diana of Themyscira, Wonder Woman is of Amazonian blue-blood. Formed from clay by her mother, Queen Hippolyta, and given life by the breath of Aphrodite, she is a demi-god. The gifts she receives from the gods of the Greek pantheon explain her superhero powers, which become evident when she transforms into Wonder Woman.
Wonder Woman made her debut in 1941 in All Star Comics. Her creator, American writer and psychologist William Moulton Marston, drew on a cornucopia of Greek mythology, blending stories from sources as diverse as the myths of Pandora, Odysseus, and Atalanta and the Amazons. Like all members of the Justice League team, Wonder Woman is an imaginative hybrid.
Marston’s comic draws heavily on the Amazon myths. Since the epics of the Homeric poets, there have been references to mysterious and frightening stories of the Amazons. In the Iliad, composed around the 8th Century BC, the Amazons were referred to as man-like, seasoned fighters. The implication is that in war they were a match for men in terms of their prowess, physical strength and courage. The Amazons appear in other Greek myths, such as the adventures of Heracles and Theseus.
Herodotus (484-c.425 BC) recorded detailed information, possibly spurious, but nevertheless fascinating, about this tribe of women. In his account, the Amazons were presented as horse riders, skilled with the bow and arrow, deft with the spear and ignorant of “traditional” women’s work. They were from Scythia (Ukraine, southern Russia and western Kazakhstan), a region sufficiently distant to an ancient Greek to symbolise a frightening, exotic and unknowable land populated by wild and threatening people. Herodotus also claimed that the Amazons had a marriage custom that forbade a young woman to marry until she had killed a man in battle.
The Greek geographer Strabo (64 BC–AD 20) recorded the belief that the Amazons seared their right breasts to better use a bow and arrow or throw a spear. He also wrote that the Amazons were believed to live separately from men - travelling into neighbouring territories to mate - but keeping only girls to rear. While Strabo admitted much of this was likely fanciful, his account provides an insight into Greek fears and anxieties surrounding the Amazons. Indeed, they appear to have been regarded as the bogeywomen of antiquity.
Marston’s knowledge of Greek mythology was extensive, and his ability to incorporate it into a new form truly remarkable. His character, Queen Hippolyte references the authentic mythical leader of the Amazons. Her daughter, Diana is a reference to the Roman equivalent of the Greek Artemis, the goddess of hunting, the wilderness, and wild animals. Likewise, the place of Princess Diana’s birth, Themiscyra, is mentioned by both Herodotus and Strabo as Amazon territory.
As a true Amazonian, Princess Diana is trained in a range of skills in both combat and hunting by her aunt, Antiope. However, as a member of the Justice League, she is not associated with some of the more “unusual” attributes of the ancient Amazons such as breast searing.
Separating fact from fiction
So were the Amazons real?
In her scholarly analysis of the Amazons from “fact” to fiction, folklorist and historian, Adrienne Mayor argues: overwhelming evidence now shows that the Amazon traditions of the Greeks and other ancient societies derived in part from historical facts.
Mayor cites the Scythians as the most likely source of the Amazon legend. Nomadic peoples originally from Iran who migrated to southern Russia and Ukraine around the 8th Century BC, Scythian women were renowned for their horse riding and hunting skills, and participation in warfare. Along the steppes of Eurasia, archaeologists have excavated Scythian kurgans or burial mounds containing the skeletons of battle-scarred Scythian women along with collections of weapons, hunting equipment and tools.
These Scythian women clearly deviated in part from some of the mythical attributes of the Amazons. They did not, for example, live in all-female communities or remove their breast(s) to better shoot an arrow.
However, their very existence thousands of years ago not only suggests an inspiration for the myth of the Amazons, but also demonstrates how myths, legends and fairy tales work. Namely, the seemingly wondrous and often outrageous aspects of such narratives sometimes contain a kernel – or more than a kernel – of a truth that is then elaborated, altered and sensationalised to become an exciting, rollicking tale.
There are other aspects of Greek mythology in Marston’s Wonder Woman comic. For instance, he uses the basic plotline from Homer’s Odyssey to explain Princess Diana’s metamorphosis into Wonder Woman. On her isolated place of birth, Paradise Island, a Captain Steve Trevor falls from the sky when his plane crashes. This simple story echoes the travels of the ancient Greek hero Odysseus, who is washed ashore onto unknown islands on his way home from the Trojan War and rescued by beautiful women.
Diana falls in love with Trevor. Her mother, displeased, holds a competition to determine the worthiest Amazon to help him return to the world of man. Hippolyta forbids Diana from entering it. But she does – wearing a disguise – and wins. This bride competition lies at the heart of the mythical story of Atalanta, whose father arranges running races between his swift-footed daughter and her suitors, offering her as a prize for the man who can outrun her. As Trevor’s protector in his return to his own world, Princess Diana becomes Wonder Woman – aka Diana Prince.
But it is Marston’s use of the myth of the Amazons that may appeal most to our modern sensibilities. In an interview with the New Yorker, Mayor has described the Scythians as “a people notorious for strong, free women”. This image of independent, strong women certainly appealed to Marston, and his heroine is regularly cited as a feminist icon.
There are numerous exotic accounts of Amazons from antiquity through to the modern age. There are references to ancient nomadic cultures smoking cannabis, sporting tattoos, consuming alcohol and living outside the established boundaries of Greek morality. Some of these details come from ancient sources and some from modern archaeological excavations. It is now up to scholars to continue to make the connections and to separate fact from fiction.
Ancient Greece: 2,000-year-old shipwrecks tell story of mythical island of Delos
The island of Delos is known in Greek mythology as a sacred place - the birth place of Apollo and Artemis.
In the depths of the sea, off the coast of the island of Delos (Greece), archaeologists have discovered the remains of a port and of ancient coastal structures, as well as shipwrecks dating back to various periods in ancient history. The findings confirm that Delos was a major trading hub in antiquity.
As the birthplace of the gods Apollo and Artemis, the island of Delos is central to Greek mythology. It is today one of the most important archaeological sites in Greece, with extensive excavation work taking place there all year round.
Throughout the month of May 2017, marine archaeologists have conducted in-depths investigations of the ancient breakwater that protected the island's central port in antiquity from strong winds. Because the level of the sea has risen a lot since then, the structure is now deep under water.
In a statement, Greece ministry of Culture and Sports has described the breakwater as "impressively strong structure, roughly 160 meters long and at least 40m wide, built on a pile of unshaped rocks, while its upper structure was for the great part constructed of granite blocks of impressive size."
When the structure was built however remains unclear and more research will be needed over the coming months to determine this.
The archaeologists have also identified remains of walls and of a fallen colonnade.
Long lost shipwrecks
But perhaps the most striking discovery is that of several shipwrecks found at the bottom of the sea – and which had been forgotten over the centuries.
Most of these boats had roamed the Mediterranean between the end of the 2nd century and the 1st century BCE, when Delos was at the height of its prosperity. One of the later ones was a Hellenistic era ship which had been carrying amphorae of oil and wine from Italy and the western Mediterranean when it sank.
Many amphorae were in fact recovered scattered all amongst the debris. They appear to date back to various periods and geographical regions, including Italy, Spain and Africa. The artefacts are thus useful to retrace the history and commercial importance of Delos, suggesting that the island had trade transactions throughout the Mediterranean during the Hellenistic period.
A number of objects recovered from sea appeared to have been manufactured much earlier, in the 5th century BCE. This is a time when little is known about the island's dealings with the outside world, so these findings offer new clues to understand this more distant period in Delos' history.
King Leonidas of Sparta and the Legendary Battle of the 300 at Thermopylae
Zack Snyder’s 2007 fantasy historical film, 300, has probably made the Battle of Thermopylae one of the most famous battles of the ancient world. It may be pointed out, though, that the film has more fantasy than history in it. Most people would be aware that the leader of the Greeks during the battle was Leonidas of Sparta. Yet, how much do we actually know about King Leonidas, and what happened during the Battle of Thermopylae?
According to ancient Greek historian Herodotus, Leonidas was the son of King Alexandridas and his first wife, an unnamed woman who was also the king’s niece. Leonidas, however, was not the first child, as his father’s second wife bore a son, Cleomenes. Soon after this, Alexandridas’ first wife bore a son as well, Dorieus, who was Leonidas’ elder brother. After Dorieus was born, she was pregnant with Leonidas, and he was followed by Cleombrotus, although Herodotus suggests that there was an account stating that Leonidas and Cleombrotus were twins.
Leonidas’ ascension to the throne of Sparta in 489 BC was, as described by Herodotus, ‘a result of an unforeseeable situation’. As the third son of Alexandridas, Leonidas’ chances of succeeding the throne were rather slim, and he had no designs on the kingship. Upon the death of Alexandridas, the Spartan throne went to Cleomenes. The new king, however, died without a male heir. Additionally, Dorieus lost his life on an expedition in Sicily. This meant that Leonidas was the eldest surviving son of Alexandridas, and he was the best person to succeed his bother. Moreover, Leonidas had married Cleomenes’ daughter, Gorgo.
The Persian Invasions
The new king Leonidas did not have an easy task ahead of him. Several years earlier, the Persians under king Darius I had invaded Greece, primarily in order to punish the city-states of Athens and Eretria, who had supported the cities of Ionia during their revolt against Persian rule. The invasion ended with the decisive Athenian victory at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, but it was not long before Darius began raising a huge new army with which he intended to return with full force. The threat of another Persian invasion threw the Greek states into alliance though many were still technically at war with each other.
Darius was unable to launch an offensive in Greece immediately because of rebellions in other sectors of his empire and in 486 BC, while he was quelling these, he was killed in battle. His son, Xerxes, ascended to the throne. Determined to avenge his father’s defeat, Xerxes began to muster forces to once again invade Greece. By 480 BC, Xerxes had built up an enormous army of some one hundred and fifty thousand men and a navy of six hundred ships. He was now ready. In late August or early September of 480 BC, Xerxes launched his offensive upon Greece in what is now known as the Battle of Thermopylae.
The Battle of Thermopylae is the most famous battle of the Second Persian Invasion of Greece and one of the most famous battles in European ancient history. Unlike other battles, however, it was not a victory for the Greeks, but a defeat. Its fame is derived from being one of the most courageous last stands by the vastly outnumbered defending army of Greek city states led by King Leonidas of Sparta against the invading Persians under King Xerxes.
It took place in a narrow pass between the mountains of central Greece and the sea, called Thermopylae. This was a strategic move on the part of the Greeks. The narrowness of the pass negated the advantage the Persians had in numbers.
Although the 300 Spartans were the most famous combatants on the Greek side, they were not the only Greeks present at the battle. One has to bear in mind that the Spartans had other Greek allies with them, including the Thespians, Thebans, soldiers from Mycaene and other Greek states. Herodotus gives the actual number of Peloponnesians at the battle alone as 3,100 or 4,000, and a grand total of over 5,000 Greeks. Modern estimates, however, suggest that the Greek forces numbered at around 20,000, which included the helots, retainers, and auxiliaries. The number of invading Persians is disputed at being between two hundred thousand to two and a half millions soldiers, though it is most likely closer to the former.