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literature

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Amazons  

Historically either distrusted as agents of chaos or admired as examples of female power and intelligence, Amazons were depicted as heterosexual until the twentieth century, when lesbians adopted them as symbols of powerful women living without men.

Pre-Twentieth-Century Representations

In ancient Greek legends, the Amazons were fierce warrior women, living in their own country ruled by a queen (or pair of queens). Said to have descended from the war-god Ares, they worshiped Artemis. They shunned men, except for ritual mating in the spring. Only Amazons who had killed in battle were allowed to mate. They were variously alleged to kill male offspring, to return them to their fathers, or to mutilate and enslave them.

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Although some sources, like Diodorus Siculus, place them in North Africa, in Herodotus, Aeschylus, and other Greek texts, the Amazons inhabit the area around the Black Sea, and some attribute to them control over much of Asia. Amazons represent a border between (patriarchal) Greek civilization and barbarian savagery. Vase paintings c. 575 B.C. portray the battle between Amazons and Heracles, whose ninth labor was to capture the girdle of the Amazon queen. The Amazon queen has no horse and is shown with both breasts. The tradition that Amazons removed one breast in order to use the bow or javelin more easily appeared much later.

Following the Athenian defeat of Persian invaders in 490 B.C., images center on Theseus, legendary founder of Athens, who had captured and married the queen of the Amazons, Hippolyta (or sometimes Antiope). The outraged Amazons invaded Athens but were defeated by Theseus. In another Greek myth, the Amazon Penthesilea brought her army of women to the aid of Troy. She was slain by Achilles after a fierce battle. Some versions portray Achilles (or his son) removing her helmet and falling in love with her beauty.

For the Greeks, Amazons represented the chaos and disorder of women not subservient to men. In some versions, their nation originated in revolt by married women who slew their husbands. The Romans, who traced their own mythic roots to Troy, had a more positive view of Amazons and included them in many works, including some by Virgil, Seneca, and Ovid.

Numerous scholars have tackled the question of the historical existence of Amazons. Many theories have been proposed, but there is no conclusive proof. Some modern feminist scholars believe Amazon legends arose from Greek contact with more egalitarian or matriarchal societies.

Regardless of whether they actually existed, the Amazons have inspired many writers since classical times. However, until the twentieth century, Amazon characters were not associated with lesbianism. The development of the literature tended rather to make Amazons more heterosexual than they were originally.

Around the twelfth century, Amazon figures appeared in works such as Benoît de Sainte-Maure's Roman de Troie as chivalrous female knights who often fall in love with men. In Christine de Pizan's The Book of the City of Ladies (1405), Amazons are examples of female power and intelligence. Amazon characters (especially Hippolyta, married to Theseus) were extremely popular in the fourteenth through the sixteenth centuries, appearing in works by Boccaccio, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Spenser, and numerous other authors.

The motif reached a height of popularity in the Elizabethan period, with Elizabeth herself sometimes compared to an Amazon queen. A few major writers of the seventeenth century also treated the theme. In most works, however, the Amazon characters are either chaste virgins or heterosexual lovers.

Christopher Columbus, relying on Marco Polo's travel accounts, thought he would find an Amazon island off the coast of China. He sought it as proof that he had found Asia, and in 1493, he claimed to have found an island of armored women archers, rumored to possess a nearby island filled with gold.

The Amazon river was so named because its Spanish explorers encountered women archers fighting alongside men. The legend of Queen Califia and her golden-armored warriors grew out of the Spanish quest for the fabled Amazons, and California was named for her.

Twentieth-Century Representations

The first open literary association of Amazons and lesbians came in the person of Natalie Clifford Barney (1876-1972), a wealthy American who founded a remarkable lesbian circle in Paris. Nicknamed the Amazon, she wrote two books entitled Pensées d'une amazone (1920) and Nouvelles pensées de l'amazone (1939).

Barney and her lover, poet Renée Vivien, deliberately set out to recreate a lesbian society based on their reading of Sappho. Barney's salon included such lesbian artists as Romaine Brooks, Radcliffe Hall, Djuna Barnes, Lucie Delarue-Mardrus, Isadora Duncan, Colette, Gertrude Stein, Rachilde, Mina Loy, and Elizabeth de Gramont. Barnes's Ladie's Almanack (1928) is about Barney's circle, and she was the model for a character in Hall's The Well of Loneliness (1928).

Despite Barney's equation of Amazons with lesbians and Helen Diner's effort to reclaim Amazons as feminist models (Mothers and Amazons, 1930), the literary image of the Amazon had become in the early decades of this century a heterosexual formula of the beautiful, man-hating woman who abandons her ways when she meets the "right" man. Katharine Hepburn starred in the first Broadway play using this theme, The Warrior's Husband (1931), later revived as a musical by Rodgers and Hart, By Jupiter (1942).

The comic book character Wonder Woman is an Amazon princess who leaves Paradise Island to help battle America's enemies. Such treatments have no lesbian content.

Amazons were definitively linked with lesbians by the advent of lesbian feminism in the late 1960s. Monique Wittig's Les guérillères (1969) is an Amazonian utopia set within a brilliant deconstruction of male cultural discourse. Wittig's entire oeuvre represents a world in which lesbians lead a revolution against the very concept of gender, and her novels and essays are among the most important explorations of lesbian theory today.

Amazons appealed to lesbians not only because of the warrior image (the two-headed axe or labyris associated with Amazons became a lesbian symbol), but also because Amazons lived without men. Titles of lesbian works like Amazon Expedition: A Lesbian/Feminist Anthology, edited by Phyllis Birkby and others (1973), Amazon Poetry, edited by Elly Bulkin and Joan Larkin (1975), and Ti-Grace Atkinson's Amazon Odyssey (1974) reflect these associations. Noretta Koertge's novel Valley of the Amazons (1984) satirizes the most extreme separatist positions.

Though Amazons inspired "mainstream" fiction, most images appeared in science fiction and utopian literature. Joanna Russ's influential The Female Man (1975) contrasts our sexist world with an all-lesbian world. Numerous other novels show Amazon-like lesbians, either in all-female worlds or, more often, as women in revolt against oppressively sexist worlds. Examples of the latter include Suzy McKee Charnas's Motherlines (1978) and Marion Zimmer Bradley's "Society of Free Amazons" within her popular "Darkover" novels. Although most of these treatments occurred in the 1970s and early 1980s, the theme continues to inspire writers.

Diane Griffin Crowder

     

 
zoom in
Top: A classical sculpture of an Amazon.
Center: A depiction of an Amazon fighting Herakles on an ancient Greek vase.
Above: A classical mosaic depicting Amazons fighting the Greeks.

  
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In addition to being the muse and inspiration of other writers, American expatriate Natalie Barney, known as the Amazon, was a poet, memoirist, and epigrammatist in her own right.

literature >> Bradley, Marion Zimmer

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Virgil wrote approvingly of male love in many works, and his second eclogue became the most famous poem on that subject in Latin literature.

literature >> Vivien, Renée

Renée Vivien, who had many affairs with women, openly celebrated lesboerotic love in her poetry and dreamed of women-controlled spaces in an era when most women were still domestically confined.

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    Bibliography
   

Jay, Karla. The Amazon and the Page: Natalie Clifford Barney and Renée Vivien. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

Kleinbaum, Abby Wettan. The War Against the Amazons. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1983.

Monaghan, Patricia. The Book of Goddesses and Heroines. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1990.

Salmonson, Jessica A. The Encyclopedia of Amazons: Women Warriors from Antiquity to the Modern Era. New York: Paragon House, 1991.

Samuel, Pierre. Amazones, guerrières et gaillardes. Brussells: Editions complexe--Presses universitaires de Grenoble, 1975.

Sobol, Donald J. The Amazons of Greek Mythology. London: Thomas Yoseloff, 1972.

Taufer, Alison. "The Only Good Amazon is a Converted Amazon: The Woman Warrior and Christianity in the Amadis Cycle." Playing with Gender: A Renaissance Pursuit. Jean R. Brink et al., eds. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991. 35-51.

Tyrell, William Blake. Amazons: A Study in Athenian Mythmaking. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.

Walker, Barbara G. The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Crowder, Diane Griffin  
    Entry Title: Amazons  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated August 29, 2006  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/amazons.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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