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Review of “Ancient Amazons”

Updated on September 11, 2014

In the article “Ancient Amazons – Heroes, Outsiders or Women?” Lorna Hardwick makes the argument that the various legends and artistic renderings of the Amazon warriors can inform a modern reader of a lot of the attitudes of the Greeks and shows how they viewed themselves. In the introduction she begins by talking about modern associations with the word "Amazon" and pulls back from there to talk about ancient sources. She lays out her plan to explore Greek ideals by analyzing instances where Amazons are mentioned or portrayed in writing, painting, and sculpture. The rest of the paper is divided mostly in reference to the title with sections labeled "Amazons as Heroes," "Amazons as Outsiders," "Amazons as Women," and "Amazons in Art." The first three sections are taken up by the treatment of literature and the last section contains analysis of paintings and sculpture as well as the conclusion.

The "Amazons as Heroes" section establishes the Amazons’ role in heroic legends as opponents and looks at works such as the Iliad and Olympian 13. She argues that their basic function in such a story is to add to the stock of the hero after they are defeated. As strong enemies they glorify the hero. "Amazons as Outsiders" goes through the works of Herodotus, Homer, and Isocrates among others and looks at the Amazons’ geographical information and lifestyle and how the Greeks wove this imaginary society into their own history. "Amazon as Women" talks about the role of gender in Amazon literature. In Plutarch’s account of Theseus’s abduction of the Queen of the Amazons, the Queen is shown as social in relation to others and loyal to Theseus even when she was desired by others. Hardwick argues that these would be seen as feminine traits in their time. In this section Hardwick also talks about Strabo’s account of the Amazons which repeats much of what shows up in previous accounts (such as the mutilation of the right breast in order to eliminate a hampering element on archery practice) but his strong reactions are the interestingly gendered part of his accounts. He found the idea of the Amazons difficult to conclusively label as "myth" or "history." The accounts were so consistent that they seemed well evidence, but the idea of females being able to govern a civilization without men and being able to constitute a military force was so counter to everything he believed was possible that he had to reject it. In the end, the literature section of this paper establishes that Amazons increased the status of heroes and Greece itself when they were defeated and that this infers that they were considered impressive opponents. It goes on to say that they were possible to feminize and make acceptable to Greek society, but that this need not happen so long as their society did not threaten Greece.

The Amazon Queen Thalestris in the Camp of Alexander the Great by Johann Georg Platzer
The Amazon Queen Thalestris in the Camp of Alexander the Great by Johann Georg Platzer

The art section goes over the surviving vase paintings and statuary that depicts Amazons. By reviewing them it is clear that stories involving Heracles were the most popular topic explored in the art of the Amazons. The Amazons themselves are ambiguously "other" with their outfits oscillating between different areas of Greece and the East. The Amazons are usually portrayed as feminine and are not missing their right breast as the literature claims. Hardwick cites a couple of impressions on where the Amazons (and Greece’s other enemies that appear in their art) fit in the framework of what the Greeks were trying to convey. B.F. Cook sees the dichotomy as being East vs. West, but J.P. Barron draws back the picture to being one of reason vs. chaos.

Hardwick ends the article by repeating that Amazons were mostly portrayed in a positive light despite their position as enemies of Greece, that they were admired subjects of artists and writers and that their use as propaganda can tell a modern audience much about the Greeks themselves.

This essay is huge in its scope, going over many different writers and pieces over a wide range of history; as such it is an excellent source for information about the Amazons and their different portrayals. However, though information is strong, persuasion is not—not because its assertions are ridiculous and awkwardly expressed, but because they are far too simple and the thesis is lukewarm. It is not saying much to argue that stories or artwork can tell a great deal about their creators and the culture they sprung from. That is much of the premise of literature and art analysis. It’s very hard to imagine someone writing an argument paper claiming that the Amazon stories and pieces created by the Greeks came out of a vacuum and have no cultural relevance whatsoever. Hardwick introduces some interesting questions of the psychology and intent at work in Greek accounts of Amazons, and the puzzling choices of artists in depicting them, but because the scope of her paper is so broad, these questions are not given their full due and are not satisfactorily concluded.

The organization of this paper starts out very well by taking specific roles of the Amazons in literature and talking about them in separate sections. This organizational structure does not continue in the art section and makes it difficult to highlight main points. Either a division of the art section or an application of it in conversation with the points in the literature part would make the paper seem much more consistent and digestible. Another issue with the organizational structure is that it is not entirely truthful. The first section "Amazons as Heroes" (which is also in the title) is not really about Amazons as heroes. Their function is actually opponents of heroes and they might come up in the same story cycle as Chimera or the Lernean Hydra. Their worthy opponent status aside, the company Amazons keep in this role has more in common with monsters than heroes. Exploring that view of the Amazons would probably be a worthwhile addition. After all, "feminine monsters" are common figures in art and literature and speak to the threatened masculinity that is mentioned on more than one occasion in this paper. Of course, "Ancient Amazons – Monsters, Outsiders or Women?" would take much of the optimistic shine off of this paper, but perhaps would make it come off as more balanced.

In addition to the main argument of this paper being extremely tame, it also fails to deliver on its "so what?" aspect. An attempt to connect the Greek perception of Amazons to modern ideas about women and the term itself would’ve given the paper a lot of relevance. And this does show up in the introduction, but it comes off more as an icebreaker to get a modern reader into the main subject than anything. Hardwick claims that the Greek art and literature is related to the modern use of the word, but fails to explain herself fully or tie a bow around it. In the end, this paper is an excellent one for comprehensive and comprehendible information, but a rather toothless one when it comes to making a claim.

References

Hardwick, Lorna. “Ancient Amazons – Heroes, Outsiders or Women?” Greece and Rome, Second Series, Volume 37, 1990, pp. 14-36.

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    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 

      3 years ago from London England

      I've read an article which doesn't say whether it is fictional or not that after Alexander the Great had occupied Egypt he considered annexing Ethiopia. When the Queen of Ethiopia heard of the advancing army she sent an emissary to him saying that she had called all women 'to arms' to repel his forces and so he retired and went on to Persia instead. Perhaps he didn't like the prospect of a female enemy!

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