The Amazons, the moon-women of ancient times, were not peaceful like other matriarchies, and they were not a detached, destructive patriarchy. They lived, some feminists theorize, at the cusp of a widespread changeover from the preeminence of egalitarian matriarchal societies to the rule of warring patriarchies in the Mediterranean region.
The Amazons may have been an amalgam culture: an earth-based, peaceful culture that adapted to the increasing need to defend themselves from the imperialistic patriarchy invading in hoards from the north. The Amazons were led by queens. They worshipped the goddess. They were priestesses of the moon. They cultivated the fields, hunted, and carried on their developed artistic traditions. According to the ancients, they were the first to tame the horse. They fiercely engaged in battle and believed in obtaining revenge. Their name was once thought to be from the Greek word a-mazos, meaning breastless. Scholars now believe the name derived from an Armenian word that meant “moon-woman”.
The Amazons lived throughout northern Africa, Anatolia, and Asia Minor. It is likely they were founders of great centers of ancient civilization such as Smyrna, Ephesus, Cymes, Myrine, and Paphos–all centers of Goddess worship. According to Herodotus, Libya was ruled by Amazons, Libya referring back then to all of the northern region of Africa except Egypt. The Black Sea was known as the Amazon Sea as late as the 5th century.
According to the myths and legends of the Greeks, there were several islands where Amazons lived without men, only consorting with neighboring colonies of men at certain seasons when they wanted to conceive children. Taurus, Lemnow, and Lesbos were said to be among these all-female societies. The Greeks, centuries-long enemies of the Amazons, said the women of Taurus sacrificed to their Goddess all men who landed on their shores. They said the women of Lemnos had risen up against their husbands and murdered all of them at once.
Amazons are known of today primarily through the words and images of their enemies and conquerors, the Greeks. The Greeks described the Amazons as barbaric and bloodthirsty killers who offered as sacrifice any man that crossed their path. Some versions portrayed them as having a pool of male slaves whose legs were broken to assure obedience.
One of the popular misconceptions about the Amazons that people hold today is that these ancient warriors cut off one of their breasts in order to better shoot an arrow. But Greek representations of the Amazons showed no mutilation. Rather, the Amazons are depicted by the Greeks as two-breasted warriors. The notion of mutilation may have arisen from Asian icons of the Primal Androgyne with a male right half and a female left half, and similar religious icons such as the merging of the Amazon Goddess Artemis with her brother-consort Apollo.
The Amazons fought with the Trojans in the famous battle over the matriarchal city of Troy. The Greeks finally defeated the Amazons, along with the other earth-centered cultures of the Mediterranean. But they never annihilated them. To this day, a North African people call themselves Amazigh, though the name they are referred to by outsiders is Berber, derived from the Latin word barbari, or barbarians.
The Amazon spirit has also been reincarnated throughout the centuries and exists today in women all over the globe. This is evidenced by women’s growing resistance to men’s organized violence against women, and women’s increased willingness to battle rather than submit.
Perhaps this reemergence of the Amazon spirit in women is a sign of another cusp–not from matriarcal culture to patriarchy this time, but a return from patriarchy to non-hierarchical matriarchy.
For example, Phyllis Chesler, a modern-day Jewish feminist who carries a good share of the Amazon spirit, has called for the formation of a sovereign women’s country. She recounts the process of arriving at this idea, inspired in part by the founding of Israel just this century:
“I began to think about the importance of feminist sovereign space, of a feminist government in exile. I had in mind something far beyond a coffee house, magazine, shelter for battered women, or Women’s Studies program. I was thinking about the creation of feminist sovereign space psychologically, legally, economically, and militarily.
“I told Aviva (Cantor, co-founder of Lilith magazine) that feminists would have to learn how to fly planes, use and control technology, defend ourselves and each other…Aviva asked me: ‘But is it possible?’ And I, Jewish-style, answered a question with a question. ‘Do you think the State of Israel seemed possible, in say, 1820?’ ‘No,’ said Aviva. ‘Well,’ said I, ‘I learned from the State of Israel that the impossible is possible.'” Maybe its time we moved toward the impossible.
sources: The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, by Barbara G. Walker, Harper and Row (1983); Empress Energy, by Donna Henes, 1998, excerpted in SageWoman, spring 1999; issue 45; Phyllis Chesler, foreword to Jewish Women Speak Out: Expanding the Boundaries of Psychology, Canopy Press (1995); and Letters to a Young Feminist by Phyllis Chesler, Four Walls Eight Windows (1997).