By Adrienne Mayor (Wonders and Marvels contributor)
In Greek myth, the capture of the Amazon Antiope by the Athenian king Theseus ignited the great war between Athens and the Amazons. Enraged by the hostile aggression of the Greek heroes led by Heracles and Theseus, in which the Amazon queen Hippolyte was killed for her war belt, the fierce warrior women of Pontus vowed revenge. They amassed a huge army and invaded Greece, breaking through the city walls and threatening to destroy Athens.
Seizing the high ground, the Amazons occupy the craggy Hill of Ares, pitching their tents in sight of the sacred Acropolis. All seems lost for the Athenians. But Theseus rallies his forces who take up positions in the battle to save Athens.
The fierce Amazon warriors own the upper hand. For seven days there is a stand-off. Tensions are high; the beleaguered Athenians are trembling before the grave danger they face.
In this crisis, Theseus consults an oracle. The oracle advises a sacrifice to Phobus. This advice underscores the Athenians’ desperate situation. Phobus is the god of fear and military rout, the personification of the terror of war. Our word “phobia” derives from his name.
The Sacrifice to Fear
We have a vivid picture of how the Sacrifice to Fear was carried out, thanks to a scene from the ancient tragedy Seven Against Thebes by Aeschylus.
Soldiers carry out a large black shield and set it on the grass like a huge dish. A black bull is led to the spot and its neck held over the bowl of the shield. Cutting its throat, Theseus plunges his hands into the gore pouring into the shield. He calls out to Phobus, beseeching the god to lift the paralysis that grips the Athenian soldiers. Theseus begs Phobus to sow panic and terror among the Amazon warriors instead.
The next morning, confident that Phobus is on their side, Theseus orders the first assault on the Amazon strongholds. The bloody war lasts four months, but ends with the Athenian victory–Athens’ finest hour in the city’s mythic past.
The next time the Greeks sacrificed to Phobus, God of Fear, it occurred in a historical battle. As in the mythic Battle for Athens, the outnumbered Greeks were pitted against a powerful barbarian army of the East. The year was 331 BC, when Alexander the Great’s army faced Darius’s imposing Persian forces at Gaugamela. On the eve of that battle, Alexander sacrificed to Phobus, praying for the god to help him rout the Persians. Against all odds, Alexander was victorious and King Darius fled in terror from the battlefield.
A Research Scholar in Classics and History of Science, Stanford University, Adrienne Mayor is the author of “The Poison King: Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy,” a nonfiction finalist for the 2009 National Book Award, and “The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World” (2014).