by Adrienne Mayor (Regular Contributor)
According to ancient Greek myths, the fierce horsewomen-archers known as “Amazons” were the antithesis of ideal womanhood, the opposites of docile stay-at-home moms of classical Greece. Some Greeks even claimed that the name amazon meant “without a breast” in Greek and insisted that the warrior women mutilated themselves in order to shoot a bow more easily.
Greek poets such as Pindar described Amazons beating drums and performing bellicose war dances for the stern virgin goddess of the hunt, Artemis. Artemis was definitely not a mother figure.
The Greeks came up with a lot of contradictory notions about Amazons. But no one imagined a sentimental picture of Amazons as maternal, nurturing mothers like those celebrated in modern Mother’s Day cards. For the Greeks, Amazons were either man-hating killer-virgins who refused marriage and rejected motherhood and gloried in making war–or else they were lusty, domineering women who used random men for sex, stealing their sperm in order to perpetuate their women-only society.
Lurid stories claimed that Amazons only raised their baby girls and abandoned or mistreated infant boys–breaking their legs or even killing them. None of this is the stuff of Hallmark cards.
Yet archaeological discoveries tell a different story. The historical models for mythic Amazons were warlike women of nomadic Eurasian tribes and their graves contain battle-scarred female skeletons buried with arrows and spears. But many of these women were mothers too: next to their quivers of arrows archaeologists sometimes find the remains of children who died prematurely.
Archaeological evidence also reveals that real-life Amazons worshipped Cybele, the great mother goddess of Anatolia (her rites required that men castrate themselves). Amazon family trees were matrilineal–the famous Amazon queens of myth could trace the names of their illustrious warrior mothers, grand-mothers, and great-grandmothers.
So, although there would not be flowers or breakfast in bed for Amazon moms, the Amazons of antiquity would definitely understand the concept of daughters honoring their mothers on Mother’s Day. Amazon sons, maybe not so much–and don’t even ask about Father’s Day!
About the author: A research scholar in Classics and History of Science, Stanford University, Adrienne Mayor is the author of The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World (2014), winner of the Sarasvati Prize for Women in Mythology and The Poison King: Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy, a nonfiction finalist for the 2009 National Book Award.