Bad girls gone good: the Amazonian warriors from ancient to modern times

By Flora Doble


When I first shaved the side of my head, I was told by a friend’s dad that my new do was rather ‘Amazonian’ in reference to the warrior women of ancient Greek myth. This comment got me thinking about what the Amazons represent in contemporary culture, as well as how their image and reception has changed since ancient times.


In their earliest representations, the Amazons were called antianerai, meaning ‘equal to men’ or ‘man-like’ in battle. The Amazons fought, rode horses and lived nomadic lifestyles. They had little interest in rearing children or getting married and spent all their time outdoors rather than cooped up inside. Some ancient writers even claimed that the word ‘Amazon’ came from ‘a-mazos’, meaning ‘without breast’ in ancient Greek, which they supposedly cut off to aid them in battle. This brutal mutilation of such an important symbol of traditional femininity was understood as the ultimate rejection of social and patriarchal norms. The Amazons were thus the complete antithesis of the ideal Greek woman.


Image by Erich Lessing / Art Resource


After the demigod Hercules, the Amazons were the single most popular subject in ancient Greek vase painting and their image adorned several prominent buildings, including the Parthenon. The Amazons clearly meant something to the ancient populace and their transgressive yet powerful nature certainly stirred up a cultural anxiety. The ancient Amazons were considered very bad women indeed.


The image and reception of the Amazons has been transformed in the modern era. Nowadays, the Amazons probably sound pretty badass. Some people may even consider them early feminist revolutionaries. In most contemporary incarnations, the Amazons are symbols of female empowerment, love and strength. The Amazons are now figures who should be emulated.


DC Comic’s Wonder Woman is perhaps the most famous example of a modern Amazon. First appearing in 1941, Wonder Woman is an Amazonian princess who lives on an all-female island away from the horrors of Man’s World. Wonder Woman and her fellow Amazonians live in an advanced, near-utopian society where everyone is immortal… Sounds dreamy, right? The Amazons of DC Comics are strong and brave, they advocate justice and truth and they are most importantly (super)heroes.


Image from Wonder Woman (2017)


Wonder Woman unsurprisingly quickly became a feminist icon and even featured on the first ever cover of feminist magazine Ms. in 1972. Wonder Woman was in fact created with the aim of empowering women. In her earliest comics, Wonder Woman even warns her audience of the dangers of ‘marital submission’ and in one instance declares:


“If I married you, Steve, I’d have to pretend I’m weaker than you are to make you happy – and that, no woman should do!”


With Wonder Woman, the Amazon came to represent the modern liberated woman, that is, a woman who does not bow to what patriarchal society expects of her.


Image from cover of MS. Magazine


However, the Amazon has not been completely recast through Wonder Woman. Notably, Wonder Woman is never without her so-called Bracelets of Submission. These Bracelets are a symbol of her dedication to civilised society and without them she is sent into a mad frenzy, acting like the near-bestial women seen in ancient sources.


Wonder Woman was also designed to personify the American ideals of democracy and liberty. Her body scantily clad with the American flag, the Amazon was transformed into an ally of heteronormative patriarchal society. Though the Amazon is accepted into the American way of life, her amazing abilities are restrained and mollified, her strength harnessed for the dominant cultural power. The Amazon’s worth thus continues to be defined by her contribution to patriarchal society.


Image of the Bracelets of Submission


Xena from the fantasy television series Xena: Warrior Princess is another example of a modern Amazon, though she is never explicitly tied to this lineage. Xena fights valiantly, travels on horseback and has no interest in living a domestic female life. Like Wonder Woman, Xena has too been heralded as a feminist hero with Ms. magazine describing her as the “mass-market vehicle feminists have long been waiting for.” Madeline Albright, the first female Secretary of State of the United States, even named Xena as one of her role models, presumably as she too was seen to challenge long-established gender roles.


Image of Xena from Return of Callisto


Xena also demonstrates the frequent lesbian interpretations of the Amazonian warriors in modern society. The Amazons’ rejection of heteronormative patriarchal society and general dislike of men has turned them into lesbian icons. They are even used as symbols of the lesbian separatist political movement which advocates the creation of strong lesbian communities away from men. Xena’s rejection of male suitors and her relationship with her companion Gabrielle has meant she has been read as queer by most of her television audience. The Amazon in this instance came to represent female love (romantic or otherwise) and the beauty and strength of such bonds in the face of adversity.


Image from Xena: Warrior Princess


Xena however remains a product for male consumption. Xena wears shapely and revealing armour which would offer little protection in a real battle… but at least she’ll look good! Wonder Woman is granted a similar sex appeal with model and 2004 Miss Israel Gal Gadot playing the famous superhero in the 2017 film adaption. The ancient Amazons were, in most representations, androgynous but in the modern world, the Amazon is presented as conventionally sexy and attractive to men if she’s going to be powerful, successful and independent.


What my friend’s dad meant when he said that my haircut was ‘Amazonian’ is up for debate. Whether it was a reference to my queerness, an acknowledgement of a feminist stance or a comment on my rejection of traditional femininity, the Amazon encompasses them all. The Amazonian warriors have on a whole moved away from their negative association, but they remain a threat to modern society, as seen through the pandering to the male gaze and the need to control the Amazons’ power. I hope that the Amazons can eventually be granted the freedom and autonomy from male-dominated society that they so crave.