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Greek Myths and Legends of Womanpower

Judith P. Hallett, University of Maryland

On these stories and their interpretations see:

1. Amazons

Homer, Iliad 3. 185-189 Priam relates his previous war experiences to Helen.

"Once before I visited Phrygia of the vineyards...

and I myself, a helper in war, was marshalled among them

on that day when the Amazon women came, men's equals..."

Iliad 6.186 Military exploits of the hero Bellerophontes

"...but third he slaughtered the Amazons, who fight men in battle"

Diodorus of Sicily (first century BC), World History 2.45

"Now in the country along the Thermodon river, as the account goes, the sovereignty was in the hands of a people among whom the women held the supreme power and its women performed the services of war just as did the men. Of these women one, who possessed the royal authority, was remarkable for her prowess in war and her bodily strength, and gathering together an army of women she drilled it in the use of arms and subdued in war some of the neighboring peoples. And since her valor and fame increased, she made war upon people after people of neighboring lands, and as the tide of her fortune continued favorable, she was so filled with pride that she gave herself the appellation Daughter of Ares, but to the men she assigned the spinning of wool and other domestic duties as belong to women. Laws were also established by her, by virtue of which she led forth the women to the contests of war, but upon the men she fastened humiliation and slavery. And as for their children, she mutilated both the legs and the arms of the males, incapacitating them this way for the demands of war, and in the case of the females they seared the right breast that it might not project when their bodies matured and be in the way: and it is for this reason that the nation of the Amazons received the appellation it bears.

Justin (third century A.D.) 2.4

...They relinquished all thought of marrying with their neighbors, saying it would be slavery, not matrimony. Venturing to set an example imitated through all generations, they established their government without the aid of men, and soon maintained their power in defiance of them. And that none of their females might seem more fortunate than others, they put to death all the men who had remained at home. They also took revenge for their husbands that were killed in war, by a great slaughter of their neighbors.

Having thus secured peace by means of their arms, they proceeded, in order that their race might not fall, to form connections with the men of the adjacent nations. If any male children were born, they put them to death. The girls they bred up to the same mode of life as themselves, not consigning them to idleness, or working in wool, but training them to arms, the management of horses, and hunting.

They burned their right breasts in infancy, that their use of the bow might not be obstructed by them: and hence they were called Amazons.

and cf. Herodotus (fifth century B.C.) 4. 110 ff.:

About the Sauromatae there is the following story. In the war between the Greeks and the Amazons (the Scythians call the Amazons Oeorpata, the equivalent of "mankillers," oeor being the Scythian word for "man" and "pata" for "kill"), the Greeks, after their victory at the river Thermodon, sailed off in three ships with as many Amazons on board as they had succeeded in taking alive. Once at sea, the women murdered their captors, but, as they had no knowledge of boats and were unable to handle either rudder or sail or oar, they soon found themselves, when the men were done for, at the mercy of wind and wave and were blown to Cremi--the Cliffs--on Lake Maeotis, a place within the territory of the free Scythians. Here they got ashore and made their way inland to an inhabited part of the country. The first thing they fell in with was a herd of horses grazing; these they seized, and, mounting on their backs, rode off in search of loot. The Scythians could not understand what was happening and were at a loss to know where the marauders had come from, as their dress, speech and nationality were strange to them. Thinking, however, that they were young men, they fought in defense of their property, and discovered from the bodies which came into their possession after the battle that they were women. The discovery gave a new direction to their plans; they decided to make no further attempt to kill the invaders, but to send out a detachment of their youngest men, about equal in number to the Amazons, with orders to camp near them and take their cue from whatever it was that the Amazons then did...The motive behind this policy was the Scythians' desire to get children by the Amazons...Neither party had anything but their weapons and their horses, and both lived the same kind of life, hunting and plundering.

Towards midday the Amazons used to scatter and go off to some little distance in ones and twos to relieve themselves, and the Scythians, when they noticed this, followed suit...The two camps were then united, and the Amazons and the Scythians lived together, every man keeping as his wife the woman whose favors he had first enjoyed. The men could not learn the women's language, but the women succeeded in picking up the men's so when they could understand each other, the Scythians made the following proposal: "We," they said, "have parents and property. Let us give up our present way of life and return to live with our people. We will keep you as our wives and not take any others."

The Amazons replied, "We and the women of your nation could never live together; our ways are too much at variance. We are riders; our business is with the bow and spear, and we know nothing of women's work; but in your country no woman has anything to do with such things--your women stay at home in their wagons occupied with feminine tasks, and never go out to hunt or for any other purpose. We could not possibly agree. If, however, you wish to keep us for your wives and to behave as honorable men, go out and get from your parents the share of property which is due to you, and then let us go off and live by ourselves."

The young men agreed to this...Ever since then the women of the Sauromatae have kept to their old ways, riding to the hunt on horseback sometimes with, sometimes without, their menfolk, taking part in war and wearing the same sort of clothes as men. The language of these people is the Scythian, but it has always been a corrupt form of it because the Amazons were never able to learn to speak it properly. They have a marriage law which forbids a girl to marry until she has killed an enemy in battle; some of their women, unable to fulfill this condition, grow old and die in spinsterhood."

2. Lemnian Women

Apollodorus (first-second century A.D.) 1.9.17

"Led by Jason, the Argonauts first sailed to Lemnos. At that time the island was wholly bereft of men and ruled by Hypsipyle, daughter of Thoas. This state of affairs came about as follows: the women of Lemnos had neglected the cult of Aphrodite. As a punishment the goddess afflicted them with a foul smell. From disgust the men allied themselves with captive maidens from nearby Thrace. Enraged at this humiliation, the Lemnian women murdered their fathers and husbands. Only Hypsipyle hid her father, Thoas, and spared him. Thus Lemnos was governed by women at that time. The Argonauts lay with them. Hypsipyle shared Jason's bed and bore Euneus and Nebrophonus."

Apollonius of Rhodes (third century B.C.), The Voyage of the Argo 1.625 ff.

"The Lemnian women found it an easier thing to look after cattle, don a suit of bronze, and plough the earth for corn than to devote themselves, as they had done before, to the tasks of which Athene is the patroness. Nevertheless, they lived in dire dread of the Thracians; and they cast many a glance across the intervening sea in case they might be coming. So when they saw the Argo rowing up to the island, they at once equipped themselves for war and poured out in wild haste from the gates of Myrine...thinking that the Thracians had come. Hypsipyle joined them, dressed in her father Thoas' armor.

When the great assembly was complete, Hypsipyle rose to give them her advice. 'My friends,' she said, 'we must conciliate these people by our generosity. Let us supply them with food, good wine and all that they may want to have with them on board, so as to make sure that they shall never come inside our walls, or get to know us well, as they would do if they were driven by their needs to mingle with us freely...'

...The next to rise was her dear nurse Polyxo, an aged woman tottering on withered feet and leaning on a staff, but nonetheless determined to be heard...'Hypsipyle is right. We must accommodate these strangers; it is better to give than to be robbed. But that alone will not ensure your future happiness. What if the Thracians attack us, or some other enemy appears? Such things happen. And they happen unannounced--you saw how these men came. But even if heaven spares us that calamity, there are many troubles worse than war that you will have to meet as time goes on. When the older ones among us have died off, how are you younger women, without children, going to face the miseries of age? Will the oxen yoke themselves? Will they go out into the fields and drag the plowshare through the stubborn fallow? Will they watch the changing seasons and reap at the right time?'...

...Hypsipyle took Jason's hands in hers and prayed in tears for the lover she was losing. "Go,' she said, 'and may the gods bring you and all your comrades home with the golden fleece for the king, since that is what you have set your heart on. This island and my father's scepter will be waiting for you if you ever choose to come again when you are back in Hellas...But tell me what I am to do if the gods allow me to become a mother; and I will gladly do it.'..

Jason was moved...'if I am not destined to return to Hellas from my travels, and you bear me a son, send him when he is old enough to Pelasgian Iolcus. I should like him to console my father and mother in their grief if he finds them still alive.'"

Aeschylus, The Libation Bearers 594 ff.

"But who can recount all
the high daring in the will
of man, and in the stubborn hearts of women
the all-adventurous passions
that couple with man's overthrow.
The female force, the desperate
love crams its resisted way
on marriage and the dark embrace
of brute beasts, of mortal men...

Since I recall cruelties from quarrels long
ago, in vain, and married love turned to bitterness
a house would fend far away
by curse; the guile, treacheries of the woman's heart
against a lord armored in
power, a lord his enemies revered,
I prize the hearth not inflamed within the house,
the woman's right pushed not into daring.

Of all foul things legends tell the Lemnian
outranks, a vile wizard's charm, detestable
so that man names a hideous
crime 'Lemnian' in memory of their wickedness..."

3. Lycians

Herodotus 1.173

"The Lycians came originally from Crete, which, in ancient times was occupied entirely by non-Greek peoples...In their manners they resemble in some ways the Cretans, in others the Carians, but in one of their customs, that of taking the mother's name instead of the father's, they are unique. Ask a Lycian who he is, and he will tell you his own name and his mother's, then his grandmother's and great grandmother's and so on. And if a free woman has a child by a slave, the child is considered legitimate, whereas the children of a free man, however distinguished he may be, and a foreign wife or mistress have no citizen rights at all..."

Homer, Iliad 6. 156 ff.

To Bellerophontes the gods granted beauty and desirable
manhood; but Proitos in anger devised evil things against him,
and drove him out of his own domain, since he was far greater,
from the Argive country Zeus had broken to the sway of his sceptre.
Beautiful Anteia the wife of Proitos was stricken
with passion to lie in love with him, and yet she could not
beguile valiant Bellerophontes, whose will was virtuous.
So she went to Proitos the king and uttered her falsehood:
"Would you be killed, o Proitos? Then murder Bellerophontes
who tried to live with me in love, though I was unwilling."
So she spoke, and anger took hold of the king at her story.
He shrank from killing him, since his heart was awed by such action,
but set him away to Lycia, and handed him murderous symbols,
which he inscribed in a folding tablet, enough to destroy life,
and told him to show it to his wife's father, that he might perish...
Then after [the king] had been given his son-in-law's wicked symbols
first he sent him away with orders to kill the Chimaira
none might approach: a thing of immortal make, not human,
lion-fronted and snake behind, a goat in the middle,
and snorting out the breath of terrible flame of bright fire.
He killed the Chimaira, obeying the portents of the immortals.
Next after this he fought against the glorious Solymoi,
and this he thought was the strongest battle with men that he entered;
but third he slaughtered the Amazons, who fight men in battle.
Now as he came back, the king spun another entangling
treachery; for choosing the bravest men in wide Lycia
he laid a trap, but these men never came home thereafter
since all of them were killed by blameless Bellerophontes.
Then when the king knew him for the powerful stock of the god,
he detained him there, and offered him the hand of his daughter,
and gave him half of all the kingly privilege.
Thereto the men of Lycia cut out a piece of land, surpassing
all others, fine ploughed and orchard for him to administer.
His bride bore three children to valiant Bellerophontes,
Isandros and Hippolochos and Laodameia.
Laodameia lay in love besides Zeus of the counsels
and bore him godlike Sarpedon of the brazen helmet.
But Bellerophontes was hated by all the immortals,
he wandered alone about the plain of Aleios, eating
his heart out, skulking aside from the trodden track of humanity.
As for Isandros his son, Ares the insatiate of fighting
killed him in close battle against the glorious Solymoi,
while Artemis of the golden reins killed the daughter in anger.

4. Erinyes/Furies and the City of Athens

Homer, Iliad 21. 410-414 Athene to Ares

"You child: you did not think even this time how much stronger
I can claim I am than you, when you match your fury against me.
Therefore you are paying atonement to your mother's furies
since she is angry and wishes you ill, because you abandoned
the Achaians, and have given your aid to the insolent Trojans."

Odyssey 11. 271-280 Odysseus in the lower world

'I saw the beautiful Epikaste, Oidipodes' mother
who in the ignorance of her mind had done a monstrous
thing when she married her own son. He killed his father
and married her, but the gods soon made it known to mortals.
But he, for all his sorrows, in beloved Thebes continues
to be lord over the Kadmeians, all through the bitter designing
of the gods: while she went down to Hades of the gates, the strong one
knotting a noose and hanging sheer from the high ceiling,
in the constraint of her sorrow, but left to him who survived her
all the sorrows that are brought to pass by a mother's furies."

Aeschylus, Eumenides 254 ff. Chorus of Erinyes pursuing Orestes

"Look again, look again

search everywhere, let
not the matricide steal away and escape.
...His mother's blood spilled on the ground
can not come back again...
You must give back for her blood from the living man
red blood of your body to suck, and from your own
I could feed...and drag you down
where you must pay for the pain of the murdered mother."

St. Augustine, On the City of God 18.9

Now this is the reason Varro gives for the city's being called Athens, a name that is certainly derived from Minerva, who is called Athene in Greek. When an olive tree had suddenly appeared there, and on another spot water had gushed forth, these portents alarmed the king, and he sent to Delphic Apollo to ask what the meaning of this was and what was to be done. Apollo answered that the olive signified Minerva and the spring Neptune, and that it rested with the citizens to decide from which of the two gods, whose symbols these were, they preferred that the city should take its name. When Cecrops received this oracle he called together all the citizens of both sexes--for at that time it was customary in that area that the women should have a part in public deliberations--to take a vote. When therefore the multitude was consulted, the men voted for Neptune and the women for Minerva, and because the women were found to be one more, MInerva was victorious.

Then Neptune in his wrath devastated the lands of the Athenians by great floods of sea-water, for it is not difficult for demons to spread abroad any body of water that they choose. To appease his wrath, the same author tells us, the women were subjected by the Athenians to a triple punishment, namely that they should never vote thereafter, that none of their children should bear their mother's name and that no one should call them Athenian women. Thus that city, mother or nurse of liberal studies and of so many and such great philosophers, the greatest glory and wonder that Greece could show, by the trickery of demons received its name of Athens from the contest between two of its deities, a male and a female, and from the victory of the female though the women's vote. And when it was struck by the conquered male it was compelled to avenge the victory of the victorious female, being more in awe of the waters of Neptune than of the weapons of Minerva. For in the the person of the women who were thus punished Minerva, though victorious,was also defeated. Nor did she defend the women who had voted for her; when they lost the right of suffrage for the future, and their sons were cut off from their mothers' names, she might at least have seen to it that they had the privilege of being called Athenians and of bearing the name of the goddess, since they had given her the victory over the male god by their votes.