Amazonomachy: The Art of Progress

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by W.F. Price on January 4, 2010

A number of The Spearhead’s readers are fans of classical art, philosophy and history, as am I, so I thought I’d bring one of ancient Greece’s most popular art genres to attention. Amazonomachy is rooted in myth, but was highly symbolic and relevant to classical Greek society. The main myths portrayed were Herakles’ labors, one of which was to retrieve Amazon queen Hippolyta’s girdle, and Theseus’ seizure of the queen for his concubine. Both of these mythical events sparked battles with the warlike Amazon women, leading to great carnage and Greek victory. Theseus, who according to legend founded Athens, impregnated Hippolyta, who bore him a son he named Hippolytus. When Hippolyta fell out of favor with Theseus, his next wife, Phaedra, eventually fell in love with her son Hippolytus, who rejected her advances. Scorned, Phaedra falsely accused Hippolytus of rape, leading to his death at the wish of his father. It is fascinating to see how the Greeks covered the gender issues that plague us today thousands of years ago in their art.

Symbolically, Amazonomachy was important for its illumination of the Greek ideal of civilization. The Amazons represented savagery and darkness, and the Greeks the light of reason and human progress. There may have been an ethnic component to the depictions of struggles as well; the Amazons are conjectured to be derived from Indo-Iranian tribes such as the Scythians, who were frequently enemies of the Greeks. In fact, some Amazonomachies depict them in Scythian dress, and recent archaeological finds indicate that many Scythian women did, in fact, participate in warfare.

Whatever the origin of the Amazon myth, it played an important role in the Greeks’ view of themselves as a civilized people struggling against benighted barbarian hordes. It also highlights some stark cultural differences between the ancient Greeks and ourselves.

In recent years, art and popular culture in the West has increasingly portrayed women as aggressors and warriors of one sort or another. Although this was almost unthinkable when Americans were actually fighting major wars, violence and aggression perpetrated by women has come to be rather commonly depicted in film, graphic art and popular music. Despite the supposedly more egalitarian nature of this new role, in the vast majority of cases the women are both the victors and the sympathetic parties. There are very few incidents in which violence against women is shown as justified, and these are all, almost without fail, between women. Almost every single time a woman attacks a man he is the bad guy, and she wins in the end in one way or the other.

The Greeks saw it differently. Defeating the Amazons was glorious. An Amazonomachy was even depicted on Athena Parthenos’ shield at Athens’ holiest site, and various examples were found at some of the most important archaeological sites in Greece.

For most men there is a visceral reaction to violence against women. Protecting women against harm is a natural sentiment, but for some reason the Greeks portrayed the gender wars in physical terms. Could it be because, for the Greeks, physical art was the pinnacle of expression of our nature?

I think so.

Greek artists and thinkers understood that there was, and always has been, a power struggle between the sexes. Men and women complement each other, of course, but doesn’t the deer complement the mountain lion, and doesn’t the sheep complement the wolf? Biology is not a simple matter of cooperation, even within species. It would be stupid to think of it as such, and the Greeks made a conscious decision to prioritize civilization over the barbarism of matriarchy. Nothing better illustrated that concept at the time than the Amazonomachies.

The ancient Greeks were strugging against societies that saw them as fanatics. The supine potentates of surrounding states must have asked: “Who are these men to demand rights and a voice over their rulers? Surely, they should bow down to kings and queens, and relinquish this odd concept of manhood.” But they stood their ground, defining their struggle according to what appeared before their eyes.

Despite the misappropriation of the term “progressive” in contemporary America resulting in a warped concept of human progress, surely an irony befitting ancient Babylon, progress was at one time a desperate effort, and the Greeks fought against great odds to leave us with the blueprint upon which we built modern civilization.

If, like today’s simpering politicians, Greek men had bowed down before their wives and sisters, debasing themselves and squandering their efforts in order to appease the mother goddess, we would have been left with none of the marble pillars of civilization, but rather the misshapen mud huts of matriarchy.

In this spirit, we should celebrate the victories over the wanton Amazon women. Each stroke of sword and thrust of spear into the defiant, struggling Amazon warriors was another step in the construction of a better way of life. As Theseus plucked Hippolyta from the midst of a frenzied horde of howling women, carrying her off as a reluctant trophy, it was as though he were a fisherman hauling an ignorant mass of savages ashore. Thus was Athens, the seed of Western civilization, planted in victory in the heaving womb of barbary.

Today, as rockets burst forth from a speechless earth, as marvels of medicine save the lives of otherwise lost victims, and as we unlock the mysteries of the cosmos, we still resort to the language and thought of the few brave men of ancient Greece, reaching back to that indomitable spirit that subjugated even the Amazons, those women who still clamor and press up against us in spirit in an effort to shove us back into the abyss of darkness. If we give in and relinquish our patrimony, we have failed our forefathers, and don’t deserve to be called men.

Next in series: Male Spirituality as exemplified by the Hebrew prophets.

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