Who Were The Ancient Amazons – The First Gender Nonconformists?

The Amazons of ancient Greece made their first appearance in classical literature almost 3,000 years ago, yet continue to inspire feminist, lesbian, and transgender movements to this day. However, a lack of solid archaeological evidence means that historians still understand very little about these legendary warrior women, with some scholars arguing that they were purely mythical creatures that never really existed.

Regardless of whether they were real or fictional, the Amazons have been continually reimagined and realigned with various gender nonconforming groups over the years. Attempting to disentangle this complex history, the Journal of Lesbian Studies has recently published a special issue dedicated to the legacy of the Amazons.

Who were the Amazons?

As in many societies, women in ancient Greece were expected to perform the role of housewives, raising children and managing domestic affairs. “Yet beginning with Homer, the earliest known Greek author, the stories of the Amazons arose to defy those expectations,” writes Walter Duvall Penrose Jr, author of the introduction to the special issue.

First mentioned in the Iliad in the eighth century BCE, this enigmatic group of women were referenced by numerous subsequent authors over the next 700 years. According to Penrose Jr, “ancient Greek literature details how the Amazons challenged patriarchy, lived without men, and defeated their male enemies.”

“Amazons fought and hunted, tasks normatively assigned to men in ancient Greece,” he explains. Thus, “in ancient Greek legends and iconography, the Amazons are understood as gender nonconforming individuals.”

The origins of these trailblazing women are unknown, but some scholars believe the Amazons – or at least their legend – were linked to ancient female Scythian and Thracian warriors, for whom actual archaeological evidence does exist. Exactly how they perpetuated their female-only society is yet another mystery, although some rather radical clues can be found in the writings of certain Greek authors.

The first-century BCE philosopher and geographer Strabo, for example, wrote that the Amazons would have sex with neighboring groups of men once a year, typically in the spring. Any girls born as a result of these rendezvous would be raised by the warrior women, while baby boys were sent to live with their fathers.

“For the rest of the year, Strabo relates that the Amazons lived independently of men, farming, raising horses, hunting, and making war,” explains Penrose Jr. 

Were the Amazons lesbian or transgender?

Despite their association with modern lesbian movements, the Amazons are never described in the ancient literature as being homosexual. While this doesn’t mean they weren’t gay, it does mean that any lesbian connotations applied to the Amazons are unfounded.

Equally difficult to pin down is their gender, possibly because the notion of transgenderism may not have been understood in antiquity in the same way as it is today. 

Whenever mentioned in classical writings, the Amazons are grammatically gendered as female. Similarly, they are typically depicted as white-skinned on ancient Greek pottery, thus distinguishing them as women in contrast to the black-skinned male warriors.

At the same time, however, the Amazons are always seen fighting and wearing men’s clothing, thus signaling their masculine roles in spite of their female sex. Moreover, in Homer’s Iliad, the Amazons are described as antianeirai, meaning “equals of men”.

It’s also interesting to note that the word “Amazon” translates as “breastless” in ancient Greek, indicating that these warrior women may have been seen as not entirely female, at least in terms of gender roles. 

“Thus, in early extant Greek literature, the Amazons are clearly defined as women, but gender nonconforming, masculine ones at that,” writes the author. “In twenty-first-century parlance, we might think of the Amazons as gender non-binary or transmasculine, but from an ancient Greek perspective, they might be better understood as representative of female masculinity.”

In other words, while it may be tempting to assign modern labels, pronouns, and gender categories to the Amazons, all we can really say for sure is that “the Greeks perceived them as traversing preconceived Greek notions of gender and sexuality.”

The legacy of the Amazons

In spite of – and perhaps because of – the historical uncertainties surrounding the Amazons, their image has been repeatedly adapted to encapsulate the spirit of subsequent gender nonconforming groups. The Dahomey Amazons, for instance, was the name given to an all-female military unit that existed in what is now Benin in west Africa from the 17th to the 19th centuries.

More recently, “lesbian feminists in the United States adopted the Amazons as their forebears as they defied patriarchy and decided to live without men, in a fashion that became known as lesbian separatism,” writes Penrose Jr. Some modern lesbian groups have also adopted the labrys – a double-headed axe associated with the Amazon Hippolyte – as their symbol.

Summing up their legacy general terms, Penrose Jr says that “while the legends of the Amazons have provided a fictive ancestry for lesbians, today they also serve as a myths of ancestry for transgender and gender nonbinary audiences as well.”

The introductory chapter is published in the Journal of Lesbian Studies.

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