In times of old did we all dwell, amid lessons learnt but too oft, dismissed. When wore we light beams above our crowns and heaven's lips, we kissed. Upon hearing the song of bards at night we are reminded of those days, each one of us an actor, dancer, a teller of tales in these universal plays Amid joy and tears, laughter and war did we strive to seek our way. Still we wonder, where for do we go, if not for the dreams of yesterday? Ismail Butera
Ancient Greek civilization was one that was unique even for it's time. This was a civilization of the mind that glorified the human being as the center of the cosmos. Those great philosophers and thinkers of the classical age all differed in their opinions and in their approaches to solving the riddles and problems that seemingly plagued humanity since the beginning of recorded history but most seem to have agreed that the human being is at the epicenter of all. In this light, or shall we say the light from which this brilliant civilization sprang from, the art of ancient Greece portrayed humans as perfectly sculpted beings, as in the image of a god. This idea of beauty was manifested in the portrayal through art of the glorification and representation of the perfect physical form. The perfect human form was the embodiment of all the virtues, experiences, and sources of nourishment that contributed to the appearance of such a neo divine being of total exquisiteness. The statuary and the frieze carvings adorning the great examples of architecture that have survived from the glorious time of the classical Greek world are a testimony to the adoration and glorification of the human being, in body and mind.
Representing The Human Being: Center Of the Cosmos
A sculpture was meant to convey the power and brilliance of the perfected human being. It might be the sculpture of an athlete throwing the discus or the javelin, a charioteer, wrestlers or a group of runners, or a wise sage in all his mindful glory and countenance, a beautiful woman, a goddess or nymph. The work could reflect the wisdom and might of a king or general or project the all knowing, dominating yet at times conniving reign of a deity, be that deity benevolent or hostile. A frieze would portray an event or a battle of note in which the exploits of heroes who displayed deeds of valor or bravery were honored or remembered. The ancient Greeks surrounded themselves with reminders of who they were and not only what a human being ought to be, but what a human being should be. Obsessed with human physical perfection, they left us the concept of the gymnasium, an institution which in ancient Hellas was a must for every citizen. Exercising, competing in wrestling and other pursuits were performed in the nude, inspiring all to attain perfection in muscle tone and symmetry of features. The virtues of ancient Greece were the manifestation of what were considered the highest virtues for a human being to maintain and hold onto dearly for the duration of one's entire life. Athletes, charioteers, discus throwers, individuals throwing the javelin or running in a race were all depicted in art on the sides of vases or in works of sculpture, as the Olympic games brought together the best athletes in all of Greece who competed with one another so as to attain individual glory, pushing the limits on what a human can achieve and inspiring others to do the same.
Thus the Acropolis (lit: high point of a city) of Athens or any other city was a cluster of superbly designed buildings that were adorned with carvings and statuary of excellent craftsmanship and design. First and foremost in importance was the edifice, the building- the place where the being known as Man meets and congregates to make laws and discuss ideas, where the civilization literally breathes. These buildings are decorated with art that recounted the virtues and visions which ancient Greek society held as important, those visions based on the virtues which this society not only opinionated as virtuous but that which they embraced as central, which contributed to making the lasting greatness of this society infinite and eternal. Muscular gods such as Zeus sat upon thrones of glory, or stood fast like an armed Athena, a formidable sentinel reminding the citizens to protect the human created glory they themselves begat. Scenes from mythology such as the Gigantomachy, a frieze depicting the war between humans and giants or the Titanomachy, depicting the struggle between humans and gods, expressed the dominance of humanity over all things in the Earth and to some degree, in the cosmos as well. Greek society did not glorify or think of the gods in the same way other societies did, as the gods had human attributes and therefore like humans were prone to fallibility. Rather, the Greeks gave them a place of importance due to the relevance of religion, spirituality and most importantly the role of fate, as in any society. But it was the human being and his endeavors that was held in highest esteem, and the reason why such a society would portray their existence and relationship with the divine as a struggle between Earth and Heaven rather than a dance of worship and loving companionship. Unlike many ancient societies which worshipped and depended on their god or gods for guidance, Greek civilization gave the gods, therefore religion, a place for the obvious purpose they served but left the final decision for anything to the judgment, thoughts and sheer will of the human being. The Titanomachy is especially interesting in this regard in that it proclaims for all to see and know that Heaven, or if you prefer, the gods on Mount Olympus are not so different from humans, thus imperfect. Since they have shown themselves to be imperfect and at times cruel- whether as recited in the stories and mythologies or as witnessed in the powerful and destructive forces of nature, according to Greek mythology an eventual war was necessary to bring them under the control of mortal beings, or at least balance the playing field. The gods and goddesses had their place, adorning the many temples built in the ancient Greek world, but we are reminded that they are secondary to the imagery and creative power of the human mind and mankind's own will. Greek science, philosophy and mathematics would defeat the gods and set a standard for all time, creating a divide between the world of the spirit and the world of logical reality. This tradition of religious separation from government and the suspicion of divinity which according to the Greeks could not be proven by reason or logic was carried on to future generations and succeeding civilizations. Even today western civilization clings to the notion of the separation of religion and state as the normal and expected balance in the governing of any nation. Thus the Gigantomachy, the retelling of the war against the giants who supposedly dominated the world of the past, like all such mythical beings, is really an expression of the human mind in denying those products of the imaginative and inventing mind which may eventually have become religion ie: what the society holds as truth- the power to be obstacles to thought, reason and the scientific progress. In challenging gods and giants, the ancient Greeks challenged the notion that something might exist outside of reason and logic- the latter from the Greek word logos, meaning a word or sentence- and developed these entities via the art of debate and argument to prove whether something really exists or not. In this way they challenged perceived beliefs and set the stage for the human thought process that is still defined by their ancient concepts. Indeed, the infantile aspects of the human mind manifested as superstition seemed to become adult in ancient Greece, as mighty giants, demons and fearful gods were defeated by the power of the intellect and the forces of science. Just as religion can become organized and codified so as to become a force in inspiring and setting the standards for a society to follow, Greek logic and reasoning set standards to inspire the realms of art, literature and the theater. However, what become known as anti progressive and contrary to the logical and reasoning mind became a sort of dogma, if you will, that would eventually place an entire gender into a neo caste system of oppression and misogyny.
Confronting The Power Of The Matriarchy
While the acknowledgment of purposely containing gods, giants and other mythical beings may seem progressive and normal for any developing ancient society so as to move on from dream land to actuality the ancient Greeks were, like all one time agricultural communities that eventually developed a higher level of civilization, a society that was both horrified and in awe of the power of the feminine. The tales of the nations of Amazon warrior women where men were captured and forced into slavery, existing solely for the purpose of pleasure and breeding, their supposed killing of male children while preserving the females to be brought up as warriors, are tales that seethe with misogynistic fear, dread and the wholesale hatred of women. In the 5th century BC Helinacus referred to them as 'golden shielded, silver sworded, man loving but male-child slaughtering Amazons'. Studying such accounts written by noted scholars as Helinacus as well as hearing and reading the epic tales recited by bards of these powerful women it seems as if the whole society had to be warned about the inherent dangers of the bedchamber that lie within those wombs that men must enter in order to procreate. Men are drawn to the beauty of the opposite sex and cannot resist, and of course this is a natural physical occurrence. But women and their charms are a trap, according to those ancient male patriarchs, a means to keep a man at home and away from progress, logic and debate, war and the quest, discovery and enlightenment. His senses are numbed, his mind becomes obsessed with sex and lust, he becomes lazy and inefficient, all due to the beckoning of a woman bedecked with jewelry, perfumed and well coifed, wearing enticing makeup. Aristotle would apply this concept to his teaching, and claim that these charms are the things that destroy men. These are not acceptable virtues for the virtuous Greek man, they are for barbarians and foreigners- the word vavaros in Greek meaning just that, an outsider who doesn't understand what constitutes a true man. This is why Greek society much to it's discredit frowned so much on the freedom of women and kept them in the shadows, as well as frowning on foreign nations in that they were effeminate. Women were virtual prisoners of their husbands and fathers in their homes in Greek society and were counted along with the cattle or sheep of a household with relatively little more regard than the family dog, donkey or cow. This poor attitude toward the female gender would set the standard for women throughout the ancient and medieval eras and inform the cultures and standards of both the Christian and Islamic civilizations, right down into the age of the Enlightenment. Even into the 20th century women in the modern West would have to struggle for the right to vote and receive equal pay, not to mention get themselves elected or considered for high political office, and ward off male advances and abuse that are somehow considered the norm.
We might reluctantly excuse the ancient Greeks like Helinacus and their attitude towards women if we could see through their eyes and understand the directness of their approach to everything, which was scientific and forthright. Just as they placed the importance of the gods and magical beings on the back burner of their social stove, replacing religion with an educated civilization of the cultured and inquisitive mind- a people who went from herding sheep and goats in the Pindus mountains to creating city states that gleamed with intellectual brilliance, they were firmly direct in how they dealt with the issue of women and the concept of the feminine. This was not only an issue concerning the Greeks- most peoples, after settling down and acquiring civilization and creating art and science forced their wives, sisters and daughters into the kitchen, as it were. The Greeks were no different, and in their style and approach according to their culture and mindset were direct and forthright about it. Only in Sparta were women sometimes allowed to partake in gymnastics and in such sports as wrestling. But even in that martial minded city state they too had to concede to the role of the male patriarchy who ran the show, and would return to their kitchens to cook for the heroes and bear the children who would become the fearsome warriors that this society sought to breed. Yet this seemingly misogynistic society, as if by archetypal memory, remembered and glorified women as no other. Perhaps a comparison can be made in this regard to India and the worship and example of Hindu deities such as Durga and Kali. In Indian religion strong women had their place and could be praised, summoned in times of need and worshipped for their power and ferocity but only in the realm of the spiritual life. The tales and the artistic portrayal however, of powerful women known not only as goddesses but as characters and personalities from myth and legend, believed by many to have been real people were to be found everywhere in the ancient Greek world. They were to be found in exquisite carvings and statuary, their exploits and deeds were painted on vases, their stories told by bards and put to script in the theater. The Goddess Athena was always portrayed as a virile beautiful woman armed with a spear, wearing a golden helmet and bearing a shield. It was Artemis, the later Roman Diana, who was the goddess of the hunt, armed with her bow and quiver, inhabiting the wild forests- outside of the confines of civilization. Here a woman might live free, as the poet Pindar sings the praises of one such daring woman named Cyrene who protects her father's farm from wild animals and excels at fighting with the spear. She is sought for her daring attributes equally matched by her beauty by the god Apollo himself, who desires her. She is taken to Libya, where she competes in the games and is eventually victorious. Libya was a land known in ancient times for it's female horsewomen who, if we are to rely on one tradition, were descended from Apollo. Perhaps this tale is related to the notion of a free, wild and independent Artemis of the woodlands? Even Plato wrote of the fierce warrior women of Libya who attacked the ancient and legendary kingdom of Atlantis. The story of brave Amazon warriors were told and recounted in ancient Greece and in the neighboring nations of Illyria and Thrace where a tradition of female warriors was in those ancient days a reality. Alexander the Great was told stories in his youth of Macedonian women who fought 'like wolves' and turned the tide of some ancient battle. The Greeks claimed that the warrior women called Amazons were the daughters of Ares the god of war, a testimony to their military prowess. Some identified them as a tribe of horse women who lived on the steppes of what is now modern Russia, north of the Caucasus. Indeed the Nart sagas of peoples such as the Circassians tell of a tribe known as Amezan, named after their powerful queen. There, in the steppes of Russia, recent archeological digs have uncovered the graves of female skeletons clad in armor and bedecked with golden jewelry, their swords, bows and quivers at their side, their heads capped with a helmet, sometimes buried alongside horses also clad in golden embroidery. It is known that among the nomadic Tatar and the Turkic tribes of the ancient steppes well into the middle ages that no woman could marry unless she killed three enemy combatants in hand to hand combat. There were fierce women warriors accompanying the army of the Tatar conqueror Tamerlane in the 1400's AD. Such is the tradition of the mounted Amazon warrior riding upon the steppes on Central Asia. The Greeks heard these tales of Amazons and were fascinated by them. More than that, they in fact feared the idea that a woman could be more than the equal of a man, and created an entire oral, literary and artistic tradition dedicated to them. The sheer number of Grecian vases discovered and the sculpture and friezes depicting battles with these Amazons is evidence of the Greek fascination with powerful warrior women.
Depicting Women Of Power In Greek Art And Literature
On the West 'metopes' or side of the Parthenon in Athens, dedicated to Athena is a monumental work adorning the wall of the temple by the sculptor Kalamis known as the Amazonamachy, depicting in detail a ferocious battle between Greek warriors and Amazons. Other such Amazonomachy were carved on the sides of temples or formed into statuary all throughout the Greek world- the city states of the Greek mainland, their trading towns along the coast of the Balkans and the Black Sea, in the cities of Phonecia and along the North African coast, and into the Greek colonies of southern Italy and especially in Sicily, where they erected splendid temples decorated with their exquisite art.
A sarchophagus frieze depicting a battle between Greeks and Amazons
Tales abound in the Greek myths of heroes who set out on quests to seek, learn and conquer. In their travels they meet monsters, gorgons and other dangerous entities as they forever become frustrated with the will of the gods and even turn on them, a unique approach to religion and divinity, as most ancient societies worshipped, feared and adored their gods. The theme of the Amazonamachy stories and the art that depicts them is of ferocious warrior women who, like the aforementioned inhuman horrors of giants and gorgons, had to be confronted and destroyed. One well recounted tale is the story of Theseus who, coming to the defense of his homeland, found it difficult to successfully defeat the army of the fierce female invaders in battle. He calls for a truce and invites his adversaries to a wedding feast. Quietly, the doors of the great hall are closed and secured, trapping the women as they are slaughtered by Theseus and his men. The ninth labor of Hercules is that he must capture the belt of the Amazon queen Hypolita, a gift to her from Ares the god of war. As the powerful Hypolita was in awe and respect of Hercules she agreed to give him the belt as a gift, but the goddess Hera used trickery and cunning. Causing dissent among the Amazons, spreading lies and encouraging war, they ignored Hypolita's pleas for restraint and followed Hera's advice. They attacked Hercules with vigor, who in turn slew them all and their queen. The blame in such a story is clearly heaped on the female deity Hera, who caused destruction due to her jealousy and conniving manner, not unlike the blame that was heaped upon Eve for tempting Adam in the Garden of Eden. In one such telling of this tale it is recited that there were some Amazons who survived the encounter and were taken prisoner. Hercules, in a drunken stupor after his victory, forced them to dance for him and his men. Violated and stripped, the few remaining pieces of armor that remained on the bodies of the Amazons shook and jingled as they danced- inspiring future temple and court dancers in imitation to wear shining metallic ornaments that recalled the armor of this once proud tribe of warrior women, those conquerors and subduers of former male dominated empires now rendered helpless by the will of the powerful man-god hero. In the bardic tradition which became, after Homer' Iliad, the earliest written Greek literature and the very reason for the creation of the Greek alphabet, the virtues of heroes are extolled in all their gory detail. Achilles, Ajax, Hector and Agamemnon all make their appearances and perform incredible acts of bravery and cunning and feats of martial prowess as any worthy ancient warrior should. Women in the Iliad as in most of the tales from the age of heroes, are beautiful. There was Helen, igniting the war between the Greeks and the Trojans as she was stolen from Menelaus the king of Sparta, or perhaps she willingly fled her husband and her homeland. Mysterious seers and priestesses such as Cassandra who was cursed with the ability to foresee disaster are mentioned and given their due. Or there was the interfering and sometimes annoying female deities such as Hera and the resolute Athena who played with the lives of men whilst they tallied with one another on Mount Olympus. These women certainly feature in the Iliad but all knew their place both on Earth and on Mount Olympus, as it were. According to the bards, before Troy finally falls a tribe of ferocious women warriors, the Amazons, comes to the aid of the besieged city led by a legendary queen named Penthesilea. This episode appears in a lesser known sequel to the Illiad entitled Aetheopius, but is not included in the Illiad proper. In this tale Penthesilea is out hunting and accidentally kills her sister Hypolita, thinking her swift moves in the forest that of a wild deer. She bemoans her death and is distraught. To redeem herself and her honor in this age of heroes and glory, she decides to ally herself with the Trojans and rides out to do battle against Agamemnon and the Greeks with her Amazons, only to eventually face the invincible Achilles. His body is impervious to all weapons due to the fact that his mother dipped him into the magical river Styx, but even the overbearing and conceited hero admits that his female opponent was more than a match even for him, and he would have easily fallen to the relentless blows of his formidable opponent. He eventually slays Penthesilea as all her fellow warriors look on in horror, and eventually they too are slain to the last. The Amazon nation comes to a final end on the plains outside of Troy. As he is regarding the beauty of Penthesilea's lifeless body now stilled by his spear Achilles immediately kills a comrade who attempts to ruthlessly gouge out her eyes, and warns others to stay away from the fallen Amazon who he just defeated. None dare touch her as Achilles is mesmerized, as if drugged by the beauty of his defeated opponent. He is proud of his victory but is in awe of his victim as he never was in awe of any opponent before. His eyes remained fixed on her now still body as she lay motionless on the ground.
Quintus of Smyrna, writing in the 4th century AD describes Achilles and his fascination with Penthesilea in his work The Fall Of Troy:
Achilles removed the brilliant helmet from the lifeless Amazon queen. Penthesilea had fought like a raging leopard in their duel at Troy. Her value and beauty remained undimmed by dust and blood. Achille's heart lurched with remorse and desire. All the Greeks on the battlefield crowded round marveling, wishing with all their hearts that their wives at home could be just like her.
Then Achilles, completely overwhelmed by a combination of a feeling of control and lust proceeded to rape her corpse as his companions look on in shock and astonishment. In this story Achilles is the stereotypical misogynist male who both loves and despises his adversary, a woman who showed herself to be more than his equal. The powerful Amazon queen Penthesilea must be conquered and defeated, then physically humiliated, lest others think poorly of his masculinity and cultural chauvinist heroism though in his heart he knows that what he and his society holds as virtuous and true may be perhaps, wrong. The Amazons are defeated and wiped out to the last, their bodies are scattered in heaps on the battlefield. Troy has no hope of winning the war now that the Amazons, their last chance for victory, are gone. The city soon falls to that famous trick of the wooden horse, a story that is known around the world and through the ages with that timeless quote 'beware of Greeks bearing gifts', referring to the soldiers hiding inside the wooden horse awaiting nightfall so as to emerge and open the gates, as the Greeks enter and slaughter the populace. The story of the encounter between Achilles and Penthesilea is a strange tale, but quite revealing of the mental culture of the male patriarchy of the time and the society from which the legend hails. Not only is the tale one of defeating and controlling feminine power but it is interesting to note that this tale was not included in the final literary version of the Iliad, the oldest piece of western literature, and remains a related story that was recited but did not become not part of the proper Iliad corpus. The title of this story, Aetheopius, is a sequel to the Iliad, attributed to one Arctinos of Miletos in the 8th/7th century BC, and formally codified in the 3rd century AD by by the Greek poet Quintus of Smyrna. The title refers to an army from Africa, a foreign nation that also joined the Amazons and allied with the Trojans to fight the Greeks. The force of 10,000 strong was lead by a warrior of renown named Memnon, a fierce and powerful warrior king. Perhaps Memnon was, however, a queen and not necessarily a king from that continent of Africa, where according to legend and actual history women regularly led armies into battle, in the style of another noted North African Amazon queen named Myrina who conquered land from Africa to Thrace. After a fierce and bloody battle outside the walls of Troy the Amazons and the allied army of Aetheopia was soundly defeated on the field of battle by the forces of the Greeks led by Achilles, leaving a helpless Troy to her hapless fate.
Sean Dodds, a devotee of the study of ancient civilization and a dedicated researcher of military history is the founder and director an ancient Greek military reenactment group known as Warriors of Elysium: Amazons and Myrmidons. He reminded me of the writings of Herodotus who, like Plato, mentioned the Amazons of Northern Africa, in particular Tunisia. According to Herodotus...
Each year, young women coming of age would participate in a festival dedicated to Athena. They would attack each other brutally with clubs and stones. Anyone who died in this festival was considered a liar about her virgin status, as chastity in the North African tribes was not a method of sexual control but rather meant to honor Athena as she was the virgin goddess. Any participating in her name had to be a virgin as well. The victor, and this is an important notion historically- was granted a full Corinthian panoply as a trophy'.
One might be reminded of the wrestling traditions of the matriarchal Tuareg of the Sahara- young women held wrestling matches with one other so as to choose their mates for life. This tribe produced warrior queens in ancient times into the later middle ages, among them the defiantly independent queen Tin Hinan.
Pindar in his Odes, praising the athletes who compete in the Olympic games, mentions a similar contest utilizing horse racing among the Libyans regarding the exploits and daring of the fearless Cyrene. Thus Africa was known to the Greeks as a land that produced strong women, the equals of any man. It is said that even Alexander The Great invaded the land of Nubia but decided to turn and leave rather than confront the powerful queen Kandake and her armies. Such is the legacy of Amazons in Africa.
Achilles supports the dying Penthesilea
Why was this tale Aetheopius left out of the body of the Iliad? Was the idea of powerful women and an army of foreigners from far off Africa a bit much for the patriarchal, somewhat haughtily superiority minded Greeks to include in this great epic, their proud contribution to what would become European literature? Whatever the case or the reason, the theme and lesson of these stories and the art depicting the exploits of the heroes and heroines is clear- women must not rule or be in a position of power. They must never be able to recover their position as strong matriarchs in a cultured, civilized society. If they amaze and startle us, or tease at our imagination their power nonetheless must be defeated and destroyed before we change our mind about who they are and what the represent. The same belief is applied to foreigners as well though fierce, noble warriors worthy of praise they may be. To the credit of the Greek artists and bards however, they are given more than their due, and credit must be given to any society that condoned such art and literature which in some measure held respect for their enemies, even though the general society held these enemies in contempt. Such is the nature of a civilization that produced true artists who were willing to portray that which is politically incorrect and reprehensible in the eyes of the majority and their value system, but important to the inner psyche of that society which asked questions and sought to understand. Ancient Greek artists not only created great art, but included commentary in their works, setting again the stage for artists in the future such as the blossoming of thought during the Italian Renaissance. Such commentary can be read and heard in the great plays that were produced in the classical age, many of these works a commentary on life and events. Unlike other societies where rulers commissioned art the bequest of the ruler and his dynasty, ancient Greek art was an individual's expression and opinion about a popular topic, even if that topic was held as questionable or taboo by the immediate society. This was art for the sake of humanity.
In the Amazonomachy friezes it is pitched battle which is depicted, a fierce encounter between the forces of Greek warriors and Amazons. In these depictions it is clear that the Amazons are exceptionally excellent and formidable warriors, and sculptors like the great Kalamis would portray them and give them their glorious, martial due. Greek warriors, many of them nearly or fully naked as if to show off their masculine prowess and beauty, are locked in a life and death struggle with their more than worthy but dangerous female adversaries who surely slay their share of their male counterparts. Horses are throwing off their riders or lie prone on the field along with dead warriors, both men and women, some of whom attempt to ward off that final, decisive fatal sword blow of their counterpart. In these depictions the field of battle is strewn with the slain and the dying who lie in heaps from both sides in visceral, detailed depictions of the chaos and horror of bloody ancient warfare.
However, when we view these scenes in detail we notice that the sculptures sometimes reveal Greek warriors pulling at the hair of the warrior women- a tactic used more commonly by an abusive husband than by a warrior fighting with sword or spear against equally stealthy opponents. We see Amazons slaying warriors, spearing them, crushing them under their horses hooves, but never do we see an Amazon pulling on a man's beard, for example. Thus it is suggested that while they are formidable, these Amazon warriors who are faithfully depicted as ferocious and indeed worthy opponents, are but women and should be treated as such. It is as if a strong woman is likened to a near beast who revolts against her masters, who attempts to be the equal to men, thus she deserves to be taken down as if her defeat is a duty incumbent on all men. These fabulous battle friezes and their themes are works of art that have survived in Greece, Turkey, Italy and much of the rest of the Mediterranean as well as those sculptures copied and created by the Romans, those later heirs to Greek civilization, are an art form that tells of a masculine victory, the rise of patriarchy and the defeat of matriarchal society. The Amazons bravely face certain death as they are slain, seemingly bewildered as they fall from their horses or are about to die, perplexed by the sure fate of their defeat at the hands of the ruling male elite. If they knew and believed that a society headed by a male patriarchy is the right and only acceptable model for enlightened Greek society, they are not depicted as such in Greek art. They are defeated as they must be, as is the popular narrative. Yet, Greek sculptors in their honest artistic representations sculpted them facing death bravely, nobly and dignified, fearless worthy opponents as they certainly were.
For all their expressions of misogyny and the ever apparent need to conquer and control the feminine, the ancient Greeks did glorify these strong women in their art and gave them places of honor, perhaps as much in fear of what they represented as in awe. In none of these sculptures and carvings are the Amazons depicted as weak or helpless, save for the occasional expression of hopelessness of those for whom death is about to be dealt from the sword of some warrior. All throughout the Greek artistic world goddesses are powerful and beautiful deities that cause both men and women to gasp and sigh. On the sides of thousands of vases which have survived unto our own time powerful, martial women are painted fighting with their weapons held high, sometimes wearing the eastern Phrygian clothing- which included the wearing of pants, stabbing or slashing at their hapless male victims. This representation may allude to the clothing of the Amazons of the steppes, or perhaps they are being compared to Persian soldiers, thus foreign and inferior to the Greeks. In other paintings though, they are pictured donning armor and helmets in the style of their masculine hoplite counterparts. A strong, agile woman was indeed a popular theme in Greek art and remained a popular theme as long as the notion of strong women remained a mythological fantasy to be recounted in the recitations of the bards
The 9th labor of Hercules- fighting to attain the sword belt of Hippolyta. The Amazons were described as fierce and dedicated warriors with a complete sense of military honor and elan worthy of any army. Seldom contemplating retreat, they would never leave their wounded sisters behind on the field but would carry them from the midst of the fight to safety, as is seen on the left of this vase painting of Hercules during his battle with the Amazons
Transcendence: Downfall Of The Matriarch
The ancient Greeks questioned everything and did so likewise in their representations of the human form in art. What is unique about their artistic representations of the human form is their insistence on the supremacy of the perfected human being, even those human beings whom they thought of as morally inferior or less virtuous than themselves. Today we are in their debt as they have influenced how we think and how we view the world around us regarding our perceptions of beauty, perhaps more so than any other civilization before or since. With the eventual arrival of Christianity the day of the strong warrior woman went through another metamorphosis as the likes of the Amazon Penthesilea was replaced by the visions of the Immaculate Conception and mother Mary figures, in whom strength was found in the virtuous woman who was tamed by male dominated monotheistic religion. Greek, and later the Roman desire to portray the feminine figure found a new medium, one of power defined by a blending of procreation and compassion based on a cultural combination of Judaic and Mediterranean earth mother gentleness. Beautiful and loving, merciful and forgiving, Mary represented the power of the controlled and tamed feminine, who won battles with gentle smiles and purity of being rather than with swords or sheer strength. Her story is another tale which developed long after organized religion defined who she should be and how she should be viewed. Mary the feminine goddess is still worshipped and adored, her image seen looking down from the ceilings of Orthodox domes or in Catholic shrines, as is the transformed Aztec virgin of Guadalupe or our lady of Fatima, a name mysteriously of Arabic origin. Muslim Sufi mystics mourn the loss of the place of importance of Khadijah in mainstream Islam. She was Mohammed's independent, first wife who fostered his rise to fame, just as Christians to this day debate the reality and relativity of Mary Magdalene to Jesus Christ. Joan of Arc was honored in her day yet was condemned to die at the burning stake, while 500 years later she was eventually proclaimed a saint. To this day these women are all sought, beseeched, honored and held in high esteem by a multitude of believers of various faiths, as if these organized religions cannot do without them. They are cornerstones of faith, powerful but in a modest, compassionate, submissive and loving sort of way, conveniently humble in a man's world practicing and supporting a man's religion. Male created organized religion acknowledges their feminine power and allows their presence, but in a controlled climate and atmosphere. In Abrahamism God must be a stern father, like the ancient patriarch he was modeled upon after matriarchy was overthrown by bearded priests.
Perhaps these feminine symbols are the socially approved transformations of those powerful Amazons of old from the days of the ancient Greeks. Yet we are at a loss for words, reminded of the same male misogyny and sadism that afflicted Achilles after defeating the amazon Penthesilea when we read of how the brilliant but gentle, ancient woman philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria was murdered by a Christian mob in the early centuries of that continuous conflict between paganism and Christianity. In 415 AD Cyril, the intolerant Bishop of Alexandria called for the destruction of all things pertaining to pagan culture. The brilliant scholar Hypatia was abducted by a crowd, brought to the church and stripped naked in proximity of the altar of Christ. She was then killed by being pelted with clay tiles, her skin was then cut with oyster shells and finally, her limbs burned. Whether pagan or monotheist, male patriarchy deemed what a woman should be and how she must act, and the holy clergy of Alexandria proved to be as cruel, evil and as ultimately fearful of women as Achilles was. The message was clear- women must be defeated, conquered and controlled, no matter what the cost. Hypatia was killed, the library of Alexandria was burned and thousands of ancient manuscripts were lost in the process. Hypatia protected and preserved knowledge, men destroyed it. Such was their fear of an intellectually strong woman, not very different from the ancient Greek fear of those brave and fearless Amazons who rode headlong into battle heedless of the death around them. Hypatia refused to convert to Christianity, lacking interest in what she saw as an organized and codified male affront to her femininity and freedom, and for her refusal she paid a martyr's price. The lives of women saints are regaled and their stories recounted in the Church, especially those who were martyred for the cause of Christ. But the unbelieving Hypatia was chosen to be of the forgotten ones, an obstacle to male political religion, a shield as sturdy and impenetrable as the bronze shields and armor of the Amazon warriors of old. Like them, Hypatia had to be done away with. The day 'Mary' or her devotees seemingly complain, as it were, is the day she will be removed from the hierarchy of the holy. In Islam, the steadfast and independent Khadija, mentor and inspirer of an entirely new religion, was forgotten early on by the time the caliphate was established after Mohammed died.
Ancient Greek art asks questions and questions the answers, all at the same time. Like Greek thought, philosophy and science, their art causes us to think and reflect on the world around us and the society we live in, examining our thoughts and our inner beliefs. If we cannot agree with them and their sometimes prejudiced, discriminatory views we can at least admire the Greeks for their honesty, or sit in awe of their ability to include representations in their art of those subjects which they themselves thought reprehensible. In the very least, we are forced to remain silent and respectful as we gaze at the art they left for us- those sculptures of sinewy arms and biceps, carved torsos, muscular legs and perfected abdomens, with faces and expressions soft or hard as the artists wished them to be seen. As Socrates held, a beautiful thing is beautiful because it partakes of beauty itself. Thus every subject within a work of art is beautiful regardless of what the subject is or what it represents whether that subject be god or centaur, comely maiden or grotesque gorgon, because beauty is natural and thus the ultimate goal for all human achievement in life.