Monday, March 26, 2012

Amazons - Invincible Warriors or Fashion Victims? - By Barbara Lambert

Once again, I'd like to welcome Canadian author Barbara Lambert who has offered to share a second fascinating post about ancient Amazon women!

Amazons -- Invincible Warriors, or Fashion Victims?

I’ve been leafing through a volume illustrating 20,000 years of fashion history -- and to my amazement, there’s not an Amazon to be found, though they played a central role in classical Greek art and ideology.
Closest to Amazon warrior garb, shown below



were illustrations of "Flappers" from the 1920's. 


 
Not quite the same gravitas  -- but a remarkable similarity of line, not to mention the helmets: 




It’s fascinating to speculate that when women cut loose from long skirts and corsets, after the first World War, designers took inspiration from those subversive hard-riding, hard-fighting warrior women who, almost three thousand years before, turned gender roles upside down.


Unfortunately, the story of Amazon fashion turns out to be disturbing. And if one is to believe recent academic analysis, myths of an ancient society ruled by women were political in nature -- the Amazon phenomenon mainly useful as a “case study of how gender was used to conceptualize cultural issues in Ancient Greece....”

Ouch.
            
I’ve always held the Amazons near my heart. The women of my pioneer ancestry, too, were bold and brave -- and devil-may-care -- riding their horses astride when this was shocking, taking deadly aim with their shotguns as they hunted game.  How distressing to think of their long-ago predecessors being reduced to “case studies”!
           
When I went in search of Amazons in Greek pottery and art, I found them easy to spot. Clearly they fascinated those ancient artists, who portrayed them as both beautiful and distinctively dressed: the highly decorative leggings with rows of zig-zags or a “net stocking” effect -- the saucy flounced battle skirts, often very short -- the stylish head-gear, whether a helmet or some variety of fetching hat.
            
But it seems this was not the way Amazon fashion started out. In the earliest representations (I’ve read) Amazons are shown garbed for battle the way their opponents the mythical Greek heroes were -- similar armour, similar “hoplite” swords and shields -- engaged in heroic battle against the likes of Heracles, Bellerophon, Achilles, Telamon.
            
But they would soon lose their status as a match for those great heroes.
            
Why?
            
Athens began to use Amazons to serve its own ideology (this theory runs) -- an example of a “female” challenge to order and civilization, during the time when the Greeks were engaged in real-life wars with the Persian Empire. This was when the Amazons began to appear dressed in those gaudy zig-zag stripes and netted tights and frilly skirts -- echoing Persian dress -- hinting at the “feminized nature and incapacity for self control” of those barbarian Eastern opponents.
            
Amazon defeats began to play into the rhetoric of Greek funeral orations, too. Tales of invading feminine hoards who greedily over-reached themselves provided dramatic propaganda to stir up fighting spirit against the Persians. Also a warning against the dangers of a “female” challenge to good Greek patriarchal order.

Fascinating. Discomfiting.
           
But perhaps the theory that Amazons were actually invented, for just this purpose, is only one angle of exploration into a “patriarchal” mind-set which, unarguably, has persisted right up to modern times (with barely a hiccup in the Flapper era).
            
For listen --- at the “borders of the known world” where the supposedly mythical Amazons had their domain, archaeological remains now confirm that aristocratic women were buried with horse trappings and weapons, and did ride horses and fight in wars. These particular remains are said to be Scythian. But they go to prove not only Plato’s assertion in the Laws, that women are indeed capable of fighting for their country, but as one more example of how all through history, woman warriors have made their mark.
            
And as to the Amazons themselves, tales of their exploits are so remarkably persistent that surely the truth about them is a construct not of fashion but of invincible female spirit.

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2 comments:

Vince Parrillo said...

I enjoyed your blog on amazons and fashion. It reminded me of a few years ago when I was a Fulbrighter in the Czech Republic and learned the legend of Vlarta who roused the women to leave their husbands to farm while the women took political power. They build the maiden castle Devin, which the men attacked. On horseback, the women killed hundreds and as the war continued, another amazon, Sharka, (a valley is named after her) entrapped many men who were also killed. The war ended when the men isolated Vlarta from her warriors, killed her, and destroyed the castle, whose ruins are a tourist attraction today.

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