Plays, Poems & New Writing Research article

Exploring the Amazon

  In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hippolyta is not just Theseus’ bride, she is also Queen of the Amazons. Michelle Terry examines the traces of Hippolyta’s strange and elusive people

6 minute read

Homer describes them in the Iliad as ‘antianeirai’, meaning ‘those who go to war like men’. Herodotus uses the term Androktones, meaning ‘killers of men’. There is much speculation and little evidence about the Amazons, but despite some blurred distinctions between myth and history, the common narrative is that they were an all-female tribe who lived like soldiers, and pursued and fought men to the death in order to defend their matriarchy.

Contrary to logic and popular belief, neither the name nor the tribe derives from the Amazon River. The Amazonian section of the river was named in 1541 by the Spanish soldier Francisco de Orellana, the first European to explore the area, when an encounter with an all-female tribe reminded him of the Amazons he had read about in Greek mythology. In The Histories Herodotus places them in Scythia (modern-day Ukraine), where he suggests they consorted with the Scythian men. They have also been located in Asia Minor, Libya, Persia and the Black Sea region.

A depicting of a battle scene depicting women on horseback.

‘Love at first fight’ (John Maddox Roberts, Conan and the Amazon): a detail from Battle of the Amazons and Greeks by Rubens, c.1617. Hippolyta is to the right of Theseus, in red tunic and peacock plumed helmet. Alte Pinakothek, Munich. Bridgeman Art Library.

Remains of an all-female tribe were discovered in the Altai Mountains of Siberia during an excavation in the mid-1990’s, where mummified women were found dating back to 500BC – precisely the period of Herodotus’ Androktones. Thought to belong to the ancient Pazyryk people and said to resemble the Scythian men that Herodotus had connected them to, one of these – the ‘Siberian Ice Maiden’ – was found still wearing her feather headdress and surrounded by sacred artefacts. Tattoos decorated her body and she was bow-legged from extensive horse riding. This supported a belief that most of the Amazon fighting was done on horseback (with bow and arrow, sword, double-sided axe and crescent-shaped shield).

‘The etymology of Amazon has been widely debated. One proposal from Greek origins, n-mn-gw-jon-es, means ‘manless and without husband’’

The etymology of ‘Amazon’ has been widely debated. Some scholars have said the word derives from the ancient Circassian, meaning ‘moon mother’ or ‘mother of the forest’, which supports the idea that they worshipped the moon. Other derivations suggest a more violent origin. The Iranian ha-mazan means ‘fighting together’ and ama-jarah ‘virility killing’; the Indo-Iranian hamazakarah means ‘to make war’. A Greek derivation (from n-mn-gw-jon-es), meaning ‘manless and without husband’ has also been proposed; another Greek word,  a-mazos meaning ‘without breast’, supports the notion that these women cut or burnt off their right breasts to make it easier for them to pull their bows and arrows during battle. This must belong to myth rather than history, because severing one or both breasts would have resulted in haemorrhage and death.

Two actors in a rehearsal room clutch hands, intensely staring at each other.

Michelle Terry and John Light in rehearsals for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photographer: Mark Douet.

‘Many writers and artists have been inspired by the Amazons, but Shakespeare re-imagines them to suit his own creation’

Multiple narratives have reconfigured, disfigured and reinterpreted the Amazons throughout history, particularly in the mythology,  literature and art of ancient Greece. The most famous myth involves Hercules, whose ninth labour, imposed on him by Eurystheus, was to bring back Hippolyta’s symbolic girdle, the gift of her father Ares, the god of war. Another legend tells us that Theseus abducted and possibly raped Hippolyta. In another, she was given to Theseus by Hercules. In yet another version it was Antiope, Hippolyta’s sister, who married Theseus and produced their ill-fated son Hippolytus who dies at his father’s hand. Like Plutarch, Aeschylus, Ovid, Chaucer and many other writers and artists who have been inspired by the Amazons, Shakespeare neither confirms nor denies the myths, but alludes to and re-imagines them to suit his own creation.

A painting of a battle scene depicting women.

The Magic Girdle of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons by Antoon Claessens via Wikimedia Commons.

The stories explore, among many other things, the battle between the male and the female. Amazonomachy was a term coined by the Greeks to celebrate the conquering of the Amazons during the Greek-Amazonian war and became a symbol of the Greeks’ ultimate triumph over these female ‘barbarians’. However, the Greek-Amazon union presents a paradox: whilst needing to contain and order the Amazonian female, there is a simultaneous desire to relish and engage with the passion for war that she inspires. However hostile their interaction, at least there is an interaction, a connection with this alluring other. He who triumphs over her is himself conquered and captivated by her; a sexual monster as well as a sexual fantasy, a military equal as well as an enemy. She is as much a ‘musical discord’ as she is ‘sweet thunder’.

‘The mere presence of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazonian matriarchy, immediately unsettles and disrupts the patriarchal law and ‘natural order’ that governs Athens in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

If these warrior women are figures of desire and threat, if they represent the marginal, the other, the exotic, unruly, strong, violent, wild woman who must be won and tamed, if they reject marriage as an enslavement to the patriarchy, then the mere presence of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazonian matriarchy, immediately unsettles and disrupts the patriarchal law and ‘natural order’ that governs Athens in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is no accident that Shakespeare frames his comedy about marriage, love and imagination with the union of the ‘bouncing Amazon… buskin’d mistress and… warrior love’ to Theseus, her equally savage yet promiscuous Greek counterpart. Although Hippolyta participates in, rather than resists her marriage to Theseus, occupying her role as wife and duchess, she never seems to obey or condone the patriarchal terms on which her roles have previously been defined and thereby leaves them open to re-definition.

An actor wearing a green hunting coat holds a long bow.

Michelle Terry as Hippolyta in Dominic Dromgoole’s production. Photographer: John Haynes.

In his book Greek Attitudes Towards Women: The Mythological Evidence, Peter Walcot writes:

Wherever the Amazons are located… it is always beyond the confines of the civilised world. The Amazons exist outside the range of normal human existence.

Their existence will continue to be debated and interpreted, but there can be no denying that Hippolyta exists in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and her presence in the opening scene sets up the parallels between war and courtship that extend throughout the play. Whatever the fate of Hippolyta and Theseus, the feminine mystery of the Amazonian ‘other’ is an important preoccupation for Shakespeare in this play and one that continues to be worth examining, ‘howsoever strange and admirable’.


A version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be streamed for free in 2020 as part of our YouTube Premieres season.