According to Greek mythology, the Amazons were warrior women living northeast of Ancient Greece during the later Bronze Age, between approximately 1900 and 1200 B.C.E. The source of the Amazonian myths is classical Greek literature, where they were first mentioned by Homer.
The most popular account of the Amazon warrior is from Greek mythology—the account of the ninth labor of Herakles, who was the son of the god Zeus by a mortal woman. Zeus’s jealous wife, Hera, charged Herakles with ten tasks thought to be impossible—the ninth was to the steal the girdle from the Amazon queen Hippolyta. To complete the task, Herakles and his men went to the Amazon capital, Themiscyra, located on the coast of the Black Sea, and demanded Hippolyta give them the girdle. When she refused, a bloody battle ensued in which many of the best Amazonian warriors were slain and eventually defeated. As part of their victory, Herakles captured an Amazonian princess named Antiope and gave her to Theseus, one of the legendary kings of Athens, to thank him for his help. Antiope went with them to Athens and lived as Theseus’s concubine. She fell in love with him and gave birth to his son Hippolyte. The surviving Amazons unified with allies from Scythia (an area inhabited by nomadic people known as the Scythians, in what is modern-day Mongolia, China, Russia, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, and Georgia) and traveled to Attica (modern southern Greece) to attack Athens and rescue Antiope. During the battle, Antiope fought on the Athenian side, and after another brutal defeat, the Amazons returned to their homeland.
Another famous story involves the Amazon warrior Penthesilia, who went to Troy (present-day Turkey) to aid the Trojans in battle. She engaged in one-on-one combat with Achilles, who eventually killed her. However, the moment before she died, he lifted her helmet to see her face and fell in love with her. This scene, prized for its emotional value, is reproduced in classical Greek art in many forms.
There are many legends of the Amazon warriors; in some accounts, they live in an exclusively female society and seek out men only once a year in order to procreate. There are versions that recount their killing, mutilating, or selling their male offspring into slavery. Although there is no conclusive evidence linking these myths to any ancient tribes resembling the Amazons, the subject’s popularity and its representations in art and literature has engendered many successive legends. The Amazon Warrior holds an important place at The Dinner Party, representing a tradition of powerful female warriors and the value of unified communities of women.
Amazon at The Dinner Party
The Amazon women are represented in the place setting as a symbolic individual, although the names of individual Amazon warriors such as Hippolyte, Lampedo, and Penthesilia are inscribed on the Heritage Floor. The place setting represents Amazon women both as warriors and as goddess worshippers. The color palette—black, red, and white—is traditionally used in their artistic representation.
On the plate is an image of breasts covered in gold and silver, representing the breastplates that the warriors wore in battle. The image may also refer to the legend that Amazon warriors cut off one of their breasts to be better archers. The plate also depicts two double-headed axes, a white egg, a red crescent, and a black stone, all of which are associated with the Amazons. In addition to their use in battle, double-headed axes were an element of goddess worship in Crete, the center of the Minoan world, 2600–1400 B.C.E.
, and they were also traditionally used by women to cut down trees. The white egg is a symbol of fertility; the red crescent is tied to the worship of the Great Mother and her connection with the moon; and the black stone was the earliest incarnation of the goddess in Sumer, 3500–2334 B.C.E., present-day Iraq.
The runner echoes much of the same imagery used in the plate—the white egg, red crescents, double-headed axes, and breastplates appear on the back. A triangle, a symbol of the goddess and the sacred feminine, provides a base for the egg and crescents. Snakeskin, on the front of the runner, was a material the Amazons wore into battle. The lacing on the runner’s sides references the ties on the warriors’ boots, evident on the Altar of Zeus at Pergamon, a monument constructed in the ancient Greek city around 180 B.C.E.
Both the titanium blades of the axes, and the lacing, are tied with French knots made of copper fibers, which come from the studs on the Amazon’s boots. The image of the axe is repeated in the illuminated capital letter “A” on the front of the runner.
Herodotus, 5th century B.C.E.
Translations, Editions, and Secondary Sources
Blok, Josine H. The Early Amazons: Modern and Ancient Perspectives on a Persistent Myth. Leiden: Brill, 1995.
Davis-Kimball, Jeannine. Warrior Women: An Archaeologist’s Search for History’s Hidden Heroines. New York: Warner Brothers, 2002.
DuBois, Page. Centaurs and Amazons: Women and the Pre-History of the Great Chain of Being. 1982; 2nd ed., Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991.
Eckstein-Diener, Bertha. Mothers and Amazons: The First Feminine History of Culture, trans. John Philip Lundin. 1932; reprint ed., New York: Julian Press, 1965.
Frueh, Joanna, Laurie Fierstein, and Judith Stein. Picturing the Modern Amazon. New York: Rizzoli International in association with New Museum Books, 2000.
Geary, Patrick. Women at the Beginning: Origin Myths from the Amazons to the Virgin Mary. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.
Gera, D. J. Warrior Women: The Anonymous Tractatus de Mulieribus. Leiden: Brill, 1996.
Kleinbaum, Abby Wettan. The War Against the Amazons. New York: New Press, 1983.
Tyrrell, William Blake. Amazons: A Study in Athenian Mythmaking. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.
Weinbaum, Batya. Islands of Women and Amazons: Representations and Realities. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999.
Wilde, Lyn Webster. On the Trail of the Women Warriors. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.