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An Alphabet of Femininism #1: A is for Amazon

2010 October 4
by Hodge

New week, new poster… and a change of tone. Meet Hodge, folks, and the first letter in her fully illustrated Alphabet series, where we do a bit of dictionary-delving, art history and culture-vulturing from A to Z.

Welcome to Hodge’s ALPHABET OF FEMINISM, inaugural entry, number one: pull up a chair, gather your hot beverages round.

The more specific aims of this series of posts will, it is hoped, become clearer through practice, as it works from A-Z.

But put simply, the idea is to address (with reasonable neutrality), the make-up of the English mother-tongue, to consider how the language has evolved over the centuries, and in the process to prompt some questions about how gender issues are woven into the fabric of the language we use everyday.

Incidentally, when I refer to ‘the dictionary’, I am referring to the Oxford English Dictionary.



“This. I Have No Use For This. Remove It.”

The Tea Towel

For those readers who never owned the Greek alphabet on a tea-towel, the ‘maz’ sound mid-Amazon is the same ‘maz’ you find in ‘mastectomy’ and its (mostly medical) cognates. This is because the Amazons in question – a race of female warriors alleged to have lived in ancient Scythia, and the first definition for the first word of the Alphabet of Femininism (hoorah!) – were said to have been rather expert in just this procedure. Or, as the dictionary puts it, rather dryly – and, indeed, euphemistically – ‘they destroyed their right breast to avoid interfering with the use of the bow’.

In so self-mastectomising, this army of women obviously lay themselves open to the extended (and more explicitly gender-specific) meaning that amazon took on around the mid-eighteenth century. Here, an amazon is ‘a very strong, tall, or masculine woman’, unsurprising since they are, etymologically, removers of those most vexed of female glands in favour of ease in brandishing weaponry (more generally considered A Man’s Job).

This all said, the original Amazons do not appear to have been either an (exclusively) lesbian tribe, or even an anti-maternal one: Strabo, the Greek geographer, would have it that they periodically had a baby-breeding field trip to a neighbouring male tribe (the Gargareans). The resultant boy-children were exposed or sent back to their fathers; the girls kept and trained up In The Amazon Way, a rare gender upending for the olden days.

Alas! My Girdle!

But perhaps the most famous of these dedicated Amazons is Hippolyte-slash-Hippolyta, the owner of a  magical ‘girdle’, which Hercules stole in one of his less catchy labours (bit pathetic altogether, isn’t it? It’s got a bit of a spotty thirteen year old boy feel to it, in fact. ‘Hey Hercules! See that woman? I dare you to steal her girdle! Yeeah, dude, you rock!’ – That said, I’ve never been completely sure what a ‘girdle’ means in Ancient Scythia: I can’t really imagine an army of one-breasted women in the habit of frequent ‘bow handling’ being particularly concerned about how cinched their waists are. My childhood book of Greek Myths And Legends depicts it as a sort of extra snazzy belt, so that’s what I’m going with).

Amazon in trousers, Attic vase, circa 470 BC

Ahem. Post-Hercules, Hippolyta appears in every battered school copy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as the future wife of Theseus, who ‘wooed her with his sword’ (oh Theseus, you charmer), and ex-flame of Oberon, King of The Fairies. Shakespeare, whose use of language is so influential that you can expect to bump into him frequently in these dark and twisted lexical corridors, isn’t otherwise a great user of the word amazon, although he does make it into the dictionary’s quotations for the word’s extended, more generic sense, as ‘a female warrior’, which is the first in a pair that ends in the aforementioned ‘very strong, tall, or masculine woman’, unsurprisingly considered ‘forbidding to men’ by the author of Sermons To Young Women in the eighteenth century.

Dot Com

One contemporary application this more general sense has had, curiously enough, is in the modelling world, where the ‘freakish’ aesthetic of catwalk models (and presumably also their exoticism) makes the designation ‘amazon’ / ‘amazonian’ in its sense as a ‘very strong, tall, or masculine woman’ surprisingly true to its lexical origin (annoyingly, if fittingly, for the inaugural post of an alphabet, the prominence of a particular shopping site ‘everything from A-Z’, and the tendencies of said supermodels to write their autobiographies, obscures any such instances of the word on Google, so you’ll have to take my nonspecific memory for it).

Moving on, I particularly like the further sense amazon acquired sometime around the sixteenth or seventeenth century – now, alas, obsolete – as ‘the queen in chess’, who I always thought of as quiet sort of feminist icon, maintaining, as Francis Beale asserts, ‘alwayes…her owne colour’, and zipping around the board with an alacrity denied to her technically more important consort.

To the men an Amazon never fails to be forbidding.

JAMES FORDYCE, Sermons To Young Women (published 1767)

The Queen, or Amazon, is placed in the fourth house from the corner of the field by the side of her King, and alwayes in her owne colour.

FRANCIS BEALE, Biochimo’s Royall Game of Chesse-play (translated 1656)

Yes, But How Many People Does She Shag?

As will become tediously common during these gynocentric word-journeys, it seems virtually impossible to think of a ‘strong, masculine woman’ without at some point branching into her sexuality; thus, the final meaning of amazon (unsurprisingly, the Victorians’ contribution) as in opposition to a ‘vestal’ (another group of women bound together tribal-style, although for an altogether different purpose). As in, ‘Oh man, that girl’s no vestal; she’s an amazon.

However, amazon is actually a bit of a relief because its overwhelming lexical impression is one of a guarded kind of respect: Hippolyta would, I think, be satisfied.Illustration by Hodge: inital A for Amazon in blue. Standing behind it, a woman with tanned skin and dark hair wearing ancient greek costume and a gold, moon-shaped tiara holds a bow.


NEXT WEEK: B is for Bitch

15 Responses leave one →
  1. Jenni permalink
    October 4, 2010

    Great article Hodge. Your art and your take on language are both beautiful! Looking forward to the rest of the alphabet…

  2. Pet Jeffery permalink
    October 4, 2010

    Although the idea of mastectomy is closely allied with the etymology of “Amazon”, I wonder whether it is yet another piece of ancient sexism. The sub-text seems to be: “Women can’t shoot arrows from bows because their tits would get in the way”. Of course, today, numerous women have adopted archery as an athletic pursuit. I doubt whether any of them have found a mastectomy necessary. The fact seems to be that women’s breasts offer no real impediment in this regard. My guess is that, if the Amazons were real, they did not resort to such surgery (which would, presumably, have been more hazardous and debilitating than it is as performed in a modern hospital). I’d like to believe in the Amazons (although I’m not sure whether I really do) and prefer to imagine them binding their breasts (in effect, an ancient equivalent to a sports bra) rather than removing them. If so, it might have appeared (to ancient male eyes) as though the women had undergone mastectomies.

    • Miranda permalink
      October 4, 2010

      I think so too – if they were real, then I definitely prefer the binding image! It’s certainly a bizarre practice to translate into reality.

      What I like about this series of posts is the way it takes a look at a whole structure of different evolving trends, most of them sexist, in language we use every day. “Amazon” is never really used in an intentionally negative light today, and feels like a relatively positive word for me, but its etymology is, initially at least, completely concerned with the committing of violence against one’s own sexuality in order to attain true martiality, which continues through time – e.g. Lady Macbeth when she asks the spirits to “unsex me here” so that she can engage in truly destructive behaviour without that pesky womanliness tripping her up!

      My favourite Amazon is Penthesilea:

      She fights Achilles (yeah) and kicks ass (woo), but then he wins, and her helmet falls off, and he sees her face and immediately falls in love with her. Cue a disturbing treatment of this scene by a range of poets through the ages, with shades of necrophiliac imagery therein. But I still loved her when I was little, for being an Amazon who wasn’t, at least, relentlessly pursued and conquered by a lovelorn, stroppy warrior like Theseus while alive, at any rate. Kleist did write a play about her in 1808 in which she actually outlives Achilles, who shows up determined to win her approval, and finds she’s more interested in setting her dogs on him. Goethe, whom Kleist was hoping to impress with the play, said it was totally unplayable, though, and it isn’t very popular now.

    • October 4, 2010

      That would make a lot more sense…

    • Hodge permalink
      October 4, 2010

      I like your name. That is, I choose to take it as a sly eighteenth-century reference. And thanks for your comment!

      It’s an interesting notion, this mastectomy business. The origin of Amazon is by no means clear: I’m quoting from the OED, which alludes to this breast issue as a theory, and since I’m taking the OED as my guideline (and talking about feminism!) I consider myself justified in honing in on this etymology exclusively.

      However, it is only one of many suggestions for where the word comes from (which is the first issue) and, the second issue, it could also always be alluding to a sort of metaphorically breast-less state (akin to a male being castrated, perhaps). That said, there’s at least one report that talks about them burning their breasts (pl) off, so it was obviously a prevalent idea in its literal sense too. This last makes me wonder, though, if there’s an element of ritual to this: a sort of ‘burnt offering’ of your femininity on the martial altar. BACK TO THE LITERAL METAPHORICAL CONUNDRUM.

      • Pet Jeffery permalink
        October 8, 2010

        If it’s my name that you like, it isn’t intended as an 18th century reference, or at least not 18th century AD. I am a devotee of Hat-hor, who is the mistress of heaven. And heaven, in Egyptian, is “pet”. (Or, strictly speaking, “pt” into which we interpolate the “e” to render the word pronounceable. The quality and position of the ancient vowels are now unknowable.)

  3. October 5, 2010

    well, they didn’t always mastectomize (?? don’t think that’s a word but i’m rolling with it) themselves – i think herodotus is reponsible for that one but i don’t remember for sure, and it is certainly one of those (common) stories in myth that has several versions… the aforementioned penthesilea appears to have breasts on this vase:

    what i find really interesting is that the idea that they lopped a breast off is all most people know about the amazons when in fact they did tons of cool stuff that didn’t involve self-mutilation.

    incidentally there is an alternatve theory that the word amazon means moon-women in Armenian, and may have come into the greek language as a result of travellers seeing the armed priestesses of the moon in areas around the black sea.

    • Hodge permalink
      October 5, 2010

      Yeah, I explain some of my reasons for choosing that particular suggested etymology in the comment above (I should perhaps have put some of the others in a Draft Additions section, but I’m not quite that ridiculous yet). The breast thing really is the thing that really floats round the amazons, even though, as you say, the stories are contradictory. Overall though I think it’s quite a nice word gender-wise since they clearly do, as you say, do lots of good Other Things…

    • Pet Jeffery permalink
      October 8, 2010

      I, too, much prefer the moon-women etymology to the mastectomy one. (Who wouldn’t?)

      I also like the moon-women being Armenian, largely because Armenia brings us to another set of Amazons. I refer the Amazons of Arthur Ransome’s “Swallows and Amazons” books. The books (or the first book in the series, at least, and some of the others) were largely inspired by an Armenian family with the surname Altounyan. In particular, they were inspired by one of the Altounyan girls, Taqui Altounyan. Taqui formed the model for both Nancy Blackett (captain of the Amazons) and John Walker (captain of the Amazons). She was a notable person in her own right, and wrote two books (quoting the titles from memory) “In Aleppo Once” and “Chimes from a Wooden Bell”.

      • Pet Jeffery permalink
        October 8, 2010

        I’ve just noticed a mistake in what I just posted. John Walker was the captain of the Swallows, of course, not the Amazons.

  4. October 15, 2010

    Let us not forget the most famous modern usage: Wonder Woman, the Amazing Amazon!

  5. Pet Jeffery permalink
    March 20, 2011

    It may be a bit late to comment again on A for Amazon… and perhaps nobody will read this, but…

    Thanks to this:

    I now have Hodge’s wonderful Amazon picture on my wall, and have been paying some attention to her. I am struck by the similarity between the Amazon’s pose and the letter A. It’s a strong way to stand, similar to the stance people adopt for a tug o’ war. There’s an clichéd simile “as strong as an ox”. The Hellenic alpha, and our A, stem from the aleph of Semitic alphabets — and aleph means “ox”. Our A is perhaps the letter of the alphabet in which its origins as a pictogram are easiest to see. Turn a capital “A” upside down, and it is still an ox’s head. In a lower case “a” the ox head has been turned through ninety degrees, and the horns twisted somewhat out of shape.

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