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On Amazons

Amazons have long fascinated me. As a little girl, the idea of living in an all-female society (free of bullying boys) was highly appealing. I spent many summer afternoons running around my backyard or curled up on the couch, fighting minotaurs and going on grand adventures with my sister Amazons. And you can be darn sure I preferred Wonder Woman* to that silly Superman -- I mean, she was from a super secret island and worshipped the Old Goddesses! How cool was that?

That fascination remained with me as I grew up. I gravitated towards the powerful women of history (like Hatshepsut and Elizabeth I) and those women who challenged the restrictive mores of their society (Harriet Tubman and Matilda Joscelyn Gage, to name two). When I wanted to escape into a fictional world, I chose those which featured women warriors and generals and starship captains.

As a result, my personal library is filled with books about and featuring Amazons -- the Amazons of classical myth, real world women warriors and leaders, and powerful women of fantasy and science fiction.

For little kids, several books are available which highlight women and their physical prowess and mental courage. Amazons!: Women Warriors of the World by Sally Pomme Clayton and Sophie Herxheimer is a wonderfully illustrated collection of tales from around the world, featuring Durga, Hippolyta, al-Datma and many others. The Serpent Slayer: And Other Stories of Strong Women by Katrin Tchana and Trina Schart Hyman offers a different selection of tales from around the world, such as that of Li Chi from China. The two books together make a great set. 

For slightly older children, I recommend Rachel Hartman's graphic novel Amy Unbounded: Belondweg Blossoming; set in the fantastical medieval nation of Goredd, it follows the adventures of ten year-old Amy and her best friend Bran. An exiled knight, a dragon graduate student, first love, class conflict, political intrigue and an ancient queen all feature in this gentle, wonderful adventure. Hippolyta and the Curse of the Amazons by Jane Yolen and Robert J Harris presents a "lost" adventure of the future Amazon Queen, one in which she braves a Goddess' curse and risks everything to save her people. On the nonfiction side, there is No Girls Allowed: Tales of Daring Women Dressed as Men for Love, Freedom, and Adventure by Susan Hughes and Willow Dawson which presents very short illustrated biographies of Hatshepsut, Alfhild, Mu Lan, Sarah Rosetta Wakeman and others. 

Women warriors abound in fantasy and science fiction anthologies such as the Chicks in Chainmail series edited by Esther M Friesner; New Amazons edited by Margaret Weiss; the long-running Sword and Sorceress series; and Warrior Princesses edited by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough and Martin H Greenberg. Each of these books introduced me to memorable, powerful, sometimes flawed, sometimes funny Amazons.

Two single volume fantasies that are must-reads are Jane Yolen's The Books of Great Alta (which I previously mentioned in my On Fantasy post); and Steven Pressfield's Last of the Amazons. If you are like me, though, and you get very wrapped in the emotional lives of the characters, Pressfield's book will leave you alternately thrilled, sad, and very angry.

Two works of feminist utopia for Amazon lovers are Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Les Guerilleres by Monique Wittig. The women of Herland are actually not warriors at all; they have built a literate, artistic all-female society free of strife (and men) far from the wars which plague the rest of the world. So, you can bet that when a small party of modern men find themselves in Herland, they are in for a bad case of culture shock. The women of Wittig's futuristic fable, on the other hand, battle to overthrow the patriarchal status quo using laughter, language, bullets, and their own bodies. If possible, I recommend a parallel French-English text. (Joanna Russ' The Female Man is also worth tracking down; of the several parallel Earths featured in this science fiction novel, one is a planet torn apart by war between female and male societies, and another is an all-female utopian society called Whileaway.)

If you are more interested in real-world women warriors, ancient and modern, several books immediately come to mind. Vicki Leon's Uppity Women series is a awesome and often hilarious. Warrior Women: An Archaeologist's Search for History's Hidden Heroines by Jeannine Davis-Kimball delves into hidden and suppressed histories, mythology, mysticism, anthropology and archaeology for a never-boring read. Hellenistic Queens: A Study of Woman Power in Macedonia, Seleucid, Syria, and Ptolemaic Egypt by Grace Harriet Macurdy is unfortunately out of print, but I recommend getting a copy if you can find one (considering the price of used copies, the library is probably the best option). Think Cleopatra VII was unique? Nope. The women of Alexander the Great's family, and the women married to and descended from his generals, were ambitious, intelligent, cunning and downright ruthless. (Seriously, what's with all the Imperial Rome and Borgia fiction out there when there are women like Eurydice, Laodice I, Olympias and Stratonice to write about?) Finally, though I have not had the chance to read it yet, Kirsten Holmstedt's Band of Sisters: American Women at War in Iraq has received a lot of critical and popular acclaim since its release in 2007.   

And lastly, two great resources for writers are The Amazons: The Mysterious World of the Warrior Women by Merina Valasca and The Encyclopedia of Amazons: Women Warriors From Antiquity to the Modern Era by Jessica Salmonsen. Combining artwork, short anecdotes, folklore, and solid research, Valasca examines differing constructions of gender and how those constructions were challenged by the figure of the Amazon. Salmonson's book is pure text -- and it is a lot of fascinating text, profiling women warriors of history, mythology and fiction. 

Fascinated by Amazons? Afraid of them? Dream of being an Amazon? Then check out some of the titles listed above -- and let me know if I missed any good ones.

 

* Speaking of the world's most famous Amazon, check out my two favorite graphic novels: The Hiketeia and Wonder Woman: The Once and Future Story. And, yes, someday I will dedicate a column just to the Princess of Themiscyra.

 

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Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine Eternal Haunted Summer. She is also the editor-in-chief of Bibliotheca Alexandrina. She thinks it is incredibly unfair that she must work for a living rather than being able to read all day. In her next life, she would like to be a library cat.

Comments

  • Melia Brokaw
    Melia Brokaw Tuesday, 17 September 2013

    Nice! I was a Wonder Woman fan too!

  • Jamie
    Jamie Saturday, 21 September 2013

    It does surprise me that so much attention is devoted to fictional amazons in popular culture (Xena, Wonder Woman and various female superheroes), but very little is paid to actual flesh and blood kick-ass heroines.

    I read "The Alexiad" by Anna Comnena (a courtly chronicle of the 'Byzantine' Eastern Roman Empire). She mentioned Sikelgaita, the wife of Robert Guiscard, and how she fought in full battle armor alongside her husband. She even busted him out of jail, sword in her hand, when he got captured.

    Yet I'd never heard of her before. At the time it surprised me.

    Great post. Thanks for sharing!

  • Rebecca Buchanan
    Rebecca Buchanan Monday, 23 September 2013

    @Jamie: thanks for the note about Sikelgaita. I'll have to look her up. :)

    As for real versus fictional Amazons: I think more attention if devoted to fictional women warriors because they are easier to deal with. Yes, they can be subversive -- but they ultimately be dismissed as "not real." On the other hand, real world women warriors raise uncomfortable questions about motherhood, gender construction, the nature of war, rape, and a host of other issues. And, quite frankly, those are issues a lot of people would rather ignore. :(

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