glaurung_quena: (golden age wonder woman)
[personal profile] glaurung_quena
The backstory for Wonder Woman's people has always been a bit strange and never made all that much sense. Attempts by DC to "modernize" the Amazons in the 80's and more recently have fixed some cosmetic issues but the underlying lack of sense has continued or even gotten worse.

History and Myth

(most of the following details taken from "The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World," by Adrienne Mayor; I cannot re-find the web site that pointed out the sartorial transition of Amazons on pottery, but Mayor alludes to it indirectly).

Thanks to archaeology, we now know that the real historical Amazons were the women warriors found among the horse nomads of the Central Asian steppes. The nomads terrorized their more settled agricultural neighbours with their bow-wielding cavalry, which trounced most footsoldier based armies of the time. But having the entire population on horseback also acted as an equalizer: it forced men and women to dress similarly and precluded many kinds of gender-based divisions of labour. Plus, in an army of bow-using cavalry, women could be equally potent in battle as men. Obviously there was still sexism. Not all horse nomads had a tradition of women warriors, and among those who did, not as many women chose to take up arms and become warriors as did men, but a significant minority of them did -- in the case of the horse nomads called Scythians by the Greeks, depending on the archaeological site and the counting method, armed women constituted as many as 37 percent of all graves, 20 percent of all graves containing weapons, or 20 percent of all female graves (Adrienne Mayor, The Amazons, chapter 4).

We also know that the Greeks were oddly obsessed by the idea of Amazons. Amazons are one of the most popular themes to decorate ancient Greek pottery, second only to the exploits of Heracles (Mayor, ch 1). And this obsession predated their actual contact with the Scythians. The earliest Amazon-themed pots depict warrior women wearing standard Greek robes and Hoplite-style armour. Only later on, after Greeks started sailing across the Black Sea and trading with the Scythians, do we see a sartorial change in which Amazons on pots started riding horses and wearing Scythian-style tailored trousers and shirts.

Without getting too psychoanalytical, it seems that the sexism of Greek culture caused the Greeks to become inordinately fascinated by the idea of women who could be the equals of men in that most masculine of spheres, warfare. On their own, they came up with home grown stories of women like Atalanta. When they heard of these nomadic people with an unnervingly un-Greek degree of sexual equality, they glommed onto them, turning out endless pots, poems, and so on dealing with Greek heroes encountering these disturbing, scary-fascinating women warriors.

Homer's epithet, Amazones antianeirai, is nothing if not ambiguous: "Amazons, the equivalents of men." The anti- prefix seems to have originally had to do with balance scales, as depending on usage, it can mean either equality or opposition. "Amazones" is a greekification of the actual name for these people, either what they called themselves or what their neighbours called them.

Adrienne Mayor dissects the epithet and notes that while "Amazones" is gender neutral, as typical for a word for a nation or people (and unlike all-female groupings like Nymphai), "antianeirai" is feminine. She suggests that originally it meant "Amazons, (those people whose women are) on a par with men." Gender equality was the most outstanding feature of this particular nation of people. Then, over time, the fact that Amazons were a people made up of two sexes like everybody else faded from cultural memory, and the other meaning of the anti- prefix gained salience, so the epithet came to be read as "Amazons, (a nation of women who are) opposed to men."

So we have an awareness at the beginning of Greek history that the "Amazones," who the Greeks had heard of second or third hand but never actually encountered, were a people whose salient characteristic was the way their women were equal to men, especially on the field of battle. And then, even as the Greeks started having direct contact with tribes of Scythians whose armies included non-trivial numbers of women warriors, in Greek fiction the Amazons mutated into a nation of only women who lived without men. The reality lacked the psychological power of the legend.

We need to remember, though, that no cultural myth is ever univocal. Greek men may have found Amazons scary-fascinating, but we also know that Greek girls played with Amazon dolls (Mayor, ch 1). I strongly doubt that the lessons they learned from such play were about how it was better to become a powerless housewife than a woman warrior.

America has the Wild West of the 1880's, Japan has the era of the Samurai; similarly, the ancient Greeks had their Heroic Age, roughly corresponding to what archaeologists today call the Mycenaean period in Greece (1500-1100 BCE). While the Scythian culture with its warrior women seems to have emerged in the 9th century (around the same time as archaic Greece), in fiction, the Greeks backdated Amazons to make them contemporaneous with their beloved legendary heroes and demigods. Which had the unfortunate effect of making centuries of classics scholars dismiss the whole concept of Amazons as a myth, despite the very level-headed accounts of them in surviving Greek non-fiction.

Amazons in the comics

Enter William Marston, who needed a particular kind of backstory for the character of Wonder Woman. His goal was propaganda, pushing for a vision of the world in which women were seen as superior to men and their right to rule the world was self-evident. Which meant Wonder Woman had to be an outsider, someone from a culture where women were powerful and in charge, who could look upon American customs of sexism as quaint and silly. What better background to give her than to make her an Amazon?

The original backstory of the Amazons, varied a bit depending on which comic you look at. The very first Wonder Woman story (All Star Comics #8) gave them two patron goddesses, Athena and Aphrodite, while six months later Wonder Woman #1 whittled that down to just Aphrodite. I'll go with Wonder Woman #1 because it actually gives an origin story for the Amazons, which All Star #8 kind of skipped over.

So, Earth is ruled by rival gods: Ares and Aphrodite. Ares, "now called Mars" says: "My men shall rule with the sword!" Aphrodite rejoins: "My women shall conquer men with love!" These two do not get along.

Wonder Woman #1 page 3

I don't know which is more precious, Aphrodite's frock, covered in what I think are supposed to be tiny valentines, or the tail from the lion skin Hercules wears making him look like a big rat. As for "that for your threats (snap snap)," what can I say?

Wonder Woman #1 page 4

Young Hippolyte: not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Protip: if your strength depends on your having a magic item, don't be constantly telling all your enemies about it. Also, she has incredibly bad taste if she's so easily taken in by this jerk.

Wonder Woman #1 page 5

Just a page ago, Aphrodite was creating Amazons for the purpose of being a counterforce to Mars's bloodthirsty followers. Presumably their job was to help ordinary, non-blessed women figure out how to escape their chains and rule men with love. But one moment of hormonally fueled foolishness by their queen, and the goddess is so pissed at them she changes her mind and packs the lot of them off to an isolated island for the next 3,000 years, preventing them from being able to influence the rest of the world in any way.

Not to mention that it's kind of odd for the goddess of love to be punishing her creations for being susceptible to feelings of love. You'd think that wouldn't count as a sin in Aphrodite's playbook.

Which brings me, with trepidation, to the mythology, oh god, the mythology. It's not that the Marstons didn't know their myths: little touches like Heracles's lion skin show that they did. But rather, they didn't care to respect those myths if it at all interfered with the kind of world they wanted to build. Aphrodite and Ares were long term lovers with several children, but that gets ignored in order to set up a "Mars vs Venus" style contrast between bad, violent men who engage in war for the sake of war, and wise, loving women who embrace peace and only go to war to defend democracy and freedom. Then we have the indiscriminate mixing of Greek and Roman deities. While Ares was indeed very much a god of bloodlust and slaughter, Mars was a god of homeland defense in time of war, and of agriculture in time of peace. And so on.

And that's not even beginning to address the basic problem that a Greek Goddess wouldn't give a damn about "sin" or demand "atonement" from her creations, since those are very much monotheistic concepts being incorrectly applied to a pagan mileu.

Next time, I'll continue by looking at the revamped origin story that the Amazons got from DC in the late 80's.

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August 2017

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