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Queer Fantasy Roots: The Changing Role of Amazons

The image of the Amazon–whether by that name, or associated with it by tropes and functions–has served a changing variety of roles in fantastic literature over the centuries. With renewed interest in Amazonian sexuality sparked by the official admission by D.C. Comics that the all-female home island of the Amazonian heroine Wonder Woman is not entirely a fortress of heterosexuality, it’ a good opportunity to look at how Amazon sexuality has been viewed over the ages.

Many historians have tried to identify the historic and cultural origins of the Amazon myth, but it’s the myth that we’re concerned with today. In that Greek myth, the Amazons were an all-female tribe who did not allow men in their country, but would meet once a year with men from a neighboring tribe to procreate. They would keep the girl children to be the next generation of Amazons, while the boys would be returned to their fathers (or simply abandoned, in some versions of the story). Despite the sexual implications that an all-female society would later suggest, Greek legends rarely touched on the possibility of same-sex love among women, instead depicting them as aloof but able to be won by a sufficiently virile hero.

While the Amazons were not exclusively warriors, it was the vision of women being warriors at all that spurred Greek imaginations. They appear at the battle of Troy and feature in the heroic adventures of Hercules, Theseus, and Alexander the Great.

Most fictional encounters with Amazons either show how supreme a hero is that he can best an Amazon queen in battle and so win her love (or at least some time in her bed). Alternately, the Amazon troops are used as a symbol of anti-Greekness, both politically and culturally. An entire genre of art depicts battles between the Athenians and the Amazons. The Amazons are identified iconically not only by being women, but by wearing distinctive clothing, in particular the Phrygian cap and trousers.

As a side note: this is an interesting example of how arbitrary the gendering of specific garments has been over the ages. To the Greeks and Romans, trousers were a symbol of barbarism and feminity. Gaulish and German barbarians wore trousers. “Effeminate” Persians wore trousers. Proper manly Greek and Roman men never wore trousers. When Roman armies moved into colder climes or added cavalry to their repertoire, the practicality of wearing trousers faced a serious cultural roadblock.

Amazons were introduced into medieval romances via reinterpretations of classical tales, especially the very popular Romance of Alexander. Along with other classical themes and motifs, there was a renewed interest in the figure of the Amazon in literature and art, especially as we move into the Renaissance. It is in this context that the suggestion of Amazons as lovers of women begins to appear.

Some depictions, such as Shakespeare’s featuring of the marriage of the Amazon Hippolyta to Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, assume heterosexuality. Others such as the Amazon in Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale (in the Canterbury Tales) only go as far as being indifferent to male desire. But in some stories either the logistics of an all-female society or the gender-confusion prompted by a woman in masculine dress and engaging in military activities created an opportunity to examine same-sex love.

Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1532) includes the story of the Amazon warrior Bradamante who inspires the love of Princess Fiordispina, who initially mistakes Bradamante for a man. After this gender confusion is resolved, Fiodispina continues to proclaim her love for the Amazon and express frustration and uncertainty on how to proceed. Following what I call the “convenient twin brother” motif, Bradamante’s brother sees this as a chance to get Fiordispina in bed and passes himself off as his sister. So the same-sex attraction is dodged at the end with a heterosexual resolution, but in the literature of this era, the acknowledgement of the potential for same-sex desire is about as much as we can hope for.

Another variant on this dodge appears in Sir Philip Sidney’s The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia (1590), also interpreted in the play The Arcadia by James Shirley (1640) in which Pyrocles (a man) determines that the only way he can gain social access to the maiden Philoclea is to disguise himself as a woman. So he gets to know her as the Amazon Cleophila (Zelmane in the stage version) and we are shown a long process during which Philoclea comes to understand and embrace her love for someone she believes to be a woman.

The possibility of same-sex love among Amazons is also depicted in the play The Female Rebellion (1657-59) which involves political intrigues and warfare in a fantasy Amazonian society. But here, although intensely passionate love between the female characters is shown as pure and noble, the rumor of it shading over into sexual interest is scandalous.

So although fantastic literature of the past recognized that the concept of an all-female Amazonian society created the potential for same-sex love and sexual relationships, those historic works rarely succeeded in overcoming the prejudices of their time to allow the Amazons to create fulfilling and enduring romantic and sexual bonds.

Queer Fantasy Roots explores stories and themes from history that may inspire or resonate with queer fantasy fiction being written today. Heather Rose Jones writes fantasy and historical fiction centering around queer women, and writes the Lesbian Historic Motif Blog at alpennia.com.

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