God Fashioned Into Woman The Rib

For a young Greek hero to prove himself, there was one thing he had to do. I’m not talking about slaying monsters, sleeping with enchantresses, or kidnapping royal daughters. From Hercules to Theseus to Bellerophon, the stories of Greek heroes share one interesting overlap: each of them proved themselves by battling an Amazon warrior and emerging victorious.


For a young Greek hero to prove himself, there was one thing he had to do. I’m not talking about slaying monsters, sleeping with enchantresses, or kidnapping royal daughters. From Hercules to Theseus to Bellerophon, the stories of Greek heroes share one interesting overlap: each of them proved themselves by battling an Amazon warrior and emerging victorious.

Unlike most heroic figures in Greek mythology, the Amazons were women.

Think of Amazons in Thrace tramping across / The Thermodon’s streams […] An army of women howling in triumph / As they leap exultantly with crescent shields. – Virgil, The Aeneid

In Greek and Roman mythology, the Amazons were portrayed to be fearless, powerful and for all intents and purposes equal to their male counterparts in combat. They flew across plains on horses, entering battle with fearless posture and feminine calculation in their eyes. Their javelins rained down upon their victims, their battle-axes cleaved their enemies in two. The blood of the men they killed pooled at their feet in growing puddles.

Gruesomely fantastical are the stories, shaded in doubt are their origins. But what if I were to tell you that despite the violence and bloodshed, the Amazons can teach us something about modern-day feminism?

Whether the Amazons really existed is still debated by modern scholars. However, archaeological evidence has found that the people the Greeks knew as ‘Scythians’ lived a very similar lifestyle to that of the Amazons. Remains point to hundreds of women on the Eurasian steppes having been proficient hunters, fighters, and archers.

Truth or fiction, I am extremely fascinated by these intricate mythical tales, carefully spun like silk in the hands of poets for millennia. And forgive me, but Hippolyte could step on my face, and I’d thank her for it.

Yet there is something that has always irked me about these myths. It has nothing to do with the Amazons themselves, and everything to do with the mouths from which their stories are passed. I try to imagine the events of these stories: thousands of captivated Greeks and Trojans watching Penthesilea, queen of the Amazons, moments away from slaying Achilles. Not quite believing their eyes, not quite understanding how a nomadic woman could achieve such a feat. A woman, with all her womanliness. These feats of bravery, heroism and might were at odds with their understanding of femininity.

So, the storytellers endeavoured to take it away. The Amazons burned off a breast so they could shoot a bow, the men told their sons when they got home. They brutally murdered their male children, the male poets said. They abandoned their matriarchal instincts.

Stories of these women fictionalised and hyperbolised their strength and brutality, distancing the Amazons from femininity. They created an insurmountable distinction between these warriors and Greece’s own women; Greek wives and daughters still belonged in the home, rather than in the classroom or on the battlefield. This idea jumps out, unsolicited, everywhere we look in antiquity. Aristotle thought that women were incomplete males, “or, as it were, a deformity”. I think what he meant was femininity itself is a deficiency, and a woman will only ever be respected on account of how well she can make up for it.

Ah, Aristotle. A man of such virtue.

His sentiments remind me of male scholars’ and historians’ penchant for twisting the stories of our dear warrior women. The sexual fantasy of the violation of Penthesilea's corpse; the obsession with Amazon virginity, as though to be equal was to be ‘untouched’ by man; each story twists it differently, each to the individual male story-teller’s desire.

I’d imagine the Amazons embraced their feminine advantages in battle. Forgive me for the brief reality TV digression, but any avid watcher of Survivor would be very familiar with these advantages. I mean, last year Hayley proved how much endurance women can have over men by besting all her male counterparts in physical challenges. She even withstood what quite literally looked like medieval torture in the finale, holding her body crunched up between spikes underfoot and overhead for hours longer than the male contestant. Women are generally nimbler; have better balance; are better equipped to endure long periods of discomfort or pain than men. Yet these are not the strengths emphasised in the Amazon myths; instead, they are those rendering them stereotypically less like women.

I’m no historian, and I won’t partake in the convoluted etymological debate as to why the Amazons might have been known as ‘single-breasted.’ But the very idea of the mythos being unable to accommodate an ordinary woman’s impressiveness has me reflecting on parallels in modern-day feminist issues.

A recent trend I’ve noticed is women consciously writing emails ‘like a man’ to be taken more seriously in the corporate world. For a time, I was one of them. I told myself to stop using too many exclamation marks. Stop being so kind. Start being more direct.

But now I ask myself, why is a typical man’s email style the professional standard? I don’t see why we shouldn’t be a little nicer to each other in corporate settings, embrace light-hearted tones in our emails, be a little truer to our personal voices. Why can’t we embrace the professionalism of a ‘woman’s’ emailing style rather than having to disguise our words as those of a man?

Something modern feminism often gets wrong is that while we seek to be treated with the same respect as men, women do not seek to be the same as men. We sometimes fail to recognise that the respect we seek is often dependent on adopting masculine traits which form the standard all people are measured against, socially, culturally, and biologically; even the medicines we trust to enter our bodies are often only tested on men.

This issue dates back to the biblical story of Eve’s being born of Adam’s rib; Adam is the standard for humans, the blueprint, and woman was created “for the man’s sake” (1 Cor. 11:8). The blank canvas is male, and so is the seed from which the tree grows. Women are simply the earth around the seed; the trodden-on soil that nurtures it in silence.

We exist this way not merely in fanciful analogies, but in the modern world at large. Perhaps this passive existence of ours is most evident in the corporate world. But before this discussion, we cannot ignore the difficulty of actually defining masculinity and femininity. These concepts are becoming increasingly subjective; they are unique to an individual’s own perspectives and expression of personal identity. Nonetheless, when we look to socio-historical perceptions and trends it becomes clear the traits deemed ‘feminine’ are those people are generally asked to sacrifice in the workplace.

Many workplace advice articles I’ve perused suggest being empathetic, emotional, and nurturing towards co-workers as dangerous steps towards blurring the lines between the personal and the professional. Women are also expected to give up some of the most vital stages of motherhood, as standard maternity leave barely covers the recommended period for babies to be weaned off breastmilk. Neutral, ‘masculine’ colours are considered more appropriate for the corporate workplace than the shades of baby pink and yellow that fill my own wardrobe.

I wonder why I was praised so much more as a high school debater when I attacked the opposition’s arguments with mechanical force than when I appealed to empathy and compassion in my speeches. I wonder why, as a kid, I so vehemently corrected my friend when she accused me of liking the colour pink. I wonder why the Amazons are praised for their masculine traits, rather than the feminine agility that made them so great. Shouldn’t we take a minute to think about why these standards are taken for granted?

On the other hand, let’s consider the exceptions to this theory of masculinity trumping femininity in the workplace. In customer service for example, being empathetic towards the customer and employing the customer-is-always-right attitude is the norm. So, too, is the performative ‘customer service voice’ that is typically higher, more soothing, falsely animated. I have also heard stories of many American women working in hospitality who purposefully enhance their femininity with makeup and tightly fitting clothes to receive the tips they need to survive financially. As a result, women are forced to sacrifice elements of masculinity.      

If I list all the professions I can think of in which femininity is embraced— psychology, teaching, nursing, retail, hair and makeup— there’s one thing I can’t help but notice: the men in these professions are excused for their lack of femininity. Male customer service agents are given a pass for their monotony and lack of facial engagement with customers– “he’s so mysterious and sexy,” my friend once mused after being brutally ignored by a male cashier at Coles. Male teachers aren’t expected to provide the same nurturing comfort to their young students as female teachers–“he’s a cool teacher, he doesn’t have time for that stuff,” was the response after I noted to a peer that my friend’s learning disability was being passed off as being ‘lazy’.

And yet, in all the places in the world where masculinity is the standard, women are expected to make sacrifices. We must tone down our emotions and the colours of our dresses. We must stop being so kind, stop using so many exclamation points. We must cut off a breast, because being deadly is impossible with two.

But the archaeological evidence of female skeletons buried with weapons– female skeletons perfectly whole– suggests otherwise, and so do the success stories of countless women who, despite living under patriarchal norms, embrace their femininity as a tool of success. I hope I will be one of them.

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