Daughters of Ares

Deina wheels her battle mare in a tight circle and fires a rapid volley of arrows into the ragged loop of Scythian soldiers bearing down on her. One by one, they fall, all but the last who wrenches his head aside in the nick of time and flees, looking over his shoulder with wide white eyes. Deina reaches back to her quiver, but it is empty. Cursing, she claps her heels into the mare’s ribs. Red Karneia bares her teeth and runs down the foot soldier. He screams as he goes down under the slashing hoofs, a scream which dissolves like the jelly he has become.

Too soon for Deina the battle is over. The acolytes scour the field, finishing off enemy survivors and collecting spent weapons. Deina sees the other riders gathering, raises her fist to her sister warriors and gallops to join them. She finds her partner cleaning a sword cut on her horse’s flank, the big black standing hipshot and relaxed under her ministrations.

Areia grins up at her through the sweat, blood ,and brains spattered on her face. “Saw that last maneuver,” she says, applying ointment to her mount’s wound. “Almost like you’re trying to impress Queen Penthesilea. Show off.”

Deina nudges Karneia into a tight trot, circling the black, who pins his ears. Areia scratches his withers, glaring at Deina.

“I’m leading him back to camp,” she says. “Have some hot wine ready for me when I get there.” Deina salutes and kicks Karneia into a snorting gallop back to the base camp.

As the acolyte girls and male slaves heat baths and prepare food for the Amazons, the warriors lounge about the campfires, cleaning their weapons and recounting the day’s battle. The Scythian scum would think twice before attempting to invade Lycia again. Areia’s laugh rings through the camp as she tells of Deina’s decisive final assault.

“There were at least a dozen, coming at her from all sides, scuttling with their little swords. Most of Deina’s arrows were spent, and I thought she would go to her javelin or sling. But, quick as a cat, she fitted an arrow to her bow.” Areia leaps to her feet to act out the scene. “Ffffttt! Ffffttt! One by one, faster than the eye could follow, she put an arrow straight into the eye or through the throat of each doomed one. Then she tossed her bow and empty quiver at the last fool and sent that hell bitch mare of hers after him. Karneia danced in his blood, the same color as her hide, while Deina laughed.”

Deina, snorting at how her lover takes liberties with a good tale, starts to remonstrate and then catches herself. Nothing wrong with a little fame and glory. As the other Amazons raise their goblets to her, she stands and takes an exaggerated bow. The camp erupts into a frenzy of cheering. Finally, the warriors let their servants lead them to hot baths and hot food.

Deina and Areia, bathed, fed, and exhausted, retire to their tent. Deina coaxes Areia down into their sleeping furs, pauses as she sees Areia’s eyes widen. The light from the campfire flickers through the opened flap of the tent. As Deina turns to look, the firelight is blocked by the massive form of Penthesilea, almost as broad as she is tall. She enters silently and stands stock still inside the tent, her expression invisible in the shadows.

The warriors kick themselves free from the blankets. Areia drops to a knee, head bowed, right fist across her chest, Deina a heartbeat behind her. The silence stretches, grows interminable. Deina flicks a quick glance up at the queen, gulps, then sighs in relief as she sees white teeth gleam in a grin.

The Amazon queen’s face seems carved of smooth granite, wide and flat and hard. Her still, small eyes rarely blink. Those eyes can freeze a foe with the potency of an adder, but now they crinkle in the corners as she sits on the sleeping furs. The two warriors shift to make room for her. They are tall women, but crouched before the immensity of the queen, they seem like children.

“You fought well today.” Penthesilea’s voice is curiously soft. Some strain to hear her in war councils, but on the battlefield her roar makes the ravens leap into the air in fear. Deina and Areia exchange a wide-eyed glance, suppressing their delight, then shift their gaze back to the queen. She falls silent. The warriors wait. They know their queen. She speaks seldom and never without cause.

“You have both borne children for the tribe,” she says finally. They nod.

When the silence lengthens again, Deina says, “I have borne two sons and a daughter, and Areia three promising girls. We both use the same Gargarean man. He has proved a reliable stud, giving us strong healthy babies. My older son has been returned to his father. The other, my youngest child, is still with his wet nurse.”

Penthesilea nods. “I have petitioned our father Ares and consulted the oracles. After your performance today, it is time to tell you what I have decided. You are both hereby released from the onus of producing children for our tribe. We have two dozen horses suitable for battle training who will arrive by moondark. In addition to your regular duties, you are both in charge of evaluating and training them.” She stands, her leather creaking. “I am proud to have women such as you in my ranks.”

Deina and Areia drop to salute, barely repressing their whoops of delight. But before the queen can leave their tent, running feet can be heard approaching. The two warriors sit back on their heels as an acolyte, her young face flushed with exertion and excitement, bursts into the tent.

“My queen,” she squeaks, then catches herself and falls to one knee, right fist to left shoulder. “I’m sorry,” she gasps, but Penthesilea leans down from her height and tips the girl’s face up with one finger.

“Take a breath, child,” she says. The acolyte, almost a teenager, gulps and pushes her wild black hair away from her face. She takes a shuddering breath and meets the queen’s gaze.

“Your majesty,” she starts again. “There is an envoy from Troy. King Priam has sent word that he seeks your aid in the battle on the beaches! The envoy requests your presence immediately.” Excitement creeps back into her voice as she delivers her message. Her dark eyes sparkle.

Penthesilea steps outside the tent, the girl close on her heels, and draws herself to her full height. She towers against the starry sky. Deina and Areia follow and stand at attention.

“So,” muses the queen, in that deceptively gentle voice. “The men are realizing they cannot stand alone. Let us see what they offer in return for the aid of the Daughters of Ares.”

They stride together through the sleeping camp toward the light of the queen’s tent.

* * * * * *

Wonder Woman showed up in DC Comics in 1941. Since then there have been many characters based on Amazons in popular fiction, from Xena Warrior Princess and the muscular, curvy heroines of Frank Frazetta right up to the explosion of women warriors so prevalent in modern fantasy and science fiction.

The Amazons were not figures of admiration in Greek mythology. Fear tinged with awe is as close as the ancient writers came to praise for this mythical tribe, which has no proven historicity. There is, however, plenty of evidence of potential inspirations, including this grave site in western Russia from 2020. 

While much of the Iliad is sprung from Homer’s vivid imagination, even more of it has been later proven to have historical basis. The stories of the Amazons are gaining in factuality as archaeology continues to make new discoveries.

The Greek myths inevitably depict females who battle males as monstrous, unnatural, and fearsome. In their tales they are slain or resexualized into wives, at which point their stories virtually end.

Because the thoughts and reactions of women were rarely explored in ancient Greek writings, we can’t say for sure how they received the tales of their forbidding—and forbidden—sisters. But anyone who has known or been a little girl can find it extremely likely that, through the vast span of ages, there has been a lot of “Let’s pretend we’re Amazons!” played around hearths and hills, long before cultures found such games acceptable.

When Wonder Woman came out it was inconceivable that women would take on combat roles in the U.S. military. Today women represent 16% of the enlisted forces and 19% of the officer corps.

Like most Greek genealogies, the birth of the Amazons has a few different sources. The most common one tells us that they are descended from Ares, the god of war, and Harmonia, a nymph associated with harmony and concord. They give birth to Otrere, the first Amazon queen. Other authors claim Otrere is the consort of Ares and the mother by him of Penthesilea and Hippolyta, two of the most famous Amazon queens.

It would be fascinating to see the influence of Harmonia explored in the development of myths about the Amazons.