The Amazons were a legendary race of warrior women the Greeks believed lived to the east, in Asia Minor, the home of many peoples and creatures the Greeks found exotic, not all of them real. In the Trojan War, they fought against the Greeks, on the side of Troy. Amazons wear distinctive garb that serves as one their attributes. They are horsewomen, so they wear the short tunic called a chiton. On their heads are Phrygian caps, with their curled tips, in keeping with the belief that they hailed from Phrygia. They have melodious, polysyllabic names, such as Antiope, Hippolyta, and Penthesilea.
Fierce in battle, they fought from horseback, wielding a spear or an axe. The double-headed axe called a labrys is particularly associated with them, as is the shield type called a pelta. Both of these have a crescent shape to them, not inappropriate, as it suggests the Moon, and so Luna/Diana, patroness of independant women.
The Amazon cameo seen most frequently is probably the one most easily and often mistaken for St. George and the Dragon. Based on a work by the 19th century Prussian sculptor, August Kiss, generally known as “Amazon Attacked by a Panther” or “Amazon Struggling with a Panther”, it features a bare breasted Amazon, spear in hand, while her unusually ferocious war horse seems to be giving the panther the worst of it and it is not clear who is attacking whom. There are castings in Berlin and Philadelphia. In both places the Amazon is a companion piece to one by Albert Wolff of the “Horseman Attacked by a Lion” (or “Lion Fighter”). Kiss did also subsequently complete a St. George, but it seems to be less well regarded.
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Cameos based on the sculpture by August Kiss of an Amazon Attacked by a Panther or an Amazon Struggling with a Panther.
Amazons were loyal to one another and unafraid of male opponents. Here one of her sisters struggles with Achilles over the body of Penthesilea, whom he has slain in one of the battles of the Trojan War, unaware, until too late, that he has been fighting a woman. The Amazon queen strikes back: when the truth is revealed, he is smitten by her valor and beauty, deeply regretting what he has done.
This sculpture of a Wounded Amazon in the Capitoline Museum, based on an ancient work by Phidias, is the inspiration for the cameo, whose carver saw no need to put his warrior woman on a pedestal.
In at least one case, an Amazon settled down to domesticity, albeit a regal domesticity sure to have lots of servants, when won over by a great hero. There are variations on whether she went willingly or as a captive, but Antiope, sister to the Amazon queen Hippolyta, goes with Theseus when he flees her sister’s court. He had come as a companion to Hercules, to help accomplish the ninth of Hercules’s twelve famous Labors, which was to obtain Hippolyta’s girdle, by negotiation or by force.
Hippolyta was gracious and gave Hercules the girdle freely. However, Juno, acting on her unceasing vindictiveness against Hercules, disguised herself as an Amazon and put it about that Hercules was stealing the girdle. The Amazons attacked the visiting heroes; Hercules believed he had been betrayed and slew Hippolyta.
The heroes got away, Antiope with them. Once back in Greece, she and Theseus were happily wed, as depicted on this cast of a Poniatowski gem showing the couple with their son. Note how the engraver has included her pelta and labrys, even though incongruous in the scene. Without them it would be extremely difficult to identify the couple.
Although she and her tale are obscure bits of mythology, the Amazon Myrto and her liaison with the god Hermes/Mercury inspired Prince Poniatowski's gem engraver "Apollonides" to create a work that Dante, the men's jewellery company, used in their line of "Museum Masterpiece" cufflinks, both in full scene and in closeup, as executed by the Incolay Studios.