A TAME AMAZON
When I was a girl I had a nurse who was a tame Amazon. Of course such expression is a misnomer, as one of that race may be domesticated no more than an eagle or a she-wolf. Selene however (this was her name, "Moon") had been detached at age nine from her skyle--the words for "battalion" and "family" being the same in the Amazon tongue--and sent to dwell among civilized society, at Sinope on the Black Sea, and had thus become conversant with settlement ways. She could not endure such confinement however; at age twelve she stole a horse and weapons and fled home to the Wild Lands. As a grown warrior Selene fought at Thorn Hill against the Trojans and Dardanians, at Chalcedon against the Rhipaean Scyths, and at the Halys against the fifty sons of Admetus. She could speak Greek and served both as adjutant and envoy, as well as commanding in the hippotoxotai, the fabled Corps of Mounted Archers. She held the rank of wing captain in the Great Battle of Athens, in which Theseus and his allies of the Twelve States, after months of fighting, at last beat back the army of women.
Selene surrendered shield and bridle at the pass between Parnes and Cithaeron, where the graves of Amazons may still be seen, alongside her lover Eleuthera, "Freedom," who bore numerous wounds, and to secure whose ransom and release Selene yielded up her own liberty. Selene was never shackled or stockaded in my father's service, but held by her word alone, and so served honorably, governing my sister, Europa, and me until my sister's fourteenth (and my eleventh) year.
You eldest of my daughters reckon the bloodbath that transpired at that season. Each year I recount the tale on this eve of the festival of the Boedromia, beneath that horns-skyward crescent called by men an Amazon moon. None of male sex, father, brother, husband, or son, may learn this chronicle now or ever, nor any fraction, so have we all sworn, even you youngest, donating our blood in the Iron Rite of Ares. Repeat with me now: who abjures this vow shall perish at our hands, so pledge we all.
Arise now, children. You youngest, take the hands of your sisters and follow me, Mother Bones, into the outer court. None will disturb us here. Double your overcloaks and set them in a ring upon the earth. The night is warm. Nestle at one another's sides, resting your backs against the walls or trees. There. Let us form the Moon Crescent whose name is labrys, "double axe," while I at its apex recite our lore. Listen well, daughters. Each verse I narrate, sear into memory. You eldest, who have heard the tale each autumn as you grew, accept this charge: if I alter so much as one stanza, bring me to book upon it, for our incantation wants naught of legend but truth alone. And when you come to impart this history to your own daughters, recall this commission and transmit these wonders uncorrupted, as I to you.
Selene feared the race of men. They exuded self-dignity, what she named anaedor, "no breath" or "without soul." She called Greeks "stick people," by which she meant they creaked, stiff and wooden. Nor did she confine such reproach to men, but included Mother as well, and the women of our farm and of Attica entire, of whose behavior Selene could make no sense and in the presence of whose everyday acts, as the haggling with vendors or the chastising of servants, she often lowered her gaze, a gesture I have seen repeated by others among the Amazons, whose notation is of embarrassment for the actor observed and the courtly wish not to compound this by making her conscious of a witness.
Selene feared this quality in men, this obliviousness. It was what permitted them to tread on a beetle and not hear its cry, or rend the sheath of the earth with a plough and not feel her anguish. Yet Selene and her race, as all savage nations, were capable of appalling cruelty. God help the man, or woman, who fell into their clutches when they defended their honor or painted their faces for war.
Amazons believe in hate. Hatred is sacred to Ate, to Hecate and Black Persephone, and to Ares as well, whom they call with the nymph Harmonia their progenitor. Ephesian Artemis, whom they worship, was the greatest hater ever, they claim, surnamed Void of Mercy, and even Harmonia, whose name means concord to civilized folk, means rancor in their tongue. Amazons believe that mothers hate daughters and daughters mothers, that sea hates sky, and night day. The world is held together by hate, which is in their lexicon a bounty and divine dispensation. Lovers must hate one another before they may love, and to this end the bonding ritual which Amazon novices perform at eight and twelve, when they formalize their trikonai, the notorious "bonds of three," is constituted of a savage type of hand-to-hand brawling they call anitome, "anytime anywhere." Kicking, biting, eye gouging, all are sanctioned. The elders form a circle about the fighting girls, plying with horsewhips any combatant perceived as slack in her attack. Once over, the fight and its memory, the Amazons believe, form a bond which endures such that no warrior thus bound may ever desert another.
Selene cuffed Europa and me regularly. Nor were these love pats, but such blows as to fetch us off our feet. As frequently she caressed us, and many times must be scolded by Mother or Father for expressing affection at inappropriate moments, as in the presence of priests or elders. She slept in our beds, or we in hers, till we were six.
The shield and bridle that Selene had surrendered were objects of supreme fascination to my sister and me. Father did not display these as trophies, not wishing to dishonor Selene; in fact he sought more than once to return them. Selene would not take them. They came to be stored in a chest in the loft above Father and Mother's room. Europa and I soon learned to pick the lock; we would mount to the attic and linger all afternoon, absorbed in the scent and sensation of these artifacts. We marveled at the workmanship of the bridle, which was ox-hide rimmed with ivory and electrum, the right cheekpiece depicting a griffin taking down an elk, the left a crescent moon, and a snaffle bit of pure gold. Selene's shield was of bearskin, from the densest pack across the shoulders, crescent-shaped and three layers thick, laminated with a glue of elk sinew and faced with the skin of a black leopard. On one's arm it felt like a timbrel drum, taut in its ash frame, astonishingly strong for something so light.
Selene smelled. Mother would not permit her into the formal rooms of the house, as the odor she exhaled, so Mother claimed, clung to every garment, to her hair, and even to the walls themselves. "Can you not smell it, children? Good God, what a stink!" Mother chased our governess, often with a broom, to peals of our laughter. For Selene's part, she abhorred the house and entered it only under compulsion, as civilized folk will a tomb. She could not hear in a house. I recall Father, seeking to chastise her for some transgression, calling her before his big counting desk. "Why the devil won't you listen, Selene?" Her silence drove him wild. Finally he realized she could only hear him if he bespoke her out of doors. Soft worked better than hard. No blow or threat availed, nor gifts, however precious, to bend her counter to her will.
Selene permitted herself a solitary vanity: her hair, which was jet, of such luxuriance as to appear almost beyond human. She curried it as a horse's mane, of which it reminded me, and dressed it, apart from men's eyes, in the following manner. The top mass was first thrown forward from a part running ear to ear across the crown. The horsetail falling rearward was divided in four parts and cinched by four silver clasps, one for each cardinal direction. These were lifted off the neck and rolled together into a sort of broad horizontal bun, as gentlewomen of Cyrene do, which was then bound tight to the rear of the head by an ox-hide thong called xaella, "clothesline," which itself is wrapped four turns about the head. The xaella is a weapon, a garrote. Its ends are tipped in elk horn and etched with the battle-axe of Ares. Once the rear was set, the thrown-forward forepeak would be drawn back, half of its mass cinched at the crown, to form a horsetail with its excess, the remainder woven in among the four quarters. The effect of this, either loose or topped with the Phrygian cap of doeskin, was both glamorous and fear-evoking, as the mass of hair seemed at once to make its wearer half a head taller and, as well, provide a helmet of its own, to cushion a fall or blow. The worst thrashing Europa and I ever received from Mother came when she discovered us dressing our hair in this fashion.
It became Selene's wont, each autumn round the anniversary of the Great Battle of Athens, to "borrow" javelins and steed by night from Father's stable and make away into the hills, holding fugitive for as long as a fortnight. At the first of these decampments, Father outfitted posses and published bounties for her recapture. Yet it became clear that no rider could overhaul her, or face her wrath if he did, but that Selene, left to her devices, would return of her own, sated by whatever trials or wonders she had undergone and content to serve out her sentence, so to say, for another twelvemonth. Never would our governess recount her adventures, despite Europa's and my most piteous pleadings, save in the form of songs, whose verses appeared nonsense at first but later came to impart their cargo of wisdom.
These rideaways, as we called them on the farm, became if not condoned, then tolerated. My father came even to joke of them, inquiring of Selene when she planned to fly the coop this year, that he might draft his schedule around the date and hire on in advance a surrogate to supervise the children. Selene herself could not predict the hour of her absconding. She went when she went.
The bucks of the farm called Selene "Titless"--what they in ignorance took A-mazos to mean--though never to her face. In fact the term Amazon derives from the Cimmerian Ooma Zyona, "Daughters of the Horse." This was meant pejoratively. The Cimmerians (who only acquired horsemanship latterly) sought to offer insult to their rivals of the plains. The Amazons viewed this with contempt. They never use the word Amazon to describe themselves; Selene employed it only in converse with Greeks and then grudgingly, because it had gained currency. Likewise she transposed Amazon names into Greek, as Alcippe, "Powerful Mare," or Melanippe, "Black Mare."
They lusted after Selene, the swains of the farm, as they did all the maids, nor was Selene averse to grappling with him she favored, yet none could temper her or draw an uncoerced smile. Only beneath music's spell would she relent, the proper tune proffered by the proper suitor, and then only with such a sorrowful and distant measure as to render her yet more remote.
There had been others of Selene's kind in Attica then, taken like her of wounds after the Great Battle. Several had been made mistresses; others placed in service. All ran off. Chained or bound, they died. Only Selene, constrained by her pledge and her care for my sister and me, abided. She acquired notoriety. Town people would contrive occasion to visit the farm, nosing about to observe one of that race called in the Scythian tongue oiorpata, "man killers." "Has her right breast indeed been seared off, to better draw the bow?" "Do you permit her near weapons?" "What holds her from running?"
Once a dame of the district of Melite, the aunt of Prince Atticus, to whom my sister would become betrothed, upbraided my father for exposing his daughters to such unholy influence. "The children will grow to be savages! Who will teach them to card and spin? How will they learn to hold seemly silence?"
My father believed girls should ride and run, nor grow effeminate, squeamish to take game or trek alone in the dark. Who better to impart such arts than a wing captain of Amazonia? Father admired Selene. He wore his custody of her with a covert pride, as one might holding the leash on a she-bear or a lioness. He felt protective of her. For men hated Selene on sight, and women more so, which phenomenon never failed to both stir and alarm my sister and me, and in the presence of which both of us were struck with a rage we could neither name nor exonerate.
Theseus himself, lord of Athens, owned acquaintance of Selene and had dispatched communications to her on occasion, including gifts which she disdained and, to our awe, discarded. On a spring noon in my eleventh year the king traveled out specifically to speak with her. Never had there been such a day! Here down our lane advanced Theseus, monarch of Athens and Eleusis, master of Crete and the islands; he who had brought the dominion of law to Attica, binding within one polity the fractious barons and purging the land, in Myrinus' phrase, of the brigands of misrule.
Theseus was our father's kinsman, the king's mother Aethra and Father's mother Polycaste being cousins, and both Father and his brother Damon had accompanied Theseus a generation previous on his first voyage to the Amazon Sea; yet never in memory had he trod the stones of our estate. He arrived by carriage, not horse or foot, for he had broken a bone in his thigh some days prior and must gimp about by means of a forked staff. Ah, yet, when he came! Who had beheld a handsomer man! Taller by half a head than my father, himself tallest of the district, and carved as from oak. The pelt of his forearms, burnished gold from the sun, made me shiver, and his curls falling to his shoulders bore such a sheen as put one in mind of wild harts and martens. It took slender imagination to understand how Antiope, the Amazon queen, could have fallen so beneath his spell as to desert her own kind and even do battle against them, at this monarch's side.
My sister and I scrutinized great Theseus' apparel: a simple white tunic with a blue border and a rust-colored overcloak, clamped with a brooch of gold in the shape of a sponge. Here was the story:
Once during Theseus' early tenure as king, a commoner had approached the palace seeking a hearing. He was informed that our lord was at his bath; entry was permitted to no one. But the king heard the man at the gate and motioned his guardsmen to relent. He received the fellow while still in the tub and rendered his judgment, which happened to be favorable. When the nobles learned of this they were outraged by its want of dignity. But the gesture endeared Theseus to the commons, so that to this day to act "from the bathtub" means to bypass channels and move immediately with compassion. In gratitude the petitioner presented Theseus with a golden charm in the shape of a sponge, which the king prized beyond all other honors and set in place on his garment, men said, before even his brooches of royalty.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Last of the Amazons by Steven Pressfield. Copyright © 2002 by Steven Pressfield. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.