For Roger Just, the author of Women in Athenian Law and Life (Routledge, 1989), the Amazons represent an inversion of the established ancient Greek social order. They are paralleled with the centaurs in art: barbarous, warlike, and uncivilised; alike refusing to respect the laws of marriage and the norms of polis-based society, living beyond the limits of the Greek world. “But if the Centaurs are arrived at by combining man and beast, the Amazons are arrived at simply by postulating a society of women unruled by men.” (Just, 1989, 249.) When they meet with proper (Greek) men, they’re always defeated and either killed or domesticated by marriage—and so the Greek social order always re-establishes its primacy, as in the story of Herakles and the belt of the Amazon queen, in the marriage of Theseus and Antiope, the showdown between Achilles and Penthesilea, and the legendary Amazon invasion of Athens. “But meeting with proper men,” Lysias says of the Amazon women involved in this last, “they got for themselves psyches like their natural form.” That is to say, their hearts and spirits became womanly: weak.
It’s often held that the Amazons were wholly a product of the Greek imagination. Adrienne Mayor’s The Amazons: Lives & Legends of Warrior Women Across The Ancient World (Princeton University Press, 2014) argues that this is not the case. Mayor’s thesis is that the Amazon stories of the Greek world, and the depictions of Amazons in art, reflect Greek contact with “Scythian” (a catch-all term, hence the quotation marks) horse nomads—a culture group from Central Asia whose way of life meant that both men and women could participate in hunting, skirmishing, and making war.