Ancient Greek heroes, athletes, poetry – An introduction, Phase 3: Hippolytus the hero as a hunter

2022.05.30 | By Gregory Nagy


Detail of the Amazon Melanippe (named). From a Late Antique mosaic depicting Amazons hunting, ca. 5th–6th centuries CE, found in a villa in Urfa/Şanliurfa (ancient Edessa). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

§0. Up to now, I have focused on the role of the hero Hippolytus as an athlete—specifically, as a charioteer. And I have argued that this role of his should be viewed as parallel to the role of the female hero Hippolyte as an Amazon, since Amazons too could be pictured as charioteers—when they fight in war. But now I widen the focus, expanding my view of the athleticism exemplified by Hippolytus. In terms of ancient Greek myths about heroes engaged in athletic activities, these pursuits included not only those “sports” that even the modern world could readily identify as “sports”—such as chariot racing. Included also—and clearly so—was the activity of hunting. I must highlight the clarity of the premodern mind-set in its viewing of hunters as athletes, since the very idea of hunting as a form of athletics or “sports” has become quite blurred from the varied perspectives of the modern world. And yet, the fact is that the ancients considered a hero like Hippolytus to be a paragon of athleticism not only because he was a model charioteer: he was also a model hunter. And I will now argue that this role of Hippolytus as a hunter, just like his role as a charioteer, should be viewed as parallel to the role of Amazons, since these women-warriors could likewise be pictured as hunters, especially as hunters riding on horseback.  A striking example is the picturing of an Amazon in a mosaic found at the site of ancient Edessa, dating from late antiquity. We see this Amazon in the act of hunting down a lion: she is riding on horseback, and she is aiming her javelin at the beast. I show here a close-up, as a picture most apt for Phase 3 of my Introduction, where I now concentrate on the role of Hippolytus the hero as a hunter.

§1. The picture is relatively late, and I could have chosen earlier surviving examples of such imaginings. The choice that I have made, however, is particularly apt when we consider a detail that I think is most telling in our picture of the moment. To explain, I must first review, however briefly, the archaeological background. In this picture, what we see is a close-up taken from a large mosaic, discovered at the ancient site of Edessa, modern Urfa (Turkish Şanlıurfa), which features not only the Amazon we see in our close-up here. The mosaic features also three other Amazons, and all four of them, not just the one Amazon who is featured in our close-up, are pictured in the act of hunting. And here is the detail that I think is most telling about the one Amazon I have chosen out of the four Amazons pictured in the Edessa Mosaic: it is the relevance of this Amazon’s name, spelled out in Greek lettering next to her image. She is ΜΕΛΑΝΙΠ⟨Π⟩Η, that is, Melanippe. But what does this Amazon named Melanippe have to do with the role of the hero Hippolytus as a hunter?

§2. For an anwer, I start by analyzing the mythological background of this Amazon. The first relevant ancient text I cite is the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes, who lived in the third century BCE. We read in this epic of Apollonius, 2.964–971, about a myth that connects the Amazon Melanippe with another Amazon, named Hippolyte, whose name matches in feminine form, as I have already noted in Phase 2 of the Introduction, the masculine name of the famed hunter Hippolytus. The myth centers on the zōstēr ‘waistband’ of Hippolyte the Amazon, 2.968, who is elsewhere described by Apollonius as Queen of the Amazons, 2.999, and whose waistband was taken away from her by the hero Hēraklēs. After taking the waistband as a trophy, Hēraklēs carried it away, taking it all the way to Mycenae, where he presented this trophy to Eurystheus, over-king of the Mycenaean Empire, as we read in other sources, to be noted presently.

§3. Before I proceed, I must stop to reflect on my temporary translation of the Greek word zōstēr here as ‘waistband’. I have for the moment avoided an alternative translation, ‘girdle’, because the meaning of that English word has undergone all too many confusions in a world of modernities. For most speakers of Modern English, the wearer of a girdle is assumed to be a woman. That said, however, I must admit that the etymology of English girdle is most relevant, since its premodern meaning has to do simply with a band that encircles the waist of the wearer, male or female. That is to say, the girdle is simply the band that girds the waist. And I must also admit that the temporary translation ‘waistband’ seems at first too vague in comparison to the etymology of ‘girdle’. So, why not translate even more specifically, by rendering the Greek word as English ‘belt’? But even this other alternative translation turns out to be too vague to be adequate for imagining the zōstēr worn by the Queen of the Amazons.

§4. At a later point here in Phase 3 of the Introduction, we will see, besides what we already see in the case of the word zōstēr in the Greek language, a comparable problem in translating a comparable word, attested in another language, where the word refers, there as well, to a band that is worn around the waist. That other language is Middle High German, which is cognate with the Greek language—since both Greek and all the Germanic languages of the world, including Modern German and even Modern English, can be reconstructed backward in time to a “prototype” known to linguists today as the “Indo-European” family of languages. As we will soon see, the use of the Greek word zōstēr with reference to the waistbands of Amazons is comparable to the use of the Middle High German word gürtel, traditionally translated as ‘girdle’, by the anonymous poet of a Middle High German epic known as the Nibelungenlied, the textual fixation of which is dated roughly around 1200 CE. What we will see is a most striking parallelism in meaning, preserved in two remotely cognate mythological traditions. In the case of the relevant Germanic myths, I will be focusing on a warrior queen who is one of the main characters in the Middle High German epic Nibelungenlied and in a variety of Old Norse sagas, and who was famed for her gürtel. Her name is Brunhild or Brunhilda / Brynhildr in medieval German / Scandinavian traditions respectively. In post-medieval phases of the German language she is better known as Brünnhilde the Walküre—or Valkyrie, to cite the Old Norse equivalent—who, in an enchanted coma, is famously encircled by a ring of fire in Richard Wagner’s opera, Die Walküre (première: 1870), the second in a four-part operatic cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (première for all four parts: 1876). That said, I postpone commenting on the relevant myths about the gürtel of Brunhild, turning to that subject only after I analyze briefly the myths about the zōstēr of Hippolyte.

§5. The taking, by Hēraklēs, of the zōstēr worn by the Amazon Queen Hippolyte was one of that hero’s Twelve Labors, as we learn from a variety of sources—most notably, from the “universal history” of Diodorus of Sicily, who lived in the first century BCE, and from the Library of an otherwise unknown author who goes by the name of “Apollodorus” and who is dated to the second century CE.

§6. I start with a telling detail about this Labor of Hēraklēs. The detail is preserved not in the narratives of the two sources I just mentioned but, instead, in the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes, 2.964–971, where we read that Hēraklēs had ambushed and captured an Amazon named Melanippe near the river Thermōdōn and held her as hostage until the Amazon Queen Hippolyte, who is described as a sister of Melanippe, 2.969, made a promise to Hēraklēs: she promised that she would give away, as ransom, her own zōstēr in return for the life of Melanippe, 2.967-969.

§7. I now compare this version of the myth, as retold by Apollonius of Rhodes, 2.964–971, with a second version, as retold by Diodorus, 2.46.4, who says, all too simply, that Hēraklēs defeated the Amazons in a great battle, capturing both Hippolyte and her zōstēr.

§8. Filling out this compressed second version as narrated by Diodorus, 2.46.4, I now go on to compare an expanded third version, narrated by “Apollodorus,” 2.5.9 (pp. 202–204 ed. Frazer). I have just added here, and will continue to add, within parentheses, the relevant page-numberings of James Frazer so as to ease my reader’s efforts in finding relevant passages in section 2.5.9 of Apollodorus, which extends over a daunting number of edited pages. According to the third version, then, in “Apollodorus” (pp. 202, 204), there was an actual one-on-one encounter that took place between Hēraklēs and Hippolyte, where Hippolyte is explicitly described in this context as Queen of the Amazons. In the course of this encounter, the Amazon Hippolyte promised Hēraklēs that she would give up her zōstēr to him (p. 204). But the story does not end well, as we see from the full retelling in the version of “Apollodorus” (again, p. 204) and in the same version as attested also in another source, also dating from the second century CE, that is, Zenobius, Centuria 5.33.44–59. According to this third version of the myth, as clearly attested both in “Apollodorus” and in Zenobius, the goddess Hērā now intervenes, disguising herself as one of the Amazons and misleading these she-warriors by telling them that Hēraklēs is abducting their queen. Thus provoked, the horde of Amazons, she-warriors that they are, ride off on horseback, intending to rescue Hippolyte. Hēraklēs, seeing the advancing horde, suspects treachery, thinking that Hippolyte had broken her promise. A great battle ensues, and Hēraklēs defeats the Amazons, inflicting massive losses on these she-warriors. In the course of the battle, Hēraklēs manages to kill Hippolyte and to strip the dead Amazon of her zōstēr, claiming it as his trophy. In this third version, then, as retold by “Apollodorus,” 2.5.9 (p. 204) and by Zenobius, 5.33.44–59, Hēraklēs actually kills Hippolyte, whereas the story of the killing is elided in the second version, as retold by Diodorus, 2.46.4. As I will argue presently, the action as narrated by Diodorus, where we read about an encounter between Hēraklēs and Hippolyte, has to be viewed as anterior to the action as narrated by “Apollodorus” and Zenobius.

§9. I see a connectivity that threads together the versions of the myth as retold in the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes, 2.964–971, and in the Library of “Apollodorus,” 2.5.9 (pp. 202–204 ed. Frazer). The promise of Hippolyte to give up her zōstēr to Hēraklēs, as narrated by Apollodorus, can be connected with the agreement, as narrated by Apollonius, where Queen Hippolyte surrenders to Hēraklēs her zōstēr as ransom for his having taken as hostage the Amazon Melanippe, sister of the Amazon Hippolyte.

§10. And I see a further connectivity, despite elisions in some of the details. Here I turn back to the version of the myth as retold in the “universal history” of Diodorus of Sicily. I have already noted a major elision in the compressed narrative of Diodorus, at 2.46.4, where he says that Hēraklēs defeated the Amazons in a great battle, capturing Hippolyte and her zōstēr. In this version of Diodorus, it appears at first sight that Hippolyte, not Melanippe, is the Amazon sister who becomes degraded as an object of ransom, as if the life of the Amazon could be spared in exchange for her own zōstēr. But appearances are deceiving here, as we see when we read onward and reach a later point in the narrative by Diodorus, 4.16.4. There he tells of an event that matches the event told by Apollonius of Rhodes, 2.964–971, which is, the ransoming of Melanippe. At this later point in the narrative of Diodorus, 4.16.4, he too, like Apollonius, mentions the capture of Melanippe by Hēraklēs, and he too says that the life of this other Amazon was exchanged as ransom for the zōstēr of the Amazon Hippolyte—but, unfortunately, Diodorus does not make it all that clear, at this same point of his narrative, 4.16.4, that Hippolyte herself was the owner of the zōstēr, although Hippolyte is in fact mentioned in passing as the owner at an earlier point, 4.16.1. Accordingly, I offer this translation for the relevant passage, 4.16.4: Μελανίππην δ’ ἀπελύτρωσεν ἀντιλαβὼν τὸν ζωστῆρα ‘as for Melanippe, he [= Hēraklēs] freed her, having-taken-as-ransom the zōstēr’. I write here ‘the zōstēr’ not ‘her zōstēr’. The translation ‘her’ would indicate—wrongly, I think—that the owner of the zōstēr here is Melanippe. But this zōstēr, in terms of the analysis I have presented, is the one that was taken away from Hippolyte. It is implicit, I think, in this retelling by Diodorus, 4.16.4, that Hēraklēs had earlier met with Hippolyte in a one-on-one encounter, and that the Queen of the Amazons had at that earlier point promised to surrender her zōstēr to her. What is implicit here is made explicit, as we have seen, in the retelling by “Apollodorus,” 2.5.9 (pp. 202–204). As for the reference made by Diodorus at 4.16.4 to the ransoming of Melanippe, I think it is connected with a reference, again by Diodorus, to a further detail about this Amazon: it is mentioned at 4.16.3, in passing, that Hēraklēs had removed Melanippe as the supreme military leader—let us call her the generalissima—of the Amazons. Diodorus must be referring here, I think, to the earlier ambush and capture of this female warrior by the male warrior, not to the later capture—and killing—of Hippolyte.

§11. There is, I also think, a subtext hidden within the version of this myth as narrated by Diodorus, 4.16.3–4. On the surface, there is merely an exchange in the making: we see here a giving back, by Hēraklēs, of an Amazon’s life, and this action is performed in return for the action of taking away an Amazon’s zōstēr. Underneath the surface, however, we can see a deeper meaning. For a female warrior to be giving away her own zōstēr to a male warrior is implicitly an act of sexual self-submission—an act of actually choosing to have sexual relations with the male warrior. Looking at both the compressed version of the myth as narrated here by Diodorus and the expanded version as narrated by “Apollodorus,” we can see that Hippolyte is understood to have submitted to Hēraklēs sexually in the course of her encounter with him—back when the two of them were negotiating over the ransom for Melanippe. But the compressed narrative of Diodorus elides what happened to Hippolyte after she had agreed to the ransom. By contrast, what is missing in Diodorus is made explicit in the expanded narratives of “Apollodorus” 2.5.9 (pp. 202–204) and Zenobius 5.33.44–59. There it is made explicit that an intervention by the goddess Hērā results in an undoing of the agreement, so that a great battle will now ensue, and Hēraklēs will now defeat the Amazons, managing to kill Hippolyte and to strip the dead Amazon of her zōstēr. Hēraklēs can now be claiming the zōstēr as his trophy. So, the taking away of the Amazon’s zōstēr, initially a sign of her sexual submission, can now become the formality of carrying it off as a trophy after the battle is over—that is, after Hippolyte had already been killed by Hēraklēs.

§12. In reconstructing the myths about Hippolyte, then, I have come to the conclusion that the use of the word zōstēr in these myths—even if we translate this Greek word as neutrally as possible by using the English word ‘belt’—can include a sexual subtext in situations where the person who is wearing the zōstēr is a woman instead of a man—or, to generalize, a ‘she’ instead of a ‘he’. I add this generalization because, in other myths, the ‘she’ may refer to goddesses. That said, however, I now propose to restrict my view for the moment, concentrating on the experiential world of humans: if a woman takes off the zōstēr that she is wearing or if it is taken away from her, she can become sexually exposed either way, whether she is willing or unwilling. Such a way of thinking—however repellent it may be to our own sensibilities—applies especially in mythological contexts where the woman happens to be a she-warrior, that is, an Amazon. I find a most telling example in a thesaurus of mostly “classical Attic” words, grounded in the fourth century BCE, assembled in the Onomastikon of an intellectual known as Julius Pollux, who lived in the second century CE. As we read in Pollux, at 2.166, two most common words referring to a band that encircles the waist are zōstēr and zōnē; further, at 7.68, Pollux makes a point of noting sexual undertones in the use of these words in situations where reference is made to a waistband worn by a woman, as in Odyssey 11.245, where the virginity of the mortal woman Tyro is taken away by the god Poseidon when he sleeps with her after having taken off her zōnē. In this same context, with reference to the word zōstēr, synonym of zōnē, Pollux at 7.68 goes on to cite as a prime example the generic ‘zōstēr of the Amazon’, ὅ τε τῆς Ἀμαζόνος ζωστήρ. It is implied here—and it is a traditional implication—that an Amazon loses her virginity if she loses her zōstēr. Most relevant is a comment from the essay On style, attributed—perhaps wrongly— to Demetrius of Phaleron, which in any case may date as far back as the fourth century BCE, whoever the author may be. We read in “Demetrius,” at section 138, what he considers to be a most elegant literary description of a sleeping Amazon: even while she sleeps, the generic Amazon proactively keeps next to her, right by her side, the things that mark her as an Amazon. First, the description visualizes her bow and arrows—the bow is kept tightly strung and her quiver is filled with arrows ready for shooting. Second, the description visualizes her shield, which is also kept right by her side. And then there is the third visualization, and here we see one more detail, which has been pointedly saved for the last mention: even while asleep, this generic Amazon is actually wearing her zōstēr. Her belt is not only placed right by her side. No, rather, our Amazon keeps on wearing her waistband around her waist because, by implication, she is ever en garde—not only against attacking warriors but also, more specifically, against would-be rapists.

§13. And here is where I find it most relevant to compare the gürtel—‘waistband’ or ‘belt’ or ‘girdle’—worn by the warrior queen Brunhild in the Middle High German Nibelungenlied. I epitomize here the relevant narrative in that epic, in “Chapters” 10 and 14. I start with the bare essentials of the narrative, which can be summarized this way: Brunhild, an alien queen endowed with superhuman strength as a warrior, arrives in Burgundy to marry Gunther, king of the Burgundians, and she loses her superhuman powers after she sleeps with her new husband. The circumstances of her loss, however, are complicated. Before sleeping with Gunther, Brunhild has to be overpowered by her husband’s sexual rival, Siegfried, whose magical cloak of concealment, known as the Tarnkappe, had made that hero look just like Gunther—a man who was vastly inferior to Brunhild in strength and who had been therefore overpowered by the queen when, the first night, he tried to sleep with her. That night, Brunhild not only overpowered Gunther but also tied him up with her own gürtel, hanging him out to dry, as it were (Nibelungenlied 10.630–650). The next night, however, Siegfried exchanged roles with Gunther and succeeded in overpowering Brunhild (Nibelungenlied 10.650–689) with the help of his magical cloak (10.653). This Tarnkappe, as we know from the overall mythology, could not only conceal the true identity of Siegfried but even increase his strength twelve-fold—that is how Siegfried managed to overpower the otherwise more powerful warrior queen Brunhild. In the courtly narrative of the Nibelungenlied, however, this overpowering did not result in sexual intercourse for Siegfried with Brunhild. That part of the action was left by Siegfried to Gunther, who, once he got into bed with Brunhild, could now revert to his own identity as the queen’s husband—while Siegfried faded away from view, still present, but only as an invisible witness. But there is another version of this narrative, less courtly than the version we see in the Nibelungenlied, where Siegfried is not elided. According to this less courtly version, preserved in the Old Norse Þiðrekssaga, textualized around 1250 CE, it is actually Siegfried himself and not Gunther who engages in sexual intercourse with Brunhild after he overpowers her on that fateful night. Either way, whichever version of the myth we follow, the exchanging of roles for Gunther and Siegfried has already caused major complications, but now things get even more complicated. After Brunhild is overpowered by Siegfried and then willingly engages in intercourse—whether her sexual partner has changed into Gunther or, alternatively, still retains his identity as Siegfried , either way—she now loses her superhuman strength (Nibelungenlied 10.681–682). And Siegfried keeps for himself, as trophies of his conquest, not only the belt of Brunhild (10.680) but also her ring, which he had surreptitiously slipped off the queen’s finger, without her even noticing (10.679). And there is even more trouble to come. After a passage of time—it is not clear how long a time—Siegfried goes on to give as a gift to his own wife, Kriemhild, who is the sister of Gunther, the gürtel that he had taken away on that same fateful night from Brunhild—while he was overpowering her (10.680, 684). And, that same night, as I have already noted, Siegfried had taken away not only the queen’s gürtel—let me refer to it hereafter simply as the belt of Brunhild—but also the queen’s ring, which is a comparably explicit sign of her own identity. The belt and the ring could now become trophies of sexual conquest—however ambiguous such a conquest may have at first seemed in the courtly world of the Nibelungenlied. Eventually, both the belt and the ring would be shown off to Brunhild, vengefully, by her sexual rival Kriemhild (Nibelungenlied 14:846–854). This vengeful revelation will lead eventually, of course, to the death of Siegfried.

[[Addendum by GN 2022.06.12. At the suggestion of Riccardo Ginevra, per litteras 2022.06.12, I should mention also other Germanic variants of myths about the fateful night when Brunhild and Siegfried were bedded together. A salient example is attested in the Völsungasaga, an Old Norse text dated to the late thirteenth century CE, where we read another “courtly” version: in this case, Brynhild/Brunhild and Sigurd/Siegfried do in fact share the same bed—but with a sword placed between them, so that sexual intercourse is avoided. It is almost needless to add, however, that even this version leads to death as a grim consequence for Sigurd/Siegfried. Also, in the same communication by Riccardo Ginevra, 2022.06.12, he makes a comment that will require further analysis: the Germanic king Gunther/Gunnar, husband of Brunhild/Brynhild, is comparable not only to the Greek king Theseus but also, more obviously, to the Greek over-king Eurystheus. I agree with this incisive comment. It will be relevant to the part of AGHAP where I analyze the role of the Greek hero Hēraklēs as always a kingmaker, never a king.]]

§14. With this Germanic point of comparison in place, I can now shape a more nuanced understanding of the Greek word zōstēr as we see it deployed in myths about the Amazon Hippolyte—even if I continue to translate this word simply as ‘belt’. In the case of generic male warriors in Greek traditions, as we see them in action when we read, for example, the battle scenes of the Homeric Iliad, there are no major complications with such a translation. A warrior’s belt is a warrior’s belt, as we can see clearly in passages like Iliad 5.615. And, at first sight, it would be easy to think that such an understanding would work just as well in the case of myths about the Amazon Hippolyte. After all, she is a she-warrior, Amazon that she is, and her affinities with the god of war, Ares, are clearly defined. In myths we read about Hippolyte, as for example in the Library of “Apollodorus” 2.5.9 (p. 202), we know for sure that Hippolyte, as a daughter of Ares, had been given by the god of war the zōstēr Areos, ‘the belt of Ares’—a belt that identifies Ares in his conventional function as god of war. But, beyond such conventional views, things get complicated when we consider this same word zōstēr in specific references to the belt worn either by Hippolyte the Amazon or, as we have already seen, by any specific or generic Amazon.

§15. As we read in the Library of “Apollodorus” 2.5.9 (p. 202), the giving of the zōstēr Areos, ‘the belt of Ares’, as a gift given to the Amazon Hippolyte by her divine father Ares, god of war, is a clear sign that she is the best of all Amazons. And it goes without saying that the possession of this belt by Hippolyte is a sure sign of her royalty—of her status as queen of the Amazons. This royal status is relevant to myths about Hēraklēs, since his quest to take away the zōstēr of Hippolyte is linked to the very idea of royalty. As we will see at a later point in Greek heroes, athletes, poetry, all the canonical Labors of Hēraklēs are in fact linked to this same idea, royalty, since each Labor is linked to commands made by the unworthy over-king Eurystheus and sanctioned, cosmically, by the goddess Hērā with the reluctant cooperation of the hero’s divine father, the supreme god Zeus himself. A case in point is the Ninth Labor: here we see Eurystheus, King of Mycenae, issuing a royal command: Hēraklēs is ordered to travel to the Land of the Amazons and to bring back from there the zōstēr that is worn by Hippolyte, Queen of the Amazons. Hēraklēs does in fact succeed in taking away from Hippolyte her zōstēr, but the successful accomplishment of this Labor by Hēraklēs will not result in the possession of this trophy by the hero. That is because Hēraklēs is commanded not only to take this trophy from the Queen of the Amazons but also to bring it to Eurystheus, King of Mycenae, since the daughter of this unworthy over-king, named Admete, had expressed to her father a desire to possess such a trophy herself, as we read in the Library of “Apollodorus” 2.5.9 (again, p. 202).

§16. The myth about this Ninth Labor of Hēraklēs is typical, in one respect, of all of this hero’s Labors. As I note in H24H 1§37, especially with reference to the compressed narrative of Iliad 19.95–133 about the relationship of Hēraklēs with that hero’s inferior cousin Eurystheus, the goddess Hērā had tricked Zeus into making it possible for her to accelerate the birth of Eurystheus and to retard the birth of Hēraklēs, so that Eurystheus the inferior hero became king, entitled to give commands to the superior hero Hēraklēs. Thus the heroic superiority of Hēraklēs is countered by the social superiority of Eurystheus. Here, then, we see the basic reason for the fact that, in the myth about the Ninth Labor, Hēraklēs wins the belt of Hippolyte as a trophy, yes, but this trophy must then be given away to Eurystheus. And here is a related fact, also preserved as we have seen in some versions of the myth: Hēraklēs wins not only the belt of Hippolyte, Queen of the Amazons, but also, it seems, her sexual favors—before she is killed and before her belt is permanently taken away from her. Given this related fact, as I see it, we may ask ourselves an obvious question: if Hēraklēs could really have sexual relations with Hippolyte, why would he not marry her and become king, now that the queen herself has become his sexual trophy, his potential trophy-mate? The answer, I think, is latent, hidden in the symbolism of the Amazon’s belt: even if Hēraklēs had actually benefited from the sexual favors of Hippolyte in the course of his quest to possess the Amazon’s belt, his possession proved to be temporary: this belt was not his to have and to hold, as it were, in marriage.

§17. And what about the Amazon Melanippe, sister of the Amazon Hippolyte? As another daughter of the war-god Ares, Melanippe had been, most appropriately, what I have already described as the generalissima of her fellow Amazons, as we read in Diodorus, 4.15.3—before she was ambushed and captured and held as hostage by Hēraklēs. The fate of Melanippe is thus in one way convergent with the fate of her sister, Hippolyte, who had been the queen of her fellow Amazons—before she was killed by Hēraklēs. Both Amazons, convergently, lose their status. But there is also a vital divergence: only one of the two Amazons dies, while the other one lives to see another day. As we read in Diodorus, 4.16.4, Melanippe the hostage is set free by Hēraklēs, now that he has killed Hippolyte. Melanippe had been kept alive by Hēraklēs in return for fulfillment of the promise made by Hippolyte to surrender her own belt to him. But by now the promise of Hippolyte has been voided, and the belt could be taken away by Hēraklēs. That ransom had already been paid by the life of Hippolyte, and, in return, Hēraklēs evidently feels obligated to free Melanippe. It can be said, then, at least for the moment, that the life of Hippolyte has become the ransom for the life of Melanippe.

§18. The few Amazons whom Hēraklēs has captured alive in his great battle against them have now all become “eligible,” as it were, to be given away as trophy-mates to their enemies. But the Amazon Melanippe is not “eligible,” since Hēraklēs had taken her as captive before—not after—the final battle—and before he had even met Hippolyte and extracted from that other Amazon her promise to surrender to him her belt. Exceptionally, as I have just noted, Hēraklēs now sets Melanippe free, completely free. Diodorus, at 4.16.4, is explicit in saying this. By contrast, in this same passage of Diodorus, 4 16.4, where we read about the freeing of Melanippe, we read also that Hēraklēs gives away an “eligible” captive Amazon, named Antiope, as a trophy-mate. He gives her to the Athenian hero Theseus, king of Athens, as a reward for this comrade’s help in fighting against the Amazons.

§19. The role of the hero Theseus as a comrade-in-arms for the hero Hēraklēs in myths about fighting against Amazons could be viewed as secondary, granted, if we attempt an overall reconstruction of such myths. In Athens, however, Theseus as king of Athens eventually takes over from Hēraklēs the role of primary hero in myths about Amazons. To put it more bluntly, Theseus eventually overshadows Hēraklēs in Athenian versions of myths about Greek heroes who fight alien she-heroes known as Amazons. We see such an overshadowing of Hēraklēs by Theseus most clearly in the written productions of the Athenian intellectual Isocrates, dated to the fourth century BCE. For example, in the text of Speech 12 of Isocrates, Panathenaicus section 193, it is said that the Amazon who became the trophy-mate of Theseus was Hippolyte herself, Queen of the Amazons, and that she—it is disturbing to read this—had fallen in love with this Athenian hero who abducted her and took her with him to Athens. What resulted from this abduction, in terms of this Athenian version of the myth, was that the city of Athens now came under attack by an invading horde of angry Amazons intent on exacting vengeance for the abduction of their queen, but the attack was repulsed and all the attacking Amazons were killed—so says Isocrates in his Speech 4, Panegyricus section 70.

§20. Later sources like Diodorus, however, who as we have seen is dated to the first century BCE, were far more guarded about any wholesale acceptance of such a distinctively Athenian version, and that is why, I think, Theseus in the narrative of Diodorus, 4.16.4, has to settle for another Amazon, Antiope instead of Hippolyte, as the trophy-mate awarded to him by Hēraklēs after the Amazons are defeated in their own homeland. But at least we see a trace, at an earlier point in the overall narrative of Diodorus, 2.46.4, of the idea that Hippolyte too could have become a trophy-mate of Theseus—if she had not been killed in the great battle of Hēraklēs and his comrades-in-arms against the Amazons. In such a version of the myth, I suspect, Hēraklēs could even have awarded Hippolyte herself as a trophy-mate to Theseus, rewarding his comrade-in-arms for the secondary role of Theseus in the original fighting against the Amazons in their own homeland.

§21. According to a later and modified Athenian version, on the other hand, which is what we see in the narrative of Diodorus, 2.46.4, Hēraklēs awards to Theseus as his trophy-mate not the Amazon Hippolyte but the Amazon Antiope, who is, functionally, a necessary replacement of Hippolyte. Such a replacement becomes necessary if the role of Hēraklēs as the primary hero of the Ninth Labor is to be retained, since the myth of that Ninth Labor requires Hippolyte, not Antiope, to be the Queen of the Amazons. And, as we have seen in that version of the myth, Hippolyte must die, killed tragically by Hēraklēs. In that version, Hippolyte cannot fall in love with Theseus, and Theseus cannot bring her to Athens—unlike the Hippolyte who is featured in the Athenian version of the myth as reported by Isocrates. In terms of the myth about the Ninth Labor of Hēraklēs it must be Hēraklēs and not Theseus who originally takes away the belt of Hippolyte and thus gains, perhaps, the sexual favors of Hippolyte. Further, it must be this Amazon Hippolyte whom fate cannot allow to survive the great battle won by Hēraklēs in his fight against the horde of Amazons in their own homeland. I am tempted here to compare, in passing, the narrative, summarized earlier, about the belt of Brunhild in Germanic myth. Although Hēraklēs is no Siegfried and Theseus is surely no Gunther, the mythological fact that Siegfried and not Gunther wins Brunhild’s belt—and, in some versions, even her sexual favors—is I think comparable to the mythological fact that Hēraklēs and not Theseus wins the belt of Hippolyte. An additional parallel, I think, is the mythological fact that both Hēraklēs in Greek myth and Siegfried in Germanic myth will tragically fail in their would-be love affairs with the superhumanly strong ladies whose belts they have captured.

§22. There is another relevant Athenian version of myths centering on the Amazons Hippolyte and Antiope, and, in this version, the roles of these Amazons—and, therefore, their identities—have been reversed. That is, in this version the original Queen of the Amazons is Antiope instead of Hippolyte, while the generalissima who leads the invading horde of Amazons in their assault on Athens is Hippolyte. Reporting this version of the myth is Pausanias, who as I have already noted lived in the second century CE. In Phase 2 of my Introduction, I quoted my translation of the most relevant passage in Pausanias, 1.2.1, who says there explicitly that the myth he is retelling originates in Athens. As we have already seen in the translation I quoted there, Antiope, Queen of the Amazons, had not only fallen in love with Theseus, who was allied with Hēraklēs when that hero was fighting the Amazons in their homeland, but she had also betrayed her fellow Amazons because of her love for Theseus. In my analysis of that myth in Phase 2 of the Introduction, I compared a complementary myth reported by Pausanias at a later point, 1.41.7, where he says he saw, in the city of Megara, a tomb of Hippolyte, who was worshipped as a cult hero in Megara—just as Antiope, whose tomb Pausanias saw in Athens, as he reports at 1.2.1, was worshipped as a cult hero in that city. Pausanias goes on to report on the myth told by the people of Megara about Hippolyte as their cult hero, which complements the myth told by the people of Athens about Antiope as their own cult hero: Pausanias says at 1.2.1 that it was Hippolyte, as generalissima of the Amazons, who led the attack on Athens by the Amazon horde in their quest to avenge the abduction of Antiope by Theseus from their homeland. It is obvious here that this version of Hippolyte is irreconcilable with the other version of Hippolyte that we see in the myth about the Ninth Labor of Hēraklēs. That other Hippolyte fails to survive her encounter with Hēraklēs, since she loses her life in the great battle that follows that encounter. By contrast, as we read further in Pausanias, 1.41.7, we find more details about the Athenian version of Hippolyte who is the generalissima of the Amazons invading Athens: she even survives the massive defeat of her Amazons by the Athenians in Athens, and then, escaping to the nearby city of Megara, she dies there of a broken heart, as it were, mourning the loss of her fellow Amazons. So says Pausanias, 1.41.7, adding that Hippolyte was venerated as a cult hero at her tomb in Megara, just as her sister, the Amazon Antiope, was venerated as a cult hero at her corresponding tomb in Athens. In this version of the myth, then, Hippolyte had survived not only the defeat of the Amazons in her homeland, when Hēraklēs with his comrades-in-arms fought the Amazons there, but also the defeat of the Amazons in Athens, when Theseus and the Athenians fought the Amazons who had invaded Athens under her generalship. By contrast with Hippolyte, on the other hand, Antiope does not survive the invasion of Athens by the Amazons: as Pausanias says explicitly at 1.2.1, one of the invading Amazons, Molpadia, kills Antiope by shooting an arrow at her, and then Molpadia is in turn killed by Theseus. As Pausanias adds, again at 1.2.1, the Amazon Molpadia has her own tomb as a cult hero in Athens, matching the tomb of the Amazon Antiope in the same city.

§23. I see in this version of the mythology about Hippolyte and Antiope a stunning illustration of “survivor’s guilt.” Both Amazons in this version, after surviving the original invasion of their homeland by Hēraklēs, die of guilt. While the guilt of the surviving Hippolyte leads to her dying from a broken heart, the guilt of the surviving Antiope leads to her dying violently from the wound of the arrow shot at her by the Amazon named Molpadia, who is evidently taking vengeance for the betrayal of all the Amazons by Antiope.

§24. Amazons have their own special ways of dying dramatically to make up for their “survivor’s guilt.” The most spectacular example is the Amazon Penthesileia, and her death from guilt is masterfully retold in the epic Posthomerica by Quintus of Smyrna, whose dating, though uncertain, may go as far back in time as the second century CE. We read at the very beginning of this epic by Quintus, 1.18–42, how Penthesileia the Amazon felt an overwhelming sense of guilt for a pollution she had caused. She had accidentally killed a fellow Amazon, her own sister, while they were hunting together. While aiming her hunting javelin at a deer, she missed—and mortally wounded her very own sister, an Amazon whose name was, pointedly, Hippolyte! This version of the myth is reported also by Diodorus, 2.46.5. It was the guilt that Penthesileia felt as a hunter about the death of her sister Hippolyte that ultimately drove her, as we will see, to a shift in identity, which in turn leads to a shift in how she is viewed in myth. Now Penthesileia will be pictured not as a hunter but as a warrior, and this shift will lead ultimately to her most spectacular death as a warrior.

§25. Before I proceed to comment further on the myth about the death of the Amazon Penthesileia as a warrior, however, I need to address some pressing questions about the death of her sister Amazon, Hippolyte, as a hunter. Would it be at all possible, we may ask ourselves, to equate this Amazon named Hippolyte, who was the fellow hunter of the Amazon named Penthesileia in this myth, with the Amazon named Hippolyte in the myth where we read about the Queen of the Amazons and her involvement in the Ninth Labor of Hēraklēs? Or with the Amazon named Hippolyte in an alternative myth, stemming from Athens, where we read about her abduction by Theseus? Or with the Amazon named Hippolyte in yet another alternative myth, also stemming from Athens, but from a later period in Athenian mythmaking, where we read about her leading her horde of fellow Amazons all the way to Athens in hopes of avenging the abduction, by Theseus, of an alternative Queen of the Amazons named Antiope? The answer to all three questions is, in one sense, that all three such equations with alternative figures named Hippolyte in alternative myths are doomed to fail. It is simply impossible to reconcile the identities of all these Amazons named Hippolyte with the identity of the hunting Amazon who was inadvertently killed by her hunting Amazon sister named Penthesileia. And why is it impossible? It is because the timeline for the involvement of the Amazon named Penthesileia as the inadvertent killer of the Amazon named Hippolyte makes it impossible to equate this Hippolyte with any or all of the other Amazons named Hippolyte. All these Amazons are featured in myths about happenings that are far earlier than the happenings in the myth about the life and death of Penthesileia. The myth of Penthesileia, by contrast with the other myths about Amazons, is all about later times. More than that: it is a myth about the latest of times, even the last time. In a sense, Penthesileia is the Last of the Amazons. There will be no more Amazons to tell about in myth, once the myth about the death of Penthesileia gets told. All the earlier Amazons will have come and gone. And the timeline of Penthesileia is later than any other timeline for any other Amazon because the timing, her time, is by now the tenth and last year of the Trojan War. The death of Penthesileia will happen within such a late time-frame, toward the very end of the heroic age. The Trojan War is not just a late time or at least a later time for Amazons: it is the last time for them. To repeat the essence of my argument here: Penthesileia is really the Last of the Amazons. And the death wish that drives this guilt-ridden Amazon into the Trojan War is most aptly fulfilled: Penthesileia will get killed by Achilles, the greatest warrior of Greek epic, before Achilles in turn gets killed, and thus the fame of Penthesileia as the greatest she-warrior of Greek epic can be truly validated.

§26. All this is not to say, however, that the Amazon named Hippolyte who is inadvertently killed by her sister Amazon Penthesileia is not cognate, as it were, with all the other Amazons named Hippolyte in all the other surviving myths about Amazons. I for one am convinced that all these myths are in fact cognate, that is, related structurally to each other because they are all derived from a shared deep structure. Thus I am also convinced that the mythology about Amazons, like mythology in general, is systemic. But the systemic thinking that went into myths about Amazons must be analyzed in terms of all the variations in the mythology—variations that can best be studied in the historical context of the various different social contexts that generated these myths as they operated in various different times and at various different places. In thinking of all the different social contexts for these myths, I have already focused, for example, on mythological variations generated specifically in Athens, where the mythmaking about Hippolyte as Queen of the Amazons differs from the corresponding mythmaking that we see linked to other places and even to other times. And the variations attested in Athenian mythmaking, through time, are even more complicated than we have seen so far. I have concentrated—so far—on only two textual sources that document Athenian variations: Isocrates in the fourth century BCE and Pausanias in the second century CE. If we look at yet another important source from the second century CE, however, which is Plutarch’s Life of Theseus, we can see a vast array of earlier sources focusing on versions of the myths where Theseus, king of Athens, undertakes a separate expedition to the Land of the Amazons, beyond what is then rethought as the first expedition undertaken by Hēraklēs. This way, Athenian mythmaking can deal with both an earlier and a later Queen of the Amazons: first there was Hippolyte and then there was Antiope. A relevant source cited in this regard by Plutarch, in Life of Theseus 26.1, is Philochorus (FGH 328 F 110), as also other authorities like Pherecydes (FGH 3 F 151), Hellanicus (FGH 323a F 16), and Herodorus (FGH 31 F 25a). There are also valuable details to be found, in the account of Plutarch, Life of Theseus 27.4–9, about the hero cults of Amazons, not only in Athens but also in other locales, as signaled by tombs marking where they were reportedly buried.

§27. And here I must add, as another example of differences that can be explained as local variations of myths and rituals concerning Amazons, a special detail linked not with the city of Athens but with the city of Miletus and with its daughter cities. This detail is clearly visible in sources like the Posthomerica of Quintus, 1.18, where the poet highlights a mighty river named Thermōdōn that flows through the territory of the Amazons. I follow here the argumentation of Ken Dowden (1997:100–101), who shows that this river in myth can be linked with a real river that flowed into the Black Sea in territory situated on the northern coast of Asia Minor between Sinope and Trapezous, two daughter-cities of the mother-city Miletus. In this case, we can see that the myth retold in the epic of Quintus about the inadvertent killing of Hippolyte by Penthesileia stems ultimately from relatively earlier Milesian rather than later Athenian traditions. And, in this regard, I find it most relevant that Arctinus, the archaic poet credited with composing the epic known as the Aithiopis, is described as a native of Miletus, since it is in this epic that the heroic deeds of Penthesileia as a warrior were primarily attested (plot-summary by Proclus of the Aithiopis by Arctinus of Miletus p. 105 lines 22-26 ed. Allen 1912).

§28. After inadvertently killing her sister Hippolyte in the hunting accident, as we read in the narrative of Quintus, 1.18–42, and also in the narrative of Diodorus, 2.46.5, the Amazon Penthesileia chooses a shift in roles, from hunter to warrior, as she now goes off to fight in the Trojan War, facing death as a near-certainty, in her effort to purify the pollution of having caused the death of her Amazon sister. She is facing her own death in her gesture of “survivor’s guilt”: Why should I keep on living when my sister is dead? And the purification that she seeks by way of her shifting from hunter to warrior, which will in fact lead to her death, is formalized in another retelling of the myth, in “Apollodorus,” Epitome 5.1, where we read that the king of Troy, old Priam, actual performs a formal ritual of purification for Penthesileia, thus sanctioning her shift in identity.

§29. Such a shifting of identities for an Amazon, from hunter to warrior, can lead to a shift in mythological perspectives, where the Amazon is actually pictured as a warrior and not as a hunter. And such shifting in perspectives can also be reversed, where the actual view of a given Amazon shifts back, sometimes unexpectedly, from warrior to hunter. For example, in the catalogue of Amazons who are killed by Hēraklēs in the course of his battle against them as narrated by Diodorus, at 4.16.2-3, three of those she-warriors—Kelaino, Eurybia, and Phoebe—are described as sun-kunēgoi ‘fellow-hunters [together with their hunting-dogs]’. And they are whose ‘fellow-hunters’? In the narrative of Diodorus, these Amazons are further described here, most pointedly, as hunting-companions of the goddess Artemis herself. In this case, then, the picturing of Amazons shifts unexpectedly from their immediate roles as she-warriors to their alternative roles as she-hunters. Similarly in the case of the Amazon Melanippe, the picture of her in the Edessa Mosaic that I show at the beginning of Phase 3 in my Introduction views her not in the role of she-warrior, as we saw her described in “Apollonius” and Diodorus, but in the role of she-hunter. In the mosaic, she is clearly labeled by the adjacent lettering as Melanippe, and she is clearly viewed in the act of hunting, not in the act of fighting in wars. Such a shift in viewings corresponds to what happens to Melanippe in the myth reported by Diodorus, at 4.16.3-4: our Amazon here, once her sister Hippolyte is killed by Hēraklēs, loses her value as a she-warrior held for ransom as a hostage. As we saw in the narrative of Diodorus, at 4.16.4, Hēraklēs goes on to free Melanippe, since Hippolyte is already dead and her belt has already been stripped from her. As I commented earlier, the life of the dead Hippolyte has been traded away for the life of the surviving Melanippe. In this case, then, the viewing of Melanippe as a hunter and not as a warrior in the Edessa Mosaic is most apt. Here the potential for “survivor’s guilt” is anticipated by picturing Melanippe in earlier and happier times, when she is still primarily a hunter, not a warrior.

§30. The iconographic evidence of the Edessa Mosaic can be taken even further. Following the expert analysis of Emma Loosley (2018), I now move on to consider the three other Amazons pictured in this collective representation of four Amazons in the act of hunting. Matching the picture of the Amazon Melanippe in the mosaic is a picture of her Amazon sister, whose name is, most tellingly, Hippolyte. So, the Amazon sister is still alive here. The Greek lettering adjacent to her picture makes her identity quite clear: ΙΠΠΟΛΥΤH, that is, Hippolyte. And, just as the Amazon sister Melanippe is viewed in the act of hunting down a lion, the Amazon sister Hippolyte is viewed, correspondingly, in the act of hunting down leopards. A third hunting Amazon featured in the Mosaic seems to be Thermōdossa. The Greek lettering that we see adjacent to her picture, although only the first three letters are visible, reads ΘΕΡ[…]. The name Thermōdossa means ‘the woman from [the river] Thermōdōn’, and we find such an Amazon attested in the epic of Quintus, at 1.18, where Thermōdossa is one of the twelve Amazons who have accompanied the Amazon Penthesileia to join the fighting in the Trojan War. Here again, the view of this Amazon as a warrior in epic has shifted to the role of hunter. As for the fourth Amazon, the Greek lettering that accompanied her picture has not survived. She is shown in the act of shooting an arrow at her target. But what is her identity? Maybe she is Penthesileia, or maybe she is Antiope?

§31.  In any case, all four of the Amazons pictured in the Edessa Mosaic are viewed collectively in the role of hunters, not warriors. And such a collective view, if these Amazons are to be imagined as hunting together, all at the same time, can take all four of them back to the happiest moments in their own past lifetimes. There are no wars to be fought—yet—and so our Amazons can take delight in hunting, which is what they love to do more than anything else in the whole world.

§32. I bring Phase 3 of my Introduction to a close by narrowing the focus, concentrating on two Amazons only. They are Hippolyte and Antiope. One of them, as we have seen, is identified by name in the Edessa Mosaic. She is Hippolyte. As for Antiope, we cannot know for sure whether she is absent or present in the Mosaic. In any case, what we have by now learned not only about Hippolyte but also about Antiope brings me here, at long last, to ask a question that was suppressed in Phase 1 of my Introduction, where I spoke, without naming names, about the mother of the hero Hippolytus, fathered by Theseus. All I said then was that this mother was an Amazon. Later on, in Phase 2 of the Introduction, I spoke about the modeling of Hippolytus on an Amazon like Hippolyte, and I even noted there the parallelism of the masculine name Hippolytus with the feminine name Hippolyte. I did not yet say in Phase 2, however, that Hippolyte could have been the mother of Hippolytus. But now, here at the end of Phase 3 in the Introduction, I finally come around to ask an obviously expected question: who, then, was the mother of Hippolytus? Was it Hippolyte? Some ancient sources do make the claim, yes, that Hippolyte was the mother—but such sources are exceptional. As an example of one such exception, I cite by way of Plutarch, Life of Theseus, 27.5, the testimony of an authority named Kleidēmos (FGH 323 F 18), who makes exactly this claim. And we can add here, by way of reportage from “Apollodorus,” Epitome 1.16, also the testimony of poets like Simonides (F 551a). And I have already cited the further testimony of Isocrates, Speech 12, Panathenaicus section 193. In most other ancient sources, however, we read that the Amazon Mother of Hippolytus was not Hippolyte but Antiope. I list here the following examples of such an alternative identification: Diodorus, 4.28; Plutarch, Life of Theseus 26 and 28; Pausanias, 1.2.1 and 1.41.7. Of course, such an alternative identification makes more sense, as we have already seen, from the standpoint of strictly Athenian myth-making. After all, the identity of Hippolyte is more variable than the identity of Antiope. To put it another way: the myths about Antiope are far more familiarly Athenian—and thus far less variable—than the myths about Hippolyte. And, finally, for good measure, I should add that we can even see, by way of a passing mention in “Apollodorus,” Epitome 1.16, yet another alternative version. Other sources, not named in the Epitome, claim that it was not Hippolyte, nor Antiope, but Melanippe who was the real Mother Amazon. I find this version a fitting afterthought in my own thinking about the vast variety of myths about Amazons. Here is an Amazon, Melanippe, whose life was spared by Hēraklēs in return for the lost life of her sister Amazon, Hippolyte, In this rarest of mythological variants, mentioned in the Epitome of “Apollodorus,” the Amazon who survived gives life to the son that her Amazon sister maybe never had.

§33. In view of all this variation in myths about the Amazon mother of Hippolytus, I find it most telling that there is, pointedly, no decision made about this Amazon’s identity in the most prestigious poetic mediation of myths about Hippolytus himself. I have in mind here the Hippolytus of Euripides. As duly noted in the commentary of Spencer Barrett (1964:8–9n3), the fact is that the poetry of Euripides in this case never names the Amazon mother of Hippolytus. Instead, she is simply ‘the Amazon’.


Detail of an Amazon archer, possibly Penthesileia—or possibly Antiope. From a Late Antique mosaic depicting Amazons hunting, ca. 5th–6th centuries CE, found in a villa in Urfa/Şanliurfa (ancient Edessa). Image via Wikimedia Commons.




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