Amazons: Warrior Women in Fact and Fiction by Catherine Lundoff (2014 Lesbian Fiction Appreciation Event)

Jan 13, 2014 by

Amazons: Warrior Women in Fact and Fiction by Catherine Lundoff (2014 Lesbian Fiction Appreciation Event)

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 The legend of the Amazon, a warrior woman who fought as part of a tribe of warrior women, has been with us since the ancient Greeks. She appears in art, in Homer’s poetry, in Shakespeare’s plays, in television shows like Xena, in comics like Wonder Woman, and finally, in archaeological evidence. She has one breast, two breasts, armor, a bow and arrows, a sword, drives a chariot or rides a horse. She may even carry a gun or no weapon at all.

Regardless of whether or not the burial evidence supports the reality of a society of amazons organized the way that early stories describe them, the term “Amazon” stays with us, becoming synonymous with female warriors. Women warriors are the stuff of epic poetry like Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and Spenser’s The Faerie Queen just as they were reality in the persons of the Amazons of Dahomey, soldiers like Deborah Sampson and Shaolin Master Ng Mui. Tales of armies of fighting women in South America were even enough to inspire the conquistadors to give the name “Amazon” to the mighty river said to run through their territory. Their weapons varied widely across cultures, as did their origin stories and their forms of resistance to their respective culture’s gender norms but they have always been with us.

Over time, the word “Amazon” became synonymous with any strong woman who could be identified as a warrior of some sort. From female gladiators to Joan of Arc to Mademoiselle de Maupin, who dueled on the mean seventeenth century streets of Paris for money when she wasn’t singing in the Opera, all had the term applied to them. Despite this degree of fame, historians were quick to proclaim that the Amazons of Asia Minor and the Amazons of South America were myths. In much the same way, women who fought as soldiers in the Napoleonic Wars or the American Revolution were written out of history or made “unique,” somehow so outside the realms of possibility that no ordinary women could follow their example.

But they have always been with us, whether recognized or not.




Writer and editor Jessica Amanda Salmonson in her Encyclopedia of Amazons (1991) defined an Amazon as a “woman who is a duelist or a soldier…who engages others in direct combat.” To this, Salmonson adds the addendum that the Amazon fights with “some semblance of skill and honorability.” It makes for an interesting way to demarcate the women who were fighters from the ones who just had strong personalities, though honor is often in the eye of the beholder.

Salmonson’s take on Amazons is free-ranging across time and cultures, fiction and nonfiction, including women from fighting Aztec goddesses, WWII resistance fighter Janos Halasi and lesbian highway-woman and brawler Mary Frith, known as “Moll Cutpurse.” This blurs the line between history and fiction, but as Salmonson points out, women’s stories are often lost to history and what remains are legends and tall tales and songs.

Amazons and women warriors who are Amazonlike have always been popular in mediums like comic books. The various writers of Wonder Woman have kept the more or less classic Amazons of Greek legend in the public eye for decades. More recently, the television shows Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess regularly featured Amazons from different tribes and traditions, and at various points, Gabrielle becomes an Amazon Princess and Xena, an Amazon Queen. These shows in turn influenced similar shows with fighting women protagonists from Buffy to Relic Hunter.

Given that the legendary Amazons of the ancient world and women who emulated them were often claimed to be lesbian or bisexual, astonishingly few classic Amazons turn up in contemporary lesbian fiction. Societies of women warriors who pay homage to the Amazons appear most commonly in fantasy and science fiction, including such works as Chris Anne Wolfe’s Amazons of Aggar series, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Free Amazons in her Darkover books and Monique Wittig’s Les Guérillères.

That said, there are a number of fighting women represented in lesfic. From pirates like Merry Shannon’s Branded Ann, Brenda Adcock’s The Sea Hawk and Catherine Friend’s A Pirate’s Heart to female knights like L-J Baker’s Lady Knight and Nan Hawthorne’s Beloved Pilgrim, readers can find an interesting range of depictions of warrior women. For readers looking for stories outside medieval Europe or the heyday of Caribbean piracy, there are characters like D. Jordan Redhawk’s Lakota warrior in Tiopa Ki Lakota or Catherine M. Wilson’s three book trilogy When Women Were Warriors, which depicts a Bronze Age female warrior.

In fantasy and science fiction, there are fantasy series like J.F. Rivkin’s Silverglass books and S.M. Stirling and Shirley Meier’s The Cage novels that depict bisexual swordswomen while Laurie Marks’ Elemental Logic series includes a lesbian warrior protagonist. Science fiction offers up starship captains and pilots like Sandra Barret’s Face of the Enemy and Gun Brooke’s Supreme Constellations series.

And, in contemporary settings, there are numerous novels about women veterans such K.A. Kron’s Don’t Tell and female cops like Kate Delafield, the protagonist of Katherine Forrest’s mystery novels. Lesbian fanfic features lesbian warriors inspired by such popular shows as Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Buffy and of course, Xena. Manga, anime and games all offer their audiences additional kinds of fighting women.

Given the wealth of stories, many of them true, about fighting women throughout history, there’s plenty of story material and inspiration to be found and explored. But even more than inspiring writers, the stories we tell about Amazons and other fighting women inspire new generations of women who find different ways to be warriors.


About the author:

Catherine Lundoff is a former archeologist, former grad student and former bookstore owner turned professional computer geek and award-winning author and editor.  She is a transplanted Brooklynite who now lives in Minneapolis with her wife and the two cats that own them. Silver Moon (Lethe Press, 2012) is her latest book and “Medium Méchanique” in Ghosts in Gaslight, Monsters in Steam (2013) and “The Light Fantastic” in Luna Station Quarterly (2013) are her latest stories. Website:




  1. Very interesting post, thanks for sharing. I’ve seen quite a bit of Xena/Gabrielle fan fic pairings over the years; some of it quite good.

  2. Sheila

    Good column. I did not realize that Amazons had such a rich history.

  3. Catherine Lundoff

    Thanks for the comments! 🙂

  4. Gotta love a gal with a sword. Or a bow and arrow. Or a laser gun. ; )

  5. Catherine Lundoff

    Thanks for the lovely comments! 🙂

  6. Catherine – have you ever read Manda Scott’s “dreaming” series – it follows a fictionalized Queen Boudica throughout her trials with the invading Roman armies. Good stuff. Thanks for the above.


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