Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
CHAPTER TWO: LOST AMAZON TRIBES
Scholars have long theorized that the original Centaurs were the bow wielding, horse riding cavalry of the Amazons. So memorable proved their first encounter with them for the Greeks that they entered mythology as nearly divine beings. In a few centuries they had also been all but completely masculinized. Luckily, there is more than this meagre evidence for their origins.
The word 'centaur' itself has proven to be a thorny problem. It is usually translated as meaning a group of one hundred, or perhaps as being worth a hundred men. The difficulty here is that 'cent' means one hundred in Latin, not Greek, and the Greeks called these half horse beings 'Kentauros.' A more accurate translation is one from Classical times mentioned by Robert Graves, 'those who spear bulls.' The Scott-Liddell Lexicon defines taurokentae as 'bull stabbers.' The meaning points to a region around the Black Sea, famous for its devotees to Artemis Tauropolos and as a former centre of the Amazon Nation. In turn, Kallipolis (now Gallipoli) was in the centre of Amazon territory, and considered a 'centaur city.'
What of the fact that some Greek writers took care to speak of 'hippo-kentauros' rather than centaurs in general? Purely mythical centaurs seem to have been any being whose lower body was that of a deer, goat, or other hoofed animal. Embodying both the feral and the tamed in their very bodies, centaurs may have been divine messengers or powerful shamans. Accordingly, they had unnerving control over animals and superhuman talents. A first encounter with mounted warriors with similarly astonishing control over animals, firing arrows farther than any Greek had seen before, returns matters back to the theory first stated.
Many Goddesses with horse heads or horse bodies were also worshipped by the Amazons and their descendants. The horse native to Europe was dedicated to the Goddess Artemis, the primary deity of the Thermodontine Amazons. The artists of Archaic Greece recorded an early version of the story of Perseus' murder of Medusa on an amphora of the 6th or 7th century BCE, and portrayed Medusa, a queen of the Libyan Gorgons, as a centaur. The interests and skills of centaurs also match those of Amazons, their deities, and common activities of priestesses before the takeover by patriarchs. They were excellent archers, able to draw bows that ordinary Greeks could not – derived from the Greek and Roman practice of drawing the bow only to their chests, while Amazons and related tribes like the Sarmatians drew the bow past the ear. Their bows were also often larger, and of a composite type.
Centaurs were eerily accurate prophets, especially the few female centaurs known to the Greeks, exemplified by Melanippe 'black mare' and Okyrrhoe 'swift flowing', daughter of Chariklo 'graceful bloom.' Melanippe was so hated and feared by the Greek gods they attempted to destroy her. Artemis saved her by making her into a constellation, today called Sagittarius. Female prophets were commonly treated badly in ancient Greece, until only at Delphi and Dodona did they play any role at all, and that much reduced.
The Centaurs were magical shapeshifters, suggesting shamanic trances and the use of animal masks. Violent men the Classical Greeks considered heroes almost invariably studied with centaur teachers whom they accidentally killed, just as invariably. It is now recognized that the process of forcing Goddess worshipping peoples underground destroyed a huge body of knowledge, congruent with the centaur reputation for great wisdom. The Dorian Greeks, who may be the main tellers of centaur tales, induced a Dark Age in Greece by violently invading the peninsula. Long after their disappearance into myth, centaurs were so respected that they were called Magnetes 'Great Ones,' a term that has survived in 'magnate,' meaning a privileged landowner.
By Classical times, much of the unsavoury behavior associated with the Dorian Greeks had been transposed to the Centaurs by the Greeks descended from them. A left over from earlier tales was the continuous Centaur-Lapith conflict, a mirror of the continuous antipathy between Amazons and Greeks.
The Lapiths finally won by trickery, but the remaining Centaurs retreated to the mountains and the Elysian Fields, just as the Amazons faded into the mountains and across land and sea to better climes.
Due to their association with Artemis and Goddess worshipping peoples, as well as their similarity to some portrayals of the Sirens, the Harpies have been included here.
The connection to Artemis derives mainly from their bird-woman status and bronze feathers, both common to descriptions of warrior priestesses who often wore bird masks and feathered cloaks in their rituals or in battle. Like the Amazons and Sirens, the Harpies were wholly female. They drove off ancestors of the eventual founders of Rome (better known in myth as Aeneas and the invading Trojans), possibly fighting under a banner emblazoned with a falcon. The Illyrian town of Harpeia 'city of the falcon' was named for them, and falls in former Amazon territory.
As far back as the Neolithic, carrion birds were portrayed feeding on the dead, carrying them back to the Great Mother. The Harpies as portrayed by the Greeks are their descendants, including among their numbers several of her totem birds and ritual practices. For example, seabirds, falcons, and dances in feathered cloaks and head dresses. The human heads and breasts of the Harpies have also been connected specifically to the women of Krete, who customarily left their breasts and necks bare. A Kretan cave was considered one of their homes. They were the original heavenly figures playing harp music to greet the dead. Or they could be more frightening beings who punished the guilty.
Appropriately, the Harpies were considered daughters of Gaea or Rhea who appeared on the Strophalus islands or at the gates of the underworld, where they deposited the souls of the dead. There is no real agreement over their numbers, although eight seems to be the maximum ever mentioned and then never with eight unique names. The names given to specific Harpies usually include:
Opponents of the Argonauts:
Aello 'storm wind, howler' aka Nikothoe 'nimble justice'; associated with the south wind
Okypete 'fast flier, swift wing'
Kelaeno 'obscurity, screamer'
Podarge 'bright foot' aka Kelaeno 'obscurity, screamer,' strongly associated with horses
Acholoe 'allaying anger'
MEDUSA AND THE GORGONS
The organization of the Amazon tribes in North Africa, the devastating effect of invasions, and the aims of patriarchal elites have almost completely obscured the identity of the Gorgons and their Goddess Medusa. The most well known portrayals of them in stone, pottery, and paper do nothing but record the confusion. Clarity begins in the distant past, wending its way through Mesopotamia and Egypt, before passing through pre-Mykenaean Krete and beyond.
The earliest known appearance of a female head with bulging eyes, lolling tongue, and wild hair was identified by Dr. Marija Gimbutas among the artifacts of people she called Old Europeans, because they preceded the Indo-Europeans in the area. The picture dates from the 5th millennium BCE, and then the gorgon reappears independently in Southern Rumania roughly five hundred years later. The people of ancient Mesopotamia knew the gorgons too, except they called them lahamas, and they were kindly sea creatures reminiscent of mermaids. The Egyptians derived the uraeus headdress from her, usually worn by their Cat Goddess Bast (Pasht), who was crowned with serpents themselves crowned with solar disks. Otherwise, she wore an asp, the other sacred snake of Egyptian queens, on her forehead. Eventually these ideas coalesced in the Goddess Medusa, Queen of the Gorgons, at once beautiful and frightening.
First and foremost, Medusa was a Sun Goddess and representative of women's genital mysteries. Snakes are generally connected to the Sun in mythology; obviously as in Egypt, or more subtly as the guardian of the solar apples of the Hesperides. Just as Athena would later, Medusa ruled the ocean, ships, and all the skills and arts dealing with them. Her petrifying gaze was the contradictory Sun and the keen vision of the ship's pilot. The snakes standing erect over her forehead are often her favoured blue cobras, looking like the headdress later worn by Bast, or like dreadlocked hair.
The Atlas Mountains were Medusa's first creations, so she was called 'mountain mother' like Cybele. The navel of the world was once said to be Medusa herself in the form of a mountain. In semi-human form, her body was covered, not with reptilian scales as one might expect, but with fish scales. These were always carefully drawn to make a pattern of meanders (), a sacred symbol for water dating back to the Palaeolithic. Since she inhabited the sky as well as the sea, Medusa always had wings which were able to double as fins. This combination of oceanic connections seems to have helped inspire a shift in meaning for the word 'gorgon' in modern versus ancient Greek; in modern Greek, the word now means 'mermaid.' A fascinating change, especially in view of the fact that mermaid lore records them as being especially dangerous to foolish or malicious men, living in an underworld realm without men of any sort, 'mer' or otherwise.
During the day, when she may have been titled 'Hippo' for her skill with the horses of her solar chariot. Medusa travelled across the sky, watching over children and guiding schools of fish, symbolic of unborn souls. At night she sailed in a stone boat across the ocean, from where it covered the upper Earth to the Underworld. There Medusa heated thermal springs and imbued them with healing power, according to Goodrich her keen gaze went on twinkling in the sky as the star now known to be an eclipsing binary and called by the Arabic name Algol 'serpent's eye.' Only the very fortunate saw Medusa's sacred island, home of mermaids, enclosed in willows, representing her genital centre.
Medusa's priestesses were as fierce and frightening, beautiful and kind as her. They wore their hair long, in dreadlocks or just matted into rough strings. It was imperative never to cut or interfere with the growth of this hair, because it symbolized their shamanic power, which the priestesses demonstrated by walking across burning coals in bare feet without injury. Often they had extensive knowledge of herbs to compliment their spiritual practice, including contraceptives like the seeds of poplars and willows, silphium from the giant fennel, or laurel berries. These powerful women formed the basis of the Amazon tribe later called 'the Gorgons.' The Gorgon high priestess presided over North Africa and Amazon colonies in Italy and Spain.
Some of the Amazon Gorgons seem to have come from lands far from Africa. The mythical Gorgons were painted in two main styles by the time Greek tribes finished taking over the Southern European peninsula: Kretan and Mainland. On Krete, Gorgons were shown with thick, curling hair, fangs, lolling tongue, and wings. On the mainland, Gorgons were shown with snakes for hair that stood out from the head, other features being the same. The Mainland style suggests dreadlocked Libyan Amazons, while the Kretan style contains hints of Anatolian or Indian Amazons, especially when the Gorgon was a Lady of the Beasts.
Indian Amazons were worshippers of Uma, driven from the subcontinent by invaders and probably climate change. The Kali-like nature of Medusa may have been emphasized by their input. Kali destroyed various demons in the form of animals in the tales told by the invaders, suggesting she too began as a benign ruler of the wilds. Her headdress was often made of or decorated with snakes and flames. To this day, there are Indian women who feel called to let their hair grow long and matted, prophesy, and walk barefoot across hot coals, doing so without injury. They answer the call by leaving the men they live with if any, refusing to sleep with them, and moving away to establish themselves in homes apart from their former villages.
Anatolian Amazons carved four-winged Gorgons at Delphi and Ephesus to suggest the swift moving wings of bees, a reference to Medusa as a chthonic Goddess, because honey and beeswax were used in embalming.
Like Artemis, who may have partially absorbed her in some parts of Greece, Medusa was worshipped over an extensive geographical area, carried there by Amazons. The Etruscans knew her as Metusa and dedicated the island of Gorgo on the Tyrrhenian Sea to her. Iran, Afghanistan, Russia, Tibet, and ancient Anatolia are dotted with mountains named 'Gorgon' for her. The name began to mutate, becoming 'Urgo,' 'Orkhon,' and eventually 'Gargantua' as the Amazons spread through Scandinavian and Celtic lands.
The Romans and the Greeks translated the names of the Triple Gorgons into their own languages with telling results. Among the Greeks they were the daughters of the Moon, Sun, and Sea Goddess: Strength, Universality, and Wisdom, Stheino, Euryale, and Medusa in order of decreasing age. The Romans called them Valeria 'valourous,' Lativolva 'far flyer,' and Guturna 'ocean pilot' instead.
The Greeks also seemed to believe the Gorgonian Amazons worshipped Athena, the Sun in her death bringing aspect. Then the other aspects of the Sun were Wisdom and the Maiden, Medusa and Akantha 'burning Sun,' a name often carried by Athena's Greek priestesses. The idea seems to come from confusion of the Amazon Goddess with Anatha, a Goddess Athena either absorbed or is descended from.
The Gorgons were not the only North African Amazons. Their sister tribe was the Tritoni, long ago forced onto the mainland by the loss of their island off the west coast of North Africa in a volcanic explosion. It was the Tritoni who worshipped a Goddess of Moon and Sea, called Sipylene. Eventually the two tribes united, to the complete bewilderment of Greek storytellers, who were already lost in thealogical mazes.
The legend of Medusa's murder is no older than the 5th century BCE. Argive and Samian worshippers of Hera always remembered her as an Amazon queen named for a Goddess who was murdered by the combined efforts of Athenian and Southern Greek warlords. Their curious insistence that Medusa's head was buried in front of Hera's great temple seems to be because they had forgotten Hera was herself a Snake Goddess. Athena's role is a late addition, as is the name 'Athens' which was renamed after the recodification of Greek religion following the Dark Age. Even the sacred burning mirrors of the Goddess were turned against her, recast as Perseus' shield. In the 6th century century BCE, the Gorgons were still commonly viewed as an Amazon tribe rather than mythical beings, although Queen Medusa had begun to be rendered as a centaur, as mentioned previously.
The Graea, later guardians of the Gorgons descend from the war priestesses and warriors of the Amazons, who often had grey hair. The Sarmatians, Scythians, and Celts placed such women at the head of their armies to cast victory spells and terrify the enemy, a likely Amazon practice. Jessica A. Salmonson has also noted that at first, Amazon armies probably consisted mostly of older women, including younger women only much later.
Tritonian Medusa gave the Sun its moniker of 'Gorgon's Head,' and the gorgon mask always symbolized women's mysteries. Given Medusa's connections to various contraceptives, those mysteries must have included methods to encourage or discourage conception. The snake, Moon, and menstrual cycle were interrelated symbols of women and rebirth in these mysteries, and were remembered as such long enough to spawn wild superstitions. These included the belief that menstrual blood buried in the Earth under the Full Moon's light bred serpents or basilisks, or that a menstruating woman's gaze could turn men to stone, like the gaze of Medusa herself.
After Medusa and Athena had their places switched... at least in Greek perceptions... Athena always bore a gorgoneum on her breastplate or shield and was accompanied by a snake. Medusa's petrifying gaze, the keen heat of the Sun or the wary gaze of the ship's pilot became better known as a piercer of untruth and vehicle of death. She had been a funerary and Bee Goddess before, but now Medusa's balancing aspects of Mother, Creator, and Purveyor of Justice were gone. Medusa was now only the reminder of the inevitability of death, when people were buried beneath tombstones or memorialized by pillars. Circles of standing stones were originally sacred memorials set up by funerary priestesses in honour of the dead, of those 'turned to stone.'
Later threads suggest more similarities to Kali, who dealt death with her right hand and resurrection with her left. Medusa's blood dealt life or death depending which side of her body it was taken from. Her youngest children, born at her death from her blood symbolized the same thing, Pegasus from her left representing resurrection, and Chrysaor from her right representing death. In one portrayal of Kali, she is shown beheaded, her head sitting to one side, expression peaceful. No enemy is anywhere in the picture, but there is a shakti standing on either side of her, drinking the blood that comes from her neck, a curious parallel.
The Gorgon Goddess had a festival which was eventually fixed on September 9th, although it was probably once set on the autumn equinox. Where does this date come from? The christian church, which once included a Saint Gorgon in its canon.
The 'grey ones' or 'old women' are astonishingly similar to the Crone and Swan Goddesses of the Celts. They were considered swan maidens as well, with prematurely grey hair, or grey-black skinned crones with one eye and one tooth between them. The Cailleach 'veiled one' had one eye in the centre of her forehead and blue-black skin, matching her to the Moon in a clear sky at night. The Graea are also a Moon trinity, and like her were veiled embodiments of the future.
While they were always connected to night and the underworld, this may also reflect changes caused by shifts in the culture and society of Greece. The Graea perpetually guarded the Gorgons, like deified older Amazon warriors. Worshippers of neither Apollo nor Herakles, they lived 'far from the Sun.' True to their purpose, the Graea were named Pamphredo 'wasp,' Enyo 'warrior,' and Deimo 'terrible.' Occasionally Pamphredo was named Perso 'destroyer' instead.
- Graves, p. 361. Marija Gimbutas in 'The Language of the Goddess' suggests that the word comes from 'kentron' the ancient Greek word for an ox goad.
- A Greek-English Lexicon, 1968.
- 'Harpy' in Greek may be translated as 'snatcher (like a predatory bird),' 'falcon,' or 'plucker (like a lyre or harp player).'
- Gimbutas, 'The Living Goddess,' chapter 8.
- Eisler, 'Sacred Pleasure,' p. 421, note 6. These beings may also be related to Lama, a Sumerian Goddess who was known for her kindliness and introduced mortals to deities. She was identifiable by her long, flounced dress, curiously reminiscent of those worn by Minoan women.
- See the 'Mermaid' entry in World-Web Two of Mary Daly and Jane Caputi's Wickedary.
- Suggesting that the Sun was originally considered a sort of glowing coal, that was covered in a layer of ash that hid its light when it was in the underworld.
- In Goodrich 1989. The Arabs had considerable contact with Hellenistic culture, but the provenience of this star name is not entirely clear.
- The correspondence between the Greek word 'kalli' and the name 'Kali' is not a coincidence; the words come from the same Indo-European root.
- If this sharp role reversal seems hard to believe, see Chapter Seven. Athena was recast in a similarly extreme fashion.
- The origins of Athena's name are fascinatingly problematic. The Mykenaeans called her Atana, a blatantly non-Indo-European name.
- Salmonson, p. 103.