The programmatic role of the vanishingly concise references to Amazons in the Iliad within both Homer’s epic and wider ancient myths of the Amazons invites an examination of the relationships between tropes and queerness in Greco-Roman mythic conceptions of gender and conflict. Here I extend “tropes,” on the one hand, to include both semantic play and rhetorical figures more generally, including marked “turns” of phrase, and extend “queerness,” on the other hand, to the questioning of and non-conformity with gender norms. Both terms are at play in the (in)famous contestations of the Homeric epithet ἀντιάνειραι (“a match for men”). In this paper, I argue that a close metrical/formulaic reading of the Iliad passages suggests that Homer’s Amazons presented a fantastical martial threat to his heroes, but one whose queerness antiquity received ambiguously.
This approach mitigates the risk of projecting modern assumptions about generalized classical Greek gender norms onto the mythic material, while maintaining the focus on the best-attested cultural spaces in which explicitly “Amazon” stories circulated, compared to the cross-cultural parallels highlighted in recent archaeological and comparative-literary studies. (Mayor 2014; Penrose 2016) Building from Blok’s (1995) foundational work on the Amazons in early epic, I begin with their Homeric epithet, its rarity in a heuristic sample of later poetry (including fragments of the Epic Cycle, Pindar, and Quintus Smyrnaeus), and its competing definitions among lexicographers and scholiasts. Despite the doubts of later commentators, I argue that the rhythms of the Iliad passages (e.g. 6.184-90) present Amazons queerly as worthy foes for Homeric heroes, with spondaic substitutions, the placement of caesurae, and the artful arrangement of formulae all weaving a heavily troped pattern of misleading initial stresses and coy deferrals that build to a revelation of the Amazon threat.
For example, I consider the poetic effects of using spondaic substitutions in the hexameter to call attention to a hero’s “καρτίστην δὴ τήν γε μάχην (fiercest battle)” with men, as opposed to Amazons (Il. 6.185-86), or what men call a hill (“τὴν ἤτοι ἄνδρες Βατίειαν κικλήσκουσιν”) which the gods know to be the tomb of the Amazon Myrina. (Il. 2.813-14) I next briefly compare these metrically highlighted contrasts to their interaction with the more rigid patterns of formulae in Homer’s references to Amazons, such as the final position of Ἀμαζόνες ἀντιάνειραι. I then draw upon Bakker’s theory of a “scale of increasing interformularity” (2013: 158) to argue that shared references to the Amazons (e.g., across Il. 3.184-90 and 6.184-90) establish thematic links confirmed by parallel metrical and formulaic features.
I conclude by returning to the ancient commentators to sketch the diachronic dimensions of the Amazons’ queer troping. In particular, I argue that the historical evolution of the power or quality (δύναμις) (e.g. Porph. in Harm. 104.10) by which the mythical Amazons were “a match for men,” must be understood in reference to the rhetorical strategies of individual source texts: in the case of the Iliad, rhythm and formula represent the Amazons as women always ready to leap into frightening action.
Turning Queer: Queerness and the Trope