This is an illustration from Regnum Congo, hoc est Vera descriptio Regni Africani (The Kingdom of Congo, that is a True Description of the Kingdom of the People of Africa). Regnum Congo contains a Latin translation of Filippo Pigafetta’s account of the Portuguese Odoardo Lopez’s expedition to central Africa in 1578. It is illustrated with engraved plates by the de Bry family. The book was the first part of Belgian engraver Theodor de Bry’s Petits Voyages series, also known as the ‘India Orientalis’ series. The series was published between 1597 and 1633, with de Bry’s sons continuing the work after their father’s death in 1598.
This engraving shows a band of ‘Amazon’ women warriors fighting a male army. The women are naked and armed with bows and arrows, spears and rocks. One of the male warriors has been killed by an arrow to the chest. In the foreground is a solitary woman depicted with bow and arrows, long flowing hair and a single breast – an example of the Amazon warrior woman. In the middle ground in front of the battle is a pubescent girl having her breast removed by two other women (Amazon warriors were believed to remove one breast in order to aid their archery).
In the Elizabethan period there was a fascination with and fear of Amazons. They were described both in Greek legends and in contemporary travel writing (on the New World, Africa and the Middle East), and adopted as a trope in English literature of the period. The idea of a colony of women who governed themselves without men, who fought in battle like men, who either spurned men (with implications of lesbianism) or used them sexually, and even killed them, had the power to both challenge and re-confirm early modern ideas about gender roles. Amazons were often described in Elizabethan literature as unwomanly: York, in Henry VI, Part 3, says of Margaret, ‘How ill-beseeming is it in thy sex / To triumph like an Amazonian trull’ (1.4.113–14). They were also presented as needing to be (and being) killed or tamed and brought under (male) control. Fears and fantasies about Amazon warriors resonated with fears and fantasies about female monarchs.
In Greek legend, Hippolyta was an Amazon Queen who was taken as a prize by Theseus of Athens after he had conquered her in battle (although some Renaissance writers tell the story with Hippolyta and the Amazons as the victors). Shakespeare’s Theseus alludes to this conquest when he says: ‘Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword, / And won thy love doing thee injuries.’ (1.1.16–17) Shakespeare’s Hippolyta seems to have been tamed; her role is largely silent and accepting of Theseus’s authority. The trope of the Amazon tamed acts as a backdrop against which the other gendered power struggles (Hermia and Egeus; Titania and Oberon; the four lovers) play out.