Sunday, February 12, 2006

The Breast Thing

I'd read the first couple of issues of Y the Last Man and thought it looked interesting, and I'd been thinking of picking up the collected editions, but hadn't got around to it yet, so when I saw issue #40 sitting in a bargain bin I picked it up.

Turns out this was a good issue to grab at random as it is pretty much a stand alone story, and I am even more encouraged to get the collections, but there was one bit in it that knocked me sideways slightly. In the story one of the characters reveals that she had been a member of a modern amazon group. She does so by displaying the mastectomy scar where her left breast should be. This confused me for a moment because the historical amazons didn't cut off their left breasts. They didn't even cut off the right ones.

Whether the writer Brain K. Vaughan had been taken in by the myth, or if he was just saying that the women in the story had been, I don't know. Maybe that will become clearer when I get to read the rest of the story.

You see it's all based on a mistranslation. According to Wikipedia:

The name Ἀμαζών is probably derived from an Iranian ethnonym, *ha-mazan-, originally meaning "warriors". A connected word is probably the Hesychius gloss ἁμαζακάραν· πολεμεῖν ("to make war", containing the Indo-Iranian root kar- "make" also in kar-ma).

The Greek variant of the name was connected by popular etymology to privative a + mazos, "without breast", connected with an aetiological tradition that Amazons had their right breast cut off or burnt out, in order that they might be able to use the bow more freely (contemporary Greeks drew the bowstring to the sternum); there is no indication of this practice in works of art, in which the Amazons are always represented with both breasts, although the right is frequently covered. Other suggested derivations were: a- (intensive) + mazos, breast, "full-breasted"; a (privative) and masso, touch, "not touching" (men); maza, a Circassian word said to signify "moon", has suggested their connection with the worship of a moon-goddess, perhaps the Asiatic representative of Artemis.

According to the myth the Amazons remove their right breast for a practical reason - to make using a bow easier. The modern Amazon would not be so bow-dependant, and even if she was, champion bow-women seem to manage without resorting to surgery. So a modern Amazon could only be following this non-existant "tradition" for purely ritualistic purposes.

Which seems an awful lot of trouble to go to because of a mistranslation.


Axel M. Gruner said...

For a religious fanatic one word, even mistranslated, can be enough reason to do the most amazing things. Roman Catholic celibate for example comes - if I remember rightly - from the ancient customs of the priests of Kybele/magna Mater zu cut off their genitals as a sign of affection for their deity.

Unknown said...

Yes, it is meant to be a symbolic thing in the comic. Although Hero, Yorick's sister (the one mentioned in issue #40, I think), does use a bow at some point in the series. The Amazons in the series are a group that says the world is better off without the men, and seeks to destroy anything related to men, such as sperm banks.

Anonymous said...

Axel, you are, in fact, completely wrong. The word celibate comes from the Latin word "caelibatus" which was derived from "caelebs", which meant "unmarried."

It had nothing to do with Magna Mater worship; the theological reasoning comes from the writings of the Apostle Paul. And it doesn't involve genital mutilation.

--John Biles

Anonymous said...

You'd be annoyed if you had a breast removed and then found your archery hadn't could be an origin! "I was taken in by rubbish and now dedicate my life to tracking down lies and nailing them! I am Verity!"

Harvey Jerkwater said...

To be a pedantic bastard, celibacy for Catholic clergy was a product of the twelfth century. It was a later tradition than pretty much everything else.

Mostly it was a result of efforts to reform monasteries, with some political reasons thrown in. The issue was debated for well over a century.

Getting back to the Amazons and the partial mastectomy...wouldn't it be amusing if neo-Nazis, as a symbol of their solidarity with the party founder, all had one of their nuts surgically removed?

Well, I'd laugh. I'm a bad person.

Axel M. Gruner said...

Dear John,
I was referring to Origen(es), who actually did cut off the better part of his manhood and strongely advocated for priests to just as he did. The actual celibate came later. (Since there's a biblical verdict that no castrate can enter Heaven, real castration was forbidden.) But the idea was in the air.

Tegan O'Neil said...

I was going to say what Harvey said but he beat me to it. Part of it had to do with keeping priests from getting too powerful and allowing Rome to control the distribution of Church property.