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The Year of the Amazon?

DeAgostini/Getty Images
Duel between Amazons, illustration from Collection des vases grecs de le Comte de M Lamberg, by Alexandre de Laborde, nineteenth century

Why is the e-commerce giant called Amazon?

a) Because as the brand expands, the rainforest shrinks.
b) Because its hiring practices empower women.
c) Because its prices are AMAZIN’!

Actually, Jeff Bezos chose the name because the Amazon is the biggest river in the world. You might say he wanted his bookstore to swamp the competition.

In September, a group of environmental activists and artists, alarmed by fires raging out of control in the Amazon rainforest, and by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s ruinous policy of encouraging commercial development there, urged the notoriously chintzy Bezos to buy the Amazon rainforest. “So, do it, Jeff,” they wrote. “Invest in your legacy, before everyone figures out where all the cardboard comes from.”

Those ubiquitous Prime delivery vans during the holidays are part of Amazon’s burgeoning “fulfillment industry.” First “procurement,” then “fulfillment.” Exactly what kind of “customer satisfaction” is Amazon aiming for?

Whole Foods swallowed the New England chain Bread & Circus; then Amazon swallowed Whole Foods. But Bezos should have scrapped Amazon and rebranded his whole damned operation as Bread & Circus. It’s perfect for the current hydra-headed company.  

The Roman satirist Juvenal coined the phrase in his biting Tenth Satire: panem et circenses. The common people, he wrote, didn’t give a damn about their right to vote, which the tyrant Tiberius had brazenly stolen from them. All they really wanted was food and entertainment. As Robert Lowell put it in his dark 1960s version:

Now that we have no suffrage left to sell,
we have no troubles; we who once conferred
legions, fasces, empires, everything,
are simply subjects; restlessly we ask
for two things: bread and circuses.

When Amazon comes for our souls, we will ask, meekly, if the deal includes free streaming.

If Bezos named his firm after the Amazon River, how did the river itself come to be called the Amazon? Was the rainforest once inhabited by golden-crowned women warriors mounted on fleet-footed steeds?

When the Israeli actress Gal Gadot was told that she was too flat-chested to play an Amazon in Wonder Woman, in the 2017 blockbuster of that name, she responded that “historically accurate Amazonian women actually had only one breast,” the better to wield a bow. Gadot got the role, but modern scholars are skeptical of the popular notion that the Greek word amazon was derived from a and mazos, “without a breast.” 

The legend, though, must have seemed real enough to the Spanish explorer of Brazil Francisco de Orellana, who sailed down the river in 1540 and was attacked by the indigenous Tapuya people. Apparently, he believed, in the fog of war, that the Tapuya fighters were both male and female, so he named the river for the legendary nomadic women warriors of Scythia (eastern Iran), whose fierce independence, in love and war, was memorably described by Herodotus. (No Amazon shall wed, Herodutus reported, “until she has killed a man in battle.”) And Amazon stuck.

Some historians think, however, that Orellana may have mistaken long-haired male warriors wearing grass skirts for women. Not unlike, perhaps, those lovelorn sailors mistaking manatees for mermaids.

I once proposed the name Amazon Grace for a female racehorse that my father-in-law had bred. The mare was Princess Carolina and the stallion, as I remember, was Jungle Savage. I thought the pun was pretty clever, linking the parental names with both the hymn and the rainforest, and suggesting that the filly would be amazingly graceful (like Princess Grace maybe). My father-in-law just snorted.

Whether or not it was for want of a human breast, the Amazon warrior Camilla was suckled by a wild mare when she was a baby. Maybe that’s why, as Virgil says in the Aeneid, she ran over the ocean waves so fast that her feet didn’t get wet. Robert Graves thought the Amazons, with their horsey names like Hippolyte (the Amazon mom of Gadot’s character, Diana Prince, from Greek hippos for horse), were associated with a pre-Hellenic horse cult. Its “priestesses,” he proposed, had been tamed by the “warrior kings” of Hellas.

The poet would undoubtedly have been intrigued, then, by the report this month that archaeologists in southwestern Russia had discovered a 2,500-year-old grave containing four “Amazon women warriors.” According to CNN.com, the oldest woman bears an elaborate ceremonial headdress made of gold. The youngest was “buried as a ‘horseman,’” including a mysterious “grave tradition of cutting the tendons in the legs.” Why? Because horses were ritually sacrificed along with their riders? So she’s dependent on horses to get around in the world of the dead?

Just imagine Diana Prince hearing the news of this discovery, as she sits primly at her desk in the antiquities department at the Louvre! A sequel, Wonder Woman 1984, with Gadot back in the starring role, is slated for release in June. The last time I checked, the trailer on YouTube had received over 24 million views. But wait. That 1984?

It was a freethinking psychologist with a Harvard doctorate named William Moulton Marston who dreamed up the original DC Comic of Wonder Woman in 1941—at much the same time as George Orwell’s dystopia of a world at permanent war, ruled by Ministries of Truth and Love and the disinformation of Newspeak, took shape in his imagination. As the historian Jill Lepore pointed out, in her 2014 The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Marston’s early research on human excitation led to the lie-detector test—hence Princess Diana’s golden lasso that forces anyone in its grip to tell the truth—which Big Brother would have found a handy device for uncovering 1984’s “thoughtcrime.”

Marston’s academic career was derailed by his unorthodox research on human sexuality, and by his equally unorthodox living arrangements with two women. His wife, a psychologist and lawyer, had learned Ancient Greek at Mount Holyoke, where I proudly teach. The third member of the ménage-à-trois, a former student of Marston’s, was a niece of Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood. Wonder Woman had her origins in feminist utopian fiction, Lepore maintains, in which Amazons were all the rage. The original Wonder Woman fought, a little optimistically, for “America, the last citadel of democracy, and of equal rights for women!”

According to Lepore, the figure of Princess Diana, “the last Amazon,” was specifically inspired by Sanger’s fight for women’s reproductive rights. As we round into 2020, Roe v. Wade is about to come under renewed attack, with the specter of a compliant Supreme Court in the wings. More than 200 members of Congress recently asked the court to overturn Roe in an abortion case expected to be decided in June.

After he buys the Amazon rainforest, maybe Jeff Bezos could spare a little change for that other Amazonian cause, Planned Parenthood.