What’s so special about the Girdle of Hippolyte?
One rewarding aspect of reading Wonder Woman is how her story weaves through a broad literary world, from classical mythology to Shakespeare, endowing fantastical comics with a palpable sense of reality. That is rarely the case with other superheroes. If you look up Krypton in the Encyclopedia Brittanica, you will learn about the noble gas discovered in 1898 by Sir William Ramsay and Morris W. Travers, but you will be no closer to understanding Superman’s home planet, because it has no real-world analogue. Batman’s Gotham City is equally devoid of reality.
When it comes to Wonder Woman’s world, however, a search for Aphrodite, Athena, Hippolyte, and Hercules can reveal an entire universe of epic adventure and a journey through literature, history, and mythology. The further you dive into Greek myth, the more you learn how deep Wonder Woman’s mythic roots run.
Take Aphrodite’s Magic Girdle, for instance.
In his book, Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World’s Most Famous Heroine, comics historian Tim Hanley explores the nature of this sacred artifact The girdle, he explains, is an example of a zoster, a belt which denotes the power of the nation’s leader and/or champion. Ancient Greeks believed that such items carried the power of its wearer, power which could be transferred from the conquered to conqueror. Mystic power transfer or not, wearing the prized possession of a defeated warrior confirmed to the world who had won the battle. It’s something akin to the championship belt in modern professional wrestling.
The term zoster translates as “zone” and could be used to denote the belt itself and/or the waist it encircles. It’s also suggestive of the the proximate vulnerable sex organs. Hippolyte’s belt girded her loins, so to speak. The tale of how Hercules seized the queen’s zoster by force, as he pierced her with his sword, unsubtly describes the rape of the Amazon queen.
In classical mythology, it was Hippolyta’s father Ares who gifted her this magic belt. Her might was inherited directly from the war god himself. In the comics, Hippolyta had no father, heavenly or otherwise, and the Magic Girdle was instead given to her by Aphrodite. In both stories, the girdle symbolized Amazon supremacy and Hippolyte’s queenship, but which deity it came from made all the difference. Marston’s Amazons fought wars in the name of Love, not for love of War.
The Magic Girdle as a gift from Aphrodite adds another dimension to the mythology. Hanley correctly identifies the girdle as a zoster, but it is also something more, a specific artifact from the boudoir love goddess herself. Aphrodite was said to wear a golden girdle called the Cestus, an enchanted belt that rendered its wearer amorously irresistible to man, woman, or god. She once loaned it to Hera, who sought to recapture the attention of her husband Zeus, whose wandering eye had strayed yet again.
In superhero comics, conflicts are nearly always imagined as fistfights, but Marston pulled from primal symbolism to illuminate the ongoing metaphysical battle between Aphrodite and Ares, and indeed between women and men. The Cestus/Magic Girdle wasn’t merely the source of Amazon physical prowess. The garment bestowed invincibility which was exercised through feminine charm — what Marston called “love allure.”
Hercules may have been no match for the queen’s might, but he could trick her into handing her power over to him. Marston’s implication was that women wield power inherently greater than men’s, but in buying into the belief that love is a weakness, they become prisoners to men’s way of thinking and therefore men’s rule. Only by reclaiming their own power, which includes control over their own bodies and sexuality, can they free themselves from male domination.