Of what we know not, we can only judge by what we know. Every novelty appears more wonderful as it is more remote from any thing with which experience or testimony has hitherto acquainted us; and, if it passes further beyond the notions that we have been accustomed to form, it becomes at last incredible.
We seldom consider that human knowledge is very narrow, that national manners are formed by chance, that uncommon conjunctures of causes produce rare effects, or that what is impossible at one time or place may yet happen in another. It is always easier to deny than to inquire. To refuse credit confers for a moment an appearance of superiority, which every little mind is tempted to assume when it may be gained so cheaply as by withdrawing attention from evidence, and declining the fatigue of comparing probabilities. The most pertinacious and vehement demonstrator may be wearied in time by continual negation; and incredulity, which an old poet, in his address to Raleigh, calls the wit of fools, obtunds the argument which it cannot answer, as woolsacks deaden arrows though they cannot repel them.
Many relations of travellers have been slighted as fabulous, till more frequent voyages have confirmed their veracity; and it may reasonably be imagined, that many ancient historians are unjustly suspected of falsehood, because our own times afford nothing that resembles what they tell.
Had only the writers of antiquity informed us, that there was once a nation in which the wife lay down upon the burning pile only to mix her ashes with those of her husband, we should have thought it a tale to be told with that of Endymion’s commerce with the moon. Had only a single traveller related, that many nations of the earth were black, we should have thought the accounts of the Negroes and of the Phoenix equally credible. But of black men the numbers are too great who are now repining under English cruelty; and the custom of voluntary cremation is not yet lost among the ladies of India.
Few narratives will either to men or women appear more incredible than the histories of the Amazons; of female nations of whose constitution it was the essential and fundamental law to exclude men from all participation, either of publick affairs or domestick business; where female armies marched under female captains, female farmers gathered the harvest, female partners danced together, and female wits diverted one another.
Yet several ages of antiquity have transmitted accounts of the Amazons of Caucasus; and of the Amazons of America, who have given their name to the greatest river in the world, Condamine lately found such memorials, as can be expected among erratick and unlettered nations, where events are recorded only by tradition, and new settling in the country from time to time, confuse and efface all traces of former times.
To die with husbands, or to live without them, are the two extremes which the prudence and moderation of European ladies have, in all ages, equally declined; they have never been allured to death by the kindness or civility of the politest nations, nor has the roughness and brutality of more savage countries ever provoked them to doom their male associates to irrevocable banishment. The Bohemian matrons are said to have made one short struggle for superiority; but, instead of banishing the men, they contented themselves with condemning them to servile offices; and their constitution, thus left imperfect, was quickly overthrown.
There is, I think, no class of English women from whom we are in any danger of Amazonian usurpation. The old maids seem nearest to independence, and most likely to be animated by revenge against masculine authority; they often speak of men with acrimonious vehemence, but it is seldom found that they have any settled hatred against them, and it is yet more rarely observed that they have any kindness for each other. They will not easily combine in any plot; and if they should ever agree to retire and fortify themselves in castles or in mountains, the sentinel will betray the passes in spite, and the garrison will capitulate upon easy terms, if the besiegers have handsome swordknots, and are well supplied with fringe and lace.
The gamesters, if they were united, would make a formidable body; and, since they consider men only as beings that are to lose their money, they might live together without any wish for the officiousness of gallantry or the delights of diversified conversation. But as nothing would hold them together but the hope of plundering one another, their government would fail from the defect of its principles; the men would need only to neglect them, and they would perish in a few weeks by a civil war.
I do not mean to censure the ladies of England as defective in knowledge or in spirit, when I suppose them unlikely to revive the military honours of their sex. The character of the ancient Amazons was rather terrible than lovely; the hand could not be very delicate that was only employed in drawing the bow and brandishing the battle-axe; their power was maintained by cruelty, their courage was deformed by ferocity, and their example only shows that men and women live best together.