The Amazons: The Real Female Fighters Dispelling Myth & Legend
Famous ancient Greek historian Herodotus once wrote of the Amazons - or as he called them Oier Pata (‘Killers of Men’) – a tribe of fierce warrior women. Though in today’s world, the name ‘Amazon’ is strongly associated with Jeff Bezos’s mighty online delivery empire; it still carries a heavy association with these gender-role breaking, fist fighting, sword swinging, arrow shooting, single-breasted warrior woman of antiquity. For centuries, they were dismissed as mere legend, but in the last decades, detailed investigations have revealed that the Amazons were very real, and they were a fearsome force to be reckoned with.
The Amazons are believed to have been the descendants of the nomadic ancient Scythians and Sarmatian people. Their territory ranged from the slopes of the Caucasus mountains between the eastern end of the Black Sea and all the way to the vast Eurasian steppes.
In every myth, whether they be Persian, Greek, or Scythian, the Amazons remained consistent in their descriptions: They rode horses , shot arrows, were uneasy around boats, and even wore pants. However, the question remains: Who were they really?
In the Greek myths , Homer first mentioned their existence in the Iliad. They appeared fighting against Achilles on the side of Troy. In Hercules’s ninth labor, he was tasked by Eurystheus to steal the belt (or girdle) from an Amazon queen . Another story mentioned the ill-fated marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta, resulting in one of the earliest perspectives to the traumas that parent separations may bring on their children.
In ancient Rome, the mythical stories about ‘Amazons’ was re-enacted in the gladiatorial arena. Women gladiators were be given the names of famous Greek Amazon queens and fought in hand-to-hand combat to the first cut.
Marble relief showing Amazon gladiators. (Carole Raddato / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
With such fantastic tales retold throughout the ages, it is understandable why most people assumed the Amazons never existed. Their legends and history challenged the male-dominated establishment and planted seeds of rebellion in the minds of their women.
However, in the twentieth century, Russian archaeologists began to re-examine their existence when excavations of Scythian kurgans (Scythian burial mounds) revealed startling finds.
The Motives to the Myths About the Amazons
In the minds of the ancient Greeks , they never questioned whether the Amazons truly existed. Their tales were used to contrast the natural values 5th century BC Athens allegedly carried. Athenian Greek women were be expected to be good family women, productive of male heirs, and zealous in maintaining the household. To be anything less of those traits would be Amazonian in nature.
Amazon women - according to ancient Athenian men - were loose, brawlers, hot-tempered, and unable to fully mature into adulthood due to their carefree lifestyles.
Of all the accounts mentioned about the Amazons, there is none which speaks more clearly than the works of Herodotus. In his accounts, he remains as objective as possible. Most of his research was based on translating other accounts from Persia as well as the older writings from prior generation Greek scholars. His accounts remain the closest to the possible truth than any other writings about the Amazons.
Herodotus wrote passages about their possible origins. His sentiments were the same: They were man-killers who could kill ten men with little to no effort. In one of his historical accounts, he mentioned that a group of Amazons was captured during the Battle of Thermodon. As the Greeks sailed home, the Amazons broke free and killed every single man on the ship.
Battle of Greeks and Amazons on marble. (Colin / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
However, the Amazons were oblivious to the workings of ships. They were adrift for days until it crashed onto the shores of Palus Maeotis near Cremini (translating to ‘the cliffs’). These lands had been known to be the country of the free Scythians. The women, now freed from the shackles of a would-be fate, mounted wild horses and rode further inland, only to discover they were too far away from home.
The languages which were spoken by the Amazons, though linguistically similar to the Scythians, still differed enough to be a hindrance. Herodotus noted that the Scythians assumed the Amazons were never taught to speak correctly.
Though their dress appeared similar, they were worlds away from being the same people. Rumor had it that with no hope of returning home, the Amazons resorted to a life as raiders, plundering every Scythian village they could find.
Herodotus went on to discuss how after the Amazon raids, the vengeful Scythian men went after them. But, after days of conflict, efforts were made for a peaceful outcome. Both groups were able to learn enough about each other’s dialect in order to communicate. It was then that their desires for blood were soon replaced with the desire for intercourse.
These two groups eventually intermarried and became the Scythian-Sarmatians. They then moved northeast to live a nomadic way of life . It was also mentioned that this group created a tradition of training both men and women in the ways of hunting, shooting bows and arrows, horseback riding, and the basics of warfare. Though it may seem like a technicality, in this, there can be room to further explore what Herodotus was saying.
The Amazons frequently used bows and arrows. ( dvoinik / Adobe Stock)
Herodotus stated that these Amazons seemed like Scythians yet did not speak Scythian fluently. He noted that when actual Scythian men met with the Amazons and fell in love, the men were given an ultimatum to either leave or join them in their quest to return home. If the women were Scythians, why would they ask the Scythian men to leave their customs and families behind?
The clues about the Amazons, as mentioned by Herodotus, discuss a group of people who had little in common except for technological similarities. With these slight clues mentioned, how could the women be considered Scythian at all?
Merging of Myth and Fact of the Amazons
According to the ancient Greeks, the term Scythian acted as a generalization for an entire nomadic cultural group. As far as the ancient Greeks were concerned, anything past Thrace and heading to inner Asia was essentially the land of the Scythians.
If one were to analyze this massive generalization, one would notice that this region accounted for thousands of miles and consisted of hundreds of cultures, languages, and ethnicities which may have been completely different from each other.
However, if one were to continue reading the passages of Herodotus, further clues would actually lean to the favor of the Amazons being Scythians. One passage regarding the origins of the Scythians, by Herodotus, may have unintentionally explained the rise of the Amazon warrior women the world knows today. The passage describing the retribution brought forth from the twenty-eight-year war with the Medes:
“…They (the Scythians) entered Asia in pursuit of the Cimmerians and overthrew the empire of the Medes [...] On their return to their homes after the long absence of twenty-eight years, a task awaited them more troublesome than their struggle with the Medes. They found an army of no small size prepared to oppose their entrance. For the Scythian women, when they saw that time went on, and their husbands did not come back, had intermarried with their slaves….”
Amazon women triumph in battle. (Pharos / Public Domain )
His passages go on to describe how the returning Scythian men dealt with their own people and slaves not recognizing who they were. However, given this description about the possible formation of the Scythians, could this tie together to the reason why the captured Amazons spoke Scythian badly? Rather than being that they were of an entirely different group, could it have been that they were the offspring of slaves and women who ran away from one of the Scythian villages?
In the passage, it clearly states that the women and slaves were able to put up a worthy fight against the war-hardened men who had been absent for twenty-eight years. Could such a long absence have created a cultural shift making women the dominant warrior over men? And could this have led to the traditions of warrior duality between the sexes that was shared by the Scythian-Sarmatians in the years to come?
Archaeological Facts About the Amazons
In 1993, the mummified remains of a Scytho-Siberian woman from the fifth century BC, famously named “the Siberian Ice Maiden ”, was excavated from a burial mound (also known as a kurgan) in the Republic of Altai, Russia. Forensic anthropologists eventually determined her age of death between twenty to thirty years of age due to breast cancer and severe trauma sustained from a fall.
The Ice Maiden’s body, along with remains of two horses, were oriented toward the east. In later excavations of other kurgans, this was revealed to be a consistent custom.
The Ice Maiden’s burial mound held a plethora of items revealing further insight to the mysterious Scythian people. But of all the incredible artifacts from her kurgan that fascinated the world, it was the garments she wore and the tattoos she had, still preserved from the arid permafrost of the steppe.
In her larch wood coffin, she was adorned with a yellow silk tussah blouse, a striped wool skirt of crimson and white, a tassel belt, thigh-high white felt leggings with a marten fur, a polished metal mirror by her side, and a three-foot-tall headdress.
Even though Russian archaeologists had assumed her to be a priestess of some kind, the Ice Maiden’s funerary dress closely resembled the depictions of Greek Amazons from the fifth and sixth century BC Greek vases.
Amazon wearing trousers and carrying a shield with an attached patterned cloth and a quiver. (Jastrow / CC BY-SA 2.5 )
In further expeditions, Russian archaeologists continued excavating over one hundred and fifty additional ancient Scythian kurgans in the Altai Mountain regions, Pokrovka and Kazakhstan. To their surprise, they discovered that almost one third were women of elite warrior status.
The kurgans included bows, daggers, and the women appeared to be of high rank. Some of the remains had women in battle dress no different than the remains of warrior men. There were young women showing characteristics of bow-leggedness. (A trait resulting from a life of constant riding).
There was bronze-tipped arrows, iron daggers, and some women were even being buried next to horses. These women further astonished archaeologists by revealing their height to be five feet, six inches; a height that was significantly tall, especially for that time.
Amazon queen preparing for a battle. (Palbrattberg / Public Domain )
The assumptions made to why there were so many Scythian-Sarmatian warrior women can be linked to the nomadic way of life. They were trained in survival from a very young age using the techniques learned from both their mothers and fathers.
When Scythian men were away in battle or engaged in a hunt, their women had to be able to defend themselves against the elements and other nomad raiders. The women needed to be as tough as the men in order to survive the harshness of the steppe.
With the 150 kurgan mounds revealing large amounts of evidence to the existence of warrior women, there was a strong possibility that these women were the inspiration for the concept of Amazons. However, these are still assumptions and one must always question what they have found.
Closing Thoughts about the Amazons
In the eyes of the ancient male Athenian Greeks, they were the epitome of feminine rebellion in dire need of being tamed. However, in the opinions of twentieth-century scholars, the Amazons embodied the association of freedom, sexual equality, and the undoing of the patriarchal status quo.
If all were to agree that the Scythian-Sarmatians were indeed the Amazons, regardless of the massive generalizations made by the Greeks, historians, and even archaeologists, then could Herodotus’s description of the Scythian origin potentially be the beginnings of the Amazons?
The Amazon/Scythian hypothesis has convincing evidence to make it a strong possibility. However, they still may not have been the same people as warrior women known as the Amazons. As previously mentioned, the land of the ancient Scythians encompassed thousands of miles. Within those thousands of miles are also thousands of possibilities leading to many more questions.
In the twentieth century, there was further discussion about whether the Amazons were women at all, but Asiatic groups who contained less facial hair then the Greeks. A highly unlikely but not unusual theory to consider. After all, conquistadors once thought that Native Americans of South America were Amazon warrior women simply because they fashioned no facial hair at all. They were so convinced of this that they named an entire region after the Amazon warrior women. (See Amazon river history).
Whatever their true history may be, there is no doubt that these fearsome warrior women were not to be underestimated!
Top image: The Amazons were a tribe of warrior women. ( Atelier Sommerland / Adobe Stock).
By B.B. Wagner
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The Scythians is indeed a Greek umbrella term for people of various ethnic backgrounds. This had been already attested in ancient sources (Strabo). But what was common about them is that they were Indogermanen or people of other origins who at one time or another were conquered by Indogermanen, who then installed their dynasties and ruling elites. With a passage of time these elites blended with the locals.
Iskuzai or Askuzai has the same ethymology as Aesir - germanic gods.
Herodotus distinguished Royal Scythians from Nomads. He also says the Scythians called Apollo as Goetosyrus. Gautatyr is one of the names of Odin
As to the Amazones the only known cultural counterpart is germanic shieldmaidens. Also worthy of note Hervör from the well known saga, the story was set precisely in the same lands which the Ancient Greeks would call Scythia
Thanks for the heads up on that wording. Perhaps ‘adorned’ suits even better. As for the patriarchal account, they were such times and the accounts were penned by men, so hard to avoid that viewpoint from the sources. If only we had some writings from the Amazons, I’m sure the story would be very different!
“she dawned a yellow silk tussah blouse.” She donned, is the correct wording.
Overall, a good, well-written article. I am, however, troubled by a rather patriarchal interpretation of the Amazonian women. I’m quite certain a woman would evaluate the evidence differently.