Amazon Warrior Woman on Horseback Discovered on 2,500-Year-Old Vase
The 2,500 year old figure of an ancient Amazon woman has been discovered on a small vase preserved in an American museum.
The figure was found painted on to a white pyxis, a cylindrical box often used in the classical world to keep items of jewellery, cosmetics or other small personal possessions.
It depicts a female warrior, an ‘Amazon’, mounted on horseback armed with a ‘lasso’ and engaged in battle with a Greek enemy soldier, who is trying to avoid the Amazon’s lariat by ducking behind his shield. He is also holding a spear while the Amazon also carries a battle axe.
The lariat is painted purple, as is the woman’s shoes. The other end of it is tied around her waist and she is holding it near the knot, the correct technique when using a lariat to loop something directly ahead.
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Amazons after a hunt (Wikimedia Commons)
“It is the only ancient artistic image of an Amazon using a lariat in battle” research scholar Adrienne Mayor told Discovery News. Ms Mayor works at Stanford University’s departments of classics and history of science. “The images on the box suggest that women enjoyed scenes of Amazons getting the best of male Greek warriors” Mayor added.
“There’s plenty to explore in terms of how the scene might relate to the arts of seduction, and more broadly regarding male and female attitudes to one another in ancient Athens” David Saunders, associate curator at J. Paul Getty Museum’s department of antiquities told Discovery News. “A vessel like this would probably have been used as a container for some sort of adornment – be it make-up, perfume, perhaps jewellery. Maybe we could think of its owner preparing herself as the Amazons did for battle.”
The pyxis is preserved at the small museum at the University of Mississippi and the figurine was noticed by Ms Mayor while visiting in order to research her 2014 book “The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World.”
The image was created in Athens between 480 and 450 BC. It offered a somewhat subversive statement on traditional female roles and status in Classical Greece. It also indicates that the painter was familiar with the ancient Scythians and their horse-riding warrior women who carried lariats.
The earliest mention of the Amazons was in Homers Illiad in which the hero Diomedes learns about them from a Lycian captain called Glauchus. Subsequently, other writers became interested in them, for example Virgil who mentions in The Aeneid that:
The Amazons were there in their thousands with their crescent shields and their leader Penthesilea in the middle of her army, ablaze with passion for war. There, showing her naked breast supported by a band of gold, was the warrior maiden, daring to clash with men in battle.
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An 18th-century Rococo painting of ‘The Amazon Queen Thalestris in the Camp of Alexander the Great’, by Johann Georg Platzer (Wikimedia Commons)
Ancient Greek and Roman historians mention that the Scythian mounted archers also carried lariats. Herodotus reports that 8,000 of them joined the Persian army of King Darius in 480 BC. He used to call them ‘Androktones’ meaning “killers of men”, however in the Scythian language they were called Oiorpata. The Amazons ferocity in battle gave rise to a great many myths, such as the widespread belief that they cut off a breast in order to better handle their bows. Some stories say they took men as slaves and used them as breeding stock. Any males born were automatically killed. Most of these tales have long been disproved by experts.
Some ancient sources describe how the Scythians wheeled their horses around, using the lariats to ensnare their opponents. The Roman geographer Pomponius Mela for example describes them as experts at this technique.
Herodotus reports in his ‘Histories’ that the Amazons and the Scythians intermarried and that the society they created was unlike any other in that the two sexes were regarded as equal, even in battle. He also states that this union of the Scythians and the Amazons gave rise to the Sarmatians who fought alongside the Scythians against Darius the Great in the 5 th Century BC. The Scythians migrated into what is now southern Russia in 8 th and 7 th centuries BC.
The actual existence of the Amazons, or other matriarchal cultures in the ancient world, was once hotly debated, the modern discussion about them beginning with Swiss law professor and classical scholar Johann Jakob Bachofen who asserted in a thesis that they were not just myth and did in fact exist. He maintained that humans were ruled by women in ancient days before subsequently becoming patriarchal. This in turn inspired the German composer, Richard Wagner, to compose his Die Walküre, known famously for its third part, ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’. This in turn formed the second part of his Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelungs).
Bachofen also influenced Friedrich Engels and other Marxist and feminist theorists who wrote about a distant pre-patriarchal age in which there was no war and communities across the known world worshipped an ancient ‘mother goddess’.
Eurasian archaeological digs have actually supported the idea, in that almost 37 percent of discoveries in Scythian burial mounds or ‘kurgans’ are of ‘warrior women’ who fought alongside their men.
Featured image: The 2500-year-old vase with Amazon woman depiction. Credit: The University of Mississippi Museum and Historic Houses, David M. Robinson Memorial Collection.