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the amazon warrior women: were they real or just a myth?

Image: Jean-Pol GRANDMONT

Image: Jean-Pol GRANDMONT

‘We shoot with bows and hurl javelins and ride horses, but the works of women we never learnt…’

This quote comes from Herodotus’ histories, and is purportedly the Amazon’s reply to a man’s request that these wild women live among them as wives and mothers – after, that is, the Scythian men had “tamed” these warriors who invaded their lands, slept with them and stole their horses.

There is also the (false) legend of Thalestris, the Amazon queen journeying for hundreds of miles to locate Alexander the Great’s mobile court. According to legend, she offered herself and 300 of her women soldiers to him and his men in order to breed a warrior race of people. The story goes on to add that she herself stayed in his tent for thirteen days, determined to have him father a child by her. There is no historical evidence that such a tale is true but what is certain is that classical antiquity is littered with references to these inspiring and noble women. The legend of the Amazons is ancient and far-reaching – and our fascination with tall, tough blonde fighting women has not waned over the centuries. So, were they real? Where does the Amazon myth – powerful enough to attract the imagination of a man like Alexander the Great – come from? After all, The Histories by Herodotus are hardly conclusive, offering more insight than fact. Were these warrior women real or just a myth?

According to archeologist Jeannine Davis-Kimball (who, besides being an archaeologist is also a mother of six – so as inspiring as an Amazon to most of us), the mythological status of the Amazons in our society is because they served a purpose:

‘The Greeks began using the idea of the Amazons, and Greek hero fighting the Amazon [to let women know] that it was better to be a good wife and stay home so you don’t end up dead like the Amazons. That was actually what some of the Greek orators talked about.’

In short, the idea of the dying Amazon warrior was used to keep the women of the Ancient world in their place. (Who would have thought that Thalestris and Rapunzel had anything at all in common?) That said, Davis-Kimball has at least proven that such martial matriarchs did indeed exist, although the reality of their existence differed greatly from the way they are often portrayed in popular culture. The really exciting news is that the Amazons are still among us (just).

Following a lead about nomadic peoples paying tribute to the Persians led Davis-Kimball to excavate the ancient burial mounds of Eurasia – and there she found tombs. Warrior tombs with indications that those laid to rest had been people of prominence in their society; respected, honoured – even feared. In 1994 at Porkovka (near the Russian/Kazakhstan border) her team ‘discovered artefacts indicating there were women there who were very important within the culture.’

From that moment on, David-Kimball focused her studies exclusively on the warrior women of the Russian steppes.

‘I had no idea that these women existed. In history and in art – for instance, in the stone reliefs of the Persian Archaemedians – there is no indication that women have any particular status. In fact, women are sort of invisible, because history is always written by men.’

In ancient nomadic societies, and especially in Eurasian cultures, Davis-Kimball’s evidence indicates women were extremely important, and warrior women were actually not uncommon.

She has concluded that the ancient Sarmatians were likely the basis for the original Amazon myth – but did they live apart from men in a female-only enclave or keep men as slaves?

Davis-Kimball finds this highly unlikely.

‘As far as I’m concerned the Amazons are mythological people … We don’t have any archaeological evidence of a race of women living completely isolated from males.’

When she excavated the tombs of the warrior women, Kimball-Davis used DNA analysis to determine if the bodies were male or female. On the plains of northern Mongolia she also discovered a nomadic tribe living very much as they had probably done since ancient times; looking after their animals, moving from pasture to pasture. Among their dark-haired group was a blonde. A nine-year old girl named Meiramgul – with a direct genetic link to the women lying in state in the burial tombs not far away. Davis-Kimball describes the confirmed genetic link as ‘very rare’ and likely the result of the ancient Sarmatians ‘passing through’ the region at some point in the distant past.

‘Sarmatians were nomadic people. They have no defense walls or massive military forces like we find in Greek and Roman culture or even today’s culture. So the children, boys and girls were taught to ride and had to learn to defend themselves. During that particular time and in other nomadic cultures as well, the women become warriors and are called upon to defend. I don’t think they’re out there attacking but rather are in a defensive mode. They’re quite capable of shooting a bow and arrow and using a sword … to protect their families and their herds and their entire lifestyle. … Over time, that type of lifestyle changes. If you compare the lifestyle of the Sarmatians to the Genghis Khan period of nomads, women were attacking. Women were used as auxiliary forces [in battle] and were quite proficient.’

And the image of giant blonde women striding over the plains or racing around on horseback with spears?

‘These people are not giants but are large-boned, sturdy. Some of the women were 5’6″, 7, 8. Tall. They were not runts by any means whatsoever … These people are large, robust, healthy, strong individuals. Probably their genetic makeup had a lot to do with it as well as their good diet. They had a very high-protein diet so they had strong bones and good teeth. Were they blonde? They probably varied because of the mixture of populations … we’re talking about a vast area of different genetic links.’

According to Herodotus, some Amazons were taken as slaves by an Ancient Greek force who defeated them in battle and, once on board their ships, united to overthrow the Greeks and took the fleet after massacring their entire crews. However, not being able to sail ships, they were soon wrecked on the Scythian coast and, after gathering themselves into an army they began an invasion of this new land. The Scythians fought back but, on discovering their attackers were women (a fact apparently only ascertained once they examined some of their enemies’ corpses) desisted.

Sending then their youngest (and presumably most attractive) men, they proceeded to “tame” by mirroring their behaviour but making no move to engage in battle or molest these “man-slayers” until one of them chanced to “offer herself” to one of their men and then apparently, the entire tribe made themselves available to the rest of the Scythian army. It is at this point that the men made their proposal. I refer you to Herodotus:

‘…the men were unable to learn the tongue of the women, but the women soon caught up the tongue of the men. When they could thus understand one another, the Scyths addressed the Amazons in these words “We have parents, and properties, let us therefore give up this mode of life, and return to our nation, and live with them. You shall be our wives there no less than here, and we promise you to have no others.”’

And here we have the Amazon’s reply:

‘We could not live with your women – our customs are quite different from theirs. To draw the bow, to hurl the javelin, to bestride the horse, these are our arts. Of womanly employments we know nothing. Your women, on the contrary, do none of these things but stay at home in their wagons, engaged in womanish tasks, and never go out to hunt, or to do anything.’

Herodotus goes on to describe how these young men took up with the nomadic Amazons to forge a new tribe of people, which likely equates with Davis-Kimball’s Sarmatians.

‘The women of the Sauromatae have continued from that day to the present to observe their ancient customs, frequently hunting on horseback with their husbands, sometimes even unaccompanied; in war taking the field; and wearing the very same dress as the men.’

The old historian seems shocked by these “unwomanly” behaviours and clearly sides with the Ancient Greek orators (all men as women were not permitted to address the people in Ancient Athens) as to the unsuitability of the Amazons as female role models. He goes on to add this fascinating note:

‘Their marriage-law lays it down that no girl shall wed till she has killed a man in battle. Sometimes it happens that a woman dies unmarried at an advanced age, having never been able in her whole lifetime to fulfil the condition.’

He doesn’t mention whether or not her advanced age had anything to do with remaining single…

What do you think? Rules to live by – or just a myth?

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