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The Amazons ride again

The Amazons of Greek legend have fascinated humans for the past 3,000 years. The Amazon women were faster, smarter, and better than men, or so claimed the Greek author Lysias:

[The Amazons] alone of those dwelling around them were armed with iron, they were the first to ride horses, and, on account of the inexperience of their enemies, they overtook by capture those who fled, or left behind those who pursued. They were esteemed more as men on account of their courage than as women on account of their nature. They were thought to excel men more in spirit than they were thought to be inferior due to their bodies.

In fact, they were so capable that they managed to live without men at all, procreating by meeting up with a neighboring tribe only once in a while, or, in an even more titillating version of the story, by crippling men and keeping them as sex slaves.

But is there any truth behind these legends? During the latter half of the 20th century, while Western classicists argued that the Amazons were figments of the Greek imagination, Soviet archaeologists were busy unearthing graves of women buried with weapons. While literary theorists argued that the Amazons were simply an imagined “other” against which the Greeks defined themselves, archaeologists dug up evidence of what they called “Amazons” among Scythians, Sauromatians, and Thracians, all peoples whom the ancient Greeks associated with the Amazons.

Furthermore, Greek authors tell us that the Amazons did similar things as the Scythians, Sauromatians, and Thracians, all peoples for whom there is more historical evidence than for the Amazons themselves. Just as Lysias tells us the Amazons were the first to harness the use of iron to make weapons, so the Greek author Hellanicus tells us it was the Scythians who first made iron weapons. The discovery of iron weapons dating to circa 2500 BCE in the Ukraine, the region that would later be called Scythia by the Greeks, suggests that there just might be something to these tales. The Greek author Hellanicus tells us that the word Amazon means “breastless” (a=without, mazon=breast), because the Amazons removed one of their breasts in order that they could draw back a bowstring more easily. The Greek physician Hippocrates, on the other hand, suggests that it was Sauromatian women who cauterized one of their breasts. The Greek historian Herodotus, often called the “father of history” tells us that the Amazon women married Scythian men to form the Sauromatian tribe.

Statue of fighting Amazon outside Altes Museum Berlin. Photo by Christian Benseler. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Statue of fighting Amazon outside Altes Museum Berlin. Photo by Christian Benseler. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Yet the Amazons were associated by Greek authors with other historical peoples as well, namely the Thracians and Libyans. In the earliest Greek literature, the epic poet Arctinus asserted that the Amazon queen Penthesilea, who came to fight the Greeks during the fabled Trojan War, was “Thracian by birth.” In later Greek literature, Diodorus Siculus exclaimed that the Amazons originated in Libya, whereas Herodotus told us that the young girls of the Libyan tribe of the Auseans were taught to fight with staves and stones. As one digs through the evidence, both literally (archaeologically speaking) and figuratively (in Greek literature), it begins to sound more and more as though the Greek idea of the Amazon was based upon some historical reality of women who fought.

While some of the stories of the Amazons may have been, admittedly, exaggerations, the Amazons were a Greek reflection of more historical peoples. How else might we explain that they turned up in Greek literature in all the same places where nomadic women fought? On the steppes of Afroeurasia, women had need to defend themselves from enemies and other predators. There were no walls to protect them. But because the Greeks did not fully understand such a nomadic way of life, they saw women warriors on horseback as “masculine.” Hence they called them breastless, or “Amazons.” Comparison to Sanskrit literature is of interest here, as the ancient Indians also called women whom they perceived to be masculine “breastless.” Sanskrit literature furthermore suggests that the nomadic women of Central Asia, whom the Greeks labelled Amazons, were imported into India to become women bodyguards. Fabled for their fierceness, the nomadic women of central Asia made excellent bodyguards in the harems of South Asian palaces, where no man, not even a eunuch, might enter.

So, to return to the question at hand, were the Amazons of antiquity historical? It certainly seems that they were based upon a Greek understanding of historical nomadic peoples, even if the term Amazon itself was a Greek epithet. And while Classicists may be correct, at least in part, to understand the “Amazon” as an “other” against which the Greeks defined their own ethnicity, narratives of Amazons that parallel those of Scythians, Sauromatians, Thracians, and Libyans suggest that the “other” was not entirely a construction of the Greek imagination. It was based upon a historical reality that we are only now just beginning to understand.

Featured image credit: Ancient Roman sarcophagi in the Museo Ostiense (Ostia Antica) by Sailko. CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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