What has made the ancient mythology of warrior women so enduring? Does it have any basis in reality?
Amazonomachy is a Greek word meaning combat between male and female warriors. In literature such scenes always take place far from the here and now: either “once upon a time” in the mythic past or beyond the bounds of civilization. Amazonomachies are common in modern pulp fiction; they usually go something like this:
She shouted with glee, leaping into the fray. Panic and confusion seized the men. . .She darted about, wielding her dagger with deadly effect. Three men fell in the first minutes. . .She was tall, slender, yet formed like a goddess: at once lithe and voluptuous. Her only garment was a broad silken girdle, a quiver at her back. Her whole figure reflected an unusual strength. Her strong limbs and the ivory globes of her breasts drove a beat of fierce passion through the Cimmerian’s pulse, even in the panting fury of battle.Bright metal whirled . parried . flashed slashed plunged and ripped through leather, flesh, and bone. . . . Her companions advanced, weapons crimson to the hilt—the warriors froze in fear. In the tempest of blood and iron, an arrow-storm whizzed through the air. . . . The plain became a scarlet morass. . . .
Such imagery is typically associated with modern fantasy fiction, but it would be familiar to a much earlier audience. The Greek hoplites would recognize in these passages their supposed archenemies, the original women warriors—the Amazons. In Greek legend and in modern adventure tales alike, the Amazon dwells at the distant frontier—at the edges of geography or time. Whether in the glorious past of Greek myth or the lurid pages of pulp fiction, the life-and-death struggle between the fierce woman warrior and a valiant male is fraught with suspense. And whether it is Conan the Barbarian and Red Sonya of the Hyborian Age or Achilles and Penthesilea on the plains of Troy, we know that the encounter will end in death or love—sometimes both.
The word Amazon is often used today, either negatively or positively, to describe a physically or willfully strong woman. Most people know that the Amazon story goes back to ancient Greek myth, and many have heard that the name comes from the “fact” that they cut off one breast in order to shoot arrows more efficiently. This “fact” is actually based on a false etymology (taking a-mazon to mean “without breast”). No ancient artist ever depicted this sort of self-mutilation. The Greek word probably really meant “those who were not breast-fed,” a definition supported by ancient stories that the women warriors fed their babies mare’s milk.
What explains our perpetual fascination with images and stories of war making women? The female warrior narrative seems especially compelling for cultures in which men pride themselves on military prowess and attribute weakness to women and foreigners. Ancient Greece was just such a culture: It was the war-loving Greeks of the sixth to fourth centuries B.C. who, in art and literature, gave the image of the Amazon its enduring form.
The classical Greek Amazon legends were detailed and complex; taken as a whole they created a kind of “alternate universe.” The writers of Greek legend recorded dozens of names of individual Amazons and speculated on their feats of arms, motives, sex lives, and methods of raising children and making war. Greek writers and artists described Amazon weapons, clothing, military training, and battle tactics and charted the topography of their conquests. The Amazon offers us a strangely distorted mirror image of actual Greek military society: In Amazonia, warriors were women instead of men; they used arrows instead of spears, cavalry instead of infantry. The reversal of Greek norms reveals some of the tensions within Greek culture—a warlike, xenophobic culture that has remained vital in Western tradition, yet never resolved questions of its own identity. Who were these female, barbarian alter egos that the Geeks created as dream opponents for their own ancestors?
For the early Greeks—before Herodotus invented history in the mid-fifth century—there was no formal distinction between myth and history. But such a distinction is obviously crucial for modern readers. We can learn much about Hellenic warrior culture by looking at legends, but we keep wondering, “Could this really have happened? Were Amazons real?”
The earliest mention of Amazons in Greek literature occurs in Homer’s Iliad, written down in the eighth century B.C. But the myth is far older than that, going back to the Greek dark ages (c. 1100—750 B.C.) and perhaps even to the Bronze Age (c. 1600—1100 B.C.). Homer referred to ancient legends about Amazon strongholds in Lycia and Phrygia, and noted that the Amazon queen Myrina, renowned for the speed of her chariots, was buried on the Trojan plain.
Amazonomachy was depicted in Greek art as early as the seventh century B.C., and the image of heroes combating armed women became very popular in the Golden Age. Herodotus detailed the life-style of Amazons in the fifth century B.C. According to him, they were a bellicose and barbaric tribe of horsewomen who inhabited the wilderness beyond the known world. Various legends placed them in North Africa or, more plausibly, on the Steppes of south Russia. Yet as the known world expanded, the territory of the warrior women receded, always just out of reach.
Their legendary arms and armor were just as exotic as the locales they inhabited. Some Amazons killed giant pythons and fashioned the tough snakeskins into body armor. They wielded bows, javelins, and battle-axes with terrible efficiency. All Amazons disdained the domestic chores performed by Greek women; instead, like Greek men, they gloried in sexual pleasure, hunting, and fighting.
The Greeks imagined the Amazons as warriors who, like male hoplites, regarded personal bravery, loyalty to fellow soldiers, and battle prowess as paramount virtues. Yet the Amazons were very different from hoplites in their way of fighting: Instead of phalanxes of heavy-armored infantrymen who marched and fought in close ranks with interlocked shields and thrusting spears on the open plains, the Amazons relied on light armor, ambush, lightning cavalry raids, and arrows that could kill from afar. Although the Greeks considered the bow the weapon of cowards, they were terrified of arrows that rained death on vulnerable hoplite ranks. For the Greeks, the barbarian Amazons were the perfect “other”: In their love of war, they were the opposite of Greek women; and in their practice of war, they were the opposite of Greek men.
By the first century B. C., the legend of the fighting women had amassed many more details. According to the Greek historian Diodorus of Sicily, who wrote a “history of the world,” the original Amazon homeland was Libya. Their land was rich in fruit and game, so they were free to eschew agriculture and concentrate on warfare. Diodorus points to a key factor in the Greek legends: the blatantly imperialistic character of the women warriors. According to him, the warrior queen Myrina began the process of empire building: Her armies of women defeated the neighboring cities and the nomad tribes of North Africa, and she founded an imperial capital at Chersonesus.
Queen Myrina’s forces emphasized light cavalry—the army consisted of 30,000 horsewomen and 3,000 infantrywomen, all of them armed with bows and swords. Enemies in pursuit discovered that Amazon arrows were deadly even in retreat; the women (like the real-world Parthians of Iran) were such skilled riders and archers that even at a gallop they were able to turn in the saddle and aim their bows.
Eventually, Myrina and her army invaded the “most civilized nation west of the Nile,” Atlantis, the legendary island utopia so admired by Plato and other Greek philosophers. The bloodthirsty women soon overran the Atlantean capital, Cerne, slaughtering every man and capturing the women and children. Having destroyed the city, Myrina allowed the rest of the Atlantean men to surrender. As a good empire builder, the queen consolidated her conquest and established a new city on the site of Cerne, settling there all the Atlantean captives and “anyone else desirous of living there.”
Since they were now part of the Amazonian empire, the defeated Atlanteans were entitled to protection from their traditional enemies. Myrina launched a preemptive strike on the neighboring tribe of hostile Gorgons. In a spectacular battle, the Amazons cut down countless Gorgon warriors and took 3,000 prisoners. But at the victory feast, the Amazon guards were lax. Long after nightfall, the prisoners managed to snatch up swords and signal to companions who had been routed earlier that day and were still hiding in the wooded hills. At a sign from the prisoners, the Gorgon troops descended from the hills and massacred the sleeping Amazons.
Myrina and some followers escaped. She now headed east, and somehow gathered a huge new army of women. At this point the story moves from the mythic landscape of Atlantis into the real geography of eastern North Africa. When she arrived at the border of Egypt, the most powerful state of North Africa, the pharaoh allowed her army safe passage through his lands to Arabia—which the Amazons conquered.
The women then steamrolled through Syria to Asia Minor, subduing the countryside and founding great cities: Myrina, Cyme, Pitane, and Priene (each named for an Amazon commander), Cyrene, Gryneion, Smyrna, Anaea, Thebe, Sinope, Pygela—most, incidentally, real cities with complex and often contradictory foundation legends. At Ephesus, another Amazon city, warrior women built a magnificent temple to Artemis, goddess of the hunt. Later this temple would be regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. At Ephesus the women performed their war dances, rattling their shields and quivers, beating the ground to the music of pipes.
Meanwhile, Amazon sailors were winning important Aegean islands for the great empire. Myrina’s sister Mytilene was a leader in the naval campaigns: The fine harbor town of Mytilene, on Lesbos, was named for her. The red earth of the island of Samos was explained by ancient tourist guides as the blood-soaked site of a great battle between the forces of the god Dionysus and the Amazons.
Like all ancient navies, the Amazon fleet had as much to fear from foul weather as from enemy ships. During Myrina’s sea campaigns, a sudden storm blew the women’s ships north. The Amazon navy managed to land safely on the island of Samothrace, where Myrina built altars to Artemis and offered splendid sacrifices in gratitude. But her imperial ambitions now led her to invade mainland Thrace. The Thracian king called on his allies, the Scythians from the Black Sea region, and a pitched battle commenced. Diodorus notes that “it was a fair fight, and Myrina was killed.” The Amazons continued to wage a vigorous Thracian campaign but suffered a series of decisive setbacks. They eventually withdrew to their strongholds in Asia and North Africa.
Other Greek traditions, perhaps closer to reality, maintained that the original Amazons lived in south Russia, beyond the Scythians, a real tribe of archers who fought on horseback. According to Herodotus, the Scythians knew the warrior women as Oiorpata (Mankillers). These Russian Amazons were just as aggressive as their Libyan sisters. Led by Queen Lysippa, they swept down from the river Don, surging south around the Black Sea, defeating every tribe they met. With her spoils, Lysippa erected temples to Ares, god of war, and to Artemis. Her people eventually settled along the southern coast of the Black Sea, forming three independent tribes. This pattern of a great unitary empire splitting into three successor states parallels the fate of the very real empire founded by Alexander the Great.
The Black Sea Amazons were highly innovative in military technology: The legend claims that they were the first people to forge iron weapons and the first to use war-horses. They fought with bows, javelins, and battle-axes, using half-moon Thracian-style shields covered with hide; horses carried quivers full of arrows. Unlike the python-armored women of North Africa, they wore fur tunics, with knitted wool sleeves and leggings in wild geometric designs, leather helmets, studded belts, and high boots.
Like Myrina, Queen Lysippa died on the battlefield after an illustrious career of war, conquest, and empire. Her three Amazon tribes were then led by the warrior queens Marpesia, Lampado, and Hippo, who expanded Amazonian culture west to the borders of Thrace and to Phrygia, even capturing the great city of Troy when the Trojan king Priam was a boy. Jason and the Argonauts were careful to avoid Amazon territory on their expedition to obtain the Golden Fleece. As they sailed past the Amazon port of Themiscyra on the Black Sea, the Argonauts could see the women arming for battle: These “brutal and aggressive girls were in love with fighting.”
The burgeoning Amazon empire and the fame of the women’s war exploits cried out for a counterattack led by heroic men. When Hercules set out on his Ninth Labor, the ostensible reason was to capture the golden “belt of Ares” worn by Hippolyta, the reigning Amazon champion. But the expedition, which included a band of virile Greek heroes, was clearly an excuse to quench Amazon power, now in the hands of Queens Hippolyta, Antiope, and Melanippa.
Hippolyta herself rode out to meet the adventurers when they landed at Themiscyra. Some say the queen was attracted by Hercules’ muscles and reputation, and that she offered him the belt as a love gift, but the rumor spread among her women that the strangers planned to abduct their leader. The women snatched up arms, leaped on their mounts, and charged the men on the beach. A dozen of the best female fighters were cut down in turn by Hercules.
Faced with the inevitability of battle, Hippolyta chose war over love, and the two champions fought. Hercules unhorsed Hippolyta, and they grappled hand to hand, Hercules’ club versus Hippolyta’s ax. Hercules was the winner, and the queen chose death over surrender. Hercules and his band sailed off for the Tenth Labor with their prizes: the champion’s belt and her battle-ax, rich Amazonian robes, and many captive Amazons.
But according to Herodotus, once at sea the captive women overpowered the men and took over the ships. Their naval skills fell far short of the Greeks’, however. These cavalrywomen “had no knowledge of boats and were unable to handle either rudder or sail or oar. . . . At the mercy of the wind and wave” they were blown north to what we now call the Sea of Azov. The women managed to reach shore and set off on foot inland, bows and arrows in hand. In words worthy of modern pulp fiction, Herodotus continues their story: “The first thing they fell in with was a herd of wild horses. These they seized and mounting on their backs, they set off in search of loot.”
The Scythians, in whose territory the women had landed, “were at a loss to know where the marauders had come from.” The puzzled Scythians defended their territory as they would against any invaders; but when they discovered from the bodies of fallen warriors that the raiders were women, they changed their tactics. The Scythian elders sent out a band of the youngest men, with orders to camp near the bold women warriors. If the Amazons pursued them, they were to retreat a bit and then approach and encamp nearby again. Herodotus says that the motive behind this coy policy was the “Scythian desire to get children” by the formidable horsewomen.
The Amazons loved a good fight, but they were also “by nature well disposed toward men,” and so each day the enemies moved their camps a little closer together. Herodotus comments that it was a good match, because both parties were freedom-loving nomads who owned nothing but weapons and horses, and both “lived the same sort of life, hunting and plundering.’ Soon the young men and women were meeting for trysts in the woods, and the linguistically talented women began to pick up the men’s language.
The Scythian youths proposed that the Amazons return with them as their wives. Herodotus records the women’s proud answer: “We are riders; our business is with the bow and javelin, and we know nothing of women’s work. We cannot possibly agree to stay at home in your wagons. We must be free to hunt and make war.”
The young men were sympathetic but knew that their elders would never approve, so they agreed to the Amazons’ counterproposal: Pointing out that the Scythian lands were ravaged by the Amazons’ raids, the women suggested that the young men join them in founding a new tribe in new territory. The combined tribe became the Sarmatians, a real tribe of the Don-Volga region. They decided to raise both boys and girls to be hunters and warriors; girls could not marry until they had killed a man in battle.
In the Greeks’ “alternate world” of Amazonia, there were three possible trajectories for relationships between men and women. One version of the myth maintained that independent women would be likely to exterminate the male population (the fate of the Atlanteans of Cerne), or—perhaps even worse—the women would confiscate men’s weapons and force them to cook, raise children, and spin wool. Even that paragon of Greek machismo, Hercules, once fell into the hands of a warrior queen who took away his trusty club and lion skin and compelled him to do humiliating women’s work.
A second version offered another possibility: separate but equal tribes of men and women. For example, Herodotus described how the Amazons of the Caucasus arranged to meet the men of a neighboring tribe each spring in the high mountains between their territories. The men and women would camp there together for two idyllic months. The boy children who resulted from these unions were sent to the men’s tribe and distributed to families by lot; the girls stayed with their Amazon mothers and became cavalry archers. The warrior women of the Caucasus had no time to nurse babies, so their daughters were raised on mare’s milk.
The third possibility is perhaps the most radical, because it challenged the traditional Greek pattern of gender relations. This scenario suggested a society of equality, as illustrated in the story of the young Scythian men and Amazon women who eloped to form the new tribe, the Sarmatians, in which women were free to hunt and fight.
Notably, one feature remains consistent in all three possible outcomes: Amazon women are never domesticated—they never even consider giving up the right to hunt and make war. In reality, Greek women were not accorded anything like an equal role in society; and Athenian tragedy, with its tales of powerful, vengeful women like Clytemnestra and Medea, reveals the deep psychological uneasiness that such inequality produced in many Greeks. Some modern writers have pointed out that the image of the strong warrior woman may represent a wish-fulfilling dream of the ideal mate—a companion who would be an equal in intelligence, valor, and strength, a comrade in love and war. The beginning of the story of Hercules and Hippolyta seems to promise love between equals before the battle erupts, and the Amazon Antiope fought beside the hero Theseus in Athens.
In some accounts it is hard to separate myth from history. Three sources—one purportedly based on Alexander the Great’s own diary—insist that Alexander was seduced by an Amazon queen named Thalestris during his Bactrian campaign in 329 B.C. Attracted because his war feats equaled her own, Thalestris rode to his headquarters with 300 of her Amazons. Their love affair lasted 13 days.
Real-life horsewoman Hipsicratia did win renown for her “manly and extravagant daring” as the companion/wife of Mithradates VI in Asia Minor (d. 63 B.C.). And Pausanias, writing in the second century A.D., tells the story of the brave women of Aetolia who fought beside their men when the savage Cauls invaded: “Driven by a deeper rage than their husbands they aimed javelins into the barbarians.”
Pausanias records that the Spartans encountered fierce women warriors during their war with Argos in about 494 B.C. The Argive army was decimated and the survivors fled to a sacred grove, but all the men burned to death when the Spartan commander set the trees on fire. The Spartans then assailed the walls of Argos, but Telesilla, a distinguished Argive poetess, took charge of the city’s defense.
Telesilla sent old men, house slaves, and boys to defend the walls, and then she and the young Argive women gathered up weapons from temples and houses and rushed out to meet the Spartans “where she knew the attack would come.” The women were not at all terrified by the Spartans’ battle-yell; they “met the charge and fought back strongly.”
King Cleomenes and his men faced a dilemma: The Spartan fighting machine felt that “it would be an inglorious kind of success if they slaughtered the women,” but “it would be a most shameful disaster if they failed” to defeat the women. The Spartan soldiers withdrew and yielded the battle to Telesilla’s forces. Pausanias saw a statue of Telesilla at Argos about 600 years after her victory: Her books are thrown about her feet and she is donning a helmet.
Returning to the realm of myth, even Helen acted like an Amazon during the Greek sack of Troy. In the bloody house-to-house combat, she seized a dagger and joined the fight. Menelaus, the Greek husband she abandoned, had vowed to kill her, but he was “so transfixed by the sight of her naked breasts that he lost all resolve” and saved her from his comrades. This image brings us full circle to modern pulp fiction and reminds us of the complexities behind the Amazon legend.
The story of Achilles, the Greek hero of the Trojan War, and Penthesilea, an Amazon soldier of fortune, is the classic encounter of male and female champions on the battlefield. Quintus of Smyrna relates that Penthesilea became a mercenary in exile after she killed her Amazon sister Clauce in a hunting accident. Hired by King Priam in Troy’s darkest hour, she brought twelve Amazons “hot for war and battle-grim.” The Trojans’ hopes rose with such allies, “so beautiful and exultant on their steeds.
Penthesilea arrayed herself for battle, vowing to save the Trojans from doom. “Glowing with a terrible beauty, a ravishing smile, and shining eyes, she donned silver chain-mail, golden greaves, scabbard of ivory and silver, and set a “bright helmet on her wild mane of golden-glistening hair.” In “hot haste and laughing for glee,” she caught up her two lances and rallied her band and the Trojans onto the field.
The Greek lines withered before the onslaught, “blood-bedrenched.” The enthralled Trojan women on the ramparts dashed whooping onto the field with swords.
Then came the counterattack. Achilles stormed onto the field to rally the Greeks, killing five Amazons. He ran Penthesilea through with a spear and pulled her from her horse by the hair. But as she lay dying “in the dust and gore,” Achilles was consumed with love and grief for the brave and beautiful warrior. His fellow Greeks shouted, “Throw her to the dogs for exceeding the nature of womankind!” and jeered him for his remorse. Thersites, a Greek common soldier, brutally gouged out her eyes before she could be buried, and was killed by the outraged Achilles. In revenge, Thersites’ cousin dragged the Amazon’s body through the dirt and tossed it into the river. Achilles then retrieved Penthesilea’s corpse and buried it with great honors on the riverbank. This tragic tale was a popular theme for Greek vase painters a thousand years before it was written down by Quintus of Smyrna in the fourth century A.D.
Although the Greek Amazon tales were written by men, we need not see them simply as male fantasies of domination over aggressive women. There is no reason to suppose that Greek women did not also appreciate the image of independent women who rode to battle and forged empires. Women and girls knew the stories, used the vases painted with scenes of valiant women, saw the civic sculptures and murals that glorified Amazons. Notably, today there is a whole genre of fantasy stories featuring strong-willed, lusty women warriors, written by women and aimed at a female audience.
It makes sense to imagine that in antiquity men and women shared a taste for thrilling tales of bold women. But another constant thread in the Amazon myth was especially significant to Greek culture—namely, the imperialism of the barbarian women. Never content to stay in their own remote territory, the Amazons cut a swath eastward from Libya across North Africa and Egypt to Asia Minor and up around the Black Sea. When they controlled virtually the entire non-Greek world, they swept down through northern Greece, invaded Attica, and attempted to capture the great city of Athens. Here, in an epic battle, the future of Greece would be decided.
The Athenians were determined to avoid the terrible fate of the Atlantean civilization. They were certain that only the worst—death or humiliation—could result if the Amazons won.
The defense of Attica against the Amazons is a key part of the tale of Theseus, the mythical founder-king of the Athenian state. The Athenians believed that it was Theseus who created out of the independent towns of Attica a single powerful city-state. Here again we find a mix of history and myth. The polis of Athens certainly did owe its foundation to the fusion of once-independent towns, and the city was periodically threatened by outside invaders. But the figure of Theseus is largely a product of self-conscious Athenian mythmaking.
In one version of the Amazons-versus-Athenians legend, the women’s army marched against Attica in retaliation after Theseus joined Hercules’ expedition against the Amazons. In other versions, Theseus invaded their territory on his own and kidnapped Antiope when she came to welcome the strangers’ ships to Amazonia. At any rate, it was the abduction of Antiope by Theseus that incited her sister Oreithyia to seek revenge against Theseus’s hometown.
Oreithyia’s forces massed near the Cimmerian Bosporus, crossed the Danube, and marched across Thrace, Thessaly, and Boeotia. Plutarch, Theseus’s biographer, remarks that the Amazons’ invasion was “anything but a trivial or womanish affair” since Oreithyia’s forces devastated northern Greece and Attica and penetrated to the very heart of Athenian territory, laying siege to the walls of the Acropolis itself.
Appropriately, the invading Amazons took up a position on the Hill of Ares, god of war, pitching their tents inside Athens’s city walls. (Their camp became known as the Amazonium.) An astute general, Oreithyia sent a detachment to Sparta to keep Peloponnesians from sending aid. Aeschylus (in 458 B.C.) says the women erected siege towers against “lofty-towered” Athens, a non-Greek method of warfare that was common in the Near East. The topography and progress of the battle (which differed markedly from classic, open-field hoplite conflict) were laid out in meticulous detail by the Athenian historian Cleidemus, whose work Plutarch quoted in his biography of Theseus. Seizing the high ground, the Amazon lines extended from their headquarters on the Hill of Ares to the Hill of the Pnyx, where the all-male Athenian citizen assembly met. The Athenians themselves had to flee south to the countryside.
For months there was a stalemate. Finally an oracle advised the Athenian men to offer a sacrifice to Fear—the force that seemed to be paralyzing them. After the sacrifice, Athenians on the Hill of the Muses attacked the Amazon flank holding the Pnyx, but the women drove the men back. Casualties were high on both sides. Meanwhile, three groups of Athenians charged from positions at the Palladium, Mt. Ardettus, and the Lyceum. It was said that Theseus’s Amazon companion, Antiope, fought heroically at his side and was slain by a javelin thrown by the Amazon Molpadia, who was killed in turn by Theseus. The fighting was fierce; heavy losses forced the Amazons to retreat to the Hill of Ares. Oreithyia regrouped what she could of her army, but the battle was lost.
Some legends say that after four months of hard fighting, Oreithyia agreed to peace terms negotiated by Antiope, who also secretly arranged to transport wounded Amazons to Chalcis. Others say that after Oreithyia saw Antiope and Molpadia slain, she and some followers withdrew across the passes out of Attica into Megara. Plutarch points out that in his day one could still see the tombs that were erected where the fighting women fell, along the street between the Hill of the Muses and the Pnyx and on the slopes of the Hill of Ares. Many other tombs marked the women’s retreat north from Megara and Attica to Chaeronea and into Thessaly. (There was a marked tendency among the Greeks to associate the Amazon invasion with monuments that in fact had commemorated other events, episodes that were— even to the Greeks—ancient and forgotten.)
The great Amazonomachy was hailed as the first battle in which the Athenians repulsed a foreign invader. The glorious and hard-won victory was recounted again and again in patriotic speeches in Athens’s assembly and celebrated in vase paintings, sculpture, and literature. Huge murals in civic buildings of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. depicted Athenians with spears combating mounted Amazons (wearing diaphanous tunics over checkered leggings and boots) on the level ground below the Acropolis. The sculpted metopes of the Parthenon portray the great Amazonomachy, and the colossal statue of Athena inside the Parthenon carried a shield decorated with a scene of Athenians clashing with Amazons at the city walls.
The Amazonomachy theme resounded in oratory whenever politicians exhorted Athenians to go to war. The victory of the Athenians over the “golden-shielded, silver-axed, female, male-loving, male-infant-killing host” (in the words of the historian Hellanicus) was praised by Isocrates (fourth century B.C.) as a victory for the forces of civilization: “The Amazons thought they would gain mastery over all by taking one city. They did not succeed.
They were destroyed just as if they had waged war against all mankind.” In a funeral oration for Athenian war dead, the fourth-century orator Lysias described how the Amazons in Asia Minor “ruled many lands and enslaved their neighbors” and then marched against Athens, seeking glory. “They made the memory of our city imperishable because of its bravery and rendered their own country nameless because of their disaster here.”
The Battle of Athens saved Greece from incorporation into Amazonia, but the Amazons remained a powerful force in their strongholds on the fringes of the non-Greek world—at least in the dreams of the Greeks and others much later: The Roman emperor Nero (A.D. 54—68) used female bodyguards bearing Amazonian shields; Emperor Commodus (A.D. 180—92) dressed his mistress as an Amazon, renamed the month of December for Amazons, and planned to fight as a gladiator in Amazon costume; even Adolf Hitler reportedly was plagued by a nightmare in which he was overcome by a trio of naked Amazons riding through space.
In the age of exploration, the Amazons became a symbol of conquest. In 1493 Columbus wrote in his diary that he had found an island of warlike women who imported men for procreation and raised only daughters; between 1500 and 1700 Cortés and other explorers pursued rumors of warrior women in the New World. California was named after a mythical island of Amazons led by Queen Califa, and the Amazon River for an elusive tribe of tall, scantily garbed women archers.
In Africa, European travelers were pursuing equally elusive Amazons from Abyssinia to Angola to Sudan. In 1864 Sir Richard Burton, one of the greatest explorers of our time, reported that he had found a tribe of “Amazons” in the jungles of Dahomey. Burton’s sensational account dwelled on the bloodthirsty women’s poisoned arrows and bayonets; their black leather cartridge belts, fetish-festooned ammo boxes and muskets; their impressive physiques, military swaggers, and scanty loincloths. No modern anthropologists have ever located the tribeswomen described by the man who also, it should be recalled, translated the fantastic Arabian Nights into English (and was one of the world’s most avid collectors of pornography).
What about the Amazons of Greek myth? Must they, too, be seen only as symbolic figures of psychological projection? Until quite recently, most serious historians would have had to answer yes. Yet in the 1950s large-scale Soviet archaeological excavations in the Steppes of the southern Ukraine— exactly where early versions of Amazon legends located the women’s homeland—began to uncover remarkable tombs of Sarmatian warriors—warlike, nomadic horsepeople who traded with the ancient Greeks. And the archaeologists found that 20 percent of the fourth-century B.C. graves that contain weapons and armor belonged to women.
Typically, the young women’s skeletons are surrounded by large iron lances; brightly painted wooden quivers and bows, and many triple-barbed bronze arrowheads; iron knives, daggers, swords, and spears; metal-plated leather armor; and horse trappings. Clear evidence of battle wounds—severe head injuries, bronze arrowheads embedded in bone—show that Sarmatian women were indeed warriors.
This evidence calls to mind Herodotus’s story of the “new” tribe of Sarmatians, created out of the union of young Scythians and Amazons—all of whom were, probably not incidentally, renowned as excellent riders. Although it is wrong to assume that every legend forms around a “kernel of historical truth,” and it would be foolish to brush aside the psychological significance of the myth, in this case we may fairly suppose that the Greek story of Amazons was inspired by reports of—and perhaps direct contact with—very real women warriors. MHQ
This article originally appeared in the Spring 1991 issue (Vol. 3, No. 4) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Amazons
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