In ancient Greek myth, the Amazons only exist in reference—and deference—to Greek heroes. They are there to be fought and to provide advice, sex, or aid in a quest. Most of all, they are there to be conquered and tamed, as in the case of the Amazon queen Antiope, who was kidnapped by King Theseus and forced to be his wife.
In comic book and film franchises like Wonder Woman, the Amazons dwell in the realm of fairy tale and make-believe; as warriors imbued with legendary strength. Many historians write off Amazons as just another example of Greek scribes inventing monsters that are inevitably overcome by their civilization.
Early Greek art, however, tells a different story. It depicts Amazons in the customary garb of the Scythians, a group of nomadic tribes who roamed the steppes of the Caucasus Mountains between 900 and 200 BC, and were most recently the subject of Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia, a wide-ranging exhibition at the British Museum.
Later depictions of Amazons in Greek art tend to favor a sexed-up version of Greek women's clothing or men's armour, and some experts assume that the early artistic choice of Scythian dress was intended to exoticize the Amazons. Others, however, believe that it points to evidence that the mythical warriors were based on real, living women—Scythian women, to be exact.
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As the ancient Scythians roamed and mauraded through Europe and Asia, they left behind elaborate burial mounds scattered across the Caucasus from the Black Sea to China. When these were first discovered, it was assumed that those buried with weapons were men, while the bodies with mirrors and spindles must be women.
Advances in modern scientific analysis revealed something different. When scientists began using bioarchaeological methods such as DNA testing, they found that the skeletons buried with bows, arrows, and other weapons were just as likely to be biologically female as they were to be male.
Of course, skeletons alone can never tell the whole story when it comes to a person's assigned sex or gender identity—intersex people exist, of course, and trans identities have always existed in ancient history. But the fact that over a third of the Scythian skeletons in some graves are typed as females with heavy battle scarring indicates that women warriors were a common sight among the fearsome Scythians.
"The ideas and images of Amazons were modeled on flesh-and-blood warrior women—real nomadic horsewomen-archers of the steppes of Eurasia,” Stamford classicist and Amazon expert Adrienne Mayor tells Broadly. “And we now have the proof of their bones.”
But what was the average life of a Scythian woman like? One artefact—a silver bowl found in southeastern Kazakhstan—may be one of the few to contain evidence of a Scythian scrit. Other experts believe that they lacked a written language. We're stuck piecing together the truth from archaeology and the fanciful writings of observers like the ancient Greeks.
Most of what the Greeks wrote about the Amazons can be dismissed out of hand. The idea of all-female tribes that reproduced through sex with strangers and murdered their male infants sounds more likea paranoid male fantasy than historical fact. Similarly, the idea that Amazons cut off one of their breasts to improve their bow skills is laughable to any woman who has managed to master archery with their chest intact. (Not to mention the high fatality rate that such a drastic procedure would have incurred, given the medical capabilities of the time.)
In fact, this particular myth owes its origins to a late Greek attempt to explain the etymology of their non-Greek name. A writer named Hellanikos argued that mazon was similar to maston, the word for breast, with the prefix a indicating that they were missing one. Modern scholars believe the name actually comes from the legendary Circassian warrior queen Amezan.
About the only reliable information we can get from Greek sources that specifically refer to the Scythians is that many—but not all— of the tribes featured women warriors who shot from horseback alongside the men. Mayor believes that it was this method of fighting, combined with their nomadic lifestyle and the need for highly skilled riders, that led to this inclusion of women in the fighting force. Archery eliminates the advantages of height, reach, and strength that the majority of men hold over women in hand to hand or bladed combat, while the small size of their communities meant that everyone was needed when they came under attack.
It's often assumed that only unmarried women fought alongside the men, and that marriage marked a transformation from warrior maiden to a life that conformed more closely to Western assumptions about historic gender roles. There are, however, several graves of women warriors where children were buried alongside them, and from the context of the grave goods it seems likely that the warrior in question was their mother.
Our assumptions about ancient cultures are all too often guided by modern beliefs about the universality of gender roles at different stages of cultural development. There is a long tradition of treating accounts of women who fail to conform to these norms—from woman-king Macha Mong Ruadh in Ireland to the women warriors of Scandinavia—as if they are fictional simply because of our own base assumptions of what women did back then. We are constantly surprised by new archaeological evidence telling us otherwise—even when the information has been right there in the ancient texts all along.
"One can no longer claim that Amazons were nothing but fantasy figures to be killed by mythic Greek heroes; that Amazon myths were invented to discourage Greek women from admiring strong women; that Amazons in Greek art were simply stand-ins for Persian men; and that there was nothing in the historical world shaped or influenced the images of Amazons in literature and art,” Mayor says.
“Instead of viewing Amazon myths in terms of male violence against women, the ancient literary, artistic, and archaeological evidence reveals that egalitarian nomadic societies actually existed on the steppes, and that this lifestyle evoked awe and fascination among the Greeks."