The stories of the mythical warrior women of central Asia are largely based on the writings of the Greeks and the stories date back to the 8th and the 7th centuries BCE (Homer’s Iliad). By the 5th century BCE, Herodotus refers to a group pf warrior women taken prisoner by the Greeks, who overwhelmed their captors on board ship and then intermingled with the Scythians to give rise to the Sauromatians (6th – 4th centuries BCE) and who in turn evolved to become the nomadic Sarmatians around the 4th century BCE. The Sarmatians held sway for some 900 years until around 500 CE. If the myths of the Amazon women are based on reality then the reality must pre-date Homer. The original Amazons must then refer to the warrior-women among the ancestors of the Sauromatian peoples who roamed the steppes of southern Russia / central Asia. On horse-back presumably.
By the time of the Sauromatians and the succeeding Sarmatians, the warrior women traditions have also evolved. There is archaeological evidence from the graves of martial, noble women who were interred together with their finery, their weapons and even their horses. Many graves previously just assumed to be those of male warriors have now been revealed by DNA testing to be of women warriors. More than 25% of such graves are now thought to be of women. Such a wide-spread culture must have originated long before.
Adrienne Mayor has a new book out The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World which I have been reading over the last few days. It is a fascinating collection of the various myths surrounding the warrior women though it does not bring any light to bear on who they actually were beyond saying they were Scythians. But she does show that many of the myths are just myths and the reality was probably more mundane than the highly erotic, sensationalised version of the Greeks. In fact some of the Greek writings were clearly the tabloid press of their day. Her book is highly readable but it is a compendium of the writings about the Amazons rather than any new theory or hypothesis about their origins. She herself call it her “Encyclopaedia Amazonica”.
The steely women who cut off one breast to accommodate their archery needs was just fiction. There is no evidence that they were “man-eating” – in more ways than one – as the tabloids of the day were wont to narrate. The idea of man-hating, lesbian, hordes, armed to the teeth and rampaging and pillaging innocent heterosexual communities across the steppes made a good story then as it would today. Equally the vision of bands of warrior-virgins ensuring their own extinction was just pulp-fiction. The Persians like the Amazon were enemies who came from the East and many Persian characteristics were attributed to and embellished the Amazon myths. But in Greek – Amazon interactions, the warrior-woman is always conquered by a Greek hero figure!
But there is little doubt in my mind that around 3,000 years ago the Amazons existed. They were a nomadic community across the steppes of central Asia where women were as likely to be warriors or rulers as men. The had a hierarchical structure but the hierarchy was not based on gender (probably). They were not a horde like the Mongols who came much later. But they were nomadic and they did not allow others to push them around as they rode across their territories. The women were clearly accomplished horse-women. Their economy was based on horses rather than cattle. They used hallucinogenic plant extracts and used tattoos (as marks of status or rank perhaps). They were probably the ancestors of the Sauromatians. They were also arguably the most gender-neutral culture ever to exist – and that includes the present day.
An excellent read.