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Issue 32: the real women who inspired the ‘mythical' Amazon warriors
How these horse-riding, weapon-wielding nomads won the hearts of ancient artists, and what modern science is revealing about their skills and status.
Earlier this year I read Natalie Haynes’ brilliant ‘A Thousand Ships’. It’s a compilation of stories of the women involved in and affected by the Trojan War. However, as enjoyable as the stories were, one of the things that struck me most was written in the afterword. I was so intrigued that I took a photo of it.
It turns out there are more than 1,000 vases from antiquity featuring images of Amazons. It’s intriguing, because Amazons were the opposite of what women were expected to be in ancient Greece. They weren’t sheltered creatures who stayed indoors weaving and rearing children, controlled by their fathers or husbands. They were strong, independent women. They were warriors who lived and fought as a tribe. They strung bows rather than looms. They rode horses and wore trousers.
The world depicted in classical literature is incredibly sexist and violent towards women. Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ is full of descriptions of women being raped (often minimised and euphemised in translations).
And yet, in stark contrast, Amazons – first mentioned in the 8th Century BC and described by Homer as ‘men’s equals’ – were celebrated.
In the ancient Greek poem, ‘Aethiopis’ – part of the eight-book ‘Trojan poems’ epic cycle which includes Homer’s ‘Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey’1 – Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons, takes on the Greek hero, Achilles. And while she is defeated by him, he’s filled with sorrow at her death, Haynes says. It’s an emotion he doesn’t feel for anyone else.
One of the aforementioned vases features Achilles carrying Penthesilea’s body from the battlefield.
In an episode of her podcast, ‘Natalie Haynes Stands up for the Classics’, dedicated to Penthesilea, Haynes explains: “There are almost no images of Greeks carrying fallen enemies from the battlefields. I think Amazons are the only people who they ever do this for.”
She also reveals:
“The last line of the ‘Iliad’ is: ‘And so the Trojans buried Hector, tamer of horses’. But one scholiast – that’s an ancient commentator, a writer on even more ancient authors – had seen manuscripts (he’s writing on Homer) with alternate versions of that final line, one of which reads: ‘And so the Trojans buried Hector, and then came an Amazon, the daughter of great-hearted Ares’. Another version that he saw actually names Penthesilea: ‘And then came graceful Penthesilea, daughter of Otrera’.
“Just to be clear: this is how male heroes are introduced to us in epic poetry. If they have a divine parent, that is always mentioned, so we know that they’re a hero.”
But while the Amazons were part of the mythical pantheon of ancient literature, they weren’t just some male fantasy – the empowered and powerful opposite to their wives, sisters, and mothers at home.
There is significant archaeological and anthropological evidence of high status, horse-riding, weapon-wielding women who lived and fought across Europe and Asia, from the Black Sea to China (territories collectively known as ‘Scythia’).
Adrienne Mayor, a classics scholar at California’s Stanford University, and author of 'The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World'2, says archaeologists have identified more than 300 remains of warrior women buried with weapons in antiquity.
What’s more: “Ancient Greeks were not the only culture to spin exciting tales of Amazons based on the flesh-and-blood nomadic horsewomen-archers of the [Eurasian] steppes,” she says.
“Stories of warrior women circulated in lands beyond the Greek world – in Persia, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and China.”
And what’s interesting to note, she says, is that while in Greek literature, battles with Amazons were hard-won, but always won, in other cultures, the match between warrior women and men was so close that they often ended in a truce or a joining of forces.
Mayor says historical evidence for these ‘mythical’ stories keeps stacking up: all those regions are now “known to hold the graves of real Amazons”, and “more discoveries of armed women are reported each year“.
In a single region in Russia – north of the Black Sea, around the Don River and Sea of Azov – 11 graves have been discovered over the past decade featuring the remains of women warriors.
The most recent, in 2019, was a burial mound containing four women, ranging in age from as young as teens or early 20s up to 40 or 50. The grave – dated to the 4th Century BC – contained arrowheads, knives, and horse riding equipment. The oldest woman was wearing a high-quality gold headdress.
In 2020, a northern Mongolian burial dating to the 5th-4th Century BC was discovered to contain two women (aged around 20 and 50) whose bodies showed evidence of a lifetime spent on horseback and the heavy use of bows.
Two women (aged 16-20 and 45-50) were found buried with daggers and bronze arrows in Armenia in 2021. Their grave was dated to about 900 BC and their skeletons showed evidence of battle injuries, including embedded arrowheads.
The remains of a woman holding a knife and large sword, buried about 200 BC, was excavated in southern Kazakhstan in 2022.
And remains previously assumed to be male are now being identified as female thanks to DNA testing, including a partially-mummified body dressed in trousers and buried with a bow, arrows, and battle-axe in Siberia in the 6th Century BC, five warriors buried with swords and helmets in Cambodia in 400 AD, and two Viking women buried with swords, arrows, and horses in the 10th Century AD in Sweden.
Mayor says: “Archaeology is finally catching up with the reality of Amazons.
“Thanks to DNA and bioarchaeological science, the continuing remarkable discoveries of ancient burials of women’s battle-scarred skeletons accompanied by weapons are bringing historical credibility to ancient accounts of Amazons and Amazon-like women.”
Sadly, only fragments of ‘Aethiopis’ remain. It is book three of the 'Trojan poems' epic cycle, and follows the ‘Iliad’.
Something else you may not realise (I certainly didn’t): the famous Trojan horse? That’s not part of the ‘Iliad’. It’s actually from two other lost books of the cycle. It is built in book four, ‘Little Iliad’, and it’s in book five, ‘Iliou Peris’ (which translates as ‘Sack of Troy’), where the Trojan Horse ruse proves successful.