Amazon Women: Myth or Reality?
For our topic we chose the question “Are the Amazon women part of a myth or could they have really existed?” Although the name “Amazon” may lead people to believe that this group of women originated in the Amazon rainforest of South America, the tribe of women we are discussing are from the Ukraine near the Russian border. At first, the idea of a tribe of warrior like women was thought to be a myth but new archeological evidence points towards the actual existence of these women. However, there is debate on whether the burials found of the women really point to a tribe of warlike females, or that the supposed “tribes” of women were in reality just mythological representations to support women’s independence from male-dominated society. We incorporated three articles below to give an overview of the archeological evidence along with the opposing viewpoints on this subject. The evidence might seem to push in the direction that they were real, but it is always important to think critically and ask questions from both sides of the argument. Did these women really act the way the myths portrayed them, or were they just a revolutionary group of women warriors that died out with the dominance of male culture in a short time frame? Or, could they have even just been sheepherders protecting their sheep vigorously where one violent incident turned into a myth that made them a breed of violent, reckless women? Was this just some man’s fantasy that grew popular among women and caused an uprising that resulted in the archaeological sites of women surrounded by weaponry and dead men? Only one thing is certain: there are archaeological sites proving that tribes of women with weapons existed, but it is up to the imagination to configure the remainder of the mystifying legend of the Amazon women.
This first article hits directly at the core of the evidence that has been found and the myths that encompass these Amazon women. The author, Kathy Sawyer, discusses that the archeological evidence found might not be the mythical Amazons but may have been the reason for it. The numerous archeological finds of women warriors in Ukraine can’t show that there were Amazon women, so it’s a researcher’s job to piece together what is myth from what is reality.
“Were ancient Amazons more than myth?”
Tales of the Amazons, a tribe of fearsome warrior women armed with golden shields and silver axes weave through the myths of the ancient Greeks. These menacing maidens replenished their numbers by mating with men from other tribes, keeping the daughters and killing male infants.
Many cultures have developed this theme of "a distant land organized oppositely from one's own," one encyclopedia notes delicately, suggesting the notion of such women sprang from such an imaginative impulse in the male-dominated Greek society.
Now archaeologists working 1,609 km to the east, in a remote area of Russia near the Kazakhstan border, have found evidence that real warrior women, of a sort, existed at about the same time as the mythical ones.
Some scholars have long believed there was at least a kernel of truth in the Amazon legend. In early Germanic tribes, women followed their men to battle. The 12th-century Mongol armies of Genghis Khan were accompanied by their families. In the 1950s scientists working at 4th century B.C. burial sites in southern Ukraine noticed many graves of women contained swords, spears, daggers, arrowheads and armor.
The latest evidence came from archaeologist Jeannine Davis-Kimball and Russian colleagues, who spent five years excavating more than 150 burial mounds of 5th century B.C. nomads near Pokrovka, Russia. They found 14 percent of the graves were those of women buried with bronze daggers, arrowheads, swords, whetstones for sharpening and other suggestive artifacts of a warrior status.
"These finds suggest that Greek tales of Amazon warriors may have had some basis in fact," Davis-Kimball writes in the January/February issue of Archaeology magazine, where 50 of the burial sites are described. Director of the Center for the Study of Eurasian Nomads in Berkeley, Calif., Davis-Kimball outlines the findings in more detail in an upcoming issue of the Journal of IndoEuropean Studies. Though the Pokrovka nomads were not the Amazons of myth, she concludes, they could have inspired the legends.
The skeletons of several women (like those of male warriors ) were found with their legs angled into a bowlegged position as if astride a horse, Davis-Kimball said in an interview. "They may have been symbolically riding a horse to the next world." Because men were often positioned the same way, she added, the posture is unlikely to represent birthing or sexual activity.
One girl 13 or 14 years old was buried with 40 bronze arrowheads in a quiver at her left side, and an iron dagger at her right, along with amulets (objects worn for protection) including a bronze arrowhead in a leather pouch around her neck, and a great boar's tusk (probably once suspended from her belt) at her feet.
Another woman had a bent arrowhead lodged in her body cavity, "suggesting that she had been killed in battle," Davis-Kimball said.
The ancients first located the Amazon habitat on the southern shore of the Black Sea but shifted it to more remote precincts as their knowledge of surrounding lands expanded.
In the 5th century B.C., the historian Herodotus reported tales of warrior women who rode the steppes of southern Russia. In these accounts, the Greeks defeated the Amazons at the battle of Thermodon and took many captives. During the sea voyage home, the women killed their captors, seized the ship and got caught in a storm, which tossed them ashore only to face another army, the Scyths (who called the frightening women "killers of men" ). The Scyths eventually made peace with the Amazons and produced children. The result was a matriarchal society known as the Sauromatians, later supplanted by the Sarmatians.
"Our work has shown that these people [the Sauromatians ] first began grazing their sheep, horses, and even the occasional camel on the steppes around Pokrovka around 600 B.C.," writes Davis-Kimball. The nomads would summer there, then head south for the winters. The burial sites at Pokrovka range from the 6th to 4th centuries B.C. (Sauromatian) and from the 4th to 2nd centuries B.C. (Sarmatian).
The women generally were buried with a wider variety and a larger quantity of artifacts than men, indicating the influential role women played. In addition to the significant minority that held weapons, dozens of other female graves contained domestic items such as spindle whorls (for spinning), fragments of broken mirrors, and stone and glass beads. A handful included clay or stone altars, bone spoons and seashells, possibly denoting priestesses. One buried status symbol was a "remarkable flute carved from an animal bone."
In fact, said Davis-Kimball, some Early Iron Age Pokrovka women "seem to have controlled much of the wealth, performed rituals for their families and clan, ridden horseback and possibly hunted saiga, a steppe antelope, and other small game."
Some scholars have argued the burial of weapons with women served a purely ritual purpose. But Davis-Kimball said, "I believe these women actually used these weapons in real life. Why would [the tribe] take real, functional arrowheads from a male and put it in a woman's burial" for nothing but symbolic purposes?
She noted some burial artifacts are miniature replicas obviously intended only for symbolic purposes. "But with warriors, both male and female, we've found only functional arrowheads," she said.
These women were probably sheepherders who carried weapons to defend themselves against thieving marauders, she said. When threatened, they "took to their saddles, bows and arrows ready, to defend their animals, pastures and clan."
The Japan Times, May 19, 1997
By KATHY SAWYER
The Washington Post
The second article is about the journey of the author as her and the expedition team discovered the graves of the many Scythians and Sauromatian women warriors believed to be the Amazons. She takes you on the travels of getting to Ukraine, giving you the setting of the harsh environment these women are coming from and now are in, showing their strength. The author takes you through the Greek legends that surrounded them, such as fighting with Hercules, and escaping capture by taking over a whole fleet of ships. Ending with the evidence she believes inspired the Greeks to write these stories. With studies of over 100 women graves with weapons and forms of armor, she concludes that the women warriors, Amazons or not, were clearly real because of many factors: their weapons showing signs of use, some skeletons with spear marks that were most likely injuries from battle, and many artifacts surrounding the bodies that revealed a clear value for the women in battle and not mere decoration.
The Amazons were a mythical race of women warriors who were as beautiful as they were cruel. Lyn Webster Wilde travelled to the Steppes of the Ukraine and uncovered some astonishing evidence of their historical reality.
WE STOOD ON THE DECK of the Russian cargo ship and followed the silvery track of the full moon with our eyes. We were heading across the Black Sea to Yalta in the Ukraine on the trail of the women known as the Amazons, who cut off one breast to fire arrows more accurately and lived apart from men. The 5th century Greek Hellanicus described them as "golden-shielded, silver-sworded, man-loving, male-child slaughtering Amazons".
They had made the journey nearly three millennia before, as captives in a Greek galley on their way to a life of slavery -- or worse. Defeated by Hercules at the battle of Themiscyra, they lay sleepless in their cabin. This could have been the end of their glorious history of independence, conquest and the founding of cities. But all was not over. They threw off their chains, slaughtered their Greek captors and took control of the ship. Unskilled in navigation, they drifted for days before reaching shore on the sea of Azov in what is now the Ukraine. Once there, the Greek historian Herodotus says they settled down with the local Scythians, creating a race called the Sauromatians. Their womenfolk kept up their old customs including the one that prohibited a young woman from marrying until she had killed a man in
It was contrariness which made me go in search of the Amazons. The academic community had decided they didn't exist. "Hittites in kilts probably," snorted one Oxbridge fellow. "An aberration in which I am not at all interested," sniffed an elderly Jungian historian. The theory was that the patriarchal Greeks had invented these women to show the infinite superiority of males: okay, so women could ride, fight and kill, but they could never win. They were depicted as skimpy, smooth-cheeked creatures wearing trousers and pointy hats. Not like the half-naked, ultra-macho Greeks.
The consensus annoyed me. I wondered, in fact, whether any of these scholars had in fact carried out any investigations of the lands where the Amazons were supposed to have lived. I believed that the Amazons had existed in some form, and I was going to prove it.
I am not an historian, archaeologist, linguist or classicist, but these lacunae did not hold me back. I was going to travel in the trail of the Amazons to prove the academics wrong.
My first break was to find out about the work of a German archaeologist, Professor Renate Rolle, who knew more about the Scythians than anyone else. The Scythians were a semi-nomadic, horse-riding people who roamed the Steppes on the edges of the Greek empire in the 6th and 5th centuries BC, when writers likes Lysias and Hippocrates first referred to the Amazons.
Rolle had discovered the graves of women buried with bows and arrows, swords and armour in the steppes of present-day Ukraine. Regardless of whether the war-like women of the Scythians and Sauromatians were Amazon prototypes or their descendants, I needed to know what evidence there was of their existence. Rolle was the key, and I knew she was digging somewhere in the Ukraine. With my Russian-speaking friend Natasha, I planned to visit her.
The Russian cargo ship sailing from Istanbul to Yalta was full of tall fierce-looking women, who had packed their cabins with children's toys, babies' buggies, CD players and other goods from the Turkish bazaars to sell in the markets of her home town. Faced with tough times in the Ukraine, most families have to supplement their income by selling imported consumer goods. Many women are forced into prostitution. Istanbul is full of blonde Ukrainian and Russian women, called "Natashas" by the Turks, who cross the Black Sea to sell their bodies to the Muslim men who both desire and despise them. We had been accosted ourselves and needed to summon all our English frostiness to prove that our height and hair colour did not signify what they thought.
It had been impossible to arrange anything in advance: faxes got lost, e-mails bounced back, secretaries failed to pass on messages. We could not even book our passage on the boat. "Come on the day and if there's room..." was all the shipping company clerk would say. Luckily we were given the last two berths.
Once we had arrived in the Ukraine, we discovered that old style Soviet bureaucracy was alive and well. Natasha had to throw an operatic wobbly in the visa renewal office in Yalta to ensure we were not stuck in a waiting room worthy of Gogol for three days. As the door was being politely shut in our faces, she simply stuck her foot out, flipped it open again and marched in. "You are supposed to be a friendly democracy now, welcoming visitors," she stormed. "You simply cannot treat British ladies like this." I thought we would be thrown out but, within the hour, we had stamps in our passports.
In Kiev, we began to learn about the Scythians. For example, we discovered that when the Greeks built their colonies, such as Chersonesus and Panticapaeum, around the Black Sea from the 7th century BC onwards, the rumbustious, swaggering Scythians drifted in from the steppes and liked what they saw.
Although they were given to bloodthirsty customs such as scalping their enemies and drinking from their skulls, the Scythians rubbed along pretty well with the Greeks and there is little indication of aggression between the two groups. However, there was one very odd thing: 25 per cent of the Scythian warrior graves found in the Ukraine appeared to be those of females.
The amazing discovery was taken for granted by local archaeologists. Costume specialist Lyubov Klotchko had done a drawing, showing the leather cap, trousers, snake bracelet, and most interestingly, the one earring she thought they wore. It seemed that the very young, the very old and the women warriors wore only one earring, possibly indicating a virgin, child-flee state.
At the time of our trip, Professor Rolle was digging at the great Scythian settlement at Bel'sk, in the middle of the steppe near Poltava. Bel'sk flourished in the 7th century BC and had a mixed population --half Greeks and half Scythians. Within it is a huge cemetery, containing thousands of small grave mounds. Rolle was not contactable by phone, which meant we had to turn up uninvited and unannounced. We hired a car and set off in the rain.
In Scythian times, the endless steppe would have been feathery-tipped grassland, scented by sage and other fragrant herbs. The ride from China to the Black Sea would probably have taken three months. Today, the landscape is monotonous farmland, dotted by kurgans (burial mounds) left by the various peoples who have visited the area.
Bel'sk itself was a desolate mudbath, and we could find no trace of excavations or fortress walls. Exasperated, our driver Tolya launched off down a sidetrack; soon we were stuck fast in the mud. But round the next bend, we spotted a lonely figure sitting under a dripping canopy. It was Rolle, writing up her notes. Natasha explained who we were. There was a tense moment until she laughed and her colleague Professor Mursin brought out a bottle of vodka.
Rolle proved to be serious but genial. She and her colleagues kept a goat, chickens, a noisy pig and kittens -- all accommodated in the ramshackle farm building around which their tents were pitched. Nearby, she showed us a field full of Scythian shards and bones, as the rain poured down on us. The Amazons still seemed far away. But they were nearer than we knew: Rolle turned out to be one of those incorruptible, unstoppably persistent and honest people who discover amazing things and then are slow to take credit for them. Finally, we persuaded her to tell her story.
In 1965, as a student archaeologist, she began to notice that the gender of the buried people in some of the graves she was digging was not obvious. The possessions buried with the bodies included both female items such as spindles and mirrors and typical male instruments such as knives, swords or arrows. Previous generations of archaeologists had tended to presume that any body buried with weapons was male.
Rolle started by re-examining a grave found by Count Bobrinsky in the late 19th century: the main burial was of a woman but at her feet lay the body of a young man of about 18 years old. The woman's body had been richly adorned with jewellery of silver, bronze and glass and next to her lay two spear points and a brightly painted quiver with the remains of 47 arrows. The young man had almost no possessions buried near him.
When I first heard Rolle's description of this grave, I felt a chill down my backbone: here we had traces of a world very different from the Greek, a world where a woman might fight and was considered important enough to merit a sacrificed servant to look after her in the next world.
Rolle began to dig herself. In the early 1980s, she was working in Certomylik, in the lower reaches of the Dnieper, a very rich source of Scythian burials. In six of the 53 graves she found women with weapons. "Two hadn't been touched," she told us. "One was a young woman with weapons, a bow and some arrow-heads, and this little child lying on her arm. The two fingers of her right hand which would have had heavy use from pulling a bow showed clear signs of wear and tear. It was very moving. So you see these women warriors did have children, they led perfectly normal married lives. They only fought when they had to, to defend their settlement or if there was some particularly ferocious fighting going on."
Rolle studied 100 graves of women with weapons. She was convinced that these women warriors were ordinary, man-loving, child-rearing women, not muscle-bound man-haters. She pointed out that a woman's physique is particularly well suited to horse-riding and distance-riding, and that a skilled bow-woman on horseback is at no disadvantage to a man. "They used the bow - it's a good weapon for a woman because you don't need brute strength to use it, all you need is to be fast and flexible. We know they rode horses. Defensive weapons tend to be heavy, but we've found mail-shirts and armour in women's graves, so we know they used them. And some skeletons show signs of the women being wounded in battle."
According to Rolle, these warrior women would certainly fight when necessary to protect their families and cattle, but they were not separatist "mankillers"; they lived alongside their menfolk, bore children and were buried with make-up as well as swords.
This was only the beginning of my quest to prove that the Amazons had existed, but standing in the mud at Bel'sk I could imagine how the myth of the Amazons had come into being. Greek soldiers billeted at Bel'sk or Chersonesus would have spotted the Scythian women riding into town, with their bows and arrows and daggers, wearing trousers and, above all, with a strong and independent attitude. The soldiers would have been impressed, they would have taken stories home of these fierce yet good-looking women who could finish you off if you upset them.
In the Ukraine, the legacy of the women warriors vibrates down the centuries: in Kiev we walked into the Cathedral of St Sophia and were confronted by a gigantic mosaic figure of a woman, standing above the altar with her arms upraised in blessing. Christ was not visible. "Who is that?" I asked a guide. "That is Maria, the goddess of our city," she said. "When the Tartars stormed in here in the 11th century, they saw her and backed straight out again without harming the cathedral." There was no mistaking it, this Virgin Mary was a warrior first, a mother second.
By Lyn Webster Wilde
Finally, the third article presented below discusses how the legend came to be and the actual history of the women and men that bring this legend to life. Starting with all the myths and continuing with the history of the actual mating of the Amazons and Scythians, she describes the place of origin. Also, the author argues that you can’t be certain on the myths because there aren’t more than a few sites where these women are found. She also emphasizes that many sites have not been found in some of the cities that are said to be associated with the Amazon women. Much like many of the other authors, Jeannine Davis-Kimball introduces archeological evidence but strongly advises readers that nothing is definitive.
“Are the tales about Amazons only tales? Read on…”
Legends of the women warriors known to history as Amazons have been passed down from generation to generation and seem as popular today as they were 2,000 years ago.
It is the account of the fifth-century B.C. Greek writer Herodotus, who is said to have visited the entire known world of his time, that is the most commonly told today. According to Herodotus:
Courageous and bold, Amazons fought with great dignity. They were never portrayed in art or words as cruel or cowardly. Among their most widely known exploits was their battle with Scythian warriors who lived along the northern shores of the Black Sea. Mortified when they discovered that they were fighting women, the Scythians later began to court the Amazons. In time, the two nations united, but the independent lifestyle of the Amazons did not allow the women to remain with their Scythian mates. So, the women beseeched their mates to gather the sheep and horses and leave. The Scythians did so and migrated north and east. The children they took with them and the generations that followed became known as the nomadic Sauromatians.
Today, we can imagine Herodotus, known also as the "Father of History," on a visit to Scythia. We can picture him spending time with caravan drivers as they arrived from trading forays far to the east. At night around a crackling fire in a caravanserai (an inn or open court), travelers would exchange tales of the Issedones, who were pushed from their land by the one-eyed Arimaspians. They also told of the guardians of gold, huge griffins (mythical monsters), with birds' heads and lions' feet.
Almost certainly, the traders recounted the exploits of the nomadic Sauromatian and Sarmatian warrior women. They lived along the tributaries of the great Volga River, on the steppes south of the Ural Mountains--where Europe meets Asia. As these women galloped away from an enemy, they were said to fire over their shoulders a deadly barrage of arrows from their bows.
All for a Belt In recent years, archaeologists have excavated the kurgan (mound) burials of these people, which date from the sixth to the fourth century B.C. The women's burials have revealed the belongings of a warrior: bronze and iron arrowheads, daggers and swords, and occasionally iron armor plates.
Contrary to Herodotus' account that the Amazons paired on a permanent basis with the Scythians, the Amazons never married. They dwelt in northern Asia Minor (modern Turkey), in the area where the Thermodon River spills into the southern Black Sea. Perhaps Herodotus combined the romance of the Sauromatian and Sarmatian warrior women with the tale of the Amazons.
In Greek mythology, the Amazons were renown for their heroic battles against such highly honored Greek heroes as Theseus and Heracles. One such battle took place when Heracles was living at the ancient religious city of Delphi in north-central Greece. There, the attending priestess directed him to perform 12 labors. The ninth was to capture the sacred belt that belonged to the Amazon queen Hippolyte. The queen had received the belt from Ares, the Greek god of war, and had vowed never to surrender it willingly. The result was war. Many Amazons were killed before Heracles managed to slay Hippolyte and take his booty.
A Power Play? Tradition also informs us that the Amazons founded cities in Asia Minor. Among these were Cyme and Smyrna, each named for an Amazon queen. Others were Myrine, named for the queen of the earlier Libyan Amazons in North Africa, and Ephesus. In Ephesus, the Amazons are credited with building a great temple to the goddess Artemis. The Amazons honored Artemis as a moon goddess and as the patron of animals. They depicted her as a huntress with arrows fashioned of gold.
To date, excavations have uncovered no Amazonian (or other) city near the Thermodon and no Amazonian settlement in the other cities connected with the women warriors. For this reason, the tales seem to be simply mythological. There are many, however, who believe that Greek men created these legends to keep their wives under control. In ancient Greece, women had few rights and remained mostly at home. Amazonian society was said to be matriarchal (woman-dominated) and egalitarian (equal rights for all). However, Greek orators advised women not to behave like Amazons or to engage in battle. If they did so, then certainly they would share the fate of the ancient Amazons--death at the hands of Greece's masterful warriors.
Ancient artisans often included figures of Amazons in their work. Some of these figures are stylized in a classic Greek manner, while others depict the women warriors astride a horse, costumed in the same manner as the Sauromatian warrior women: pointed cap, caftan jacket, trousers, and soft boots. In the portrayal at left, the Amazon has drawn her arrow against an enemy, in the same manner as uncovered artifacts show her Sauromatian counterpart would have
The artifacts buried with the young warrior priestess (excavated skeleton in top image) included about 40 bronze arrowheads, an iron dagger, and seashells (bottom image).
By Jeannine Davis-Kimball
Jeannine Davis-Kimball, an archaeologist and author specializing in the ancient (and modern) cultures of Central Asia, founded the American Eurasian Research Institute (AERI), of which she is currently executive director, and its subsidiary, the Center for the Study of Eurasian Nomads (CSEN).
We have also included multiple photos for our presentation to show some archaeological evidence, as well as some art. Each shows an example of an idea on how the Amazons lived, what they wore, some battles, and so forth. There is even a photo of a pendant that was found in one of the graves.
1. Davis-Kimball, Jeannine. “Are the Tales of the Amazon Only Tales? Read On...” Dig, Oct. 2006, Vol. 8 Issue 8, p6-8, 3p. Web.
2. Sawyer, Kathy. “Were ancient Amazons more than myth?” Original Publication by The Japan Times, 19 May 1997. The Washington Post. Web.