Who were the notorious women who supposedly cut off their breasts, lived without men, and fought ferociously? The Amazons are shrouded in myth and mystery. Modern interpretations have placed them in the forefront of popular culture with movies like Marvel’s Wonder Woman. But were the ancient Amazon warrior women anything like these modern interpretations? Or were they merely a tribe of Scythian women, as suggested by Herodotus? This article will look at some of the prevailing legends about the mythical and historical Amazons and explore how these women’s legend came to be.
The Ancient Amazon Warrior Women
For centuries, scholars believed that the Amazons belonged solely to the realm of myth and legend. However, the Ancient Greeks believed that a race of these warrior women existed in some far-off land. To the Greeks, they were fearsome women who loathed or even killed men. This belief is attested in the various names given to Amazon warrior women by ancient sources. Among these names were Androktones (man-killers) and Androleteirai (destroyers of men), or Styganor (those who loathe all men). Yet the name ‘Amazon’ could also come from the Greek ἀμαζός (breastless). It is thought that the name’s usage led to the myth of the Amazons, the warrior women who cut off their breasts to better use their bows, rather than the legend leading to the name.
In Greek mythology, the Amazons were violent, man-slaying warriors also believed to be the daughters of Ares, the god of war. The Amazonomachy, famously depicted on the Parthenon metopes, was a great mythical battle between the Greeks and the Amazons. Many Greek heroes were tasked with defeating Amazon queens and warriors in their trials to attain their heroic glory.
Famous Myths With Amazon Warrior Women
Heracles and Hippolyta
A famous myth including a defeated Amazon in a quest for glory is the tale of Heracles and Hippolyta. For Heracles’ ninth labor, the hero was tasked with retrieving the girdle of Hippolyta, an Amazon queen. The girdle had been gifted to Hippolyta by her father Ares and was coveted by Admete, the daughter of Eurystheus. Heracles traveled to Themiscyra, where the Amazon queen lived and obtained her girdle after a bloody battle with the Amazons. By defeating the Amazon queen, Heracles completed his trial earning heroic glory and recognition for the act.
Theseus and Hippolyta
Another Greek legend of a hero and an Amazon is that of Theseus and Hippolyta (sometimes identified as Antiope). Theseus was a mythical king and founder of Athens. Like Heracles, he too underwent various trials to attain his reputation, like defeating the Minotaur. There are many legends and different versions surrounding the events that led to Hippolyta becoming Theseus’ wife. The general account of the legend agrees that Theseus abducted or was given Hippolyta by Heracles as a spoil of war against the Amazons. Another version even claims that she willingly left her Amazon warrior women to be with Theseus in his new city. Nevertheless, Hippolyta ended up in Athens where she became Theseus’ wife.
There are even more varied accounts about her death, arguing over whether she was killed accidentally or not by Theseus, or another party. After Hippolyta’s death, Theseus married Phaedra, a key figure in the Euripidean play Hippolytus, which covers the story of Hippolyta’s son.
Achilles and Penthesilea
From the 8th century BCE, we come to know of another pairing of hero and Amazon – Achilles and Penthesilea. The fragmentary epic poem, the Aethiopis, attributed to Arctinus of Miletus, first records the narrative which Quintus Smyrnaeus later took up. According to these accounts, Penthesilea was an Amazon from Thrace. She and twelve other Amazons came to the aid of the Trojans during the Trojan war. On the battlefield, the women distinguished themselves as fierce warriors and Penthesilea was challenged by Achilles. Achilles managed to kill the Amazon but at the moment he fatally wounded her, he fell in love with her. Penthesilea became a popular choice of subject for potters and vase painters and her story was retold innumerable times throughout antiquity.
The legends of these warrior women portray a man-slaying fearsome race, yet are these descriptions founded in any historical proof?
From Herodotus, we find the most compelling ancient literary evidence of the existence of a tribe of warrior women. According to the historian, after the Greeks had successfully defeated the Amazons in battle, the women were taken prisoner and placed on three ships. The captive Amazons were able to overpower the crews of these ships and successfully take control of the vessels. But because the women- being land-dwelling – knew nothing of ships, the vessels soon ran aground on the Maiotian lakeshore. From there, the women ventured inland and came upon a herd of horses which they swiftly tamed. Mounted on horseback, the warrior women plundered and stole from the Scythian inhabitants.
Scythian Warrior Women
The Scythians themselves were a nomadic tribe who practiced mounted warfare. At first, the Scythians could not understand the raiders’ language and mistook them for men. Only after a battle did they discover that the raiders were indeed women. Resolved to stop bloodshed between the two tribes, the Scythians decided to integrate the women into their tribe. They sent a detachment of young men to set up a camp near the Amazons. When the Amazons realized that the encampment of young men meant them no harm, they let them be. Every day the camps moved closer to one another until one day, a Scythian man came upon a lone Amazon. The Amazon allowed the young man to lie with her that day. She indicated using hand signs that he should return the next day with another young man. He did so and found that the Amazon had brought along another woman as well. Soon all the Scythians were able to take an Amazon for their wives and the two tribes lived as one. Because the men could not understand the Amazon language, the warrior women soon learned the Scythian tongue.
The men urged the Amazons to join them with the other Scythians, but the women refused. The Amazon warrior women stated that they had not learned women’s work but instead rode horses and shot bows. This, they said, could not allow them to live in harmony with the other women of the tribe. So the Amazons requested from their new husbands that they return home to fetch their belongings. Together, the Amazons and the young Scythian men set off to form a new nomadic tribe, separate from the Scythians. According to Herodotus, the Sauromatae people were descendants of Scythian men and the Amazons.
The Archaeological Evidence of Warrior Women
Although Herodotus provides us with a detailed origin story for the Amazons, we must take his history with a pinch of salt. Many scholars agree that Herodotus’ accounts border on the fictitious as he often reported dubious stories heard during his travels. It was not until the discovery of archaeological evidence that any truth could be linked to the Herodotean narrative.
In the 1940s, excavations of Scythian burial mounds known as kurgans in the Caucasus region uncovered ancient human remains. The archaeologists first believed these remains belonged to men, but DNA proved that the remains of 300 skeletons were, in fact, women. These Scythian warrior women were buried with their horses, quivers, bows, axes, and spears. Furthermore, a third of Scythian women found in burial sites to date were buried with their weaponry.
Since the discovery of evidence of warrior Scythian women in the 1940’s, archaeologists have successfully located burial sites all over the Caucasus region. In 2019, a burial mound containing the remains of four Scythian women was discovered in Western Russia. The ages of the women ranged between 13 years old to the late ’40s. The remains themselves were dated to around 2,300 years old. Each of these women was buried along with their weapons, and evidence indicates that they received the same burials as men. The oldest Scythian woman’s skeleton was fully intact with her head still adorned with a ceremonial headdress or calathos.
Misconceptions About The Amazons
Archaeology has successfully proven that Scythian warrior women did exist in the area described by Herodotus. Archaeology has also provided evidence to disprove many of the misconceptions about the Amazons.
The prevailing myth about the Amazons is that they were slayers of men. This belief stemmed from the core of ancient Greek society. For the Greeks, these women were untamed and wild. The fear of the unknown and a woman who could not be controlled led to these Amazons becoming objects of fantasy for the Greek mind. To rectify this, Greek mythology placed these warrior women into narratives in which they would be defeated and tamed by a Greek hero. The notion that the Amazons cut off one of their breasts to better use their bows has also been disproven. Archaeology indicates that no such disfigurement occurred, but the myth can again be attributed to a Greek invention.
By cutting off one of their breasts, the Amazons would physically remove their connection to motherhood. The notion that Amazon warrior women gave up motherhood in favor of being warriors is another fallacy. Archaeology has presented evidence that many Scythian women warriors were buried with their infants or children and their weapons.
Amazon Warrior Women: Conclusion
Amazon warrior women have captivated people’s imagination for thousands of years. Even today, they attract the audience’s interest through movies like Marvel’s Wonder Woman. In myth, they symbolized women who were equal, if not superior, to male warriors representing a lifestyle outside societal expectations. Archaeological evidence supporting Scythian women warriors’ existence revealed that a significant part of what we once considered to be myth could be a reality.