They are mentioned time and again by the ancient Greeks in both their history and mythology. Herodotus writes they were the descendants of Scythian men and shipwrecked Greek women. Other writers came along and embellished the story, describing formidable warriors who cut off one breast to be better archers (not possible by the way — they would have bled to death.)
They lived in women-only communities, taking lovers once a year solely for the purpose of procreation. These ferocious, independent, goddess-worshipping women were called the Amazons.
Amazons were reviled and revered, admired and yet feared. Some of the most memorable Amazons from antiquity include Antiope, who the hero Theseus won during a raid and made his concubine (you can imagine how well that went over), Pentheselia, who met Achilles in battle during the Trojan War, and Myrina, Queen of the African Amazons.
But the Greeks didn’t have a monopoly on the name “Amazon,” it was also used through the ages to describe warrior women in general, including a group living on the Amazon River in South America. The idea of bellicose all-female communities has captivated many cultures throughout history, including our own today.
Wonder Woman, Xena, Lara Croft, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer all embody the Amazon archetype. These are all strong, independent women who do not derive their power from a man. They are beautiful, sexy, and can kick your ass, an irresistible combination to both men and women.
From ancient Greek vases to modern day pop culture, Amazon women still cast their spell over the human subconscious.
But did these formidable women who inspired the archetype actually exist outside of the realm of myth?
Until fairly recently, it was believed that the Amazons were created by the patriarchal Greeks as a device to highlight the inherent superiority of males. In the myths, the Amazons fought and rode like the guys, but in the end, they usually lost to them. (After all, Theseus made Antiope his concubine, and when her Amazon home-girls came to Athens to free her, they were defeated as well.)
This is also the mindset driving the belief that the Amazons killed all their male children. In the highly gynephobic Greece of antiquity, independent women who openly disdained the natural superiority of men had to be demonized in the most heinous ways possible. What could be worse than baby killing?
On ancient vases, Amazons are pictured as another enemy of the Greeks — the Persians. They are depicted as effeminate, smooth-cheeked wimps wearing spotted pants and pointed hats, while the Greeks are shown as beautiful, half-naked, manly hunks.
Some scholars believe that the Amazon myths were meant to show that changing the “natural” order of things (in other words, male-dominated) would always lead to Trouble.
In the early 1990s, archaeologists Renate Rolle and Jeannine Davis-Kimball independently discovered evidence that challenged the traditional beliefs about the Amazons.
In the Ural Steppes surrounding the Black Sea was a remote Russian outpost where the graves of warrior women buried with their weapons were discovered. Scientists determined these women had been Scythians, the horse-riding race named by Herodotus as ancestors of the Amazons.
There was finally archeological evidence placing the Amazons where the Greeks authors had claimed them to be. But interestingly, these grave mounds also contained the remains of men and children — which would be in direct contradiction to the Amazons of Greek mythology, who were Oiorpata, or mankillers, and lived in women-only communities.
One grave contained the remains of a woman holding a baby to her breast. Her finger bones left evidence that she was indeed a warrior (the bones were worn from bow pulling), and she was buried with her weapons at her side.
Some of the women were bowlegged from constant horseback riding, and their average height was 5’6 inches, making them exceptionally tall for their time, also in line with Amazonian legend.
So there’s plenty of proof that these women were warriors, but if they were indeed Amazons, what was up with dudes being around?
Hittite texts describe groups of priestesses well-known for their magical prowess and power over men. There were temples to Artemis on the Aegean coast where priestesses cast spells, and their male acolytes castrated themselves to serve the Goddess.
Some tales purport that the priestesses sacrificed shipwrecked sailors to Artemis by throwing them over cliffs.
It’s possible that a combination of the Scythian warrior women and the mysterious and magical Hittite and Greek priestesses led to the Amazon women myth. After all, a certain type of man has always feared powerful women and demonized them. The technical term is wussbags.
Some believe that after that famous shipwreck reported by Herodotus the descendants of the Amazons and the Scythians became nomads, traveling northeast until they reached the Steppes where they began a new race known as the Sauromatians. Herodotus wrote:
“The women of the Sauromatae have continued from that day to the present to observe their ancient customs, frequently hunting on horseback with their husbands…in war taking the field and wearing the very same dress as the men….Their marriage law lays it down, that no girl shall wed until she has killed a man in battle.”
It would indeed appear that this culture’s social order was far more flexible and less sexist than what was the norm in Athens at the time.
This conclusion was not lost on Salon Magazine, who asked Dr. Jeannine Davis-Kimball during a February 1997 interview if modern society could draw any inspiration from her findings. Davis-Kimball replied that the concept of women staying home to tend the nest and raise kids is not a universal one and that women have held the reins of power for a very long time.
Although an all-female nation that exactly matches the accounts of ancient Greek history or mythology has yet to be discovered, we now know a group closely fitting the description left to us from antiquity lived almost precisely where the Greeks claimed.
Whether they were the actual Amazon women might never be known for sure, but they may very well have served as the inspiration for 2,500 years of historians, writers, and artists, and ensured that the Amazon would be one of the most enduring archetypes of western civilization.