Warrior Women

The Myth and Reality of the Amazons

Heracles fighting the Amazons, circa 530 BC.

It is said the boundless steppes of Asia gave flight to tales of heroes and heroines because the conditions there are so harsh. From about 700 BC to AD 500, the vast territory of Scythia, stretching from the Black Sea to China, was home to diverse but culturally related nomads. Known as Scythians to Greeks, Saka to the Persians, and Xiongnu to the Chinese, the steppe tribes were masters of horses and archery. Scythian boys and girls learned to ride and shoot so that everyone could hunt and make war.

The horse and the bow were the equalizers: women could be just as tough, fast, and deadly as men. Indeed, the remains of 300 warrior women were found in more than 1,000 excavations of Scythian kurgans (burial mounds), from Ukraine to Central Asia—a spectacular archaeological discovery. So far, DNA testing of the skeletons buried with weapons shows that 25 to 37 percent of Scythian girls and women, from 10 to 45 years of age, were active warriors.

Ptolemaic map of Scythia by Girolamo Porro, 1598.
Ptolemaic map of Scythia by Girolamo Porro, 1598.

As the Greeks began to explore the Black Sea region in the seventh century BC, reports of barbarian archers on horseback filtered back to Greece. The nomads' egalitarian lifestyle astonished the Greeks, who kept their own women indoors weaving and minding children. The exotic Scythian lifestyle fueled the Greek imagination and led to an outpouring of myths about fierce Amazons, “the equals of men.”The name Amazon was not originally Greek; linguists believe it derived from the ancient Iranian word for “warrior.”

Amazons became wildly popular subjects on thousands of vase paintings. Every great hero, from Heracles to Achilles, had to prove his valor by defeating an Amazon queen. As the Greeks learned more about Scythians, they added realistic details to their artistic depictions of Amazons, who were shown riding horses, swinging battle-axes, shooting arrows, and wearing patterned trousers and tunics decorated with animal designs. One feature remained constant in all the Greek myths, however. Despite their courage, beauty, and might, Amazons could never

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