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 emerge victorious over Greek men.

Modern scholars had long assumed that Amazons were just a Greek myth. But the overwhelming archaeological evidence of armed female burials across Scythia proves that Amazons were not merely imaginary. Today, the Greek stories are the most well-known, but in fact the Greeks were not the only people fascinated by the horsewomen of Scythia. Accounts of warlike women arose all across the ancient world, from Egypt and Persia to the Caucasus and Central Asia. And those tales have radically different outcomes.

Wounded Amazon, Roman copy of Greek original by Phidias with head replicated from Polykleitos, 440-430 BCE.
Wounded Amazon, Roman copy of Greek original by Phidias, 440-430 BC.
Mary Harrsch / Flickr
Instead of following the Greek mythic script dooming all Amazons to defeat and death, the warrior women in stories from other cultures not only survive but win battles. And, whereas Greek stories focused primarily on fighting, those from beyond Mediterranean were as likely to be about love as war.

Several tattered papyruses contain legends about historical figures of the seventh century BC, when Egypt was part of the Assyrian Empire. One papyrus, “Egyptians and Amazons,” tells how Prince Pedikhons invaded a “land of women” in Syria, where today 10,000 Kurdish women soldiers are fighting the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). Serpot, the Amazon “pharaoh,” leads a charge on Pedikhons’ army, inflicting heavy casualties. Pedikhons challenges Serpot to single combat. At sunrise, they don their armor and take up swords. The Egyptian and the Amazon struggle mightily all day, their sword blows “resounding on their ornate shields.” They “attack like panthers, as though death was greater than life itself,” but neither gives way. At twilight, Serpot calls out, “We can fight again tomorrow. Let's rest.” Pedikhons agrees, “We cannot fight in the dark.”

Scholars can just make out sporadic words on the ragged papyrus. The two warriors sit down to talk. “Pedikhons, why have you [come] here to [the land of women]? . . . fate . . . combat . . . if you wish . . . between us . . . she laughed.” Pedikhons removes his armor, and suddenly “Serpot loses her bearings [because of] the great desire that entered [into her].” She removes her armor, too. Pedikhons also loses all sense of his surroundings and says, “My dear Serpot . . .” Here the text trails off.

One papyrus, “Egyptians and Amazons,” tells how Prince Pedikhons invaded a "land of women” in Syria, where today 10,000 Kurdish women soldiers are fighting the Islamic State (also known as ISIS).
In the next fragment, Serpot and Pedikhons discuss their dilemma of duty versus love. They return to their camps to sleep. At dawn they resume their duel, but they are so evenly matched that neither can win. Peace is declared. Serpot and Pedikhons continue their passionate conversation, and the lovers set up a tent together. Both armies celebrate their alliance. Suddenly, a hostile army from the Far East appears and slaughters many of Pedikhons’ men. Serpot rushes to take the lead because she is experienced in combating this enemy. Together, Serpot and Pedikhons defeat the foe.

Instead of a typical Greek zero-sum game with only one victor, the Egyptian tale describes rapprochement between equals. Similar stories of combat leading to companionship from Azerbaijan, Persia, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and other ancient cultures also envision gender parity in love and war. In a northern Caucasian legend, for example, an Amazon and a Circassian chieftain interrupt their battle on the steppes for a tête-à-tête in a tent between their armies. Like Serpot and Pedikhons, they become lovers and both armies cheer their union. Over and over in the non-Greek narratives, what begins as a life-and-death struggle ends in mutual respect, love, and an alliance. The patriarchal Greeks imagined that if women were strong, men must be weak, and vice versa. For them, the idea of equal comradeship with women evoked ambivalence. Other cultures seem more open to egalitarian relationships between the sexes.

Saka Tigraxauda Delegation on a frieze from Persepolis.
Saka Tigraxauda Delegation on a frieze in Persepolis.
This difference is evident in a story about an ancient Persian romance starring a Saka warrior queen, set in the Median Empire (625–550 BC). As Greek historians noted, “Saka women fight alongside the men on horseback, like Amazons.” Their daring leader, Zarina, subdued many enemies and was honored with a colossal gold statue and monumental tomb. The romance that coalesced around this historical figure comes from scattered evidence in many sources.

The action begins as the Parthian nomads revolt from the Median Empire. They ally with the powerful Saka and “entrust their army to Zarina.” Bloody wars rage between the Saka-Parthians and the Medes. In one battle, Zarina fights the Mede commander Stryangaeus. He knocks Zarina off her horse. Struck by her bravery, he allows her to remount and gallop away. In another battle, Zarina’s soldiers capture Stryangaeus and are about to kill him. Because the Mede had once saved her life, Zarina frees Stryangaeus.

The thread is next taken up in a fragmentary papyrus by Nicolas of Damascus. After the Medes and the Saka declare peace, Stryangaeus visits his old enemy Zarina in Rhoxanake (“Shining City”). “Greeting him with great delight, Zarina kisses him and rides in his chariot, chatting happily.” Stryangaeus retires to his tent, filled with desire. He confides his feelings to a eunuch, who urges him to declare his love. But Zarina gently rejects him. Tormented by love, Stryangaeus resolves to kill himself. But first he writes an anguished letter to Zarina.

Many versions of the lovesick Mede’s letter circulated in antiquity, preserved on shreds of papyrus. The gist is always the same: “I saved you! You saved me! Now I am devastated, ruined, destroyed, because of you.” Even the most complete papyrus scrap torments readers, leaving them in suspense. The last legible sentence reads, “After writing this letter, he placed the parchment on his pillow and asked for his sword. But the eunuch—”

While Greeks were spinning tales of Amazons, Chinese historians were marveling at formidable female archers among the Xiongnu hordes on the steppes.
The narrative suggests that the eunuch arranged a happy ending. The ancient Iranian romance of Zarina and Stryangaeus dates to the time when Amazons first appeared in Greek art and literature. Some compare it with the tragic Greek myth of Achilles, who kills the Amazon Penthesilea and then falls in love as she dies. But the Persian story offers a very different scenario. The enemies spared each other's lives in battle, and thus friendship and love were possible.

China marks the easternmost extent of the nomads whose women were models for mythic and historical Amazons in Greek, Persian, and Egyptian accounts. While Greeks were spinning tales of Amazons, Chinese historians were marveling at formidable female archers among the Xiongnu hordes on the steppes, who threatened to overrun what would become the Great Wall of China. By the fourth century BC, the Xiongnu marshaled cavalries of 300,000 mounted archers, exerting relentless pressure on China’s frontiers. Wars between the Xiongnu and the Han dynasty entailed ferocious battles punctuated by alliances. Chinese rulers sent lavish tributes and exchanged brides with nomad leaders.

A legend of the Northern Song dynasty tells of a nomad girl called Jinding (“Golden Ingot”) who rode to war with her brothers. Her clan belonged to the Golden Horde. Flamboyant, wielding a golden sword, and riding a red horse, Jinding led war bands from her stronghold, “Double-Locked Mountain.” At age 16, she headed a revolt against the Song emperor, who dispatched the brave young general Junbao to crush the rebellion. Jinding took him prisoner, but they fell in love and became partners in war. Now, with Junbao as her second in command, Jinding led the Song armies for about 30 years.

Mulan, from the painting series "Gathering Gems of Beauty" by He Dazi, Qing dynasty.
Mulan, from the painting series "Gathering Gems of Beauty" by He Dazi, Qing dynasty.
The most famous female warrior of China is Hua Mulan, familiar to Western audiences from Disney films (1998 and 2004). The beloved national heroine is celebrated in countless Chinese histories, plays, poems, works of art, and operas. Many dynasties—Northern Wei, Han, Sui, Tang—claimed Mulan as their own, and various provinces vie for her birthplace. But extraordinary new linguistic evidence reveals a secret about this quintessential Chinese heroine.

Mulan's tale originated in oral folk songs during the Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 220). The earliest written mention of the “Song of Mulan” dates to the Northern Wei dynasty (AD 386–557), when northern China was beset by constant attacks from nomad armies. Mulan's story begins with the emperor conscripting soldiers from each family to fight wars beyond the Great Wall. Disguised as a young man, she joins the imperial army. After ten years of winning great victories for the emperor, Mulan returns home. Resuming her feminine identity, she looks up her old comrades. The veterans are amazed to discover that their battle companion was a woman.

Hua Mulan’s name is commonly translated as “Magnolia” in Chinese. But a historical-linguistic study by a Chinese scholar in 2012 uncovered that Mulan’s name is not Chinese at all. Linguistic analysis shows that her name means “Deer/Elk” in the ancient Altaic language of the Turkic peoples of Central Asia. Her non-Chinese name reveals that the warrior girl glorified as China’s ideal female fighter had roots in the Xiongnu culture. Mulan was yet another warrior woman of nomadic origins who rose to military prominence fighting nomads for her adopted nation of China. While Mulan’s disguise hid her gender, her ethnic origins were hidden behind a Chinese-sounding name.

Shield emblem, Scythian, end of the 7th century BC. State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg
Shield emblem, Scythian, end of the 7th century BC. State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg
Mulan’s name, “Deer,” evokes the iconic antlered deer images so common in ancient Scythian artifacts, weapons, and armor. The deer motif of the nomads was so well-known to ancient Greek artists that they placed deer on Amazons' shields and tunics and even illustrated deer tattoos, much like the tattoos engraved on the skin of frozen mummies of Scythian women recently recovered from icebound kurgans.

With Mulan, then, the story comes full circle. Half a world away, the ancient Greeks gazed east toward Scythia just as the Chinese looked toward the western wilderness of the Xiongnu. Between Greece and China stretched the vast homeland of real-life horsewomen-archers, the equals of men, whose heroic lives and deeds inspired awe and admiration in all who knew them. The fact that flesh-and-blood women inspired Amazon legends in so many cultures over millennia suggests that the natural human desire for harmony and equality between men and women is not an impossible dream.

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  • ADRIENNE MAYOR is Research Scholar, Classics and History and Philosophy of Science, in the Classics Department of Stanford University. She is author, most recently of The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World.
  • More By Adrienne Mayor