Excavations in Russia have uncovered the graves of four ancient female warriors who were buried roughly 2,500 years ago. The women were unearthed with weapons and at least one was still adorned with an elaborate headdress at the time of her internment. This is the latest of a series of archeological discoveries that invoke the legends of the Amazons. Marvel’s Wonder Woman aside, this quasi-mythical group of Bronze-age fighting women are best known in popular culture for their military prowess, hatred of men, and predilection for lesbianism. But who were they actually? And is this discovery evidence of their existence?
The most recent discovery, published in the Journal of the Akson Russian Science Communication Association, identifies the women as Scythian nomads. In the last decade, archaeologist and lead author Valerii Guliaev of the article said, the graves of eleven women (complete with weapons) were discovered. The most recent four were identified as members of three different generations. The discoveries were made in Devitsa, part of the Ostrogozhsky District of the Voronezh region in Russia. Discoveries of graves of armed women have been found elsewhere in the Scythian burial mounds that are scattered across the huge Eurasian Steppe region (the large area of unforested grassland that stretches from northern China, through Siberia, to the northern Black Sea). The distinctive burial style used by the Scythians— mounds, that were often arranged in lines, with larger mounds being used for higher status individuals —makes the graves easy for both scholars and looters to identify. One of the remarkable things about the most recent discovery is that it had been untouched by grave robbers: the weapons and headdresses were found in situ in the graves of the women.
So, are these the Amazons of lore? Well, that depends on what you mean by ‘Amazon.’ The origins of the term are rather convoluted and the actual mythology of the Amazons is pretty incoherent and difficult to follow. According to ancient myth Heracles and Achilles both bested Amazon queens in battle. Ancient historians refer to the military skirmishes between the Amazons and lauded ancient leaders like Cyrus the Great of Persia, Alexander the Great, and the Roman general Pompey. Some say that the word “Amazon” comes from the fact that the Amazon women only had one (the left) breast. The famed ancient doctor Hippocrates even describes the medical procedure by which the Amazons achieved this look. He writes that “while they are yet babies their mothers make red-hot a bronze instrument constructed for this very purpose and apply it to the right breast and cauterize it, so that its growth is arrested, and all its strength and bulk are diverted to the right shoulder and right arm.”
Ancient sources locate the home of the Amazons not in South America, but in Scythia (or sometimes Asia Minor or Crete) on the fringes of the great ancient empires of Persia, Greece, and Rome. In her thorough book The Amazons classicist Adrienne Mayor argues that historically “Amazons” were not men-free cultures. Within broader ancient Greek and Roman literature, she argues, people used the term “Amazon” as an ethnonym that referred to groups in which women were strong, independent, and equal to men. Amazons weren’t tribes of women, but rather warrior groups from the steppes in which men and women rode into battle alongside one another. Her argument makes some sense when you look at the literary evidence. The ancient geographer Strabo, for example, discusses the Amazons as a people that was made up or men and women. Others ancient authors refer to them as ruled by women, but none of the ancient sources suggest that they were men-free. In fact, most sources assume that the amazon women were heterosexual. Mayor argues that the ancient Greek argument that the word ‘amazon’ means “with one breast” is a misunderstanding that comes from the practice of strapping the
breasts down in order to prevent them from moving while riding. In other words, it’s about their ancient sports bras. Mayor suggests that the actual origins of the word might more probably come from the Iranian ha-mazon, which means warriors.
Some have criticized Mayor’s study for overstating the available evidence and for seeing Amazons everywhere. The red caps sometimes used to identify Amazons in ancient art were also used to portray mythological characters from the eastern Mediterranean. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and sometimes a Scythian woman is just a Scythian woman.
Myth or not, Ancient Greeks and Romans were clearly fascinated by this kind of social organization but never tried to implement these kinds of sex relations themselves. They did, however, share stories about the Amazons and, as Michele Kennerly and Carly Woods have pointed out, make dolls of Amazon women. They even used the image of the Amazon mid-battle preparing to lasso someone to decorate women’s belongings. One fifth century BCE ‘handbag’ or pyxis, which would have been used to hold jewelry or make up, shows just such a scene. It’s appearance on the bag was a clever joke about the various ways that women ensnare men and, one might say, a form of ancient cultural appropriation.
Certainly, the mythology of the Amazons as man-hating lesbian “barbarians” who enslaved weaker men and killed or mutilated infant boys is the stuff of legend. Much of that legend comes from more recent historiography. Sexism and colonialism loom large in the imagination of medieval and European historians and explorers. The Amazon river is so-named because the sixteenth century conquistador Francisco de Orellana claimed to have fought a group of warlike women on one of the Amazon’s rivers. Both Christopher Columbus and Sir Walter Raleigh mention the Amazons even though their travels took them thousands of miles away from the historical origins of the horse-riding warrior women of antiquity. Both ancient and modern Europeans like to use ‘Amazon’ as a euphemism for ‘barbarian’ and ‘other.’
Are these newly discovered women ‘Amazons’? Perhaps. But if you are a woman who competes in the same sphere as men who has sometimes found herself labelled ‘aggressive’, ‘man-hating’, or ‘unnatural’ then rest assured that you’re not alone. You’re an amazon.