Amazon Women Were Believed to be an Invention of the Ancient Greeks but New Evidence Proves Otherwise
Sometimes modern thinking can take the magic out of life. Think about all the great beliefs the ancient cultures held about gods and fantastic creatures, like unicorns and mermaids. Modern logic takes all of that and deflates it, passing it off as myth and fantasy. Take the Amazon women, for example. A group who were said to have the strength and courage to stand up to the best of men. They were even tough enough to oppose the likes of Heracles, Theseus, and Achilles. Aside from a once-a-year meeting to procreate, they had no use for men whatsoever.
They killed their male children, while daughters were taught to ride, hunt, and fight with swords and knives. At an early age, they even burnt off their right breast, so it didn’t impede shooting their bows. Now that’s dedication.
Homer was the first to mention the Amazons in his Iliad in the eighth century B.C. He used the term “antianeirai,” which many scholars have translated as “the opposite of men,” “antagonistic to men,” and “the equal of men.”
The early Greek and Roman historians including Herodotus, Diodorus Siculus, Justin, and Quintus Curtius all believed in Amazons, who were said to live on the steppes of Eurasia. But, like mermaids and unicorns, modern scholars have told us it’s just a fairy tale.
The Greeks made it up, they say, to feel good about themselves, and add a little spice to their lives. The idea of women who fought was so strange and foreign, it both repulsed and attracted them.
Magic is making a comeback
Now it seems the tide is turning as far as the Amazons are concerned. It all started in the 1990s when a joint U.S.-Russian team of archaeologists discovered a 2000-year-old burial mound in a remote part of Russia.
The women they discovered among the over 150 graves proved to be a far cry from the average housewife. They were warrior women of taller than average stature, buried with swords, daggers, spears, armor, shields, and sling stones. The wear and tear of a lifetime of horse riding and fighting were written in the bones.
Then in 2020, they unearthed another gravesite in Russia containing three generations of warrior women from the 4th century B.C. It seems the Greeks were right, a tribe of warrior women really did exist.
Old bones first assumed to be men have been re-examined with a more scrutinous eye. Those early assumptions have proved to be false in many cases.
What once seemed inconceivable is now a fact: The presence of weapons at a burial site does not automatically mean the deceased was male. So if warrior women did exist, where’s the line between the facts and the fiction?
Amazons according to the Greeks
According to Herodotus, (c.484–425/413 BC) there was a time when the Amazon women were an independent tribe. When a group known as Scythians discovered them, they sent some of their hottest guys to get on their good side and do a little wooing. Eventually it worked, and the two groups created a new society in which the females were on equal par to the males.
The result of their union was thought to be the race known as the Sarmatians who lived in southern Russia, a race known for their horses and aggressive nature. Of course, how much truth lies in Herodotus’s version of Amazon history, no one really knows.
Amazons according to modern scholars
Historians agree that the Amazons were probably part of the Scythians and traveled the regions between the Black Sea and Mongolia.
They lived in small groups, where every member was expected to pull their weight. Women couldn’t spend their time perfecting their pouts in the mirror, like their Greek counterparts.
Their nomadic lifestyle included threats of danger beyond every twist and turn. Women needed to know how to ride horses, shoot bows, and wield a knife as well as a man if they wanted to stay alive. Amazon women wore trousers, smoked, and got tattoos. However, they didn't live in a matriarchal society.
The Myth of the Mono-breast
The idea the women cut off their right breast started with a Greek historian in 490 who tried to interpret the name Amazon.
The “a” he thought mean lack, while “mazon “ sounded similar to the Greek word for breast. Put the two together and you get without breasts. Ironically, even in his day, people scoffed at the idea of removing a breast just to shoot a bow. As added evidence, none of the Greek or Roman art depicts Amazon women with a single breast.
So what does Amazon mean? It’s possible it comes from the Iranian word ha-mazan, meaning warriors. On the other hand, it could derive from an Armenian word meaning ‘Moon-goddess’. This is a reference to priestesses on the shores of the Black Sea who were known on occasion to get a little feisty and take up arms. However, the reality is, no one really knows where the name came from.
Amazons were lesbians. . .
Short answer-no. According to historian Adrienne Mayor, the foremost historian on the subject, this is an idea with modern roots.
Homosexuality was not a foreign idea for the Greeks and Romans, so there's no reason they would have neglected to note such a characteristic. Classical art and literature often commented on the women’s strong sisterly bonds. This later gave rise to the modern interpretation of homosexuality. However, Greek poets often referred to the women as man-lovers, and we have already seen how they were wooed by the Scythians.
. . .And they killed baby boys
This stems from the same line of thought as the lesbian issue. As we have already seen Amazon women were thought to live solitary lives only coming to visit men for reproductive purposes. No men were allowed on their island, not even male children. So while girls were kept and taught the ways of an Amazon, the boys were given the boot.
The truth is, it’s doubtful that Amazon women actually killed male children, although it’s possible they sent them to be raised by another family. Sending sons to prominent neighbors, or fosterage as it was called, was a common method for keeping peace and sealing treaties in antiquity. In Islamic societies, this is referred to as “milk kinship”. Philip the Great, and the prophet Muhhamad are two examples of famous children sent to their father’s allies. The practice remained common through the Middle ages, so no one would have thought it strange.
They were solely an ancient Greek fantasy
It may seem that only the Greeks talked about Amazon women, but their reputation was much wider than that.
Cultures who would have come in contact with Scythian nomads surely felt their influence. In fact, historical accounts of Amazon type women are found in ancient literature from Egypt, Persia, Caucasia, Central Asia, India, and even China.
It’s fair to say Amazon women probably had both a reality and a dream-like quality for many cultures of the past. Certainly, it is an image that persists today.
notes from a lecture by Adrienne Mayor