The Factual Basis For The Story Of The Amazons

By Debra Kelly on Thursday, December 11, 2014
“Women wear the breeches.” —Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621

In A Nutshell

The Amazon women of Greek mythology were long thought to be just that—mythology. Now, though, archaeologists have uncovered the graves of female warriors whose bodies show the ravages of combat and a lifetime in the saddle. Buried alongside their weapons, these nomadic women rode alongside their husbands between the sixth and fourth centuries B.C., giving life to the myth of the Amazon warriors and a likely real-life source for the stories.

The Whole Bushel

The Greek stories of the Amazon warriors of history have always walked a fine line between history and mythology. They’re featured in stories like the Labors of Hercules, where the demigod is instructed to retrieve the girdle of the queen Hippolyta as one of his tasks. They fight during the Trojan War—on the side of Troy—and their image is on artwork throughout the Greek Empire.

It’s a great story even today, especially for little girls who don’t like pink and would rather go outside and climb trees than play with dolls. And for a long time, it’s been thought that the tales of the Amazons were just that—stories.

But, it turns out that a lack of evidence doesn’t necessarily mean that evidence does exist; it just means that we haven’t found it yet.

First, a little backtracking. The first real mentions of the Amazon women are in The Iliad. Homer wrote in the eighth century B.C. and told a story that was set five centuries before. Needless to say, that leaves a lot of room for creative license and for a long time, that’s what it was.

The Amazons became such as important part of Greek culture that later writers and historians tried to give them a more concrete history. By the middle of the 6th century B.C., they became something that the Greeks needed to be real. The Amazons had been defeated, and this defeat meant a major shift in power between men and women. It gave Greek rulers a reason to point to the subjugation of women, and have something in history backing up their idea that it was all right. Amazons became a cultural staple, a wildly unstable balance between physical beauty and danger.

In the fifth century B.C., we have an attempt at a historical account of the Amazons. According to Herodotus, the capital city of the Amazons was Themiscyra, located in Western Turkey near the Black Sea. Gradually, he says, their looting and pillaging and conquering led them farther and farther afield, well into Persia. Three ships carrying Amazon women were grounded near the southern end of the Black Sea, forcing the Amazons into close contact with groups of Scythians. Eventually, the two intermingled and intermarried, creating another group called the Sauromatians.

The Sauromatians preserved many of the characteristics of the Amazon heritage. Women hunted and fought alongside their husbands, both genders dressed the same, and a woman wasn’t allowed to marry until she’d killed a man.

Herodotus’s account is where the historical trail of the Amazons went pretty cold.

Until, that is, a team of American and Russian archaeologists found a burial site of the Sauromatians, and contents that supported just what Herodotus said.

The women buried in the graves were extremely tall for the time—most were around 165 centimeters (5’6″). Instead of being buried with jewelry or trinkets, they had been laid to rest beside their weapons: daggers, swords, arrows and arrowheads, and even whetstones to keep an edge to their weapons. The graves and their remains were dated to between the sixth and fourth centuries B.C., and throughout the two centuries there’s a definite shift in focus. Women are less frequently buried with weapons as time goes on, and more often with artifacts like cups and chalices that seem to indicate they took on a more priestly role in society.

Eventually, the Sauromatians migrated to the east, where they were gradually swallowed by the Goths, the Huns, and the Mongols. They didn’t completely disappear, though, and Herodotus’s Amazon warrior women have been linked to the presence of blond-haired, blue-eyed children in the Eurasian steppes.

Show Me The Proof

Smithsonian: The Amazon Women: Is There Any Truth Behind the Myth?
Secrets of the Dead: Amazon Warrior Women, Clues and Evidence
Archaeology: Warrior Women of Eurasia
Listverse: 10 Mythical Things That Actually Existed