Posted by: Alastair Rosie | December 8, 2013

The Amazons: The Truth Behind the Fiction

Map of Near East, 100 BCE

Map of Near East, 100 BCE

The stories of the Amazons have been passed down to us from the ancient Greeks. Homer tells us they were the ‘equal of men’ and that their queen was Hippolyta and their capital was Themiskyra on the Black Sea. Despite their feared reputation, Homer claims they fought three battles with Greek heroes and lost every battle. The most famous battle was reportedly between Hercules and Hippolyta on one of his twelve labours. He was sent to retrieve the girdle of Hippolyta, a metaphor for the garment that protected her womanhood and bring it back to Eurystheus, the king of Argos, Mycenae and Tiryns. In the subsequent duel he defeats her and brings the girdle back as a trophy, which enrages the Amazons. When Theseus kidnaps Antiope and takes her back to Greece they go to war against the Greeks. It goes badly for the Amazons when Antiope is killed and they withdraw to their home. A similar tale involves Bellerophon who was tasked with defeating the Amazons after he’d killed the Chimera. The last time we hear of the Amazons is at Troy where they took the side of the Trojans and Penthesilea is killed by Achilles.
This however leaves us more questions. Who were they? Did they really exist and where is the evidence for these legendary female warriors?
Did they exist?
The ancient Greeks certainly thought so and depictions of Amazonian warriors show them dressed in Scythian costumes. We should bear in mind that the Greeks referred to the area around the Black Sea and Lower Don River as Scythia, apparently unable or unwilling to acknowledge the existence of different tribes within ‘Scythia.’ Some Greek writers referred to Scythians or Sarmatians and used the terms interchangeably, often without any apparent logic. What we do know is that the Scythians lived to the north of the Black Sea and to the west of them were the Sarmatians. Both peoples were of Indo-Iranian stock and spoke Scythian, but to classify a whole smattering of tribes, who may have spoken different dialects is a bit simplistic. To Greek eyes one mounted warrior from the east would have looked and sounded like any other. What is noted however is that the women who lived around the Black Sea were more forward and confident than Greek women. We can also ascertain with some authority is that about a quarter of military style burials in that area contained women dressed for war. Thus Greek stories about Amazons may very well have come from seeing mounted female warriors. Perhaps to explain this strange phenomenon to ‘sensitive’ ears the story of the Amazons and their defeat at the hands of Hercules may very well have arisen.
It is feasible to suggest that Scythian and Sarmatian women would have known how to use a bow, spear, sword and battleaxe. After all, their menfolk could be away on the campaign trail for years at a time and it would only make sense to see to it that their womenfolk could defend themselves, their families and the precious herds and crops from other tribes. There may very well have been times when women took male slaves for the purposes of reproduction while their men were away. It would certainly fit in with the nature of a warlike people and the most fundamental drive of all, the survival of the species or tribe.
Similarly it would be wrong to label them as proto feminists. These were women who had husbands and while they had more authority than Greek women they would still have deferred to men more often than not. In such a harsh and unforgiving climate the emergence of warrior women and hunting women isn’t feminism as we know it.
With this in mind, I used the examples of Scythian, Sarmatian and Celtic women to create my she bears in The Deepening Dark. I wanted women who ‘were the equal of a man’ in battle to quote Greek writers and yet could still raise children and attend to more traditional female tasks. These women form warrior bands and train together. Their training regime is much harsher than that of men and I was quite conscious that in such a society it would be stricter. My Haydutians are dominated by men in prominent roles but give credence to the feminine fertility deities such as Sheringa, the Creator of the World. Bearing in mind that my Tuathan tribes have been engaged in internecine warfare for centuries it made sense to introduce the Cult of the She Bear. The male warriors would have given a distinct nod to warrior bands of women who could defend the village, crops and precious livestock while they were away raiding.
Next week we will look at Artemisia, a naval commander in the Persian Empire. Another strong female character is mentioned in Jenna Wimshurt’s blog on Sammuramat. Check it out!
Don’t forget to check out The Deepening Dark.

An exiled queen, a band of elves and the warrior cult known as the she bears are all that stands between General Bolksta and his conquest of Haydutia. Rhianna will need the luck of the gods if she is to hold back the tide of evil as an imperial army invades her country intent on turning Haydutia into just another province.



Map created by Dbachmann and distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Graphic created by Fiona Rennie


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: