There’s archeological evidence that Amazons really did exist

Archeologists have unearthed evidence of war-like horsewomen at the same time as the Greeks were putting Amazons in their myths.

Jennifer Hunter

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Mythical heroes such as Hercules and Theseus married Amazons, but did these intrepid warrior women exist in real life? Or are they just the stuff of Greek myth? Adrienne Mayor, an author and research scholar in classics and the history of science at Stanford University, grapples with that question in her new book, The Amazons: Lives & Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World. Our conversation has been edited for length.

Herakles amazones staatliche antikensammlungen 1711

Heracles fighting the Amazons. Attic black-figure hydria, ca. 530 BC. From Vulci.

We think of Amazon women as characters in the mythic stories about Greek heroes. Why do you believe these women really existed?

I was amazed by all the archaeological evidence that was starting to emerge, as early as the ’90s and late ’80s. Now that we have DNA and bio-archaeological studies, we can actually tell the sex of skeletons from centuries-old bones. They were finding 20 to 30 per cent of ancient people buried in the steppes, around the Black Sea, were women with their weapons who had battle scars just like the men.

I realized no one had gathered all the archaeological evidence that was emerging to show there were war-like horsewomen at the same time as the Greeks were writing about Amazons, putting them in many of the most well-known myths. In Greek mythology, the Amazons were fierce women from foreign lands. They were said to be as courageous and skilled in battle as the mightiest Greek heroes. So these were barbarian foreign women who were called the equals of men.

Amazons did play major roles in the Greek legends. They were in the Trojan War; the Athenians believed they had fought off a powerful Amazon army that had invaded Greece. They had statues and paintings in public places about their victory over these formidable women. According to the Greeks, the Amazons were located in a vast eastern territory called Scythia. In Greek mythology, each hero had to prove his courage by duelling and overcoming an Amazon queen. Hippolyte fought Hercules. Theseus fought with Antiope and then he captured her and took her away to be his wife. Penthesilea was the warrior queen who fought Achilles on the battlefield at Troy.

Ancient Greek men loved stories about Amazon women, but their own wives and daughters were kept in a sort of purdah. They were not allowed out of the house unless they were closely accompanied or there was a special festival. It sounds a bit like men who look at porn but would have a conniption if their female relatives stripped for the camera.

You are right to point out that cognitive dissonance, hypocrisy, fear and anxiety. I will leave it to classicists who want go into the psychological reasons. Greek men were obsessed with Amazons. It is one of the favourite subjects in Greek art. We don’t know how many Amazon sculptures existed in antiquity, but more than a thousand pieces of art have been discovered. They were painted on wine jugs used in all male symposiums and shown hunting and at war. What is also interesting is that Amazons were popular as subjects on women’s pottery, their perfume jars, their jewelry boxes and items used for sewing or weaving. There is something about Greek private life that we’re not getting here.

The belief was Amazon women hated men, killed male babies and lopped off one of their breasts in order to shoot their bows and arrows more efficiently. How true is this?

Those are the three things most modern people think about Amazons, and those attributes were mentioned in antiquity. The idea that Amazons removed one breast in order to shoot a bow and arrow or hurl a spear was invented in the 5th century B.C., and as soon as it was brought up other ancient writers rejected the idea. Not one piece of ancient art shows Amazons like that, so artists didn’t buy it, nor did their customers.

I wonder where this idea came from, these fearful men haters who practised infanticide and mutilated their own bodies. It is a strange idea.

One theory is that somehow the Greeks had to imagine these women as sacrificing their femininity to behave like men. If these women are independent and riding horses and going to war and hunting, just like Greek men, they must be unfeminine. So they would be bad mothers, they wouldn’t want to raise any boys and they would hate men. At the same time that idea was not a full story. Many ancient writers say Amazons loved men and they really liked having sex with men of their own choosing, and they were good mothers who sent their male babies to be raised by their fathers’ families.

You suggest Amazon women invented trousers. We often think it was George Sand or Marlene Dietrich who first donned men’s wear.

In some of the archaeological excavations, some articles clothing have survived. The female skeletons are often wearing trousers and tunics and boots, like the male skeletons. In the vase paintings, most Amazons are wearing these wildly coloured pants or trousers. Warrior queens of eastern lands invented trousers so they could take part in the same activities as men. Greeks wear rectangles of clothing pinned together, like a toga. Many ancient cultures wore toga-like dress but they are not horse riding people. If you ride horses you need something to keep you from chafing. Trousers were invented by people who domesticated horses.

Today we are still fascinated by Amazons, hence the television shows Wonder Woman and Xena: Warrior Princess.

Amazons are everywhere. There were in the animated films for kids Mulan and Brave, about young girl archers, and in The Hunger Games. In the recent Hercules film, the Atalanta character was strong.

There are powerful Amazon-like women in the Game of Thrones series. I heard Marvel Comics is introducing Thor as a goddess not a god. There is a female Captain Marvel and there is a Ms Marvel. We’re surrounded by stories of Amazon women.