The real Amazons: how the legendary warrior women inspired fighters, feminists and Wonder Woman
The warrior women who battled Hercules and courted Alexander the Great were the stuff of legend – but what truth is there to the stories about them? As British historian John Man reveals, the legacy of the Amazons made a lasting impression across history
Who were the Amazonian women in Greek mythology – and were they real?
The ancient Greeks absolutely knew that Amazonian women were real – or, at least, that they had been. Heroes of old had encountered Amazons in the martial women’s kingdom, Themiscyra, on the southern shores of the Black Sea. Amazons had invaded Greece, their advance halted in a great battle. Herodotus related how they had been captured, carried away in Greek ships and escaped to the banks of the river Don, where they intermarried with Scythian tribesmen.
No one knew where the name ‘Amazon’ came from, so the Greeks made up an etymology, claiming it derived from a-mazdos – without a breast: these fearsome women cut off their right breasts to remove an obstruction to the bowstring, it was claimed. How could all this not be true?
These fearsome women cut off their right breasts to remove an obstruction to the bowstring, it was claimed
Well, most of it – including the supposed etymology – wasn’t. It was folklore. There was no kingdom of Amazons. But there was a kernel of truth. In the grasslands of inner Asia, from the Black Sea to western China, Scythian women had the same skills as their men: wielding bows, riding and herding animals, fighting – and dying from their injuries. Their remains have been found in tomb-mounds from the Crimea to western China.
Meanwhile, the Greek myth planted itself in the European imagination, finding expression in novels, plays and art. It was transported to the New World by Spaniards who, while exploring a great river, heard vague reports of female warriors, and named the mighty waterway after them. In due course, the world’s greatest river gave its name to the world’s most dominant online sales machine.
For centuries, women warriors en masse have been dubbed ‘Amazons’. Regiments of such women existed in Dahomey (in what’s now Benin) and in the Soviet air force, and the female fighters of Kurdistan have a formidable reputation. This article introduces some of the major ‘Amazons’ in myth, art and history, along with the truth behind the legends and their impact on the real world.
Hippolyte, queen of the Amazons
It all began with Hercules (or Heracles, as the Greeks called him), in the legendary dream-time before the Greeks learned to write. To expiate the crime of killing his own children, the story went, Hercules was challenged by Eurysthenes, king of Argos, to complete 12 tasks. One of his labours was to steal a golden girdle owned by Hippolyte – queen of the Amazons and daughter of Ares, god of war – that was coveted by the king’s daughter, Admete.
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These warrior women, it was reputed, lived on the river Thermedon (today’s Terme), on the southern shores of the Black Sea. In legend they captured men whom they used as studs, rearing only female children and killing the males. Despite the prevalence of the a-mazdos etymology myth, in truth the Greeks must have known this to be nonsense – their artists always depicted the Amazons as intact.
According to the legend, Hercules met Hippolyte, seized her girdle (with or without a fight – versions vary), perhaps or perhaps not killing her, and escaped back to Greece.
Was there any truth behind such legends? Not much. The Amazon nation was the ultimate imagined threat to Greek machismo. By conquering the Amazons (in myth, at least), Greek heroes were made to seem more heroic.
There was, though, a kernel of fact. The Greeks of the early first millennium BC had explored the shores of the Black Sea, and knew of the horse-riding Scythians; indeed, Herodotus described them in the fifth century BC. Their women shared the skills of the men: they were supreme horsewomen, mistresses of the bow, fighters and victims of conflict, as recent archaeological finds testify.
Writers gave the mythical Amazons suitable names. Hippolyte, for example, derives from the Greek for ‘releases the horses’ – a hint of a truth hidden behind the layers of legend.
Thalestris: the sex-hungry Scythian warrior queen
Is there evidence that Greeks actually met any ‘Amazons’? One story about Alexander the Great suggests that they did.
In 330 BC, the ambitious Macedonian warrior had conquered Persia and was advancing eastward along the shores of the Caspian Sea (in present-day Iran). In a first-century-BC version of the story, an Amazonian queen named Thalestris marched out from her homeland and demanded to meet the great Alexander. Attended by 300 women, she made an extraordinary request: she wanted “to share children with the king, being worthy that he should beget from her heirs to his kingdom”. Alexander was – according to Plutarch’s pen-portrait – quite small, not athletic and not much interested in sex. But Thalestris persisted – and prevailed. “Thirteen days were spent in satisfying her desire. Then she went to her kingdom,” never to be heard of again.
The early form of the story was written by one of Alexander’s aides, Onesicritus, as an eyewitness account. So could there be any truth in it? Not much. For one thing, the episode’s purported location on the Caspian is 1,500km from the Amazons’ legendary Black Sea base; to make that meeting, the Amazons would have needed to set off long before Alexander reached the Caspian. In addition, the main source, Onesicritus, was a notorious self-promoter who had good reason to tell a tale that flattered his boss.
If there is any truth to the story, it could be this: Alexander was approached by a group of Scythians who included women, one of whom was their leader. The Greeks ‘knew’ from ancient stories that Amazons were real, so naturally saw the Scythians as Amazons. There was no common language. The ‘Amazons’ were not hostile. The Greeks were hospitable. The Amazon ‘queen’ spent time in Alexander’s tent. The group then vanished back into the heart of inner Asia, leaving the way open for the creation of a dramatic tale that provided a Greek name for a sex-hungry Scythian queen.
Queen Califia: Amazonian women in the Middle Ages
Belief in Amazons lingered into the Middle Ages, and they remained a favourite topic in medieval Europe – with consequences that extend across hemispheres to the present day.
Around 1500, a Spaniard named Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo wrote or adapted a series of novels about Amadís, a knight-errant from the fairytale country of Gaula (unconnected with Gaul or Wales). The fifth book of the Amadís de Gaula series, The Exploits of Esplandián, is about Amadís’s son. The latter became involved with a race of Amazonian warrior women and their queen Califia (or Calafia or Califre – spellings vary). Her name was possibly derived from caliph, Spain having recently been conquered by Christians after lengthy Islamic rule.
In the stories, Califia was a formidable warrior, with a menagerie of 500 griffins that were fed on human flesh. She lived in a realm called California or Califerne, an island-state near the lands newly discovered by Christopher Columbus. Since Columbus at first believed he had landed in the Indies, in the Amadís tales California is also located near Constantinople, or – in Montalvo’s totally mythical geography – “on the right hand of the Indies”.
Belief in Amazons lingered into the Middle Ages, and they remained a favourite topic in medieval Europe
The Amadís books, especially Esplandián, were bestsellers, followed by numerous sequels by other writers in Spanish, Italian, German, French and English. It was a fad that inspired Cervantes’ Don Quixote, a pastiche of Rodríguez de Montalvo’s vainglorious knight-errantry.
In the early 16th century these stories were carried to the Americas as intellectual baggage by the Spanish conquistadors, who believed the fictions to be based on ancient truth. Somewhere, just over the horizon, the Spaniards thought they would find an island of Amazons, “rich in pearls and gold”, as Hernán Cortés wrote to Charles V of Spain. So when, in 1542, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo sailed up the west coast of North America and charted a prominent peninsula, he believed it to be the island realm of Queen Califia and named it California – now the Baja California peninsula in Mexico.
The golden (wo-)man of Kazakhstan
Archaeological finds have raised intriguing questions about the status of Scythian women, likely inspiration for the Greeks’ ‘Amazons’.
In the summer of 1969, near a little lake to the east of Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, a farmer noticed something glinting in newly ploughed earth near a 6-metre-high burial mound: a small piece of patterned gold. Renowned Soviet archaeologist Kemal Akishev came to investigate and, excavating the burial mound, discovered that it contained a small skeleton surrounded by treasures.
The burial, known as Issyk kurgan and possibly dating from the fifth century BC, was Saka – the Kazakh name for the wide-ranging Scythian culture. It included a jacket decorated with 2,400 golden plaques, a belt bearing 13 golden deer heads, a golden neck decoration, an embossed sword, earrings, beads and a towering headdress. The skull was too badly damaged for its sex to be determined, but Akishev fitted a reconstruction with leather trousers and displayed it as the ‘Golden Man’. Reproduced in posters, postcards and books, this long-dead ‘man’ became the symbol of the nation when Kazakhstan emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Archaeological finds have raised intriguing questions about the status of Scythian women, likely inspiration for the Greeks’ ‘Amazons’
However, Jeannine Davis-Kimball, an American archaeologist who worked with Akishev in the early 1970s, began to doubt the presumed man’s masculinity. The headdress was similar to others from Saka-Scythian female burials, and also to the formal headdresses worn by Mongolian women today. Many women had been found buried with weapons elsewhere. And the height of the skeleton indicated that it was female. Davis-Kimball became convinced that the remains were in fact those of a ‘Golden Woman’ – “a high-ranking warrior princess”, as she wrote in Archaeology magazine in 1997.
Who is right? We shall never know. It would now be possible to analyse the bones to determine the sex – but, mysteriously, the bones have vanished. After almost 50 years, it would be hard for Kazakhs to see their national symbol turn from male to female. Chances are ‘she’ will continue to be represented as a flat-chested, trousered youth.
The Ice Maiden of Siberia
In 1993, Russian archaeologist Natalia Polosmak was working at a burial mound on the Ukok Plateau in the semi-autonomous Altai Republic in southern Siberia, near the Chinese border, when she made another discovery that added to knowledge of Scythian women. Today this is a remote, harsh land, but 2,500 years ago it was fine pasture for semi-nomadic Scythians of the Iron-Age Pazyryk culture.
Good finds had been made at the site over the previous two years, and in May, as spring thawed the ground, Polosmak and her team unearthed deep-frozen harnesses, parts of saddles, six horses and, finally, a larchwood coffin. Inside was a block of ice, created when water had leaked in and frozen. After days carefully melting the ice with heated water, skin emerged, tattooed with a griffin-like design. The body slowly appeared, embalmed with a mix of herbs, grasses and wool, along with a tall headdress, revealing that the body was that of a woman.
Dressed in a fur robe and woollen skirt, “she was tall – about 5 feet 6 inches [around 170cm],” Polosmak wrote in a National Geographic article. “She had doubtless been a good rider, and the horses in her grave were her own,” the archaeologist asserted. The gorgeous tattoos – distorted and mixed-up animal images in the style typical of Scythian designs – have since been widely reproduced.
The mummy became known as the ‘Ice Maiden’ or the ‘Ukok Princess’. She was taken to Novosibirsk for further study, and then on tour internationally. The tour was dogged by controversy. The Altaians were angry: she’s our ancestor, they said, and moving her is an offence against the land. What rubbish, replied academics: there is no connection between ancient Scythians and modern Altaians.
In the battle between science and emotion, emotion won. The Ukok Plateau was closed to archaeologists, and the ‘Ice Maiden’ rests in air-conditioned peace in a museum in the Altai Republic’s capital, Gorno-Altaysk.
Marina Raskova: Russian ‘night witch’
Though the kingdom of the Amazons was a mere legend, the name has been applied to several all-female fighting groups. Among them was a regiment of female Soviet bomber pilots who fought in the Second World War, the most famous of whom was their founder, Marina Raskova.
In the 1930s, the Soviet Union was recovering from years of war, revolution and famine. But for women, the 1917 revolution had brought opportunities – in aviation, for example, with the new government seeing this as an opportunity to unite and defend this vast nation. And in 1933 Marina Raskova, aged just 21, became the first female Soviet navigator. Good-looking, bright and strong-willed, she was an ideal poster child for Soviet propaganda.
Marina Raskova, right, formed a volunteer unit of some 400 women fliers when Germany invaded the Soviet Union during the Second World War. The night bombers were staffed only by women, earning them the nickname 'night witches'. (Photo by: Sovfoto/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
In September 1938, she served as navigator on a much-publicised world-record, non-stop flight from Moscow to the Far East. At the end of the 3,700-mile journey the plane ran low on fuel and crash-landed in the Siberian forests; Rastova bailed out before the crash and, in an epic tale of endurance, survived for over a week with no water and almost no food. Finally, she found the wrecked plane and, together with her two female crew, made her way to safety, to personal acclaim from Stalin.
Though the kingdom of the Amazons was a mere legend, the name has been applied to several all-female fighting groups.
Three years later, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Raskova, using her high-level contacts, formed a volunteer unit of some 400 women fliers in three regiments: fighters, heavy bombers and night bombers. Based in Engels, 700km south-east of Moscow, they trained under their adored Raskova and, early in June 1942, went into action.
The fighter and heavy bomber regiments included male ground staff, but the night bombers were staffed only by women. In flimsy, open-cockpit biplanes they flew in low out of the dark, sometimes gliding in ghostly silence, to drop their bombs on German supplies. Flying up to 100 missions per night each – some 24,000 between them in their three years of operation – they proved so devastatingly effective that the Germans nicknamed them Nachthexen: ‘night witches’.
Raskova died in January 1943 when, trying to fly beneath fog, she crashed into the banks of the Volga river. She was given the first state funeral of the war, and the whole nation mourned.
Wonder Woman: Diana, Princess of the Amazons
In 2017, Hollywood remade the Amazon myth in a film with the tagline: “Before she was Wonder Woman, she was Diana, Princess of the Amazons.” The link between the two legends makes a convoluted story, its origins stretching back a century to the struggle for women’s rights.
In the years before the First World War, Elizabeth Holloway, a so-called ‘New Woman’ at the radical Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, began a relationship with William Moulton Marston – clever, handsome, ambitious – who was researching psychology at Harvard. They married in 1915, and their lives soon became intertwined with many others, all linked by radical interests pursued in secret: votes for women, contraception, lesbianism, experimental psychology, bondage, sexual liberation.
Lynda Carter, who played the Amazonian warrior Diana in the TV series 'Wonder Woman', which ran for three seasons in the 1970s. The link between Wonder Woman and the mythological Diana "makes a convoluted story, its origins stretching back a century to the struggle for women’s rights," explains historian John Man. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)
The 1930s saw the birth of a new phenomenon: superhero comic books – the first starring Superman appeared in 1938. They sold by the million, but some educationalists deplored them. Publisher Max Gaines approached Marston for advice. Marston, inspired and influenced by Holloway, suggested that the problem lay with the superheroes’ “bloodcurdling masculinity”. The obvious solution was to create “a feminist character with all the strength of a Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman”. Men, said Marston, love to submit to a woman stronger than themselves.
Wonder Woman made her debut in All Star Comics in December 1941. Introduced with a semi-Greek backstory as the Amazonian princess of Paradise Island (later Themiscyra), numerous elements of Wonder Woman’s tale were derived from Moulton’s past – a mistress’s love of Greek, the Eden-like perfection of an all-female society, a love of secrecy, a friend’s habit of wearing protective armbands.
In the first episode, Wonder Woman finds an American pilot crashed on Paradise Island and takes him back to the United States to help in the war effort and save democracy. She became a hit as a comic-book superhero and, more recently, as a feminist icon, in a 1970s TV series, and now on film.
John Man writes on Inner Asia. His books include Saladin: The Life, the Legend and the Islamic Empire (Bantam, 2015)