The Amazons

Friday, January 16th, 2015

The Amazons of Greek myth may have been real steppe warriors — who did not live without men:

Around a quarter of the ancient female bodies unearthed from the steppes are equipped as warriors.

Advances in osteological analysis (the study of bones) have allowed old evidence to be reconsidered and suggests that the numbers may have been even higher. For instance, two fourth-century B.C. burial mounds discovered in Romania (1931) and Bulgaria (1965), containing skeletons of both humans and horses as well as magnificent weapons and treasure, were originally assumed to be the resting places of ancient male warriors with their wives. It turns out that all the bodies in these graves are female.

One might well wonder why the peoples of the steppes should have been so much more open to having women play an active part in society than ancient Greece or Rome. Ms. Mayor has a simple but appealing answer: It was all about horses and arrows. In Greek and Roman warfare, women were at an obvious disadvantage, since they are (on average) smaller and less capable of marching into battle on foot clad in heavy armor and carrying a heavy shield, spear and sword. Women also have a physical disadvantage in societies based on agriculture. But they can be the equals of men in riding and controlling horses and in shooting arrows (including the nomad’s specialty, the Parthian shot, in which the rider fires arrows back over her shoulder while galloping away from the enemy).

Moreover, life in the barren landscapes of the steppes was difficult; these societies could not afford the waste of having half the population (or at least half the elite population) take little part in the gathering of food. Amazons are depicted as hunters in ancient Greek vase paintings, and the archaeological evidence seems to confirm that women as well as men rode on horses, with hunting dogs and trained birds to catch game for the tribe.

Ms. Mayor gives a fascinatingly detailed account of the physical conditions of these peoples’ lives. They dressed in clothes that would be practical for the cold weather and for long hours of riding: The people of these cultures, both women and men, may have been the first in the world to wear pants — a practice that the Greeks found both shocking and effeminate. They tattooed themselves with elaborate designs: Archaeologists have found the remains of mummified bodies in which inked patterns depicting animals such as deer, horses, leopards and tigers can be precisely reconstructed under infrared light. They may have been at least semi-literate; they made use of runes and “tamgas,” symbols used to mark an individual’s property. They ate food they could hunt or gather, and they drank the milk of their mares, fermented into a slightly alcoholic drink called koumiss, which can be stored unrefrigerated for longer than regular milk. Koumiss is still made by modern people in this region. They smoked cannabis: Herodotus writes of the Scythians burning this (to him entirely alien) “fruit” over a brazier, inhaling the smoke, and jumping up to dance and sing around the fire. Archaeologists have discovered little burners for smoking buried along with other daily possessions.

That’s from a review of Adrienne Mayor’s The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    And they were Indo-Europeans. No wonder feminism is a Western phenomenon.

    Anthropologists keep digging up the Kurgans, trying to find out how these people lived and what they believed. But Hinduism is the last survivor of Indo-European paganism. Why aren’t the living Hindus being studied for information on the steppe people, or are they?

  2. Beware of second-hand articles like this. There’s an unfortunate tendency in the last 30 yrs or so in archaeology, whereby any confirmed female burial in which so much as an axe- or arrow-head is discovered within 50 ft is instantly a “warrior woman.”

    While I think it’s very likely that women were commonly hunters in the steppe tribes, the bit about bows making them the equal of men in battle struck me as overstated. Certainly the disparity is less than in hand-to-hand combat, but it’s far from an even playing field.

  3. Isegoria says:

    Yes, the emphasis on equality is silly, but I appreciate the point that women can become effective horse-archers. They shouldn’t try to harass archers with more powerful bows though.

  4. Urban IX says:

    The problem with this is that, other than overspeculating from little evidence, the question as to why steppe nomads from known history were all so damned “patriarchal”.

  5. Anomaly UK says:

    While modern participation in equestrian sports is overwhelmingly female, the top rankings of eventing are slightly more male than female.

  6. That’s a problem for horse arches in general, Isegoria. Their greatest fear is a body of competent foot archers. This is even more apparent now that we know the typical steppe archery technique was to ride up to spitting distance, machine-gun a bunch of arrows into the footmen, then ride away before they could retaliate.

  7. Anomaly UK says:

    The relevant fact is surely that it’s hard to keep your women locked up in your house if you don’t have a house. Stealing women was routine in Temujin’s time and forms a large part of his back story; I assume it was nothing new.

  8. Mithradates Eupator says:

    Perhaps we should read the actual book before speculating about what reviewers say about it.

    Urban IX, things changed for women after the Arab/Muslim Conquest.

  9. Urban IX says:


    Maybe so, but that doesn’t explain the Mongols or various migration-period nomads (like the Huns, Khazars, Bulgar, etc.) and the lack of written evidence for it. That said, I mean, I’m open to the possibility if the evidence is there, so yes on the book.

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