Amazons – Who Were the Ancient Female Warriors?

Amazons and Scythians by Otto van Veen

From Queen Penthesilea and Athena of the Trojan war epic, to Boadicea of the Iceniian Celts, Joan of Arc, and Britannia of Europe and, in modern times, Emma Peel of the Avengers and her leather-clad successor Xena, Warrior Princess, woman warriors have fascinated mankind.

The Ancient Amazon Myth

Homer, Pindar, Plutarch, Isocrates, Quintus Smyrnaeus and Strabo, to name a few ancient writers, all name the Amazons. Herodotus, often called the “father of history,” wrote:

“…when the Greeks fought with the Amazons, these women…rose up against the crews and massacred them to a man…The Scyths could not tell what to make of (them) — the dress, the language, the nation itself…was a marvel.” (The Histories IV).

Hercules and Theseus both fought Amazons. Alexander the Great is said to have lain with their queens.

The Amazons in Ancient Literature

Amazons appear in the painted and sculptural art, coinage and literature of the Classical world. This of itself is not proof of their existence, but taken across the whole, evidence for an actual tribe of warrior women is strong.

Homer’s Iliad places them in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). Greek accounts speak of a Queen Myrina defeated by the Scythians, or themselves Scythian exiles, founding a colony on the Black Sea. Most accounts zero in around either the Thermodon River (south coast of the Black Sea) or Libya on the African coast.

Recent scholarship suggests they may have been the ancestors of the African Berbers, called “Amazigh” in their own tongue.

Archaeological Evidence for the Amazons

Outside the literature there are few artefacts. Recent archaeological study of Iron-Age tombs (ca. 400 BC) of Sarmatian and Sauromatian women from the Eurasian Steppes, points to Scythia for the legend. Over the last 50 years, many graves (“kurgans”) have been excavated in the southern Ukraine near the Kazakhstan border.

They kurgans reveal female skeletons buried with rich grave goods, including spears, daggers, knives, arrowheads and armour. Moreover, men are found buried with small children. The female graves contain the richer artefacts reflecting perhaps a matriarchal warrior elite.

Russian scholars dismiss this, suggesting the weapons are ritually symbolic, protecting the women while the men protect the children.

The Bones of the Amazons

However, bowed leg bones of the women suggest horse riding, even amongst adolescent girls. Some women had neck pouches containing a boars tusk or arrowhead. A bent arrowhead within the cavity of one of the skeletons suggests a death in battle.

Black Amazons in Historic Times

The best claim in living memory to the Amazons, are the Gbeto, black Dahomey warrior women of the Gulf of Guinea (now Benin) who survived into the 19th century. Europeans first encountered them about 1600. In 1724 a British Royal African Co. agent made a written account and they were studied between 1840 and 1890.

Oral traditions confirm a royal warrior band of elephant huntresses supplying king Wegbala with ivory and meat. The Gbeto wore antelope horns on their heads and dressed to play down femininity. They had pierced ear lobes and exposed their breasts as an act of defiance. They were regimented, extremely athletic and skilled with many weapons including muskets.

English, Portuguese and French sources document the Gbeto fought in inter-tribal battles during the 18th century.