A recent discovery in Russia has brought the ancient legend to the forefront.
Excavations in Russia have uncovered the graves of four ancient female warriors who were buried roughly 2,500 years ago. The women were unearthed with weapons and at least one was still adorned with an elaborate headdress at the time of her internment. This is the latest of a series of archeological discoveries that invoke the legends of the Amazons. Marvels Wonder Woman aside, this quasi- mythical group of Bronze-age fighting women are best known in popular culture for their military prowess, hatred of men, and predilection for lesbianism. But who were they actually? And is this discovery evidence of their existence?
So, are these the Amazons of lore? Well, that depends on what you mean by Amazon. The origins of the term are rather convoluted and the actual mythology of the Amazons is pretty incoherent and difficult to follow. According to ancient myth Heracles and Achilles both bested Amazon queens in battle. Ancient historians refer to the military skirmishes between the Amazons and lauded ancient leaders like Cyrus the Great of Persia, Alexander the Great, and the Roman general Pompey. Some say that the word Amazon comes from the fact that the Amazon women only had one (the left) breast. The famed ancient doctor Hippocrates even describes the medical procedure by which the Amazons achieved this look. He writes that while they are yet babies their mothers make red-hot a bronze instrument constructed for this very purpose and apply it to the right breast and cauterize it, so that its growth is arrested, and all its strength and bulk are diverted to the right shoulder and right arm.
breasts down in order to prevent them from moving while riding. In other words, its about their ancient sports bras. Mayor suggests that the actual origins of the word might more probably come from the Iranian ha-mazon, which means warriors.
Some have criticized Mayors study for overstating the available evidence and for seeing Amazons everywhere. The red caps sometimes used to identify Amazons in ancient art were also used to portray mythological characters from the eastern Mediterranean. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and sometimes a Scythian woman is just a Scythian woman.
Myth or not, Ancient Greeks and Romans were clearly fascinated by this kind of social organization but never tried to implement these kinds of sex relations themselves. They did, however, share stories about the Amazons and, as Michele Kennerly and Carly Woods have pointed out, make dolls of Amazon women. They even used the image of the Amazon mid-battle preparing to lasso someone to decorate womens belongings. One fifth century BCE handbag or pyxis, which would have been used to hold jewelry or make up, shows just such a scene. Its appearance on the bag was a clever joke about the various ways that women ensnare men and, one might say, a form of ancient cultural appropriation.
Certainly, the mythology of the Amazons as man-hating lesbian barbarians who enslaved weaker men and killed or mutilated infant boys is the stuff of legend. Much of that legend comes from more recent historiography. Sexism and colonialism loom large in the imagination of medieval and European historians and explorers. The Amazon river is so-named because the sixteenth century conquistador Francisco de Orellana claimed to have fought a group of warlike women on one of the Amazons rivers. Both Christopher Columbus and Sir Walter Raleigh mention the Amazons even though their travels took them thousands of miles away from the historical origins of the horse-riding warrior women of antiquity. Both ancient and modern Europeans like to use Amazon as a euphemism for barbarian and other.
Are these newly discovered women Amazons? Perhaps. But if you are a woman who competes in the same sphere as men who has sometimes found herself labelled aggressive, man-hating, or unnatural then rest assured that youre not alone. Youre an amazon.