Amazons are the legendary warrior women of ancient Greek mythology. Since time immemorial, they have captured our collective imaginations, appearing everywhere from the works of Shakespeare to DC’s Wonder Woman. But what do we really know about these mythical figures? Did they have any basis in reality, or were they purely fictional creations of the ancient Greeks?
For centuries, many historians argued the latter, dating back as far as the 4th century BCE. Palaephatus wrote in his paradoxographical work On Incredible Things that the Amazons were probably foreign male warriors who were mistaken for women because they shaved their beards and dressed differently than the Greeks.
In more recent years, however, archaeological evidence has suggested that Amazon women may have been mythologized versions of real-life peoples of the Eurasian steppes. Before we get into that, however, we need to explore what mythology tells us about the Amazons, and where the stories of their battle prowess came from.
The origins of the Amazons—in both a historical sense and within the myths that were told about them—are steeped in mystery. Even the name is a subject of some debate. Marcus Justinus, a Roman historian who lived during the 2nd or 3rd century CE, suggested that the name “Amazon” meant breastless, because the Amazons supposedly cut off their right breasts in order to better draw their bows.
Though this bit of folk etymology has caught on and been repeated even up to the present day, there is no evidence to indicate that it was ever believed to be the case. Ancient works of art always depict the Amazons as still possessing both breasts, and not all ancient writers even use the term Amazon to describe them. Herodotus, for example, called them Androktones, which translates roughly to “killers of men.”
One of the earliest surviving works to mention the Amazons is Homer’s epic poem of the Trojan War, The Iliad. In it, the Amazon queen Penthesilea and her troops fight on the side of the Trojans after the death of Hector, until such time as Penthesilea is, herself, slain in battle with the mighty Achilles. Though his is one of the oldest surviving texts, however, Homer was far from the first to write about these warrior women, and in his own work he makes it clear that the Amazons were well known throughout ancient Greece.
Indeed, Amazons appear in many of the most famous and prominent of Greek myths. One of the legendary Labours of Hercules sees that demigod vying with the Amazon queen Hippolyte over a magic belt—a contest that, in some versions of the story, ends in her death. Meanwhile, an Amazon queen is abducted by Theseus, the legendary founder of Athens, and forced to bear him a son, Hippolytus, who eventually dies in tragic circumstances, as is so often the case in these stories.
Alexander the Great's biographers reported that he had a child with Amazon queen Thalestris. The Talmud, meanwhile, recounts a story in which Alexander seeks to conquer a “kingdom of women.” What changed his mind? According to the text, the women told him, “If you kill us, people will say: Alexander kills women. And if we kill you, people will say: Alexander is the king whom women killed in battle.”
Whether they were battling (or bearing the children of) demigods or helping to turn the tide of great battles, the Amazons were unique among the myths of ancient Greece in that they were seen as fearsome warriors every bit the match of—and in many cases superior to—the battle prowess of their male counterparts. There is a reason, after all, why Amazonian queens did battle with some of the most renowned warriors of Greek myth.
Long after the ancient Greeks, stories of these warrior women continued to fascinate chroniclers and tale-tellers, even up until the present day. Recountings of Greek mythology were popular throughout late antiquity, the Middle Ages, and during the Renaissance, with countless authors and historians either rehashing the Amazon myths of ancient Greece or else telling new stories inspired by them.
In the modern day, one of the most recognizable adaptations of the stories of the Amazons is in the origins of the DC Comics character Wonder Woman. Herself an Amazon, Wonder Woman lived with her mother, the Amazon queen Hippolyta, on the hidden island nation of Themyscira, and ventured forth to fight evil as a superhero and a founding member of the Justice League. In recent years, she has been the subject of two feature films and also played a major role in the Justice League movie, in all of which she was portrayed by Gal Gadot.
More recently, the film The Woman King stars Viola Davis as a leader of the Agojie, an all-female military regiment of the Kingdom of Dahomey in Africa. Westerners who encountered the Agojie took to calling them the Dahomey Amazons for their resemblance to the powerful women of ancient myth.
For centuries, many scholars believed that Amazons were every bit as fictional as the monsters and demigods who make up Greek myth. However, in the 20th century, new theories began to emerge. They suggested that the Amazon legends may have been inspired by real warrior women, based especially on archaeological evidence collected from burial sites throughout the steppes of Ukraine and Russia.
These graves often belonged to rulers and other ranking members of Scythian, Sarmatian, and Lycian peoples. As many as 25% of warrior graves belonged to women, who were dressed for battle similarly to their male counterparts. Herodotus, who traveled among the Lycians during the 5th century BCE, reported that their people followed matrilineal status and descent, with a child’s status determined by their mother’s reputation. This led Herodotus to conclude that the Lycians were descendants of the ancient Amazons.
Scythians and Sarmatians were horse nomads of the steppes, accustomed to fighting from horseback and deadly with bow-and-arrow, matching many accounts and artistic depictions of early Amazons. What’s more, archaeological evidence has found numerous battle-scarred bones of female warriors, often buried with their weapons, from among these nomadic peoples, suggesting that clashes with Scythians and Sarmatians may have given early Greeks their ideas of what Amazons were like.
Sources: Smithsonian Magazine