Did the mythical Amazons actually exist?

Published

Claim

The Amazons of Greek myth were real and lived as nomads to the northeast of Greece

Rating

Half true

Explanation

The Amazons of Greek myth were warrior women who lived in a purely matriarchal society, with no men involved in their day to day lives. These warriors would encounter Greek heroes such as Herakles, Theseus, and Bellerophon, but were inevitably defeated by them.

The father of history, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, wrote in his Histories (4.110) that these Amazons were finally captured by Greeks, but broke free and escaped to the area around the Sea of Azov, north of the Black Sea. There they encountered some young Scythian men and formed a new society – who Herodotus called the Sauromatians. The Sauromatians lived to the northwest of the Caspian Sea, and supposedly had some strange customs. Unmarried women would take part in military expeditions, and would act in a manner that was the opposite to the behaviour expected of their own women - most shocking of all for Herodotus and his Greek audience, these women held a very high social status in their society.

Herodotus was not the only one interested in these women. An unknown author of the Hippocratic text On Airs, Waters, and Places tells us that (17.17):

Their women mount on horseback, use the bow, and throw the javelin from their horses, and fight with their enemies as long as they are virgins; and they do not lay aside their virginity until they kill three of their enemies, nor have any connection with men until they perform the sacrifices according to law. Whoever takes to herself a husband, gives up riding on horseback unless the necessity of a general expedition obliges her.

Archaeologically speaking, there is some support for this. We have Sauromatian and Scythian graves which show women buried with weapons, but this does not automatically mean they were warriors, anymore than it does to find a man buried with weapons. More convincing is that a notable proportion of these bodies have been found with the tell-tale marks of combat wounds, some of them fatal. This surely suggests that these historic societies did indeed have women among their combatants.

However, it is not clear which comes first. Did the myth of the Amazons come from an early Greek interaction with these nomdaic groups - maybe the Sauromatians, or earlier Scythian groups? Or did Herodotus use the Amazon myths to explain a strange cultural behaviour he discovered when researching the various Scythian cultures? This is, as yet, unanswerable.

Alas, there is no evidence of the existence of an all female society where men were banished, except when they were needed for mating.

References

  • Barry Cunliffe, The Scythians: Nomad Warriors of the Steppe (2019).
  • Jeannine Davis-Kimball, Warrior Women: An Archaeologists Search for History’s Hidden Heroines (2002).
  • Adrienne Mayor, The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World (2014).
  • Renate Rolle, The World of the Scythians (transl. F.G. Walls, 1989; original German, 1980).