Did the Amazon Warriors Really Exist?

I was a fan of Wonder Woman as a comics-reading child, just as I was a fan of Batman and Superman. Being a kid, I figured the land of the Amazons was in the Amazon Rainforest. The legendary Amazons actually came from ancient Greek tales. Homer included them in the Iliad, and from there mentions of a warrior class of women were peppered into many epic stories. But were those tales based on fact or fiction?

The more important the Amazons became to Athenian national identity, the more the Greeks searched for evidence of their vanquished foe. The fifth century B.C. historian Herodotus did his best to fill in the missing gaps. The “father of history,” as he is known, located the Amazonian capital as Themiscyra, a fortified city on the banks of the Thermodon River near the coast of the Black Sea in what is now northern Turkey. The women divided their time between pillaging expeditions as far afield as Persia and, closer to home, founding such famous towns as Smyrna, Ephesus, Sinope and Paphos. Procreation was confined to an annual event with a neighboring tribe. Baby boys were sent back to their fathers, while the girls were trained to become warriors. An encounter with the Greeks at the Battle of Thermodon ended this idyllic existence. Three shiploads of captured Amazons ran aground near Scythia, on the southern coast of the Black Sea. At first, the Amazons and the Scythians were braced to fight each other. But love indeed conquered all and the two groups eventually intermarried. Their descendants became nomads, trekking northeast into the steppes where they founded a new race of Scythians called the Sauromatians. “The women of the Sauromatae have continued from that day to the present,” wrote Herodotus, “to observe their ancient customs, frequently hunting on horseback with their husbands...in war taking the field and wearing the very same dress as the men....Their marriage law lays it down, that no girl shall wed until she has killed a man in battle.”

The Amazon women were presumed to be legendary, until a Sauromatian graveyard was found in the early 1990s. The 2,000-year-old graves found in southern Russia near the border with Kazakhstan were excavated and threw an entirely new light onto the legends. Read about what they found, and what it means for the Amazon legend, at Smithsonian.  

(Image credit: Sharon Mollerus)


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