Amazons, fierce female warriors, are the victims of a bad press. Greek writers, whom they both attracted and repelled, portrayed them as men-haters, who cut off a breast to be better archers; rejected all men including their own boy babies; and wore de-feminizing trousers.
Ironically, some were also stunningly beautiful causing heroes such as Achilles and Theseus to fall madly in love with them. Centuries later scholars dismissed legends about Amazons as fanciful myths until archaeologists started to uncover the graves of women warriors from ancient burial grounds belonging to the Greeks’ eastern neighbors – the nomadic Scythians, inhabitants of lands from the Black Sea to the Siberian coast.
Stanford University historian Adrienne Mayor’s study of the Amazons describes finds from tombs, called kurgans, containing battle-scarred female skeletons dressed in tunics and trousers, and buried with quivers full of arrows, battle-axes, spears, and horse gear. When first discovered, scholars assumed that graves with weapons belonged to men, but DNA has proved otherwise. The graves also exploded the myth that only the young single women fought and hunted on horseback. Many of the graves were of women buried along with children, presumably their own.
To Greeks, whose women were confined to child bearing and domesticity, the idea of powerful, independent women would have been both radical and unsettling. By their logic, if women were strong and independent, then the men must be submissive weaklings. In fact Scythian society was egalitarian, organized in small nomadic groups where everyone’s contribution to hunting and defense was vital to survival. Women on horseback are as capable of bringing down prey with a well-aimed arrow, or even a lance, as a man.
Scythian women would have spent days at a time on horseback; their leg-bones were bowed from so much riding. They have been credited with inventing trousers: practical attire for horse riding. Along with trousers these Amazons wore long-sleeved tunics and pointed hats with earflaps against the cold. Tombs exposed by recent melting of permafrost have yielded bodies whose elaborately tattooed skin was preserved by ice. The Ice Princess, from a kurgan in Siberia, had deer-like tattoos on her shoulder and arm.
A favorite sport for both sexes was hunting hares, on horseback, armed with spears. Their diet was high in meat and the lack of vegetables is also apparent in their bones. Standard fare would have been mutton cooked in a pot covered by crocheted cloth. They also ate beef, horsemeat, mare’s-milk cheese, beans and used olive oil. Along with hares they hunted snow leopards, geese, wolves, lynx and deer.
Their lives followed a yearly cycle, following the herds with occasional large gatherings for feasting, funerals, athletic contests, and saunas. They froze fermented mare’s milk, or kumis, then skimmed off the ice to intensify the alcohol. Opium and cannabis were also used, many tombs contained pipes and burners with traces of these drugs, which were probably used to induce trances during rituals, as well as medicinally. Silver vessels found in their tombs were used for drinking kumis and imported Greek wine. Unlike the Greeks, they did not add water to wine but drank it neat and copiously. Some scholars attribute their demise to excessive drinking! Whatever the truth, their amazing women continue to fascinate us as much as they did the Greeks.