Emily Hauser traces the evidence for the real life Amazon warrior women.
Last year, DC Comics’ Wonder Woman exploded onto our screens in an epic superhero film that put a woman at the forefront for the first time. In so doing, director Patty Jenkins delved into Wonder Woman’s hidden past as Diana (Gal Gadot), daughter of the Amazon queen of Themiscyra – and thus opened up the world of the ancient Amazons to a public of millions.
The film opens on the paradisical island of Themiscyra, to which the Amazons are said to have been relegated by the king of the gods, Zeus. Their job: to protect mankind from Ares, god of war. When World War I pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes on their island, Diana sets out to confront Ares – and so begins her journey of transformation into Wonder Woman.
But the Amazons are more than just a record-breaking superhero fantasy. They’re even more than just a myth, though they were relegated to the status of a legend for thousands of years. There is, in fact, a tangible and extraordinary history behind the Amazons going back over two thousand years, crossing between ancient texts and recent scientific advances in archaeology – and it’s one that I uncover and explore in my latest historical novel, For the Immortal.
When I first decided to write about the Amazons, my point of reference as a historian of the classical world was to look at ancient Greek myths. The Amazons were said to be a tribe of warrior women living far to the east – some even said in Themiscyra, near the mouth of the modern Terme River in northern Turkey, where we see them in Wonder Woman. They were so ferocious in battle that they cut off one of their breasts in order to fight (so the Greeks claimed), and so ‘anti-men’ that they had sex purely for pleasure, (so some said) leaving their male offspring to die. They were often depicted in Greek art, mounted on horseback, wearing patterned tunics and trousers, and carrying their typical sickle-shaped shield, sword and battle-axe.
For the Greeks of the fifth century BC, the Amazons represented everything that was terrifying about women: a morality tale for Athenian wives against the dangers of their innate female wildness and what would happen if it was left untamed. (The corresponding answer, of course – conveniently – was that women should subjugate themselves to their Athenian husbands’ control.)
The majestic Parthenon, built to celebrate Athens’ growing wealth and power and completed in 432 BC, makes the lesson clear. On one part of the structure Amazons are shown wrestling half-naked and being subdued by Greeks; on another, Athenian women, both young and old, line up in orderly fashion to pay their tribute to the goddess of the city, while behind them the men ride on horseback. This, the Parthenon proclaims, is exactly how it should be.
The names of three Amazon queens in particular resonate across the ages – and one of them, according to myth, even lived in Athens and burned down the palace of its king, on the very rock where the Parthenon would later stand. No wonder that its artists were so keen to emphasise the dangers of an Amazon.
The first Amazon queen, Hippolyta, possessed a mythical war-belt which Hercules, hero of the Greeks, was tasked to steal from her. (Some sources say that the king of Tiryns’ daughter, Admete, was set this task and accompanied Hercules on his voyage – a version I follow in my retracing of the myth.) There is a battle; the Greeks – after a struggle – claim the war-belt, and Theseus, king of Athens, captures Hippolyta (or, in some versions, her sister Antiope) and takes her back to Greece with him. Determined to recover their queen, the Amazons then ride to Greece in force and attack the city. Later, when the Greeks journeyed east again – this time to attack the fortress of Troy – it was the Amazons, under the new queen, Penthesilea, in alliance with the Trojans, who rode out to fight the Greeks.
There’s no doubt that the Greek myths surrounding the Amazons are incredibly rich – and that the researchers for DC Comics’ Wonder Woman knew about them, if the names dropped in the opening scenes (Hippolyta, Antiope) and the depictions of their legendary battle-prowess are anything to go by. But recent research has also uncovered a historical core behind these rich myths and legends, suggesting that the fantasy – both ancient and modern – of women warriors fighting and riding to the east of Greece may have more truth to it. Historical, archaeological and artistic evidence combines to suggest that the legend of the Amazons may have had its root in the vast steppe of Scythia (north of the Black Sea), where nomadic Scythian tribes of men and women alike fought on horseback.
Burials of Scythian nomads, entombed with their horses and weapons, were always assumed to be men. But recent bioarchaeological techniques have demonstrated that many warriors were actually female – and that, in some populations, women represented as much as 37 per cent of Scythian burials. Women buried with weapons ranged in age from between 10 and 45 years old, and were buried with all manner of horse-gear and weaponry, from quivers, arrows and bows to spears and battle-axes.
The evidence suggests that Greek legends of horse-riding Amazon warrior-women had its roots in a real culture of nomadic horse-tamers, where the domestication of the horse and the use of smaller, compact bows meant that men and women could ride and fight together. In the Greeks’ imagination, these nomadic women fighters were exaggerated and distorted into full-blown warrior Amazons, fearless, merciless, and man-hating – encouraged, no doubt, by anxieties around women at the time.
So perhaps the Amazons – or their historical counterparts – really did once ride the plains and train for war. And this is where my journey as an author of historical fiction began. I wanted to bring together the historical evidence for the Amazons with their myths and legends – to use fiction as a way to bridge the gap between myth, literature and archaeology, and to get an insight into what it must have been like to be an Amazon queen.
For the Immortal follows Hippolyta, combining the legends that were told about her – her confrontation with Hercules, her capture in Athens, and the Amazons’ final ride to war against Troy – with the evidence about the real, historical women who rode the steppes. Following in her footsteps, it’s an incredible journey between fact and fiction, traversing thousands of miles and hundreds of years, in the shadow of a queen whose name has echoed through the ages – and whose story of assault, agency and powerful recrimination is as relevant today as it ever was.
Read Emily Hauser’s review of the Troy exhibition at the British Museum, where she writes more about Penthisileia.
Born in Brighton and brought up in Suffolk, Emily Hauser studied Classics at Cambridge, where she was taught by Mary Beard. She attended Harvard as a Fulbright Scholar before going on to Yale to complete her PhD. She has now returned to Harvard as a Junior Fellow, and is joining the University of Exeter as a Lecturer in Classics this year. For the Most Beautiful – the first book in the Golden Apple trilogy – was her debut novel and retells the story of the siege of Troy. Her second, For the Winner, is a brilliant reimagining of the myth of Atalanta and the legend of Jason, the Argonauts and the search for the Golden Fleece. For the Immortal recovers the legend of Hercules and the Amazons to bring the trilogy to a thrilling close. To find out more, visit www.emilyhauser.com.