Clay copy of the Mattei-type Amazon (Wounded Amazon) in the courtyard of the Numismatic Museum of Athens. The clay statue dates to the 19th century. The original is lost and dates to the 5th cent. B.C. Several copies of the original were made in the Roman period. Photo by George E. Koronaios / CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED. Cropped.

The Amazons, as depicted in Greek mythology, were fierce warrior women inhabiting the lands around and beyond the Black Sea. These legendary women warriors were known for their courage, skill in war, and striking beauty. Greek heroes often clashed with formidable Amazon queens in epic tales.

In Greek mythology, the Amazons were a race of warlike women noted for their riding skills, courage, and pride. They lived at the outer limits of the known world, sometimes specifically mentioned as the city of Themiskyra on the Black Sea. Their queen was Hippolyte, daughter of Ares and Ortrea. Although Homer tells us they were “the equal of men,” they most famously fought and lost separate battles against three Greek heroes: Hercules, Theseus, and Bellerophon. Scenes from these battles were popular in Greek art, especially on pottery and in monumental sculpture adorning some of the most important buildings in the Greek world, including the Parthenon of Athens.

A hippeis rider seizes a mounted Amazonian warrior by her Phrygian cap, Roman mosaic emblema (marble and limestone) from Daphne, a suburb of Antioch-on-the-Orontes (now Antakya in Turkey), second half of the 4th century AD, now in the Louvre, Paris. Photo by Jaques MOSSOT / CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED.

Ancient Greek writers like Herodotus and Strabo wrote about tribes of women in the Black Sea region known for their skill in warfare. Intriguingly, archaeological investigation of tombs across Eurasia has shown conclusively that many women of nomadic steppe tribes were indeed warriors, particularly around the Black Sea area. The society of the Amazons was thought of as Greek male-society in reverse, and so they pursued such traditional male-dominated activities as horse-riding, hunting, and warfare.

According to legend (though lacking historical evidence), the Amazons were said to have burnt off their right breast to enhance their archery skills and spear-throwing abilities. The term “Amazon” was commonly understood to mean “breastless,” emphasizing this mythological detail. However, it’s essential to recognize that this specific aspect of the legend lacks factual support.

Beyond the breast-related interpretation, alternative meanings for the term “Amazon” exist. These alternative interpretations highlight the complexity of language and symbolism in ancient myths.

Armed Amazon, her shield is decorated with s a Gorgon head; Tondo of Attic red-figure kylix, c. 500 BC, Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Berlin.

The Amazons were daughters of Ares, the Greek god of war and courage, and they were members of a women-only society where men were welcomed only for breeding purposes, and all male infants were killed. They were thought to dwell at the edge of what the Greeks considered their “civilized” world and were most often associated with the area around the southern coast of the Black Sea, particularly the city-state of Themiskyra. Another Anatolian connection was at Ephesus, where it was thought Amazons had sacrificed to Artemis, the goddess of hunting, at her temple and performed war dances, a ceremony repeated annually thereafter. Indeed, the foundation of many settlements in Asia Minor was credited to Amazons.

The Influence of Equestrian Nomads

For centuries, scholars considered the Amazons purely imaginary, akin to mythical creatures like the hydra or Pegasus. However, recent archaeological discoveries have shed light on their historical basis. Archaeological findings from graves dating back to the fifth century BC suggest that the Greeks’ tales of Amazons were influenced by the lives of real equestrian nomads. These nomads roamed the vast territory stretching from the Black Sea to Mongolia, known as Scythia. The Scythians played a significant role in shaping the cultural landscape of Central Asia. Their culture flourished from approximately 900 BC to 200 BC.

Amazon in Scythian attire, Attic vase, c. 420 BC, Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich.

The Scythians originated in Central Asia, specifically around the 9th to 8th centuries BC. They embarked on a remarkable migration westward, eventually settling in the Pontic Steppe, which encompasses modern-day Ukraine and Southern Russia,

Living in covered wagons, Scythians led a nomadic warrior way of life. Their open plains, deserts, and forest-steppe expanses favored herding animals and travel by horse rather than settled agriculture. Scythian women shared this lifestyle, allowing them to maintain readiness for battle. Scythian women weren’t merely supportive; they became rulers as well.

The Scythians were skilled horse riders and archers, embodying the same characteristics attributed to the Amazons. These nomads left behind artifacts, including pottery and sculptures, depicting scenes of women warriors in battle. Like the Amazons, Scythian women enjoyed a vigorous outdoor life, sexual freedom, hunting, and warfare. They wore pants, rode horses, and wielded weapons — traits that resonated with the Amazon legends.

Scythian warriors, including women, were formidable and innovative in their tactics. Their hit-and-run tactics disrupted enemy formations and kept adversaries off balance. They were known for their innovative use of scale armor. In close combat, they fought with shields and swords, demonstrating both defensive and offensive prowess.

Etruscan bronze funerary urn with Scythian mounted archer, mid-5th century BC Metropolitan Museum of Art

Artistic Depictions

Greek artists skillfully immortalized the Amazons through a rich tapestry of artistic expressions. On privately commissioned pottery, scenes unfolded — depicting women warriors in combat. Amazons rode horses, brandished weapons, and clashed with Greek heroes. The intricate details captured the intensity of their encounters.

These pottery items adorned elite homes. Their elegant designs combined beauty with functionality, making them prized possessions. As patrons sipped wine from these vessels, they were reminded of the Amazons’ valor.

Greek cities celebrated the Amazons through public sculptures adorning buildings, temples, and civic spaces. These sculptures depicted Amazons mounted on powerful steeds. Their poised yet dynamic postures conveyed strength and determination. Some sculptures showcased Amazons shooting bows, emphasizing precision in battle. Others portrayed them swinging battle-axes, highlighting their prowess as warriors. These monumental works left an indelible mark, connecting citizens and visitors to heroic legends.

Greek fighting an Amazon. Detail from painted sarcophagus found in Italy, 350-325 BC. Phopo by Sailko. CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED.

While both Amazons and male warriors were celebrated, their artistic portrayals reflected distinct societal expectations. The Amazons stood as fierce equals, challenging conventions, while male warriors embodied heroic ideals.

Final Thoughts

While the Amazons continue to captivate our imagination, these archaeological discoveries suggest that they were more than myth — they were real women who left their mark on history. They were fierce, skilled, and unyielding — much like the myths that surround them. Their legacy endures, bridging the gap between legend and reality.

Departure of the Amazons, by Claude Deruet, 1620, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The Amazons remain relevant in contemporary discussions about gender equality, female empowerment, and representation. Pop culture adaptations, such as movies, novels, and comics, reimagine the Amazons as symbols of strength and defiance.

By Eugene Nielsen

Eugene Nielsen provides intelligence and security consulting services. He has a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of California. His byline has appeared in numerous national and international journals and magazines.

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