Through my port-hole I could see the full moon shining above the Black Sea, making a track of dancing light which rippled towards me like a white snake. Low on the horizon red Mars skulked. The sea was as smooth and dark as an obsidian mirror. It was an auspicious night to start a journey in search of the women who called themselves 'daughters of Ares' and who served the moon-goddess Artemis/Cybele with their sickle-shaped shields - the Amazons.
We had managed to get the last two places on a Russian cargo-boat sailing from Istanbul in Turkey to Yalta in the newly free Ukraine, our route as close as we could get to that followed by the Amazons who had survived the battle of Themiscyra. They had been wretched captives in a Greek ship, destined for slavery - or worse, languishing at the low point in their history: after glorious centuries of independence, conquest, the founding of cities, they had been humiliated and routed by the archetypal patriarchal hero - Hercules.
But had this really happened? Was it in fact 'history' or 'myth'? The tale comes to us from Herodotus, the so-called 'father of history' writing in the middle of the fifth century BC. He explains that the Greeks and Amazons had been at war and that the Greeks had finally subdued the savage women and sailed away in three ships with them. In the middle of the Black Sea the Amazons rose up and overcame their captors, but unfortunately did not know anything about sailing a boat and so, and after days of drifting at the mercy of the wind and waves, were washed up on the shores of the Sea of Azov (the little sea at the top right hand corner of the Black Sea.). They came across a herd of horses, which they promptly tamed and mounted, and set about pillaging the local Scythians.
The Scythians fought back and were astonished to find, when they examined the corpses of the Amazons they had slain, that their enemies were women. They decided not to try to kill the survivors but to woo them instead, thinking that they would make good strong children. So a group of young Scythian men went off and camped near the women, being careful to be on good behaviour so that eventually the women realised they meant no harm. I'll let Herodotus carry on the story from here:
In the middle of every day the Amazons used to split up into ones or twos and go some way apart from one another in order to relieve themselves. When the Scythians noticed this, they did the same thing. One of them approached one of the women who was all alone and the Amazon did not repulse him, but let him have intercourse with her. She could not speak to him because they did not understand each other, but she used gestures to tell him to return the next day to the same place and to bring someone else with him; she made it clear to him that there should be two of them, and that she would bring another woman with her too. The young man returned to his camp and told the others the news. He kept the appointment the next day, taking someone else along too, and found another Amazon there as well, waiting for them, When the other young men found out, they joined in and tamed the remaining Amazons. After that the two sides joined forces and lived together, forming couples consisting of a Scythian and the Amazon with whom he first had sex.<1>
The Amazons were willing to settle down with the men, but not as Scythian women. They wanted to keep up their old ways: "we haven't learnt women's work. We shoot arrows, wield javelins, ride horses - things which your women never have anything to do with." So the newly formed couples crossed the River Tanais and travelled east for three days and then north for another three, before settling down to begin the Sauromatian nation whose womenfolk always hung onto the custom of hunting on horseback and going to war. Herodotus ends: "one of their marriage customs is that no young woman may marry until she has killed a male enemy. Inability to fulfil this condition means that some of them do not marry until they are old."
Herodotus is not the only classical writer to point to the Sauromatian women as the direct descendants of the Amazons. In the late fifth century BC Pseudo-Hippocrates claimed that, "Amazon women dislocate the joints of their male children at birth some at knees, some at hips ... to make them lame so that the male race might not conspire against the female race."<2> He repeats some of Herodotus's details and embellishes:
And in Europe there is a Scythian race, dwelling round Lake Maeotis, which differs from the other races. Their name is Sauromatae. Their women, so long as they are virgins, ride, shoot, throw the javelin while mounted, and fight with their enemies. They do not lay aside their virginity until they have killed three of their enemies, and they do not marry before they have performed the traditional sacred rites. A woman who takes to herself a husband no longer rides, unless she is compelled to do so by a general expedition. They have no right breast; for while they are yet babies their mothers make red-hot a bronze instrument constructed for this very purpose and apply it to the right breast and cauterise it, so that its growth is arrested, and all its strength and bulk are diverted to the right shoulder and right arm.<3>
The Amazon myth has resonated through western civilisation ever since Homer mentioned them, en passant, as 'women the equal of men'. The tales tell of ferocious women warriors who fight and ride like men, live apart from males, only copulating once a year to get female children, the boys being sent back to their fathers, mutilated or killed. But what kind of 'truth' lies behind the accounts of the Amazons given by Homer, Hellanicus, Herodotus, Hippocrates, Diodorus and Strabo (and many others)? What kind of reality is the myth built around, if any? I had found out that most classicists believed that there was absolutely no foundation in reality for the myth: the Amazons, they argued, were invented by the Greeks to prove that a woman warrior was a wicked and unnatural phenomenon, which would always come to a bad end (the Amazons tend to get defeated in all versions of the myth where they fight Greeks).
But, since the breaking up and opening up of the old Soviet Union, news had been percolating to the west of astonishing finds in Russia and Ukraine which might prove the classicists wrong. I was travelling across the Black Sea to meet women archaeologists whose work suggested that women very like the Amazons really had existed. I hoped that I would be able to see for myself the bones, the armour and the weapons of some of those women warriors, possibly the prototype of the Amazons who had fascinated me for so many years.
Natasha, my friend and interpreter, was making, in reverse, a trip her mother had made back in 1945 when she fled her native Ukraine by boat to come to Istanbul. Natasha's Russian mother had Tartar blood in her veins and Natasha might well carry in her the genes of the nomadic women warriors who'd ridden the steppes over 2000 years ago.
Whether the war-like women of the Scythians and Sauromatians were Amazon prototypes or their descendants, the German archaeologist Renate Rolle was the key to unlocking the mystery. We found out that she was digging at the fortress of Bel'sk out in the middle of the steppe, so we hired a car and drove across the Ukrainian flatlands on a day of continuous torrential rain. At the end of our journey the car stuck fast in the mud of a pitted track, but we tumbled out to find Renate sitting under a canopy miserably writing up her notes. We were a happy distraction from the wet which made digging impossible. Vodka was produced and we were taken on a guided tour of the soggy fortress of Bel'sk.
We stood in the middle of a field full of Scythian shards and bones with Professor Rolle, while the rain poured down on us, each encased in a pastel-coloured plastic Macintosh provided by her colleague Professor Murzin. The Amazons still seemed far away. But they were nearer than we knew: Renate turned out to be one of those incorruptible, unstoppably persistent and honest people who discover amazing things and then are slow to take credit for them. But finally we persuaded her to tell her story.
When she was a student back in 1965, she began to notice that, in some of the graves she was digging, the gender of the dead person was not at all obvious because the goods buried with them were both classically female things like spindles and mirrors and classically male instruments like knives, swords or arrows. Most previous generations of archaeologists had a found a way of explaining such graves which did not involve the idea that women might be buried with weapons - in fact they tended to presume that any burial with weapons would be that of a man. There were notable exceptions such as the Russian Grakov who thought they might indicated a woman-dominated society which could be the last remnant of a matriarchy and the amateur archaeologist Count Bobrinsky, but Renate Rolle, being a woman and a very objective archaeologist herself, was keen to explore all options.
She actually started back in the past, re-examining a grave found by Bobrinsky in the late nineteenth century. It was excavated in 1884 at Cholodni Yar on the left band of the river Tiasmin. In this grave there were two skeletons: the main burial was of a woman but at her feet lay the body of a young man of about eighteen years old. It was a fairly rich grave and the main goods were grouped around the female. On her ears had been large silver earrings, round her neck a chain made from bones and glass beads, on her arm a bronze bracelet. Next to her lay a bronze mirror, a clay loom-weight and iron plates upon which food gifts had once been placed. To her left at the head end lay two iron spear points, underneath them a smooth square plate which had been used as a whetstone; further down they found the remains of a brightly painted quiver made of leather and wood and forty-seven bronze three-flighted arrowheads, and two iron knives. Next to the head were two so-called 'sling-stones' although no-one can be sure they were used as weapons. The young man's skeleton on the other hand, had only two small bronze bells near it, plus an iron arm-ring and some little bits of jewellery.
What we seem to have here is the grave of a woman warrior of some social standing whose young male servant was killed to accompany her on her death journey. The woman had many of the classic female accoutrements - weaving and spinning tools are almost never found in male graves - but also possessed a bow, knives and spears.
When I first heard Renate's description of this grave, I felt a chill down my backbone: here we had traces of a world radically different from the Greeks', in which a woman might fight and be considered important enough to merit a sacrificed servant to look after her in the next world. In another grave from the sixth century BC Renate told of an 'Amazon' buried with a gold-studded cap who had both a servant and a horse buried with her, both probably ritually killed to accompany her. She seemed to have died from a blow, the trace of which remained over her right brow.
In the early eighties Renate was digging at Certomylik, in the lower reaches of the Dnieper, a very rich source of Scythian graves, many of them unmolested by robbers. In six of the fifty-three graves they found women with weapons.
Two hadn't been touched, one was a young woman with weapons, a bow and some arrow-heads, and this little child lying on her arm. The two fingers of her right hand which would have had heavy use from pulling a bow showed clear signs of wear and tear. It was very moving. So you see these women warriors did have children, and they may have led perfectly normal married lives together with their families and husbands. They only fought when they had to, to defend their settlement, or if there was some particularly ferocious fighting going on. They used the bow - it's a good weapon for a woman because you don't need brute strength to use it, all you need it to be fast and flexible. We know they rode horses. Defensive weapons tend to be heavy, but even so we've found mail-shirts and armour in women's graves, so we know they used them. And some skeletons show signs of being wounded in battle.
It was important to Renate that the women warriors whose graves she dug up were ordinary, man-loving (as against man-killing), child-rearing women, not muscle-bound man-haters. She points out that that women's physique suits them particularly well to horse-riding and specifically distance-riding. Men who spend a great deal of time in the saddle can become impotent, because of the heat and friction on their testicles, whereas women have no such problem. The bow suits women well too: it requires less muscle strength to use than some other weapons, but it does demand calm, concentration, good co-ordination of hand and eye, and a precise sense of distance and timing. These are all skills which could be acquired through rigorous daily training in childhood. At one site Renate had found a girl between 10 and 12 years old buried with chain-mail armour which suggests that she was already trained and considered ready to fight. She says that Scythian body armour was very elastic and practical and that certainly women and girls could have worn it without any discomfort.
The Russian Vera Kovalevskaya points out that when their men were away fighting or hunting, nomadic women would have to be able to defend themselves, their animals and pasture-grounds competently. During the time that the Scythians advanced into Asia and achieved near-hegemony in the Near-East, there was a period of twenty-eight years when the men would have been away on campaigns for long periods. During this time the women would not only have had to defend themselves, but to reproduce and this could well be the origin of the idea that Amazons mated once a year with their neighbours.
Renate planned to stay at Bel'sk until October, sleeping in a tent, unobtainable by telephone, in the company of a few other Scythian-crazy folk, cooking on a fire outside, and scrabbling in the wet ground for clues as to why so many nomadic people had built a fortress and settled here. She obviously felt at home in the bleak steppe with a pet pig and goat and few chickens for company. The pig was supposed to be eaten at some point but I suspect Renate would never allow it. She is a warrior all right, and has had to fight the worst of East-European bureaucracy to do her work, but I just felt her ruthlessness was not the pig-slaughtering kind.
One very surprising fact which comes out of Renate Rolle's work is that only in three out of fifteen sites where women warriors were found was there a horse buried. Male warriors were often buried with a horse or horse-related items. This is rather disturbing to our image of the archetypal Amazon on horseback. But of course, if we follow Herodotus, we are dealing not with Amazons but with their descendants, the Sauromatian women. The Sauromatians are a wave of people who appeared in the eastern part of the Scythian territory in the sixth or fifth century BC. According to Hippocrates, these women only fought until they had won their spurs by killing three enemies in battle, then:
A woman who takes to herself a husband no longer rides, unless she is compelled to do so by a general expedition.<4>
For information about Sauromatian graves we contacted the Ukrainian archaeologist Dr Elena Fialko who had been digging in the more eastern "Sauromatian" parts of Ukraine, above the sea of Azov near the Molochnaya and Dnieper rivers. The graves date from the fifth and first half of fourth centuries BC. This is exactly the area into which Herodotus's Amazons are supposed to have migrated after they teamed up with the Scythian men.<5>
Elena told us that it was the odd combination of beautiful little bits and pieces with weaponry which made the women whose graves she was digging up seem so individual and real. There were no big, exquisitely painted vases or anything especially valuable, just little knick-knacks mass-produced in the Greek style like lacquer bowls and jugs, the kind of thing that Greeks themselves would throw away without thinking. But for these Scythian women they were exotic and special, so they were buried with them, along with their spearheads, arrow-heads and quivers. Over two thousand years later the same little ornaments entranced Elena too, "I was so elated, because when I was young growing up in Siberia and then Kiev, I had studied the classical world a lot ... to take into my hands something made by the Greeks was wonderful. As soon as I saw them I wanted to pick them up and handle them and I felt so proud, as a woman to see how these women were given the full dignities of a warrior's burial - head to the west, lying on the back in a square pit burial with one side hollowed out. There was a warrior caste, and they were a part of it".
In an oval burial chamber near the village of Akimovka Elena found a woman of between 22 and 25 years old was found lying on her back with her head to the north. Under her head and her left side 575 colourful glass beads were scattered. She had gold and silver rings on her hands and a golden loop-shaped earring lay nearby: 60 golden studs/rosettes, 46 golden buttons and 28 other golden decorative studs depicting a deer, a woman's head and a Medusa head were lying close to her body. She also had a black lacquer vessel of Greek style, some lead loom weights and, finally nine arrowheads and two fragmented knife blades. This well-off young woman must have looked wonderful in all her golden finery. Perhaps she would only feel inclined to use her bow and arrows and her knife if necessity truly demanded it. Perhaps she was not a full member of the 'warrior caste.'
Close by a 25 year old was buried with a bronze bracelet round her right wrist, and a bronze mirror and a black lacquer bowl by her left hand, a metal spear and a javelin nearby and 2 pretzel-shaped golden earrings, (which may suggest she was a married woman). There was also a metal knife, a lead loom weight and three bronze arrowheads, plus, in the corner, a stone probably used for heating water. The spear and javelin suggest she was a more serious warrior.
In a third case in the village a woman was buried lying on her back with her legs half bent so that her left leg was leaning out at the hip with the knee not far from the elbow while the left heel was by the pelvis. It is a position which suggests either sexual intercourse or riding! That she was a warrior is suggested by the 9 bronze arrowheads found with 20 glass 'eye' beads and 3 limestone pendants.
Elena noticed a conspicuous absence of the kind of weapons you would expect Herodotus' 'Oiorpata' or mankillers to have - there were no defensive weapons like shields, no armour, except for studded belts found in three graves, and the only close-fighting weapons found were three swords - all bent , possibly suggesting ritual use. Only one woman, in the forest steppe, was buried with a horse. None of the women was buried with the wooden cup inset with gold which you would find in many male warrior's graves. It is hard not to think that the women were regarded as slightly second-class warriors compared with the men.
In fifty cases bronze mirrors, which would have been good reflectors when burnished, were found in the women's graves, and in some cases stone dishes with the remains of colouring materials. The stone dishes may have been used to grind cosmetic substances, which is in keeping with what Herodotus wrote about Scythian women :
their women take a rough stone and grind cedar incense, add water and cover their bodies and faces. It makes them smell good. Next day they take off the layer and are clean and shiny underneath.<6>
The mirrors and make-up suggest that these were ordinary young women who liked to look beautiful. Elena does not think that they were mankilling Amazonz. They were lightly armed and they were not buried with any horse-accoutrements. She argues:
In the steppe zone there are 80 female burials - only one has part of a horse's bridle. In the forest steppe there are 20 burials - in only one is a horse buried with an Amazon and one contains parts of a bridle. In men's graves bridles are very much part of grave goods. So we're unlikely to be helped out by Renate Rolle's ideas that, although women are less strong, they could be more lithe and flexible on horseback. Especially since Herodotus, talking about male Scythians, stresses how fast and flexible they are. But classical authors all say Scythians and Amazons learnt to ride and shoot arrows from earliest childhood - so there is a lack of correlation between the written sources and archaeological materials
Elena's theory is that these were middle-class Scythian women doing military service when the tribe required it from them. So far no 'Amazons' have been found in very rich aristocratic graves. If the men were often away on forays, or moving their horses, sheep or cattle around maybe it was simply essential for the women to be able to defend their settlements against aggressors.
The archaeologists I spoke to in the Ukraine told me that 25% of the Scythian graves with weapons which have been found are of women, which suggest that 25% of all Scythian warriors were women. If this is true this was a society with very different ideas about gender roles to our own. In fact there is other evidence that this was the case - both Herodotus and Hippocrates talk about a caste of men called Enarees. Herodotus calls them 'women-men' and says they were soothsayers who used the bark of the lime tree to prophesy as they plaited and unplaited it between their fingers. They claimed to have learnt this method of divination from Aphrodite, which must be a Greek label for a Scythian goddess, perhaps Tabithi who was their mother-goddess. He explains that in previous times the Scythians robbed a temple of Aphrodite and were punished by the goddess for their transgression by being inflicted with the 'women's disease', by which he presumably means menstruation. In many cultures men imitate menstruation by cutting their genitals to draw blood thus magically 'stealing' women's mysterious power.
Hippocrates takes the story further:
Moreover, the great majority among the Scythians become impotent, do women's work, live like women and converse accordingly. Such men they call Enarees .Scythians are the most impotent of men .because they always wear trousers and spend most of their time on their horses, so that they do not handle the parts but owing to cold and fatigue forget about sexual virility before any impulse is felt.<7>
What we have here seems to be men stealing female power by disguising themselves as women. The people who received the oracles at Delphi were normally women, because women were thought to have the capacity to receive. In order to acquire this power, maybe the Enarees were willing to lose their masculinity. Shamans of many cultures cross-dress in order to make their spirit flights, perhaps needing to generate energy within themselves by creating a male-female polarity, or to jolt themselves out of their habitual mode of consciousness by radically changing their identity. There is also a teaching in many spiritual traditions (Hinduism and Christianity particularly) which claims that if sexual energy is not spent in the normal way it can be saved and refined for other uses.
Therefore in Scythian and Sauromatian societies it would seem that you could be born a girl and become a brave warrior, be born a boy and spend your life as a shaman and seer, too weak to be asked to fight. Maybe such flexibility was essential for the nomadic or semi-nomadic way of life.
There was an added complication: some scholars,<8> noting the gender fluidity of Scythian and Sarmatian society, suggest that some of the bodies in these 'woman warrior' graves may not be of women after all. Could they not be of the androgynous Enarees about whom Herodotus wrote? Whether castrated or hormonally modified by horse-riding or drugs, what would these men's skulls or pelvises look like? Could they be confused with women's? Or did they belong to an ambiguous third sex?
There is a cemetery at Golyamo Delchevo in north-east Bulgaria where archaeologists noticed there were three different 'packages' of grave-goods, male, female and 'asexual' or 'non-gendered' and some scholars are now arguing for the presence, in European prehistory of a 'third, ambiguous, possibly liminal gender'.<9> Actual hermaphrodism is rare (one or two births in every thousand) but we all know people who don't fit either gender easily - assertive, slim-hipped girls, or gentle, rounded men - who may have a hormonal bias towards the opposite sex.
It could be that some of the women warriors' graves in the steppes are not in fact the graves of women but persons of 'a third, ambiguous and possibly liminal gender' In which case 'Amazons' could as easily be beardless men as beefy women. Until DNA testing for gender of skeletal remains becomes possible and reliable in every case, we cannot know for sure.
But the gender-reversal game works both ways. Jeannine Davis Kimball has studied nomadic societies right across Europe and Asia, from Western Russia to the Tien Shan in China and she has paid particular attention to the grave-goods of the 'Issyk Gold Man' who was found by a farmer near Almaty in Kazakstan in 1969. In a sarcophagus made of large fir logs a skeleton was unearthed along with four thousand golden ornaments including a torc decorated with snow leopards, scabbards for a dagger and a sword, a whip-handle and, most beautiful of all, an unusual and striking head-dress from which flared upwards two pairs of feathers, flames or wings and four arrows to a height of 25 inches - which is really very tall. Jeannine noted that the sides of the head-dress were decorated with 'gold-foil depictions of mountains, birds, snow-leopards with twisted torsos, winged tigers and mountain goats...and a small gold ram was set on its point.' Other objects found with the body included a bronze mirror and flat wooden dishes and beaters for koumiss (fermented mare's milk.) The body was presumed to have been that of a young Saka chieftain (the Sakas were nomads closely related to the Scythians), but Jeannine has put forward the daring theory that it might be that of a woman.
She points out that very similar grave goods were found on the Ukok Plateau in the Altai mountains by Russian archaeologist Natalya Polosmak, in the grave of a high-status woman who may have been a priestess. She also had a bronze mirror, a koumiss-beater and a high headdress, and the style of tattoos on her body was close to that of the decorations on Issyk man's gold finery. Natalya Polosmak had been able to study the tattoos because the princess's body had been preserved in ice for over two thousand years, so that some of her skin was intact. Professor Orazak Ismagulov from the Kazak Institute of Archaeology, who has examined the Saka skeleton, admitted to Jeannine that it was of a very small person and could be that of a woman. There were three earrings with beads in the tomb which suggests the kind of jewellery not normally associated with men. Jeannine felt that the bones, spoon and mirror found in the grave related it to the 'priestess' graves she had excavated in Pokrovka. Finally she points out that some of the female mummies found in Xinjiang in the Taklimakan desert wore high conical hats.
Whether Jeannine is right or not, whether the gold person of Issyk is a woman warrior-priestess or a male chieftain, the point has been made that we cannot assume the skeleton to be male. The Greeks may have created a society in which gender roles were laid down and rigidly adhered to, but the nomad Scythians and Sauromatians across the water and to the east were much more pragmatic. If a man wanted to be a seer, he put on women's clothes and cut himself so that he bled like a woman, in order to steal the gift of female mantic power. If a woman was strong and swift, or if the tribe was under pressure from enemies, then she would grab her bow and arrow, spear or javelin and sling-stones and join the fray.
But it was becoming clear that, although the graves of women with weapons found in Ukraine and Russia definitely belonged to fighters who could use bow and arrow and other weapons if necessary, these warriors did not necessarily fight on horseback, indeed according to Elena Fialko they almost never did. Except in a few cases neither did they use swords or other kind of close-contact weaponry, and probably for that reason, little armour has been found in the graves and not one helmet. So far these women's graves have always been found alongside those of men, proving that they did not belong to an all-female society. Greek colonists might well have come across such women, either skirmishing with their men-folk in war-bands or swaggering down the streets of Greek outpost towns on the Black Sea coast such as Panticapaeum (now Kerch) or Chersonesus (near Sevastopol), and they would have looked strikingly different, in their trousers and leather caps, from the women at home. Living in a society where survival depended on adaptability, they would be physically strong and capable of exercising authority. Maybe they offer half an explanation for the Amazons, but I do not think they are the full story. They were free and independent as nomadic women have to be, but they were not exactly the ' "golden-shielded, silver-sworded, man-loving, male-child slaughtering Amazons" whom Hellanicus wrote about.
To track down the other elements in the Amazons we have to look elsewhere, to go back in time to the age they were supposed to have lived in, the Bronze Age and the place they were supposed to inhabit, the fabled city of Themiscyra. And to get there we must go via the tangled threads of the women-only mystery traditions of Greece, and the goddess whom the Amazons worshipped, Artemis.
[The above is a brief edited extract from On the Trail of the Women Warriors - the Amazons in Myth and History by Lyn Webster Wilde. To find out more about the book and to read reviews, visit www.Amazon.com or Lyn's site at www.womanwarrior.com. For more material about Jeannine Davis-Kimball's work visit her website at www.csen.org.]