At a gathering some time ago, I had an interesting conversation about the historical reality behind Wonder Woman and how the knowledge of historical Amazons is bolstered by Eurasian archaeology. This led to my plan to create a new video to complement the two I made and posted on YouTube of the Scythians (click these links if you want to see them, you won’t be disappointed! Scythians 1, Scythians 2). I wanted to finish it earlier this summer but it’s still in the works as my gift to the Valkyries out there who are as intrigued as I am by the historical reality behind things that once seemed to only be fantasy. It’s that kind of magical world. It’s also been that kind of year. I’ve dodged a lot of bullets and am still wiping roadkill off my windshield, but I’m no worse for wear. In fact, I’m better 🙂
If I were an Amazon I wouldn’t be complaining about my year, they were made of sterner stuff. The Amazons are reputed to have originated in the Caucasus Mountains and settled later on the banks of the Thermodon River in Asia Minor where they founded the town of Themiscyra. The Greeks considered a Black Sea island dedicated to Aries off the coast of Turkey to have been an Amazonian sanctuary. That may just be a legend, but archaeologists have found hundreds of women’s graves in the steppe grasslands of Russia and Ukraine at the time of Classical and Hellenistic Greece containing weapons, scale armor, horses, and male and female sacrifices that show women fighters were prominent in the elite across the region around the Black Sea and beyond, not just Asia Minor or one island sanctuary.
The Greek view of the Amazons is odd considering that their first trading colonies were along the Black Sea in the areas they inhabited. It seems like they would have had more accurate knowledge of warrior women among the Scythians and Sakas in the Eurasian steppes, but of course we only have what made it into written accounts, and only a fraction of what was written survives. Because Greek writers at least heard something about steppe women with what they considered to be masculine roles, they imagined that they rejected men and were dedicated man killers, that they even cut off their own breasts to rid themselves of female parts of their own bodies. We have no way to judge the truth of that and it may be pure fiction. As far as being man killers, I’m sure they were man killers, woman killers, Siberian tiger killers… In archaeology, burials of couples are frequently judged to be of partners or lovers, and there are plenty of kurgans with warrior women accompanied by male (and female) consorts. Amazons were as much man lovers as they were man killers.
I looked quickly at the archaeological news, and found that recent genetic testing of archaeological remains shows that about 1/3 of elite graves in the Russian, Ukrainian, and Central Asian steppes from about 900-200 B.C.E. are of females. This is far greater than previously thought. Earlier many of these remains had been judged to be males due to gender stereotypes and because they contained weapons. Whether they called themselves Amazons or not, warrior women were ubiquitous during the Iron Age period in these areas.
A type of person or archaeological site, like kurgan, only goes so far in giving us a sense of who the Amazons were. Fascinating linguistic research has uncovered the names of a number of these women, confirming that at least some originated in the Caucasus. Adrienne Mayor and others have done research on Amazons’ personal names in Graeco-Roman art and literature. A number (Hippolyte, Antiope, and Penthesilea) are known from mythology but others have been recorded on Greek ceramics. We have no way of knowing how many are actual names or made up by the artists, but Greek transliteration of names in foreign tongues strongly suggests many are real.
A number of these names contain the Greek root for horse (hipp), reflecting Scythian/Amazonian love of horses and equestrianism. According to Mayor, they could be Greek translations of barbarian names. Here are some examples: Philippis (Loves Horses), Alkippe (Powerful Horse), Melanippe (Black Mare), Hippomache (Horse Warrior), Ainippe (Swift Horse), Hippothoe (Mighty Mare), Hippolyte (Releases the Horses), Xanthippe (Palomino), and Hipponike (Victory Steed).
Still others refer to archery. The most substantial account of the Scythians, Book 4 of the Histories of Herodotus, describes the guerilla tactics the Scythians used against the Persians, riding away from the enemy on horseback, then turning around and showering them with arrows that had bronze points designed to whistle when shot, striking fear and confusion into the hearts of their enemies. These are some Amazon names Mayor collected associated with archery: Toxaris (Archer); Toxoanassa (Archer Queen), Toxis (Arrow); Toxophone (Whizzing Arrow), Toxophile (Loves Arrows), and Oistrophe (Twisting Arrow). Still others are connected with warfare, weapons, armor, and equality with men.
In addition to Greek names, linguist John Colarusso, an expert on languages such as Circassian, Abkhazian, Ossetian, and Ubykh from the Caucasus Mountains, has connected other names to this region where the titan Prometheus is reputed to have been bound and tortured by Zeus. This gives credence to the idea that at least some of the Amazons originated from the area of these mountains that form a border between northern Eurasia and the Near East. Translated, these names include Princess, Don’t Fail, and Hot Flanks (Kepes in ancient Circassian), probably with erotic connotations. Colarusso worked on the names without benefit of seeing the art on the vases on which they are found, lending confidence to the accuracy of his findings. Caucasus languages on ancient Greek ceramics include a vase known as the “Goose Play Vase” in the Metropolitan Museum of Art dating to 400 B.C.E., which depicts a scene involving a Scythian policeman and a dead goose in a basket. On the vase, some characters speak decipherable Greek phrases, but the policeman says something that sounds like “noraretteblo,” meaningless in Greek. Colarusso, blind to the scene on the vase, translated the phrase into “This sneak thief steals from the man over there” in ancient Circassian.
One of the things I love about this topic is that the national symbol of Kazakhstan is one of these burials previously named the Golden Man, now the Golden Warrior. The skeletal remains from the burial were crushed when found in the late 1960s and could not be assigned to a sex using the skeletal metrics archaeologists rely on. The body was buried in golden armor. There is no reason not to think it was female any less than male. And it had a tall, pointed felt cap like many female burials, with intricate gold ornamentation. It is likely that the national symbol of Kazakhstan is an Amazon.
With nearly 100,000 views of each, a lot of people have enjoyed my videos of the Scythians, and even commented on the corrupt Easter eggs I put in them to keep my former students on their toes (no, barbari etc. does not mean bearded, even if some Medieval scholars held that belief – if you caught that you can count yourself more clever by half than the average armchair scholar 🙂 ). Even fewer (except those students who saw my talks about Captain America, and lectures and assignments about Robert E. Howard’s Conan) know about my interest in how science fiction, fantasy, film, and comic books color our perceptions of history and archaeology. If that’s intriguing to you, here are my videos about Conan that have periodically been yanked by YT because of the use of copyrighted material. However, they fall within fair use, are for non-profit, educational use only, and I give pretty ample credits – freedom prevails and you can watch them now:
The new Amazons/Wonder Woman video will be like an amalgam of the kind of content in the Scythian and Conan videos – real history and archaeology with some compelling scholarly imagery, with a lot intelligently lifted from comics and film. I’m particularly interested in the secret life of Wonder Woman’s creator, the psychologist William Moulton Marston, and his theories of domination and submission that colored his creations on the 4-color page. You can be sure that will be there too!