“The images of myth are reflection of the spiritual potentialities in every one of us. Through contemplating these, we evoke their powers in our own lives.”
—Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
The credibility of women warriors described in myths and legends is supported by not only historical accounts, but also by recent archaeological excavations which provide evidence of the status, power, and position of women in ancient warlike societies, many of which had been considered patriarchal. These ancient women played dynamic roles as advisors, priestesses, wives, mothers, and warriors—partners with men striving to hold the foundation of their societies together.
Below will be the first of a series of myths, historical accounts, and archaeological evidence of ancient women warriors—beginning with the Amazons.
Ancient Greek literature and mythology abound with tales of fierce women warriors. In the Iliad, the epic poem about the legendary siege of Troy by the Greeks in the twelfth century BC, Homer called them Amazons, “the equal of men.” Fighting on the side of the Trojans, these female warriors were led by the courageous and beautiful queen Penthesilea. In a battle, Achilles impaled the queen by his spear. But as she lay dying, he removed her helmet and was smitten by her beauty.
Various accounts of Amazons describe these women as “virgins fearless in battle,” and “the daughters of Ares armed with iron.”
Classical Greek History
The Greek historian, Herodotus, recounted tales of warrior women riding the steppes of modern Southern Russia. While the Greeks called these women Amazons, the Scythians, another nomadic tribe, referred to them as Oirpoata, “killers of men.”
In one tale, the Greeks defeated the Amazons in a battle at Thermodon (now Terme, Turkey) and set sail with three ships of female captives. The cunning women seized control of the vessels and tossed their Greek captors into the Black Sea. Unfortunately, the ship wrecked on the north Black Sea coast and the women had to battle with Scythian warriors. When the Scythians examined the corpses of the fallen enemy, they realized they were women. In awe of their female adversaries, the Scythians reasoned these fierce women could bear formidable children. Eventually, the two groups intermarried, but the Amazons refused to be assimilated into the Scythian population. The eventual progeny of these intermarriages became known as Sauromatae to the Greeks.
Herodotus concluded the Sauromatian women, “ride a-hunting with their men or without them; they go to war, and wear the same dress as the men. In regard to marriage, it is the custom that no virgin weds till she has slain a man of the enemy.”
For centuries, Herodotus’ account was considered nothing more than legend without any credibility. However, in the 1950s, Russian archaeologists began excavating sixth-century BC kurgans (burial mounds) and discovered women’s graves containing weapons, armor and riding gear. In 1980, the German archaeologist Renate Rolle (1989) took a closer look at women’s status among the ancient nomads and reported that approximately 20% of Scythian graves excavated in the lower Volga region belonged to women—with bows and arrows the most prevalent weapons.
Jeannine Davis-Kimball, Ph.D. (2002) reported evidence from the Pokrovka excavations that women from the Sauromatian and early Sarmatian tribes were warriors. One burial site was that of a female warrior, thirteen to fourteen years old, who was in high standing with her tribespeople—she may have been a young priestess as well as a warrior. The skeleton suggests this young female warrior died from battle-inflicted wounds. Pigments of charcoal and colored ores discovered at these sites suggest these nomadic tribes either body painted or tattooed their bodies—these designs held special powers.
Only when egalitarian power shifted to patriarchal empires, kingships, and priesthoods were women purged from position of influence and relegated to subservient roles. The heritage of influential ancient women deserves to be more openly discussed. The images of these women in myths and legends are a reflection of the power that we can evoke in our modern lives.
Davis-Kimball, Jeannine, 2002. Warrior women: An archaeologist’s search for history’s hidden heroines. New York: Warner Books, 2002
Rolle, Renate, 1989. The world of the Skythians. Trans. F.G. Walls, Berkeley: University of California Press. Originally published in German in 1980.