Warrior Women. Amazons. Spartans.

— Amazons
— antianeirai
— Spartan women

1. Herodotus, Histories (5th c. BCE) 4.113-114:

[4.113] At midday the Amazons would scatter and go apart from each other singly or in pairs, roaming apart for greater comfort. The Scythians noticed this and did likewise; and as the women wandered alone, a young man laid hold of one of them, and the woman did not resist but let him do his will; [2] and since they did not understand each other’s speech and she could not speak to him, she signed with her hand that he should come the next day to the same place and bring another youth with him (showing by signs that there should be two), and she would bring another woman with her. The youth went away and told his comrades; and the next day he came himself with another to the place, where he found the Amazon and another with her awaiting them. When the rest of the young men learned of this, they had intercourse with the rest of the Amazons.

[4.114] Presently they joined their camps and lived together, each man having for his wife the woman with whom he had had intercourse at first. Now the men could not learn the women’s language, but the women mastered the speech of the men;  and when they understood each other, the men said to the Amazons, “We have parents and possessions; therefore, let us no longer live as we do, but return to our people and be with them; and we will still have you, and no others, for our wives.” To this the women replied: “We could not live with your women; for we and they do not have the same customs. We shoot the bow and throw the javelin and ride, but have never learned women’s work; and your women do none of the things of which we speak, but stay in their wagons and do women’s work, and do not go out hunting or anywhere else. So we could never agree with them. If you want to keep us for wives and to have the name of fair men, go to your parents and let them give you the allotted share of their possessions, and after that let us go and live by ourselves.” The young men agreed and did this.

2. Attic black-figure vase (amphora) by Exekias, c. 530 BCE. Achilles (left) kills the Amazonian queen, Penthesilea (right). Image: British Museum.

BM Penthesilea

3. Attic red-figure vase (calyx krater), c. 450 BCE. Battle between Greeks and Amazons. Image: Met Museum.


4. Strabo, Geography (1st c. BCE) 11.5.3:

A peculiar thing has happened in the case of the account we have of the Amazons; for our accounts of other peoples keep a distinction between the mythical and the historical elements; for the things that are ancient and false and monstrous are called myths, but history wishes for the truth, whether ancient or recent, and contains no monstrous element, or else only rarely. But as regards the Amazons, the same stories are told now as in earlytimes, though they are marvellous and beyond belief. For instance, who could believe that an army of women, or a city, or a tribe, could ever be organised without men, and not only be organised, but even make inroads upon the territory of other people, and not only overpower the peoples near them to the extent of advancing as far as what is now Ionia, but even send an expedition across the sea as far as Attica? For this is the same as saying that the men of those times were women and that the women were men. Nevertheless, even at the present time these very stories are told about the Amazons, and they intensify the peculiarity above-mentioned and our belief in the ancient accounts rather than those of the present time.

5. Adrienne Mayor, The Amazons (2016: 19):

“Their [=the Amazons] heroic exploits were imaginary, but their characters and actions arose from a common historical source: warrior cultures of the steppes where nomad horsemen and -women could experience parity at a level almost unimaginable for ancient Hellenes. Myth and reality commingled in the Greek imagination, and as more and more details come to light about Scythian culture, the women of Scythia were explicitly identified as ‘Amazons.’ Today’s archaeological and linguistic discoveries point to the core of reality that lay behind Greek amazon myths.”

6. Mary Beard, Women and Power (2017: 60-62):

“There’s a similar logic in the stories of that mythical race of Amazon women, said by Greek writers to exist somewhere on the northern borders of their world. A more violent and more militaristic lot than the peaceful denizens of Herland [=pp49-51], this monstrous regiment always threatened to overrun the civilised world of Greece and Greek men. An enormous amount of energy has been wasted on trying to prove that these Amazons did once exist, with all the seductive possibilities of a historical society that was really ruled by and for women. Dream on. The hard truth is that the Amazons were a Greek male myth. The basic message was that the only good Amazon was a dead one, or…one that had been mastered in the bedroom. The underlying point was that it was the duty of men to save civilisation from the rule of women.”

7. The Black Sea, Caucasus, and Caspian Sea region. Map by Michele Angel. Map 2.4 in A. Mayor (2016: 42). Image: @amayor 3rd Jan. 2017.


8. Adrienne Mayor, The Amazons (2016: 20):

“The Scythians themselves left no written records. Much of our knowledge about them comes from the art and literature of Greece and Rome. But the Scythians did leave spectacular physical evidence of their way of life for archaeologists to uncover…Archaeology shows that Amazons were not simply symbolic figments of the Greek imagination, as many scholars claim. Nor are Amazons unique to Greek culture, another common claim. In fact, Greeks were not the only people to spin tales about Amazon-like figures and warrior women ranging over the vast regions east of the Mediterranean. Other literate cultures, such as Persia, Egypt, India, and China, encountered warlike nomads in antiquity, and their narratives drew on their own knowledge of steppe nomads through alliances, exploration, trade, and warfare.”

9. “Amazon” understood as Greek a + mazos = “without breast” 
9a. Strabo, Geography (1st c. BCE) 11.5.1:

…the Amazons spend the rest of their time off to themselves, performing their several individual tasks, such as ploughing, planting, pasturing cattle, and particularly in training horses, though the bravest engage mostly in hunting on horseback and practise warlike exercises; that the right breasts of all are seared when they are infants, so that they can easily use their right arm for every needed purpose, and especially that of throwing the javelin

9b. “Apollodorus”Library (1st/2nd c. CE) 2.98:

For the Amazons cultivated a manly spirit; whenever they had sex and gave birth, they raised the female children. They would constrict their right breasts so that these would not interfere with throwing a javelin, but allowed their left breasts to grow so they could breastfeed.

10a. Homer, Iliad, 3.188-190. Priam speaking to Helen (see wk 2). 

“For I, too, being their ally, was numbered among them on the day when the Amazons came, the peers of men (Amazones antianeirai). But not even they were as many as are the bright-eyed Achaeans.”

10b. Adrienne Mayor, The Amazons (2016: 22):

“There is something remarkable about Homer’s earliest use of Amazones in the Iliad. The form of the name falls into the linguistic category of ethnic designations in epic poetry (another Homeric example is Myrmidones, the warriors led by Achilles at Troy). This important clue tells us that Amazones was originally a Hellenized name for ‘a plurality, a people,’ as in Hellenes for Greeks and Trooes for the Trojans. The Greeks used distinctive feminine endings (typically –ai) for associations made up exclusively of women, such as Nymphai (Nymphs) or Trooiai for Trojan women. But Amazones does not have the feminine ending that one would expect if the group consisted only of women. Therefore, the name Amazones would originally have been ‘understood as… a people consisting of men and women.’ As classicist Josine Blok points out in her discussion of this puzzle, without the addition of the feminine epithet antianeirai ‘there is no way of telling that this was a people of female warriors.'”

11a. Adrienne Mayor, The Amazons (2016: colour plate 3). Warrior woman’s skeleton, with a large iron dagger in her right hand and two iron arrowheads between her legs, 4th-3rd centuries BCE, necropolis 8, Kurgan 1, burial 6. Photos by James Vedder, Center for the Study of Eurasian Nomads, 1992. Image.


11b. Adrienne Mayor, The Amazons (2016: 64-65):

“Now that modern bioarchaeological methods can determine the sex of skeletons, we know that in some cemetery populations on the steppes armed females represent as many as 37% of the burials…[p64] In the not-too-distant past, archaeologists routinely identified Scythian burials as “male” or “female” based on preconceived notions about the types of grave goods expected for each gender. Weapons and tools were assumed to belong to men, while spindles, jewelry and mirrors were [p65] supposed to be feminine.”

12. Plutarch (1st/2nd c. CE), Sayings of Spartan Women 241

When a woman from Ionia showed vast pride in a bit of her own weaving, which was very valuable, a Spartan woman pointed to her four sons, who were most well-behaved, and said, “Such should be the employments of the good and honourable woman, and it is over these that she should be elated and boastful.

Another, as she handed her son his shield, exhorted him, saying, “Either this or upon this.”

13. Xenophon (4th c. BCE), Constitution of the Spartans 3-4

[3] In other states the girls who are destined to become mothers and are brought up in the approved fashion, live on the very plainest fare, with a most meagre allowance of delicacies. Wine is either withheld altogether, or, if allowed them, is diluted with water. The rest of the Greeks expect their girls to imitate the sedentary life that is typical of handicraftsmen—to keep quiet and do wool-work. How, then, is it to be expected that women so brought up will bear fine children? [4] But Lycurgus thought the labour of slave women sufficient to supply clothing. He believed motherhood to be the most important function of freeborn woman. Therefore, in the first place, he insisted on physical training for the female no less than for the male sex: moreover, he instituted races and trials of strength for women competitors as for men, believing that if both parents are strong they produce more vigorous offspring.