“According to a recent survey, men say the first thing they notice about a woman is their eyes, and women say the first thing they notice about men is they’re a bunch of liars” – Anonymous
Katherine Hepburn once mused, “Sometimes I wonder if men and women really suit each other. Perhaps they should live next door and just visit now and then”. Ms. Hepburn probably never suspected that she was succinctly espousing the social philosophy of Classical Antiquity’s first organized feminist movement, the fierce and formidable Amazons, a nation of all-female warriors reported to have flourished during the Greek Dark Ages (roughly 1100-800 B.C.). The Amazons were a force to be reckoned with, often doing battle with the ancient Greeks, and popping up at significant events such as the Trojan War (e.g. Amazon Queen Penthesilea is killed by Achilles at Troy). By the time of Greek historian Herodotus (5th Century B.C.) there was a great deal of confusion as to who the Amazons were, and where they hung their hats, and by Late Antiquity (2nd – 8th Century A.D.), any time female warriors popped up on the battlefield, some over-eager historian rushed to declare them a remnant population of Amazons. The popular classical etymology for the word “Amazon” is that it derives from the Greek a-mazos (“without breast”), as the common mythology declared that the Amazons cut or burned off their own right breasts for steadier archery, basically maiming themselves in the interest of becoming more effective killing machines. Like I said, fierce. A few other scholars have proposed the term actually derives from the old Iranian phrase ama-janah (“virility-killing”), which is likely how your average Greek hoplite felt when faced with an Amazon. Classical scholars were curiously obsessed with how a nation composed entirely of women managed to reproduce in staggeringly large numbers, enough to repeatedly field substantial armies, and tackled this research question with great passion, determining that the whole arrangement was oddly successful due to the special relationship the Amazons maintained with a neighboring all-male tribe called the Gargareans (or Gargarenses), who would periodically meet with the Amazons for a few evenings of wild, anonymous partying, the ostensible goal of which was to beget more Amazons. Greek geographer Strabo (64 B.C. – 24 A.D.) laid out the situation in his opus Geographica.
The Amazons, also, are said to live in the mountains above Albania. Now Theophanes, who made the expedition with Pompey and was in the country of the Albanians, says that the Gelae and the Legae, Scythian people, live between the Amazons and the Albanians, and that the Mermadalis River flows there, midway between these people and the Amazons. But others, among whom are Metrodorus of Scepsis and Hypsicrates, who themselves, likewise, were not unacquainted with the region in question, say that the Amazons live on the borders of the Gargarians, in the northerly foothills of those parts of the Caucasian Mountains which are called Ceraunian; that 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 practice 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; that they also use bow and sagaris and light shield, and make the skins of wild animals serve as helmets, clothing, and girdles; but that they have two special months in the spring in which they go up into the neighbouring mountain which separates them and the Gargarians. The Gargarians also, in accordance with an ancient custom, go up thither to offer sacrifice with the Amazons and also to have intercourse with them for the sake of begetting children, doing this in secrecy and darkness, any Gargarian at random with any Amazon; and after making them pregnant they send them away; and the females that are born are retained by the Amazons themselves, but the males are taken to the Gargarians to be brought up; and each Gargarian to whom a child is brought adopts the child as his own, regarding the child as his son because of his uncertainty (Strabo, Geography, Book 11, Ch. 5:1).
The Amazons were said to have first formed their kingdom on the southern shore of the Black Sea (modern day Turkey, near Pontus), and may have scrapped with the Hittites in 1200 B.C., and after concluding that men were generally more trouble than they were worth, declared it illegal for males to reside or engage in sexual intercourse in the territories controlled by the Amazons. This may seem a bit severe, but anybody who has dated in their lifetime is no doubt pondering the eternal wisdom of such a strategy at this very moment. Of course, by the time Greeks got busy scribbling down ethnographic details about their neighbors, mostly in the interest of celebrating the unique awesomeness of being Greek, nobody could actually find the Amazons, although rumors of their current disposition abounded, usually locating them somewhere in the Caucuses, essentially the border between Europe and Asia (in modern Russia between the Black and Caspian Seas).
A nation of heroines was certainly never found by the Greeks on the Thermodon. On the other hand, they received accounts of the warlike queens of the Saces and Massagetse, of Zarinaea, Sparethra, and Tomyris, who fought against the Medes and Persians; and on the coasts of the Black Sea, in the colonies of the Milesians, they heard of the riding, the archery, and hunting of the women of the Sauromatee. Hence the Greeks resolved to make the Amazons the ancestors of the Sarmatians. They were represented as taking ship from the Thermodon across the Black Sea to the coast of the Mseotis, because here, in the Crimea, on the “promontory of the maiden,” a cruel maiden goddess, who was also called Artemis Tauropolus by the Greeks, was worshipped. Herodotus, and after him Ephorus, tells us that the Amazons fled over the Pontus from the Thermodon, and landed on the shore of the Mseotis. Here they took the young men among the Scythians, who, according to Herodotus, were settled between the mouths of the Danube and the Don, as their husbands, and with them marched eastwards over the Tanais (Don), beyond which river and north of the Caucasus lay, according to Herodotus, the dwellings of the Sauromatse, whom later writers call the Sarmatians. Hence the Sarmatian women still preserved the customs of the Amazons; they carried bows and javelins, and wore the same clothing as the men, sat on horseback, and rode with or without their husbands to the chase or to battle, and no maiden married till she had slain an enemy; “so that some never married at all, because they were unable to satisfy this rule.” The language of the Sauromatae was the same as the language of the Scythians, but they spoke it badly, because the Amazons had never perfectly learned it. These statements, and especially the assertion that the Sarmatian women fought as long as they were maidens, were repeated by Greek writers in other respects very trustworthy in the fifth and fourth century B.C. Others also maintained that the women were rulers among the Sarmatians…When at a later time Pompey fought in the Caucasus, and women were found among the wounded, it was thought that the real Amazons were at last found; and the story was now told that the Amazons dwelt northward of the Gelen (in Ghilan), on the southern foot of the Caucasus. In order to solve the difficulty of their propagation of the race, the story was invented that for two months in the spring they met the Gargareans a neighbouring tribe on the mountains by night, and associated with them, as accident might determine. The boys were then sent to the Gargareans, who brought them up in common; the daughters were retained by the Amazons (Duckner, 1877, p557-559).
Strangely, independent verification of the existence of the Amazons can be found in China’s 7th Century A.D. Ta-t’ang-hsi-yu-chi (“Records of the Western Regions of the Great T’ang Dynasty”), an account of the western frontiers of Tang Dynasty China, much of which was believed to have been derived from older Sanskrit texts. Tang scholars were equally puzzled by the existence of an all-female nation, which they suggested was located near what they referred to as Fu-lin, which many historians have concluded was a reference to Syria (or at least the far reaches of the eastern Roman Empire).
According to the Hsin t’ang-shu (ch. 221, lieh-chuan 146 s, p. 6), an island in the south-west of Fu-lin is inhabited by a tribe called Hsi-nu (“western women”), who are all females. “The country contains many precious articles and is a dependency of Fu-lin. The rulers (chun-chang) of Fu-lin send males to them every year to couple with them. It is their custom not to bring up male children they have born.” The same authority (ch. 221, lieh-chuan I46A, p. 6), speaking of the Tung-nu (“eastern women”) in Central Asia, says: “On the western sea there are likewise women with a female government, which is the cause of these [in Central Asia] being called eastern women.” A parallel passage is contained in the Ta-t’ang-hsi-yu-chi, the account of Hsuan Chuang’s journeys, chiefly derived from Sanskrit sources, and completed in A.D. 648 i.e. several centuries before the compilation of the Hsin-t’ang-shu. One is, in the face of the identity of this account (as well as of part of what the Hsin-t’ang-shu says about Persia) with the text of Hsuan Chuang’s work, in a temptation to assume that much of the information received in China regarding Fu-lin, perhaps also regarding the ancient Ta-ts’in, has come thither through Indian sources translated by Buddhist linguists,—a view lately put forward by Dr. Edkins. There is certainly no doubt that, Hsuan Chuang’s being the older work and not a compilation like the T’ang-shu, the account of the Amazons must have been derived from it (Hirth, 1885, p200-202).
By the time the European Middle Ages rolled around, and lacking any Amazons to ask directly, historiographers came to the conclusion that the Amazons had migrated to what was in those days being called Scythia, and more specifically, Sarmatia (roughly Ukraine and Southern Russia), identifying certain cultural practices among an Iranian ethnic group called the Sarmatians (recorded as thriving between about the 5th Century B.C. to the 4th Century A.D.), as curious vestiges of Amazonian derivation.
The Sarmatians, though without fixed habitations, were possessed of a certain social organization, being divided, at any rate, into nobles and vassals, many of whom were only slaves. They were also separated into exogamous tribes, for marriage within the tribe was regarded as incest, and punishable with death, perhaps by drowning, as was recently the case. Children of both sexes were not brought up at home, but were transferred to the care of foster-parents, and only returned to the parental hearth when they had attained the age of manhood or womanhood. Though the women were ferocious enough towards tribal enemies their status at home was very low, little better than that of a slave, at any rate after marriage. All outdoor labor, such as ploughing and reaping, tending sheep, cattle, and horses, was performed entirely by them, and in defense of their charge, when attacked, they fought as savagely as the men. Unmarried women—for the care of herding fell chiefly on them—dressed like men, and by reason of their duties were armed with bows and javelins. Perhaps the belief that a woman could not bear courageous children, and was unworthy of becoming a mother, unless she herself had given proof of her own courage by slaying at least one tribal enemy, gave rise to the usage that a girl might not marry till she had killed one, perhaps three individuals. And reciprocally it is far from improbable that among a race of warriors a man might not take a wife till he had shown his bravery in battle by bringing home at least one head. The whole duty of man lay in fighting, robbing, avenging the death of relatives, man stealing, and, for those that lived on the coast, in piracy. Still, the wild, untutored instinct that glorified acts like these was tempered by a sentiment that made a virtue of generosity and hospitality on the part of the nobles, and demanded respect towards old age from all ranks of society. Largely on account of their vocations, but partly from a superstitious dislike of the men, with their manly instincts, to be seen much in company with women, the sexes lived on the whole rather separate lives, and intercourse between married couples was of a clandestine nature. At certain annual festivals in honor of some divinity celebrated in sacred groves, where sacrifice was made, accompanied by games and athletic sports, promiscuous intercourse was carried on after dark. It may be the worship in spring of certain deities demanded it as a necessary rite (Abercromby, 1891, p177-178).
Still other researchers identify inherited traits of the Amazons among another ethnic groups in the Northern Caucuses called the Circassians, a formerly independent mountainous country on the northeastern shore of the Black Sea. The Circassians were ultimately driven out into the Ottoman Empire during 19th Century culminations of a hundred years of Russian attempts to conquer the northern Caucuses. Indeed, some cultural practices of the Circassians that were not shared by neighbors such as the “binding of the breasts” were seen as vaguely reminiscent of the folkloric mutilations of the Amazons.
In their amusements, the youth of both sexes converse freely with each other, as the Circassian women in general are neither confined nor reserved. In their courtships, however, the strictest attention is paid to the rank of the parties; and no noble dares court the daughter of a prince! Among the higher orders, some very singular domestic customs prevail, which are detailed by Pallas, bearing a striking analogy to those which Strabo relates of the Gargarenses and Amazons. Their female offspring are nourished in the most sparing manner, that they may acquire a slender and elegant form. The Circassian girls generally, between the tenth and twelfth years of their age, are invested with a broad girdle of untanned leather, tightly sewed round the waist, which they are obliged to wear till they marry: it is the office of the bridegroom’, to cut this ‘girdle of chastity,’ with his dagger. Over the chemise is worn a laced jacket, with a petticoat, open in front, and reaching to the ankles, to which, in the married women, are added wide drawers. The head-dress is a cap, nearly resembling that worn by the men (Conder, 1831, p279-280).
Similarly, other learned chaps noted a strict and persistent segregation of the sexes among the Circassians, largely atypical for the region. Despite the fact that the Circassians seem to be the descendants of Adhyge peoples who occupied the northern Caucuses as far back as 8000 B.C., the fact that Circassian women were reputed to be especially beautiful also lent them a certain mythological swagger, no doubt contributing to the hypothesis that their peculiar cultural complexes came down to them from the Amazons. There are still a little under four million ethnic Circassians in the general region, but they as of yet have not revealed any secrets, keeping any direct Amazonian connections on the down low.
The foregoing description of the Circassians, as far as relates to the free spirit of their government, their general modes of life, and many of their particular customs, is equally applicable to all the mountaineers of Caucasus, and probably to every uncivilized nation upon earth. But two of their customs seem peculiar to themselves. The one, by which the husbands are prohibited, under pain of infamy, from publicly convening with their wives, so that the two sexes are divided, as it were, into two distinct communities —- the other, by which the education of all male children is entrusted to strangers in preference to the parents, the females only being brought up by their mothers. It is not easy to conceive from what distant nation these strange regulations can be derived; and if we suppose them to have existed at an early period in mount Caucasus, they may perhaps account in some measure for the fabulous description of the Amazons and Gargarenses, who are placed by ancient geographers in the country now occupied by the Circassians (Black, 1788, p383).
Given the apparent proximity of Amazon influences to Greater Russia, its no surprise that Marxism mined Amazon mythologies for inquiries into the nature of the division of sexes, no doubt with an eye towards reconstructing historical explanations for the division of labor. In re-interpreting 19th Century academic puzzlement over matriarchal societies in Africa, they offered a curious socialist interpretation of why the Amazons had formed an exclusively female empire in the first place, and how they came to establish their lively arrangements with the Gargareans.
Of course it is now easy to see why previous authors could never understand the phenomenon of the African Amazonia. They lacked the clue of these sociologic principles (here propounded for the first time): (1) The disruption of primitive communist society usually results in the division of the sexes into hostile groups each contending for supremacy; (2) Where the males are victorious which is the usual case, there they establish a hero society, a patriarchal society, and finally a nation; (3) Where the females are victorious, as they were in Africa, they establish a political Matriarchate as opposed to a patriarchate; (4) Wherever a female group does not conquer the male group, or is not itself conquered, there they must live alone, manless, mating only with men of friendly tribes (as Strabo records of the Themiscyran Amazons and the Gargarenses) (Kanter, 1926, p98-99).
The odd relationship of the Amazons and Gargareans has also been interpreted as the last remaining expression of ancient Astarte worship in the Near East, supposed to be consistent with orgiastic fertility rituals.
The Babylonian trinity consisted of Anu, the Creator; Sin, the sun god; and Ishtar, the moon goddess, who wore the crescent. As the planet was credited with influence on fertility generally, we have one reason for certain specialized sacrificial ceremonies connected with the worship of that goddess in her many manifestations, from the grim Ishtar to the more gentle, though often cruel, Venus. Some hint of this we have in relation to the Amazons of the Caucasus, who, according to Strabo, spent two months of each spring on a neighboring mountain which formed the boundary between their own territory and that of the Gargarenses, who also ascended the mountain, so that, in obedience to ancient custom, they might perform common sacrifices. They met “in secret and in darkness,” as might be expected from worshippers of Astarte (Rothery, 1910, p193).
Relationships are tough. They always have been. Your modern workaholic professional discovers this very quickly. There’s too much to do and too little time to do it in, and sparing a moment for a little intimacy is especially difficult with our fancy communications technology and approved principles of ambient availability. Hence we are turning back to more structured attempts at romantic encounters, from match.com to organized speed dating. Imagine the poor Amazon who not only had to plow the fields, but also raise the kids, run the government, and occasionally beat down an army of uppity Greeks. There just aren’t enough hours in the day. They didn’t have time for your infantile hang-ups and oedipal complexes, and for this the Amazons were branded as viscious barbarians by the Greeks, who obviously couldn’t take rejection. Things haven’t changed much, as observed by actress Marlo Thomas 2000 years later, when she noted, “A man has to be Joe McCarthy to be called ruthless. All a woman has to do is put you on hold”.
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Hirth, Friedrich, 1845-1927. China And the Roman Orient: Researches Into Their Ancient And Mediæval Relations As Represented In Old Chinese Records. Leipsic: G. Hirth, 1885.
Kanter, Emanuel. The Amazons: a Marxian Study. Chicago: C. H. Kerr & company, 1926.
Rothery, Guy Cadogan, 1863-1940. The Amazons In Antiquity And Modern Times. London: F. Griffiths, 1910.
Simcox, E. J. Primitive Civilizations: Or, Outlines of the History of Ownership In Archaic Communities. London: S. Sonnenschein & co., 1894.
Strabo. The Geography of Strabo: With an English Translation by Horace Leonard Jones. Based In Part Upon the Unfinished Version of John Robert Sitlington Sterrett. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1917.
Abercromby, J. “An Amazonian Custom in the Caucasus”. Folklore v2 (June). Folklore Society (Great Britain). [London: Folklore Society], 1891.
Absolutely first rate article. Great depth of insight and attention to sources! As someone who has been trying to unravel the pithy core of Amazon myths this treatment has both reinforced my own findings and introduced connections I had not made yet. Thank you!
Cheers. Happy to be of service.