Some 2,500 years ago, the Greeks had a big Amazon moment.
Warrior women who gloried in their freedom rode into Western culture in the myths, artwork and histories of classical antiquity. On horseback, shooting bows, swinging battle-axes, hurling spears and dying heroically in battle, they were wildly popular subjects on painted Greek vases. Bold Amazons also decorated the Parthenon frieze, crockery given to newlyweds, men's drinking cups and women's jewelry boxes. Little Greek girls even played with clay Amazon dolls with movable arms and legs.
Every man, woman and child knew the tales: How Hercules fought Queen Hippolyta for her precious war belt, how Antiope was kidnapped by Theseus, how Achilles and Penthesilea dueled to the death outside the walls of Troy. From labels on ancient vases, oral legends and historical documents, more than 130 Amazon names survive.
And for ancient Greeks, Amazons had a life beyond legend. Greek historians reported on the equestrian mastery, the martial skills
and the passionate love affairs of women
warriors living in Scythia, the Greek name
for the vast territory around and beyond the Black Sea. These “Amazons,” as fearsome and courageous as their men, belonged to “warlike tribes with no fixed abodes,” marveled one Greek writer, “they live free and unconquered — so savage that even the women take part in war!”
Until recently, modern historians dismissed such reports. But the Greeks weren't making it up. The women didn't live in an all-female world or slice off their breasts the better to shoot a bow (that part the Greeks did make up). But there is compelling evidence that in the 7th century BC, Greek colonists and traders encountered astonishingly independent warrior women, members of diverse but culturally related nomadic tribes that were distinguished by gender equality and that ranged across the steppes of Eurasia from 700 BC to AD 300.
Beginning in the 1940s in Ukraine, south Russia, Caucasia and Central Asia, archaeologists have uncovered grave mounds — called kurgans — containing human remains and artifacts of the steppe cultures. Until the advent of DNA testing, all skeletons discovered with “masculine” grave goods were routinely identified as male. Today, overwhelming genetic evidence from hundreds of kurgans indicates that at least one-third of Scythian women died as active fighters.
They were interred with spears, swords, battle-axes and quivers full of arrows. Many of the armed females bear war injuries, just like their male counterparts: arrows embedded in bones, ribs slashed in sword fights, and skull wounds from pointed battle-axes. Some skeletons show clear evidence of a lifetime of hard riding and hands shaped by the heavy use of a bow. Bioarchaeologists can even determine whether the women were in motion, fighting face to face on foot or on horseback when they died.
The graves also reveal that Scythian women, like Scythian men, wore trousers, tunics and boots. Babies were buried with both
sexes. Males and females received the same burial honors: sacrificed horses, golden ornaments, hemp-smoking kits and a last meal — fermented mare's milk and a hunk of horse meat impaled on a wooden plate with an iron knife.
What made the Scythians such dedicated egalitarians? Survival. They lived rugged lives in a harsh landscape, always on the move, raiding and fending off hostile tribes. Everyone was a stakeholder; everyone had to contribute. Children also were trained for battle. The youngest warriors, girls and boys, buried with weapons and armor, were 10 to 14 years old when they died. And the Scythians developed a great equalizer: the combination of horses and archery. Astride a horse, armed with a bow and arrows, a woman could be just as fast and deadly as a man.
For the Greeks, a gender-neutral social order was fascinating. Greek society was essentially settled, urban. Greek women and girls led restricted, indoor lives, weaving and minding children. Greece may have been the cradle of democracy, but aside from their myths, gender equality never got much traction. Perhaps it's telling that the Greek mythic scenarios invariably doomed all Amazons to defeat and death at the hands of great male heroes.
The Scythians didn't have it easy. The steppe cultures were subjected to incredible pressures — imperial conquest, wars and hardship wiped out or relocated entire peoples and erased their languages, histories and ways of life. And yet, just as the mythic Amazon Queen Hippolyta “survived” death at the hands of Hercules, vestiges of the old egalitarian order persist to this day in Mongolia, Siberia, Kazakhstan and other lands where women still drink fermented mare's milk, ride horses, shoot arrows, hunt with eagles, give counsel in decisions and rise to leadership positions.
Which brings us to the 21st century's own Amazon moment.
Like the ancient Greeks, Americans today are fascinated by heroic superwomen: Katniss Everdeen of “The Hunger Games” strides at the head of long line of female heroes from Wonder Woman to Marvel Comic's brand-new hammer-throwing female Thor. And like the Scythians, Americans today see egalitarianism — extending even to women in combat — as a matter of common sense.
And yet, in too many places women remain violently oppressed. And even in some of the most forward-thinking nations, the battle for equality remains incomplete. Thousands of years after the Greeks and Scythians — and despite our heroic female idols and civil rights — we have yet to fully achieve what the mythic and historical Amazons portend: a world in which women are truly the equals of men in every domain.
But at least we no longer require that Amazons die in the last act.
Adrienne Mayor is a research scholar in classics and the history of science at Stanford University. She is the author of "The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World."