Amazon Women

[Excerpt below is from Chapter 1 of War and Gender]

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War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System
      and Vice Versa

Joshua S. Goldstein
(Cambridge University Press, September 2001)

US Navy gunnery trainers, WWII
[not used in book]

Myths of Amazon matriarchies

The strongest evidence against universalizing today’s gender divisions in war would be to show counter–examples from other times and places, especially female armies (Amazons). What would happen if an entire army were organized primarily using women? How would a society fare if its fighters were mostly, or entirely, female? We do not know, because no evidence shows that anyone has ever tried it. Ancient historians reported that Amazons had once existed, but no longer did. A few modern historians agreed, but despite much effort, no hard evidence has emerged showing that anything close to the mythical Amazon society ever existed.9

The Amazons of Greek myth not only participated in fighting and controlled politics, but exclusively made up both the population and the fighting force. They supposedly lived in the area north of the Black Sea about 700 years before the fifth century BC when the historian Herodotus reports hearing stories about them. According to myth, the Amazons were an all–female society of fierce warriors who got pregnant by neighbor–ing societies’ men and then practiced male infanticide (or sent male babies away). Supposedly they cut off one breast to make shooting a bow and arrow easier, although most artistic renditions do not show this. (The word “Amazon” is no longer thought to derive from “without breast” although the word may have some connection with breasts.) Amazons are an important theme in Greek art, and – in various forms – in subsequent cultural currents throughout history. Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman art incorporated battles with Amazons on a regular basis (see Figure 1.1), including a scene engraved on the west side of the Parthenon.

Figure 1.1 Battle of Greeks and Amazons (sarcophagus). [Alinari/Art Resource, NY.]

The mythical Amazons had their capital in Themiscyra, and were ruled by a series of queens. The Greek hero Heracles, as one of a series of quests, had to capture the sacred girdle of the Amazon queen, Antiope. His army defeated the Amazons and captured the queen’s sister, Hippolyta, whom the Athenian king Theseus married. Later, the Amazons retaliated by attacking Athens with a large army, possibly including allied Scythians (who also lived north of the Black Sea). The months–long battle caused high casualties on both sides, but ultimately the Greeks prevailed. In some accounts, the Amazons also fought against the Greeks in the Trojan War. Some ancient manuscripts added a verse to The Iliad saying that the Amazons under Queen Penthesilea arrived to support the Trojans.10

Herodotus reports that after the Greek victory at Themiscyra, the Greeks took three ships full of captured Amazons back towards Athens, but the Amazons overpowered the Greeks and (not knowing navigation) drifted ashore in Scythian territory. Finding some wild horses inland, they began riding off in search of loot and found themselves battling the Scythians, who were amazed to find afterwards that the Amazons had been women. The Scythians then courted the Amazons, to produce children by such amazing women. (As fellow hunters and plunderers the Scythians were a good match for the Amazons.) This interbreeding succeeded, but the Amazons refused to settle down (relatively speaking) with the Scythians, where women “stay at home in their wagons occupied with feminine tasks” (Herodotus). Instead they invited their new husbands to go off with them to a new place, and that is how the Sauromatian people are supposed to have originated. For Herodotus, this account explained why Sauromatian women go “riding to the hunt on horseback sometimes with, sometimes without their menfolk, taking part in war, and wearing the same sort of clothes as men” and why they “have a marriage law which forbids a girl to marry until she has killed an enemy in battle.”11

The stories Herodotus heard about the Sauromatians may have been exaggerated, but some archaeological evidence from the early Iron Age indicates that nomadic women in the region of the Eurasian steppes – especially near modern–day northern Kazakhstan – rode horses, may have used weapons, and may even have had some degree of political influence, though probably not dominance, in their society. Jeannine Davis–Kimball recently reported that excavations at a Sauromatian site (fourth century BC to second century AD) near the Russia–Kazakhstan border “suggest that Greek tales of Amazon warriors may have had some basis in fact.” Actually, as Davis–Kimball notes, archaeologists in the 1950s had already discovered “that many graves of females contained swords, spears, daggers, arrowheads, and armor” in fourth–century BC graves of nomads in southern Ukraine. These sites would have been much closer to the supposed Amazons that fascinated the Greeks (though still to the east of them). Davis–Kimball’s site is 1,000 miles to the east, so her Sauromatians “cannot have been the same people” as the Amazons.12

In Davis–Kimball’s sites, seven graves of females were found with “iron swords or daggers, bronze arrowheads, and whetstones to sharpen the weapons, suggesting that these seven females were warriors.” One young girl’s bowed legs “attest to a life on horseback” and “she wore a bronze arrowhead in a leather pouch around her neck.” Another woman’s body contained a bent arrowhead, “suggesting that she had been killed in battle.” (I would note that women killed in war might not be combatants.) Since females generally “were buried with a wider variety and larger quantity of artifacts than males,” Davis–Kimball concludes that “females…seem to have controlled much of the wealth.” This seems doubtful, however. Using a variety of objects hardly implies control of wealth.13

Despite the hype about Amazons, Davis–Kimball never suggests that women were the main warriors in this society, but merely that they may have taken to arms to defend their relatives and animals when attacked. Indeed, 40 of the 44 males buried at the site appeared to be warriors, while four males appeared to be other than warriors. But only seven females may have been warriors compared to 28 female graves containing “artifacts typically associated with femininity and domesticity,” and five females who may have been priestesses (graves with altars and ritual objects). If these graves represent a fair sample, something like 90 percent of the men, but only 15–20 percent of the women, took part in war. It is an important case since these percentages of women participation are high, but it is not a case of the majority of women being warriors, or the majority of warriors being women, by far. Furthermore, women buried with horses and spears may indicate that some women fought, at least at times, but does not show that women predominated either in military or political life. The fact that Amazons have not been dug up does not disprove their existence, of course. But absent any real empirical evidence of a matriarchal society of women warriors, the burden of proof is on showing it did exist, not that it could never have existed.14

9 Eller 2000; few: Anderson 1967, 75; De Pauw 1998, 43–48; Kanter 1926, 32; Boulding 1992/I, 218–19; Alpern 1998, 7.

10 Seymour 1965, Trojan 628.

11 In Kleinbaum 1983, 7–8.

12 Davis–Kimball 1997, suggest 45, armor 8, same 48.

13 Davis–Kimball 1997, 47–48; Kleinbaum 1983, 8.

14 Hype: Wilford 1997a; Perlman 1997; Sawyer 1997; Davis–Kimball 1997, artifacts 47; Taylor 1996, 199–205; Fraser 1989, furthermore 18–19.

To book website:
War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System
      and Vice Versa

Joshua S. Goldstein
(Cambridge University Press, September 2001)