A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's up with the Amazons?

November 25, 2003

Dear Straight Dope:

What's the deal with Amazons? I remember something about them cutting off their breasts to improve their archery, but that's about it. Was there any historical basis for them? Have there ever been any fighting armies composed primarily of women? And while we're at it, what if anything do they have with the naming of the Amazon rainforest?

Bibliophage replies:

You might want to do a little research before you jump into bed with an Amazon (assuming you can find one who'll have you). According to some sources, they maimed their mates for life to keep them in line. Of course it all depends on whom you believe. The ancient Greeks weren't consistent about whom the Amazons mated with, where they lived, or even the one thing most people think they know about them: that they cut off their breasts.

The first written mentions of the Amazons come from two epics about the Trojan War, the famous Iliad of Homer and a lesser known poem called the Aethiopis attributed to Arctinus of Miletus. No one is really sure which came first or when either was composed, but the best guess is that both were written in the 8th or 7th century B.C. Amazons are first depicted in art in the 8th century, perhaps a little earlier than in writing.

The Iliad mentions Amazons two or three times in passing. The Trojan king Priam and the Greek hero Bellerophon are both described as having separately fought wars against Amazons a generation or two before the events of the Iliad, both times in Asia Minor. Homer also mentions a tomb at Troy of a woman named Myrine. Later tradition made her an Amazon, but it's doubtful Homer meant her to be one. Homer's Amazons are fighting women, equivalent to men in fighting ability, but he reveals very little else about them. He never comes out and says where the Amazons lived, but since they fought two wars in Asia Minor, it's natural to assume they lived there or nearby.

The other epic poem, the Aethiopis, has been lost, but a summary of it from the 5th century A.D. survives. In the early part of this story about the Ethiopian prince Memnon, at least one Amazon — Penthesilea — fights in the war, on the Trojan side. Achilles defeats her in battle but then (apparently) falls in love with her after she dies. Penthesilea is described as being "of Thracian birth." Thrace was the ancient name for the eastern part of the Balkan peninsula, corresponding to modern Bulgaria and adjacent parts of Greece and Turkey. Thus southernmost Thrace was just across the Dardanelles from Troy.

That's about it for the epics. Neither says anything about the Amazons' mates or any anatomical anomalies. But they do give a general idea of where they lived.

There are no more references to Amazons in writing for a while, but there is evidence from the visual record. The earliest Amazons in art (8th century B.C. onward) are depicted fighting on foot at close quarters with swords and spears, just like Greek (and Trojan) men; but they wear dresses like Greek women. Beginning in the 6th century, they were often depicted not like civilized Greeks but like northern barbarians. They fought with the bow and javelin from horseback, used a half-round or crescent-shaped shield and wore leopard skins, jackets and trousers. These were typical barbarian traits to the Greeks, most closely associated with Thracians and Scythians.

Scythia was the region beyond Thrace, north of the Black Sea and loosely corresponding to modern Ukraine. The Scythians were mounted nomadic herdsmen who entered the region from the east at about the same time Greek traders began visiting that area, in the 7th century B.C. In mid 6th to the early 5th centuries B.C. Amazons are often depicted wearing a distinctive pointed cap. This is sometimes called a Phrygian cap, after a region in Asia Minor, but is really Scythian.

The next written references to Amazons are from the 5th century B.C. The poet Pindar describes the Amazons as archers having fine horses and implies that they live somewhere between Lycia (in Asia Minor) and the Danube (in northernmost Thrace). A little later, the dramatist Aeschylus tells us that long in the past they lived in Scythia but later moved to Themiscrya on the Thermodon River, along the south shore of the Black Sea in modern Turkey. Themiscrya — originally conceived of as a plain but later as a city — is the place most closely associated with the Amazons in ancient times; Aeschylus is the first to connect them with it. Aeschylus is also the first to state explicitly that Amazons had no husbands, calling them "manless."

Writing a few decades later, the historian Herodotus reversed the direction of the Amazonian exodus, saying they started in Themiscrya but were later shipwrecked in Scythia. They eventually married Scythian men, says Herodotus, and settled east of the Don in what is now southern Russia. Their descendants were called the Sauromatians, among whom the women (as well as the men) were warriors. More on the Sauromatians later.

Everyone knows the story of how the Amazons cut off their right breasts so they wouldn't interfere with the use of the bow. Trouble is, the story is a crock — an old crock, but a crock nonetheless. This element of the Amazon myth was invented in the 5th century B.C. The poor Amazons had to start mutilating themselves because some big boob thoughtlessly dabbled in the dark art of etymology without the proper equipment. Hellanicus of Lesbos imagined the name was derived from the Greek prefix a- ("without") and mazos, a variant of mastos ("breast"). He was surely wrong, but his folk etymology is still firmly embedded in the collective consciousness after more than two dozen centuries. There was no hint before his time, either in writing or art, that the Amazons had anything other than usual complement of breasts, so we can safely assume that the one-breasted image we have of them flowed from the (false) etymology and not vice versa.

This proposed "breastless" etymology was widely known in the ancient world after the 5th century B.C. but its supporters did not agree on its exact significance. Did the Amazons destroy one breast or both? Did they cut off the breast after it developed, or cauterize the area before puberty to prevent its growing? Was it done so the breast wouldn't impede drawing a bow or rather throwing a javelin? Or was it so the magical life-force of the breast would be diverted to making the arm stronger? The ancients couldn't agree on any of it. The most common explanation was that it was done so the breast wouldn't get in the way of drawing the bow, but the presence of the right breast doesn't seem to be an insuperable impediment to female archers today.

Some have suggested "Monomazons" as a more appropriate name since (they believe) the women were one-breasted rather than breastless. This misses the point that the true origin of the name almost certainly had nothing to do with breasts. Even in ancient times, the "breastless" etymology was not universally accepted even if it was almost universally known. Even after the ideas of Hellanicus were widely disseminated, Amazons were always depicted with the standard number of breasts in art, such as paintings on vases known as amphorae. Lovely jugs they are too.

An alternative etymology rivaled the "breastless" one in popularity in ancient times, but is not so well known today: a- + maza ("without barley bread"). The idea here is that the Amazons, as barbaric nomads, did not sow fields as the civilized Greeks did, so they were condemned to eat meat instead of grain products. The evidence in favor of this one is no better than the other.

If the word didn't mean "breastless" and it didn't mean "breadless," what did it mean? The ancient Greeks and Romans offered many other etymologies, all speculative, suggesting that the "breastless" etymology just wasn't cutting it. In the last couple hundred years, there has been a revival in the cottage industry of making up new origins for the name. Indeed Amazon has had more proposed etymologies than any other word I know by far. Here's a selection of ancient and modern attempts:

Greek a-massein ("unapproachable"), a-mangion ("manless"), ama-hazo ("with honor"), ama-zoonais ("with belts [for cinching armor]"), ama-zoone ("with belts [for cinching dresses]"), ama-zoosai ("living together"), Amazo-nes ("daughters of [somebody named] Amazo"); Old Iranian hemeh-zen ("all women") or ha-mazan ("warrior"); Caucasian amaze ("youth"); Hebrew ammitz ("strong") or zouheh ("fallen woman"); Mongolian aeme-zaïne ("excellent woman"); Gothic magath ("virgin"); undifferentiated Germanic metze ("slut"); Sanskrit Uma-soona ("children of Uma [an Indian goddess]"); Armenian ama-zon ("children of the moon goddess"); Phoenician am-azon ("mother-lord"); or Slavic omuzhony ("masculine women").

The list goes on. Anybody can do it. All it takes is a shelf-load of ancient-language dictionaries and a predisposition to self-delusion. Which one is the real etymology? Probably none of the above, but the reconstructed Old Iranian ha-mazan ("warriors") has found a surprising amount of support in twentieth-century scholarly works, for reasons I will touch on below.

The main points of the Amazon myth were in place by the end of the 5th century B.C., but over the next millennium many different Greek, Roman, and Byzantine writers--Strabo, Diodorus Siculus, Plutarch, Pausanius, and Apollodorus to name a few--would fill in (or invent) more details. But they differed on those details. Did they keep men as sex-slaves or did they mate with men of neighboring tribes? Did they kill their male children, maim them, or send them to live with their foreign fathers? There was no agreement. These later writers had Amazons living all over the map, from Libya to Colchis (on the Black Sea coast of modern Georgia) to Albania (not the modern country, but an ancient name for a region in modern Azerbaijan) to Bactria (in modern Afghanistan). The two places most closely associated with the Amazons, though, were Themiscrya and the steppe north or northeast of the Black Sea.

That brings us to the question of whether the Amazons were real or just mythological. It's a mystery how the Thermodon in modern Turkey became so closely associated with Amazons. Other than the ancient Greek writers, there is no real evidence of a warrior-woman tribe living near there. Two groups of mounted nomads did live in the area — the Scythians, who moved down from the north, and an earlier wave of nomads called the Cimmerians. There is no good evidence that Cimmerian women were ever warriors, but archaeological evidence unearthed in the Ukraine in the 1950s suggests some Scythian women may have been. However, the evidence dates to the 4th century B.C., by which time Scythia was no longer closely associated with Amazons in the the Greek mind.

A third group of nomadic herdsmen, either an offshoot of the Scythians or a related people, comes closer to filling the bill. As far as we know, they never lived on the Thermodon, but from the 6th to the 4th centuries B.C. they lived east of the Don and north of the Caucasus in modern Russia and Kazakhstan. These were the Sauromatians, whom Herodotus said in the 5th century were the descendants of Amazon women and Scythian men. In their lifestyle and language they were similar to the Scythians, but during the time in question, the place of women in society was different. In the last decade or so, archaeological evidence has been mounting that Herodotus was right about at least some Sauromatian women being warriors. But there is no evidence that they were descendants of a manless tribe of women, from the Thermodon or elsewhere.

Sauromatian men and women alike were interred in kurgans (burial mounds) with mortuary offerings to help the deceased in the afterlife. Most females were buried with stereotypically feminine items such as sewing, weaving, and cooking implements. But a minority of the women, perhaps 20 percent, were buried with grave goods like those of male warriors, who made up 90 percent of male burials. Grave goods of warriors (male and female) include swords, daggers, bows, arrows, sacrificed horses, and sometimes sacrificed people, presumably slaves. In the 4th century, a medical writer we know only as pseudo-Hippocrates claimed that Sauromatian women destroyed their right breasts, but the arachaeological evidence so far does not support this belief. Very likely pseudo-Hippocrates was repeating the "breastless" story of Heraclitus while having in mind the Amazon-Sauromatian connection of Herodotus.

About the 4th century, the Sauromatians gave way — or gave rise — to the similarly-named Sarmatians, who ranged a bit farther east. The two groups were similar in many ways, and women warriors are also found in early Sarmatian burials. Nor were they the only steppe peoples among whom women could be warriors. The PBS series Nova aired the episode "Ice Mummies: Siberian Ice Maiden" about the remains of a 5th century B.C. female warrior of the Pazyryk culture. The Pazyryks were yet another Scythian offshoot, far to the east of the Sarmatians.

So these were the original Amazons, the source of all the myths, right? Probably not. Recall that Amazons were depicted in Greek art and literature from the 8th century, but there is no evidence of women warriors on the Eurasian steppe until about the 6th century. Even if the female warriors were on the steppe earlier, the Greeks would not have made contact with them until they began trading along the north coast of the Black Sea, roughly a century after Amazons began appearing in art and literature. The real Sauromatian (and possibly Scythian) women warriors may have influenced the Amazon myth as early as the 6th century, but they could not have been its source.

Back to the proposed Old Iranian ha-mazan ("warrior") etymology of Amazon, which has gained a fair amount of support since it was first proposed by Lagercrantz in 1912. The Sauromatians and Scythians were Iranian peoples, who spoke languages closely related to Old Iranian. So if we knew that the original Greek conception of the Amazons came from fierce women warriors of the Sauromatians or Scythians, this etymology would make some sense. But the word existed in Greek before the Greeks associated Amazons with these wicked steppe mothers. We can therefore discount the Old Iranian etymology with all the rest.

So where did the idea of Amazons really originate? Nobody knows. Some scholars believe the Amazons are a distant memory of a supposed matriarchal society that preceded the Indo-European expansion. This may or may not be related to the idea that they were warlike temple slaves or priestesses of some goddess or other (usually identified as Artemis, Rhea, or Cybele). When Amazons are mentioned in relation to some god or goddess in the earliest written works, it is usually Ares and occasionally Athena. Artemis, Rhea, and Cybele aren't linked to Amazons until much later. Still, these are not new ideas. Pausanius in the 2d century A.D. relates a theory along these lines that he (and he alone) attributes to Pindar. Similar ideas have attracted modern supporters (such as Robert Graves), but there is no convincing evidence backing them up.

Others have suggested that the Amazons were men (possibly Hittites) mistaken for women at a distance because of their outlandish dress and clean-shaven faces. This isn't a new idea either, having been introduced by Palaiphatos in the 4th century B.C. But neither is it any more convincing.

Some, including many psychologists who study myths (like Carl Jung), propose that Amazons were completely mythological from the beginning, without even a kernel of historicity. For example, the Amazon myth may have been a reflection of Greek men's fear that women would rise up and kill or enslave them. This particular interpretation is a stretch. To the ancient Greeks, the distant Amazons were objects not so much of fear as of respect, especially since all the named Greek heroes who met them in battle managed, with difficulty, to defeat them. (The story of the Lemnian women, Greek matrons who are supposed to have murdered their husbands in their sleep, seems closer to the fear motif.) Purely psychological theories are impossible to disprove and so aren't very satisfying to me, but that doesn't mean they're not true. As I said, nobody really knows. Anybody who thinks he does is probably deluding himself.

You ask if there have been fighting forces composed primarily of women. The answer is yes. The most famous example is the palace guard of the kingdom of Dahomey (modern Benin in west Africa). From 1818 to 1894, the kings used some of their thousands of wives as an elite bodyguard and fighting force. They actually fought only rarely, but they fought well when they did. They took part, for example, in a battle at Cotonou against the French in 1890. These so-called Dahomey Amazons ceased to be an organized fighting force after the king was deposed by the French in 1894, but they continued their activities for a time on a more casual basis.

The Amazon River (and hence the rainforest) was so named in the early 1540s by the Spanish soldier Francisco de Orellana. The mouth of the river had been discovered in 1500 by Vincente Yáñez Pinzón, and he had given it the perfectly serviceable name "Rio Santa Maria de la Mar Dulce" ("St. Mary River of the Freshwater Sea"). Needless to say, that didn't stick. Four decades later, Orellana was part of an expedition that set out from Peru looking for fabled riches beyond the Andes. After the party reached the tributaries of the great river, he and a few dozen men apparently deserted and floated all the way down the Amazon to the Atlantic. Somewhere along the way, Orellana later claimed, they met a tribe of tall blond women who attacked them with bows and arrows. This time the name stuck. The region is full of mind-altering chemicals free for the picking, so it's tempting to dismiss the claims. But other explorers of the Amazon basin, like Father Cristobal de Acuna in the 1630s, reported similar encounters, so who knows?

Jeffrey Bezos named his company Amazon.com not because he's one big boob, but because he likens the Internet to a great river of commerce. Dunno what he was high on either. But if the Amazon is supposed to represent the Internet, I want to know who the candirú fish are supposed to be. Hmm, those enterprising fellows who keep sending me those helpful messages about my nether anatomy never did say exactly how they were planning to make my penis swell beyond all human tolerance. Right back at ya, guys.

Further reading:

The Early Amazons: Modern and Ancient Perspectives on a Persistent Myth (1995) by Josine H. Blok

"Warrior Women of the Eurasian Steppe" by Jeannine Davis Kimball in Archaeology, January/February 1997

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