Warrior women of the ancient world: 5 myths busted

Updated 7:40 AM EST, Fri January 22, 2016

Story highlights

Book uncovers truth behind ancient horsewomen-archers

Rejects claims Amazons cut off breast to fire bow and arrow

Editor’s Note: ’The Silk Road: Past, Present, Future’ travels east to west along this ancient trade route, exploring how traditional culture, arts, and trade have developed in the 21st century.

(CNN) —  

History often remembers them as fearsome, war-loving lesbians, who killed baby boys and cut off their own breasts to better fire a bow and arrow.

But just who were the Amazons, these legendary horsewomen-archers depicted across ancient Greece, Egypt, and China?

The truth is no less gripping than the myth, as Stanford University historian Adrienne Mayor reveals in her book: “The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World.”

“Excavations of Eurasian graves have uncovered battle-scarred female skeletons dressed in tunics and trousers, and buried with quivers full of arrows, battle-axes, spears, and horse gear,” she told CNN.

“So we know that genuine warrior women really existed at the time and places reported by the ancient Greeks and other cultures.”

These fierce nomadic women – usually depicted fighting courageously and dying heroically – were immortalized in ancient works of art, and even adorned centuries-old perfume jars and jewelry boxes.

Amazon “Barbies” have also been found in girls’ graves from the time.

But along with the barbarian images, were tales of great compassion, friendship, and love between Amazons and men.

“Amazons enjoyed lives very different from Greek women, who were confined indoors doing domestic chores,” explained Mayor.

“The radical idea of powerful, independent women living in exotic lands evoked ambivalent emotions in the Greeks: awe, fear, respect, and desire.”

Below, Mayor unravels the truth from five enduring Amazon myths:

1.) They cut off one breast to shoot better

Modern day warrior woman: Jennifer Lawrence in "The Hunger Games."
PHOTO: Courtesy IMDb/Lionsgate
Modern day warrior woman: Jennifer Lawrence in "The Hunger Games."

This fake “fact” has stuck like superglue for more than 2,500 years. It first surfaced in 490 BC when a patriotic Greek historian attempted to force a Greek meaning on the foreign word “Amazon.” Because “mazon” sounded something like the Greek word for “breast” and “a” meant “without,” he claimed the name meant that the Amazons cut off one breast so they could draw a bow.

Not only was his dodgy idea rejected by other Greeks of his day, but no ancient artist ever bought the notion – all Amazons in Greek and Roman art are double-breasted. And as any fan of “The Hunger Games” knows, breasts do not hinder female archers.

2.) They were man-haters

Amazons as a tribe of man-hating, domineering women, who enslaved men and mutilated baby boys? Another persistent myth. It arose because Greek men oppressed their own women. By their logic, if women were strong and independent, then the men must be weaklings forced into submission.

But another Greek name for Amazons translates as “the equals of men.” And Greek poets called the warrior women “man-lovers.” In fact, there were as many love stories about Amazons as there were war tales.

3.) They gave up motherhood to be warriors

Must Amazons sacrifice motherhood? This notion is undermined by the Greeks describing the warlike Amazons as working mothers too busy to breastfeed, so they nourished their babies with mares’ milk.

The “no Amazon mothers” fallacy is further disproved by the graves of nomadic horsewomen-archers whose real lives inspired Greek Amazon stories 2,500 years ago – next to the skeletons of female warriors buried with their weapons, archaeologists discovered infants and children.

4.) Only ancient Greeks told tales about Amazons

Disney brings the legend to life in animated film, "Mulan."
PHOTO: Courtesy IMDb/Walt Disney Studios
Disney brings the legend to life in animated film, "Mulan."

Modern scholars tend to assume that Amazons were a purely Greek invention, a fantasy exclusive to the Greeks. But the same warrior women of the vast steppes of Central Asia also influenced other cultures who came into contact with Scythian nomads.

Exciting tales and historical accounts of Amazon-like warrior women exist in the ancient literature of Egypt, Persia, Caucasia, Central Asia, India, and even China. Even the legendary Chinese girl-warrior Mulan turns out to have steppe nomad origins.

5.) They were a fantasy invented by the Greeks

According to the Greeks, Amazons were barbarian archers on horseback who roamed a vast territory known as Scythia, stretching from the Black Sea to Mongolia. Recent archaeological discoveries of more than 300 ancient graves of Eurasian warrior women prove that Amazons were not merely figments of the Greek imagination.

As Greeks began to trade with Scythians of the Black Sea and beyond, storytellers and artists in Greece added more realistic details about nomad weapons, dress, and lifestyle to their tales and images of Amazons.

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