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Who Were the Amazons? Were They Man-Haters Who Cut Off One Breast?

Dr. Jeannine Davis-Kimball looks at the question: Who were the Amazons?

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Attic amphora, a Greek and Amazon in combat.

Image ID: 1624646 Attic amphora, a Greek and Amazon in combat. (1883)

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Historians say that there really were Amazons who were women warriors, but what more can we say about them with any certainty?

Were the Amazons the legendary (1) archers with (2) partial mastectomies, as the Greek geographer Strabo (c. 64 B.C. - after A.D. 21) says? Or were they the same as the (3) equestrian (equestrienne) band of (4)man-hating Amazons the 5th century B.C. Greek historian Herodotus describes?

Kathy Sawyer, in "Were Amazons More than Myths?," an article from the July 31, 1997 Salt Lake Tribune, suggests the stories about the Amazons come mainly from a gynephobic imagination:

"[T]he notion of such women ... [who] replenished their numbers by mating with men from other tribes, keeping the daughters and killing male infants ... sprang from ... an imaginative impulse in the male-dominated Greek society ...."

But the simple idea that Amazons were capable warriors and female is quite probable. Germanic tribes had women warriors and Mongol families accompanied the armies of Genghis Khan, so the presence of women warriors was well attested even before recent research, like that of Dr. Jeannine Davis-Kimball, who "spent five years excavating more than 150 burial mounds of 5th century B.C. nomads near Pokrovka, Russia." Davis-Kimball and The Center for the Study of the Eurasian Nomads (CSEN) provide information on the excavations of Sauromatian and Sarmatian Women in Davis-Kimball's Warrior Women.

The area of the Steppes, where CSEN excavated, doesn't on its own contradict Herodotus' Scythian description. Among other evidence supporting the existence of Amazons in the area around the Steppes between Russia and Kazakhstan, excavators found skeletons of women warriors with weapons. Supporting the theory that was an unusual society that the women warriors lived in, the excavators found no children buried beside the women. Instead they uncovered children buried beside the men, so there were men in the society, which contradicts Herodotus' man-slaying image. Dr. Jeannine Davis-Kimball conjectures that women functioned as rulers, priestesses, warriors, and domestics in this nomadic society.

In (www.salon.com/feb97/news/news2970203.html) Return of the 50-foot Women, "Salon Magazine" interviews Dr. Jeannine Davis-Kimball who says the primary occupation of these matriarchal women was probably not "to run out and start slashing and burning," but to take care of their animals. Wars were fought to protect territory. Asked "Does post-feminist, late-20th century society have anything to learn from what you've found?" she answers that the idea that women stayed home to tend the children is not a universal and that there have been women in control for a very long time.

As to the identity of the women warriors Herodotus described and the ones recently excavated, Dr. Jeannine Davis-Kimball says they were probably not the same. The idea, mentioned (as hearsay) in Strabo, that the Amazons were one-breasted makes little sense in light of the many fine two-breasted women archers. Artwork also shows the Amazons with two breasts.

Here is Strabo's "they say":

"[They], who themselves, likewise, were not unacquainted with the region in question, say that the right breasts of all [Amazons] 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...."

Herodotus on the Amazons

The Story of the Amazons settling with the Scythians:
"The Amazons (also called oiropatas -- man-killers) were taken captive by the Greeks and put on board ship where they murdered the crew. However, the Amazons didn't know how to sail so they floundered until they landed by the cliffs of the Scythians. There they took horses and fought the people. When the Scythians figured out that the warriors they were fighting were women, they resolved to impregnate them and schemed accordingly. The Amazons didn't resist, but encouraged the process which was complicated by a language barrier. In time, the men wished the women to become their wives, but the Amazons, knowing that they couldn't live within the Scythian patriarchy insisted the men leave their native land. The men obliged and a new land was set up. These people became the SAUROMATAE who spoke a version of Scythian adapted by the Amazons."
- Herodotus Histories 4.110.1-117.1

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