Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Amazons

So I've become obsessive about the Amazons.

If you're asking why, you should be asking why not. I mean, what's not to love about the Amazons?

No, in all honesty, it's because I've done a TON of historical research for a new book I just finished, and some of it has been about the Amazons. My book is not historical fiction--it's a YA fantasy set in a fictional world based on ancient Scythia. But fantasy writers do their homework, too.

As part of my research, I recently read Adrienne Mayor's book The Amazons, which was fantastically fun. I mean, don't get me wrong, the History of Civilizations of Central Asia Vol. II is also interesting, but it lacks the tales of battlefield sex, blood oaths, and 2,000-year-old nomadic fashion tips.

So let's do Amazons 101.

The Amazons have pretty much always been discussed as a legendary people. In truth, however, the historic Amazons were based on the nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes of Central Asia known as the Scythians, with whom the Greeks had extensive contact through trade. (The term Scythian in used the west, while Saka is used in the east. There are other names for these nomadic peoples, too.)

So here's what "Amazons," or Scythians, actually looked like:
Scythian women wore pants, which raised more eyebrows
back in the sixth century BC than leggings-as-pants do today.
(Scythian depicted on Greek black-figure pottery, by Psiax, about 500 BC.)
Excitingly, archeological research is proving what people in Eurasia have been telling stories about for thousands of years, which is that lots women in many different cultures rode horses and fought in battle like men.

Through more updated (and less sexist) work, Amazons are being painted in a much clearer light today. In other words, they're gaining "historical respectability," according to  Mayor.

These women lived rich lives. They shared duties with men in a nomadic society that--unlike settled, agrarian cultures--was much more egalitarian.
This Greek bowl, meant for mixing water and wine, portrays a battle
between the Amazons and the Greeks. Check out the person on
horseback. The clothing is totally different from the Greeks. 

One of the ways we've learned about the Amazons is studying what they've left behind.

Scythian burial mounds, called kurgans, are found from the Caucuses to Siberia, and many of the burials have similarities. They show different societies of nomadic people who all shared a common lifestyle: they lived in the saddle and always had a bow in their hands. (And lest you think this is a "barbaric" culture, which is how nomadic people are often thought of today, the "civilized" societies like the Greeks were arguably much worse for women.)

These kurgans contain mummified remains of warriors buried with their arrowheads, swords, axes, spears, and horses.
Kurgans, or burial mounds, in Kazakstan. 

When researchers unearthed these tombs in the 20th century, they saw the weapons and the evidence of warfare--gashes and holes in bones--and just assumed they were all Scythian men.

But guess what?

They weren't all men.

A large percentage of them were women. And a lot of those women did battle.

As Mayor writes, "The scientific determination of the sex of skeletons proves that not only were a substantial number of women of all social classes buried with a wide range of tools, weapons, and armor, but their bones sometimes bear battle scars identical to those of male warriors."

A reconstruction of the Pazyryk "Ice Princess," who was found mummified
in a tomb in the grasslands of southwestern Siberia. She was buried with cannabis,
which she smoked to help with pain (she died from breast cancer). When they found her,
archeologists saw the battle weapons she was buried with and assumed she was a dude. 

The women are dressed like the men, and buried with their war weapons. Some are intricately tattooed.

And these are the tattoos on the lady above. So unbelievably cool. 

Legends and folk tales might be fictional, but there are truths to be found in them.

Ancient literature and and folk songs usually contain bread crumbs that lead to historical realities about individuals, and the trail of the Amazons is actually pretty well-defined. They're written about in ancient literature from Persia and China, and they're depicted in art and stories from many other places, including the Caucuses, North Africa, and Arabia. The stories all point to a culture of warrior horsewomen who not only fight with men at their sides, but also--at times--commanded armies.

Even in places where there is not extensive historical written accounts, like Kyrgyzstan, epic poems like Manas contain tales of powerful queens and female rules. Games in Kyrgyzstan like "kiss the girl" (kuz kuu in Kyrgyz), where women prove their prowess in the saddle also reflect on a history of women who were equal in physical horsemanship and, to a certain extent, in the roles and responsibilities of nomadic duties.

Kuz kuu. She's winning, which is why she gets to whip him good.
Kuz kuu is played by a man and a woman on horseback at a breakneck gallop. The man chases the girl, and if he catches her, he gets to kiss her. If he doesn't catch her, she gets to chase him. And, if she gets close enough, she gets to whip him. (Incidentally, I've seen kuz kuu in person, and it's a hilarious game that viewers enjoy with plenty of libations.)

So yeah, the Amazons were real.

They were flesh and blood, and they lived in Central Asia before the time of Christ. There are legends about the Amazons that are untrue, like how they cut off one breast so they could be better archers. Duh, whoever came up with that has never shot a bow in his life. (Spoiler: you can do it with boobs). But the historic people who were used as fodder for perverted Greek fairy tales were as real as my cup of coffee.




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