History is littered with amazing women who did amazing things, often in eras and cultures that preferred seeing women as objects.
If you didn’t know, I’m a huge anthropology nerd. So I decided to take it upon myself to tell some of these really awesome, amazing stories.
The first is the well-known myth of the Amazons.
Everyone knows at least something about Amazons. Most people assume they were a mythological tribe of man-hating women warriors. Some people have heard that they would cut off a breast and kidnap, rape, and murder men.
But the truth is way more interesting.
Contrary to popular belief, the Amazons actually existed.
History is a funny thing. It’s written by the victors, and by cultures with written language.
Because of that, most of what we know about Amazons comes from Greek and Hellenic writings and artifacts.
We already know that the Greeks didn’t love women. We can trace androcentrism and global male dominance back primarily to the pederastic cultures of ancient Greece. Because pederasty breeds misogyny. It’s well documented that boys who are sexually abused (and not given support or therapy to help them cope and heal) are way more likely to become abusers in adulthood. The link between pederasty and misogyny is so clear to us. So it’s not surprising at all that an entire society of sexually abused boys became abusive adults who viewed sex as a display of dominance over a powerless woman or child.
In fact, the only Greek culture that valued independent women was Sparta, who discouraged pederasty. Now, Sparta didn’t do a lot of writing or art. What we know of them comes primarily from writings by other Greeks. And other Greeks were perplexed and confused to find that insisting on blind obedience from women and raping young boys were frowned upon in Spartan society.
In most of Greece, women were objects. Forced into subservient roles. Beaten and raped. Dependent on men.
So when they discovered people that didn’t share their view of women, they were curious, fascinated, and sometimes threatened.
But Amazons were not a female-only tribe of man-haters. They didn’t enslave, rape, or torture men.
They were an ethnic group comprised of women and men.
Now, we know that they were actually Scythians, as well as other related tribes and peoples.
Scythians were a nomadic and semi-nomadic horse people living in the steppes north and east of the Black Sea. They had a rich and sophisticated culture, but they didn’t have a written language.
Everything we know about them comes from Greek myth, stories told about them in other societies such as Persia, Egypt, India, and China, and archaeological dig sites.
But the gender roles so central to Greek culture were nonexistent in Scythia.
Everyone is equal on a horse. And a woman can be just as efficient and deadly an archer as a man.
Women were fierce, fearsome warriors. Scythian men didn’t fear or feel threatened by their women. On the contrary, they were proud of every capable citizen who contributed to the tribe. Not only did they take pride in their women, they also likely saw themselves as superior to Greek men.
In their eyes, Greek men suffered from fragile egos, threatened by strong, independent women. While Scythian men could stand fearlessly by a woman’s side. They saw her strength as something that made the entire tribe better.
Early Greeks were curious about Scythians. In fact, the Greek heroine Atalanta is most often depicted in Scythian clothing.
Later Greeks, though, felt threatened by the very real Atalantas who thrived and existed beyond the Black Sea.
What’s sad is that the Greek fascination with women warriors meant that Scythian men faded from history, while the women were vilified and immortalized.
And that’s why we think of Amazons as tribes made up exclusively of women. The powerful, capable men they actually lived with are lost to history.
Because Scythian men were nothing special to Greeks. Fierce, capable, and aggressive male warriors weren’t anything special. Intelligent, strategic male leaders weren’t worth writing home about.
Greek misogyny ended up erasing these intelligent, powerful men from history. Which I find rather ironic, but there you go.
And in fact, Scythian women were way more interesting than mythological Amazons.
When you strip away Greek thought and opinions, you find out that the truth is pretty damn awesome.
Based on archaeological dig sites, 1 in 3 Scythian women were active warriors, buried with their weapons and obvious battle wounds. Battle-scarred skeletons showed that young women fought passionately in battle. And contrary to Greek stories, they survived horrific injuries to fight again.
Greek stories always ended with the Amazons killed or defeated. Probably to provide comfort to insecure Greek men who felt threatened by strong women.
Other cultures, though, paint a different picture. The Greeks weren’t the only ones to write about Scythian women. They were just the only ones to require the deaths and defeat of Scythian women in every myth.
And they were also the only ones to vilify Amazons as man-haters.
But Amazons didn’t hate men.
They weren’t man-haters, they were man-killers. On the battlefield.
But they loved just as passionately as they fought. They had male partners, lovers, and friends. Sometimes, they were buried with their male lover. They respected men just as much as men respected them.
And because gender roles in Scythian tribes were blurred, there are men who were buried with children and domestic tools most often associated with women.
Which makes sense when you look at the realities of hard life in Scythian territory. Everyone was expected to contribute, according to the individual’s strengths and what was needed by the tribe.
Maybe a man was a fantastic warrior, and maybe he wasn’t. For Scythians, not being as good at fighting as a woman didn’t make a man less valuable to the tribe. He was still expected to contribute, still expected to help, and as long as he could pull his weight like every other adult, in whatever area, he was still respected and valued. No one cared if blood or war made him squeamish, as long as he could do something to ensure the success of the tribe.
Or maybe he was a great fighter, but the tribe didn’t need fighters at that moment, they needed warm clothes to survive the harsh winters in the northern tribes. The men didn’t just sit idly around while the women made clothes for the tribe. They were expected to help. They had to be just as efficient with a spool or needle as they were with a sword or bow.
Scythians weren’t always led by women, but they were led by the most capable citizen. Sometimes that was a woman, and sometimes that was a man.
Myths about them hating men may have stemmed from a few notable Amazons who reportedly “swore off men.”
But in reality, these were likely just lesbians.
Homosexuality in men was nothing special to Greeks. Greek culture encouraged homosexuality and pedophilia in men. Even married men with children often had young male lovers.
Because of that, homosexual men didn’t warrant Greek attention.
In fact, I again have to bring up Sparta. Promiscuity was encouraged in young Spartan men and women, and consensual homosexuality was all fine and good.
However, in Sparta, marriage was sacred. Sex between a man and wife was a private, often playful affair between equals (Spartan marriage began with the husband sneaking into his bride’s home and the two of them engaging in a wrestling match. And she was not expected to just let him win. She was a Spartan woman, after all, and her body would be the vessel for future Spartans. Of course she had to be strong and capable. And I’d just like to take a moment to imagine a Spartan woman pinning her husband on his back and riding him with a hand around his throat. Fucking hot, right?).
And of course, the goal of literally every Spartan was to make more Spartans.
So homosexuality wasn’t frowned upon, necessarily. It was more a mindset of, “That’s fine, have your fun, but at some point you’re going to need to have sex that results in children, whether you’re interested in hetero sex or not. That’s your duty as a Spartan. And just by the way, Spartan children are the future of our superior race, so let’s not rape them. Cool? Cool.”
But again, Spartan perceptions have largely been lost to us. And Spartans didn’t care much about Scythians, anyway.
Like, “Oh, another society with blurred gender roles? Big fucking deal. Oh, women can fight just as viciously as men? What a fucking shock, you guys. We respect our women so much, our entire military uniform is a tribute to them. I don’t see Scythians wearing crimson as a tribute to their women. So see? We’re still better. We do everything more hardcore. Of course that includes respecting the fuck out of our women.”
It’s the rest of Greece that influenced our perception of Amazons.
And, while gay or bi men were normal, the idea of a woman owning her sexuality and choosing not to engage in sex with men was beyond the limits of Greek imagination.
But we can see today that most lesbians don’t hate men. They’re just not turned on by men. And Scythian women were the same. In fact, it was even less likely that a Scythian lesbian hated or resented men.
Today, some women might feel resentment toward men because of thousands of years of oppression and sexism that still persist. Whether that’s right or wrong, it’s just what some people feel.
But Scythian women were never oppressed. They were never considered less than their male counterparts. They never had to fight for equality, or to be seen as human. So that resentment never existed.
Scythian women weren’t limited by Greek ideas of femininity and masculinity. They could be capable warriors without losing their identities as women, or rejecting their femininity. Because for Scythians, being a fierce warrior wasn’t an exclusively masculine trait. They could be (what we consider) feminine, masculine, or in between.
And Scythian men loved them that way.
Also, Greek men didn’t like the idea of losing to a woman.
Men were considered inherently superior to women. So a man losing to a fierce warrior who happened to have a vagina was something that made Greek men uncomfortable.
How to solve this uncomfortable truth?
By making Amazons into mythological villains. They weren’t normal humans, but barbaric, freakish monsters who threatened every Greek man, woman, and child. And ultimately, they were defeated by real heroes. By men.
But Jen, weren’t they breastless barbarians?
In a word? No.
This rumor started in about 500 AD, by one Greek historian who hated Amazons and used them as ominous warnings against giving Greek women basic human rights.
And that rumor caught fire and spread. Earlier Greeks were more fascinated and curious about Amazons, but Greeks in that era were firmly anti-Amazon.
Different theories and rumors regarding breast mutilation abound. Some say that cutting off the right breast allowed them to use bows more effectively.
Okay, but um, I use a bow. A larger one than the horseback-riding Scythian archers used. I also have much larger breasts than were ideal for active, horseback-riding women.
And I don’t have a problem. With the smaller Scythian bows, the string doesn’t even touch the archer’s body.
This rumor of mutilation likely started to show Amazons “rejecting their femininity.” Because for Greeks, fighting and plundering were exclusively masculine activities. It also hints at the Greeks’ requirement of and focus on symmetry as the basis of beauty. Aggressively asymmetrical women like single-breasted Amazons were freakish and ugly.
But there is a tiny nugget of truth. Because Scythian women probably used tight leather corsets to bind their breasts back. They also wore flat-chested armor identical to men. So for some Greeks who saw them in battle, it may have looked like they had no breasts at all.
But honestly, the reason for binding breasts wasn’t to reject femininity or look more like men.
Have you ever ridden a horse? I have. And regardless of the rider’s skill, there’s one universal truth:
Horses are bouncy.
Large, heavy, unrestrained breasts would have caused constant pain and discomfort for women riders. It would’ve been distracting. And a woman had other problems. Like killing the heavily-armored enemy charging toward her.
When I rode, I was pretty decent. Competitive. And my breasts weren’t as big as they are now. But even then, I wore two sports bras that were a size too small.
So yeah, I can totally see entire civilizations of horse riders choosing to bind their breasts to the point that Greeks assumed they didn’t have any.
Scythian women were total badass bitches.
In every sense of the word.
They led hunting parties. They led war parties. Women ruled over tribes and cities, they participated in politics. They weren’t dependent or helpless. So when a woman chose a lover or a partner, it wasn’t because she needed a man. It was because she respected and cherished that man, she saw him as her equal, and she wanted to stand by his side.
They were powerful members of an aggressive culture, in a hostile and hard environment. And they took an active role in the future of their people.
Their prowess and viciousness on the battlefield led to them being immortalized by the men who feared them. Their memory lives on in myth and legend, long after they died.
And today, they are still feminist icons and heroines. They serve as strong figures for girls and women to look up to. And a reminder that women are every bit men’s equals, and when women and men work together, culture and society thrive.