The Basement

Amazons: Warrior Women of the Ancient World

From North Africa to China, who were history's Amazons?

Warner Bros./Time Warner/DC’s Wonder Woman just earned another $7 million in its seventh weekend of release, bringing the superhero movie’s domestic total to $381m in 45 days. Princess Diana’s first solo movie will soon surpass Marvel’s Guardian’s of the Galaxy II in box office take. And with other big tentpole movies underperforming, Wonder Woman will  definitely become the summer’s biggest domestic grosser. With Diana slicing her way through the summer movie season as only an Amazon can do, I started thinking: Just who really were the Amazons, those legendary female warriors depicted across the Middle East, Greece and China? Sheena McKenzie of CNN scored an interview recently with Stanford University historian Adrienne Mayor who looks at the truth behind the myth, 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 McKenzie. “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 even 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.”

According to the Smithsonian, the eighth-century B.C. poet Homer was the first to mention the existence of the Amazons. In the Iliad—which is set 500 years earlier, during the Bronze or Heroic Age—Homer referred to them somewhat cursorily as Amazons antianeirai, an ambiguous term that has resulted in many different translations, from “antagonistic to men” to “the equal of men.”

Echos of the Amazon legend can be found among the ancient cultures of North Africa, Persia, Assyria, China and Greece. The warrior women of Sparta and the legendary Viking shieldmaidens of Scandinavia all play into the history of Amazon legend.

About the author

Annabelle Quinn

Annabelle is an avid reader of comics and dirty romance novels. She's currently arguing with her boyfriend about feminism and looking forward to the next Wonder Woman movie.

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