325 – What can the Amazons teach us?

Posted on April 1, 2015 by

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It is a fact – even though it may have escaped the New York Times – the Amazons were real fighting and warring women of the Scythian steppes that extended from the Danube basin all the way to Mongolia. In the last ten years, advances in DNA techniques allowed archeologists to determine the sex of bodies in kurgans – burial mounds scattered throughout the steppes. Conventionally identified as “warriors” interred with their weapons and horses, the remnants have often turned out to be those of women.

It makes eminent sense. Given their environment and the lack of restraining structures,[1] nomadic people lived by consensus. The fluidity of roles prevailed, all the way down to the family. How could on stop girls, living among the herds, from building attachments to horses?[2] From riding with the boys to becoming skilled archers, and then on to wielding a battle ax, the progression is open-ended. When raiders attack a camp, all better fight, particularly if the men have themselves gone long-distance raiding.

Across the whole Eurasian continent, the steppes border on agricultural lands to the south. The settled – from Greece to China – developed many stories and myths about these free-ranging nomadic people, and their warrior women. Where equivalent conditions in Africa prevailed, equivalent myths often materialized.

When comparing underlying themes in antiquity about Amazons, one is struck by a bifurcation. I am oversimplifying to the extreme. The Greeks killed Amazons in battle (though they may have had regrets, as Achilles did after smiting Penthesilea).[3]

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(Achilles kills Penthesilea)

Other civilizations, mainly east and south of the Mediterranean, tell of pitched but inconclusive battles, followed by duels among opposing leaders, and ending in consensual sex all around.[4] After that, the Amazon would return to their free life. They would keep the girls, and send the boys to their fathers. This “division” may reflect a link between agriculture and patriarchy.[5]

Why the Greeks developed a topos involving the destruction of “strange,” and the “other,” is anyone’s guess. It certainly antedates the Persian wars. The topos of battle ending in friendship between the contenders, rather than death, on the other hand, is present in the Gilgamesh Epos, possibly 3’000 years old.[6]

The underlying theme that the “foreign” has to be destroyed, however, has become a Western archetype. The “clash of civilizations” is but a current example.

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[1]           The nomadic lifestyle even crosses gendered tasks like iron smelting. Usually a strictly male domain, [see: Alain TESTART (2014): L’amazone et la cuisinière. Anthropologie de la division sexuelle du travail. Gallimard, Paris], according to Nart woman invented ironworking. The Narts lived on the Caucasian steppes and in the mountains between the Black and the Caspian seas. [See: Adrienne MAYOR (2014): The Amazons. Lives and legends of warrior women across the ancient world. Princeton University Press, Princeton. (pg. 360)]. Again, it makes sense: where iron is found in bogs, ironworking is a comparatively sedentary activity.

[2]           DNA analysis of horses shows that many mares were domesticated, but just one stallion. My wild conjecture is that girls were the first who took to wild fillies, and grew up together in a camp.

[3]           http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penthesilea

[4]           Whether amazons were actually virgins, or simply unmarried, is not clear to me from the sources. I suspect that the latter is the case. This ambiguity is a recurring topos in antiquity.

[5]           Gerda LERNER (1986): The creation of patriarchy. Oxfor University Press, Oxford  hesitantly accepts a “biological explanation” for the emergence of gender roles from the outset. The evidence of the amazons invalidates the hypothesis and strengthens Lerner^s view that patriarchy is linked to the emergence of settled agriculture.

[6]           http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epic_of_Gilgamesh

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