Episode 6: The Real Amazons

Meet the real Amazons: horse-riding, arrow-flinging women who fought alongside men and were feared by them too.

Illustration of a battle scene between Amazons and Greeks on a terracotta lekythos (oil container) dating from the 5th century BC. Known as the Amazonomachia, these scenes were very popular in Greek art. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Terracotta lekythos (oil flask)ca. 420 B.C. Attributed to the Eretria Painter
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Meet the real Amazons: horse-riding, arrow-flinging women who fought alongside men and were feared by them too.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY BRIGGS (HOST): So hello, my name is Amy Briggs. Menya zovut Amy Briggs. 

KHARIS MUSTAFIN (SCIENTIST): Ochen priatna.  

BRIGGS: I’m dusting off my very rusty college Russian… because this story starts in Siberia, back in 1988, when archaeologists hit the jackpot. They were looking for kurgans, burial mounds of an ancient nomadic culture known as the Scythians.

And they found one from about 2,500 years ago.

MUSTAFIN (in translation): In one of the burials there was a tightly closed, hollowed-out log with a well-preserved mummified body of a child. 

BRIGGS: This is Kharis Mustafin. He runs the historical genetics lab at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. The burial he’s talking about was remarkable. It was intact and its contents were so well preserved that even a fur coat and leather cap were recognizable. 

MUSTAFIN: They also found weapons next to the child—a real bow, a quiver with arrows, a battle axe. Everything indicated that the young warrior was a boy.

BRIGGS: Thirty years later archaeologists wanted to know: what could modern genetics tell us about this kid and his ancestry? So the case of the Scythian warrior boy landed on Kharis’s desk. 

MUSTAFIN: In a special lab, where we have created ultraclean conditions for working with samples, we purify these samples, grind them, and isolate DNA. 

BRIGGS: Kharis started with tissue taken from the burial—a tooth. In his lab, all the action happens inside small boxes. They’re filled with nitrogen, and the contents are then completely sealed, so that nothing contaminates the DNA. Kharis needed to find the Y chromosome— the one that males typically have and females don’t.

MUSTAFIN: Any attempts to isolate the Y chromosome from the sample were unsuccessful. And we were very worried, because this was our first trial experience of working with a sample of this age—this is the 7th century B.C. we are talking about—and the feeling of failure made us very unhappy.

BRIGGS: Emotions started to run high. The team was determined to prove they could analyze that tooth. But no matter where they looked, they couldn’t find the Y chromosome. 

MUSTAFIN: At some point we got the emotions under control, and just looked straight at the data. 

BRIGGS: And that’s when he realized what was staring him right in the face. The reason Kharis couldn’t find the Y chromosome? Because it wasn’t there. That tooth never had a Y chromosome to begin with. 

And that’s because… this wasn’t a warrior boy that Kharis was working with. It was a warrior girl. 

I’m Amy Briggs, executive editor of National Geographic History, and this is Overheard at National Geographic: a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have at Nat Geo, and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world. 

This week meet the warrior women overlooked by history, and how science is helping us see the past more clearly.  

More after the break.

BRIGGS: Warrior women were always kind of a thing with me. Growing up, there were plenty to choose from: We had Princess Leia, Charlie’s Angels, Miss Piggy. 

But top of the list was probably Wonder Woman. She had bulletproof bracelets, the Lasso of Truth, super strength, invisible jet—she had it all. 

So Wonder Woman was an Amazon, and her origin story tied back to the female warriors of ancient Greek myth. 

So I had always wanted to do an Amazons story for National Geographic History magazine. And we decided to publish one, so when that time came around, we knew exactly who to call.   

ADRIENNE MAYOR (HISTORIAN): I have always been interested in Amazons, and I actually began by drawing them and making etchings of Amazons, because I loved their costumes and the way they were portrayed as these strong, independent women.

BRIGGS: This is Adrienne Mayor. She’s a classics scholar at Stanford and devoted to all things Amazon. In ancient legends, the Amazons were strong, brave, skilled at combat and riding horses, and they fought as well as men. But they weren’t from Greece. According to the myths, they were from the outskirts of the so-called known world.

And Adrienne learned that to tell their story, you have to be a tough woman yourself. Decades ago, she fixated on this legendary battle, when an Amazon army invaded Athens. 

MAYOR: And I proposed an article to Military History Quarterly in 1990, and said that we have so many details from the ancient writers about this battle that I could make battle maps and analyze the strategy of the Amazons and the Athenians in this famous mythic battle. 

BRIGGS: Oh, that's so cool. 

MAYOR: And it was turned down. 

BRIGGS: (gasp) 

MAYOR: But I had a plan. I asked my husband to serve as my coauthor, so I proposed it again. We proposed it. He proposed it with his name first and mine second—the exact same proposal. And they accepted it. 

BRIGGS: Oh get outta town. 

MAYOR: So that's the first article I wrote. 

BRIGGS: And she never really stopped writing about them. 

Luckily, there’s plenty of material to cover. So let’s say you lived in ancient Greece in its heyday, about 2,500 years ago. Tales of gods and monsters and heroes—all the myths that we know today—they were kind of like pop culture to them. 

And the Amazons? They were the opponents, and sometimes lovers, of Greece’s greatest heroes, like the warrior Achilles, who battled an Amazon named Penthesilea during the Trojan War. 

I don’t know if that’s how you say that. I think it’s Penthesilea.  

OK, I got it. Let’s try this one more time.  

And the Amazons? They were the opponents, and sometimes lovers, of Greece’s greatest heroes, like the warrior Achilles, who battled an Amazon named Penthesilea during the Trojan War. In one story, the Greek hero Theseus pairs up with Heracles, who you may also know as Hercules.

MAYOR: These heroes got together a bunch of other heroes, and they went to help Heracles on his mission to get the war belt of Queen Hippolyta of the Amazons. They lived on the Black Sea, this Amazon colony ruled by Queen Hippolyta and her sister Antioppe. Well, Heracles actually dueled with Hippolyta and killed her and took the war belt. Meanwhile, Theseus, the founder of Athens, was fighting with Antiope. They were equally matched. But Theseus actually won and took Antiope captive as a prisoner of war and married her. So now Athens is ruled by King Theseus and his Amazon wife, which is very exciting for the Greeks.  

BRIGGS: Greeks ate up stories like that. And Adrienne says the archaeological record makes it clear that Amazons occupied a big place in the ancient Greek imagination. They even show up on the most important building in Athens: the Parthenon.  

MAYOR: The pictures of Amazons and images of Amazons and battles with the Amazons were everywhere in Athens. They were on frescoes on public walls and paintings in people's houses and on pottery. 

BRIGGS: If you were looking at a piece of ancient Greek pottery, it’s pretty easy to pick out the Amazons. First of all, they’re women. Second, they’re decked out for battle. You’ll see them wearing helmets, tunics, and pants. They’re carrying weapons—bows and arrows, spears, sometimes even axes, which are pretty cool. 

And third, more often than not, they’re shown doing what they do best: fighting. 

MAYOR: Other real enemies of the Greeks, say like the Persians, when they're depicted in vase paintings fighting with Greeks, they are running away in fear, cowering in fear, or gesturing for mercy. And Amazons are never doing that, they're always running toward danger, and they never gesture for mercy. So Amazons were shown as just as heroic and courageous as the Greek male warriors. 

BRIGGS: The Amazons were so pervasive in Greek culture, there were even action figures. 

MAYOR: And we also know that little girls played with Amazon dolls—clay dolls, some of them with moving legs and arms. And that you could actually dress them in different costumes. And they're holding weapons and they have helmets and they've been found in little girls’ graves.  

BRIGGS: But the Greek fascination doesn’t mean they were totally comfortable with the idea of female warriors—especially in their own culture. Amazons couldn’t be any more different from the Greek women they knew. 

MAYOR: Proper Greek women were expected to stay indoors most of their lives or in the, you know, portico of a protected courtyard, weaving and minding children They didn't live the active outdoor life, participating in the same activities as the men in Greece, and that stark difference made a deep impression on the Greeks.

BRIGGS: This difference did inspire admiration but not imitation. I found out about this when we were searching for images for Adrienne’s magazine story.  

One of my favorites wound up on the cover. It was from a terracotta jug, and the scene shows a woman thrusting her spear at a male Greek warrior holding a shield and sword. 

She’s fully clothed. And the Greek guy? Well, he’s not wearing anything, except his helmet. 

The cover image we have is a fully dressed woman and she's battling a totally naked Greek guy.

MAYOR: I love it. It's so funny, because classical vase scholars would say that the male Greek heroes are always dressed in a costume of heroic nudity. And the ancient Greeks, they thought that wearing trousers was one of the most barbaric things you could do. It’s just outrageous that you would be covering your entire body in this way.

BRIGGS: So the Greeks surrounded themselves with depictions of these so-called barbarians, almost like they were creating a thrilling alternate universe. 

MAYOR: I think the myths also offered a kind of safe way for ancient Greeks to sort of escape their male-dominated, patriarchal culture and rise above that kind of society and imagine what it might be like for men and women to be equals.

BRIGGS: A world where men and women are equals. Sounds nice, right? Well, for a long time, one group of people had a hard time imagining it: classical scholars. According to Adrienne, the accepted wisdom passed down through the ages went like this: 

MAYOR: The Amazons were fictional characters, fantasies that were brought into existence just so they could be killed off by Greek heroes. The only good Amazon is a dead Amazon.

BRIGGS: When did scientists start to take, you know, Amazon warriors more seriously as a subject that they were a real thing than a myth? 

MAYOR: Well, I would say that that didn't happen until archeologists began applying bioarchaeology and DNA to the skeletons that they were finding in Scythian graves. 

BRIGGS: Those are the same techniques we heard about in that Russian lab. Adrienne says that kind of DNA work started as early as the 1990s. But genetics research has come a long way since then. 

And Kharis Mustafin, the Russian geneticist, says the field of bioarchaeology is only going to get better.  

MUSTAFIN: It’s a natural science that allows historians and archaeologists to get new data that will allow them to see the true history by correcting, or radically changing, some outmoded views.

BRIGGS: Using ancient DNA, like Kharis’s team’s work with the Scythian burial, is just one example of helping revisit the distant past to correct some old ways of thinking—like the presence of weapons in a burial meaning it belonged to a man. 

MUSTAFIN: While we deeply respect our partner archaeologists, we understand that genetic studies are a powerful tool, which in some cases can correct errors.

BRIGGS: Kharis says that moving forward, his lab has added a new step to their process. Now, after they extract DNA, they test the sex of every sample they analyze.

With this new data in mind—when we look back at that Scythian burial and see all the weapons buried with that young girl—it paints an entirely different picture of the women who lived thousands of years ago. 

So, how do real Scythians measure up against the stories about the Amazons?

More after this.

BRIGGS: Starting about 2,700 years ago, we know that the Scythian people lived all over Asia, in the lands around the Black Sea—where the Greeks said the Amazons lived—and all the way east to Mongolia, and north to Siberia. 

They lived a nomadic life, riding across wide-open grasslands called steppes. 

MAYOR: You're in a small group on the harsh steppes. The climate is harsh. The topography is harsh. You're always on the move, facing constant threat of enemies. That means that everyone, male and female, young and old—everyone is a stakeholder. Everyone is expected to take part in defense and raids and hunting and all those activities. So it was natural and necessary to teach the boys and girls the same skills, the same horse-riding, hunting, fighting skills. 

BRIGGS: From day one, archaeologists could see that Scythian people were warlike. Many of their burials included lots of weapons, and their bodies often had signs of serious injuries, like broken ribs or fractured skulls. 

Like the Amazons, the Scythians were expert equestrians, which explains the pants you can see on all those Greek vases. The Greek concept of heroic nudity… just doesn’t work on horseback. 

MAYOR: And, of course, if you're going to do that, you have to have trousers or leggings. And so they invented the world's first tailored garments. If you think about it, the Greeks and Egyptians, they're all wearing big rectangles of cloth pinned together. The Scythians are wearing tailored garments.

BRIGGS: So, horses and pants, check. Another Amazon skill, according to the myths? Archery. The Scythians were expert archers too, and they were known for using what’s called a recurve bow.

MAYOR: Which is a smaller bow that sort of shaped with curves, like you imagine a Cupid's bow, and this kind of bow—a recurve bow— is great for using on horseback because it's small but it carries a huge amount of power, stores a lot of power. And this is the equalizer. This, combined with horse-riding, this bow is the equalizer for women in Scythian culture. You put a girl or a woman on a horse with a recurve bow, she can be just as fast, just as deadly, as any boy or man.  

BRIGGS: Here’s just one example of how deadly a Scythian could be. Scythians had a signature move called the Parthian shot.

OK, so imagine you’re on a horse. You’re galloping at top speed, and you grab your bow and arrow. But instead of shooting forward, you turn around and fire off a volley behind you without slowing down. 

And if that weren’t enough, Scythians were reported to dip their arrows in snake venom to make them poisonous. 

(Sound of Mayor walking around her house)

When Adrienne and I spoke for this episode, we were still under COVID-19 protocols, so we were Zooming. But that didn’t stop her from giving me a guided tour of her house and all the cool Amazon stuff in it. She has Amazon artifacts sprinkled all over the place—little figurines with historically accurate costumes. 

MAYOR: This is a very famous full-size statue in Berlin. But this is a bronze copy of a life-size statue of an Amazon spearing a lion.

BRIGGS: These works of art were everywhere: in her office, on her coffee table, on the walls, but there was one thing I couldn’t wait to see: the weapons. 

MAYOR: So there was a documentary made in Kazakhstan about the original Amazon Scythian warrior women, and I was the consultant for the equipment and the script and the weapons, and instead of being paid in money, I asked for some props.

BRIGGS: That’s how Adrienne ended up with Scythian battle gear. She held up a dagger, a quiver of arrows, and then the great equalizer. 

MAYOR: I'll have to set my phone down to bring it out. 

BRIGGS: Oh wow. 

MAYOR: This is the bow. They were made with many layers of larch wood, which takes years to dry. And it gives it that springiness, so that it will store a lot of power. 

BRIGGS: These objects that Adrienne’s surrounded herself with remind her that there was a time when women and men played on the same battlefield—literally. 

MAYOR: My own dream has always been for equality. So the relatively egalitarian culture of the Amazons and then the real steppe nomads who were the model for the Amazons, that really struck a chord with me. 

BRIGGS: That kind of equality? You can even find it in ancient sources. The Greeks weren’t the only ones who wrote about Scythians. You find them in ancient Persian texts. Also Egyptian and Chinese. And if you look beyond the Greeks, you see a picture that looks a lot more realistic. 

MAYOR: They have their heroes fighting the women, but they're so equally matched, they fall in love and they go off to win victories, suffer defeats, and live to fight again. So I just think it's really amazing that outside of the Greek culture and Greek mythology beyond the Greek world, women warriors and male warriors could make love and war together as equals, and then even sometimes live happily ever after.

BRIGGS: According to Adrienne, there’s no doubt that the real-life encounters with Scythian women inspired the Greek Amazon stories. The Amazons were more than myth. They were real. 

It took something as powerful as DNA to undo centuries of accepted wisdom. 

MUSTAFIN: The good thing about natural scientific methods is that they can be verified.

BRIGGS: The DNA analysis that happens in Kharis Mustafin’s lab? He says it can overturn outdated ways of seeing the world. And as researchers get better, he’s sure we’ll find even more stories that we’ve gotten wrong. 

We just don’t know what they are yet. 

MUSTAFIN: These are new methods, previously inaccessible to researchers, who now can shed light on certain historical processes, the formation of nations, civilizations, states, so that people know about their past.

BRIGGS: It helps check our present-day biases.

Mustafin: Yes.

BRIGGS: For one, we’re already learning that Scythian women weren’t alone. 

Modern analysis shows that women fought alongside men all over the ancient world, from Peru to China to pre-Roman Italy.  

MUSTAFIN: Women today are no less powerful than men. And perhaps it’s important that we have a model in an ancient society to look back to and validate and confirm that view, in a way.

BRIGGS: Kharis and his lab are still at work analyzing the young warrior girl. But this time, they’re not just looking into the girl’s paternal lineage—they’re looking for details about her mom’s side too. 

Because otherwise they’d only have half the story. 

More after this. 

If you’d like to dive even deeper into the world of Amazons, check out our show notes for a story about the hidden meaning of Amazon names. There are some fun ones, like “Hot Flanks” and “Don’t Fail.” 

For subscribers, you can check out the full History magazine cover story that Adrienne wrote. And, we also have photos of modern warrior women all around the world, taken by photojournalist Lynsey Addario. 

Also, Adrienne’s written a whole book about these Amazons: it’s called The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World. That’s in our show notes, right there in your podcast app.  

Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Laura Sim, Brian Gutierrez, Jacob Pinter, Carla Wills, and Ilana Strauss. 

Jacob Pinter also edited this episode.

Our senior editor is Eli Chen. 

Our Executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan.

Our fact-checkers are Julie Beer, Michelle Harris, and Robin Palmer.

Our copy editor is Amy Kolczak.

And Hansdale Hsu designed and engineered this episode. He also composed our theme music.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners. 

Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences. 

Susan Goldberg is National Geographic’s editorial director. 

And I’m your host, Amy Briggs. Thanks for listening, and see y’all next time.


SHOW NOTES: 

Uncover the hidden meaning of Amazon names in ancient inscriptions. They include names  like “Hot Flanks” and “Don’t Fail.” 

And for subscribers, read the full History magazine cover story that Adrienne wrote about the Amazons. You can also see photographs of modern women warriors around the world through the eyes of photojournalist Lynsey Addario.  

Adrienne has written a whole book on Amazons. It’s called The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World.