Sunday, 19 July 2015

In Search of the Amazons

The legend of a tribe of fierce female warriors known as the Amazons has captured the imagination of writers and artists for centuries. But who were the Amazons, where did they live and did they really exist? During a quest to drive full circle around the Black Sea overland travel writers, Simon Raven and Chris Raven, investigate.

Statue of an Amazon Warrior. Terme, Turkey © Simon Raven
Extract from the book: BLACK SEA CIRCUIT
By Simon Raven, Chris Raven

Chris accelerates west along the south shores of the Black Sea. Within less than an hour we arrive in a region of Anatolian Turkey around the mouth of the Yesil and Terme rivers, known by the Pontic Greeks as the Themiscyra plains. This fertile region once produced a great abundance of grain, especially millet and in the parts near the mountains in the south, apples, grapes, pears and nuts. Scanning his notes, Chris reveals the nearby town of Terme was once the ancient settlement of Themiscyra, which was also the name of the fictional island-home of DC comic book superhero Wonder Woman. William Moulton Marston modelled his female superhero on the Amazons of Greek mythology, a legend that has inspired writers and artists for more than two thousand years.

Screeching to a halt at the roadside, we look in awe at a life-size statue of a female tribal warrior drawing a bow and arrow. I notice she is dressed rather provocatively in an off the shoulder Roman-style toga, exposing her strong shoulders and bare arms. She expertly grips the fletching of a deadly arrow inside the drawn bow and aims it east in the direction of Georgia. The straps of her leather sandals encircle her calf muscles and are fixed tightly below the knee. Reading a sign at the foot of the newly built statue, that is written both in the Turkish and English language, we learn that it is believed these “fighting heroines of Anatolian Greek mythology lived in Themiskryia on the shore of Thermedon in the 1200s BC. Amazons used arrows and rode horses, and it is said that they even cut off their right breasts so as to draw the bow well. They exploited males as workers and servants and killed captives after having sex with them, killed male infants, raised female infants with care and trained them as strong fighters.”

Turning to the archaeological facts, the reality is that besides uncertified writings and legends of these women in Greek mythology, there is no physical evidence to prove that the Amazons truly lived here on the Pontus coast in the 1200s. Rather intriguingly though, not very far away, hidden in kurgan burial mounds on the north shores of the Black Sea, skeletons have been unearthed of high-ranking warrior women. These female warriors very real existence on the Pontic steppe in the 5th and 6th century BC, seven hundred years after the Amazons supposedly ruled the southern coast of the Black Sea, have inspired numerous theories.

In the book ‘The Horse, the Wheel, and Language’ published by Princeton University Press, David Anthony wrote, "About 20% of Scythian-Sarmatian "warrior graves" on the lower Don and lower Volga contained women dressed for battle similar to how men dress, a phenomenon that probably inspired the Greek tales about the Amazons." The nearby ancient town of Themiscyra (Terme) was first mentioned in the 5th century BC by Herodotus, the classical Greek writer and historian. Herodotus travelled to the Greek colony of Olbia on the north shores of the Black Sea as part of a Periclean campaign. Widely referred to today as "The Father of History", he was the first historian known to collect his materials systematically and critically, and then to arrange them into a historiographic narrative. In the same pragmatic manner that he had written about the Scythian and Sarmatian nomadic pastoralists, he also explored old Amazonas tales known to the Greeks, and assimilated them to new narratives from sources of colonial Greeks on the Black Sea coast and Olbia. Herodotus stated that he believed this tribe of women were called “Oiorpata” in the Scythian language, “Androktones” in Greek, meaning “killers of men”. He asserted that they lived in a region bordering Scythia in Sarmatia (modern territory of Ukraine). Neal Ascherson wrote in his book ‘Black Sea’, “The Amazons are the legend of a group of powerful women on the Pontic steppe who ruled and rode with armies into battle, they died of arrow wounds or spear stabs, they were buried in female robes and jewellery with their lances, quiver and sword ready to hand. In their graves a dead youth sometimes lies at their feet. A man sacrificed at the funeral of a woman.”

Joined by two Muslim women wearing navy blue headscarves, who photograph the statue of this Amazon warrior with their mobile phones, I find myself wondering what they make of such a striking symbol of female independence and liberty. Neal Ascherson wrote referencing Herodotus. “According to legend; after the Trojan wars (1184 BC) and death of (Amazons) queen, Penthesilea, the Amazons living on the south shore of the Black Sea were overcome by Greeks and put on prison ships. They mutinied and landed on the Sea of Azov. Here they fought the Scythians, but then mated with them, settling three days journey from Tanais eastward and a three day journey from the Maeotian Lake (Sea of Azov) northwards and becoming the nation of the Sauromatae.”

Herodotus documented this fascinating region in the 5th century BC, fairly soon after these female warrior kurgans had come into existence. His stories had been collated by talking to the local people and travelling to various regions around the Don delta. Although there is no hard evidence of the Amazons existence in Turkey, in light of the very real female warrior skeletons that have been found on the Pontic steppe, his work most certainly cannot be ignored. Ascherson wrote, “Further east, in the plains between the Ural and Volga rivers, nearly a fifth of the female Sauromatians graves dated between the 6th & 5th centuries BC were found to contain weapons. Scythian graves all over the southern Ukraine have revealed women soldiers, sometimes buried in groups, equipped with bows, arrows and iron plated battle belts to protect groins.”

Picturing the landscape in my mind around the Don delta, Chris poses the question - why hadn’t evidence of groups of similar independent warrior women been found in other parts of the world? Russian archaeologist Vera Kovalevskaya has an interesting theory, “When Scythian men were away fighting or hunting, nomadic women would have to be able to defend themselves, their animals and pasture-grounds competently. During the time that the Scythians advanced into Asia and achieved near-hegemony in the Near East, there was a period of twenty-eight years when the men would have been away on campaigns for long periods. During this time the women would not only have had to defend themselves, but to reproduce and this could well be the origin of the idea that Amazons mated once a year with their neighbours, if Herodotus actually based his accounts on fact.”

Making a circuit around the statue, I smile at the thought that remnants of this ancient myth continue to exist to this present day in the form of the mighty Amazon River that winds its way across South America. An example of the power of this legend that captivated the minds of pioneering Portuguese sailors many centuries after the Greek Empire had collapsed.

By Simon Raven and Chris Raven

Order your copy online from Amazon and all major book retailers. ISBN 9780954884284.

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