This week is the week of news outlets writing about ancient Hellas. Yesterday, I shared with you a piece about Socrates and the Socratic teaching method, and today I am sharing an article written by National Geographic on the Amazons. It comes on the heels of another recent post they did on them, this one about their awesome names. This article is about how archaeology shows that the Amazon warriors smoked pot, got tattoos, killed--and loved--men.

A photo of a vase with scenes of Amazon women fighting.  
[Photograph by DeAgostini/ Getty Images]

Drawing on a wealth of textual, artistic, and archaeological evidence, Adrienne Mayor, author of The Amazons, dispel the negative myths surrounding the Amazon warriors and takes us inside the true life of these ancient warrior women.

As the article mentions, the real Amazons were long believed to be purely imaginary. They were the mythical warrior women who were the archenemies of the ancient Hellenic heroes, and every one of them had to prove his mettle by fighting a powerful warrior queen. They were long thought to be just travelers' tales or products of the imagination. Archaeology has now proven without a doubt that there really were women fitting the description that the ancient Hellenes gave us of Amazons and warrior women.

The ancient Hellenes thought they resided in the areas north and east of the Mediterranean on the vast steppes of Eurasia. Archaeologists have been digging up thousands of graves of people called Scythians by the ancient Hellenes. They turn out to be people whose women fought, hunted, rode horses, and used bows and arrows--just like the men.

Somehow the myth that Amazon warriors had one breast to make archery easier has entered our collective consciousness. All modern scholars, however, point out that the plural noun 'Amazones' was not originally a Hellenic word—and that it has nothing to do with breasts. According to Mayor, the notion that 'Amazon' meant 'without breast' was invented by the Hellenic historian Hellanikos in the fifth century B.C. He tried to force a Hellenic meaning on the foreign loan word: a for 'lack' and 'mazon', which sounded a bit like the Hellenic word for breast. His idea was rejected by other historians of his own day, and no ancient artist bought the story. Linguists today suggest that the name derives from ancient Iranian or Caucasian roots. When we say 'Amazons', we mean Scythian women. In this case Scythian warrior women... and they had two breasts.

Another myth that Mayor attempts to debunk is the one that says all Amazons were lesbians. That started in the 20th century. The Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva declared that Amazons were symbolic of lesbianism in antiquity. Then others took that up. According to evidence Mayor dug up, the ancient Hellenes didn't think of them as lesbians; they described them as lovers and killers of men.

Mayor praises the Amazon spirit: the assumption that women are the equals of men and that they could be just as noble and brave and heroic. This spirit comes through in the artworks and literature about Amazons. Accordign to Mayor:

"The ancient Hellenes were both fascinated and appalled by such independent women. They were so different from their wives and daughters. Yet there was a fascination. They were captivated by them. Pictures of Amazons on vase paintings always show them as beautiful, active, spirited, courageous, and brave. I talked to a vase expert whose specialty is gestures on Greek vases. He has written an article about gestures begging for mercy in single combat images. Quite a few of the losers in duels are shown gesturing for mercy. But among Amazons, not so much. We have about 1,300 or so images of Amazons fighting. And only about two or three of them are gesturing for mercy. So they're shown to be extremely courageous and heroic. And I think that's the Amazon spirit."

According to Mayor, Amazons smoked pot and drank a powerful concoction of fermented mare's milk called kumis, which they used in rituals:

"Herodotus gives us a very good picture. He says that they gathered a flower or leaves or seeds—he wasn't absolutely sure—and sat around a campfire and threw these plants onto the fire. They became intoxicated from the smoke and then would get up and dance and shout and yell with joy. It's pretty certain he was talking about hemp, because he actually does call it cannabis. He just wasn't certain whether it was the leaves or the flower or the bud. But we know they used intoxicants. Archaeologists are finding proof of this in the graves. Every Scythian man and woman was buried with a hemp-smoking kit, including a little charcoal brazier."

Ancient Greek historians described the tattooing practices of the culturally related tribes of Eurasia. There are a lot of tattoos in images of Thracian and Scythian women on vase paintings. We also now have archaeological evidence that Amazon-like women were tattooed. Tattoo kits been discovered in ancient Scythian burials. The frozen bodies of several heavily tattooed Scythian men and women have been recovered from graves. According to one account, Scythian women taught the Thracian women how to tattoo.

The idea that Amazons abandoned, maimed, or killed young boys is a fairly early story that circulated among the ancient Hellenes, according to Mayor, because several writers assumed that Amazon societies must be women only. That then raised the question: How do they reproduce? What did they do with their male children? The most common story was that they sent the boys back to the fathers to be raised, which  was a very common custom among nomadic people, called fosterage. Sending sons to be raised by another tribe ensures that you're going to have good relations with that tribe. It's a way of sealing treaties. According to Mayor, it was very common in antiquity, and did not make them bad mothers at all. She also stresses that there were definitely men in Amazonian villages.

Read the full interview with Adrienne Mayor here.