Historical Notes: The real Amazons: pragmatic, mysterious

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The Independent Culture
THE AMAZONS are always with us, whether they be Lara Croft, contemporary heroine of the Cyberworld Tomb Raider or Penthesiliea, cruelly speared by Achilles in a lost Greek epic from Homer's time. They are certainly alive in our imagination, but did they really exist?

Years of obsessional research have led me to answer: yes - and no. No, because I have not so far come across any hard evidence in the Bronze or Iron ages of separatist tribes of women who copulated once a year with men, mutilated their boys and raised their girls as one-breasted warriors - this is the stereotype of the Amazons we all recognise. Yes, because news is finally percolating over to us in the Western world of graves of women buried with weapons in the Ukrainian and Russian steppes, lands on the borders of the classical Greek world in which the Amazon myth grew up.

These women were indeed warriors - their grave goods were not only classically female accoutrements such as mirrors and jewellery, but also bows and arrows, daggers and short-swords. However, the kurgans (grave-mounds) in which they were buried also contained skeletons of men and sometimes children. Professor Renate Rolle, the pioneer in this field, uncovered one grave in Certornlyk in Ukraine in which a women had been buried with her baby lying over her breast. That she was a warrior was attested by the worn fingers of her bow-pulling hand, the arrows and short-sword buried with her. Professor Rolle believes that these women were not separatists but tough young nomadic women who knew how to defend their cattle, their children and their goods while their men were away fighting. Ukrainian archaeologists say that 25 per cent of warrior graves from Scythian times were of women.

Other elements of the Amazon myth, the separatism and the sexual freedom, are hidden in many places. But the most intriguing clues come from the Hittite kingdom which lasted in Anatolia (present-day Turkey) for most of the second millennium. The Hittite priestesses and queens who lived in the cities of Zalpa and Kanesh are mentioned in many of the ancient texts: one tells of a queen who had 30 sons in a year, whom she cast upon the waters, and later 30 daughters, whom she brought up. The sons come looking for their mother and end up marrying their sisters.

Of course one woman could not have 30 sons in a year, but a group of women could. If there were goddess-temples in Kanesh, where men could come to be sexually initiated by the temple hierodules, then the children of these unions might indeed be coincidentally of one sex in a certain period, and the boys would have to be sent away to grow up, while girls might be kept and raised to follow their mothers' profession. We know from other Hittite texts how powerful and troublesome the priestesses were.

These priestesses did not have political power and this would not have been a matriarchal state, but they had a religious power which we, in our Judaeo-Christian world, can barely imagine. They could embody the Shakti (divine energy) of the goddess just as the Hindu Parvati or the Cretan snake-goddesses did. They would be seen as awesome and powerful women by the men. Could the Amazons be a memory of such a caste of magic women?

The pragmatic Scythian warrior-women and the mysterious Hittite priestesses are more inspiring and more challenging to our modern orthodoxies than the man-hating Amazons of the myths. These "real" Amazons had power but they used it either to protect their families or to participate in the kind of religious practices in which the female aspect of the divine is properly recognised, as it still is not in the main religions of the world today. As a man-loving feminist that suits me fine - I prefer the reality to the myth.

Lyn Webster Wilde is the author of `On the Trail of the Women Warriors' (Constable, 8 March, pounds 18.99)