The Real Female Warriors Behind 'Wonder Woman'

by JR Thorpe
Theo Wargo/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

If you spent this weekend watching Wonder Woman, you're not alone; the film earned over $200 million worldwide, giving it the biggest-ever opening weekend for a movie directed by a woman. Clearly, people remain as fascinated by the Amazonian warrior Diana as they have been throughout her existence, which began with a 1941 appearance in All Star Comics and has continued through multiple comic titles of her own and a TV show. But there's more to Wonder Woman than decades of backstory or Gal Gadot's new interpretation of the character; behind the idea of Wonder Woman herself is a myth that, it turns out, is close to reality than you might think.

The Amazons were, for a long time, believed to be entirely mythical. The Greeks were fascinated by the concept of an all-warrior female society, and invented stories of their courage, their godliness, their encounters with human warriors (which usually ended badly), and their ferocity: mythic Amazonians were allegedly one-breasted (having removed the other for better archery skills), and turn up throughout Greek myth, most famously in the Trials Of Hercules.

But recent discoveries have highlighted that, while the notion of a warrior matriarchy living on a hidden holy island is likely as fictitious as an invisible jet, there were real warrior queens who inspired the Greeks to make their myths. And their lives were just as unusual, inspiring and ferocious as Diana herself.

The "Real" Amazons Were European Horsewomen

The revelation that the Amazons, in their own way, actually existed is a pretty recent discovery; a lot of the publicity for it has come from the Stanford historian Adrienne Mayor, whose 2014 book The Amazons: Lives & Legends Of Warrior Women Across The Ancient World busted the entire concept wide open. It's her work that's revealed to us that the original Amazons were likely ancient Scythians, a nomadic people who possibly originated in Iran and populated the steppes of southern Russia in the time of the Greeks. Their society was apparently deeply gender-equal ("women lived the same rugged outdoor life as men", Mayor comments), and involved a lot of fighting for all.

It's not just random hypothesis, either. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus, the New Yorker notes, had a story about an encounter between Scythian men and Amazon women in which the Amazons persuaded the Scythians to come join their nomadic horse-riding lifestyle, and became a separate people renowned for their gender equality and ferocity. Clearly the Greeks, when they encountered the Scythians and their hugely successful warrior women, were captivated, and somewhere along the way, the myth of a woman-only warrior society emerged.

"For the Greeks," Mayor writes, "tantalizing scraps of information and legends about women of Scythia — especially the idea of 'rogue' groups of female roughriders roaming on their own without men — inspired countless 'what if' scenarios." The myth of the Amazons, then, came from information about real women, merged with more abstract Greek ideas.

So what were these real women like? Did they lasso their enemies and stand for truth and justice among all?

They Were Tattooed, Smoked Cannabis And Fought Hard

What we know about the Scythians comes in large part from the discovery of burial mounds in the Ural Steppes, many of which were uncovered in the 1990s. When they were excavated, the astonished archaeologists came across firm evidence of a society where women were prized warriors and horsewomen. National Geographic explained:

"Among the burials of 'ordinary women,' the researchers uncovered evidence of women who were anything but ordinary. There were graves of warrior women who had been buried with their weapons. One young female, bowlegged from constant riding, lay with an iron dagger on her left side and a quiver containing 40 bronze-tipped arrows on her right. The skeleton of another female still had a bent arrowhead embedded in the cavity. Nor was it merely the presence of wounds and daggers that amazed the archaeologists. On average, the weapon-bearing females measured 5 feet 6 inches, making them preternaturally tall for their time."

Mayor notes that three out of four of the graves of Scythian women have weapons in them. These were clearly formidable and highly skilled women who fought as a matter of course, with arrows, swords, daggers and slingshots. The Greeks, historians have noted, must have found this absolutely astonishing; aside from Sparta, which allowed its women the same education and exercise regime as men (but still kept them at home instead of allowing them to be warriors), Greek women were kept entirely out of public spheres of masculinity, and were especially excluded from fighting. They must have seemed like "incredible aberrations," one writer has said, and from that the myths arose.

Beyond their fighting tendencies, the women of the Scythians and their descendants had their own traditions. The image we have of Amazons today, in Greek-style armor and headdresses, comes, unsurprisingly, from Greek myths. The real women, Mayor records, usually wore trousers and unique helmets, and were often heavily tattooed. A Scythian woman known as the "Ice Princess" — whose grave, surrounded by six horses, was found preserved in Siberia in the 1990s — was revealed to have beautiful tattoos of mythical animals.

And gold vessels found in the burial mounds in 2013 highlight one of Herodotus's other claims about the Scythians: that they were renowned for burning cannabis for ritual reasons.

The Greeks Idolized & Mythologized Them

The Greeks really, really liked the idea of female warriors — to the point where, as Mayor describes, they incorporated them into everything, from their myths to their plays to their homes. The notion of an all-female warlike society (even though that's not what the Scythians were about) was clearly captivating for them.

But Greek men weren't the only ones captivated by the concept. Amazons in trousers show up on women's jewelery boxes, and thousands of images of them exist on vases; they're often shown refusing to surrender in battle or as part of their mythic encounters with the gods or Greek heroes. Most touchingly, the graves of little girls across Greece and Asia Minor reveal dolls of Amazons, with weapons and helmets. Long before Wonder Woman was a thing, girls were play-fighting with Amazons of their own, even if there was no possibility of them picking up a sword themselves.

The Scythian women themselves weren't myths. They were real, tattooed badasses roaming the steppes of Europe in trousers and tunics, drinking fermented mare's milk and dying in battle. And they remain real. "Vestiges of the old egalitarian order," Mayor wrote in the LA Times in 2014, "persist to this day in Mongolia, Siberia, Kazakhstan and other lands, where women still drink fermented mare's milk, ride horses, shoot arrows, hunt with eagles, give counsel in decisions and rise to leadership position." (She was part of the collection of historians who criticised the 2016 film The Eagle Huntress for depicting female hunting in Mongolia as new, when it's actually an ancient tradition.) So Amazons are still around — not only in the form of Gal Gadot but in nomadic women across the earth. And they don't need a lasso of truth to get sh*t done.