“I too was numbered among them on that day when the Amazons came, women the equal of men.”
–King Priam of Troy in Homer’s Iliad
In the first weeks of this series on the Warrior Archetype, we talked about the women of Sparta as a means of beginning to get a handle on the Warrior Archetype. But before we return to the Spartans (which we will in the coming weeks) let’s take an episode or two to focus on another kind of ancient woman:
The Warrior Woman.
We’ve all heard of the legendary race of Amazons, particularly recently since the movie Wonder Woman.
But what about the real Amazons?
Did they actually exist?
Could there really have been a race of warrior women? Or is it all just a colorful myth and legend?
I’m going to talk about my book Last of the Amazons today … and the research I did trying to answer those questions
What do the legends tell us about the Amazons?
First, that they lived around the time of the Trojan War, that is, about 1200 B.C.E. The Amazon warrioress Penthesilea supposed fought Achilles … and lost. Though he supposedly fell in love with her after pulling off her helmet and seeing her face.
The second thing we’re told is that the Amazon homeland was somewhere around the Black Sea, contemporary Ukraine. In other words, vast grasslands … open plains.
The Amazons of legend were horsewomen, which certainly makes sense considering their homeland. The names we know of the Amazons are often horse-related, as in Alcippe (“Strong horse”) or Melanippe (“Black horse.”) Archeologists have excavated numerous graves in that country of female warriors buried with their armor and weapons … and their horses.
The more I studied the legends, the more I began to think, “This could be true.” I’m a romantic. I certainly wanted it to be true.
The Amazons of legend were an all-female society. They permitted males to enter their territory once a year, for a month, for the purposes of procreation. Any boy babies they had, they sold. They kept the girls.
Probably the most famous aspect of Amazon lore is the notion that the right breast of each girl-child was seared in infancy, so that muscles of the chest and the right arm would grow to full power, to draw the bow, hurl a spear, or sling the pelekus, the double-bladed axe that was the Amazons’ favored weapon.
Amazons thought of themselves as daughters of the moon. Many of their names reflect this. Among these, Selene (“Moon”), Phoebe (“Bright”) and Europa (“Broad face”).
We are told that the Amazons were the first to fight, not just on horseback, but as organized cavalry.
They were the first to use weapons and armor of iron, as opposed to bronze, which was far inferior.
Amazon girls supposedly could ride before they could walk. They grew up on horseback. Certainly we know from observation of young girls today that they have an instinctive love for and affinity for horses. Girls love to ride, and they’re great at it.
All these factors, in other words, support the notion that this race of warrior women, who could ride and shoot, who were trained as mounted fighters from birth, who possessed armor, weapons, and tactics superior to any male antagonists could be, certainly upon their home turf, “the equal of men.”
What sort of culture would such a society evolve? We think of women normally as nurturers, caregivers, mothers, teachers, nurses … and surely such qualities are inherent in the feminine psyche and built-in to the female body born for child-bearing. But is that all there is? Are women limited to that? Are such roles as mother/wife/seductress/femme fatale/crone/witch etc. (in other words, roles which find their ground in reaction to and relation to a physically stronger and dominant male element) the sum total of woman’s gifts and potential?
I’ve always hated the idea of the patriarchy. Not just because I believe it deforms the nature of the female, being held down and oppressed by the male, but also because I think it disfigures the masculine and makes male potential crueler and less noble than it can be.
That’s why I love the idea of the Amazons … women who can stand toe-to-toe with men not just intellectually or morally or spiritually but physically … who can literally kick ass and make it stick.
What would relations between the sexes be like if women and men were truly equals?
Is there another part of the “natural woman”–a truly wild part, a warrior part, a part capable of conquest and domination (or at least self-defense and autonomy) that our current patriarchal culture has suppressed to the point of oblivion?
Are women as we know them today and over the past twenty or thirty centuries a species warped and disfigured by male domination? What if we could take the male domination away? What would women be like then? Would they be warriors? And if so, what would that mean?
A life where male domination is not the central tenant of the family-religion-socio-economic situation would probably look like the social dynamics at a long standing, successful crossfit box.
The women would take more pride in their physical prowess, skills, heart and capacity vs the color of their eyeliner.
Childcare would be shared between parents, or the village, similar to the baby/kid room at a box where each parent takes a break from the workout to attend to the kid who needs attention.
The “end numbers” (weight on the bar teaches this) wont matter so much to define success, but the incremental gains people make based upon their own performance improvements.
People would be less butthurt about other’s peoples fashion/cultural choices, because they learn through grueling physical events that function is often more important than form to get the job done without chafing.
Men and women and trans can bond closer through the “contrived” yet shared misery of a hard, regularly occuring workout. While not tragic like war, it shares many of the same neurotransmitters as stressful events that have bonded warfighters and the connection is quick.
I cannot agree with you enough. I love the intimacy of CrossFit. As a Soldier, my team building formula was simple: collective suffering + breaking bread. It is the rucksack flop after an 18 mile ruckmarch, when we are all sitting around exchanging MRE parts (peanut butter for cheese) that the true bonding occurs. We cannot have that open-hearted sharing without sharing the sweat and suffering first.
Kelly and I built a race on this concept: http://www.unleashedatstadiumbowl.org
It started as Officer PT when I was a battalion commander to build my team, and get to know my officers. We’ve held the race for 9 years (August would have been 10…but the tyranny of fear has outlawed outdoor activities).
Our ‘sub-title’ for the race is ‘GRIT CITY EFFORT + SHARED STRUGGLE = KINDRED CONNECTION. Kelly correctly told me ‘collective suffering’ probably wouldn’t go over very well. Our animal rescue is Kindred Souls Foundation, so this fits better.
When I started this race, I was a full-on CrossFit nut. Was introduced to it in Afghanistan in 2006. What? We keep score working out? I’m in! The race is ‘CrossFit-ish’ in that it is decidedly anaerobic and intimate. Everyone sees everyone the entire race.
There is something so meaningful about witnessing people go ‘all-in’. The most direct route to this degree of vulnerability is very difficult physical exercise.
Something just occurred to me as I read your post–women do not put on makeup nor do their hair in a CrossFit box…but walk into a LA Fitness–and both the men and women look like they prepped for 30 minutes to come to the gym.
I loved your comment about how an exclusive group of women behaves differently. There were a couple of times when I was in an all male unit in the Army–and it is different without women. In some ways it was more effective, but I’m sure there were ways in which it was not as effective.
I do not think the idea of hyper powerful women is romanticized at all, how women demonstrate their power – within a patriarchy – manifests itself differently.
When I was at the Defense Language Institute all of our instructors were native Russians. The classes were small, no more than 10 students per instructor. My main instructor was a woman named Gaspashja (Mrs..hard to transliterate) Lublina. I absolutely loved her. One of my classmates was an Air Force woman, very left of center, and constantly talking about women’s issues.
Oh–the adjective for ‘married’ is different for men and women in Russian. For men, it is literally ‘with wife’, shjenitsa or simply shenat (again, hard to spell), while for women it is ‘zamuxshum’ which means ‘behind husband’.
My classmate nearly had an aneurysm when we learned this. “How do the Russian women handle this kind of subjugation? How is it that you are content to allow only the men to vote?”
Mrs Lublina, smiled kindly at her and answered, “Who do you think tell the men how to vote?”
That, it occurred to me then, was insight and wisdom that is never written down.
So many great Insights Brian. I hope to experience your race some day – sport —-social sport especially connect people and reduce the churn of high stress and low trust environments. Tell me more about your rescue? Are you working with security cooperation?
I have a suspicion that this lack of active female physical engagement contributes to the societal and economic problems many communities that require their women to dress a certain way that prohibits movement or cultural norms that discourage “sweat”.
My French girlfriends, American gay queens, Filipino money makers, and middle eastern educated princesses all have some story about Botox in the armpits, an inability to sweat, or other cultural bullshit that prevents them from collective physical suffering. I’ll go there. It definitely works. Sometimes it has to be contrived like CrossFit – – sometimes there is a big bad to fight against. Like resistance. Or an actual war.
Over the years however I’ve noticed that women are women but there’s this breakthrough in attitude that comes with physical culture- maybe not necessarily CrossFit but my friends that start some functional exercise with les mills, nature walking (maybe with mushrooms but nevertheless outdoors and walking), or even going to these awful corporate gyms with a new boyfriend- there’s some power they now possess that is new.
Physical culture is empowering but breaking through the culture to encourage something like amazon warrior archetype is too much for most women now, but it’s changing.
As big a narcissist and poor business for box owners as Glassman provided- I’m so grateful that women now have this incredible option to invest a bit of money in to get returns that for my generation typically required military service, NCAA sports, or crunchy adventure sports addiction to get. It’s fining so much traction and so fast.
It’s almost like the American middle class world has changed and now women are allowed to be strong and pursue an achievable Amazonian experience and that is status increasing vs being butch.
This movement of women lifting heavy things and going all in on shared misery, is incredibly empowering. It is different physiologically than jogging or the like. I’d love a scientist to figure out why the group pseudo weight lifting thing works so much better to bond than running, for example.
And the idea of who in the gym lifts the most weight or is the cutest is irrelevant. Yeah it’s fun to compete, and that’s what keeps the engagement but it’s not the point and everyone knows it
Like you said so eloquently, very difficult exercise is a direct route to vulnerability. Beautiful.
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Set some time aside to speak with her openly and honestly about anything. It could be small talk about how your day went, or it can be deeper and more meaningful conversations about what makes you both happy.
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