gillpolack (gillpolack) wrote,
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Women's History Month - guest post by Kathleen Cunningham Guler


Let me borrow from Kathleen’s webpage to introduce her:
Kathleen Cunningham Guler is the author of the four-part Macsen’s Treasure series of historical spy thrillers set in fifth century Britain. Her most recent book in the series, A Land Beyond Ravens, won the 2010 Colorado Book Award and the 2010 National Indie Excellence Award, both in the historical fiction category. The series’ other books include Into the Path of Gods, In the Shadow of Dragons and The Anvil Stone. Kathleen has also published numerous articles, essays, short stories, reviews and poems, and is a member of the Historical Novel Society and the International Arthurian Society. While conducting research on her next novel, she is also working on her Masters degree in history. She blogs on research and writing historical fiction at Finding the Story in History.



Warriors, Priestesses, Chieftains—Women of the Ancient Eurasian Steppe

Long ago, strange marauders suddenly appeared on the vast Eurasian steppes and stole some horses from the herds of the nomadic Scythian people. The nomads fought back, defending their property and killing several of the raiders. While inspecting the bodies, the Scythians discovered that the marauders were women. Curious, a group of young Scythian men set out to learn more and found that unlike their own women who spent their days in their wagons doing typical domestic tasks, these strange women rode, hunted, and fought ferociously while wearing the same kind of clothing as men. Many years later, descendants of the Scythian nomads allegedly told this story to the Greek historian Herodotus. They called the women Oeorpata—man-killers—and said the neighboring Sauromatian tribe descended from them. The Greeks called them Amazons.

I came across this tidbit of information while researching the influence of Scythian cultural elements on the ancient Celtic culture of Europe for an upcoming novel set in the fourth century BC. Intrigued, I started to explore the possibilities of incorporating the story of a strong, valiant warrior woman into this book. But were these women real or mythical? And if they were real, can a woman from these ancient times be portrayed realistically without letting the character fall into the ridiculous hyper body-builder harridan often starring in a fantasy novel?

What is known of ancient Eurasian female warriors comes from two sources: classical Greek literature and art, and modern archaeology and anthropology. After Herodotus wrote his “historical” accounts in the fifth century BC, images of Amazons on Greek pottery became so popular that the motif took on its own name: amazonomachy. Most depictions show the women in the garb of nomadic male warriors—caftan, tight trousers, high boots and tall, pointed hats—while battling Greek soldiers or mythological heroes. Numerous tales chronicling the adventures of the Amazons have popped up over the years, placing them everywhere from northern Africa, the Aegean and Turkey to the Caucasus and southern Russia, but no archaeological evidence has determined their actual existence or the time in which they might have lived.

Did Herodotus make up the story? Even if he told the truth, were his descriptions of the Amazons accurate? Despite the lack of direct evidence, clues have emerged from kurgans—burial mounds—ranging geographically from what is now Bulgaria and Romania along the Black Sea to all the way across the steppe country into southern Siberia. From about the eighth century BC until the fourth century AD tribes known as the Saka, Scythian, Sauromatian and Sarmatian peoples roamed the steppes on horseback. Excavations at Pokrovka on the Russia-Kazakhstan border reveal three categories of female graves: 75 percent were designated as hearth-women—those who took care of the basic home—and included mostly functional everyday items, simple jewelry and a bronze mirror that was symbolically cracked to indicate death. The other 25 percent were either priestesses or warriors, some with dual duty as both.

Of the excavations of those women who were designated as warriors, their graves indeed contained weapons, armor and riding gear. Early interpretations leaned towards the notion that the war gear might have belonged to the women’s bodyguards or slaves. However, in the last thirty years this thought is changing as findings in female graves increasingly include bows, arrows, daggers, quivers, harness rings, and symbolic amulets—all clearly indicating warrior status. One further distinguishing object was the bronze mirror that was not cracked, unlike the hearth-woman’s mirror.

Archaeologist Jeannine Davis-Kimball, who has worked extensively in the field, believes that in ancient times girls trained with boys at a very young age and those who showed promise were selected for training as warriors. On horseback the playing field would be much more level for women fighters, though what their role in tactics might have entailed is difficult to gauge. Suggestions include luring the enemy into a chase; meanwhile the men execute the actual battle. Alternatively, they may have defended the herds and the non-fighting women. All appear to have died very young.

The strong continuity of customs and oral traditions of present day female Kazakh and Mongol nomads offers further clues to ancient female warriors. Although their current lifestyles cannot be extrapolated directly back to the actual tribes of the ancient Eurasian steppes, their traditions include keeping track of their tribe’s ancestry and history through singing contests that preserve and narrate their people’s history, considered highly important. Modern-day nomadic Kazakh women are treated rather equitably despite their culture’s patriarchal structure. Boys and girls compete equally in horse races, echoing the ancient practice of warrior selection. On marrying, daughters receive a good share of the family assets as a dowry, part of which is dedicated to decorating the saulke, a tall, pointed hat women wear at weddings and festivals, reflective of the tall pointed headgear illustrated on ancient Greek vases. Davis-Kimball writes, “One such headpiece reported in the last century was so lavishly adorned with silver and gold ornaments that it was said to be worth forty-thousand horses,” horses being their form of currency.

Modern Kazakh women sometimes become chieftains, not due to inheritance or favors, but out of capability. Ancient accounts also echo this female leadership. Widows were known to rule in place of slain leaders until a new chieftain could be chosen. Scythian warriors swore allegiance on a king’s hearth—the hearth was the woman’s domain. Sauromatian and Saka tribes had female advisors. Other tribes dubbed the Sarmatians “woman-ruled” because their women were considered powerful. Did chieftain equal warrior? In most ancient cultures only the most powerful warrior could lead the tribe.

Though textiles have completely disintegrated in most kurgans, burials in regions of permafrost have preserved an array of cloth items belonging to bodies identified as those of priestesses or warrior-priestesses, many of whom appear to have survived into middle or old age. Particularly among the grave goods, distinctive headdresses with magnificent gold and silver decorations—in a tall conical shape—again echo Greek pottery figures from the past and connect with the wedding saulke of the present. In southern Kazakhstan, an enormous kurgan only partially plundered by ancient robbers yielded a fifth century BC find like no other. The body was dressed in boots, trousers, a gold torc (neck ring) and a leather tunic covered with about 2400 arrow-shaped gold plaques. Also found were a large amount of elaborate jewelry, ceremonial spoons, weapons and bronze mirrors (not cracked), and the most striking item, a spectacular conical-shaped headdress more than two feet tall, festooned in lavish gold decorations. Believing they had found a young Saka chieftain, scholars dubbed the body the “Issyk Gold Man.” They reconstructed the figure and clothing, now on display in Astana, Kazakhstan. But the mirrors, ritual objects and especially the headdress all point straight to a very high-ranking priestess or warrior-priestess. Davis-Kimball suggests a new name: the “Issyk Gold Woman.” Clearly this shift in interpretation is significant and continued research appears likely to support it.

Whether the Amazons ever existed remains a mystery. Most scholars think they did not and that Herodotus got it wrong. In all practicality, the oral traditions of the Scythians with whom Herodotus conferred could have become confused and the terminology was applied to any woman warriors, which could explain how the Amazons were said to be in so many locations. Moreover, his contrasting description of Scythian women may not have been correct—he could have simply imposed archetypal Athenian images onto them. Perhaps he used the legend of the Amazons as a commentary to scare or shame Greek women into staying in their humble place. True or not, warrior women did exist in the ancient world, ranging from the Black Sea’s shores to Siberia. Their descendants and surviving artifacts strongly support this.

So…can a warrior woman be portrayed with historical accuracy in a novel? Within reasonable limitations, I think she can be, based on the evidence. Any character, no matter how much we know about her, is given some amount of the author’s imagination and interpretation. In this case, one specific woman cannot necessarily be portrayed with any surety; she would have to be a composite. She would not be the “Amazon” of myth, but a member of one of the real nomadic tribes, perhaps an “Everywoman” of the steppe. Certainly without these strong, courageous women, the ancient Eurasian steppes would have been a decidedly different place. Amazon, Scythian, Sauromatian or by any other name, they deserve to have their story told.
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  • 2 comments
The small details really intrigue - the cracked mirror to show death for the hearth-women, and not for the horse-riders. More broadly, so does the shifty boundary between legend and history. Thanks for this guest-post! :)
Within reasonable limitations--very well said.