Whoosh! Issue 23 - August 1998


IAXS project #496
By Stephen W. Richey
Copyright © 1998 held by author
4543 words

Prologue (01-02)
The Truth About Amazons (03-05)
How Do We Know About Them? (06-09)
Where Did They Live? Who Were They Ethnically? (10-11)
Culture: How Did They Live? How Did They Fight? (12-25)
Politics, Population, And the Fate of Cultures (25-33)
Social/Gender Implications: The Amazons (34-41)
Modern Applications (42)

The Horse Nomads Of Asia, The Real Amazons, and THE DEBT

I *knew* we should have turned left at Cleveland!

The Real Deal -- Nomads in Mongolia.


[1] The Xena: Warrior Princess episode entitled THE DEBT (52/306) gave a stunningly accurate portrayal of one of the most exciting and dynamic human cultures to ever exist: the nomadic, horse-riding "barbarian" tribes of central Asia. During ancient and medieval times, these people came to dominate Asia and Eastern Europe. Of special interest is the way in which the women of these cultures rode their horses into battle as equals of the men, thus giving rise to the Greek legends of the Amazons.

[2] It is instructive to compare and contrast these real Amazons of history with the Amazons depicted in Xena: Warrior Princess. Surprisingly, the way Xena was portrayed in THE DEBT (52/306) was close to historical truth. In other episodes, the portrayals of Ephiny, Solari, and the rest, however, are not supported by what we have learned from reading ancient sources and from modern archaeology.

The Truth About Amazons

[3] A person who wants to learn about the REAL Amazons must forget about the jungle-dwelling leather bikini wearers seen on Xena. That ain't how it was. It is true, though, that the Spanish explorers of South America reported fighting against Indian women along the jungle rivers. This experience reminded the Spaniards of the stories that the Greeks told of the Amazons centuries before, so the Spaniards gave the Amazon River its name. However, I am not writing about what the Spanish found in South America in the 16th Century. I am concerned with what the Greeks and others reported seeing in Asia and Eastern Europe starting in the Fifth Century BCE.

[4] To learn about the real Amazons, one must learn about the following tribes of people who really existed in the ancient and medieval worlds:

[5] There probably NEVER was a civilization that was ONLY women living without men in a wild, free, warrior culture. Instead, the women who lived in the cultures listed above rode horses, hunted, and went into battle AS EQUALS of their husbands, brothers, boyfriends, and fathers.

How Do We Know About Them?

[6] The ancient Greeks, who sometimes traded peacefully with and sometimes fought against the Scythians, probably saw the warrior women of this tribe. Then they started telling stories that became the legend of the Amazons that has come down to us today.

[7] The people of these tribes did not know how to read or write. Everything we know about them was written down hundreds and thousands of years ago by the Greeks, Romans, Chinese, and others who encountered them and then wrote about them as outside observers. The most famous ancient Greek writer to write about the Scythians and Amazons, and whose words we still have today, was Herodotus. He lived and wrote in the Fifth Century BCE.

[8] For centuries, people thought Herodotus' stories about the Amazons were ridiculous. Then, starting in the 1950s, archaeologists went to what is now the Ukraine, the Caucasus (between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea), and Kazakhstan. These regions are where Herodotus and other ancient writers said the Scythians, Sauromatians, Sarmatians, and Amazons lived. The archaeologists started digging into the big mounds built of logs, packed dirt, rocks, and sod that were the tombs of these people. They found incredibly rich jewelry and other artifacts of gold along with other items, such as weapons, that these ancient people had buried with them for use in the next life.

[9] The archaeologists could tell which skeletons were male and which were female by measuring the pelvic bones. What astonished everyone was that many of the female skeletons were buried with weapons and horse riding equipment. In addition, the female skeletons had leg bones that were bowed out from lives spent on horseback. Some female skeletons had clear evidence of battle wounds, such as an arrowhead lodged between two vertebrae. Perhaps old Herodotus was on to something after all!

Where Did They Live? Who Were They Ethnically?

When horses smelled like horses, and men smelled like horses.

Horseback warriors in THE DEBT closely resembled Eurasian nomads.

[10] Look at a map. Start in the Ukraine and then head east across the top of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea. Keep heading east until you come to Mongolia. Remember the scene in THE DEBT (52/306) where you see a map and an arrow going east as Xena describes her journey? This region from the Ukraine to Mongolia is called the European-Asian, or Eurasian Steppe. "Steppe" means "prairie" like we have in Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. This land is an endless, flat, almost treeless sea of grass that goes for thousands of miles. Think of the landscape shown in THE DEBT. This is where these tribes lived and where the remnants of these tribes still live today.

[11] The Scythians, Sauromatians, and Sarmatians were round-eyed Caucasians. The Huns, Turks, and Mongols originally were almond-eyed Asians. The Mongols of today, obviously, live in Mongolia where they still cling to the old ways. The Huns were absorbed into the people of what are now the countries of Bulgaria and Hungary. In the Caucasus Mountains, there is today a small group of people called the Ossetians who claim descent from the Sarmatians. Modern Turkic people inhabit Turkey, Kazakhstan, and some of the other neighboring "-stan" countries.

Culture: How Did They Live? How Did They Fight?

Sit, Argo, sit!  Good horse!

Ancient vase depicting an Amazon training a horse.

[12] The culture of these people can be summed up in one word: HORSE. They were the first people in the world to climb on the back of a horse and learn to ride. Estimates of when they achieved this range from 4200 BCE to 1500 BCE. From that moment, there was no looking back. These people lived in the saddle. They had no buildings, no houses, no farms, and no towns. They had no home nor did they want one. They were nomads. They spent their lives on their horses, roaming wild and free over the endless steppe. Their children learned to ride almost before they learned to walk. They put little bows and arrows in their children's hands as soon as they could grip something. These people did EVERYTHING on horseback. When we saw Xena and Borias making love on horseback, that was not an exaggeration.

[13] The nomads obtained their food by hunting and from their livestock. They had great herds of cattle, sheep, camels, and, of course, extra horses. They subsisted on meat and milk and had physiques to prove it. When things got really rough, as they often did, they would make a small incision in a vein in their horse's neck and slurp a little of its blood while it obediently stood there.

[14] The favorite alcoholic beverage of these people was "koumiss," which is fermented mare's milk. You can still get it today in Mongolia. The Scythians also loved mad drunken binges on wine that they obtained by trade with the Greeks. They also liked to get high on hemp that they burned in metal containers in their tents.

[15] The typical nomad day was: wake up in the tent -- take down the tent and put it on a pack horse, pack camel, or in a wheeled wagon -- groom and saddle the horses -- get on the horses and herd the cattle in search of new, un-used-up pastures to graze the animals on -- cover a dozen or so miles of steppe in the course of the day -- break up the time with a horse-mounted hunt for wild animals -- stop for the night, get off the horse (darn!), set up the tent, and fix supper. They then enjoyed an evening of partying, story telling (about that day's hunt, probably) and general merriment before going to sleep on animal skins.

[16] The chiefs of the tribes often had large tents that were permanently set up on huge flatbed wagons pulled by a couple dozen oxen. The tents shown in THE DEBT (52/306) episode were excellent replicas of the central Asian nomad style of tent. People in western culture frequently call this type of tent a "yurt," but its correct name is "ger."

[17] All the artwork that the nomads created had to be portable. A life on horseback left no room for paintings or for statues other than grave markers. Thus, they lavished magnificent ornamentation, full of precious metals and gems, on their weapons, saddles, horse harness, and on jewelry for their own persons. Their cooking and eating utensils, and the rugs for their tents, could reach the pinnacle of extravagance.

[18] The religion of the nomads included the worship of the God of the Great Blue Sky, whom the Mongols called Tangri. Other tribes worshiped The Great Goddess, while others worshiped before a sword shoved into the ground. They buried their dead in tombs built of logs and covered by large earthen mounds. The more important the person, the bigger was his or her tomb. The dead were buried with what they would need in the next world, including weapons, tools, jewelry, food containers, AND favorite horses and slaves who were ritually butchered for the funeral. Eventually, the great majority of the horse nomads converted to Islam, though a very few became Buddhist, Christian, or even Jewish.

[19] In the Scythian tribes, warriors who were best friends swore oaths of blood-brotherhood (and sisterhood, perhaps?) The two friends would cut themselves and mix their blood into a large goblet of wine. They would then drink from the goblet simultaneously. It was common for successful warriors to make drinking cups out of the skulls of slain enemies.

[20] These people were VIOLENT. Their tribes and clans fought amongst themselves constantly. A summer drought or a winter blizzard frequently ruined the pastures or killed many of the cattle, and would make food raids on a neighboring tribe necessary.

[21] Around the edges of the Eurasian steppe were people who had settled stationary cultures with houses, temples, farms, towns, and cities. These included the Greeks, Romans, and Russians to the west, the Persians in what is now Iran to the south, and the Chinese to the southeast.

[22] The horse nomads were contemptuous of the settled people as a race of dull, stay-at-home nothings who were slaves of the dirt they farmed and the houses they lived in. The nomads enjoyed terrorizing them. Nevertheless, the nomads still envied the wealth and easy living of the settled cultures. Remember Xena envying the silk robes worn by the low-ranking Asian lackey while she and Borias were wearing animal skins? Sometimes the nomads carried on peaceful trade with the settled cultures. Sometimes they extorted wealth from the settled cultures with threats of violence if they did not get the treasure they demanded. And, sometimes, the nomads tried to completely conquer and enslave the settled cultures, often, but not always, with success. Again, see THE DEBT (52/306) -- they got it right!

[23] The style of fighting of the nomads was to shoot bows and arrows from horseback, just like the plains Indians in this country. They were incredibly skillful at this. They could shoot arrows while galloping straight at their enemies, do a pivot turn, and then keep shooting arrows back over their horses' tails as they galloped away. The modern phrase "parting shot" comes from "Parthian shot" -- the Parthians being a horse archer tribe descended from the Scythians, who once ruled what is now Iran. Nomad horse archers were so skilled, they could have several arrows in the air at the same moment, all in a line, point to tail feathers, flying to strike the enemy. In addition, the Huns in particular used lassos as weapons to snare and drag their enemies to death, as Xena did in THE DEBT (52/306).

[24] The Greeks, Romans, Russians, Persians, and Chinese all originally preferred to fight on foot. Most of their soldiers always fought on foot. However, these cultures all had to have part of their forces learn to fight on horseback to protect themselves from the nomads. They never became as good at it as the nomads, though. Again, see the battle scene between Xena's horse nomads and the Chinese horse soldiers in THE DEBT (52/306).

[25] The Chinese built the Great Wall in a futile attempt to keep the nomads (mainly Huns and Mongols) out. Apparently, the presence of the Great Wall frustrated Xena in her desire to gallop straight into China. She had to impale Chinese heads within sight of the wall in an attempt to goad the defenders into coming out to fight -- or negotiate.

Politics, Population, And The Fate Of Cultures

Perhaps not what was meant by 'get a-head'.

Xena makes the dead put in some mandatory overtime in THE DEBT.

[26] As the centuries of ancient and medieval times rolled on, a repeating pattern emerged in the relationship between the horse nomads and the settled cultures. Every few generations, a new wave of nomads would suddenly erupt out of the steppe to attack and terrorize the settled cultures, whether Roman, Russian, Persian, Chinese, or whatever. Sometimes the settled cultures were successfully able to defend themselves, though at great cost. Sometimes, the nomads agreed to become mercenaries fighting in the defense of the settled culture they encountered. This meant that they would soon find themselves fighting against the next wave of their brother and sister nomads who came rolling out of the steppe behind them. It was always risky for a settled culture to hire a nomad tribe as mercenaries. This was because it was always possible that the nomad mercenaries could turn on their employers. Sometimes this did happen.

[27] Other times, when a settled culture was having a civil war or revolution, one settled faction would invite a tribe of nomads in to help fight the other settled faction. When this happened, the nomads would often accept the invitation, enter the territory of the settled culture, and then proceed to attack BOTH sides of the settled culture's civil war. This is similar to the game Xena and Borias played with the opposing Chinese factions of Ming and Lao in THE DEBT (52/306). Sometimes the nomads would succeed in completely conquering a settled culture and then ruling over it as dominant nobility and royalty.

[28] The essential point was that the number of nomads was always tiny compared to the number of people in the settled culture. An economy of herding livestock across the harsh steppe in a constant search for new pastures can support only a very few people. An economy of settled farming can support millions of rural peasants, townspeople, government bureaucrats, and so on. The nomads were frequently outnumbered ten to one by the same settled people they were terrorizing or ruling over. When the settled people referred to the nomad "hordes," it was clearly a misnomer.

[29] The nomads had the military advantage of their complete mastery of the almost invincible fighting style of horse archery. In addition, EVERYONE in the nomad culture knew how to fight in this way. As nomads, everyone in their tribe could be a horse-mounted herdsman or wild game hunter one moment, and in the next moment, everyone in the whole tribe could be transformed into a battle-ready warrior horse archer. In the settled cultures, with all their dozens of different skills and trades, only a small percentage of the males could be trained and paid to be full time warriors. This is what enabled the nomads to dominate up to ten times their number of settled people.

[30] The problem for the nomads started after they completed their conquest of the settled people. The illiterate nomads had no idea how to operate irrigation systems for the farms, maintain roads, build buildings, manufacture commercial goods, or do anything that had to be done in a settled culture to keep things functioning. The conquering nomads were completely dependent on the settled people, whom they had just enslaved, to do all these things for them. The nomad rulers had to rely on technical advisors from among the settled people for advice on what to tell all the millions of peasants and tradesmen to do. More positively, the first one or two generations of new nomad rulers, once they became somewhat tamed, brought new energy and progressiveness to the settled cultures they ruled.

[31] Finally, given the huge disparity in numbers between the nomads and the settled people, it was inevitable that the nomads would be assimilated into the people they had conquered. Within a few generations of their conquest, the nomads would always become as soft and decadent as the huge mass of people they had conquered -- and indistinguishable from them. They were now vulnerable to the NEXT wave of hungry nomads to come raging out of the steppe.

[32] Genghis Khan started the huge Mongol Empire that within three generations conquered most of Asia and a large piece of Europe. The Mongol Empire grew to include all of China. Genghis Khan's great-grandson ruled China as a Mongol emperor. Genghis Khan was born on the dirt floor of a tent with the wind howling outside. His great-grandson was born on silk pillow cushions inside a Chinese palace. After another few generations, the Chinese people rebelled and drove their now soft and weak Mongol masters out of the country. Centuries after this, another nomad tribe, the Manchus, would conquer China to repeat the process.

[33] This situation lasted for centuries. The culture of the nomads never changed. They never improved their technology. Their bows and arrows were the same for thousands of years. Meanwhile, the people in the settled cultures developed modern technology with modern workshops and factories that could make GUNS. The guns changed everything. Starting in the 16th Century, Russian and Chinese armies with guns started to attack and conquer the nomads on the steppes. The end came in the 19th Century. At the exact same time that the U.S. Army destroyed the freedom of the horse-mounted plains Indians, the Russian Army subdued the last of the Turco-Mongols on the steppe.

Social/Gender Implications: The Amazons

Bronze-Age traffic jams

Amazon rider.

[34] The key to understanding why the Amazons arose in the horse nomad tribes of Eurasia is this: A healthy, athletic, well-trained woman can shoot a bow and arrow from the back of a galloping horse as well as a man.

[35] Because the favorite fighting style of the nomads was shooting arrows from horseback, the women were able to participate in war on an equal basis with their menfolk. Contrast this with the favorite fighting style of settled cultures like the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Chinese. They liked to fight on foot with a big, heavy shield on the left arm and a big, heavy sword, spear, ax, or club held in the right hand. They liked to stand face to face with their enemies and just bash and hack away until one or the other was killed or dropped his gear and ran.

[36] This style of fighting places an absolute premium on massive upper body muscles. Men, as a whole, are better suited to this type of fighting since it favors their general biological make-up and is culturally reinforced in many societies. A woman who tries to fight an equally skilled man in this style would, more likely than not, be outmatched in brute strength. In most cases, she would be over-muscled, overpowered, beaten to her knees, and killed.

[37] There are at least two known ancient Greek vase paintings that show the legendary Amazon queen Penthesilea suffering precisely this fate at the hands of the Greek warrior Achilles at Troy. Xena's defeat at the hands of Hercules in THE GAUNTLET (H12/112) also comes to mind. As an aside, Penthesilea came from Thrace, as Xena does. Penthesilea was also considered a daughter of Ares.

[38] A nomad horse archer, man or woman, would never be foolish enough to get close enough to an enemy heavy foot soldier to risk such punishment. The horse archer would gallop in at high speed, shooting arrows all the way -- arrows that kill from far away, not at face-to-face distance. The horse archer would turn and gallop away again before ever coming within the foot soldier's reach -- and, turning in the saddle to shoot back over his or her horse's tail, fire as many arrows on the way out as on the way in. The horse archer would repeat this process as many times as was necessary.

[39] Only when the enemy army of foot soldiers had been reduced to bloody, arrow-riddled, panic-stricken shambles would the horse archers sling their bows, draw their own swords, and gallop in for the final face-to-face kill. That is exactly what Xena did to the unhorsed Chinese soldiers in the battle scene in THE DEBT (52/306). This is why the settled cultures had to invent guns before they could finally defeat the horse nomads.

[40] A woman's fighting ability is often used in a society to determine her social status. The ancient Greek, Roman, and Chinese societies "enculturated" a fighting style that physically favored men in general, and it is a known fact that these were male dominated cultures where women were treated like dirt. The horse nomad culture had a fighting style that enabled women to be battlefield killers equal to the men, so they had a social status equal to the men. In any warrior culture, settled or nomadic, a person's status as a killer determines that person's status in society. A powerful killer will have a high social status in a warrior culture and a non-killer will have a low status.

[41] The horse, bow, and arrow empowered nomad women to be serious killers, giving them a social status that Greek, Roman, and Chinese women rarely, if ever, achieved. That is, perhaps, why the legends of the Amazons originated when the Greeks first saw the horse nomads. Consequently, that is why the legends turned out to have a foundation of truth.

Modern Applications

Yoky paulki!  I just washed and waxed this thing!

Lilya Vladimirovna Litvyak was a Russian WWII fighter pilot who downed 12 enemy planes before she herself was killed in combat in 1943.

[42] Modern military combat airplanes or combat helicopters that shoot missiles play the exact same role on the battlefield that horse-mounted archers played 2,000 years ago. That is: go in fast, shoot death down on the enemy from a safe distance for yourself, and get out fast before somebody bigger than you comes along to clobber you. A female pilot can use her airplane or helicopter to compensate for her having less upper body muscle power than a man, exactly like her female predecessor used her horse and bow and arrow centuries ago.

[43] The corollary is that modern foot combat is just like ancient foot combat in that it demands immense muscular strength and endurance of the soldier who wants to survive and win. The modern foot soldier must still carry his dauntingly heavy gun, ammunition, and related gear across miles of rough ground before the battle even starts. It is true that the modern foot soldier, unlike the ancient foot soldier, will only rarely come within hand-to-hand stabbing or clubbing distance of his foe. But, once the shooting starts, after his long and tiring approach "hike", he must still muscle his heavy gun from tree to ditch to fallen log to boulder to brick wall to doorway with the lightning-quick speed of a football player. He must do this to get his gun to the most advantageous position from which to shoot at the enemy, while he evades being shot himself.

[44] The recent achievements of women in competitive sports notwithstanding, most women would still find themselves at a severe, and often fatal, disadvantage in modern foot combat. The Russian women's battalions who fought in the desperate days of World War I suffered horrific casualties relative to the casualties they inflicted. Israeli women only actually fought in Israel's first, and most desperate, war in 1948. That was enough for the Israelis. Since then, they have restricted their female soldiers to rear area support duties.

[45] Modern American military females are clamoring to get out of serving in supporting roles in supply, paperwork administration, and so forth, and into front line combat jobs. They are doing this for one reason: they know that in any military culture all the PRESTIGE and PROMOTIONS are in the combat jobs, not the support jobs. Modern American military women are trying to emulate the high social status of the Scythian warrior women, although most of them have never heard of the Scythians. They would be wisest to seek combat roles, such as attack aircraft pilot, that enable them to use technology that makes the lack of upper body strength irrelevant. The Scythian women achieved this by using the technology of horse domestication and bows and arrows.

[46] By the way, remnants of the Mongol and Turkic tribes still, to this day, cling to the old ways where they live in the far northwestern reaches of modern China . . . and they have armed women actively participating with men in their horse-mounted local militias.


The World Of The Scythians by Renate Rolle. (See pages 86-91 for the Amazons.)

The Scythians, 700-300 BC by E. V. Cernenko with illustrations by Angus McBride. (This book is #137 from the Osprey Men-at-Arms series.)

Attila And The Nomad Hordes by David Nicolle with illustrations by Angus McBride. (This book is #30 from the Osprey Elite series.)

The Mongols by S. R. Turnbull with illustrations by Angus McBride. (This book is #105 from the Osprey Men-at-Arms series.)

The Mongol Warlords by David Nicolle.

These books all have excellent illustrations of weapons, armor, saddles and horse harness, jewelry, and clothing of both sexes.

And, a magazine article:

"Warrior Women of the Eurasian Steppes" by Jeannine Davis-Kimball in Archeology Magazine, issue of January/February 1997

Dr. Davis-Kimball is an archaeologist of growing fame who works at the University of California at Berkeley. She has made numerous trips to Asia and Eastern Europe to search for and dig up ancient Amazon tombs. Maybe she will find Xena's chakram some day.

She has her own web page at http://csen.org.


Steve Richey Steve Richey
Steve Richey is desperate to maintain his dignity as a Captain in the United States Army. (Yeah, yeah, he graduated from West Point, was a paratrooper for a while, did the Desert Storm thing, etc.) Because Steve knows that his Army buddies will razz him mercilessly if they find out that he wasted his time writing an article for a website devoted to a fantasy TV show, he is counting on his fellow Xenites to help him keep his dirty little secret... OK? (Famous last words...)
Favorite episode: THE PRICE (44/220)
Favorite line: Xena: "If I'm gonna die, I'm gonna die as I am... a warrior with a sword in my hand." THE PRICE (44/220)
First episode seen: CHARIOTS OF WAR (02/102)
Favorite general line: "Do it!" from any episode you choose.

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