FROM age to age memories of the Amazons persistently clung to the Pontus, to the whole of the Caucasian range of mountains and the regions immediately beyond, or those coming within their influence. Many writers held that some sections of the broken Themysciran state had after the debacle taken refuge among the higher mountains, and there, in security if not in solitude, carried, more or less in its entirety, the traditional mode of life. To give colour to this there were the generally prevailing reports of fighting women in those regions. When Mithridates V., King of Pontus, made war on the Roman colonies in Asia Minor, between 100 and 98 B.C., he had in his vast army strong bodies of auxiliaries from Scythia and Sarmatia, who were looked upon as barbarians both by friend and foe. After the battles, it is said, the Romans found among the heaps of slain women clothed in armour and with arms; in their hands. Appianus the historian, in his account of this war, touches upon the matter and raises the interesting question whether the term was not already becoming generalised. According to him: “There were found among the prisoners and the hostages several women whose wounds were as great and dangerous as those of the men. These women were said to be Amazons, either because the auxiliary troops belonged to nations neighbouring on Amazonia, or because the barbarians gave that name to all warlike women.”
More than three centuries later the traditions and habits still lingered on hereabouts. Gibbon tells us that in the theatrically gorgeous procession on the occasion of the Emperor Aurelian’s triumph in 274 A.D., there marched ten heroines of the Gothic nation, taken in arms, and exhibited to the Roman populace as “Amazons.” It is in recording this fact that the great sceptic wrote, like Appianus, with remarkable hesitancy: “It is almost impossible that a society of Amazons should ever have existed in the Old or New World.” From such a quarter we might well have looked for more downright utterance. There was, however, enough of mystery to justify caution, even to the extent of the un-Gibbon-like italics.
For instance, Jacob Reineggs, in a description of the Caucasus written in 1796, says that the Circassians in his day declared that before their own forefathers had come to the Black Sea, the land was in the possession of the “emmetsh,” with whom they were at war. The women “admitted no men among them, but, full of warlike spirit, associated with themselves any women who cared to share their wanderings and to join their heroic guild.” Which seems to describe a nomadic tribe composed of the flotsam and jetsam of social wreckage in this veritable cockpit of conflicting races. Schober, in his account of Asiatic Russia, places the women further afield, for he heard rumours that the “Emazuhn” still inhabited the mountains of Great Tartary, and though they in his day, it seems, no longer indulged in constant fighting, they were accomplished hunters and kept their husbands in a condition of subservience. On the other hand, we are told that the Kalmuks, an Asiatic Russian tribe of Mongol extraction, and therefore possibly acquainted with the Emazuhn of whom Schober speaks, applied the term “aëmetzaine” too strong women full of vigour. Whether the word was philologically and intentionally descriptive we are not informed. It may have been derivative, a later corruption of the Greek or, more correctly speaking, Greecised term amazon; in fact, the name of a type may have been applied to an individual, as seems to have been done in the days of Mithridates. In any case, the long persistence of a word in a special locality, varying slightly though it does, and applying to a particular race or to a type of women, cannot lightly be set aside. It may mean merely the survival of a legend, but may also indicate that there is some justification for the legend-makers, and this the local history seems to confirm.
At all events, rumours of this kind repeated by travellers in or writers dealing with these regions from the Middle Ages down to quite the end of the eighteenth century certainly point in such a direction. Sir John Mandeville, who looms large in the company of the quaint raconteurs, wrote of the Amazons as of an existing nation in his day, and says, among a plethora of other things, that they kept the lost ten tribes of Israel shut up in a valley surrounded by mountains. It must have been pretty obvious even to the credulous knight that there were serious gaps in those chains of mountains, and that the vigilance of the good women was far from being above reproach since the Amazonian coralle had not perceptibly checked the wandering propensities of the Hebrews. For there were, even in those days, opposing camps, who placed the lost tribes in Abyssinia and others on the banks of the Ganges, a confusion probably due to the haziness prevailing among the mediæval geographers but also suggested by racial peculiarities in those distant lands. But it is interesting to find the Nestorians of Mesopotamia claiming that they represent the lost tribes, while the Jews of the Caucasus have always persisted that they were descendants of the ten tribes, those of Georgia holding that they were taken prisoner by Nebuchadnezzar, and those from other districts declaring that they were carried away from Palestine by Shalmaneser. All of which points to the singular mixing of races hereabouts, while the connection of the women with the lost tribes also has its significance. The Amazons were Scythians, and, as we know, one of the most persistent of the traditions concerning these matters is that the Scythians (those forefathers of the whole Teutonic family, and consequently of the Angle and the Saxon) were the true representatives of the lost ten tribes. Remembering the old forms of worship among the Jews and their later backsliding devotion to Ashtoreth, Queen of the Heavens, and that among the scattered remnants of old tribes the Cabala, or traditional lore, would prevail over the written law, and no doubt give rise to certain of the mystic extravagances that arose elsewhere, its secrets kept alive by an elect band of initiated, we see here again an association of the armed women guards with religious ritual.
Many as are the questions that a perusal of Mandeville’s tale raises, a much more reliable author, John Cartwright, who had travelled extensively in the East and wrote an account of his experiences in 1603, speaks of Armenia with its great plains encompassed by rows of mountains, those spurs of the Taurus and Caucasus ranges. The people he found to be “industrious in all kinds of labour,” and then he adds, as though by way of contrast: “their women very skilful and active in shooting and managing any sort of weapon, like the fierce Amazons in antique times and the women at this day which inhabit the Mountain Xatach in Persia.” This reminds us irresistibly of Herodotus’s remarks on the Sauromatœ. Then that adventurous character, Sir John Chardin, who, beginning life as plain jean Chardin, son of a Paris jeweller, enjoyed a most picturesque career in the East, and ended his days peacefully in England as a protégé of Charles II., says that when he was in Georgia in 1671 the Amazons had only recently invaded an outlying position of the kingdom somewhere to the north-west. From what he says it would seem to have been a tribe similar to that referred to by Hippocrates when he declares that a body of Scythians dwelt immediately to the north of the Palus Mæotis, which sea he places entirely in Europe. Their women, says the great physician, were red, rode astride on horseback, using the bow and arrow even when riding at full speed, went to war, and did not marry until they had killed three men; so that it was only natural that the Greeks should call them Androchtones. When they had garnered the three masculine scalps, these amiable girls gave up warfare and hunting, to settle clown to a quiet married life. They seared their right breasts with red-hot irons, and as a consequence, their right arms grew exceptionally powerful. Which account affords another interesting link connecting the Themysciran women, the Sauromatœ females of man-like habits described by Herodotus, the Sauromatœ Gynœcocratumeni of Pliny, and the modern feminine warriors of these savage parts.
As for Chardin, he confesses that he had not seen the Amazonian country, which he considered formed part of Tartary, but while in Georgia he heard much about it and its inhabitants, and was even shown the woollen costume of peculiar cut belonging to a big woman, which was said to have been taken from an Amazon killed in the late wars. Discussing the whole subject with the young Prince of Georgia, they agreed that there was nothing improbable in the stories about women fighting on horseback. Women warriors and nations governed by aggressive queens were too well known in those parts to give rise to much astonishment; and as for riding, most of the maids and matrons were good horsewomen, and they always rode astride like men. The prince was of the opinion that the recent invaders must have been nomadic Scythians, but he did not appear to have heard of the Greek traditions.
Indeed, this phenomenon of fighting women was widespread, extending through Armenia and the Kurd country to Syria and parts of Arabia, as well as north of the Sea of Azof and eastward into Tartary. Of the southerly Amazonian females, we hear constantly in connection with the conquests of Mahomet’s early successors. Ockley tells us that at the first siege of Damascus the Moslem women who were guarding the camp of invaders were captured, and insulting terms proffered to them by the Greeks. But the women, being encouraged by two Hamzarite companions, supposed to be descendants of the Amalekites, resistance was at once organised. Arming themselves with tent-poles, and forming a close ring, they kept the enemy at bay, breaking the skulls or limbs of any who advanced too near. Even mounted men could make no impression, for the tent-poles were longer than lances, and easily broke the horses’ legs, bringing steed and cavalier to the ground. The fight was gallantly kept up until the Moslem horsemen came galloping up to the relief, and then the women helped their own troops in following up and routeing the discomfited Greeks. So ended this affair: but it is evident that had they not been relieved, they might well have made their escape in the darkness; and had their own friends been slaughtered, could have wandered off to sheltering hills, and there formed a women’s community.
Then we have an incident of a different kind at the second siege when one of the Arab leaders was brought into camp mortally wounded by a poisoned arrow. His wife, a daughter of the Himiar tribe, seized his bow and arrows, and sallying forth, joined in the battle, and succeeded in putting out an eye of the noble Thomas, the Greek Governor of Damascus. Still she continued her onslaught, fighting all day, and venturing so far in the fray under the walls that, her darts exhausted, she was captured during a sortie, but subsequently rescued. Again and again, she proved a rallying point to the besiegers. Such actions were of constant occurrence, both on the side of the attacking forces and the attacked, but they caused little surprise, for these bold creatures were “accustomed from their youth to mount the horse, ply the bow, and launch the javelin.” And much the same was said of the tribes to the north.
Probably the most circumstantial account of the late survivals in the Caucasian regions is given by Father Angelo Lamberti in his careful Relation de la Colchide, published in 1654, as the result of his long stay in the country. The good priest declines to discuss the whole question of an Amazon state or race, but says that when he was in Mingrelia the king of that country was notified that a large body of troops had left the Caucasus, and splitting up into three divisions, one party went into Muscovy, and the other two set about attacking local tribes. They were beaten off, and among the dead were found a great number of women, who had taken an active part in the fighting. They were all in armour, which was beautifully wrought and decorated with a true feminine love of elegance. This armour comprised helmets, breastplates, jambieres, cuissards, etc., all constructed of iron plates so skillfully put together that the wearers retained perfect freedom of movement. Attached to the breastplates were short skirts of woollen material dyed a bright red. Their half-boots were ornamented with brass discs strung on threads of exquisitely plated goats’ hair. The women carried bows and arrows, the latter having long gilded shafts, the heads being of iron, not pointed or barbed in the usual style, but in the form of a sharp cutting edge, like the blade of a knife or a pair of scissors. Their cutting edge was placed at right angles to the shaft. These must, therefore, have been only short-flight darts, intended for use at close quarters, and having a severing or slashing rather than a piercing action. This form of the arrowhead is so extraordinary that it is rather suggestive of a modified form of the crescent-headed arrow, so much heard of in the East as a mystic weapon of great power.
Rama, the demigod hero of the Ramayana, did wonderful deeds with his irresistible crescent-shaped arrows. So did Rajah Arjuna, as related to us in the Maha Bharata. It is true that the latter lost his life through one of these, but it was the only weapon that caused him harm. It was shot, too, by his own son, the rajah who dwelt in a magnificent palace encircled by walls of gold in the city of Manipur, itself walled about by battlemented ramparts of silver. He was a man who had conversed with diverse dealers in magic, such as the King of Serpents. When he sped the sacred arrow in anger against his unknown father, it severed Arjuna’s head, which, however, was subsequently reunited with the body, and life restored, thanks to the jewel borrowed from the King of Serpents. In all these cases the crescent arrows were sacred weapons. Indeed, this form of the dart was symbolical and was used in sacrifices by the large following of lunar deities in the East. Sin, the second of the great Babylonian gods, was a moon god, and his terrible daughter, Ishtar, wore the crescent as her symbol. And, as we know, there were sanctuaries to moon gods in the fastnesses of the Caucasus, where human sacrifices were offered even in late days. Thus, it looks as though the weapons described by Father Lamberti were actually survivals in a degraded form. Lamberti says that various pieces of armour and feminine gear were brought in, but apparently the king’s offer of a handsome reward to anyone who would bring him a real live Amazon proved ineffective. Nevertheless, it is said that the women were constantly at war with the Kalmuks, who, as we have seen, respected their valour and called them aëmetzaines.
These rumours continued quite late, and even in the middle of the nineteenth century we hear of fighting women. A notable instance is that of a kind of modern Thalestris, a certain Kurdish chieftainess known as the “Black Virgin,” who at the opening of the Crimean War headed a body of 1000 cavalry, and having paraded before the Sultan’s palace at Constantinople, went off to fight under Omar Pasha against the Russians on the Danube.