When I received my copy of Swords & Dark Magic, I had to laugh at the cover. It struck me as so clichéd with the dainty swordswoman in armor sort of like the Roman lorica segmentata hoisting a very large medieval sword. One can’t have a fantasy painting these days without a female warrior (warrioress?) or amazon. I have problems with Swords & Dark Magic but that discussion is for another day. The cover is symbolic for the current cultural obsession with equal outcomes.
Amazons have a fairly long pedigree in modern fiction. The first quasi-amazon I am aware of in our fictional lineage is Fulvia of Rocca Forte. Fulvia a Sicilian Norman lady created by Farnham Bishop and Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur for the pages of Adventure. Lady Fulvia can swing a sword or shoot an arrow when forced to but generally engages in skullduggery within a series of stories beginning with “The Golden Snare” (April 15, 1918) and ending with “The Hand of the Mahdi” (Feb. 20, 1920).
We are all aware of a Methodist minister’s daughter, C. L. Moore and her stories of Jirel of Joiry in an imaginary medieval France in the pages of Weird Tales. Leigh Brackett added to the amazon lineage with Beudag in “Lorelei of the Red Mist” and Ciaran in “Black Amazon of Mars.”
There began to be more fictional amazons in the 1970s with Phyllis Ann Karr’s Frostfire and Thorne novels and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s move into femizon fiction. Jessica Amanda Salmonson edited two anthologies Amazons! and Amazons II that had a better than average percentage of good fiction for being thematic and original books. I don’t know if the anthologies were all that ground breaking as some of the stories would not have been out of place in 1930s issues of Weird Tales. Xena took up the Red Sonja idea and to a whole new level in popular culture. Seems every movie or short-lived fantasy T.V. show anymore has to have a Pilates honed female sidekick.
Some thought should be put into using a female warrior in fiction. A basic idea forgotten in our culture is men and women are physically different. It sounds glib but there you have it. Men have testosterone which helps make muscles. Women have a little just like there are small amounts of estrogen in men. If a man works out, on average he can add a pound of muscle a month. It takes a woman three months of exercise to add one pound of muscle. That is the difference testosterone makes. There are also different average testosterone levels and resultant muscle mass among the Negroid, Caucasoid, and Mongoloid sub-species of Homo sapiens. Women biceps muscle fibers are on average 45% smaller in cross sectional area from men. Knee extensor muscles are 25% less than men. Maximal oxygen consumption can be as much as 45% different between the genders. Women have about 10% difference in body fat percentage from men. There is about 10% gender difference in hemoglobin levels, which impacts carrying oxygen to muscles. Then there are the differences in androgen receptor density of the heart, which is needed for response to endurance or resistance training. You are going to have a small percentage of females at the far right portion of the Bell Curve who have increased testosterone, muscle mass, and bone mass. Most of these women physically are probably within the average standard deviation for men. This means the average female warrior is going to be smaller, “weaker,” and have less endurance than a male contemporary that has similar training and diet.
The question is how do you have an amazon fight? Two options come to mind. First, use women warriors as light infantry– slingers, javelin throwers, and archers. Keep the armor to a minimum, arm them with a dagger or short sword, and let them run ahead of the main body as skirmishers. The Mino female warriors of Dahomey were musketeers though they also had clubs, knives, and a razor like sword if the fighting went hand to hand.
The other option is use them for cavalry. Riding a horse negates many of the physical disadvantages of women. The Sarmatians, an Iranian speaking group of nomadic tribes that lived on the Eurasian steppes roughly 200 B.C. to 400 A.D., have some notoriety as women warriors. Probably most societies that were in the low barbarian level had women fight in a desperate situation. As someone once said to me though, any society that puts it breeding stock in the front line on a regular basis is not going to be around very long.
That brings us to what kind of background for our sword slinging double X chromosome character. You can have the lone warrior woman from a male society like Robert E. Howard’s Dark Agnes and Valeria of the Red Brotherhood. You have Charles Saunders’ Dossouye who comes from a female regiment based on the Dahomey Mino.
Then you have the Amazon culture. Based on Greek mythology of a nation of female that only had sexual relations with the neighboring all male Gargareans. There have been theories that the Amazons were of Scythian or Sarmatian origin. Herodotus mentions three ships of Amazon captives escaping to the land of the Scythians who eventually are able to understand and have relations with them. The Amazons are mentioned as living in the north eastern section of Asia Minor that would later become known as Pontus. So the original Amazons do not appear to have any original connection with the steppe tribes north of the Black Sea. The Amazons are also credited with founding cities including Ephesus. Unfortunately, much of the information on the ancient Amazon was contained in the Aethiopis, one of four lost epics about events of the Trojan War. My guess is if the Amazons have any historical basis, they might have been a Neo-Hittite culture.
Any gynocracy is going to have to be a police state in order to exist. Think of a female Sparta. The actual fighting Amazons are probably a percentage of the total women, say 25% that have greater amounts of testosterone, greater muscle mass, feds lots of protein, and train daily. The rest of the women are probably doing the domestic chores to free up this warrior caste. Men are going to have to be reduced to the status of helots. You might use them after puberty for a few years for procreation but then they are either gelded or overworked and underfed to prevent revolution. There might be a small minority of kept men who are feminized, the proverbial manginas. A repressive society like this is going to be very unstable. Sooner or later, some neighboring power is going to want to take a crack at the Amazons. Light infantry cannot take on heavy infantry in a slug feast. Hit and run skirmishes, ambushes, retreats into rough country are ways to avoid the direct confrontation. The Spaniards used light infantry methods for years against the Roman heavy infantry using hilly territory to their advantage but they were methodically ground down. Cavalry, especially ancient cavalry, is not going to prevail against well-trained heavy infantry unless you use swarms of horse archers. Even then, you need the vast steppes to retreat. A city building culture as inferred to the Amazons does not have the luxury of unlimited space. At some point, they are going to have to stop and fight.
The number of women as heavy infantry carrying armor, shield, pike etc is going to be very limited. In a toe to toe fight against the Free Amazons of Darkover, all a trained, equipped, and well fed male army is going to have to do is simply not make mistakes and outlast the Amazons. With a Greek style phalanx or barbarian shield wall, endurance wins the battle and men have the advantage. The difference in brute muscle and endurance is going to tell. Then there is instability of the culture with the potential for a revolt by the male helots and even discontented women not in the Amazon caste. Outcomes are not going to be equal.
If you look at the mention of the Amazons in Greek mythology, a pattern emerges. They laid siege to Athens when Theseus abducted either the Amazon queen Hippolyta or her sister Antiope. The Amazons failed to take Athens. One of Hercules’ twelve labors was procuring the girdle of Queen Hippolyta of the Amazons. The versions of the story vary but in the end Hercules kills Hippolyta and takes the girdle. Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons, fights as an ally of King Priam in the Trojan War. Achilles kills her in battle and then has sex with the corpse, probably an act of humiliation. Each time the Amazons show up, they get killed.
Richard Matheson wrote a wonderful novel called The Journal of the Gun Years. It examined the psychological and physical toll over time of a notorious gunfighter as wannabes flock to take him out. A female warrior is going to attract attention. There are going to be male warriors who want to make a name for their selves in killing her. Sooner or later, probably sooner, the muscle difference is going to assert itself. There is a great novel waiting to be written on this premise.
So the take home point is if you insist on having an Amazon, be realistic. Don’t load her down with plate armor and an outsized double bladed battle-axe. A good move is have a locale similar to the 18th Century when swords got much smaller and duels were over in seconds. Sword Woman would be at a lesser disadvantage. The differences can actually add some distinct flavor instead of having Conan with breasts.