Amazons versus Reality

Sunday , 11, January 2015 10 Comments

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 Swords and Dark Magicpainting 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 Amazonsa 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 jirel of joiry - paperback libraryarmor 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 sword-and-sorceress-i-207x350chores 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.

  • Damon says:

    Despite enjoying the quality of the “Marco Polo” series on Netflix, watching the daughter of one of the khans being lauded as unbeatable at wrestling against men 50% larger than her made my eyes roll whenever she appeared. People that extoll the physical equality of the sexes either are ignoring the readily available evidence or haven’t trained with them. In the military physical conditioning or martial arts.

  • Tomas says:

    Are there any works you think depict female warriors properly? I couldn’t tell if you were lauding any works in your piece.

    • Morgan says:

      C. L. Moore’s Jirel strikes a nice balance. Moore was a feminine writer, no faux masculinity going on in her writing.

      • Dave Hardy says:

        Jirel doesn’t hack up her foes very much. They’re mostly supernatural anyway, so Moore tended to have Jirel rely on spiritual power rather than a sword.

  • Dave Hardy says:

    I think with Sword & Sorcery, a writer has a sort of double-barreled challenge built into writing a narrative. One challenge is the gritty realism, that’s where the bedrock truth about motivation, cause & effect, culture, and the sheer physics of swinging a sword come into play.

    The other is mythic significance of what’s going on. The heroes are often larger than life. They embody the warrior’s virtues and failings in archetypal ways. The villains are outsize too, they are often demons, embodiments of ancestral curses, monsters that reflect the fall of humanity in some way.

    I think the trick with Amazons is to get both of those, the realism and the mythic status. For instance there are lots of war goddesses: Athena, the Badb, Kali, etc. Problem is that just now it is fashionable to reduce the Amazon motif to wearisome PC propaganda.

  • Hans says:

    I recently gave up on Karen Miller’s “Empress” because of the lack of realism re the Amazon protag took me out of the story. I could have stuck with it if she’d added an explanation like the women are augmented by magic which explains how and why they act and fight exactly like men. (Although at that point, the woman is for all intents and purposes a man, so why bother casting the part as a female?).

    I have a simple test for female characters. I imagine the sex was changed from female to male then ask if it makes any difference.

    On a side note, what’s going on in the head of a woman who makes becoming an (average) man their life’s ambition? Why not be the best woman you can be?

    I remember reading Le Guin’s earthsea book where Zed had lost his magic and was living with that woman and they were at the mercy of the evil wizard, and I was like, damn is that what it’s like to be powerless like a woman? I’d better check my priviledge. The fem protag in that book really affected me. Granted in the end she pulled a If I was A Dragon My Love and tranformed, ripping shit up. Anyways, I digress.

    I also dropped Miller’s book because the magic system was inexplicable and frankly seemed evil and demonic. She’s a talented writer but more in the vein of Nora Roberts-style romantic fantasy (which I’ve enjoyed from time to time).

    Regarding Amazons and suspension of disbelief, it’s like this. If you have a character rushing at a machine gun and avoiding every bullet, you’d better explain how that’s possible. Same thing with women wielding swords and hurling javelins. As a reader, I don’t need much. Just get me over the hump.

  • Astrosorcorer says:

    In a frontier environment, or a low population area where the fighting men are away for extended periods, you could logically have women ready to fight. Not out of glory, but the simple necessity of protecting their children while the men are away.

    Similarly, female emergency militia make sense when facing an enemy who would destroy a city after a siege. If facing such enemies, they would have the training and motivation to fight to the end, for the same reasons above.

    Another logical convention would be female assassins and spies. Men like to trust women, and would tend to be less likely to view them as a threat.

    Supernatural women make an excellent rationale for Amazons, giving reason for strength and ferocity. But, a thought must be given to the males of their species. Are they super-humanly strong and ferocious? If the women are lionesses in terms of strength and ferocity, what then are the men of those people like?

  • Mudz says:

    I think the fact is that Xena’s pretty smoking. Athletic, proud, beautiful, and (gracefully) competent enough in the relevant field of hitting things to justify her sticking around on a long-term arc as a companion. Giving her a sword is kind of like putting her in a tower, making her a difficult prize – but she still gets to be close by and romanceable while the male interest goes a-questing and warring (or however it goes). And all the martiality gives them an excuse to roll around in the mud and all the usual fun activities.

    I think where the female market is concerned, it’s probably about women getting to hang out and shine where the men are. So it can easily segue into your average girl power seminar, which isn’t so attractive.

    I agree with Hans. I think making a woman basically a man in drag, is worse than pointless, because it also taxes you heavily in credibility, and women acting like men is simply unattractive.

    The Tower or High Standards Princess (Armoured Maiden, maybe? Is there a TVTropes for this?) is really the best thing I would expect from a warrior woman. Red Sonja killifying all the male sword-fodder, and no man is ever good/brave/strong enough in comparison, strikes me as tedious; but throw Red Sonja in a pirate king’s prison, and toss in a self-insert super-man who’s the only one who can rescue a (ravishingly beautiful) woman unaccustomed to the whole affair, and it’s got a gratuitous hook. (In terms of your average Sword & Sorcery adventure story.)

    I still expect magic to be involved somehow, though, if she’s meant to be par-man.

    (Hah! Apparently it’s a thing! Red Sonja and Conan. Things you learn…)

  • Mike says:

    Problem is, we live in an age where we pretend a person with XX chromosomes can wish themselves into becoming a man, just as an XY person can wish hard enough and be considered female. Those undergoing such a “miraculous” transformation are not only revered as “victims,” but the coolest of the cool.

    So pretending women are just as strong as men is a snap.

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