Ice Maidens and Iron Age Warrior Princesses.

Jed Bland


Issue 32
Winter 2005

During the golden age of Grecian culture, Herodotus may be considered the father of ethnography - or at least of travel books. Among the peoples he wrote about were the nomadic warriors of the Asian steppes, the Scythians and later the Sauromatians. While the Victorian scholars dismissed his work as fantasy, in recent decades startling finds have been made, of richly adorned bodies in the tumuli, or 'Kurgans' buried in the permafrost.

They seem to confirm the many myths of that period of a race of Amazon hunters and warriors. A typical example was featured in a BBC Horizon programme "The Ice Maiden". (30 January 1997), about the remains of a Pazyrik priestess unearthed from a frozen grave in Siberia. In his account, Herodotus wrote that "no virgin weds till she has slain a man of the enemy; and some of them grow old and die unmarried because they cannot fulfil the law."

The idea of women warriors was clearly shocking to the Greeks. That men might be warriors too would be unremarkable. While the mythology of that period supporting the idea of matriarchy seems too strong to be ignored, one might expect men and women to fight and hunt together.

However, males in the accounts seem to take a very inferior role. Hippocrates or one of his disciples, wrote in "Airs, Waters and Places" that Scythian men had "low fertility and an equally low libido, in part because of their 'constitution' (in terms of humours) and in part because of their way of life." and later adds "also because they always wear trousers and spend most of their time on their horses, so that they do not handle the parts,"

Herodotus also writes about the Scythian 'Enarees' , androgynous males who the priestess of the temple of Escalon had smitten with the 'female sickness' In discussing this feminisation, most authors consider the practice of many nomad tribes of drinking the urine of their horses if they feared a well or spring was unfit, and particularly of drinking that from mares, rich in estrogens. I can find no direct reference to them actually doing this. Ovid wrote of a witch that she "knows . . . how to extract that stuff from a mare on heat" and elsewhere "abjure that deadly stuff distilled by a mare in heat."

The impression given is that it was a lifetime role, but a sentence in Timothy Taylor's "The Prehistory of Sex" throws some light on the puzzle. "The transvestite (sic) Scythians constituted a large part of the elite male population." In most cultures, gender liminal males are in the minority, albeit, in many cases, a significant one. He goes on to refer to "those who rode horses and were subsequently disabled by it." He suggests a number of possible problems from "geographers balls" to anal fistulae. He misses an obvious one - the enlargement of the prostate that many men suffer at a certain age - which nowadays, in extreme cases, is relieved by antiandrogens, and might have been exacerbated by a life on horseback.

Thus becoming an enaree might simply have been a life stage one entered when one became too old for the saddle and, while the drinking of mare's urine may have been a part of the rite of passage, the origin of its use might have been much more mundane. To put it crudely - it alleviated problems with peeing.

These men are explicitly described as cross-dressers: "they put on women's clothes, holding that they have lost their manhood" which begs the question of how the Scythians defined manhood or womanhood. In other words, perhaps they had passed the age of warriorhood, but in no sense were they 'becoming women'. The rules in this regard were quite strict. Timothy Taylor offers an example of a Scythian nobleman who was lynched because his peers felt that, dressing in Grecian robes, he was too effeminate.

The idea of a lifetime role seems to have sprung from a possibly illusory correlation, by Taylor and others, with those enarees that were priests, who practised divination using willow bark. It wasn't a particularly safe occupation, since those whose prophesies turned to be wrong were likely to be killed.

Thus Ascherson writes "Now it is time to take a much closer look at the bones of queens, priestesses and important women in general, lying among their cosmetics and the remains of expensive dresses and tiaras. Some of them could turn out to be men: Enareis transvestites and gender-crossing mediums who have deceived another generation of far more sophisticated archaeologists." The use of the word 'transvestite' is clearly inappropriate here, and they couldn't be said to be 'gender-crossing' if their ideas about gender were different to ours.

Certainly with Horizon's "Ice Maiden" the evidence seemed to be no more substantial than that the body had long hair and wore ornaments along with her armour and weapons.

Meanwhile, about a year ago "Meet the Ancestors" on BBC1 featured an Iron Age female warrior chieftain or priestess, from the fourth century BCE, who had been found at Wetwang in Yorkshire, buried along with her chariot. In true Boy Scout fashion, the programme said little more about the person, but concentrated on the technology of the chariot.

However, during the programme came the intriguing comment that she was taller even than the average male of the time. This was a point also made about the Pazyric remains. A common outcome of intersex conditions is delayed epiphyseal closure - in layperson's terms they often don't stop growing as soon as other people.

The historical anthropologists among our readers will immediately retort that such things are determined by measurements of the skeleton. Yet there is no reason to suppose that an intersex person will conform to one or other norm and Timothy Taylor has covered this point in respect to another Kurgan body: "The skeleton in the Sokolova barrow is described as that of a 40 to 45-year-old woman, but the published metrical data is inconclusive." I include Taylor's photograph of a reconstruction of this person by the Russian archaeologist Kovapenko.

"Horizon" suggested that there was the intention to carry out DNA tests on the body they had discovered (for political reasons, to determine her relationship to modern ethnic groups), but no more has been heard. One might imagine that the result of such tests was so shocking to the Russian academicians that they have drawn a discreet veil of secrecy over the whole subject.

If you want to read more about these people, try:

Ascherson, N., (1996) Black Sea, London: Jonathan Cape

Taylor, T., (1996) The Prehistory of Sex: Four Million Years of Sexual Culture. London: Fourth Estate

Photograph from Taylor, Copyright of Kovpanenko, G.T. (1991) Die sarmatische 'Priesterin' aus der Sokolova Mogila in Rolle, R., Müller-Wille, M., Schietzel, K, (eds) Gold der Steppe: Archäologie der Ukraine, 221-26 Neumünster: Karl Wachholtz Verlag.

Reconstruction of person from the Sokolov burial
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