Women Warriors in Ancient Greece and in Mortal Gods

Hey everyone,

Phatis here. It’s like I never left, though. I think I have published more posts in the last few weeks than anyone else. You’re probably sick of hearing from me. Nah, I doubt that. How could you ever grow weary of me, a shade from the underworld! … No, you get on with it!

Alright, well the question about women warriors has come up a bit in the Facebook group enough times that it has to be sorted. So the topic for today is: Women warriors in Ancient Greece. There are two sides to this conversation: (1) the historical facts and evidence and (2) the rule of cool and how War Banner is going to interpret the evidence to produce some awesome miniatures, characters, and box sets for future release.

Historically, it is important to remember that ancient Greece was a male-dominated society, even in Sparta where women were offered more freedoms than in, say Athens. Additionally, the histories that survive are written by men, though we know of a few women who were educated enough to leave us some information (Sappho, for example). The typical male attitudes towards women in this period may also be why we have so few stories about women engaging in male-dominant roles (such as warfare), but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any recorded instances. There are two rather famous accounts of women taking up arms and donning male armor to fight off invaders in the Classical Period, as well as a fair share of women in military leadership roles. Sparta is a good starting place because it is most well-known.

Women Warriors in Sparta and Argos

Women in Sparta were better off to a larger degree than in most ancient Greek city-states (which might be the one instance where Sparta was more refined than its neighbors). Not only did girls receive athletic training the same as boys while growing up, they also earned an education, were able to own property (by the mid-5th Century BCE, women owned about 40% of all deeded Spartan land). At home, they were also considered the head of the family, but the downside to this is that their marriages were also arranged and often solely for breeding fine Spartan warriors.

Art by John Wigley

Curiously the rest of the Greek world looked on Spartan women rather unfavorably. Aristotle was among the many Athenian men who contributed the fall of Sparta and the decline of male progenies in Sparta to the freedoms women enjoyed there. To say that women get the σαυρωτήρ (‘sauroter’, also known as a lizard-killer) end of the spear through the chest in classical antiquity is an understatement.

Well, they still kicked arse. During the wars with Messenia, the Messenians invaded Sparta. The army was away fighting elsewhere, so it was up to the women to defend their homeland. They suited up in armor and took spears and thoroughly trounced the Messenians, much to the surprise of the men when they arrived back home to find women in their armor! For the sake of the children, we won’t go into what happens next. We can add, rather suggestively, that they erected a statue of an armed Aphrodite to commemorate the victory.

The second lesser-known event occurred in Argos. The narrative goes that Cleomenes I of Sparta decided to invade Argos after consulting with an oracle who, in some manner or another, indicated a great victory. And a great victory was to be had over the army sent to meet him upon his invasion. The men of Argos were nearly annihilated. Cleomenes saw this victory as an omen that he could take all of Argos, so he marched his army on the city. But the women there did not flee or hide. Under the guidance of the poet Telesilla, the women grabbed whatever armor and weapons they could from homes and temples and went out to meet the Spartans. However it may have happened (it is portrayed differently in extant accounts), the Spartans withdrew and the women won the day.

The Mythic Amazons

I couldn’t just ignore this subject. Popularized in modern media, the Amazons were said to have been a society made up entirely of women who were skilled and legendary warriors. It may surprise some readers that the Amazons were just as popular a subject matter in ancient Greece, appearing often on pottery and in sculpture reliefs. Historically there is some truth to this mythical society, though with some… caveats (Ick. Latin is such a barbaric language).

Mythically, the Amazons are described in Homer (Iliad 6.185) as being “ἀντιανείρας” (‘antianeiras’), meaning ‘a match for men’. But that is actually pretty accurate to what scholars believe today to be the basis for Homer’s Amazons: the Scythians.

While we do not have any writings from these people of the Steppe, the archaeological evidence provides a wealth of our data on them. Most interesting is how many women were buried with arms (bows, arrows, daggers, etc..); they also had wounds from battle, some were bow-legged from riding horseback for long periods of time. And most of these women warriors were taller on average.

Of course, this was not a matriarchal society, but women and men did hunt together and go to war together. They were not as patriarchal as the ancient Greek world. Thus the Scythians would have probably looked barbaric to a classical Athenian man and for the most part, as Greeks set out in search of Amazons, they did come across the Scythians. In fact, Herodotus discusses the region, the Amazons, and the Scythians (Histories 4.113), making the case rather strong that the Scythians were indeed who the Greeks viewed as Amazons.

Future Releases from War Banner

Now onto the War Banner releases. The idea we had in mind was to release three sets. This is all tentative at this stage, but we’re quite excited about the possibility of paying homage to these narratives in a way that fits with Mortal Gods!

First War Banner is looking to release a box of Spartan women warriors and hoplites, as these are the most well-known and probably the most popularly depicted. These miniatures will represent experienced soldiers, equipped with decent armor, spears and shields, etc.

The second release is likely going to be the Amazons. Unlike the Spartans, these will be veteran soldiers who are used to the sounds of war. These soldiers have been training their whole lives for combat and they are not afraid of death, nor taking on any enemy lochos.

The third set is going to be your inexperienced women warriors; like the women of Argos, they did not train for battle, but they still want to defend their homes. They are going to have a mix of armor as it represents a scramble to find anything they could scrounge from temples, armories, or homes prior to a fight.

Apollonia the Huntress of Athens

Besides these sets though, we are also looking to bring in female characters and heroes. There is already one we are working on presently (Apollonia the Huntress). But more will be on the way, including lochagoi and promachoi!

I hope you all enjoyed this meatier post than normal from me, your friend from Hades, Phatis! Be sure to like, share, and subscribe to stay informed about all things Mortal Gods!

Oh! A big shout-out to Steve Beckett for the new avatar! He was brave enough to sit and draw this portrait before I had drank my coffee! No lead curse scroll for him.



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About the Author

Hi there! I'm Phatis. So there I was, minding my own business in Hades, when the Footsore blokes summoned me by some ritual or another and bound me to this thankless Fate--writing about Mortal Gods. But fear not, mortals! I do enjoy my profession, even if I am only compensated by way of caffeinated drinks.

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