Kyz Saikal, The Kalmyk warrior heroine of the Turkish Kyrgyz Manas epic.
image by Teodor Gercen, featured on a postage stamp, Kyrgyz Republic,1995
Amazons and Scythians
A millennium of detailed descriptions of Amazons presented as history began with Herodotus (5th c BC) and continued through the late antique authors Orosius and Jordanes (5th -6th c AD). Between the lifetimes of these men, many other Greek and Roman historians also chronicled the origins, rise and fall of the legendary Amazon “empire”. Each of these writers had Access to texts and unwritten traditions that no longer exist today. Their accounts commingle fact and fancy, legend and history, but all identify the women called Amazons as Scythians.
Herodotus, the inquisitive Greek historian from Halicarnassus (Caria, part of the Persian Empire at that time) preserved a treasury of information about the many tribes of Near and Far Scythia, based on personal observations, local histories and legends, and interviews. Admiration for resourceful, self-reliant Amazons is evident in Herodotus’s “historical” account of the origin of the Sarmatians. That story tells how a gang of Amazons from Pontus joined a band of young Scythian men from the northern Black Sea and relocated to from a new ethnolinguistic group, a realistic option in the nomadic context of flexibility alliances, and constant movement around the Black Sea and steppes.
About a century after Herodotus, in 380 BC the Athenian orator Isocrates named the three most dangerous enemies of Athens: the Thracians, “the Scythians led by the Amazons”, and the Persians. Isocrates was harking back to glorious victories when “Hellas was still insignificant”. He reminded his audience that the first Athenians had repelled an “invasian of the Scythians, led by the Amazons”. Isocrates was alludding to the mythic Battle for Athens, which the Athenians treated as a historical event. After their defeat, Isocrates recalls, the army of women did not return to Pontus bur went tol ive with their Scythian allies in the North.
The Greek historian Didodorus of Sicily (65-50 BC) also wrote about Amazons, associating them with Saka-Scythian women who were as brave and aggresive in battle as the men. He pointed to the historical example of Zarina, who led a Saka-Parthian coalition to victories against tribes who wanted to enslace them.
…Military historian Polaenus specifically stated that the Scythian warrior queen Tirgatao of the Maeotians (Sea of Asov) exchanged written diplomatic letters with the king of the Bosporus in the 5th century BC. Tirgatao was literate.
.. Chinese chronicles reported that the (Xiongnu-East Hun Turks) nomads sent messages by “making marks in a strange script on pieces of wood”. And chinese emperors were also recruiting warrior women for their own armies. [Mulan, a well known animated film of woman warrior is Xiongnu-Hun/Turk of nation.-SB]
… Archaeologists have found wrestling images on bronze plates in Xiongnu sites.
… Another adventure is set in Stri-Rajya (Women’s Land”) a distant place located somewhere in the nomadic Saka-Scythian-Xiongnu territories of InnerAsia along the Silk Route (including parts of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, the Taklamakan Desert, Tibet and the Kunlun Mountains). Two queen ruled the land devoid of men: any man who stayed with them more than a month was killed. Several legends tell how a famous yogi traveled to a country of women and fell under its queen’s spell, forgetting his spiritual vows. The yogi was allowed to stay several years and was finally rescued by his younger disciple. These women were seductresses, not warriors, however and this legend was about secual restraint, not armed heroines.
It is said that the boundless steppes give flight to tales of heroes and heroines because the conditions of life are so harsh and extreme. The landscape itself demands human spirit on an epic scale. Scythia, for the ancient Greeks, was an immense ocean of land whose vastness paradoxically expanded as their knowledge about the world to the East increased. The exhilarating, terrifying lives of warlike archers on horseback fascinated not only th Greeks and Romans, but also the Persians and Egyptians. And as we've seen, these westerners thrilled to tales of Amazons and foreign warrior queens from beyond the Black and Caspian seas, tales drawn from historical events, factual details, unwritten barbarian chronicles, hearsay, speculation, and the experiences of travelers and soldiers- and burnished by countless retellings.
Evidence for both historical and legendary Amanzon-like figures in the Caucasus and the Middle East was embedded in the Nart sagas [also a part of Karachay-Balkar Turkic tribe, with other nations-SB] and local oral tales about strong nomad women such as Tirgatao, Tomyris, Sparethra, Zarina, Banu Chichak [Banu Çiçek-SB) and Gordafarid transmitted by Greek and Persian writers. Meanwhile, of course, the men and women of the various nomad warrior societies of Central Asia were telling their own war stories, adventures, and romances about themselves and their neighbours-stories about, by, and for real Scythians and Amazons. It turns out that women warriors were familiar characters in Middle Eastern and Central and South Asian folklore, as polular as heroes, fleet horses and evil rulers.
Unfortunately unlike ancient Greek, egyptian and Indian literature, the oral myths, ancestral lore, and folk memories of the myriad and far-ranging ethnic groups of Central Asia were not recorded in writing until the mid-twentieth century. What survives of this living folklore has passed through thousands of years of turbulence, continuous migrations over vast and varied topographies, intermarriage, political oppression, and wars. In the written versions of the ancient ballads, epic verses, and tales of lands now divided into the nations of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, some events are set in medieval or later times. Yet, as scholars note, many of the ethnographic and traditional details retain archaic roots. The tales reverberate with the small, random portions of genuine nomad lore in many tongues that reached Greece through the writings and oral reports by the early Greek adventurer Aristeas, who traveled across what is now Kazakhstan, southern Siberia, and northwest China in the seventh century BC, and from Herodotus and others. The Greek texts contain surprisingly accurate details of steppe lifestyles and histories, unavoidably peppered with outsiders' misunderstandings and fantasy. What shines through is the barbarians's celebration of men and women as peers in love and war. Assimilated into Greek art and literature, this consistent faces of nomadic life helped to shape Western ideas about Amazons.
The horse-riding heroines in this seem familiar because they strongly resemble their sisters who were kidnapped, like Antiope, into Greek literature and art. But the Greek mythic mold produced a crucial difference. In the stories that Scythians and Amazons told themselves, warrior women could survive battles, and their conflicts with male warriors could end on a positive note instead of inevitable death for the "unnatural" manly woman at the hands of a Greek mythic hero. Significantly, the Greek historians who described real amazons did not hew to the mythic script, and so their accounts of barbarian women at war, such as Tirgatao and Zarian, are more realistic. The following pages give a sense of the kinds of Amazon tales that would have enthralled Saka-Scythian and related peoples and those who lived in close proximity to nomad territories thousands of years ago, from the eastern shores of the Caspian Sea to the Altai and Hindu Kush and the western frontier of China.
The young woman on her flying horse speeds away toward the line where infinite sky meets new grass. The young man on his nimble steed hutless after her. As the pair race, the boy manages to draw up alongside the girl for a brief moment. Now is hi chance! Leaning prelously far over the side of his galloping horse, the boy tries to steal a kiss at breakneck speed. He fails. As he scrambles upright on his mount, the girl wheels around and lashes the would-be suitor with her whip to show her scorn, to the great delight of the onlookers.
The next contest begins. The haughty girl dashes off. The young man's horse chases hers in hot pursuit. The boy catches up, and as their horses run parallel, he attempts the audacious feat. The two riders' lips touch for an instant. Parting, the grinning boy and girl surge forward on their swift horses, each glowing with victory and perhaps even true love. The kiss of a jigit (daring, heroic rider) [Yiğit; brave, honest, strong, daredevil, a "ALP" young men-SB] is said to be irresistible.
The high-spirited race is called kesh kumay (Turkic, kyz kuu, "chase the girl") [Kız kuumay-Kız yakalama, Kazakhstan-SB] and it has been played, with variations, at summer horse festivals since time immemorial by Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Azerbaijani, and other Turkic nomad groups. Men and some women also compete in robust wrestling matches on horseback, archery, horse racing, and trick riding-all equestrian games that show off the jigit [Yiğit-SB] skills, strength, and endurance of both sexes. It is also a chance to display their magnificent steeds. After all, this is the heartland of the coveted Akhal Teke horses of the Ferghan Valley pastures.
Once part of ancient wedding rituals on the steppes, the origins of kesh kumay reflect an ardous selection process for companionable marriage between willing equals. In these courting games, the competition is real but cooperation is the key to success. It is difficult for a boy to "steal a kiss" at full gallop without the complicity of an equally agile and eager horsewoman.
The kesh kumay game evokes inevitable comparisons with the life-or-death footrace devised by the Greek Amazon of myth, Atalanta, to eliminate her suitors. Atalanta also won wrestling matches against male champions and bested men in hunting with spears and arrows (prologue). Give her a horse, and Atalanta would be a full-fledged Amazon....
Kyrk Kyz (Kırk Kız-Forty Girls/Maiden)
Medieval Turkish and 18th century conquests by Kalmyks (Kalmuklar) and others overlay the oldest layers, dating back to the sixth to fourth centuries BC, the heyday of the Saka-Scythian and related tribes whose kurgans are landmarks across the steppes. Historians note that the existence of female warriors led by a woman was possible in that time and place, and they wonder whether the tale explains the king of Khorezm's claim of Amazons on his border, reported in Arrian's history of Alexander's campaigns in this region in 326 BC.
The plot of Forty Girl also reminds scholars of Persian stories about the Saka warrior queen Zarina and Herodotus's account of Queen Tomyris of the Massagetae-Saka who fought Cyrus of Persia. Tomyris is a national heroine claimed by peoples of western Turkey, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, which recently issued coins in her honor. [Tomyris is a popular name in these countries, and heroic ancestor of Turkic peoples-SB]
In 1996 the Uzbek poet Halima Xudoyberdiyeva published The sayings of Tomyris. Kazakh archaelogists ofteh invoke Queen Tomyris when they describe the tombs of ancient Saka princesses buried with tall pointed hats, arrows and gold treasure. (Could Tomyris be the Golden Warrior Woman of Issyk?)
In Forty Girl, the rebellious Gulaim (Rose Moon-Gül Ayım), age fifteen, rejects marriage, much like Atalanta (wrestling heroine), Khutulun (born c.1260) [Uzbek Turkish women-SB] , Harman Dali, and many other Amazonian girls. She decides to be a warrior and gathers forty like-minded young horsewomen archers. Gulaim's father builds them a citadel on an island in the Aral Sea, where they live, train for war, raise crops, and ride out on raids together. This description matches ancient Greek historiacl accounts in which "going Amazon" is a lifestyle option, and the tales about Scythians and Amazons in which the young women prove their worth in battle and then are free to marry or remain warriors fighting in mixed groups or in all-women cadres.
In an Uzbek version of the epic, Gulaim trains an army of froty women warriors because all the men of their tribe have been killed in war. They serve as mercenaries in Timur's army, like Penthesilea's band of Amazons at Troy. If a girl falls in love and marries, she leaves the group and is replaced by another maiden. This alternative Uzbek version bears striking similarities to ancient Greek accounts of Amazon customs.
Alexander campaigned in Gulaim's homeland (the region of Khorezm and Sogdiana) and he married Roxane, daughter of a nomad chieftain of these parts. It was here that the king of Khorezm told him of Amazons. It is interesting to note that the Spanish envoy to Timur in 1403 reported that Amazons still lived in the same general region. Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo wrote that fifteen days' ride by camel east of Samarkand lay the "land inhabited by Amazons, nomadic women who travel once a year to the nearest settlements where they consort with men, each one taking to one who pleases her most, with whom they stay, eat, drink, after which they return to ...
Aijaruc - Aiyurug [Ay Yürek;"Moon Heart", daugther of Kaidu-Kaydu-SB]
...The most famous "wrestling heroine" of Central Asia was the great-great-granddaughter of Cenghis Khan of the Mongols [the last sources says that he was from mothers side a Turkic!, he spoke Turkish and culture and army was based on Turkish system, and there was many Turkish soldiers in his army-SB]. Aijaruc (Turkish, "Bright Moon"), also known as Khutulun ("All-White") was born ca.1260 and grew up with fourteen brothers. Her Turkish name, given in various spellings by Marco Polo, may have been a translation of her real name: "Bright Moon" was a traditional Uzbek name [Uzbeks are Turkic Tribe, speaks Turkish-SB]. A tall, powerfully muscled young woman, Khutulun excelled in horse riding, archery, and combat on the steppes around the Tien Shan range.
Marco Polo described her style of warfare in terms of falconry; riding beside her father, Qaidu Khan, at the head of their army of forty thousand, she would suddenly "dash out at the enemy host, and seize some man as deftly as a hawk pounces on a bird, and carry him back to her father". Her parents were anxious to see her wed. But Khutulun declared she would marry only the man who could defeat her in wrestling. Many men tried and failed, paying then or even a hundred horses for the chance to grapple with her. Soon she owned a herd of more than then thousand. When she was about twenty, a worthy, strong prince came forward with one thousand fine horses. Khutulun promised her parents she would let him win. A crowd gathered. Their struggle continued for a long time in suspense. In the excitement, Khutulun forgot her promise, and with a terrific surge of energy she threw the suitor to the ground. Finally, some years later the undefeated Khutulun did chose a husband but without wrestling him first. She became the commander of the army after her father's death.
An oral story cycle of Turkmenistan, also recited by Kazakhs, Uzbeks and Karakalpaks, tells the adventures of the bandit hero Koroglu (Köroğlu) based in the 17th century [much much older, Goroglu in Azerbaijan-SB] but drawing on earlier tales. Koroglu meets an invincible, bloodthirsty woman warrior named Harman Dali ("Crazy-Brave") [daughter of Arslan Bey, Turkmenistan-SB] a beguiling berseker, Harman Dali thrives on killing suitors who accept her by-now-familiar challenge: "I'll only marry the man who beats me at wrestling and I chop off the heads of the losers." Their wrestling bout is described in humorously lascivious detail, until Koroglu is so enflamed with desire that he gives up. But his life is spared and his singing wins him one night of love.
According to Ctesias, the Greek who served as the royal physician in Persia (5th c BC), the Saka-Scythian warrior queen Zarina was very well educated. In his fragmentary history of Persia, Ctesias told Zarina's reaction to a letter from a Medean warrior, evidence of her literacy. In a later collection of legends known as the Alexander Romance by Pseudo-Callisthenes, Alexander the Great exchanges a series of diplomatic communiques with some Amazon leaders during his eastern conquests. Both the Greek version (4th c AD) and the Armenian version (5th c AD) "quote" the correspondence in detail. These legends even portray the Amazons holding an Athenian-style democratic assembly to decide how to respond to Alexander's letters. It is striking that the Greek mythographers imagined that Amazon society would have mirrored the strong relationschip between Greek democracy and literacy. [How democratic? Womans were on the second place, had no democratic movements, could not even vote, elected, walk on streets alone!-SB]
Won wrestling matches against male shmapions and bested men in hunting with spears and arrows. And this is only one example in Greek mythology. But in Central Asia the epic tales and traditions of the nomads are more to tell; girls and women, such as Lady Hero/Gunda the Beautiful, Banu Chichak and Saikal, who challenge men to wrestling contests. That means also Amazons, lived among the Turkic tribes.
...Hero girl of the Manas tales is a Kalmyk aemetzaine named Kyz Saikal (Aemetzaine was a Kalmyk word for strong woman; the name Saikal could be related to Karaklapak Saukele, pointed headdress) - [Kyz/Kız=Girl; Saikal-Sai was the name of Saka in Chinese chro. So, it means Saka Girl, and Saukele is still used in Kazakhstan today as bride costum-SB]
Saikal becomes the leader of her tribe because her husband, the chieftain, is a drunkard. Saikal fights in battles and horsewrestles with the best male champions - she nearly unhorses Manas. As they prepare for single combat, Manas is filled with anxiety. "What if she dies if I strike her with force! I would (rather) marry her!" He plunges his spear into her right shoulder, but Saikal throws it off and threatens him with her spear. In the poem, Manas express his fear of losing the very woman he would choose as his mate....
An impressive mausoleum in northwestern Kyrgyzstan near the Kazakh border is revered as the grave of Manas. Local legend claims that Kanikey, Manas' s widow, created a false inscription on the tomb to confuse her husband's enemies. As with the many impressive graves incorrectly assumed to belong to men, the mausoleum is actually that of a mystery woman. Her story has vanished except for the inscription (ca.1334) on the ornate facade, dedicating the mausoleum "to the most glorious of woman, Kenizek-Khatun" (Turkish Maiden-Queen) [Khatun-Katun=Queen, wife of Kagan-SB]
The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World
by Adrienne Mayor