I just finished reading “The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World” by Adrienne Mayor.

If you have any inclination toward including encounters with historical Amazons in your game — either as player characters or nonplayer characters — this work can serve as a go-to resource.

This book from 2014 does a masterful job of drawing together the various threads of folklore, myth, the perceptions and misperceptions of neighboring Greeks, Romans, Persians and Chinese, and actual archeology to reinforce a view that has gotten greater acceptance over the years — that the Amazons were likely an integral part of the warrior caste of the Scythian people, a horse-culture that ranged the whole of the Eurasian steppes, including the regions east of and including the Black Sea.

To give your players a rough sense of what the Scythian Amazons were like, put out their minds most pop culture references they are probably familiar with. These aren’t the Hellenized Amazons of Wonder Woman’s Paradise Island nor the scantily clad beauties so often depicted in fantasy gaming.

They were heavily tattooed tribal warriors, horse riders and archers, who wore trousers and rode side-by-side with their male counterparts into battle.  

While it is a gross simplification of their culture, as a point of reference, the Scythians have more similarities with other horse peoples who ranged across the sea of grass in later eras, such as the Huns and Mongols. Comparisons with the plains Indians of North America in the proliferation of a nomadic horse culture among them can also be valid.

The far-ranging Scythians — a fluid amalgamation of tribes both large and small — proved unconquerable to both the Greek city-states, and later, even to Alexander the Great.

Among Scythian innovations:

  • Domestication of the horse and integration of it in their culture; horses provided food, milk, clothing, transportation, and ultimately, mobility on a battlefield in an era when most troops were infantry.
  •  Trousers. Essential to riding horses into battle effectively.
  • Perfected the recurved Scythian bow, which could be fired from horseback in battle, including the exceptionally difficult backward angled Parthian shot, as well as the practice of  The arrows were biological weapons; tips were dipped in toxins.
  • In this environment, women could achieve status as warriors, achieve positions of leadership, and formed bands — sometimes all women, sometimes mixed gender — for adventuring, hunting and as battle units.  
  • Tattooing was a central element of the Scythian culture and Mayor cites sources that show Amazon women with intricate and detailed body art.

The other great resource the book offers is a five-page appendix filled with the personal names of Amazons and other warrior women drawn from ancient literature and art, from the Mediterranean to China. (And like a good baby names book, each entry includes the literal translation of the name, and its source.) For example: Ainippe: “Swift or Praiseworthy Horse” (vase). What DM isn’t going to mine a list of names — especially female names from antiquity — for their game?

So whether your adventures take place in historical times or against a fantasy landscape, DMs can reliably use this depiction of horseback-riding arrow-firing female warriors in their game.  How do you use historical references in your game? How close do you keep to the known history?

Note: A similar work is due out in February: “Searching for the Amazons: The Real Warrior Women of the Ancient World” by John Man.