For many centuries, the use of armed female combatants was taboo in European culture. Weapon bearers were exclusively men.
However, there were always exceptions until modern times, not only in antiquity.
The most famous is the battle of the Greeks with Achilles against the Amazons with their queen Penthesilea, described in the Iliad, to which Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811) dedicated a drama.
In Rome there were female gladiators, whose history is largely unknown.
In the Nibelungenlied, two queens embody the ideal type of a warrior as Brünhild, or the image of a cruelly avenging heroine as Krimhild.
Not to forget the battle maidens working in the transcendent, the Valkyries, who lead fallen heroes home, could decide on life and death in battle, even the outcome of battles. Female deities of antiquity also carried weapons and intervened in earthly battles.
Women as queens or battle leaders are said to have existed in Egypt, Assyria, Britain, China, Greece, Japan in the Orient, and so on.
Later, there are reports of women who dressed up as men and fought: In the military, in the navy or as a pirate. Sometimes they went down in legends and songs as successful female fighters. Or, like the "Virgin of Orleans", they became martyrs or even saints.
On a larger scale, this did not change until the 20th century, in the wake of the increasing importance of equal rights, which sought to give women access to every conceivable profession.
In both world wars, women in Western countries were called upon for auxiliary service, but generally not yet as part of the fighting force.
In the Soviet Union, immediately after the February Revolution of 1917, women's units were formed and also deployed to the front.
Then, during World War II, German soldiers learned to fear the female fighters of the Red Army, ostracized as "gunwomen."
Today, women are found in many armies as soldiers with equal rights.
To what extent it should be considered cultural progress that now also women can meet and kill each other with a gun in their hand is a matter of opinion.
And what about the legendary Amazons in ancient times?
Female fighters were a popular motif in Greek and Roman art.
To all appearances, in antiquity there was little doubt that - for example, at the legendary river Thermodon (Terme Cayi on the Black Sea) - there were well-trained, dangerous female warriors who were then imaginatively transfigured in myths and legends.
But can these Amazons also be proven historically?
In some cases the existence of female fighters, princesses and queens of the Bronze or Iron Age seems to be assured, offering models for the Amazons of the myths:
The Scythians, as an example, lived as nomads in the Asian steppes north of the Black Sea from about the 8th century BC.
Excellent horsemen and archers who could even shoot backwards at full gallop, they raided settlements, robbed, plundered, captured and sold slaves; a terror to the sedentary.
Their most important weapons were probably already powerful composite bows with long range and penetrating power; valuable weapons that were inherited.
Scythians paid homage to shamanistic rituals and allegedly drank alcoholic beverages from the skulls of slain enemies; a custom once widespread among quite a few, less civilized, pre-Christian tribes.
Boys and girls of the Scythians and other equestrian nomads wore the same clothes and learned horseback riding and archery from an early age.
The clans of the steppe nomads were in constant dispute over grazing grounds and watering places; thus it was not uncommon for them to attack each other, and everyone had to be alert and ready to defend themselves.
Since the girls were as good (or better) at horseback riding and archery (with poisoned arrows in war) as the boys, they participated in war campaigns as equal fighters and could become respected leaders.
Between the Caspian Sea and the Aral Sea, in the 6th century BC, there was a tribe under the queen Tamyris, who became sole ruler as a widow. These Massagets were an equestrian people similar to the Scythians and probably had a comparable social structure.
As Herodotus reports, the Persian king Cyrus II led a campaign against the Massagets around 530 BC, in which he himself fell.
Battles against the steppe riders, who moved quickly on their horses, were always difficult for the armies of antiquity and not infrequently ended in defeat.
West Africa's Women Warriors
The most fearsome female fighters of modern times were African warriors.
The West African kingdom of Dahomey (in present-day Benin) reached its greatest extent around 1850 until it was conquered and colonized by the French in 1892.
For a long time, Dahomey was in competition with the neighboring Oyo Empire. In addition to rivalries in slave theft and slave trade, there were also repeated armed conflicts with the Oyo Empire. When the Oyo Empire collapsed in 1830, Dahomey became the leading regional power.
From experience in these wars, Dahomey decided to maintain a standing army of about 12,000 soldiers: a male army of about 7,000 members and an Amazon army of about 5,000 female fighters. The two bodies of troops were led separately; the female troops (called Agooji) also had female officers who were equal to their male counterparts. The different regiments of Amazons had different uniforms. The armament consisted of swords, bows and arrows, and later firearms (muzzle-loaders). The warrior women were trained hard and had to endure extreme pain, for example. The women's army, which probably originated in the 17th century, was a respected elite unit, feared by the enemies, from which the king's bodyguard was also recruited.
In 1863, the Kingdom of Dahomey became a French protectorate, but initially continued to exist somewhat unmolested.
After Dahomey was declared a territory of interest to France at the Berlin Conference of 1884/85, French troops invaded in 1890.
The aim was to put an end to the slave trade, which had been widespread in West Africa for centuries and had long since been banned, and to violent attacks with slave hunts on neighboring countries.
In this colonial war, the French also got acquainted with the Amazon army. These female fighters were feared for their extraordinary bravery and cruelty. Their rituals included cutting off a prisoner's head with a single blow and then taking the head as a trophy.
Most of the prisoners were sold as slaves.
In open field battles, the French troops suffered heavy losses, but their better weapons (repeating rifles) with higher rate of fire tipped the scales. The capital Abomey was captured in 1892 and burned down by the Dahomeyans themselves. Then the Agooji tried guerrilla warfare, which only a few of the black warriors survived.
Today, the once feared black Amazons are only a more fabled memory of a great time of African kingdoms, some of which are said to have employed other warrior women.
[i] Kurgans are tumuli with interior burial chambers for important personalities.