Samsun is a metropolis of more than 660,000 inhabitants in the north of Turkey. It sits on the shore of the Black Sea, which the Ancient Greeks called Euxeinos, the hospitable sea. It certainly wasn’t particularly hospitable on the day I visited: It was windy, drizzly and the water was the unflattering color of lead. When Homer spoke of the wine-dark sea in the “Iliad,” this was not what he had in mind.
However, I had not come out to the promenade to spend a pleasant day by the seaside. Instead, I had come to see one of Samsun’s biggest landmarks: the titanesque statue of a warrior woman, taller than a house, with a spear and shield, towering over the quay. With her bare legs, pleated skirt (sometimes referred to as a fustanella) and sleeveless breastplate, she looked like a felicitous mixture of Wonder Woman and Brad Pitt’s Achilles in the 2004 Hollywood movie “Troy.” She bore a fierce expression, holding a spear in one hand and a crescent shield (called a pelta) in the other. A seagull had taken up residence on her head.
This, the sign on the quay told me, was the Magnificent Amazon Warrior Sculpture, and I was standing on her platform. At the time, I was researching a novel on Amazons, the fierce warrior women who came to Troy to defend the city against the Greeks after the death of Hector, the Trojan prince. This, at least, is the mythical version of events, which a sign at the quay informed us about in Turkish and English. It read:
“The Amazon Warrior Women fought with United Greek armies under the command of Agamemnon in the battle of Troy in 1200 BC and they defended the Anatolia with Troy people under the command of their beautiful Queen Penthesilea. The Queen was murdered by famous commander Achilles at the end of long struggle. This event was told in Greek mythology and in Homer’s Iliad.”
So much for the mythical version of events, which scholars now suggest may be based on some truth. Historical Scythian warrior women lived by the shores of the Black Sea in the first millennium BCE, when Homer was most likely to have been busy composing the “Iliad,” his epic about the Trojan War. His contemporaries Herodotus and Plato wrote of these historical women, which may well have been the inspiration for the mythical Amazons, as the sign in Samsun suggests. The sign goes on to explain that their name, Amazon, has different meanings in different languages, such as “breastless, widowed, brave or amazing warriors.”
Increasingly, statues like the one at Samsun are believed to have a basis in historical fact, but that is not their only purpose. From the view of memory studies, an academic field focused on the use of memory as a tool for finding meaning in the past, what is remembered carries at least as much weight as what actually happened. The plaque, the statue and the park in Samsun all present this complex dynamic within just one walk along the harborfront. The statue commemorates mythical women and their mythical deeds from a primordial past; the park presents their historical lives; and the plaque asks us to behave like them in the present, drawing a continuous line from the Amazons of old to the women of Samsun today. What’s more, it is often via local memory rather than historical or archaeological research that these stories pass down. As researchers increasingly corroborate the memory of warrior women around the Black Sea and beyond, what was once considered myth is increasingly recognized as history, something that the people in Samsun and other places in Turkey have known for years.
Once I had inspected the statue, I made my way to the Amazon Koyu, a re-created village where I found tents, artificial caves and life-size puppets of warrior women in short skirts holding bows and arrows, enslaving men with long hair and beards, cooking, ruling, planning a campaign and resting. Walking through the village, I remember thinking at the time it was a little gaudy, the caves and puppets lit up with bright lights in pink, green and blue. However, kitsch or not, the Amazon Koyu in Samsun leaves its visitors in no doubt: These puppets are based on historical women, who lived in the caves and hills of this region, who hunted and fought with bows and arrows, with axes and spears. These are our women, the statue and the park say, they lived here, and we are descended from them.
The plaque in front of the statue makes this explicit: It tells visitors like me that the dignity, freedom, brave hearts and souls of the Amazons inspire women in Samsun even today. It even establishes a link to Turkey’s modern history, of which Samsun is a central part. It was here that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, landed with his ship Bandirma and began the Turkish War of Independence in 1919. Ataturk became the country’s first president, transitioning Turkey from a sultanate to a secular parliamentary republic in 1923.
Women played a central part in the Turkish War of Independence and are commemorated through numerous statues that I encountered on my journey across Anatolia and along the Black Sea. The plaque on the quay of Samsun links the deeds of these women to those of the Amazons and to Turkish women today:
“In our recent history, Anatolian women who fought for freedom and dignity of their country in Turkish War of Independence shared virtuous soul and belief of the Amazon Warrior Women and this soul still leads to Turkish women. Amazon island is a gift to women from Samsun Metropolitan where was homeland of Amazon Warriors.”
The sentiment described on the plaque may seem patronizing to some. But it elegantly illustrates one of the main findings of memory studies. Memory scholars have found that the way we remember the past defines what we consider normal in the present and desirable for the future. This is especially true for what is referred to as our memory of the primordial or mythical past — those events that are thought to be foundational to a culture or community even if they did not actually occur. The tale of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is one such example; the “Iliad” and the Trojan War are others.
Everyone knows the story of the Trojan War; of Achilles, Hector, the Trojan horse — even though they never lived, the horse was never built and there was no 10-year war fought over the Anatolian city of Wilusa, which we know as Troy. Archaeologists like Gary Beckman and Trevor Bryce now consider it more likely that a number of smaller-scale conflicts and natural disasters such as earthquakes led to the decline of Wilusa, which coincides with the decline of most Bronze Age cities and realms on the Mediterranean at around 1200 BCE.
This is a local memory. Even in Istanbul, or so I gathered from my guide, people would not be likely to know anything about the Amazons, much less remember them as real women. At least that is what I came to believe. It was not until I returned from Turkey that I realized the memory of the Amazons is alive and well on the coast of the Black Sea, well beyond Samsun.
A few weeks after my trip, I went into my local tailor’s shop to have a coat repaired. When the tailor, Ali, learned I was writing a novel about the Amazons, he put the coat aside — we had just been discussing the advantages and disadvantages of wooden versus plastic buttons — and said: “You must come to Giresun!”
Giresun is a Turkish coastal town east of Samsun. Ali had emigrated from Giresun many years ago, and he immediately told me the story of his hometown and the island off its coast called Giresun Adasi (Giresun Island). It is a small island of 4 hectares, roughly the size of 10 football fields, and the largest island on the Turkish Black Sea coast. For comparison, Nantucket on the east coast of the United States is 12,500 hectares.
However, for a small island, Giresun Adasi has a lot of history on offer: a Byzantine monastery; the Roman ruins of a walled settlement, including a set of watch towers to help fend off pirates; and the Hamza Tasi (the Hamza Stone), a big black boulder. On Nantucket Island in Massachusetts, there are shell middens — ancient dump sites — from the same period as the Hamza Stone. These shells are extremely instructive in terms of what was cooked and eaten on the island, but to a layperson they may seem less exciting than the ruins of a Roman fort or a sacred boulder.
It is the Hamza Stone that Ali wanted to tell me about. The stone has been known to locals for thousands of years and is thought to have been a place of worship in honor of Cybele, a powerful female goddess. Present in the archaeological and cultural record under different names in the Fertile Crescent and beyond, Cybele was a powerful matriarchal figure, representing war, death, love and fertility. Once a year, the people of the city visit the Hamza Stone when they celebrate the Aksu festival, the Aksu Senligi. It ends and begins at the Hamza Stone. Women touch it to ask for fertility and good fortune. This is an old tradition, and Giresun Adasi offers traces of 4,000 years of human life.
Why did Ali want to tell me about these traditions? In Giresun, it is believed and remembered that it was Amazons who lived on the island and worshipped at the Hamza Stone. The festival is celebrated in their honor once a year. Walking into my tailor’s shop, I had no idea that I would encounter another local memory of Amazons as historical women on the coast of the Black Sea. Giresun is 125 miles away from Samsun. Had I known about the significance of its island, I would have made sure to travel there. But I had not.
Interestingly, the memories I kept encountering were either local or regional. Even our guide from Istanbul, 450 miles to the east of Samsun, had not heard of them. In patriarchal countries, these memories — revolving mostly around women — are not considered relevant to national history, so they fail to be remembered on a national level, let alone an international one. To my surprise, I found during my research that this had not been true in antiquity. Ancient Greek writers knew of warrior women on the Black Sea coast. They even agreed with the local memory of Giresun: Some ancient writers attested there was an Amazon temple on Giresun Adasi.
Research increasingly reveals that female warriors were in fact a common feature of life around the Black Sea and beyond in the first millennium BCE. In the cemeteries of the Scythians — an umbrella term used for many nomadic and semi-nomadic groups sharing a common cultural continuum — one out of every three graves contains the bones of a woman buried with her weapons. When these graves were first excavated, their bones were assumed to be male, until innovations in bioarchaeological methods at the beginning of the 21st century revealed that these dead warriors were in fact women.
The Scythian graves are one of the fascinating cases where local memory is better than that of modern historians and archaeologists. They even erected a statue and celebrated a festival in the honor of these women.
After I returned home, I realized that the statue in Samsun, the stories I was reading, the horses and birds of prey in the mountains, had not only inspired the novelist and researcher in me but also awakened my inner child. The stories, the weapons, the statues were bringing to mind another woman who is very much larger than life: Wonder Woman, the superhero from the DC Comics universe, with her lasso of truth, indestructible bracelets and star-patterned shorts.
Invented by feminist psychologist William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman is an Amazon by the name of Diana, a warrior woman with superhuman powers who joins U.S. Army officer Steve Trevor in the fight against the Nazis in World War II. Making her first appearance in a comic in 1941, she has since been a continuous feature of the DC Comic world and has recently made the jump onto the big (and live action) screen: Hollywood released two movies with Gal Gadot as Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman, in 2017 and 2021.
In inventing Wonder Woman, Marston’s goal was to present the sort of woman who should be ruling the world, or so it is reported. Widely repeated is his quote that “not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength and power.” (Less widely repeated is the part that follows, perhaps because it doesn’t quite fit on a kitchen magnet: “Not wanting to be girls, they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are.” Marston, too, seemed mostly infatuated with the idea of a submissive woman rather than an independent one.)
What struck me about this quote was that Marston speaks of an archetype, viewing Wonder Woman through the psychologist’s lens, as a symbol rather than a flesh-and-blood woman who could have been real. While Wonder Woman may have evolved into a feminist idol, adding some much-needed and refreshing female company to the DC Comics universe, she is very clearly not a real woman.
This is made obvious in the most recent Hollywood adaptation of the Wonder Woman story, where Gal Gadot’s Diana is a naive but heroic figure hailing from the mythical island of Themyscira. Only women seem to live on this island, a paradisiacal sanctuary far removed from the world of humanity. When Diana first meets Steve, she has no notion of what romantic love, let alone a fulfilled heterosexual sex life, could be. She finds both with Steve, before he sacrifices himself to help her defeat Ares, the god of war.
Wonder Woman has become a star in U.S. popular culture, the oldest and most popular female superhero. In moving the Amazons of Greek and Roman myth into the comic book world of the U.S., Marston created a beloved pop-cultural icon and American feminist archetype.
However, something was lost in the transition, and it was the one thing that so drew me to these women of whom we have found such few traces. It is something that the Ancient Greeks would not have doubted and is preserved to this day in the local memories on the shores of the Black Sea: The women on whom Wonder Woman is based were real. There used to be women who fought with weapons, who hunted, who wielded a power no less than that enjoyed by the men they lived with, as Herodotus put it.
Increasingly, the archaeological record suggests there may have been egalitarian societies and communities that allowed all women to thrive, negating the need to invent fictitious archetypes or celebrate only a few outstanding individuals. If every third woman among some of the Scythian people was a warrior, as some cemeteries indicate, then such a career path may have been the norm rather than the exception.
I was 30 years old before I realized that this mattered to me. I had to leave university (at least temporarily) and enter the workforce before I understood that in Europe and the U.S. there is a deep-seated belief in our culture that strong, independent women from the past belong in the realm of myth, not history. (Taking my cue from Marston, I’m tempted to call it the “Wonder Woman syndrome.”) We do not remember societies or communities from the past where women and men may have been equals. Instead, we trace our roots to Ancient Greece, where women were the property of their husbands and forbidden from speaking in public.
Since — as scholars suggest — our memories of the past influence what we consider normal and desirable, if we ignore egalitarian societies and memorialize only those of patriarchal oppression, then women fighting for equality today will always face an uphill battle. Gender equality will always seem “unnatural” to us, a fad of modernity, against the natural order of the world, against tradition.
In 2021, the Turkish government left the Istanbul Convention, the only piece of international law aimed at violence against women, referred to as the “global gold standard of women’s rights”. But the local, distant memories of Samsun and Giresun have left no less of an impact. The past is much more interesting than we often remember, as witnessed by a titanesque statue of a woman with a spear, a shield and a very happy bird on her head.