“Do you see the truth?”
The concept of truth is central to Patty Jenkins’ film, Wonder Woman 1984, the second in her superheroine franchise. Truth-seeking compels us to ask complex questions about history and cultural memory – and relates to the inspiration for Wonder Woman’s own origin story.
Wonder Woman (2017) takes place in Europe during World War One, exploring the traumatising effects of warfare on humanity; its successor is situated in Washington DC, 70 years later. Both films contain brief early sequences, told in flashback, where we find a young Diana Prince on her birth island of Themyscira, competing alongside veteran woman warriors in tournaments of Olympic proportions.
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These are mere blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nods to Prince’s Amazonian backstory. Contemporary audiences may recognise the character of Wonder Woman – as played by Gal Gadot in Jenkins’ films, or perhaps US actress Lynda Carter, star of the 1970s ABC and CBS TV series, or as the original comic book character, which first appeared in the US in 1941 – more than the stories that inspired the character. The Amazons of Greek mythology and the real-life warrior women that led to this iconic modern-day Wonder Woman might, in fact, have roots in ancient Persia – modern-day Iran.
“There have always been stories of Amazons and Amazon-like women; sometimes they have circulated hidden under the surface and other times, like today, they break through into popular culture,” Adrienne Mayor, scholar at Stanford University and author of The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World, tells BBC Culture. “It is no longer possible to deny the reality behind the myths of Amazons.”
The legendary warrior women – depicted here on an ancient frieze battling the Greeks – became well-known through Greek mythology (Credit: Getty Images)
While the story of a race of warrior women first appeared in Greek mythology, excavations across the north and east of the Black Sea region have revealed that warrior women like the Amazons existed in real life. In December 2019, the graves of four female warriors from the 4th Century BC Sarmatian region were found in the village of Devitsa, in what is now Western Russia. The Sarmatians were a people of Iranian heritage, with men and women skilled in horsemanship and battle. Excavations within the modern borders of Iran have revealed the existence of female warriors. In the northwestern Iranian city of Tabriz, 109 warrior graves were unearthed. Archaeologist Alireza Hejebri-Nobari confirmed in a 2004 interview that the DNA found in one belonged to a woman. DNA testing was due to take place on other warrior graves, 38 of which are still intact, but according to Mayor’s contacts in Iran, that DNA research was halted in August 2020 due to a lack of resources.
The great rivalries of the ancient Greeks and Persians are well documented in Greek art, history and mythology, so much so that historians of Ancient Persia rely on the Greek interpretation of the region to unlock its history. Experts have identified depictions of the women in battle with Greek men on vases and other ceramics as dressed in Persian-style clothing: the Kandys cloak, the Anaxyrides trousers, the Persikay shoes. By the 470s, the Greeks began to refer to portrayals of the Persians as the Amazons, turning their real-life adversaries into mythological folklore. Even the word “Amazon”, meaning “warrior”, is likely rooted in the Iranian language.
Scythian warriors joined forces with the Amazons; their descendants were the Sarmatians (Credit: Alamy)
According to Herodotus, a 5th-Century Greek writer and geographer often credited with being the first historian, the Amazons maintained an idyllic all-female existence in modern-day Turkey. They pillaged the Persian Empire and procreated with neighbouring tribes, keeping the baby girls to raise as the next generation of warriors. They would meet their ultimate fate at an encounter with the Greeks in the battle of Thermodon. Sent out to sea, The Amazons eventually entered Scythia near the Black Sea. The Amazons and Scythians, slated to fight one another, would instead join forces, whose descendants are the Sarmatians. Both the Scythians and Sarmatians are connected to modern-day Iran.
Real Wonder Women
Real-life warrior women existed far beyond the Scythians and Sarmatians, however. “Many ancient cultures besides Greece told exhilarating stories of warrior women – such tales are found in Persia, Egypt, Rome, Caucasus, Central Asia, Mongolia, India, and China,” explains Mayor, who also runs a Facebook group, Amazons Ancient and Modern, for fellow scholars and enthusiasts. And history reveals countless examples of real-life female warriors, like Cynane, half-sister to Alexander the Great, who came from a tradition of warrior women and was taught the same military skills as the young Alexander. Pantea Arteshbod, a female Persian commander during the reign of Cyrus the Great, was integral to maintaining law and order after Cyrus’s Neo-Babylonian conquest. The Arab queen Zenobia, of the Palmyrene Empire in Syria, rebelled against Rome to conquer the eastern third of the Roman Empire. And Joan of Arc, the most famous warrior woman in European history, in turn inspired others across Europe: Spain’s Isabella of Castile, granddaughter of Mary Tudor of England and a warrior in her own right, is said to have kept a chronicle of Joan’s life on her bookshelf.
In ancient and modern literature and culture, the warrior woman figure appears in folk and fairy tales such as the Chinese folk story Mulan, and epic poems including Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Arabic epic Delhemma and The Book of Kings, written by Persian poet Ferdowsi. And she regularly turns up in contemporary popular culture in various guises, including The Avengers’ Emma Peel, Xena: Warrior Princess, Lara Croft and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In the US, the comic book character of Wonder Woman, inspired by the Amazonian warrior woman mythos, became America’s most iconic 20th-Century superheroine – and, arguably, its greatest fictional feminist icon.
Stories of warrior women such as the ancient Chinese folk hero Mulan exist in many different cultures around the world (Credit: Getty Images)
Created by psychologist William Moulton Marston, the character made her debut in issue eight of All Star Comics in 1941. The first standalone Woman Wonder comic, published a year later, opened with the lines: “At last, in a world torn by hatred and wars of men, appears a woman to whom the problems and feats of men are mere child’s play – a woman whose identity is known to none but whose sensational feats are outstanding in a fast-moving world! With a hundred times the agility and strength of our best male athletes and strongest wrestlers, she appears as though from nowhere to avenge an injustice or right a wrong!”
A 1977 issue of the Wonder Woman comic book, which was created in 1941 by the psychologist William Moulton Marston (Credit: Alamy)
Born the Amazon Princess Diana of Themyscira, the story goes that she was moulded out of clay by her mother Hippolyta and brought to life by the gods, growing up in a utopian society completely free of men. Marston – well-schooled in Greek mythology – had created an origin story that fused the ancient history and mythology of warrior women with a 20th-Century feminist ideology. Describing his narrative objective – in stories aimed at both boys and girls – Marston explained: “Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for a new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.”
A global icon?
Wonder Woman made her debut just as the attack on Pearl Harbour brought Americans into World War Two. The conflict would offer women the option to enlist – 350,000 did so by the end of the war. They entered factories and workplaces, building expertise in fields otherwise secured for men or deemed deviating from the norm for women. Women were not only permitted to work, but they were also encouraged to with campaigns and iconic images of working women like Rosie the Riveter motivating women to enter factories. The birth of this feminist character happened at a crucial turning point in American women’s history. In Les Daniel’s book Wonder Woman: The Complete History, Lynda Carter reflected on this moment. “When the war ended, the men came back to their jobs, and most women went back to their homes. But in their hearts, there was no going back to the old days or the old ways. Their sense of power and potential – the Wonder Woman within – had emerged and could no longer be repressed.”
Lynda Carter starred as Wonder Woman in the 1970s US TV series (Credit: Getty Images)
The character has had a near-continuous existence for the last 80 years, and her origin story has been rewritten several times in her numerous iterations on the page and on screen. The US feminist icon Gloria Steinem, who famously put Wonder Woman on the cover of the first issue of her feminist magazine Ms in 1972, praised Jenkins’ narrative – which returned to Marston’s original, Amazonian-inspired creation. “It made her Amazon origin story clear,” she told Vanity Fair in 2017. “She was stopping war, not perpetuating it; her strength was communicating in 200 languages; and she was exploring and learning without giving up her uniqueness.”
Wonder Woman may have become an all-American feminist icon of popular culture, but it is important to recognise her ancient roots – and the warrior women who came before her. Modern women in Iran, for example, who are unlikely to find films like Wonder Woman playing in theatres, have found their stories and identities missing in mainstream Western film and television – but nevertheless could they find inspiration in the Iranian roots of this warrior woman story? As the fictional 21st Century Wonder Woman uses her most important weapon – the truth – in the fight to bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice, by extension that should include the many generations of warrior women around the world who came before her.
Wonder Woman 1984 is available to buy in the UK from 13 Jan.
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