Book Review: ‘The Amazons’ by Adrienne Mayor

The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World‘ by Adrienne Mayor, (2014) Princeton University Press, New Jersey, USA

  • 2016 – Winner Sarasvati Award for Best Nonfiction Book in Women and Mythology, Association for the Study of Women & Mythology
  • 2015 – Silver Medal Winner in the Independent Publisher Book Awards, World History category
  • 2014 – Shortlisted for the London Hellenic Prize
  • 2015 – One of Foreign Affairs’ Best Military, Scientific, & Technological Books
  • 2014 – Selected for American Scientist’s Science Book Gift Guide

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I’m embarrassed to admit that I used to think that that the fabled ‘Amazon Women’ had something to do with the Amazon Forest in South America…

Adrienne Mayor’s rigorous scholarship on the results of various archaeological finds; historic manuscripts; Greek Art and other historical sources helps to, at last, to clear up this misconception. Mayor carefully distills the myths surrounding the Amazons from what the evidence tells us about who they really were. As fascinating as their true story is, so too is how their existence influenced Ancient Greek culture and mythology.

Where did they live?

Firstly, let’s clear up where they came from: it was Southern Russia. They were part of the broader category of ‘Scythian’ people – nomadic tribes who traveled across the flat steppe region stretching from current day Ukraine across to Kazakhstan, almost to the Chinese border. Mostly they were known to the Greeks as people who inhabited the area North of the Black Sea.

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When did they exist? ~ 300 BC to 350 AD.

How old were they?

Analysis of burial sites reveals that ancient women warriors were generally between the ages 16 to 30 years’ old.

What does their name mean?

The first reference to the ‘Amazons’ was in The Iliad, by Homer who called then ‘Amazones Antianeirai.’ The Ancient Greek’s had a particular way of naming tribes – their name would often be followed with a short-hand description of some dominant characteristic of the group, such as ‘lice-eating’ or ‘cannibals.’ (p.22-23)

  • Amazones – Mayor’s careful linguistic analysis concludes that the word ‘Amazones’ was not Greek, that they must have adopted it from another culture. However, the ending of the word – “es” – indicates that it is being used to describe a particular sort of tribe or cultural group. Thus ‘Amazones‘ does not refer to a group of women, but a type of horse-bound nomadic tribe (of men and women).
  • Antianeirai – This short-hand reference distinguished the Amazons as being a tribe of people where there was equality between the sexes. This was something the Ancient Greeks found both bizarre, shocking but also exciting.

Thus, originally, the Amazons derived from the Scythian tribes, who were highly egalitarian in nature. Their lifestyle – horse-bound with regular hunting and fighting – meant every able-bodied person in the tribe, from the age of ten and above, male or female, was expected to know how to fight. Warfare was a routine part of their lives.

fig-11_scythians

However, as Mayor explains, there are various accounts of how later, an all-female and then a female-led, mixed-gender tribe group arose. One of these stories involved a group of Scythian men deploying on a particular mission, but being destroyed. This left the predominantly female tribe left to defend themselves in a hostile world, where they become their own entity.

Later, this all-female group encountered males from the Sarmatian tribe.  The Sarmatian tribes first impulse was to, as usual, attack and destroy a rival tribe. However, one of the older men in the group noted the Amazon’s athletic strength and skill and he proposed to the other men a different option. If we formed a romantic alliance with them, he argued, this would strengthen the Sarmatian race ‘DNA.’ So instead of attacking the Amazons, the Sarmatian’s decided to give this new plan a go and to see what would happen if they sent peace signals…

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Let’s just say, the plan worked and the two tribes got on very well…

The Sarmatian’s wanted the Amazons to move in, marry them and adopt a village, domesticated lifestyle. However, the Amazons advised that they preferred living outdoors, as nomadic hunters and horsewomen. They said to the men: “how about you join us instead?” The men agreed and this formed a new tribe. I’m simplifying here a complicated historical account!

Influence upon the Greeks

The artists and storytellers of Ancient Greece were enthralled with the idea of ‘warrior women’ and quickly incorporated them into their art and myths. In Greek myths, the heroic male character often fights an Amazon who is consistently shown as a worthy foe. However, consistent with all Greek myths, the Amazon – like other foes such as monsters and wild boars – is always defeated by the Greek male hero. Vase paintings sometimes depicted Amazon women fighting alongside men, but later, urns and vases were decorated with women fighters fighting solo.

The Amazon’s became part of Ancient Greek popular culture. For example, ancient archaeological digs have found that Greek girls often had ‘Amazon Dolls.’ Traditional marriage gifts featured pictures of Amazons.

fig-14_amazons-in-ancient-greek-art

Reflection…

Long before the Western enlightenment, Patriarchal or Feminist movements came into being, ancient women, in some tribes and cultures were utterly equal to their male counterparts.

Mayor’s study has become a rallying point for accounts of women warriors, past and present, see these links to follow the emerging story!

PS Wonder Woman is released later this year…

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