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The Amazons

The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World

Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 536
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  • Book Info
    The Amazons
    Book Description:

    Amazons-fierce warrior women dwelling on the fringes of the known world-were the mythic archenemies of the ancient Greeks. Heracles and Achilles displayed their valor in duels with Amazon queens, and the Athenians reveled in their victory over a powerful Amazon army. In historical times, Cyrus of Persia, Alexander the Great, and the Roman general Pompey tangled with Amazons.

    But just who were these bold barbarian archers on horseback who gloried in fighting, hunting, and sexual freedom? Were Amazons real? In this deeply researched, wide-ranging, and lavishly illustrated book, National Book Award finalist Adrienne Mayor presents the Amazons as they have never been seen before. This is the first comprehensive account of warrior women in myth and history across the ancient world, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Great Wall of China.

    Mayor tells how amazing new archaeological discoveries of battle-scarred female skeletons buried with their weapons prove that women warriors were not merely figments of the Greek imagination. Combining classical myth and art, nomad traditions, and scientific archaeology, she reveals intimate, surprising details and original insights about the lives and legends of the women known as Amazons. Provocatively arguing that a timeless search for a balance between the sexes explains the allure of the Amazons, Mayor reminds us that there were as many Amazon love stories as there were war stories. The Greeks were not the only people enchanted by Amazons-Mayor shows that warlike women of nomadic cultures inspired exciting tales in ancient Egypt, Persia, India, Central Asia, and China.

    Driven by a detective's curiosity, Mayor unearths long-buried evidence and sifts fact from fiction to show how flesh-and-blood women of the Eurasian steppes were mythologized as Amazons, the equals of men. The result is likely to become a classic.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6513-0
    Subjects: History, Sociology, Archaeology

Table of Contents

    (pp. 1-14)

    King Iasos wanted only sons. He left his infant daughter to die on a mountainside in Arcadia, the rugged highlands of southern Greece. A mother bear nursed the abandoned baby. Hunters found the feral girl and named her Atalanta. Like a female Tarzan, Atalanta was a natural athlete and hunter. Self-reliant, with a “fiery, masculine gaze,” she wrestled like a bear and could outrun any animal or man. Atalanta loved wrestling and she was strong enough to defeat the hero Peleus in a grappling contest. This bold tomboy of Greek myth was happiest roaming alone in the forest with her...

  2. Part 1 Who Were the Amazons?

      (pp. 17-33)

      If Queen Amezan and Queen Penthesilea could somehow meet in real life, they would recognize each other as sister Amazons. Two tales, two storytellers, two sites far apart in time and place, and yet one common tradition of women who made love and war. The first tale aroseoutsidethe classical Greek world, in the northern Black Sea–Caucasus region among the descendants of the steppe nomads of Scythia. The other tale originatedwithinthe ancient Greek world, in epic poems about the legendary Trojan War. In the two traditions the male and female roles are reversed, yet the stories...

      (pp. 34-51)

      Scythians! Somewhere to the north and east, beyond the world familiar to the Greeks, restless nomads crisscrossed a landscape of immense emptiness. Expert horse riders, the men and women spent their lives astride tough ponies and nourished their babies with mare’s milk. They perfected their deadly aim by shooting at turquoise gems embedded in high rocky crags. They dipped their arrows in the venom of steppe vipers, scalped their foes, and drank from the gilded skulls of their enemies and ancestors. Under the influence of intoxicating clouds of burning hemp, they buried dead companions with their favorite horses and fabulous...

      (pp. 52-60)

      In Greek myth, Heracles and other heroes set out on an expedition to win the war belt of the Amazon queen Hippolyte. After their victory the Greek ships sailed away loaded with many captive Amazons (including Antiope, destined to become Theseus’s wife in Athens). What became of the other Amazon prisoners on the ships? The myth does not tell.

      But Herodotus does. Long ago, he relates, a Greek expedition force defeated Amazons at the Thermodon River in Pontus. The Greeks captured as many of the women as they could and sailed off in three ships. The captive Amazons knew they...

  3. Part 2 Historical Women Warriors and Classical Traditions

      (pp. 63-83)

      Wounds from a battle-axe in the skull and a bent bronze arrowhead embedded in the knee. Obviously this warrior had died in battle. Two iron lances were plunged into the ground at the grave’s entrance and two more spears lay beside the skeleton inside. A massive armored leather belt with iron plaques lay next to a quiver and twenty bronze-tipped arrows with red-striped wooden shafts. Other grave goods included glass beads, pearls, bracelets of silver and bronze, a bronze mirror, a lead spindle-whorl, a needle, an iron knife, and a wooden tray of food.

      A typical Scythian warrior’s grave of...

      (pp. 84-94)

      A beautiful courtesan of Athens named Phryne was a sensational celebrity in the time of Alexander the Great for exposing her breasts in public. In myth, the irresistible Helen of Troy saved her life by suddenly flashing her breasts to distract her murderous husband. In antiquity, Roman tourists visited the temple of Rhodes to gaze at a silver and gold chalice said to have been molded from one of Helen’s perfect breasts. That cup is lost and forgotten, and Phryne’s fame has long since faded from memory.¹

      The most notorious breasts in all classical antiquity, still raising eyebrows today, are...

      (pp. 95-116)

      The young woman is holding an axe, about to chop off the head of Orpheus, the poet who was killed by ruthless Thracian women in Greek myth. The viewer’s eye is drawn to the delicate tattoo of a deer on her shoulder. Another tattoo graces the inside of her forearm, a ladder design. This image appears on a Greek vase attributed to the Pistoxenos Painter, who painted thirty-eight vases featuring tattooed Thracian women (480–470 BC). His name means “Trustworthy Foreigner”—perhaps he was Thracian himself.¹

      Because Greek writers described Thracian men and women as tattooed, classical scholars identify all...

      (pp. 117-128)

      Except for a stray bare breast and occasional bare feet, Amazons in ancient Greek art were usually modestly dressed compared to their male opponents. Greek heroes typically fought in a “costume of heroic nudity” against clothed Amazons. An Amazon’s garment often left one breast exposed or slipped off her shoulder in the frenzy of battle. Despite the sex appeal of the warrior women’s lithe bodies in action, however, it is a challenge to find any scantily clad or naked Amazons in archaic and classical sculpture and painting.

      Some unclothed Amazons do appear in later Hellenistic art, after the death of...

    • 8 SEX AND LOVE
      (pp. 129-141)

      Enemies of wedded life, self-sufficient outdoorswomen, belonging to no man, free to make love on their own terms. A host of questions surround Amazon sex and love, in the Greek imagination and in reality. Did Amazons remain virgins until they had proved themselves in war? Did Amazons enjoy sex? Or did they mate only to reproduce their special society? What sort of partners did Amazons prefer—and what sort of men would consort with Amazons? Could Amazons form bonds of friendship, love, and companionship with men? Is there evidence for long-term relationships for the warrior women of myth and legend...

      (pp. 142-154)

      A hard-drinking Amazon? Outside of comedy, women who overindulge in alcohol were rare in ancient Greek literature. But this was the reputation of the Amazon who gave her name to Sinope, one of several towns in Anatolia that claimed Amazons in their mythic past. The Greek tradition about the drinking Amazon appears in an ancient commentary on the epic voyage of the Argonauts to Pontus. The commentator cites lost histories of the Black Sea by Hecataeus (fifth century BC) and Andron of Teos (ca. 350 BC). According to the story, an Amazon named Sanape, a “Daughter of Ares,” had “fled...

      (pp. 155-169)

      In Pontus, wrote Diodorus in the first century BC, there lived a tribe called the Amazons, in which the women went to war like the men. One woman’s intelligence, courage, and physical strength made her their warrior queen. Leading an army of women, she subdued lands as far as the Don River. This self-styled “Daughter of Ares” established new laws. The Amazon women would make war while the men stayed home spinning wool and minding children. “To incapacitate the men from the demands of war, she ordered that boys’ arms and legs should be maimed.” Other historians went further, presenting...

      (pp. 170-190)

      Amazons were the first people to ride horses,” the orator Lysias reminded the Athenians in hisFuneral Oration(395 BC). Across the Black Sea, an ancient Abkhaz saga claimed that the nomads of the northern Caucasus were the first to tame and ride horses. It is said that the boundless steppes seem incomplete without a horse and rider, and the ancient Scythians—and Amazons—are indeed unthinkable without the horse. Horses were first domesticated, probably for milk and meat and pulling carts, and then for riding, around 4000 BC by nomadic men and women of the northern Black Sea–Caspian...

      (pp. 191-208)

      More than a thousand Amazons are depicted on Greek vase paintings, and most of the warrior women are clad in tunics and trousers or leggings, like those worn by their fellow Scythians. Standard Greek attire was a rectangle of cloth draped and fastened with pins and belts, as it was for many other ancient cultures (such as the Roman toga, Egyptian wraparound skirt, and Asian sari). But trousers were more complex. Trousers and tunics required piecing together wool, leather, or cloth and sewing strong seams to construct shaped garments; the seams were frequently decorated with contrasting thread. The earliest preserved...

      (pp. 209-233)

      Who were the first people to make iron weapons? According to the ancient Greeks, it was the Amazons—and this advantage gave them great power over their enemies. Ironworking originated in Anatolia and/or the Caucasus around 1600–1300 BC. Hittite inscriptions record a demand for their iron objects in the fourteenth century BC. An ancient oral tradition of the Caucasus explains how a wise and practical mythic heroine invented the anvil, hammer, and tongs for ironworking. Her name was Satanaya, Iranian-Circassian for “Mother of a War Band of a Hundred Brothers.” Perhaps this tale and other oral traditions about iron...

      (pp. 234-246)

      In the realm of myth, of course, Greek heroes, Olympian gods and goddesses, Trojans, Persians, and Amazons all communicated with magical ease. For example, in the myth of Heracles’s Ninth Labor, winning the belt of Hippolyte, Heracles and the Amazon queen converse with no difficulty—until violence breaks out. But, since classical Greeks also wrote about Amazons as real people of Scythia, dwelling in the lands around the Black Sea, Caucasus, and beyond, what languages did they believe Amazons spoke?

      Many other linguistic questions swirl around the mythic and historical Amazons. What languages were actually spoken by the peoples of...

  4. Part 3 Amazons in Greek and Roman Myth, Legend, and History

      (pp. 249-258)

      In the mists of the storied past, one glorious event stood out for the Athenians. Their founding hero, Theseus, had led the Greeks to triumph, defeating an Amazon army that swept across the Aegean, invaded Attica, and even besieged the sacred Acropolis, threatening to overrun Athens’s religious center and stronghold. The hard-won victory over the Amazonian juggernaut was Athens’s proudest moment in mytho-history (that battle is recounted in chapter 17). But why did the Amazons decide to make war on Greece in the first place? A covetous princess and a vengeful goddess set the chain of fateful events in motion,...

      (pp. 259-270)

      The only Amazon of myth to lose her freedom through marriage to a Greek was Antiope (“Opposing Gaze”), the sister of Hippolyte, Melanippe, and Orithyia of Pontus. But exactly how was Antiope the warrior transformed into the domesticated wife of Theseus, legendary king of Athens? Was she a prisoner of war? Was Antiope abducted, tricked, seduced, or swept away by love? Should we imagine a combination of abduction and seduction, with Antiope falling victim to an ancient version of Stockholm syndrome, the “capture bonding” emotional effect sometimes experienced by hostages? Perhaps she began to identify with her Greek captors when...

      (pp. 271-286)

      Never content to stay in their own territory, in their heyday the mythic Amazons had swept west and south, cutting great swaths around the Black Sea and into Asia Minor, just as the historical Scythians had done. The Greeks imagined a great battle in which Athens itself was the target of the Amazons’ wrath and imperial designs. This terrifying attack, turned back after a desperate stand by Theseus and the Athenians, was “anything but a trivial or womanish affair,” wrote Plutarch in his biography of Theseus. Queen Orithyia’s Amazon invading army overran northern Greece and even laid siege to the...

      (pp. 287-304)

      No matter how many bad things women suffer, nothing can take away their appetite for trouble,” marveled Pausanias. “The Amazons of Themiscyra fell to Heracles and the fighting force the Amazons sent against Athens was wiped out—and yet the Amazons still went to Troy and fought there against the whole of Greece.”¹

      The myth of Penthesilea and her duel with Achilles in the Trojan War is very old, as ancient as the myth of Hippolyte and Heracles.² (The Athenians, as we saw, had inserted their own epic battle with the Amazons into this chronology, locating it in mythic time...

      (pp. 305-318)

      An Amazon wearing a belted tunic, hat, and boots and carrying a crescent shield and battle-axe. The image on the ancient Anatolian coin seems commonplace. But what is that object in her right hand? A ship’s anchor. What could be more incongruous? Amazons were horsewomen, not sailors.

      Historical facts provide some clues to explain the curious image. The coin was issued by Ankyra (modern Ankara, Turkey) in the second century AD. A Hittite settlement in the Bronze Age, Ankyra was populated by Phrygians, Mysians, Persians, Greeks, and Celts before becoming the capital of the Roman province of Galatia in the...

      (pp. 319-338)

      After Alexander had conquered Persia, he was determined to expand his empire all the way to India. In 330 BC, Alexander’s Macedonian army of more than thirty thousand marched east from Ecbatana (Hamadan, Iran) following the course of the caravan route (Silk Route) through the high desert to Rhaga (Tehran). They threaded through the “Caspian Gates,” a narrow defile in the Elburz Mountains, and reached fertile Hyrcania on the southern Caspian shore. Alexander encamped, about fifteen miles northwest of the ancient city of Hecatompylus, at a huge rock and cavern with a spring. From this base, Alexander and part of...

      (pp. 339-354)

      In each ancient biography of an Amazon queen, from Hippolyte, Orithyia, and Penthesilea to Thalestris, the writers assure us that withherdeath the Amazon race perished. Yet Amazon-like women keep popping up in the traditional Amazon territories around the Black Sea, Caucasus, and Caspian Sea. Some 250 years after Alexander’s idyll with Queen Thalestris of Pontus, another great monarch—himself the king of Pontus—met an Amazon who became his companion in love and battle. It sounds too good to be true. But archaeological evidence came to light in 2007 to confirm the reality of the warrior horsewoman named...

  5. Part 4 Beyond the Greek World

      (pp. 357-376)

      The rugged mountains, forests, gorges, river valleys, pastures, and lonely steppes between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea have been a cultural crossroads and a turbulent cauldron of diverse languages, ethnicities, and geopolitical conflicts for thousands of years. In antiquity, adventurous Greeks traveled to the outer fringes of this vast territory, part of ancient Scythia-Sarmatia, where they established trading colonies, met exotic peoples, and listened to their exciting tales. What the Greeks saw and heard around the Black Sea colored their ideas of barbarian life and encouraged them to imagine what might lie beyond the world they knew: war-loving...

      (pp. 377-394)

      Persia and Egypt, known and respected by the ancient Greeks as venerable and powerful civilizations, had their own independent histories and traditions about warrior women. Ancient Iranians were more knowledgeable than the Greeks about the lives of women from Central Asian nomad tribes, since first the Medes and then the Persians fought Scythians from the north and Saka tribes on the eastern frontiers of their empires. Many Scythian groups spoke forms of ancient Iranian. Stories about Medes and Persians and their Saka-Scythian adversaries and allies fascinated the Greeks, who were curious—and apprehensive—about steppe peoples, as well as the...

      (pp. 395-410)

      It is said that the boundless steppes give flight to tales of heroes and heroines because the conditions of life are so harsh and extreme. The landscape itself demands human spirit on an epic scale. Scythia, for the ancient Greeks, was an immense ocean of land whose vastness paradoxically expanded as their knowledge about the world to the East increased. The exhilarating, terrifying lives of warlike archers on horseback fascinated not only the Greeks and Romans but also the Persians and Egyptians. And as we’ve seen, these westerners thrilled to tales of Amazons and foreign warrior queens from beyond the...

    • 25 CHINA
      (pp. 411-430)

      The forested mountains where the girl and her father bow-hunted were deep and wild, sparsely populated. Even as a child, she harbored a secret fascination with swordplay. But there were no formal teachers. So over the years she taught herself, at first with bamboo sticks and later with a sword, inventing her own special techniques of lightning speed and subtle yet powerful moves. Alone in the forest, she perfected her style of swirling, leaping, parrying, and slashing at a host of imaginary enemies represented by saplings and stands of bamboo. One day an old master swordsman challenged her to a...

    (pp. 431-438)