Book Review: Amazons by Adrienne Mayor.


Length : 536 pages
Publisher: Princeton University Press (9 Sept. 2014)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0691147205
ISBN-13: 978-0691147208

It’s a colourful book, yellow with orange arrows symmetrically shooting towards a little Amazon on a horse. In feel it has a sort of magazine consistency. It feels like many American Books I’ve owned, robust and floppy. It’s the type of book that can take punishment, a proper reference book in other words, you could curl its covers back when reading it, leave it splayed and do what you might I feel sure it would recover. Just as easily it can be cared for and will look attractive on a shelf. So much for the cover.

Diodorus wrote that after the Trojan War the great histories of the Amazons, the fierce warrior women of ancient legend, had become so storied as to become nothing but fictions. It is startling, some might say, that ancient historians would write something like this. Arguing as it does by extension that these clans of savage women from the dark fringes of the civilised world, and indeed factual scholarship, were actually real, and not just some invention to spice up heroic poetry and song.
But they did. To the ancient Greeks, and practically most everyone else, the Amazons were or had been real people, part of history to be recorded and passed down. That men such as Diodorus and Herodotus believed in their reality proves that it wasn’t just crackpot writers who thought that Amazons belonged to history as well as to literature and art.
That isn’t how we see them today though. To most people an Amazon is a sort of a feminine ideal, a figment or a creation, and as such the amount of actual scholarship regarding them in an historical or archeological sense is nonexistent. True there are many books about, or that mention the myth, just like Heracles, or Jason in terms of Historiography they are a real part of Ancient Greek and Roman culture. But no one has really taken them seriously enough to devote a proper study to them, which is a great injustice, as anyone who reads Adrienne Mayor’s book will soon realise.

Diodorus really hit the nail on the head. Today the Amazons are so enmeshed in legend and myth that whatever history there was needs to be surgically seperated in order to understand it. And that is where Mayor’s Encyclopaedia Amizonica comes in. A treasure trove of historical, legendary, archeological and historiographical information, a practical Rosetta Stone of Amazon fact and fiction. With the renewal of the Wonder Woman Brand I feel certain that more people will be asking, “So were Amazons Real?” And thankfully now, we have this book to tell us resoundingly, yes!

However the actual reality is more complicated than that. Because essentially amazons of mythic lore were a correlation of practically everything that was known about real warrior women who lived on the Steppes of ancient Scythia. A Greek geographical name tag for a great sweep of land stretching from the Balkans, across Ukraine and Southern Russia, down into the Caucuses and into Turkey and Iran. This Scythia was a land of nomads, horse people, scraping out an existence more ancient and mysterious than Greece civilisation itself. Indeed what Greeks would call Scythians formed part of a much wider, “Nomad Belt” that stretched from Europe to Mongolia and was composed of people and cultures that had adapted to survive in the endless grass prairies and deserts of the steppes, who knew the mountain paths and who were the terror of the civilised world for centuries.

It is no mistake that death rode a pale horse in the book of Revelation. The wild and warlike nomads would constantly strike terror into all the great empires of the lower, more fertile geographic sphere. The Persian empire, that vast melting pot was indeed formed out of a group of horse warriors. It was a collection of horse cultures that brought Rome to its knees, and it was the nomads of Mongolia that conquered the greatest continuous land empire ever seen.
Amazons tells us about these people, the women of Scythia, the real, the remains and the myths, all is examined. The author takes us right to the Hemp rich atmosphere of their campfires, were they share stories of raids, hunts and life with the men of their tribe, illustrating their stories with the tattoos that encircle their arms, that seem to dance in the firelight and come alive as more fermented mares milk is drunk.
Using the legends and the rich archeological evidence uncovered from their homeland Mayor gets to the roots of those legends and reveals some fascinating surprises. Not least of which is how Central the amazons were to Greek culture. They named cities after them, they propped up reputations on the strength of defeating them, they fantasised about them. But the difference between then and now is that the Greeks knew that they were real people, whereas today we don’t.

The real amazons Mayor tells us didn’t look like the scantily clad Greek Ideal, they wore long and beautifully decorated robes and distinctive pointed hats, they may well have invented trousers, and they fought and hunted alongside their men. I can’t actually even begin to say how great it is to have a book like this, because it’s exactly the kind of book I like. Not one that just dismisses old stories as being too tall or made up, but really gives them the benefit of the doubt and tries to correlate and reconcile them with hard evidence. This is brilliantly achieved in Amazons.

The format is encyclopaedic, but it is well written and not dry. There is a great emphasis put on highlighting the freedom, gender neutral role and apparent equality that these women enjoyed & as a result were endowed with by even Greek writers. True unless you are an archeologist or interested in the field, undoubtedly some will find the exhaustive examination of burial finds somewhat dragging. Also because a wide sweep of Amazon legends and stories are examined here, some will find some more interesting than others. By that I mean, those interested in Ancient Greece might not be so bothered with the Amazons of Asia. But to really get to grips with the subject it’s fascinating to read the parallels between the eastern and western Amazons. And it seems that every culture has their own versions, even if they don’t call them Amazons. Indeed the word Amazon here is used loosely to describe both the rigid mythological clans of savage women, and also to refer to any sort of woman warrior within a balanced society. Remember the Nomad belt stretched from the Black Sea to Mongolia, and women capable of fighting and defending themselves is just the most practical solution for a nomadic way of life, and would give such a clan or tribe a huge advantage over their enemies. Reading about the horsewomen of the Middle East and China was no less fascinating to me.

This in many ways is an exhaustive study, every facet that could be thought of has been included, and very little left out. From Ancient Greece right down to the Roman Mithradatic War, and across to ancient China, this is a photo collage of the place fighting women hold on our imaginations, and the truth behind the image. In movies and books today, audiences much prefer a strong, independent woman that can defend herself and pretty much kick ass, to the damsel in distress. That is a preference that goes right back to the Amazons. That the Amazons today are probably ranked up there in popular imagination with Cowboys and Pirates, speaks to the impact they had on the minds of the ancient world. Imagine the effect of seeing these raiders riding through your country, as a Greek used to demure matrons and maids, seeing that the barbarian horde was not just made up of male warriors, but perhaps up to a quarter or more of the fighting force were women, it was a culture shock that would not fade quickly. These women, who killed and hunted and rode, and who would look a man square in the eye without shame and talk to him as if he was just anyone else, held an endless fascination for the Greeks, just as they do today.


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