Hash-smoking, Tattoos, Sexual Freedom, and Horses. Adrienne Mayor’s The Amazons

For Roger Just, the author of Women in Athenian Law and Life (Routledge, 1989), the Amazons represent an inversion of the established ancient Greek social order. They are paralleled with the centaurs in art: barbarous, warlike, and uncivilised; alike refusing to respect the laws of marriage and the norms of polis-based society, living beyond the limits of the Greek world. “But if the Centaurs are arrived at by combining man and beast, the Amazons are arrived at simply by postulating a society of women unruled by men.” (Just, 1989, 249.) When they meet with proper (Greek) men, they’re always defeated and either killed or domesticated by marriage—and so the Greek social order always re-establishes its primacy, as in the story of Herakles and the belt of the Amazon queen, in the marriage of Theseus and Antiope, the showdown between Achilles and Penthesilea, and the legendary Amazon invasion of Athens. “But meeting with proper men,” Lysias says of the Amazon women involved in this last, “they got for themselves psyches like their natural form.” That is to say, their hearts and spirits became womanly: weak.

It’s often held that the Amazons were wholly a product of the Greek imagination. Adrienne Mayor’s The Amazons: Lives & Legends of Warrior Women Across The Ancient World (Princeton University Press, 2014) argues that this is not the case. Mayor’s thesis is that the Amazon stories of the Greek world, and the depictions of Amazons in art, reflect Greek contact with “Scythian” (a catch-all term, hence the quotation marks) horse nomads—a culture group from Central Asia whose way of life meant that both men and women could participate in hunting, skirmishing, and making war.

The Amazons: Lives & Legends of Warrior Women Across The Ancient World is divided into four sections. Part one articulates Mayor’s thesis and presents evidence for Greek contact with “Scythian” peoples and for what the Greeks knew about Scythian ways of life, as well as discussing the “puzzle” posed by the idea of the Amazons as a race of man-killing women.* Part two surveys the evidence, both in archaeology and in literature, but primarily in archaeology, for the existence of Amazon-like women among the steppe nomads of the ancient world, and whether or not the ancient Greeks could have interacted with them, their portrayals, and their way of life. (Hash-smoking? Drinking? Dancing? Tattoos? Sexual freedom? HORSES.) Part three comprises syntheses of the major Greek mythic stories about the Amazons, as well as discussing two historical** encounters between Amazon-like women and major Graeco-Roman figures: Alexander and Thalestris, and Mithridates and Hypsicratea, the “Amazon” recorded as among his wives. The fourth and final section discusses historical and mythic Amazon-like women in the ancient world beyond Greece, from Egypt to China.

*Mayor suggests, on plausible linguistic grounds, that the first known written reference to Amazons, ?μαζ?νες ?ντι?νειραι, in line 189 of the third book of the Iliad, may refer to a tribe of people where women and men had more equal status than was customary among the Greeks. (Mayor, 2014, 22-23.)

**Although in my view the encounter between Thalestris and Alexander is only possibly historical: the only surviving sources for it date to at least two hundred years after the event, and evaluating the stories that accrete around a figure like Alexander is always tricky.

In many ways this is an excellent piece of popular history, presenting a wide-ranging synthesis. I want to say, right here, right now, that The Amazons is fascinating, immensely readable, well-researched, and persuasively argued—and where it’s not persuasive, it’s plausible within the limits of the evidence. I deeply enjoyed reading this book, and as popular history it is extremely well done.

But if The Amazons presents one problem to me as a reader, it is Mayor’s lack of rigour in setting out the difficulties and the limitations of that evidence. (Well, and one instance of referring to the 12th century as late antiquity, but that could have been a copy-editing slip.) She uses fragments of lost works and later summaries of their content—like the Arimaspea ascribed variously to Aristeas of Proconnesus or Cadmus of Miletus, of which the largest surviving fragment is not more than six lines long; and the Historiae Philippicae of Gnaeus Pompeius Trogus anthologised by Justin (the historian, not the martyr)—alongside more fully preserved literary works from antiquity without explaining the problems of transmission and the issues with fragmentary preservation. In like manner, Herodotos may be quoted alongside Orosius on the same topic, though they are separated by eight hundred years, without any space given to investigating whether one can be better trusted than the other. Playwrights are cited alongside historians, geographers and orators. Accounts from the Nart sagas of the Caucasus—oral traditions which were recorded in writing beginning in the 19th century, although according to John Colarusso (who has written the most recent English-language treatment of those myths) they have ancient roots—are brought into play beside traditions that were written down in antiquity, with no discussion of the complications that arise when one uses material from oral traditions.

Mayor is so enthusiastic for her thesis (women from the Scythian peoples who fought on horseback = Amazons to the Greeks) that she neglects to discuss the problems of drawing on such a diverse array of evidence, and states as definitively true things that range from almost certainly true through probable to plausible and well, possible. Some statements of fact are inadequately referenced, or referenced in such a way that the reader can’t easily trace a precise citation, and sweeping generalisations are rarely qualified to my satisfaction. There are one or two passages that are entirely flights of fantasy, theorising far beyond the evidence.*

*Mayor is very enthusiastic about the possibilities for a love affair between Alexander and an Amazon, is all I’m going to say.

This is an enduring feature of popular history.

In its survey of the archaeological evidence for female Scythian burials with weapons and/or traumatic injury, and of the evidence for the more egalitarian way of life for horse nomads in antiquity, The Amazons is at its strongest and, for me, its most fascinating. There are references here I made note of to follow up for myself and learn more about, more specifically. Also both strongly argued and immensely interesting are those sections where Mayor comes to complicate the generally received picture of how Greeks thought about Amazons, drawing on the evidence of vase-painting, sculpture, and literary portrayals. Former “nonsense” on Greek vase-painting depicting Amazons has been revealed to have meaning after all, for example.

As a survey of the amount and kinds of evidence for the existence of warrior (horse)women across the ancient world, The Amazons is stunning in its scope. But I can’t escape feeling that Mayor has written two separate books here, and mashed them together into one. One is an examination of the evidence about warrior (horse)women across ancient Eurasia, and how contemporary non-nomadic societies reacted to, and recorded, their existence; the other is an investigation of the Graeco-Roman literary, mythic, and artistic topos of the Amazon. Related subjects, naturally: but also different. In attempting to do both in the one volume, Mayor has written a history that argues beyond its evidence even as it reveals new and intriguing ways to consider the relationship between the binaries of civilised and barbarian, male and female, that sit at the heart of our understanding of Greek ways of thought.

Not very much beyond its evidence, in the grand scheme of things. Just enough to prove uncomfortably irritating for me.

Personally, I think this is a really worthwhile book, despite its occasional methodological issues. It gave me plenty to think about in terms of new cool shit. My major take-away? Scythians are cool. And I want to go read all of the excavation reports for the female warrior burials—and the Nart sagas!—just as soon as I possibly can.

The Amazons is available now from Princeton University Press.


Liz Bourke is a cranky person who reads books, but in her other life, she’s reading for a PhD in Classics. Her blog. Her Twitter.

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