In this book Adrienne Mayor endeavors to demonstrate that the imaginary Amazons around which ancient Greeks constructed myths actually had contemporary counterparts: the historical “Amazon-like” Scythian warrior women of the nomadic horse-centered warrior cultures of the steppes of Eurasia that stretch to western China.
The book is divided into 4 parts. In the Prologue Mayor states that her mission is to explore the realities behind the stories and that overwhelming evidence shows that the Amazon traditions of the Greeks and other ancient societies derived in large part from historical facts. Amazon-like women were real and existed among nomads of the Scythian steppes of Eurasia. Archaeological discoveries of armed women, buried in the area where the ancient Greeks located Amazons, provide indisputable evidence that horsewomen warriors of steppe cultures were a historical reality and existed as contemporaries of the Greeks.
In Part 1, to those who think that the Amazons were a gynocracy, a society of self-governing women hostile to men and living apart from them, and who, perhaps, enslaved weak men and mutilated baby boys, Mayor offers the assurance that there is no ancient account that describes them as man-haters and/or same sex lovers, “which is a 20th c. twist.” The widespread idea of women-only societies, Mayor argues, may have arisen from outsiders’ misunderstandings of the seasonal sexual patterns of nomads and their rendezvous customs, or from observations of ad hoc mixed or all-female hunting or war parties led by women, or may simply have been the product of imagination. It is more realistic, in Mayor’s view, that the phrase “Lands of women” simply means “lands ruled by women” or “lands known for autonomous women” (410). “Ordinary women of Scythia could be hunters and warriors without giving up femininity, male companionship, sex, and motherhood” (11); they were women who made both love and war, Mayor asserts.
Instead, the word Amazons was an ethnonym the Archaic Greeks used to designate little-known steppe peoples who included fighting women and were located in the lands around and beyond the Black Sea. There are strong hints, she says, that the ethnonym Amazons, rather than designating tribes of women, actually originally referred to women and men of the warrior cultures of the steppes who rode to war side by side.1
To further validate her argument that Amazons were barbarian women who lived or consorted with men, Mayor studies accounts from Greek and Roman historians and geographers. Strabo speaks of the Amazons as an ethnic group consisting of both men and women, while Pomponius Mela mentions that the Maeotians around the Sea of Azov are called Gynaecocratumenoe, that is, “ruled by women,” which is also what Pliny the Elder calls the Sarmatians. Orosius also says that the Amazons were ruled by two queens.2
Mayor sees heterosexual warrior women who would take up men of their own choosing in many nomadic and Amazon traditions. Herodotus informs that, when their men were away to war for too long, Scythian women would “consort” and procreate with their male slaves, and Pompeius Trogus’ lost history, summarized by Justin, mentions a similar event. Likewise, Scythian women would take up arms and become warriors in their own right after the men had been killed in combat.
In Part 2 Mayor endeavors to describe genuine warrior women’s everyday lives. She rejects the Greeks’ own etymology of the word Amazon, that it meant “with one breast”, and suggests that this is a misunderstanding deriving from the custom of flattening the breasts during maidenhood in order to suppress movement when girls rode or shot. Instead, she suggests, the word “Amazon” may derive from the ancient Iranian ha-mazon, which means “warriors,” or from the Circassian name a-mez-a-ne, which means “Forest (or Moon) Mother.” Amezan was also the name of the horsewoman warrior queen of the Nart sagas.
After an extensive discussion of their tattooing tradition and an analysis of the naked warrior women at vase paintings, Mayor explores their sexual lives and notes that in antiquity Amazons were assumed to be strongly heterosexual and to hold deep emotional attachments, and infers that they had pleasurable sex and a sense of equality with their male lovers.
Then she discusses other features of the Amazonian-Scythian culture, such as the use of natural intoxicants, the performance of dances, and the playing of musical instruments.
She assures us that the Amazons did not abandon, maim, or kill their baby boys, as was rumored to be the case, since it is at odds with historical accounts of Scythian men as tough warriors and unsupported by the archaeological evidence afforded by hundreds of skeletons of men and children; no forensic bioarchaeological evidence points to systematic, deliberate maiming of young males in the cultures of the Eurasian steppes. Mayor also explains the widespread custom among these cultures of “fosterage,” that is, of sending children and especially boys off to be raised apart from the clan or tribe, similar in purpose to marriage alliances.
How the Amazons governed themselves, Mayor claims, was determined by pragmatism, rather than sexual politics, because women were recognized as more adept. Sources mention queens, princesses and councils of women who led their communities. After discussing other aspects of daily life (training horses, chasing game, harvesting fruit, fashioning leather into clothing, swimming, and grooming), she looks at the religion of the “daughters of Ares” who made horse sacrifices to a god of war, and venerated the Sun, the Moon, the Sky, the Earth, Nature, and a sacred black stone, adding in the end that a belief in a kind of afterlife also seems evident in the typical grave goods.
There follows a thorough discussion on the types of horses used by Amazons and of dogs, lions, and eagles, with Mayor arguing that horses are the great equalizers of males and females and that riding liberated women. She then offers an extensive discussion of their clothing. She associates the invention of trousers with warrior women, arguing that trousers acted as equalizers between the sexes, in that they obscured gender differences. Next she talks about Amazon weapons (axe, bow, arrow, spear, shield, and sword) and fighting techniques, concluding that Scythian fighting women were probably as skilled as men. Finally, she discusses the Amazons’ personal names and languages.
In Part 3 Mayor argues that the stories Greeks and Romans told about Amazons were woven from facts, half-truths, plausible hypotheses, speculations, and fantasies, based on misunderstood customs, rumors, imagination, and romance. She discusses the myth of Heracles, who was ordered by Eurystheus to retrieve the golden Girdle of Ares held by Hippolyte, then the myth of Theseus and Antiope (the only Amazon of myth to lose her freedom through marriage to a Greek), and the myth of Penthesilea’s and Achilles’ duel in the Trojan War. After examining the evidence for the reality of seafaring Amazons, she deals with Alexander the Great’s encounter with Thalestris in which, according to Mayor, the attitude of equality, harmony and mutual respect stands out, as was also the case in the ideal marriage of Hypsicratea and King Mithradates VI of Pontus.
Finally, in Part 4 Mayor presents warrior women battling male heroes as equals in cultures outside Greek influence such as the Caucasus, the Near East, Central Asia, and China. This material concerning “Amazons” belonging to non-Greek cultures she thinks confirms what she has suggested about relations between men and women in the ethnic groups of “original” Amazons. Although in Greek myths concerning Amazons, war always triumphs over love, outside Greek mythology and beyond the Greek world, women warriors and male warriors might make love and war together as equals.
Adrienne Mayor has written an ambitious “Encyclopedia Amazonica” as she calls her book, a kind of compendium of information about the Amazons. Her aim is to demonstrate that, although the traditional and dominant interpretations of the history of Eurasia have presented it as culturally marginal, it was actually a place where the “barbarians” enjoyed an alternative gender equality, more civilized in our terms, “in love and war,” impossible in the Greek world. The Amazons’ unyielding aversion to traditional patriarchal marriage was one of their defining attributes.
Mayor’s argument, that the Amazons were not special groups of women but an ethnic group of men and “ordinary” women, is unfortunately without solid evidence and almost an arbitrary inference. Her insistence on the exotic gender “parity in love and war” among the people of the Eurasian steppes, though sympathetic and romantic, needs stronger evidence to turn it from speculation and wishful thinking into proven fact. Women in nomadic cultures might indeed enjoy more power and higher status than women in sedentary societies, yet, one needs to be careful about ascribing more to the women (and men) of these cultures than actually existed.
Mayor may consider her argument “more realistic”, but the evidence she is presenting is not sufficient and much of this information needs to be cross-checked. The archaeological resources she relies on are limited and not up to date accounts of archaeological activity: there is no mention of current archaeological research projects in progress in Russia, Georgia, the Ukraine, Bulgaria, and Turkey, especially of the kurgan (burial mounds) excavations. Most of her work draws on ancient Greek and Roman literary sources, from recent translations of narrative stories from Caucasus, and from secondary sources.
Mayor could also have included more photos from excavations and settlements, hill forts and cave sites, tombs and burials. Moreover, although she devotes much of her book to the material anthropology of the Amazon world, there is almost no reference to their homes and wagons.
In the four pages she devotes to the religion of the Amazons, there is no mention of the Temple of the Pontic Mother of Gods in Dionysopolis. She could also have examined the cult of Cybele more thoroughly and extensively. There is little reference to burial customs, such as mummification and body processing, although these might shed light on religious rituals and their meaning.3
Even so, one should give Adrianne Mayor much credit. This work, aimed at a general audience, and, with its enormous, labyrinthine detail of information, has a place as a reference work. Her charming and seamless style can certainly provoke a reader’s interest in the still distant and unknown terra incognita of the Black Sea and Caucasus regions and their nomadic life.
1. Mayor also bases her argument on Homer’s form Amazones antianeirai. The fact that Amazones does not have the feminine ending that one would expect reveals that the word actually refers to a group of men and women, indeed to an entire ethnic group. The prefix anti- in ancient Greek epic diction means “equivalent” or “matching.” antianeirai is, therefore, best translated as “equals of men.” The fact that the epithet is feminine is to be explained as being akin to “the popular tendency among English speakers to refer to cats as “she” and dogs as “he” (23) and actually emphasizes the extraordinary status of women among this particular people (24). She concludes that, Amazones antianeirai could originally have meant something like “Amazons, the tribe whose women are equals” (24).
2. Mayor “glimpses” mythography in Diodorus’ account of a gynocracy in Pontus, where the queen assigned men to domestic tasks and ordered that baby boys’ legs were to be maimed and girls would have one breast seared.
3. Finally, a couple of minor inaccuracies: Cicones and Bistones also lived in the part of Thrace that is today Greece, rather than only in Bulgaria, Romania, and Moldova (p. 394), and Pyrrhichos, danced while bearing weapons, is not a “rustic war dance” (285).