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Stanford Researcher Explores The Truths Behind Myths Of Ancient Amazons

They were huntresses, founders of cities, rivals and lovers of adventurous men. They battled the Greek hero Heracles and fought alongside the Trojans in the final hours of Troy. And yet, they are widely held to be little more than figments of Greco-Roman imagination. But warrior women actually existed, according to Stanford’s Adrienne Mayor, a research scholar in the Department of Classics. In her new book, “The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World”, Mayor explains the real-world underpinnings and history behind the Amazonian folklore.

In Hellenic legends, as Mayor learned, Amazons often faced defeat and death at the hands of male Greek heroes. Yet the storytellers also described these female foreigners as exceptionally heroic, civilized and worthy counterparts to the Greek champions. “Amazons were modeled on stories of self-confident women of steppe cultures who fought for glory and survival and enjoyed male companionship,” but, as Mayor puts it, “on terms that seemed extraordinary to the ancient Greeks.”

Mayor began her investigation by amassing all the surviving ancient Greek and Latin accounts she could find that told of encounters with Amazons as well as “warlike, barbarian” women who behaved like Amazons of myth. The texts described them as members of nomadic tribes roving the territories that the Greeks collectively called “Scythia” — a vast expanse between the Black Sea and Mongolia — from the seventh century B.C. until the fifth century A.D.

She proceeded to research the Scythians — Eurasian steppe peoples who cultivated a mastery of horseback riding and archery for thousands of years. Mayor consulted early European travelers’ reports and ethnographical materials as well as contemporary descriptions of steppe life, comparing the latter to ancient Greek knowledge and speculation concerning the identity of the Amazons.

Mayor also analyzed physical evidence – including “actual battle-scarred skeletons of women buried with their weapons and horses” — and she corresponded with the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg to learn how researchers there used infrared cameras to reveal invisible tattoos on frozen female Scythian mummies from more than two millennia ago. “Their tattoos of deer and geometric designs resemble the tattoos and patterns on Amazons depicted in ancient Greek vase paintings,” Mayor said.

Furthermore, Mayor was able to collect and verify lesser-known tales and reports (such as a newly translated Egyptian papyrus in Vienna) that showed warrior women were the subject of much fascination in cultures beyond Greece – Persia, Egypt, Caucasia, Armenia, Central Asia, China and among the steppe peoples themselves. Examining the corroborating evidence, Mayor found that “real women warriors lived at the time that the Greeks were describing Amazons and warlike women of exotic eastern lands.” She even determined that there was even more respect and exaltation for women warriors in the non-Greek traditions that stretched from the Black Sea to China. In these non-Greek stories, she said that male and female enemies were so equally matched that neither could win: “Instead of ending in doom for the woman, the former foes declare their mutual admiration and decide to become companions in love and war.”

Mayor’s exploration of the subtler gender dynamics within the Scythian culture is reflected in her linguistic analysis of the Greek name for this people, Amazones antianeirai. Homer’s Iliad offers the earliest reference to the Amazons in the eighth century B.C., using the full designation Amazones antianeirai. Mayor counters the popular modern translations of antianeirai as “opposites of men” or “against men,” pointing out that in ancient Greek epic diction, the word would more ordinarily translate to “equals of men.” Scythian culture, she explained, was not a purely female-dominated society. Instead it afforded a greater range of roles to women and promoted parity between genders. Scythian women often dressed in the same clothes as their male brethren and often joined them in battle – helping them thwart forces such as those of Cyrus the Great and Darius of Persia. For example, the “Nart” sagas, Scythian oral traditions of the Caucasus passed down to their descendants, hold great praise for their women warriors, as led by the valorous Queen Amezan: “The women of that time could cut out an enemy’s heart… yet they also comforted their men and harbored great love in their hearts.”

Amazon Warriors Did Indeed Fight and Die Like Men

The Amazons got a bum rap in antiquity. They wore trousers. They smoked pot, covered their skin with tattoos, rode horses, and fought as hard as the guys. Legends sprang up like weeds. They cut off their breasts to fire their bows better! They mutilated or killed their boy children! Modern (mostly male) scholars continued the confabulations. The Amazons were hard-core feminists. Man haters. Delinquent mothers. Lesbians.

Drawing on a wealth of textual, artistic, and archaeological evidence, Adrienne Mayor, author of “The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World”, dispels these myths and takes us inside the truly wild and wonderful world of these ancient warrior women.

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Did The Amazons Really Exist?

…We had managed to get the last two places on a Russian cargo-boat sailing from Istanbul in Turkey to Yalta in the newly free Ukraine, our route as close as we could get to that followed by the Amazons who had survived the battle of Themiscyra. They had been wretched captives in a Greek ship, destined for slavery – or worse, languishing at the low point in their history: after glorious centuries of independence, conquest, the founding of cities, they had been humiliated and routed by the archetypal patriarchal hero – Hercules.

But had this really happened? Was it in fact ‘history’ or ‘myth’? The tale comes to us from Herodotus, the so-called ‘father of history’ writing in the middle of the fifth century BC. He explains that the Greeks and Amazons had been at war and that the Greeks had finally subdued the savage women and sailed away in three ships with them. In the middle of the Black Sea the Amazons rose up and overcame their captors, but unfortunately did not know anything about sailing a boat and so, and after days of drifting at the mercy of the wind and waves, were washed up on the shores of the Sea of Azov. They came across a herd of horses, which they promptly tamed and mounted, and set about pillaging the local Scythians.

The Scythians fought back and were astonished to find, when they examined the corpses of the Amazons they had slain, that their enemies were women. They decided not to try to kill the survivors but to woo them instead, thinking that they would make good strong children. So a group of young Scythian men went off and camped near the women, being careful to be on good behaviour so that eventually the women realised they meant no harm…

The Amazon myth has resonated through western civilisation ever since Homer mentioned them, en passant, as ‘women the equal of men’. The tales tell of ferocious women warriors who fight and ride like men, live apart from males, only copulating once a year to get female children, the boys being sent back to their fathers, mutilated or killed. But what kind of ‘truth’ lies behind the accounts of the Amazons given by Homer, Hellanicus, Herodotus, Hippocrates, Diodorus and Strabo (and many others)? What kind of reality is the myth built around, if any? I had found out that most classicists believed that there was absolutely no foundation in reality for the myth: the Amazons, they argued, were invented by the Greeks to prove that a woman warrior was a wicked and unnatural phenomenon, which would always come to a bad end (the Amazons tend to get defeated in all versions of the myth where they fight Greeks).

But, since the breaking up and opening up of the old Soviet Union, news had been percolating to the west of astonishing finds in Russia and Ukraine which might prove the classicists wrong. I was travelling across the Black Sea to meet women archaeologists whose work suggested that women very like the Amazons really had existed. I hoped that I would be able to see for myself the bones, the armour and the weapons of some of those women warriors, possibly the prototype of the Amazons who had fascinated me for so many years…

Whether the war-like women of the Scythians and Sauromatians were Amazon prototypes or their descendants, the German archaeologist Renate Rolle was the key to unlocking the mystery. We found out that she was digging at the fortress of Bel’sk out in the middle of the steppe, so we hired a car and drove across the Ukrainian flatlands on a day of continuous torrential rain… When she was a student back in 1965, she began to notice that, in some of the graves she was digging, the gender of the dead person was not at all obvious because the goods buried with them were both classically female things like spindles and mirrors and classically male instruments like knives, swords or arrows. Most previous generations of archaeologists had a found a way of explaining such graves which did not involve the idea that women might be buried with weapons – in fact they tended to presume that any burial with weapons would be that of a man… but Renate Rolle, being a woman and a very objective archaeologist herself, was keen to explore all options…

In the early eighties Renate was digging at Certomylik, in the lower reaches of the Dnieper, a very rich source of Scythian graves, many of them unmolested by robbers. In six of the fifty-three graves they found women with weapons. Two hadn’t been touched, one was a young woman with weapons, a bow and some arrow-heads, and this little child lying on her arm. The two fingers of her right hand which would have had heavy use from pulling a bow showed clear signs of wear and tear. It was very moving. So you see these women warriors did have children, and they may have led perfectly normal married lives together with their families and husbands. They only fought when they had to, to defend their settlement, or if there was some particularly ferocious fighting going on. They used the bow – it’s a good weapon for a woman because you don’t need brute strength to use it, all you need it to be fast and flexible…

It was important to Renate that the women warriors whose graves she dug up were ordinary, man-loving (as against man-killing), child-rearing women, not muscle-bound man-haters. She points out that that women’s physique suits them particularly well to horse-riding and specifically distance-riding. Men who spend a great deal of time in the saddle can become impotent, because of the heat and friction on their testicles, whereas women have no such problem. The bow suits women well too: it requires less muscle strength to use than some other weapons, but it does demand calm, concentration, good co-ordination of hand and eye, and a precise sense of distance and timing. These are all skills which could be acquired through rigorous daily training in childhood…

…when their men were away fighting or hunting, nomadic women would have to be able to defend themselves, their animals and pasture-grounds competently. During the time that the Scythians advanced into Asia and achieved near-hegemony in the Near-East, there was a period of twenty-eight years when the men would have been away on campaigns for long periods. During this time the women would not only have had to defend themselves, but to reproduce and this could well be the origin of the idea that Amazons mated once a year with their neighbours…

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