(WOMENSENEWS)– Who were the Amazons?
In Greek myth, Amazons were fierce warrior women of exotic Eastern lands, as courageous and skilled in battle as the mightiest Greek heroes. Amazons were major characters not only in the legendary Trojan War but also in the chronicles of the greatest Greek city-state, Athens.
Every great champion of myth–Heracles, Theseus, Achilles–proved his valor by overcoming powerful warrior queens and their armies of women. Those glorious struggles against foreign man-killers were re- counted in oral tales and written epics and illustrated in countless art- works throughout the Greco-Roman world. Famous historical figures, among them King Cyrus of Persia, Alexander the Great and the Roman general Pompey, also tangled with Amazons.
Greek and Latin authors never doubted that Amazons had existed in the remote past, and many reported that women living the life of Amazons still dwelled in lands around the Black Sea and beyond. Modern scholars, on the other hand, usually consign Amazons to the realm of the Greek imagination.
But were Amazons real? Though they were long believed to be purely imaginary, overwhelming evidence now shows that the Amazon traditions of the Greeks and other ancient societies derived in large part from historical facts. Among the nomad horse-riding peoples of the steppes known to the Greeks as "Scythians," women lived the same rugged outdoor life as the men. These "warlike tribes have no cities, no fixed abodes," wrote one ancient historian; "they live free and unconquered, so savage that even the women take part in war." Archaeology reveals that about one out of three or four nomad women of the steppes was an active warrior buried with her weapons. Their lifestyle–so different from the domestic seclusion of Greek women–captured the imagination of the Greeks. The only real-life parallels in Greece were rare instances of wives forced to defend their families and towns against invaders in the absence of their husbands.
‘Going Amazon’ an Option
The myth of Atalanta seems to suggest that a girl raised in a natural state would grow up to be something like an Amazon. In reality, "going Amazon" was an option for girls who had been raised since childhood to ride horses and shoot arrows on the steppes. The "equalizing" combination of horseback riding and archery meant that women could be as fast and as deadly as men. Whether by choice or compelled by circumstances, ordinary women of Scythia could be hunters and warriors without giving up femininity, male companionship, sex and motherhood.
The universal quest to find balance and harmony between men and women, beings who are at once so alike and so different, lies at the heart of all Amazon tales. That timeless tension helps to explain why there were as many love stories about warrior women as there were war stories.
In a nutshell: Amazons, the female warriors who fought Heracles and other heroes in Greek myth, were long assumed to be an imaginative Greek invention. But Amazon-like women were real–although of course the myths were made up. Archaeological discoveries of battle- scarred female skeletons buried with weapons prove that warlike women really did exist among nomads of the Scythian steppes of Eurasia. So Amazons were Scythian women–and the Greeks understood this long before modern archaeology.
And the Greeks were not the only ones to spin tales about Amazons. Thrilling adventures of warrior heroines of the steppes were told in many ancient cultures besides Greece.
My mission was to sort myth from fact. As the first full compendium of the lives and legends of Amazons across the ancient world, my book explores the realities behind the stories, digging deep and ranging far afield to unearth hidden knowledge and surprising recent discoveries about the female warriors mythologized as Amazons. How do we know for certain that Amazon-like women actually existed in antiquity? Did Amazons really cut off one breast? Were Amazons tattooed? What about their sex life? Why would Amazons prefer trousers instead of skirts? Which intoxicants did they favor? How did they train their horses? What were the Amazons’ most deadly weapons and what kind of injuries did they inflict?
Once we know what genuine warrior women’s lives were like, the famous Amazons of classical myth and legend spring to life with remarkable new clarity.
Excerpted from "The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World" by Adrienne Mayor. Copyright © 2014 by Adrienne Mayor. Publisher by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.
Adrienne Mayor is a research scholar in classics and history of science at Stanford University. She is the author of numerous publications, including “The Poison King,” a nonfiction finalist for the 2009 National Book Award.
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