Hot Flanks and Her Sisters

James Romm

  • The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World by Adrienne Mayor
    Princeton, 512 pp, £19.95, October 2014, ISBN 978 0 691 14720 8

‘We wield bows and arrows, throw javelins and ride horses; we know nothing of woman-ly tasks,’ the Amazons said of themselves, according to Herodotus. He had learned the legends of the women warriors on a trip to the southern outskirts of their territory – the region the Greeks called Scythia, the vast steppe lands to the north and east of the Black Sea. Herodotus shows the Amazons acting peaceably, even amorously in a sexual rendezvous with neighbouring Scythians, but he also mentions a Scythian name for the tribe that suggests a darker side: Oiorpata or ‘man-killers’. The notion of female power was both alluring and scary for Greek and Roman men, judging by the treatment of the Amazon legend in their writing.

Herodotus wasn’t the first Greek man to fall under the Amazons’ spell. The author of a now lost epic poem from archaic Greece depicted Penthesilea, an Amazon queen, leading her troops to the defence of Troy. The poem, often referred to as the Cypria but also known as Amazonia, is intended as a sequel to the Iliad: it imagines Achilles, fresh from his victory over Hector, fighting and killing Penthesilea in single combat. As he delivers the fatal spear-thrust, Achilles locks eyes with his victim and feels his battle-rage suddenly replaced by a desperate longing. That moment of violence and eroticism was portrayed in around 540 bce by the painter Exekias on a vase now in the British Museum; the image perfectly captures the Amazon’s dual role in Greek myth: both lethal enemy and irresistible object of lust.

Many Greek heroes had encounters with Amazons. Heracles journeys to their land to retrieve a zoster from Queen Hippolyta – a piece of armour ‘something like a massive concho belt’, Adrienne Mayor writes, and nothing like a ‘girdle’, though that’s how it’s often translated. Whether Heracles rapes Hippolyta, as the forcible removal of a belt might imply, is unclear. But his companion on the mission, the Athenian king Theseus, certainly either rapes or elopes with Hippolyta’s sister, Antiope, and takes her back to Athens as his wife. (In A Midsummer Night’s Dream Shakespeare, following a minor variant of the myth reported by Plutarch, calls her Hippolyta, not Antiope.)

The idea that an Amazon queen once ruled their land fascinated the Athenians, as did the notion that their ancestors had fought off an Amazon invasion triggered by the abduction of Antiope. The legend of Amazonomachy crystallised during the mid-fifth century bce. Friezes on the Parthenon’s façade, and on the shield of the statue of Athena inside the temple, depicted a heroic clash between naked Greek warriors and Amazons clothed in leggings and flowing tunics. Hundreds of vase paintings of the same subject survive. Theseus was thought to have won the battle, though not without a fierce fight in which Antiope, in some versions at least, was killed trying to protect her new husband.

Their son Hippolytus, the world’s first Greco-Amazon baby, grew up to resemble his mother in several unfortunate ways: as a perversely chaste young man, who loved hunting but reviled women, he incurred the wrath of Aphrodite. In a story told by Euripides, Seneca and Racine, Hippolytus spurns the advances of his stepmother Phaedra, who, inflamed by passion, accuses him of rape, driving him to take his own life. Hippolytus is destroyed by his father’s curse before he can clear his name. The spawn of an Amazon, the myth implies, had no safe place in the traditional polis.

Long after the demigods and heroes had vanished from the earth, the Amazons remained. Unlike other mythic beings – the centaurs, giants and Cyclopes who supposedly once inhabited the fringes of the Greek world – the Amazons were treated as real people in works of ancient history and science. Their territory could be mapped, their customs – which included various ways of ‘importing’ men to help them beget children – catalogued. Herodotus describes the tryst with the Scythians without a prefatory ‘they say’. For him, as for most later writers, the Amazons belonged to a curious realm where myth and ethnography overlapped.

As late as Alexander the Great’s march through Asia, the Amazons were still considered real beings with whom an adventurous Greek might fight, sleep, or both. Passing through Chorasmia, in modern Uzbekistan, Alexander met with a local chieftain who proposed a joint attack on neighbouring Amazons. Just who he meant is a mystery: Alexander declined the offer and moved quickly on. He was more receptive when visited by Thalestris, an Amazon princess hoping to bear his child. According to several contemporary historians, she enjoyed a 13-day sex romp with Alexander by the shores of the Caspian Sea. Plutarch, writing in the second century ce, doubted the truth of the story but not the existence of the Amazons themselves.

Modern classicists have tended to focus on the Amazons in myth, as the subtitle of a 1984 book by William Blake Tyrrell – Amazons: A Study in Athenian Mythmaking – attests. But the balance had begun to swing back towards ethnography before Tyrrell’s work appeared. In the 1960s, archaeologists excavating the many kurgans, or burial mounds, that dot the Eurasian steppes noticed a strange phenomenon: corpses buried with military gear (helmets, spears, archery weapons), though some also had traditionally feminine objects, such as spindle-whorls for spinning cloth, alongside them. DNA analysis and precise skeletal measurements eventually proved that these graves belonged to women. Some had had their ribs slashed by swords or their skulls caved in by battle-axes; others had arrowheads driven into their bones; many were interred with horses beside them. They’d been riding and fighting, just like Herodotus’ Amazons, and had wielded bows and arrows, as the slight thickening of their right-hand finger bones proved.

There were more discoveries of women buried with weapons in the last century, and many tombs that were once thought to belong to men because of the grave goods were recategorised. Warriors dug up in the 1920s in Azerbaijan and Iran were subjected to DNA tests in 2004, and several turned out to be women. The occupants of mounds at Agighiol in modern Romania, and Vraca, Bulgaria, were re-examined in 2010 and found to be female, though they were buried with ornate silver helmets and greaves. In 1997, a prominent archaeologist proposed that the Golden Man of Issyk, in Kazakhstan – a princely warrior buried with elaborate dress and weapons, and scaled armour made of gold – was actually a Golden Woman. In this case the skeleton recovered from the site has gone missing, apparently discarded by excavators, and the truth may never be known.

The remains of female warriors have been found all over the steppe lands, from modern-day Bulgaria to eastern Mongolia, but they seem to be concentrated in the region between the Danube and the Don, now largely in Ukraine. By 1991, 112 women buried with weapons had been found there, and many more have turned up since. This is the region the Greeks knew as Scythia, a place inhabited by herders and raiders who used horse-drawn wagons to herd their flocks and hunt game. It was also the heartland of the Amazon myth. According to the Greeks, Amazons could be found in many different places, but the regions around the Don (Tanais) river and the Sea of Azov (Lake Maeotis) come up most frequently; one ancient writer claimed the Don had once been called ‘Amazon river’ – a name transferred to South America in 1542, after Spanish explorers encountered Indians there whose women fought alongside the men in battle. The Don region was an important site of Greco-Scythian contact, hence the many Greek pots and coins recovered from Ukrainian kurgans.

There has been no grand discovery in steppe archaeology to match Schliemann’s excavations at Mycenae and Troy. But accumulating evidence has made it clear that, just as Homer didn’t invent the Trojan War, the Greeks didn’t invent the Amazons: they embellished reports they received, or observations they made, of high-caste warrior women among the peoples to their north and east. They projected their fears and fantasies about female power onto these women, just as they did with the goddess Artemis or dangerous mythic heroines like Clytemnestra and Medea.

Mayor isn’t the first writer to make connections between the Amazons of myth and the recent finds of steppe archaeology, and the connections aren’t the focus of her book: she calls The Amazons a compendium, an ‘Encyclopedia Amazonica’, a collection of lore and data rather than a demonstration of a thesis. But by bringing together material about both the historical women found in the kurgans (whom she doesn’t hesitate to call Amazons) and the figures portrayed in Greek art and literature, she draws attention to the ways in which the first resemble, perhaps even explain, the second. Her subtitle implies a single paradigm that archaeology and myth can recover.

As both a classicist and a historian of science, Mayor specialises in connecting artefacts – paintings, sculptures, coins, bones, weapons, clothing, fossils – with the more diffuse evidence found in literature, lore and legend. In her first two books she explored ancient palaeontology (The First Fossil Hunters, 2000) and Greco-Roman weapons of mass destruction (Greek Fire, Poison Arrows and Scorpion Bombs, 2003). More recently she has written a splendid biography of Mithradates of Pontus (The Poison King was reviewed by Michael Kulikowski in the LRB of 22 April 2010). With The Amazons she returns to her earlier specialty, the synoptic survey that draws on both modern science and old-fashioned philology.

Mayor delves into many particulars of steppe nomad life, including horses and horsemanship, jewellery and tattooing, marriage and courtship, weaponry and fighting styles. How far could a Scythian recurve bow shoot? Mayor knows, partly because she follows the work of modern-day reconstructors and re-enactors (she includes a photograph of Roberta Beene of the Rogue Mounted Archers ‘executing a Parthian shot at about 23 miles per hour’). Her examination of the archaeological record is broad and precise, and some of the finds she discusses are very recent (the 2010 catalogue of a German exhibition, Amazonen, was an important resource, and she acknowledges the help of ‘crowd-sourced research’ conducted on social media). She also draws on the findings of modern anthropology: she regards some Eurasian nomad customs as consistent over time, and describes the traditions of the Circassians, Kazakhs and Mongols of recent centuries in order to illuminate the lives of the ancient warrior women of the steppes.

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Those lives, in Mayor’s account, diverged radically from the lives of women in traditional Greek society. The urban Greeks relegated women to domestic roles and kept them indoors, while the ‘barbarian’ nomads practised gender equality. The few glimpses Greek men got of the strong, autonomous steppe woman stirred their imaginations and fed their desires, and out of that mix of fear, fascination and lust, the mythic Amazon was born. She defied the conventions that kept Greek women at home and off the battlefield, and deprived them of marital or sexual agency. But in the myths, the power and freedom of the Amazons came at a price: by a popular (but baseless) etymology, ‘Amazon’ was thought to mean ‘lacking breast’, and legends (equally baseless) described how archer women underwent mastectomy in order to draw the bow better.

Though Mayor is convinced there is a connection between flesh and blood steppe women and the mythic Amazons, she doesn’t claim to have gazed on the remains of Hippolyta (as Schliemann allegedly claimed he had gazed on the face of Agamemnon), or attempt to ground the Amazonomachy of Theseus in any actual nomad invasion of Attica. She argues instead that the legend reflects anxieties about long-ago Scythian attacks on Thrace, near the northern frontier of the Greek world, which were exacerbated by the extreme ‘otherness’ of nomad women. ‘It was not an irrational notion,’ she writes, ‘that some female warriors, allied with Scythian forces, could have made incursions into northern Greece from Thrace, and the myth of the invasion of Athens could have coalesced around these grains of plausibility.’ In the wake of the Persian invasion of Greece in 480 bce, which also arrived from Thrace, the Amazonomachy became more relevant.

The Greeks weren’t alone in feeling threatened by nomad incursions. The Chinese built the Great Wall to keep out the Xiongnu, their name for the steppe nomads; the Persians struggled with the Saka to their north. Even the Sanskrit epics tell of the Stri-Rajya, or ‘Women’s Land’, with its two man-killing queens – Mayor locates it vaguely in nomad territory along the Silk Route. From the legends of these cultures a pattern emerges: troublesome nomads of the steppes became tribes of female warriors. Mayor’s analysis is informed by archaeology, but she avoids making romantic or overambitious claims. ‘The widespread idea of women-only societies … can have multiple and independent origins,’ she concedes. Still, those trouser-wearing Central Asian women are usually present in the legends somewhere, if only as ‘grains of plausibility’.

There are a few thin sections in The Amazons. It’s surprising that Mayor pays little attention to Artemis, who so closely resembles the Amazons. She might have used the existence of an Amazon-like figure in the Olympian pantheon as a starting point for a discussion of Greek concepts of gender and sexuality, and the borders between wilderness and civilisation, but her book stays focused on recoverable facts and physical objects. She even supplies an appendix listing the names of all known Amazons. She has expanded previous such lists from about 130 names to more than two hundred by adding ‘new-found Amazon names deciphered from vase inscriptions in non-Greek languages, as well as the names of Amazon-like warrior women who appear in the stories, epics, poems, histories and other accounts in Caucasian, Persian, Egyptian, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Central Asian and Chinese sources’.

Behind the list is some impressive investigative work. With help from a linguist colleague and an expert on vases, using dictionaries from obscure steppe languages such as Abkhazian, Ossetian and Ubykh, Mayor deciphered many of the non-Greek inscriptions in Greek vase paintings that were formerly thought to be nonsensical. She came up with meaningful, often delightful, Amazon names: Kepes, ‘Hot Flanks’; Serague, ‘Armed with a Sword’; Barkida, ‘Princess’. One vase even appears to record, in Greek characters, a dialogue in Abkhazian between two Amazons, Gugamis and Oigme (‘Iron’ and ‘Don’t Fail’). If Mayor and her colleagues are correct, these two, shown setting out with a dog (perhaps on a hunting expedition), are saying: ‘we are helping each other’ and ‘set the dog loose.’ Sixth-century Greek artists, it seems, asked speakers of steppe tongues – Scythians perhaps, Mayor and her colleagues playfully imagine in a journal article, who were walking through the potters’ quarter of the Athenian agora – for authentic utterances to put in the Amazons’ mouths. They believed that the bow-wielding, hard-fighting women they depicted had a homeland not far from their own, to the east and north of the Black Sea, and that they spoke the languages native to that region. As Mayor’s fascinating study makes clear, they were closer to the truth than they could have known.