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The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World Paperback – February 9, 2016
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Winner of the 2016 Sarasvati Award for Best Nonfiction Book in Women and Mythology, Association for the Study of Women & Mythology
2015 Silver Medal Winner in the Independent Publisher Book Awards, World History category
Selected for The New York Times Book Review’s “The Year in Reading” 2016
Shortlisted for the 2014 London Hellenic Prize
One of Foreign Affairs’ Best Military, Scientific, and Technological Books of 2015
Selected for American Scientist’s Science Book Gift Guide 2014
"In her quest to separate reality from mythology, Mayor left few stones unturned, even examining the graves of women with war wounds and mummified tattoos. She skillfully presents her findings with wit and conviction in this superbly illustrated book"--Lawrence D. Freedman, Foreign Affiars
"Fluidly written and exhaustively researched, this fascinating book lit up my mind and my sense of humanity, not just with women in it, but under it, above it, flinging out constellations and atoms; carving out grand canyons hand-in-hand with men and beasts and glaciers, too."--Neko Case, singer-songwriter, New York Times Book Review
"The Amazons is elegantly written, nicely illustrated and will no doubt excite a lot of attention."--Simon Goldhill, Times Literary Supplement
"Mayor specializes in connecting artifacts--paintings, sculptures, coins, bones, weapons, clothing, fossils--with the more diffuse evidence found in literature, lore and legend . . . in order to illuminate the lives of the ancient warrior women. . . . Impressive investigative work . . . fascinating."--James Romm, London Review of Books
"[A] fascinatingly detailed account."--Emily Wilson, Wall Street Journal
"Mayor (The Poison King) looks at ancient writings and archeological evidence to argue that yes, 'Amazons' were based on real nomadic women, though much different from the way ancient Greeks or contemporary audiences imagine them. . . . Mayor speculates on the origin of such misconceptions in ancient writings and art, smartly suggesting that, though Amazons are usually depicted heroically in Greek art and mythology, the male-centric Greeks perhaps struggled to understand a society based on equality between the sexes. . . . Her expertise shines throughout."--Publishers Weekly
"An encyclopedic study of the barbarian warrior women of Western Asia, revealing how new archaeological discoveries uphold the long-held myths and legends. The famed female archers on horseback from the lands the ancient Greeks called Scythia appeared throughout Greek and Roman legend. Mayor tailors her scholarly work to lay readers, providing a fascinating exploration into the factual identity underpinning the fanciful legends surrounding these wondrous Amazons. . . . Mayor clears away much of the man-hating myths around these redoubtable warriors. Thanks to Mayor's scholarship, these fearsome fighters are attaining their historical respectability."--Kirkus Reviews
"A must-read for anyone interested in either Amazonian myth or history."--Fred Poling, Library Journal
"No one before has ever marshalled the full sweep of evidence as Mayor does here. . . . The result is a book as erudite as it riveting, one that is surely destined to serve as the definitive work on the subject."--Tom Holland, Literary Review
"There are myriad myths surrounding the Amazons, but which are based on truth? . . . This is the question which Adrienne Mayor seeks to answer in her hugely informative and entertaining Encyclopaedia Amazonica."--Natalie Haynes, Independent
"[A] lively and engaging exploration . . . vivid, compelling and detailed . . . a rich compendium."--Lloyd Llewellyn Jones, Times Higher Education
"A beautiful book. . . . The Amazons by Adrienne Mayor is required reading."--Anna Meldolesi, Corriere della Sera
"Driven by a detective's curiosity, Mayor unearths long-buried evidence and sifts fact from fiction to show how flesh-and-blood women of the Eurasian steppes were mythologized as Amazons, the equals of men. The result is likely to become a classic."--Peter Konieczny, History of the Ancient World blog
"Mayor writes elegant, jargon free, frequently witty prose."--Barry Baldwin, Fortean Times
"If Adrienne Mayor had merely applied her rigorous scholarship and poetic charm to documenting the shifting image of Amazons in classical, medieval and post-Renaissance European culture, she would have written an important contribution to ancient history. But she has achieved much more. By painstaking research . . . she has broken down the often impenetrable walls dividing western cultural history from its eastern equivalents. . . . Mayor opens up new horizons in world storytelling and feminist iconography. . . . There may not be Amazon dolls in today's toyshops, but a good substitute would be to read this wonderful book with your children and show them its pictures."--Edith Hall, New Statesman
"For anyone who thinks Amazons were as mythical as centaurs or sphinxes, this pleasurable book proves that misconception is wondrously wrong. . . . Mayor's beautifully illustrated book, truly encyclopedic on all things Amazonian, reclaims the historic image of these dauntless figures in the heroic frame they deserve."--Fran Willing, Bust.com
"Mayor's book is popular history at its best. Much of her archaeological evidence is new -- such as her descriptions of 'Scythian' female graves with horses and weapons. She chooses wonderful illustrations which makes the book enjoyable and easy to read."--Zenobia blog
"Clearly, with this clever, systematic and engaging work by Mayor, Amazons got their classic book. And it is a riveting read, too."--Ephraim Nissan, Fabula
"Mayor's fascinatingly readable book convincingly argues that many of their characteristics may have derived from real nomadic womenwarriors of antiquity. . . . It represents a remarkable scholarly breakthrough: no one will ever be able to discuss the Amazon myths again without taking into account the historical evidence she provides."--Tassos A. Kaplanis, Journal of Historical Geography
"Adrienne Mayor has written an ambitious 'Encyclopedia Amazonica' as she calls her book, a kind of compendium of information about the Amazons. . . . 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."--Eleni Boliaki, Bryn Mawr Classical Review
"I can't . . . begin to say how great it is to have a book like this, because it's exactly the kind of book I like. Not one that just dismisses old stories as being too tall or made up, but really gives them the benefit of the doubt and tries to correlate and reconcile them with hard evidence. This is brilliantly achieved in Amazons. . . . This in many ways is an exhaustive study, every facet that could be thought of has been included, and very little left out."--Adventures in Historyland
"Mayor writes well, and not without dry humour, and although hardly given to the sensational, the sheer depth and breadth of her research and discoveries carry you along. You won't devour this in a sitting, just as you wouldn't eat a whole gooey gateau at once, but each slice of book is appetising enough to keep you coming back for more."--Lynn Picknett, Magonia Review of Books
"Adrienne Mayor’s Amazons . . . remains much the best guide to the Amazonian blend of fact and fable."--David Butterfield, Spectator
"[The Amazons] contains 400+ pages of fascinating evidence pertaining to the Scythian and Thracian women of ancient times, not to mention 100+ pages of source material at the end. There is no shortage of historical imagery depicting Amazons through different artistic medians from paintings to carvings."--GeedMom
From the Back Cover
"In her groundbreaking book, Adrienne Mayor has gone above and beyond all past works in making the Amazon women of legend real. The stories of who the Amazons were, how they really lived, and why they loved their lives with such timeless vivacity make the reader of this sensational work want to stand up and raise her sword to the sky to cheer! Never before has one author so seamlessly merged the iconic lives and lore of the Amazons with genuine images, facts, and research. With the depth of a textbook and the easy conversational style of a good friend, Mayor rapidly dispels myths about one of the strongest female cultures in history while uplifting the hearts of readers with dreams of strength and adventure. The Amazons is an absolute must-have for any person who yearns to learn about how women in the ancient world really lived and for those modern heroes and heroines who will surely be inspired by the rich, vibrant history of our world's cultures."--Virginia Hankins, actress-stuntwoman
"The Amazons is a stupendous achievement--a long-anticipated centerpiece in the great puzzle of humankind. The story of these forbidden women, silenced for so long by the rigidity of traditional scholarship, is as exciting and surprising as a bestselling murder mystery; I simply couldn't put it down. Through scholarly brilliance and passion, Adrienne Mayor has opened the door to a forgotten world of gender equality, and her book ought to be required reading in every college history course."--Anne Fortier, author of The Lost Sisterhood: A Novel
"Nobody brings ancient history and archaeology to life like Adrienne Mayor. From the Russian steppes to China, and from Roman Egypt and Arabia to the Etruscans, she leads the reader on a breathtaking quest for the real ancient warrior women reflected in myths--their daring, archery, tattoos, fine horses, and independence from male control. The book's rich erudition, communicated in sparkling prose and beautiful illustrations, makes it a riveting read."--Edith Hall, author of Introducing the Ancient Greeks: From Bronze Age Seafarers to Navigators of the Western Mind
"Adrienne Mayor's inquiry into the myth--and surprising reality--of Amazon women begins with the fierce Greek huntress Atalanta, but takes us deep into the past and as far afield as the Great Wall of China. With the restless curiosity and meticulous scholarship that have become her hallmark, the author once again has found a gap in my bookshelf and filled it, admirably."--Steven Saylor, author of Raiders of the Nile: A Novel of the Ancient World
"Adrienne Mayor excels at demonstrating the truth that lies behind what seems simply storytelling, and there is no more exciting confrontation of myth and history than in the story of the Amazons. This is a great book--at once exhaustive, scholarly, thrilling, and imaginative, spanning the history, art, and imagination of ancient peoples from Italy to China."--John Boardman, University of Oxford
"One can only wonder at the courage and conviction of the ancient warrior women who dared to defy their peers, and who became such powerful inspirations that their memory lives on for millennia. We owe it to them to remember their stories. Adrienne Mayor's fabulous book illuminates a complex picture of ancient lives. It gives us the chance to understand these amazing female fighters, and to recognize their daughters in our midst, those who fight with courage and conviction for what they know is a better world."--Samantha "Swords" Catto-Mott, medieval long-sword champion and creator of special effects in film
"In this fascinating book, which combines flowing prose, a lively and engaging presentation, and wonderful illustrations, Adrienne Mayor brings the reader into the excitement of discovering the truth about the Amazons. She demonstrates quite convincingly that the Amazon traditions largely derive from the undeniable historical fact that nomadic, armed horsewomen existed on the fringes of the ancient Greek world. Mayor is the first to examine the evidence systematically and in detail and she makes a concrete and persuasive case."--William Hansen, author of Classical Mythology: A Guide to the Mythical World of the Greeks and Romans
"In this comprehensive account of the Amazons, Adrienne Mayor examines the subject in a way that no one else has done and presents overwhelming evidence that they were not entirely fictitious. Only Mayor has looked at the evidence from all the relevant fields to show how, together, they can solve what to each of them separately are complete mysteries. This will be the classic book on the subject for a very long time."--Elizabeth Wayland Barber, author of The Dancing Goddesses: Folklore, Archaeology, and the Origins of European Dance
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Top customer reviews
I have the electronic version of it, but this is one that I wished I had bought as a hard copy so that the pictures would be in the right spots and because I would love to mark it up by hand and put notes in the margins (not quite the same on a Kindle).
I didn't realize how much I never knew about these women until I got this book. If you love history or are interested in Amazons - definitely check this one out.
Physically, women are not as robust as are men. However, the horse, the bow and the sword are equalizers, permitting women to compete as equals with men. This then was how Barbarian women (meaning they did not speak Greek) were raised from childhood, as equals who could ride and shoot as well as any man. In the wilderness of the Scythian steppes this was necessary for defence from wild beasts and marauding tribes.
Amazons were masters of the horse. They each owned many. They especially coveted the Akhal Teke horses of the Ferghana Valley. Each horse was decorated with gold and leather ornamentations. The Amazons drank fermented mare's milk (Koumiss) as a staple. They made their own weapons; bows, arrows, swords, knives and battle axes. They fashioned crescent shields for defence.
Amazons did not worship the Greek pantheon of gods and godesses. Many worshipped Ares and cybele. They also worshipped a sacred black rock on Amazon (Giresun) Island in the Black Sea.
The Greeks encountered them as they explored eastward into Asia, notably along the Black Sea routes. The Amazons formed liasons with king Priam of Troy against the Greeks. Mithradates took an Amazon for a confidant and wife. Alexander the Great encountered them and even took one to bed as well. Greek historians like Herodotus and hippocrates documented these tales. Though with Herodotus, he often mixed myth with history. Stories about the Amazon Hippolyte and her battle with Heracles, and the Amazon Antiope's battle with Theseus or Penthesilea with Achillles at Troy have amazed and delighted us for ages. More than 1000 Greek vases depict various scenes of Amazons in battle or in their daily living.
The Romans too encountered Amazons. Pompey fought battles with Amazons. He captured some of them and brought them back to Rome as evidence of his conquests. They were paraded through the streets before being returned safey to their home lands.
The Amazons had no written language. It seems body art and tatoos were their identities. They chose deer, elk, sheep, tiger, birds and all manner of creatures to be imprinted on their skin. The Greeks, in comparison, viewed tatooing as some form of punishment.
The Egyptians, Persians and other nations too encountered Amazons, giving added credence to their existance.
Much archaeological evidence has been discovered affirming Amazon existance. Many kurgans (grave mounds) have been excavated revealing lavish grave goods including bronze, gold and silver along with their various articles of cloting and weapons. Their horses were buried with them. It is thought that the Amazons invented pants.
Amazons were pot smokers. They had kits consisting of tents, bowls and hemp (pot) which were used to get a high. These also were found in Kurgans.
Amazons were associated with the Scythians, Sarmatians and various other tribes, however, not all of them chose to live without the company of men. Some groups contained all women, others were mixed. They all dressed alike so it probably impossible for the Greeks and Romans to tell them apart. Even those Amazons who chose to live apart, often would "visit" the men in order to procreate. It was rumored they would keep and raise the girls while sending back the boys for their fathers to raise.
Adrienne Mayor has written a masterful, well researched volume of the Amazons depicting every facet of their existance and of those they associated with or fought against. I really enjoyed reading it.
uncovers a unique civilization where women hold their own with men and in many cases
show their true strength.
There are other flaws here. The Steppe Nomads (Scythians, Sarmatians, et al) were remarkably egalitarian for the times, though repeated comparisons to their Greek contemporaries becomes tedious and non-productive. Given that the ancient Greeks were somewhere between the Taliban and Chinese foot binders in their attitudes towards gender equality "look how much better it was on the Steppes" does not have to be repeated ad nauseam. Readers get it. Also, there's a certain curious sugar coating of the nomads for a book that seems to uncritically throw out anything and everything Herodotus and other sources wrote about them . Herodotus tells us the Scythians gouged out the eyes of their slaves to keep them docile (possibly a garbled story, much like the Greek attempts to understand Amazons themselves), practiced yearly human sacrifices and, at least in some tribes, ritual funerary cannibalism and/or funerary mass human sacrifices -- but all that is kind of just ignored (And there's precious little discussion of Scythian/Amazon religion itself, beyond quoting vapid Greek declarations that Amazons worshiped Ares or Artemis or the Anatolian Cybele, none of whom are among the handful of male and female Scythian gods Herodotus names. I'll assume space limitations made the entirely speculative section of what hypothetical Amazon music might have been like was deemed more important or more marketable.).
The discussion of Amazon/Scythian/Sarmatian/whatever languages (the author throws the terms around haphazardly) is probably accurate insofar as there was likely not one single Scythian language stretching from the Danube to the Chinese frontier, but the author's alternative that the Steppe nomads spoke an explosive diversity of Indo European and non-Indo European languages seems based on a random, unsubstantiated scattershot assumption that any language spoken anywhere east of Greece must have been a language of nomads. For support of this point she offers a handful of place names from non Indo European languages and then Indo European (Iranic) names for technology and tribal names. One does not have to be a linguist to understand her examples don't connect the dots she claims, given how place names are often durable even after language replacement (consider the profusion of Native American names for rivers in the United States, for instance), whereas ethnonyms in an Indo European language either tell us what language people were describing themselves in, or what predominant language was being used to describe them. Either way, it's not the riot of random languages proposed. Likewise, she does cite some possibly non Indo European personal names for Amazons, but the Indian Vedas (not much older than the earliest time frame the author discusses here) notably includes non Indo European personal names, reflecting the agglutinative nature of early Indo European nomads (as David Anthony notes in The Horse, the Wheel, and Language, to be an early Indo European was likely as simple as observing the correct rituals and worship of the gods in the Indo European language of the gods) rather than dramatic language diversity on the Steppes (note: I assume ethnic identity among highly mobile tribespeople was fluid and multi-faceted, I just don't buy the rejection of the accepted theory that dialects or related Northern Iranian langauges were not predominant). (The Caucasus, langauge refugia that it is, may be an entirely different story, but it is also not strongly linked archaeologically to historic nomad warrior women, even if the author seems to consider the area, and the ruggedly mountainous environment it presents, is generically analogous to the Steppes.) A flawed initial premise spirals badly reference the language topic to the notion that "people in that region may not have spoken a "pure" form of any single language" (one can only assume she means to suggest a creole -- which I'm not aware of any actual supporting evidence for) or the even more inconceivable premise they spoke a debased dialect/descendant of Greek. The language topic illustrates a broader problem that the book is not well rooted in modern scholarship, but rather rambles through any old thing a Greek wrote down or painted, however plausible or preposterous, without grounding in modern theory on the formation of ethnic identity in tribal societies, Indo European studies, etc.
And a final observation: "Who invented trousers? Could it be the Amazons?" Tailored skin clothing, to include trousers, is associated with the movement of Anatomically Modern Humans into higher latitudes during the last Ice Age. The basic technology is the stone burin used to make bone needles to allow sewing of clothing suitable for survival in arctic environments. This might be news to someone lodged firmly in a classical Greek bubble, but trousers are at least thirty to forty thousand years old, even if they were exotically lost to Greeks and other peoples living in mild Mediterranean climates. Again, given the choice between science and running with a baseless Greek creation myth for pants, we get the less serious and thoughtful option. Assuming stereotyped gender roles and divisions of labor for cultures of the Paleolithic, it's entirely likely they very well were invented by one or more women, though cultural, linguistic, or even genetic linkage to the Steppe nomads to give the Greek myth any shred of relevance are tenuous in the extreme.
I'm still inclined to call it three stars overall. It is in no way a serious academic treatment of the topic. As popular reading, it's basically a five star pamphlet strangled by a one star book. Ultimately, this wasn't the in depth examination of a remarkable topic I was hoping for and which other reviews had led me to expect. Approach with caution for anything more than summer beach reading.