Real Amazons wore pants
October 29, 2014 8:49 PM   Subscribe

Forget the stories about cutting off breasts and murdering boy children. Also the ones about an all-female lesbian society. And definitely forget about the golden lasso and the invisible plane. Real Amazons were formidable warriors who wore trousers, rode horses, got tattoos, smoked cannabis, drank fermented mare's milk and were part of "a people notorious for strong, free women", according to Adrienne Mayor in her book The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World.

Mayor also talks about Amazon bravery in an interview at National Geographic: "We have about 1,300 or so images of Amazons fighting [on vases]. And only about two or three of them are gesturing for mercy. So they're shown to be extremely courageous and heroic. And I think that's the Amazon spirit."
posted by Athanassiel (34 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
 
Shieraki gori ha yeraan!
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 9:04 PM on October 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


Personally I think the best take on whether the Amazons were real or not is still this:

"Here the queen of the Amazons came to see Alexander, as most writers say, among whom are Cleitarchus, Polycleitus, Onesicritus, Antigenes, and Ister; 2 but Aristobulus, Chares the royal usher, Ptolemy, Anticleides, Philo the Theban, and Philip of Theangela, besides Hecataeus of Eretria, Philip the Chalcidian, and Duris of Samos, say that this is a fiction... 4 And the story is told that many years afterwards Onesicritus was reading aloud to Lysimachus, who was now king, the fourth book of his history, in which was the tale of the Amazon, at which Lysimachus smiled gently and said: "And where was I at the time?""

Plutarch, Life of Alexander, 46
posted by lesbiassparrow at 9:58 PM on October 29, 2014 [6 favorites]


wore trousers,

Check.

rode horses,

Check. Been a while, but still. Check.

got tattoos,

Yes.

smoked cannabis,

Well, my friend....Oh, fine. Check.

drank fermented mare's milk


Does bourbon/rye/scotch count? Check.

and were part of "a people notorious for strong, free women",


Oh hell yes.
posted by rtha at 10:33 PM on October 29, 2014 [21 favorites]




If anyone is interested in seeing some of the amazon/amazonomachy vases she's discussing like these one you can go to the Beazely Archive and in Advanced Search, put in Amazon for Decoration Description, and click Images down at the bottom. If there is a way to actually link to search results, please let me know. (This should be a direct link to all 873 results.)
posted by jetlagaddict at 10:48 PM on October 29, 2014 [4 favorites]


But where are the invisible jet planes?
somebody had to say it... on second thought, nobody did
posted by oneswellfoop at 11:13 PM on October 29, 2014 [2 favorites]


Didn't you see them?
posted by Joe in Australia at 12:27 AM on October 30, 2014


They sound like my kinda gals.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 1:06 AM on October 30, 2014


So the myth is that they were badasses who cut off a boob. The truth is that they were badasses in slightly different and more historically accurate ways. I feel somehow satisfied with the above.
posted by jaduncan at 1:52 AM on October 30, 2014 [2 favorites]


I'm really torn about Adrienne Mayor. I read her first work about biological and chemical warfare in antiquity and it was a fun read, but her historical research skills are pretty rightly criticized. She has a really worrisome tendency - at least in the other works I've read from her - to rely on as evidence mythological accounts and stylized art over physical evidence and documentary sources .

While what I've read from her is very provocative and an engrossing read, a lot of times her argumentation reads a lot like the people that argue the ancient Africans were the first Afro-Eurasians to find the new world because Olmec heads "look African."

Of course, I think that Scorpion Bombs... was maybe her first major work? I hope so, because she's doing some pretty interesting work in a field that is otherwise basically boring old white guys arguing over thing s like if Caesar landed in Kent or Cornwall, and her lack of historical methodology is kind of a problem from a historian.
posted by absalom at 4:23 AM on October 30, 2014 [7 favorites]


I'm actually in the middle of reading Mayor's Poison King (mentioned in the New Yorker review), and she does briefly mention the Amazons there. The descriptions were just excited and tantalizing enough that I wondered why she hadn't put in an extensive footnote or endnote about them as most authors do. And now it turns out that she was writing a whole book on them, which is way better.

On preview: Poison King seemed like it put a lot of stock into similar sources, absalom. I chalked it up to most primary sources being destroyed in that "victors write the history books" kind of way, seeing as how the subject was someone who had effectively challenged Rome on the cusp of it becoming an empire.
posted by zombieflanders at 4:32 AM on October 30, 2014 [2 favorites]


The fact that certain Scythian tribeswomen fought alongside men is very interesting, but it doesn't seem much like the Amazons of legend. Maybe there are reasons in the book for conflating the two, but I think I'd prefer to believe in both as separate phenomena.
posted by Segundus at 5:40 AM on October 30, 2014


I'm really torn about Adrienne Mayor. I read her first work about biological and chemical warfare in antiquity and it was a fun read, but her historical research skills are pretty rightly criticized. She has a really worrisome tendency - at least in the other works I've read from her - to rely on as evidence mythological accounts and stylized art over physical evidence and documentary sources .

I enjoy her books too as fun reads, but they're frequently based on what she knows is basically no evidence at all. And most of the time in this book she's dealing with myth and art that was the product of Greek and Roman anxieties and had nothing to do with any purported Amazonian people - concluding anything from what Amazons looked like on Greek vases or sculpture is like deciding Jesus must have been white because so many Western paintings show him as so. And don't get me started on her 'battle-scared skeletons'....
posted by lesbiassparrow at 6:01 AM on October 30, 2014 [3 favorites]


Herodotus gives short cultural anthropology dossiers on a host of "scythian" groups living around the Black Sea, including the Amazons: the "black cloaks," the "cannibals", etc. the ancient world of herodotus is incredibly heterogenous, including every sexual practice you can think of.

basically, anyone who is into "world-building" science fiction should read Herodotus.
posted by ennui.bz at 6:13 AM on October 30, 2014 [3 favorites]


My favorite part of Herodotus is where he randomly and offhandedly drops an anecdote about witnessing a donkey having sex with a woman in Egypt in an otherwise straight-laced description of Egyptian city life. "It caused quite a scandal," is all we learn about the event.
posted by absalom at 6:16 AM on October 30, 2014


My favorite part of Herodotus is where he randomly and offhandedly drops an anecdote about witnessing a donkey having sex with a woman in Egypt in an otherwise straight-laced description of Egyptian city life. "It caused quite a scandal," is all we learn about the event.

but that's after the matter of fact discussion of how the family of an especially attractive woman would wait several days after they had died to have them embalmed, lest the undertakers have sex with the corpse.
posted by ennui.bz at 7:26 AM on October 30, 2014


I liked her book on Mithradites a lot...I think that's where she got interested in these Scythian warrior women. Among the speculations that she indulged in was that perhaps the old king didn't die, but maybe headed for the steppes with an Amazonian lover.
posted by thelonius at 7:34 AM on October 30, 2014 [1 favorite]


Given that the only real prerequisite for being a soldier is "can pick up a weapon and use it" and that we have discovered many remains buried with weapons which turned out to be female, I don't have any trouble believing in stories of women fighters. Legends of Amazons may be based on a group that was mostly women (maybe many men were killed off; maybe that was their now-lost cultural practice), something the patriarchal Greeks found striking. Or it may be that seeing any women as warriors (as no doubt they did, now and then) was enough to spark a legend about an all-women tribe. In the long reach of scantily-recorded human history, any number of variations on this situation could have occurred. The only reason it surprises us is because we are still culturally very much like the Greeks in assuming things about what a woman is and isn't likely to do.
posted by emjaybee at 7:37 AM on October 30, 2014 [4 favorites]


The more I learn about the ancient world, the more freaked out I am by all the fermented mare's milk.
posted by COBRA! at 7:41 AM on October 30, 2014 [2 favorites]


It really is a fascinating topic from the point of view of the cultural meaning for the Greeks of these Amazonian legends. Since, in the Greek ideal, it is citizens who fight, farmers, landowners - men - the idea of female warriors must have been deeply subversive. I'd imagine that people who study "Orientalism" have gone back to looking at the Greeks and Romans and their exotic fears of people to the East, and the idea of culture-subverting deviance in the form of women on the battlefield probably ties in with that, too.
posted by thelonius at 7:55 AM on October 30, 2014


I'm surprised to see so much enthusiasm for Mayor's work here, given that it's historiographical underpinnings are closer to Erich Von Daniken than serious scholarship. Personally, I can't stand this kind of mythologizing dressed up as "history."
posted by yoink at 8:10 AM on October 30, 2014 [2 favorites]


Scythian Empire - "Routed by Sarmatians..."
posted by kliuless at 8:16 AM on October 30, 2014


"Her other books include The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times."

TAKE MY MONEY
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:25 AM on October 30, 2014


Well, look at how parts of English and American culture reacted to feminism and suffragettes over the last century. Even in contemporary culture, people will argue with a straight face that steps toward inclusion constitute a misandrist conspiracy Ancient "histories" were equal parts history and nation-building propaganda.

We have multiple Central Asian burials of women with military weapons, vehicles, horses, and I think household members in at least one case. Other groups demonstrate extensive tattooing and religious iconography in female burials. While we can only speculate about day-to-day gender roles in those cultures, I think it's reasonable that Amazons were exaggerations of gender-role differences with hostile cultures with different gender roles.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:45 AM on October 30, 2014 [2 favorites]


It's worth noting, though, that the Greeks have as many stories about Greek women picking up weapons and fighting as they do stories about Amazons. Plutarch as an entire book about the courage of women. Which is not to say that Greek society was all about the women (clearly it wasn't), but even if we leave out the Amazons you could write about women's martial prowess without having to flip over entirely to the realm of myth. And you could do this without mentioning Sparta even. Real women everywhere fought, because they had to. I'd be the first to admit thatAmazons are fun to write and think about, but it's sad that generally we ignore anyone else in the ancient world when we write about warrior women, even Fulvia, who commanded Roman legions, or the old woman of Argos who ended her city's destruction with a well aimed roof tile that killed the opposing commander.

(The burial evidence I've read about the kurgan burials is very problematic, fwiw, but I admit it was a while ago and I'm not always thorough about reading archaeological reports. I don't remember the family members burial.)
posted by lesbiassparrow at 10:30 AM on October 30, 2014 [5 favorites]


Have to go with Yoink on this. I got part way through her book on Mithridates. It starts off with a bit of Bush bashing of all things; fine with me if you want to bash Bush, but it seemed a bit out of place in a piece of ancient biography. She devotes an entire chapter on Mithirdates' early years, the sources for which are - well, non-existent, really, pure speculation, which is fine if you're Mary Renault, not so much if you're claiming to write history. There are other extravagances in the book, e.g. her assumption that enemies of Rome at the time were formal allies of Mithidates, which add up to a bottom line that, if you know nothing of the subject matter, you might want to look elsewhere to get up to speed.

Myself, I'll give this one a pass.

(The gossip in me will note that for years she worked at Princeton University Press (her publisher) and that her husband used to be a professor at Princeton's classics department. He is now a dual professor at Stanford, she, a research scholar.)
posted by IndigoJones at 10:49 AM on October 30, 2014 [1 favorite]


Oh, and I'll shut up about Amazons now, but the Greeks and the Romans sent expeditions looking for them, which is pretty fascinating. No one ever found them, of course.

I think it's reasonable that Amazons were exaggerations of gender-role differences with hostile cultures with different gender roles.

That's the usual take, plus you need to add in Greek anxieties about Persia and the East and their belief that those men were womanish. It's not an accident that the Amazonomachy is on the Parthenon, constructed after the Persian invasion of Greece or that Amazons end up looking more and more Persian (down to the pants) in vases after the Persian invasion - and grow both more sinister and more vulnerable to Greek manliness after that. The best you can say is that it may be based on some social structure the Greeks met that was not like theirs, but then you'd have to specify which Greeks met that social structure, as clearly there'd be a different response from some in Thebes or Sparta than you'd get from an Athenian.

This will be a fun read (and I very much plan to read it, even if I am a professor and should know better) but it will be about as historical as those books on how Noah built the ark and got the animals on it, and based on about the same quality of evidence. I don't think you need a conspiracy as to how it got published though - it's going to sell well and even university presses like to run one or two less scholarly books that will sell to pay the bills.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 10:53 AM on October 30, 2014 [2 favorites]


If you've not read Steven Pressfield's Last of the Amazons, it's both well-researched and awesome.
posted by culfinglin at 11:37 AM on October 30, 2014 [2 favorites]


Given that the only real prerequisite for being a soldier is "can pick up a weapon and use it" and that we have discovered many remains buried with weapons which turned out to be female, I don't have any trouble believing in stories of women fighters.

But given that many of those weapons were incredibly heavy, and we've also found many remains buried with weapons that were babies or small children, it also seems plausible that burial with weapons was a symbolic or extravagant gesture, as it continued to be for many centuries, and had nothing to do with whether the corpse was a warrior. Especially since the corpse of a warrior is likely to have marks on the bone from weapons, and those women's bodies didn't.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 8:10 AM on October 31, 2014 [1 favorite]


emjaybee wasn't specific as to which "many remains buried" so I'm wondering about your incredibly heavy weapons and them being symbolic gestures and lack of marks on bone - are there specific burials you're inferring from emjaybee's comment? (I assume you're not completely refuting her assertion that women have always fought.)
posted by rtha at 8:22 AM on October 31, 2014


I assumed she was referring to this Tor article, which has come up here before and is (as far as I know), the only source for the whole women-buried-with-weapons = women warriors idea. And which was pretty clearly refuted in the comments, and not really supported by the original linked article. There certainly have been some women fighters, but until the twentieth century, when arial warfare reduced the importance of upper-body strength, women who fought on battlefields (as opposed to defending their homes) were pretty rare.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 9:50 AM on October 31, 2014 [1 favorite]


I think emjaybee might have been referring to excavations like those at the mounds of Pokrovka, where archaeologists found:
From the grave goods and other evidence, the burials appeared to be associated first with the Sauromatians and then the early Sarmatians, Indo-European-speaking herders who lived on the steppes in the sixth to fourth centuries B.C. and fourth to second centuries B.C., respectively. But the most striking discovery at Pokrovka has been the skeletons of women buried with swords and daggers. One young woman, bow-legged from riding horseback, wore around her neck an amulet in the form of a leather pouch containing a bronze arrowhead. At her right side was an iron dagger; at her left, a quiver holding more than 40 arrows tipped with bronze.
Excavators also found "a bent arrowhead found in the body cavity of another woman [which] suggested that she had been killed in battle." (There's a photo of the arrows that were found.) She notes that the location prevents these from being ID'd as Amazons, and I don't know if this is one of the sites Mayor discusses. As always, science changes, so here's a caveat from this chapter which briefly reassesses the categories/associations of burials created by the original excavators (maybe this is one of the responses lesbiassparrow talked about?). Anyway, the Tor article is very far from being the only source discussing female burials with weapons in the archaeological record (and I think the comment you linked to is actually pretty nuanced in terms of recognizing that burials are complex sites that do not always reflect the true depths of someone's role throughout their life.)

If anyone is curious, here's the Hesperia article (JSTOR; paywalled) on nonsense inscriptions as names.
posted by jetlagaddict at 11:26 AM on October 31, 2014 [4 favorites]


Excavators also found "a bent arrowhead found in the body cavity of another woman [which] suggested that she had been killed in battle."

Or in a hunting accident. Or a hunger game.
posted by IndigoJones at 11:48 AM on October 31, 2014


Or simple murder. Multiple arrows for the hunting incident would be impressive; the range of bows is not that long.
posted by jaduncan at 1:12 AM on November 3, 2014


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