by Adrienne mayor
Princeton University Press (2014), RRP $29.95
If there’s one fascinating constant throughout history, it’s the interplay between gender roles in society. The debate that rages on social media around equal pay and female representation is not new – and whether or not the groundswell is growing, or will elicit change, is hard to say.
In reality, it’s difficult to imagine a society in which women are represented equally in leadership roles, earn as much money or enjoy the same level of opportunity as their male counterparts. Scanning the cultures of our modern world, it’s hard to find a society in which women aren’t subjugated, ignored, objectified, violently oppressed or under-represented in leadership. Herein lies the value of this collection of histories.
The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World is more than a historic record of the Amazons – those fearless female fighters, mythologised in our collective imagination as Xena: Warrior Princess on horseback. Written by Adrienne Mayor, a research scholar in classics and scientific history at Stanford University, The Amazons has two key messages. First, that the Amazons, or cultures closely resembling them, really existed, and there is archaeological evidence to prove it. Second, that ancient patriarchal cultures were intensely curious, to the point of obsession, about this alternate society in which women were powerful, equal and free to express their sexuality.
In this book, we learn of nomadic ethnic groups that traversed the vast deserts of Scythia – the region east of Greece, between the Black Sea and China. According to Mayor, modern bioarchaeology has revealed that many of the remains of these mounted warriors were female, with bodies scarred from battle and legs bowed from decades of horse-riding.
In fact, of more than 1,000 tombs uncovered across the Eurasian Steppe, as many as 37% contained the remains of female fighters.
These tribes, says Mayor, are the factual beginnings of Amazonian myths and legends, and similar scenarios can be found across the ancient world, from the Mediterranean to China, where stories of the Xiongnu depict a nomadic tribe in which women fought as fiercely as men.
The reality of such a culture is fascinating in itself. Equally so is Mayor’s account of the preoccupation of more patriarchal cultures with this alternative way of life. In ancient Greece, where the sexes were regimented into strict gender roles, the nomadic tribes of Scythia were of great interest, and not only because of their prowess in battle.
According to Mayor, “no aspect of Scythian culture unsettled the Greeks more than the status of women”. To the Greeks, a society in which women fought alongside men, enjoyed similar freedoms of expression and were taught equal sets of skills from childhood was endlessly compelling. Dolls bearing the likeness of female warriors have been found in the graves of young Greek girls, and countless artworks and stories depict the archetype.
Mayor writes, “Greek male writers often characterised pubescent girls as wild animals who desire to lead the unrestrained life”. To be transformed into docile matrons, she quotes from a classic Greek writer,
“‘…the Amazon in them had to die’”.
The most intriguing aspect of these histories is the intersection between fact and mythology – the enduring Amazon-inspired stories that permeated Greek culture. Perhaps they were cautionary tales, warning of the dangers of female dominance, or they represented a glorified egalitarian society, which the restricted Greeks longed for.
Either way, this obsession mirrors the Western world’s evaluation of gender roles. The realisation that ancient Greece was restricted by its gender-based assumptions is, for us, a useful exercise in self-reflection.
The one-breasted, man-hating Amazonian tribes may be mostly myth, but it’s comforting to know that gender equality in the workplace was once a reality, albeit for an ancient tribe of warriors on horseback. May it ride again.
Amy Middleton is founding editor and publisher of Archer Magazine, the Australian journal of sexual diversity.