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 (Classics and History of Science/Stanford Univ.; The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy, 2009, etc.) tailors her scholarly work to lay readers, providing a fascinating exploration into the factual identity underpinning the fanciful legends surrounding these wondrous Amazons. Members of nomadic cultures who inhabited the arid steppes in the regions above the Black Sea, Caucasus Mountains and Caspian Sea—extending from Thrace to Mongolia—the Amazons were raised in an egalitarian, horse-centered society in which the girls became “battle-hardened warriors who prized independence and repelled all would-be conquerors.” Though they left no written record, the archaeological discoveries in grave sites reveal their violent lifestyles: Clad in trousers and other clothing similar to that worn by men, they were buried with their horses, battle gear and children. Many of them died from combat injuries, and their corpses showed tattoos and bowed legs from horse riding. While there are known “Nart” sagas, such as a recent one translated from the Circassian language about a leader of nomadic women warriors, the best known stories are from the early Greeks—e.g., Homer and Herodotus, who first recorded the deeds of these “equals of men,” the allies of the Trojans led by Queen Penthesilea, who eventually battled Achilles and lost. Other famous Amazons included Queen Hippolyta, who was killed by Heracles to attain her Golden Girdle, thus setting off for the Athenians a terrible war with the 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.