A challenge to myth of male dominance


Book Review: Adrienne Mayor, “The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World.” Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.

Marx and Engels, when developing their understanding of the relationship between class society and the oppression of women, relied heavily on the ethnology and archaeological science of their day. They wrote on these questions in the wake of publication of many articles by the most famous and controversial theorist of a matriarchal stage of cultural evolution, Johann Jakob Bachofen.

Bachofen’s opus, “Mother Right: An Investigation of the Religious and Judicial Character of Matriarchy in the Ancient World” (1861), pointed generations of scholars to the examination of Greek myth, in which the overthrow of non-patriarchal social norms seemed to be a strong theme.

In the 1970s, Bachofen’s ideas were popularized in the United States by a Doubleday translation from the German of the 1930 text, “Mothers and Amazons: The First Feminine History of Culture,” by Helen Diner (Bertha Eckstein-Diener), and influenced a generation of young feminists eager to find evidence of any kind that the patriarchal nuclear family was a relatively recent development in human social organization.

Today, virtually all students of academic anthropology believe that gender roles and social organization in prehistory were variable; the degree to which alternatives to male dominance existed is always in debate in the academy.

Collections of works by Marxist feminist anthropologists such as Eleanor Burke Leacock are kept in the public eye thanks only to small radical publishing houses. And so, when academic publishers commit to printing a new book that challenges the mainstream on these questions, it should be celebrated.

The recent publication, and attention in popular magazines such as National Geographic, to the new book by Adrienne Mayor entitled “The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World,” deserve notice. Mayor, who is an independent scholar of Classics and the History of Science with an affiliation to Stanford University, has done research in diverse areas, including the ways in which fossil discoveries in the ancient world contributed to myth. But her work is unified in that in all of it she investigates scientific realities embedded in myth and classical antiquity.

In “The Amazons,” Mayor provides documentation for the historical existence of the women warriors that obsessed the ancient Greeks. She makes use of physical evidence gleaned from nomad skeletons from Central Asian kargans; the services of an expert on rare languages such as Circassian, Abkhazian, Ossetian, and Ubykh; recently translated ancient Greek and Egyptian texts; oral traditions from Central Asia that only began to be put into written form in the Soviet era; and contemporary studies of nomadic cultures.

In response to classicists who argue that the Amazons so prevalent in ancient Greek vase painting, myth, and history writing were merely a symbol of gender anxiety in a male-dominated society or stand-ins for fearsome Persians, Mayor persuasively argues that Central Asian nomadic society in the first millennium BC included not only skilled women warriors and leaders but a broad range of possible social roles for women and men. She puts one more nail in the coffin of an anthropology and an archaeology that still begin, more often than not, with the assumption of a normative male dominance.

Some of the more spectacular finds anchoring Mayor’s work in myth, folklore, and linguistics have been in the field of oseteoarchaeology, also called bioarchaeology, or the study of human remains from archaeological sites. This new discipline has recently been used by Jane Peterson (“Sexual Revolutions: Gender and Labor At the Dawn of Agriculture”) to study the relationship between types of work carried out by each biological sex before and during the Neolithic period.

Osteology, which now can determine biological sex from skeletal remains, is overturning a lot of previously held assumptions about gender and social organization. For example, bioarchaeologists have fairly recently determined that a large number of the graves of Scythian warriors from the fifth and fourth centuries BC, which had been assumed because of the nature of the goods found within them to be holding the skeletal remains of males, were in fact the resting place of females.

In one instance, in the ancient Thracian-Scythian region that lay between the Danube and Don rivers, archaeologists discovered 112 graves of women warriors, most of them between 16 and 30 years of age. In the area in which the ancient Greek historian Herodotus located the Samartians, an archaeologist recently found 40 additional graves of female warriors. Another group of excavators has recently determined that in the Black Sea-Don-Volga region, up to one fifth of the graves that contain weapons are those of female burials.

Archaelogist Elean Fialko found 130 graves from the same time period in southern Ukraine in which women were buried with lances and arrows. Natalia Berseneva, who opened Sargat Culture mounds from the sixth to fourth centuries BC, found that 20 percent of the female graves contained weapons.

The skeletal remains often indicate a lifetime on horseback and the reality of life-threatening combat. The archaeological record as a whole suggests, Mayor argues, that hunter-warrior horsewomen “were a historical reality across a great expanse of geography and chronology, from the western Black Sea to northern China, for more than a thousand years” (page 64 of 519 in the Kindle edition). In some cases, warrior women were buried with their children. In other cases, the children were buried alone with biologically male skeletons, suggesting that gender assignments were anything but normative by contemporary standards.

Another amazing scientific advance allowed Mayor to be confident in her assertions about the historical reality of the women warriors that populate so many Greek vase paintings. For a century of study, the writing accompanying the portrayal of Amazon warriors in combat on Greek vases was assumed to be “gibberish.” The letters did not form words in Greek, and thus were considered to be nonsense and simply decorative.

On a hunch, Mayor and the curator of the Getty Museum translated these inscriptions into what would be their phonetic sounds in Greek. They then sent these phonetic transcriptions without any explanation to a linguist, John Colarusso, who is an expert on the rare languages of the Caucasuses. He was able to translate the inscriptions into proper names in ancient forms of Iranian, Abkhazian, Circassian, Ubykh, and Georgian, yielding at least 70 new names of warrior women celebrated on Greek vases that can be added to the other 130 already known from Greco-Roman literature, history, and art.

These new names have deepened the certainty that these combatants and “queens” were actual personages that roamed the edge of and sometimes intruded into the world known to the ancient Greeks. The proudest event in Greek mytho-history, says Mayor, was the defeat of an Amazon army led by one Orithyia, which swept across the Aegean, invaded Attica, besieged the Acropolis, and was only defeated by the Greek founding hero Theseus and his Athenian cohorts. Mayor assumes that this was a mythic scenario based on the need to bolster spirits in the face of the real Persian threat but rooted in the historical reality of female-led Scythian and Samartian conquests in the ancient world.

Mayor departs from the traditional explorations of Amazons in Greco-Roman myth and historical accounts alone to look at the oral traditions of Caucasia, Persia, North Africa, Arabia, China, and Central Asia. The prevalence of stories of “autonomous fighting women who behaved as the equals of men” in the ancient and oral literary traditions beyond the Greek world, she argues, “lay to rest the Hellenocentric argument that Amazons were the exclusive creations of fantasizing Greeks.”

One can only hint at the abundance of stories, some myth, some history, that she found of the lives of “riders, hunters, herders, raiders, fighters, lovers, and leaders who happen to be women” that seemingly correspond to figures buried with their horses and bows in the many hundreds of Scythian archaeological sites described above.

It is not surprising that these stories have played little role until now in the exploration of gender diversity in the ancient world. It was only in the Soviet era and the mid-20th century that the oral myths, ancestral lore, and folk memories of the many ethnic groups of Central Asia were recorded into writing.

Many of them are set in medieval times, but linguists note elements that suggest archaic roots.
Mayor bolsters the specialists’ claims by introducing customs still visible among steppe peoples in contemporary Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. These include horse races, wrestling matches carried out on horseback, and other matches of combat skills by prospective brides and grooms, all reminiscent of folkloric battles said to assure companionable marriages based on mutual physical strength and respect.

In these days when cartoonish Amazonian action figures with voluptuous bodies dreamed up by greedy game designers with bad politics populate the videogame world, young feminists might give Adrienne Mayor’s “Encyclopeda Amazonica” only a passing glance. That would be a mistake. She offers a glimpse into the hard science that can burst apart the biggest myth of all time—what Eleanor Leacock called the myth of male dominance.

Photo: “Wounded Amazon” in New York’s Metropolitan Musuem. Roman copy of Greek sculpture, c. 425-450 BC.

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