The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women - A Review

The Amazons! Why Was It So Hard To Believe in Warrior Women?

Battle Between the Amazon Hippolyte and Greek Hero Heracles
This 5th century frieze from the temple of Apollo at Bassae illustrates the complicated relationship between Amazon and Greek heroes. Print Collector / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Mayor A. 2014. The Amazons: Lives & Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-14720-8519. Four main sections, 25 chapters, 513 pages. 14 color plates, 71 figures, 10 maps, Notes, bibliography, index.

Adrienne Mayor's 2014 book, The Amazons: Lives & Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World, is a tour de force, an encyclopedic presentation of the evidence supporting the reality of a world-wide legend that goes back to at least the 8th century BC.

The Greek historian Herodotus who lived between about 484-425 BC wrote extensively about a fantastical race of people where the women were equals to men: the Amazons. Amazon women participated equally in war, leadership and marriage, in a manner unlike any society today. No wonder modern historians thought Herodotus was fabricating the the whole story! But, recent archaeological evidence from archaeologists such as Jeannine Davis-Kimball and presented by Mayor shows that Herodotus was right.

Content Summary

After a prologue reminding us of the Amazon nature of the Greek heroine Atalanta, Mayor's encyclopedic book is broken into four parts. Part 1, Who Were the Amazons, defines the problem for us, and provides a key to the homeland for the Amazons who came into contact with the Greeks and Romans.

Part 2, Historical Women Warriors and Classical Traditions, combines Greek and Roman histories and archaeological evidence about how Amazon societies lived, dressed, hunted and used weapons.

According to historical and archaeological evidence, Amazons were members of different groups of the vast central Asian Steppe Societies. They kept horses, dogs and eagles, made and carried weapons; participated and led battles, married and had children; ruled as leaders and as aides; used cannabis and made music and wore tattoos.

A little bit is even known about the language they spoke, based on the names of the warrior women reported in histories.

Mythological Amazons

Part 3, Amazons in Greek and Roman Myth, Legend and History, recounts the legends of interactions and romances between Amazons and Greek and Roman heroes including Hippolyte and Heracles, Antiope and Theseus, Penthesilea and Achilles, Talestris and Alexander the Great, and Hipsicratea and King Mithradates. Of course, most of us have only heard of the male halves of these partnerings.

Part 4, Beyond the Greek World, compares the reports of the Greek and Roman legends to those of the rest of the world that came into contact with the Steppe Societies, and reported legends of fierce women warriors. Stories abound, says Mayor, in Caucasia, Persia, Egypt, north Africa, Arabia, and China.

Convincing and Overwhelming

Mayor presents an overwhelming mountain of evidence, making the case for the reality of the Amazon warrior women a certainty. In retrospect, the detail provided in the legends from so many different sources around the world alone should have been enough to convince historians that there might have been such an egalitarian society where women and men were truly equals, even if our own cultural upbringings are so set against it.

The major shock of the book is how incredibly sexist our ancient and modern societies were and still are, compared to that of the Amazons, compared to the ancient Steppe societies of the vast central Asian plains. We're so dumb, we argue over whether women should have control over their own reproductive health, let alone make good leaders or belong in combat. Three thousand years ago, people knew better.

Bottom Line

The Amazons is a formidable book, crammed with evidence and fascinating stories about legendary relationships and over a dozen gorgeous images of evocative paintings on ancient pots. Mayor's book is the 2015 Silver Medal Winner in the Independent Publisher Book Awards, World History category, and by my lights, justifiably so.

More on Amazon Women

This article is a part of the About.com guide to the Steppe Societies.

If you need any more convincing that you must get your hands on this book, I've collected a bunch of resources to read and a couple of recent reviews.

Other Reviews