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The Amazons, by Adrienne Mayor

Reviewed by Tom Holland

[Snip] No one today believes that an army of female warriors really sailed from the Black Sea to attack Athens. If a historical basis for the legend has to be found, then it is likeliest to be a refraction of the invasions of Greece in the early fifth century BC by the Persians. The Athenians, who never wearied of reminiscing about their stunning victories at Marathon and Salamis, had a conflicted attitude towards their great enemy: they could never quite decide whether to dread the Persians’ martial prowess or despise them as effeminate. How better, then, to sublimate this ambivalence than by representing them as female warriors? There was an additional reason, though, why the figure of the Amazon should have appealed so strongly to Greek fantasy. Women in Greece led lives that were invariably demarcated by the domestic. In Athens, respectable wives were barely so much as seen outside the house. The notion of women who could wield weapons as proficiently as men was therefore simultaneously transgressive and titillating. It was precisely because they were so fantastical that Amazons came to be invented.

Such, at any rate, has long been the scholarly consensus. Recently, though, archaeological finds in the lands traditionally identified as the home of the Amazons have begun to prompt a rethink. Excavations around the Black Sea and across the steppes of Central Asia, that immense region known collectively by the Greeks as Scythia, suggest that there may well have been more to the stories of female warriors than overheated fantasy. Adrienne Mayor, in this fascinating and compendious study of the Amazons, is commendably forthright. ‘Archaeological discoveries of battle-scarred female skeletons buried with weapons’, she declares, ‘prove that warlike women really did exist among nomads of the Scythian steppes of Eurasia.’

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