The strong bond of sisterhood was a famous trait in classical art and literature about Amazons. But it was modern people who interpreted that as a sexual preference for women. That started in the 20th century. The Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva declared that Amazons were symbolic of lesbianism in antiquity.
Pictures of Amazons on vase paintings always show them as beautiful, active, spirited, courageous, and brave.
I think that the Greeks were extremely ambivalent about the stories of Amazons: they found them both thrilling and rather daunting at the same time.
The Amazons were notorious for their freedom: their sexual freedom, their freedom to hunt, to be outdoors, to go to war; and the Greeks, both men and women alike, were fascinated by these stories. Maybe it was a safe way to explore the idea of women who could be equals of men.
I just had a hunch that there might be kernels of truth or reality – scientific or historical reality – in stories about nature that are perpetuated in oral myths. That’s how I got interested in it.
I’ve always been interested in oral traditions and mythological stories and legends from antiquity that have to do with nature, attempts to explain mysterious or puzzling, or very striking phenomena from nature. Things that people observed or heard about in nature.
We are used to thinking of Amazon myths in terms of violence against uppity women, but the ancient evidence also reveals a vision of gender equality.
I write in two very different places: my desk in Palo Alto, California, is piled high with myriad jumbled books and papers whose stratigraphy is a challenge. Summers in Bozeman, Montana, I write in a spare space, surrounded by interesting rocks and fossils instead of books, on an old oak table with nothing but my laptop.
I find writing a book a slow, intricate process, a kind of obstacle course punctuated with great rewards. But research is always thrilling, and I tend to incorporate newfound material up to the very last minute.
Before I began concentrating on writing, in my free time I was an artist, making and selling etchings illustrating stories based on my readings in classical literature.
The nomads’ egalitarian lifestyle astonished the Greeks, who kept their own women indoors weaving and minding children. The exotic Scythian lifestyle fueled the Greek imagination and led to an outpouring of myths about fierce Amazons, ‘the equals of men.’
The name ‘Amazon’ was not originally Greek; linguists believe it derived from the ancient Iranian word for ‘warrior.’
It is said the boundless steppes of Asia gave flight to tales of heroes and heroines because the conditions there are so harsh.
From about 700 B.C. to A.D. 500, the vast territory of Scythia, stretching from the Black Sea to China, was home to diverse but culturally related nomads. Known as Scythians to Greeks, Saka to the Persians, and Xiongnu to the Chinese, the steppe tribes were masters of horses and archery.
I think the key to the whole appeal of Amazons is the egalitarian society. There was once a time and place where equality was taken for granted – it was logical and necessary – and I think most people can get the message that if it happened once, it could happen again.
That whole heroic notion of the women warriors known as Amazons is extremely appealing. It was appealing in antiquity, and, throughout the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, they’re always portrayed as heroic, courageous, and the equals of men, and that’s just extremely attractive and has been since antiquity.
In the non-Greek stories, Persia, Egypt, even China, Central Asia, in oral traditions and written literature, anyone who fights Amazons admires their courage and beauty, and they want to be allies of the Amazon; they don’t wanna kill them.
Many scholars are not used to perceiving natural knowledge expressed in mythological language. If the study of fossils was not mentioned by Aristotle or Thucydides, and it wasn’t, then it just didn’t exist for many classicists and ancient historians.
The tasks of paleontologists and classical historians and archaeologists are remarkably similar – to excavate, decipher and bring to life the tantalizing remnants of a time we will never see.
Just as a fossil is ‘petrified time,’ so is an ancient artifact or text.
I have discovered that if you take all the places of Greek myths, those specific locales turn out to be abundant fossil sites, but there is also a lot of natural knowledge embedded in those myths, showing that Greek perceptions about fossils were pretty amazing for prescientific people.
Archaeologists have been digging up thousands of graves of people called Scythians by the Greeks. They turn out to be people whose women fought, hunted, rode horses, used bows and arrows, just like the men.
We know their names: Hippolyta, Antiope, Thessalia. But they were long thought to be just travelers’ tales or products of the Greek storytelling imagination. A lot of scholars still argue that. But archaeology has now proven without a doubt that there really were women fitting the description that the Greeks gave us of Amazons and warrior women.
The real Amazons were long believed to be purely imaginary. They were the mythical warrior women who were the archenemies of the ancient Greeks. Every Greek hero or champion, from Hercules to Theseus and Achilles, had to prove his mettle by fighting a powerful warrior queen.
Unlike settled, patriarchal societies such as classical Greece and Rome, where women stayed home to weave and mind children, the lives of nomadic steppe tribes centered on horses and archery.
An ancient Scythian nomad skeleton buried with an eagle was reportedly excavated near Aktobe Gorge, Kazakhstan. Ancient petroglyphs in the Altai region depict eagle hunters, and inscribed Chinese stone reliefs show eagles perched on the arms of hunters in tunics, trousers, and boots, identified as northern nomads (1st to 2nd century A.D.).
Male buerkitshi are certainly more common than females today, although eagle hunting has always been open to interested girls. Archaeology suggests that eagle huntresses were probably more common in ancient times.
Evidence pointing to eagle hunting’s antiquity comes from Scythian and other burial mounds of nomads who roamed the steppes 3,000 years ago and whose artifacts abound in eagle imagery.
The sheer number of legendary narratives and historically verifiable incidents invites us to revise assumptions about the origins of biological and chemical warfare and its moral and technological constraints.
Anyone who’s watched ‘The Hunger Games’, or female archers, knows that that is an absolutely physiologically ridiculous idea.
It’s sort of fair to say that Amazons, both as reality and as a dream of equality, have always been with us; it’s just that sometimes that fiery Amazon spirit is hidden from view or even suppressed.
If Queen Amezan and Queen Penthesilea could somehow meet in real life, they would recognize each other as sister Amazons. Two tales, two storytellers, two sites far apart in time and place, and yet one common tradition of women who made love and war.
The ‘Iliad’ covered only two months of the great ten-year war with Troy. At least six other epic poems preceded or continued the events in the ‘Iliad’, but they survive only as fragments.
Indeed, many ancient Greek writers do treat Amazons as a tribe of men and women. They credit the tribe with innovations such as ironworking and domestication of horses. Some early vase paintings show men fighting alongside Amazons.
The Greeks first identified the Amazons ethnographically, as a nation of men and women distinguished by something outstanding in their gender relations. Later, any ambivalence or anxiety that knowledge of this alternative gender-neutral culture evoked among Greeks was played out in their mythic narratives about martial women.
The Ephesians took great pride in their temple, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Amazons had worshipped here, and the fabulously rich King Croesus built the original temple.
The Romans had chosen Pergamon to be the capital of their new province. But by 88 B.C., most of western Asia was allied with King Mithradates, who had taken over the royal palace in Pergamon for his own headquarters.
The cultural center of Asia Minor, Pergamon boasted a vast library of 200,000 scrolls, a spectacular 10,000-seat theater, and a monumental Great Altar decorated with sculptures of the Olympian gods defeating the Giants. People came from all around the Mediterranean seeking cures at the famous Temple of Asclepius, god of medicine.
Pergamon, a prosperous city in western Anatolia, was fabled to have been founded by Hercules’ son. Like many Hellenistic cities populated by Greeks who intermarried with indigenous people, Pergamon after Alexander the Great’s death (323 B.C.) had evolved a hybrid of democracy and Persian-influenced monarchy.
In the seventeenth century, a French missionary in Canada reported a ‘strange legend’ circulating among the Hurons. They told of a monster with a ‘horn’ that could pierce anything, even rock.
Historical records show that Abenakis and other Natives encountered European explorers and traders in Canada looking for sources of ivory to compete with the Russian trade in Siberian fossil mammoth ivory – these traders routinely asked about ivory ‘horns’ and teeth.
As early as 1681-82, a group of Abenakis had accompanied the French explorer La Salle on his historic voyage down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. By 1700, many Abenaki and Iroquois Indians spoke French and had some European education, and some were literate in French and Latin.
In April 2001, I visited Big Bone Lick State Park in Kentucky. The heaps of mastodon and other large skeletons that used to loom out of the brackish backwaters along the Ohio River here are long gone, though the occasional big bone sometimes comes to light.