Photograph by Ivy Close Images, Alamy
Drawing on a wealth of textual, artistic, and archaeological evidence, Adrienne Mayor, author of The Amazons, dispels these myths and takes us inside the truly wild and wonderful world of these ancient warrior women
What archaeological proofs have been discovered to show that these mythical beings actually existed?
They've been excavating Scythian kurgans, which are the burial mounds of these nomadic peoples. They all had horse-centred lifestyles, ranging across vast distances from the Black Sea all the way to Mongolia. They lived in small tribes, so it makes sense that everyone in the tribe is a stakeholder. They all have to contribute to defense and to war efforts and hunting. They all have to be able to defend themselves.
The great equalizer for those peoples was the domestication of horses and the invention of horse riding, followed by the perfection of the Scythian bow, which is smaller and very powerful. If you think about it, a woman on a horse with a bow, trained since childhood, can be just as fast and as deadly as a boy or man.
Archaeologists have found skeletons buried with bows and arrows and quivers and spears and horses. At first they assumed that anyone buried with weapons in that region must have been a male warrior. But with the advent of DNA testing and other bioarchaeological scientific analysis, they've found that about one-third of all Scythian women are buried with weapons and have war injuries just like the men. The women were also buried with knives and daggers and tools. So burial with masculine-seeming grave goods is no longer taken as an indicator of a male warrior. It's overwhelming proof that there were women answering to the description of the ancient Amazons.
Why were they called Amazons?
[Laughs.] That's such a complex story that I actually devoted an entire chapter to it. It's the one thing everyone seems to think they know about Amazons: that the name has something to do with only having one breast so they could easily fire an arrow or hurl a spear. But anyone who's watched The Hunger Games, or female archers, knows that that is an absolutely physiologically ridiculous idea. Indeed, no ancient Greek artworks—and there are thousands—show a woman with one breast.
All modern scholars point out that the plural noun "Amazones" was not originally a Greek word—and has nothing to do with breasts. The notion that "Amazon" meant "without breast" was invented by the Greek historian Hellanikos in the fifth century B.C.
He tried to force a Greek meaning on the foreign loan word: a for "lack" and "mazon," which sounded a bit like the Greek word for breast. His idea was rejected by other historians of his own day, and no ancient artist bought the story. But it stuck like superglue. Two early reviews of my book even claimed I accept that false etymology. Linguists today suggest that the name derives from ancient Iranian or Caucasian roots.