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Adrienne Mayor on the Amazons

Warrior Women of the Ancient World

In this podcast edition of Foreign Affairs Unedited, author Adrienne Mayor discusses Amazons, folklore science, and her recent article "Warrior Women: The Myth and Reality of the Amazon," with Foreign Affairs Deputy Managing Editor Katie Allawala. This interview has been edited and condensed. A rush transcript is below.

Katie Allawala: This is Katie Allawala from Foreign Affairs. It is said that the boundless steeps of Asia gave flight to tales of heroes and heroines because the conditions there are so harsh. From about 700 BC to AD 500, the vast territory of Scythia, stretching from the Black Sea to China, was home to diverse, but culturally related nomads. The steep tribes were masters of horses and archery, the boys and girls learned how to ride and shoot so that everyone could hunt and make war. The horse and the bow were the equalizers. Women could be just as tough, fast, and deadly as men. So starts Warrior Women: The Myth and Reality of the Amazons, a recent piece by Adrienne Mayor, research scholar at Stanford University. Today on Foreign Affairs Unedited, I sit down with her to talk about Amazons, folklore science, and her next project.

Katie Allawala: I'm excited to sit down with you today to talk about your article. It was one of my favorite things that we've run recently.

Adrienne Mayor: Thank you.

Katie Allawala: So you're a historian of folk science. What is folk science, exactly, and how did you get into that?

Adrienne Mayor: 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. 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. And I first applied a study of natural knowledge or folk knowledge, folk science, to how ancient Greeks and Romans described the large fossil bones that they found all around the Mediterranean. But it could be applied to all sorts of natural phenomena from different peoples, to volcanoes, earthquakes, floods, other natural features of the landscape that require some sort of explanation.

Katie Allawala: So, backing up, what did the ancient Greek and Romans think about the bones?

Adrienne Mayor: I wrote a book about it called The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times. It's now been reissued with a new title, it's now called The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoth and Myth in Greek and Roman Times. And so, I show how observations of the large, stony bones of long-extinct, very large mammals and even dinosaurs were interpreted as giants, or monsters, or even ancient heroes that lived in the deep past. That's how the Greeks and Romans interpreted such discoveries.

Katie Allawala: Your most recent book is The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World. So what drew you to that project?

Adrienne Mayor: I've been collecting stories about Amazons from ancient Greek and Roman sources for about 10 years, and so my file was growing fatter and fatter. But then, I was also really interested in the Scythians, that's the blanket term that the Greeks had for the stepped nomads. The nomads that ranged from the area of Ukraine all the way to China, and I'd always been interested in those peoples and how they interacted with the ancient Greek. And so, I was really paying attention to the archaeology that was taking place in ancient Scythia. And what I learned that they were starting to find lots of graves, I think they found, now, so far excavated about a thousand Scythian graves from the 5th century BC, onward. So, some earlier, some later, but right around the time that the Greeks were talking about these people and excited about their barbarian lifestyle, archaeologists were finding the graves of these people.

And in the recent years, once they got DNA testing, and bio-archaeological methods, they were finding that about one third to even 40% of the skeletons that were buried with weapons of war and horses were women, were the skeletons of women. And before they had this scientific testing, they had just assumed that all the skeletons they found with weapons in this region, a region where the ancient Greeks said that Amazons lived, they just assumed that anyone buried with weapons would be male. But science began to prove that that was wrong and calling that assumption into question. And there were a lot of reexaminations of older skeletons that had been identified as male just because they were with supposedly masculine weapons, turned out to be female. That really captured my attention, and that's why I began my book with the reality, the facts about Scythia that we know from archaeology, comparative ethnography and other historians from antiquity. I wanted to start with the facts about these people, and then move to the myths and stories that the ancient Greeks and other people told about them.

Katie Allawala: So when you were collecting all of the stories, were there any that you came across that really resonated with you, I guess, which is your favorite?

Adrienne Mayor: Well, of the myths, my favorite is the story of Princess Alia, who led a band of mercenary Amazons from the area around what is now the Republic of Georgia, the Southern Caucasus, to help the Trojans in the legendary Trojan War, and she fought a duel with the great Greek champion Achilles and, of course, because it's told from the Greek point-of-view, Achilles wins and kills her but just as she's dying, he removes her helmet and sees how beautiful she is and recalls how brave she was, he actually falls in love and regrets that they could not have met in other circumstances. So that's a romantic story. Of the Greek myths, that's my favorite but I must say that I'm really enamored of the non-Greek stories because in those stories, the Amazons are doomed to death like they are in all the Greek stories. 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. So those are my favorite stories.

Katie Allawala: So what do you think explains the difference between the Greek stories and the ones from the rest of the region?

Adrienne Mayor: I think that the... We have to blame the urban setting and the agricultural lifestyle of the Greeks, that's what encourages patriarchal and patriarchal societies and domination, suppression of womens' freedoms. And that's exactly what the Greeks had in their society; their wives and daughters were kept inside minding children, weaving, spinning, they weren't allowed outdoors much, they were really not free like the Amazons. 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.

Katie Allawala: Were not that safe, I guess.

Adrienne Mayor: [chuckle] 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. We find that's not an uncommon reaction to independent women in patriarchal societies.

Katie Allawala: Not at all. [chuckle] Are there other themes in the stories that are particularly attractive or repellent to modern audiences?

Adrienne Mayor: Well I think that the... 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. So I think that's one of the most appealing and attractive aspects of the story is that Egalitarianism and the heroism. But then I think what disturbs a lot of people, maybe some feminists, is that the Amazons are notorious for their violence. They're said to glory and warfare and killing and I think that that might be disturbing for some people today and yet we do have the example of the Kurdish women I think there are about ten thousand of them now, fighting the Islamic extremists in Syria and they're fighting for their life, not just for their own independent freedom but for their culture and society. So I think people can understand the violence and yet, it can be off-putting for a lot of people.

Katie Allawala: What's one thing that you'd like readers to take away from the foreign affairs article or your book?

Adrienne Mayor: Well I think one message is that ancient historians and classical scholars have long argued that Amazons were purely imaginary and that there was nothing real about that story. I think we now have enough evidence, archaeological and otherwise, to call that into question so we can say that the Greeks did not just make this up out of whole cloth, and the other point is that the Greeks weren't the only ones who were fascinated with Amazons. That's another mistake, or misinterpretation, that has held sway for a long time; that Greek culture was the only culture that talked about women warriors. It's certainly not true, I think I've spent... I've devoted three or four chapters in the last part of my book to Amazon stories from Egypt; the Caucasus, Persia, Central Asia, and even China. So I think that's an important point. But 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.

Katie Allawala: And so what is your next topic for a book?

Adrienne Mayor: I have several topics in mind, most of them do fall under the rubric of history of ancient science, which is my main interest. So I probably want to work on something concerning geo-mythology or ancient descriptions of earthquakes, floods, volcanoes, tsunamis, other natural events and disasters to see if they contain any significant details that would be valuable to scientists today. They sometimes, these stories are in mythic or poetic language and yet they do have details that anticipate scientific discoveries.

Katie Allawala: I'll have to get another foreign affairs piece from you then, when that one comes out. Yeah, that sounds like a topic that would be fascinating for our readers and everyone.

Adrienne Mayor: Well thank you. You know, a lot of people say that you should write what you know, I always write about what I wanna know, so I'm a slow writer because I do so much research. I try to do a lot of deep research before I write my book. So, I'm not sure when my next book will come out but I do owe Princeton University Press two books.

Katie Allawala: That was me talking to Adrienne Mayor. Check out her piece on the newly redesigned and let us know what else you would like to see in this podcast. Please leave a review on iTunes.

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