Non-Fiction, Reviews

The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World by Adrienne Mayor (2016)

26597397

(image: goodreads.com)

I saw this book at a conference last year, and it sat on my reading list for months until I received it for my birthday in January. I was a bit apprehensive about reading it as I knew it wouldn’t exactly be a light read, and the paperback is 429 pages (not counting the appendix, notes, and bibliography). But once I had a copy myself, I knew I had to just go for it, which is often the best option for long or intimidating books (for me at least).

I have been keen to read more classics stuff outside of work (where I work on classics books), but wanted to avoid feeling like I was working, which is why I chose a non-academic book like this one. It is written by a professor, and published by a university, but it is not a textbook. In the introduction the author describes it as a sort of encyclopaedia, which sort of makes sense, though it reads like a biography or history. The encyclopaedic aspect comes through in the sheer volume of information and the huge amount and range of sources that are cited, from myth, history, and archaeology.

The latter is crucial to Mayor’s argument that there really were women who were like the mythical Amazons – equal to men in combat and status, riding horses, fighting and going out to battle, etc. Mayor carefully defines the difference between the Amazons of Greek myth, that we see in their art and literature, and real women across the ancient world who lived Amazon-like lives. The real women that Mayor discusses were from the lands north and east of Greece, covering what is now south-east Europe, parts of Russia, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and over into Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and China. It is a huge area – hence the huge book.

Mayor assumes that her reader has a good base of knowledge about ancient Greek society and gender roles, and uses this as a starting point to compare the women of these various regions with women in Greece, as well as the Amazon women in Greek myths. Mayor points out that there are some classicists who theorise that the Amazons were purely something from Greek myth and not based on any real people – and she disputes this. There is plenty of historical and archaeological evidence for ‘warrior women’ in multiple tribes, peoples, and places throughout the regions mentioned, and Mayor catalogues many of this in detail. This cataloguing can get a bit overwhelming, but it’s worth the effort for the incredible stories of these warrior women and the lives they lead.

As someone who only studied classics up to A-Level, it was fascinating to learn about more of the ancient world outside of Greece and Rome. I loved hearing about these women who lived like men, rode into battle, and yet still formed families, had children, and lived full lives. Greece starts to look like the anomaly instead of the norm, with its women confined to the house for all their lives, never having any freedom or choice.

400cbb8ad9d41c12862bef22436fb50a

(image: pinterest.com)

One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is the consideration of how ancient Greek people, both men and women, would relate to the warrior women of the east – whether mythical or actual. The common mythical trope was that the Greek hero and the Amazon would be more or less equal in combat, their fighting charged with potential sexual tension, but ultimately the hero would overpower and kill the Amazon. The most famous (and earliest) piece of Greek art to feature an Amazon is Exekias’ vase showing Achilles and Penthesilea at the moment that they lock eyes and fall in love, exactly as his spear enters her chest and he kills her (see right). Penthesilea was a mythical Amazon queen who led her band of female warriors to Troy to help defend the city against the invading Greeks. They managed to kill plenty of soldiers until Achilles and his band of men attacked, and the women were all killed. The story was immortalised by Exekias, and the Greeks loved this interplay of sex and death on the battlefield, in the Greeks’ most famous victory over their eastern neighbours.

The Greeks seemed to have a weird fixation on Amazons as ‘wild’ women who must be overpowered by heroes; they held a certain fascination as both ‘manly’ and strangely alluring. Mayor details several Greek myths in which the sexual tension between the Greek hero and the Amazon is a very important factor, included in all versions. This fascination with Amazons meant they were included in huge amounts of ancient Greek art and literature.

Mayor argues that the Amazons of myth were based on real women encountered by ancient Greek travellers and historians, most famously Herodotus (I have just bought myself a copy of Tom Holland’s translation of his Histories). Having read her book, I completely agree with this. So many tribes throughout Scythia, the lands around the Black Sea, and over towards China, contained women who lived almost exactly like men – or who at least knew how to ride, shoot arrows, and fight to some degree – that it is impossible to refute the notion that mythical and legendary Amazons were based on real women.

The Amazons is a wonderful blend of mythical stories, histories, art, literature, and archaeology all being discussed and analysed, giving a broad overview of the lives of women outside Greece in the ancient world. While it is a dense and sometimes heavy-going book, it is also fascinating, engaging, and ultimately very rewarding. It is one of the most authoritative books I have read on the ancient world, and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the lives of women in antiquity.

*

Published by Princeton University Press in 2014 (hardback) and 2016 (paperback). I read the paperback edition, pictured above.

 

Advertisements
Standard
Non-Fiction, Reviews

The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson

Well. This is a review I have been avoiding for a while. I finished reading The Mighty Dead about two weeks ago. I’d made some notes, but it is hard to put them together and get to the point of what I really think about this book.

2015 William Collins paperback edition (image: goodreads.com)

2015 William Collins paperback edition (image: goodreads.com)

The fact is I feel quite strongly about it. It is, simply, a book I had been waiting for. One I dreamed would exist in some form. I don’t think I realised just how much I wanted this book to appear until it did. And yet I didn’t pounce on it when the hardback was first released – partly because of the expense and heft of the book, but also because I was nervous about reading it. What if it wasn’t all I hoped it would be? What if I didn’t like the writing or the author’s opinions? There are always reasons not to do things.

In the end it was, inevitably, a blog post that convinced me The Mighty Dead would be ‘safe’ to read, and that I should just go for it. The fantastic Carolyn of Rosemary and Reading Glasses wrote a brilliant post that I could not ignore. She was my fellow reader and sent away all my worries. I had to read this book! So thank you Carolyn.

Adam Nicolson has great passion for Homer, and he is a wonderful guide to the works themselves, as well as the concepts and ideas within them, and the cultural and historical context and influence of both The Iliad and The Odyssey. His writing is academic yet accessible, conversational but not too chatty, and he includes scenes from his own life that add context and reality to elements of Homer, relating them to real life in the most beautiful and effective ways. He is a wonderful writer.

The chapter divisions are very effective. Nicolson takes us on a journey of how one come to love and understand Homer, but also through the different sides of Homer – the poems themselves, their time and place, a bit of text analysis, as well as the context and influence of the poems. There is a spattering of European history throughout the book as Nicolson relates Homer to a world we know, or at least know of. All this is utterly fascinating, and I feel that I really learned something new and can now appreciate Homer in a new way, as something that is an integral part of Euro-Asian (well the western part of Asia) history. That is something very special.

You probably do need to have at least some knowledge of Homer in order to read The Mighty Dead; but I do think that it could also serve as a very thorough introduction for someone who has perhaps heard about The Iliad and The Odyssey, and wants to know more before reading them. It is certainly a good idea to know something about the poems before you read them, even if only basic context. I think the more you understand the poems, the more you appreciate them.

They are simply wonderful. I first read The Odyssey at school, where I studied it at both GCSE and A Level. Going through it twice – both times with the same dedicated and inspiring teacher – meant that I am immensely fond of it. I haven’t read it all the way through in a while, but I remembered almost all of the scenes Nicolson references in The Mighty Dead, and my prior knowledge meant that I could revel in the analysis and exploration of its characters and themes. For me, almost all of life is covered by and contained within The Odyssey. It taught me a lot about storytelling, leadership, love and family, the passage of time, dealing with the past – and looking to the future. It is undeniably Ancient Greek and of its time, but it is also universal. In my opinion everyone should read it.

I have never studied The Iliad, but have read it on my own, which made me appreciate about much it helps to be guided through Homer. Reading it ‘alone’ can  sometimes be overwhelming – so a book like The Mighty Dead really is a godsend. The Iliad is different from The Odyssey in many ways, but it still encompasses most of life. Simone Weil called it a ‘poem of force‘, which makes sense – it is intense, visceral, full of power, desire, physicality, love, life, and death. This is why the two poems, and Homer, have survived history and are still with us – they speak to us of things we never knew, but also of things we’ve known all along in some way, in our hearts, even if we didn’t really know that we knew them.

It is difficult to explain this – the point is that I urge you to read Homer if you haven’t already and to re-read if you have, as I plan to; and to read The Mighty Dead by Adam Nicolson. It is just brilliant.

*

Published in 2014 by Henry Holt in the US and William Collins in the UK.

Standard