REVIEWED: Searching for the Amazons


Searching for the Amazons by John Man (History versus Myth, February 2018).

Historian John Man specializes in topics related to Asia. In addition to being thorough and doing excellemt research, he is also a skilled writer, making the past come alive. For instance, last year’s excellent biography of Saladin, which I reviewed in an earlier blog post. This time, he explores both the legends and the truth behind “The Real Warrior Women of the Ancient World.”

The ancient Greeks imagined a distant all-female kingdom east of them and linked these “Amazons” with their own mythic culture heroes like Hercules. Of course the wild tales of a land with fierce woman warriors who totally excluded men (except for reproductive purposes) were pure fiction and, as he notes, these tales reflected the male-dominated culture they sprang from. These “Amazons” were gorgeous, independent and dangerous–so Greek heroes were fascinated and inevitably required to conquer them.

But what was the truth? As Man details, modern-day studies of the oldtime cultures that populated the great grasslands from Mongolia all the way to the plains of Hungary have revealed facts long obscured and even denied by generations of historians. Archeological digs, especially burial mounds of ancient Eurasians, now tell of societies where many (though not all) of their female members rode into battle as equals alongside their menfolk (and sometimes led them). No, they didn’t cut off a breast to improve their archery skills or any of the other silly notions the Greeks popularized about them. Yet they were real people, and intregal parts of a  succession of nomadic warrior cultures that rode through 2,000 years of history.

Man ably demonstrates the wide reach and the modern evidence of these people.

Even when changing military technology (including the advent of firearms) ended the era of the mounted, bow-armed raiders, fascination with the legends and fictions built around them lived on. So much so that when the Age of European Exploration (and Colonial Conquest) came about,  Spanish explorers imagined great Amazon nations just beyond them in the Americas. Man details how and why a great South American river was named for these mythic warrior women, and how the search for golden cities run by these fictional and alluring Amazons helped drive the early exploration of California.

Later still, the West Africa Kingdom of Dahomey became another area of Amazon-related fascination. Their kings had elite female bodyguards (ceremonially married to the king) who soon evolved into a true and feared unit of that nation’s standing army. Their single-shot muskets finally proved fatally overmatched by French and British soldiers with repeating rifles at the end of the 19th/start of the 20th centuries. But these warrior women fought right alongside their men in defense of their doomed nation.

Another chapter details the fascinating cultural (and counter-cultural) origins of that Americanized comic book Amazon, Wonder Woman.

Man also deals with the units of all-female Soviet pilots of World War Two, who helped fight the invading Germans.

There’s even a brief chapter on the revival of horse-back archery as a sport.

Then Man finishes up with an account of the all-female units that are part of today’s Kurdish militias.

None of these amount to real-life Amazons in the traditional/mythological sense. But each group and individual has a story to tell–and Man does well telling it.

A truly intriguing book!



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