An interview with Adrienne Mayor, author of The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World
What would you have been if not an historian?
If I had not become so obsessed with uncovering germs of historical and scientific realities in ancient mythology and legends, I would still be a full-time freelance copyeditor for about a dozen trade publishers and university presses (including Princeton University Press). That was my career until I published my first book (The First Fossil Hunters for PUP, 2000). 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.
What was the most influential book you've read?
Two influential books: The Histories of Herodotus, the world's first "anthropologist," an insatiably curious Greek historian who reported on barbarian cultures based on his research, travels, and interviews in the fifth century BC. I was also influenced by Mott T. Greene's Natural Knowledge in Preclassical Antiquity (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992).
Describe your writing process. How long did it take you to finish your book? Where do you write?
I had been gathering material about ancient women warriors for decades. But I began the serious research for The Amazons in 2009 and started the actual writing in 2012. 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. 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.
What was the most interesting thing you learned from writing this book?
Thanks to modern DNA testing, we now know that a significant number of battle-scarred skeletons buried with weapons in ancient steppe nomad graves belonged to women, the real-life models for Greek myths about Amazons. So Amazons were not just a figment of the Greek imagination, brought to life in exciting myths only to be killed off by Greek heroes. But even more surprising, it turns out that the Greeks were not the only people of antiquity to spin tales about heroic warrior women. And the non-Greek stories of warlike women differ radically from the dark mythic script demanding death for all Amazons. Instead, legendary heroes of Persia, Egypt, and Asia were so impressed with the valor of their female foes that they desired the women as companions in love and war. 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.
How did you come up with the title and jacket?
My working title was "Amazons in Love and War" because there are as many romances as battle stories about warrior women. The final title embraces both mythology and history and conveys the geographic scope of the book far beyond the ancient Mediterranean world. I wanted to find a unique picture for the cover, something arresting and unexpected, a departure from the standard classical Greek vase or Roman statue. I was struck by the strong image and narrative quality of a postage stamp issued by the Kyrgyz Republic. It shows the horsewoman-archer Saikal, heroine of the most famous Central Asian epic poem Manas. The black and white illustration is by Teodor Gercen, a German artist who worked in Kyrgyzstan.
What are you reading right now?
I am enjoying a well-researched adventure novel translated from Danish, The Lost Sisterhood (Random House, 2014) by Anne Fortier (Ph.D. Aarhus University, History of Ideas). The story follows an Oxford professor on a quest in North Africa and Troy to discover a legendary "Amazon treasure," following clues left by her eccentric grandmother who claimed an Amazon queen as her ancestor.