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Life Arts    H4'ed 9/17/14

Inked Amazons: Passionate Warrior Women Who Loved Cannabis, Battle-axes, Booty & Bling

Message Vicki Leon

Uppity Women Wednesdays with Vicki Leon
Uppity Women Wednesdays with Vicki Leon
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Number Six in the monthly Uppity Women Wednesday Series, started in April, 2014.

What if the ferocious Amazons of ancient times actually existed? What if they not only tamed wild horses and rode hard, but also fought hard with battle-axes, played hard with lovers and cannabis, and competed hard to display ink that could rival the Illustrated Man?

Stay tuned for some amazing theories and convincing archaeological proof.

Being a time-traveling uppity woman, I've always been drawn to like minds, feminine and masculine. In 1972, while doing my first serious research on real-life women and girls of long-ago Greece, I encountered Oxford's genial go-to man on Greek archaeology and art history, Charles Seltman. In his 1955 book, Women in Antiquity, he discussed mythology in a way I hadn't considered before.

Here's his take on popular Greek myths about a fearless woman: "Atalanta is the feminine counterpart of Heracles [Hercules]. . . you only recite legends about an imaginary athlete heroine because your civilization affords some scope for young females to be athletic. . . Where there is legend, there is, somewhere, scope."

Later, I stumbled upon Jessica Salmonson's 1991 book, The Encyclopedia of Amazons, which gave me a sampling of hundreds of women throughout history (some historical, some not) who were Amazons, battle-hungry queens, and warriors for equality. These two books gave me the impetus to continue my already-frustrating research into the lives of long-ago women, whether they were flesh-and-blood, or mythical, as I then believed the Amazons were.

My research eventually led to writing six Uppity Women books. I've spent serious time, plundering the primary sources that exist on such women, wrestling with contradictions in secondary sources, and puzzling over scraps of archaeological evidence. Although my daring damsels include gals rich and poor, enslaved and free, bookish and mystical, I've also written about numerous bold women warriors, from Artemisia to Zenobia.

All along I've harbored a wistful desire to find an author with a more comprehensive view of female movers and shakers. Why not give readers a book with copious cross-references between history, art, and myth, backed up by hard data from archaeology and other emerging sciences? Now, my wish is granted! Stanford research scholar Adrienne Mayor has birthed The Amazons: Lives & Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World.

A readable work of staggering accomplishment, her offspring is a robust, beautifully illustrated volume of 500-plus pages. Unlike human babies, this newcomer arrives with plenty of apps and extra help, from generous captions to copious notes, maps, and massive bibliography.

The indefatigable Mayor explores controversies and confirms premises, all while shattering fond fairytales, such as the man-hating, one-breasted Amazons. Drawing from a huge stock of recent archaeological and osteological evidence, she demonstrates that so-called "legendary" Amazons were based on real-life warrior women in nomadic societies from around the Black Sea east to the Caspian and Aral Seas and south to North Africa."

Mayor makes the case that such cultures were mobile, fierce, and surprisingly egalitarian because they relied on horses and archer weaponry, both of which made females the physical equals of males in battle. And elsewhere. As she puts it, "Each individual was crucial to the survival of the tribe. Children dressed and ate alike, and all learned to tame and ride fast horses, shoot deadly arrows, bring home game, defend the tribe, and attack foes."

Mayor renders a further service by pointing out that the ancient Greeks' utter fascination with Amazons, as evinced by the plethora of art images and stories about them, was as much about admiring feminine courage and love as it was about aggression and defeat.

"The universal quest to find balance and harmony between men and women, beings who are at once so alike and so different, lies at the heart of all Amazon tales. That timeless tension helps to explain why there were as many love stories about warrior women as there were war stories."

The book's chapter on Sex & Love provides surprising details, including juicy for-instances from ancient writers.

"In some nomad groups polyamory or 'free love' practices, multiple sexual partners for males and females, and polyandry (many 'husbands' or men) and polygamy (many 'wives' or women) were accepted. Xenophon, for example, remarked on the indiscriminate, public sexual intercourse of the tattooed Mossynoeci tribe of Pontus. Herodotus reported that the Agathyrsi, the nomadic Thracian-Scythian tribe, mated freely in order to 'foster sibling-like relationships and to eliminate jealousy and hatred.' According to Strabo, among the Siginni of the northwest Causasus the most accomplished women charioteers could 'co-habit with whomever they chose.' Strabo also described the sexual mores of the mountain tribes of Media (northwestern Iran): the men have up to five women and 'likewise the women believe it honorable to have as many men as possible and consider less than five a calamity.'"

Besides being the favorite female subject on Greek vase paintings and murals, Amazon images could be found in intimate family settings. "Some of the most poignant and little-known ancient artifacts are dolls representing Amazons, discovered in the graves of young girls in Greece and Asia Minor. Had the little girls lived to be married, they would have dedicated these dolls to the goddess Artemis. Clay dolls in the Louvre and other collections are identified as Amazons by their pointed Scythian-style caps with lappets (earflaps), like the caps of many Amazons in Greek art, and by their armor and weapons."

Warrior Barbies, B.C.: who knew?

Another fascinating, very 21st-century topic is the coverage given to tattoos depicted on Scythian, Thracian, and Amazon women. The author shows the similarity of their tattoos, weaving their larger cultural history together to bring us new insights. One example: the Athenians, who for centuries employed large numbers of Scythian slaves as archer-cops of their city and Thracian female slaves in their homes, considered tattoos a disgrace if you were Greek. Nevertheless, the tattoo designs worn by those slaves were faithfully copied by Greek artisans as they painted countless images of Amazons on vases, murals, and other decorated objects.

But the tattoo saga does not end there. As Adrienne Mayor notes, modern research, using infrared rays on the mummified female bodies found in the icy graves of the vast Altai steppes (stretching from the Black Sea to Mongolia), has proven that Amazonian women of the 5th century B.C. wore skin art as elaborate as today's ink masterpieces. Moreover, the author takes pains to tell the stories of these thrilling discoveries in a vibrant, you-are-there style.

Here is Mayor's excerpt about the 1993 find of an unlooted, luxurious tomb, frozen for 2500 years on the Ukok Plateau. "After two weeks of digging deep into the mound that snowy spring, they came upon a larchwood log coffin decorated with large leather cutouts of deer. Prying off the four copper nails securing the lid, they found a block of ice inside. The team carefully drizzled cups of hot water over the coffin. At last, a shoulder covered with marten (sable) fur emerged. [Archaeologist] Polosmak lifted the fur and saw 'a brilliant blue tattoo of a magnificent griffin-like creature' on the woman's skin. Polosmak identified the 'Ice Princess' as 'one of the Amazon women mummies' of the Pazyryk culture."

The princess was also laid to rest with a quantity of gold objects, including some beautifully worked bling. Speaking of gold, when we think of ancient artifacts and grave goods, valuables such as jewelry and coins naturally come to mind. But the nomadic cultures of these rugged lands treasured other pleasures, too, including one with a distinctly modern flavor.

Speaking of gold, when we think of ancient artifacts and grave goods, valuables such as jewelry and coins naturally come to mind. But the nomadic cultures of these rugged lands treasured other pleasures, including one with a distinctly modern flavor.

In the fifth century B.C., the Greek historian Herodotus traveled to Scythian territory. An adventurous spirit, he nosed about, later writing lengthy passages on these fascinating nomads. For centuries, his remarks about the Scythians, especially their weird methods of cleansing and their enthusiastic use of cannabis sativa, were scoffed at by historians and researchers. That is, until archaeologists doing field work ran across unmistakable, pungent-smelling objects in the Pazyryk kurgan graves they were excavating.

Herodotus had described the intoxication ritual as taking place inside a lean-to made of wooden stakes wrapped in felt or woolen cloth, where a fire burned in a brazier filled with stones. In his words, "The Scythians take the seeds of this cannabis, creep beneath the wood covering the stakes, and throw the seeds onto the blazing-hot stones within. When the seeds hit the stones, they produce smoke and give off a vapor such as no steam bath in Hellas could surpass. The Scythians howl, awed and elated by the vapor."

Did warrior women whoop it up and enjoy such rituals too? Indeed they did; pot paraphernalia in the form of (used) hemp-burning kits were discovered in all of the graves, male and female, in the Altai region.

In several of my Uppity Women books, I wrote briefly about Teuta, the Illyrian queen whose in-your-face piracy in the Mediterranean basin gave the Romans fits during the third century B.C. In her thorough coverage of historical warrior women in the Amazon tradition, author Mayor does a magnificent job of expanding on the queen's story, showing what a major player Queen Teuta must have been.

As Mayor notes, "Her raiders terrorized the Adriatic, looting, taking captives, and attacking cities at will. By 230 B.C. they were venturing into the Ionian Sea and the Mediterranean, further disrupting Roman and Greek sea trade."

In 2012, Teuta's talents as a piratical CEO were confirmed by archaeologists, when a Polish team found the biggest third century B.C. gold coin hoard ever unearthed: 4,656 coins. Plus other valuables, including a gold signet ring whose carved gem of crimson agate carried a portrait of Artemis, the goddess associated with the Amazons and worshipped by the Illyrians as well.

Images pictured here are only a sampling; this book contains ten maps and 86 unusual illustrations, covering a splendid range of objects, time periods, and warrior women, real and legendary. Story-telling images include tattoos of the "Ice Princess" provided by the archaeologist herself, as well as stirring depictions of modern "Amazon" archers on horseback, still pursuing nomadic traditions of the hunt from millennia past.

Mayor's book , The Amazons: Lives & Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World, officially publishes September 21. Until then, readers can preorder the book at a promotional discount from The book is also available online and off at Barnes & Noble, Powells, and other bookstores. For a look at the first chapter, the book trailer, and an author interview, go here.

More on Adrienne Mayor.

Editing, image editing and collages by OEN Managing Editor, Meryl Ann Butler.

Meryl Ann Butler interviewed Vicki here:
Uppity Women in History/Herstory: Interview with Author Vicki Leon
Uppity woman Vicki Leon is the author of a series of inspiring books about "Uppity Women" through the ages. Engaging and humorous, as well as enlightening, the books are based on her meticulous research, yet it seems so very wrong to call them "HIS-torical." In this OpEdNews interview, Leon shares some of her uppity women stories, and how she started on the path to track them down.

Vicki's monthly Uppity Women Series was announced in this article by Meryl Ann Butler:

Announcing Uppity Women Wednesdays at OEN.

This article announces the OEN series with author Vicki Leà n and features a pair of exciting stories about two inspiring matriots and how they helped change the course of American history - young Revolutionary horsewomen, 16-year-old Sybil Ludington and 22-year-old Deborah Champion.

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Vicki Leon, author of over 35 nonfiction books on women's history, ancient history, and travel, along with pictorial books for younger readers on wildlife and earth's fragile habitats, lives on the California coast but often returns to her favorite (more...)
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