Amazons in all Shapes, Sizes, and Colors: What the Wonder Woman Movie Got Right

by Adrienne Mayor

Were Amazons—and their real-life counterparts in antiquity—really as diverse as they appear in Wonder Woman?

Wonder Woman opens with a breathtaking  panorama of Themiscyra, the fantasy island populated by powerful women, a paradise magically isolated in time and space from the modern world of men and their ruthless wars. This is where the little wonder girl Diana raised by a triumvirate of formidable females: Queen Hippolyta, General Antiope, and her aunt Melanippe.

In the film, Themiscyra is a self-contained, women-only society of indomitable warriors, devoted to using their deadly expertise to fight on the side of all that is fair and good. We see how idealistic young Diana is rigorously trained for hand-to-hand combat, learning rugged martial arts alongside the toughest, most courageous warrior women the world has ever known: Amazons of ancient Greek myth.

The beginning scenes show us daily life in Themiscyra, with the entire citizenry of warlike women engaged in military exercises. As far as the eye can see, vast fields are filled with female soldiers displaying their prowess in an amazing array of skills. Frame after frame, there are women wrestling, boxing, sword fighting; women performing gymnastic feats on galloping horses; women thrusting daggers and twirling battle-axes; keen-eyed archers on foot and on horseback; acrobatic ninjas and javelin throwers with deadly aim. And in the following scenes of the battle on the beach—pitting the Amazons against boatloads of nasty German soldiers—the dizzying kaleidoscope intensifies, drawing us into a maelstrom of whirling, grappling, leaping, kicking, punching, stabbing, spearing, soaring, kickass female fighters. A crucial element in the  scene’s powerful impact is the perfectly natural diversity of super-fit body types and skin colors.

The magnificence of the Amazons of Themiscyra would have been impossible to pull off with typical Hollywood actresses pretending to be fierce warrior women. It was the brilliant decision of director Patty Jenkins to cast real-life athletes and sports champions as Wonder Woman’s companions.

And that choice ensured that women of Themiscyra display a variety of skills, body sizes, shapes, ages, and skin colors. The diversity is stunning: the Amazons are tall and short, robust and lithe, young and mature, lean and muscle-bound, stolid and mercurial; pale and dark—and everything in between.

In ancient Greek myth, Amazons were warrior women who gloried in battle who dwelled in exotic lands around the Black Sea. Now, thanks to evidence from history, art, and archaeology, we now know that the Amazons were modeled on real nomadic peoples of ancient Scythia, a vast territory that stretched from the real Themiscyran plain on the Black Sea to Mongolia. These myriad tribes had their own languages and were ethnically diverse, but they shared a lifestyle centered on fast horses, bows and arrows, and constant warfare. Their egalitarian lifestyle meant that girls and boys learned to ride, shoot arrows, and fight and the women rode to war with the men.

The Scythians left no writings, but modern archaeology, ancient art, and historical descriptions by their neighbors, the Greeks and Chinese, tell us what they were like. Human remains from Scythian graves show both European and Asian traits, characteristics evident in steppe nomads’ descendants today. Females buried with weapons ranged in age from 10 to 45. Some 2,000 years ago, Greek and Roman historians reported that some Scythians had dark eyes and hair, while others were blond or red-headed with blue eyes. Notably, ancient Chinese chronicles confirm this ethnic diversity, describing some Scythians of Inner Asia as red-haired with green eyes.

Beginning in the sixth century BC, Greek artists painted thousands of images of Amazons on vases. The pictures took on more and more realistic details of actual Scythian nomads as they became more familiar with steppe peoples. Vase paintings show tall and petite Amazons, husky and slender Amazons, often together in the same scene. Most have dark hair but there are some blonde and red-haired Amazons. There were ancient Greek tales of Amazons of Africa and Ethiopians were allies of the Amazons in the legendary Trojan War. Vase paintings show African archers dressed like Amazons.

Wonder Woman‘s vision of all kinds of Amazon warriors making themselves physically strong—and then proving their valor in violent combat and emerging victorious—is unprecedented in cinematic history. The grandeur of the fighting scenes—the sheer physicality and diversity of the Amazons—arouses surging emotions of exhilaration in viewers, empowering for women and girls, a revelation for men and boys.

The fact that the multidimensional aspect of Wonder Woman‘s Amazon paradise is grounded in historical reality adds to the glorious authenticity of the film.

So breathtaking is the tribute to strong, real women in the first third of Wonder Woman that I’m joining the chorus of viewers requesting a prequel—we want more Amazons!

MayorAdrienne Mayor is a research scholar in classics and history of science at Stanford University, and the author of The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy, a finalist for the National Book Award, and The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World.

 

 

 

 

Image: © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

Adrienne Mayor busts five myths about Amazon warrior women

Mayor_TheAmazonsContrary to popular belief, the Amazons were not “man-haters” who gave up their motherhood to be warriors. While many throughout history have considered these women to be figments of Greek imagination, they were in fact very real, and roamed a vast expanse far beyond Greece, from the Black Sea to Mongolia. From today’s piece on CNN:

History often remembers them as fearsome, war-loving lesbians, who killed baby boys and cut off their own breasts to better fire a bow and arrow.

But just who were the Amazons, these legendary horsewomen-archers depicted across ancient Greece, Egypt, and China?

The truth is no less gripping than the myth, as Stanford University historian Adrienne Mayor reveals in her book: “The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World.”

Princeton University Press’s best-selling books for the week

These are the best-selling books for the past week.

1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed by Eric H. Cline
The Age of the Vikings Anders Winroth
The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World by Adrienne Mayor
Penguins: The Ultimate Guide by Tui De Roy, Mark Jones & Julie Cornthwaite
The Bee: A Natural History Noah Wilson-Rich
The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking by Edward B. Burger & Michael Starbird
The Founder’s Dilemmas: Anticipating and Avoiding the Pitfalls That Can Sink a Startup by Noam Wasserman
The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger by Marc Levinson
Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age by W. Bernard Carlson
Everyday Calculus: Discovering the Hidden Math All around Us by Oscar E. Fernandez

Book Trailer for The Amazons by Adrienne Mayor


bookjacket The Amazons
Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World
Adrienne Mayor

What is your Amazon warrior name?

Inspired by new research by Adrienne Mayor, available for the first time in her forthcoming book The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World, we present this personality quiz. Leave a comment below with your Amazon alter ego. If you want to read more information about these women, please click here.

PUP Celebrates Mothers — Amazon Style

This Mother’s Day, Princeton University Press is trading in the perfumed soap and jewelry for a different type of celebration for moms. We’ve gathered a group of experts on a range of interesting subjects and compiled a group of mom-related shorts. Zumba class instructor or Pinterest lover – we have a special story for your mom. We hope that this series will provide you with some interesting conversation topics to get family members thinking (and chuckling) during that Mother’s Day brunch.

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Mover–Groover Mothers

This bit is for the aerobics class attendees and soccer game cheerers. Is your mom just a bit competitive when it comes to Words with Friends? Or maybe she has found college dorm room packing to be a new form of strength training (did she have this many shoes when she was your age)? Whatever it is that keeps your mom active, we tip our hats to her. For those on-the-go and up-for-anything moms, we bring you a look back at some ancient, active mothers.

How Would the Ancient Amazons Celebrate Mother’s Day?

Adrienne Mayor
Author of THE AMAZONS (Sept. 2014) and National Book Award finalist, THE POISON KING

The goddess Cybele

The goddess Cybele

According to ancient myths, the fierce horsewomen-archers called “Amazons” were the antithesis of ideal womanhood, the opposites of the docile stay-at-home moms of classical Greece. Some even claimed that the name amazon meant “without a breast” in Greek and insisted that the women mutilated themselves in order to shoot a bow more easily. Greek poets described Amazons beating drums and performing bellicose war dances for the stern virgin goddess of the hunt, Artemis–definitely not a mother figure.

The Greeks came up with a bunch of contradictory notions about Amazons. But no one imagined a sentimental picture of maternal, nurturing mothers like those celebrated in Mother’s Day cards. Amazons were either man-hating killer-virgins who refused marriage, rejected motherhood, and gloried in making war–or else they were lusty, domineering women who used random men for sex, stealing their sperm in order to perpetuate their women-only society. Lurid stories claimed that Amazons only raised their baby girls and abandoned or mistreated infant boys, breaking their legs or even killing them. None of this is the stuff of Hallmark cards.

Yet archaeological discoveries tell a different story. The historical models for mythic Amazons were warlike women of nomadic Eurasian tribes, and their graves contain battle-scarred female skeletons buried with arrows and spears. But many of these women were mothers too; next to their quivers are sometimes the remains of children who died prematurely.

Archaeological evidence also reveals that real-life Amazons worshiped Cybele, the great mother goddess of Anatolia (her rites required that men castrate themselves). Amazon family trees were matrilineal–the famous Amazon queens of myth could trace the names of their illustrious warrior mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers. So, although there would not be flowers or breakfast in bed, the Amazons would definitely understand the concept of daughters honoring their mothers on Mother’s Day. Amazon sons, maybe not so much–and don’t even ask about Father’s Day!