Quick Questions for Adrienne Mayor, author of The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World

Adrienne Mayor is a research scholar in classics and the history of science at Stanford University. Her work searches for precursors to modern science in mythologies and folk traditions of peoples around the world. Mayor’s previous books include The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times (2000) and Fossil Legends of the First Americans (2007), which examine pre-Darwinian cultural awareness of prehistoric life in antiquity and Native America, linking legends of monsters to the discovery of fossils. Her biography The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy was a finalist for 2009 National Book Award in Nonfiction and won the 2010 Gold Medal in Biography at the Independent Publisher Book Awards.amayor

Mayor’s upcoming book, The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World, explores the familiar Greek myth of warrior women from a global perspective. Citing stories from China, India, Egypt, Persia, and Central Asia, as well as new archaeological discoveries, Mayor unearths the roots of Amazon legends and reveals some surprising insights on gender in the ancient world.

Now, on to the questions!

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.


“I find writing a book a slow, intricate process, a kind of obstacle course punctuated with great rewards.”


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?

7-18 AmazonsMy 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.


Adrienne Mayor is the author of:

7-18 Amazons The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World by Adrienne Mayor
Hardcover | September 2014 | $29.95 / £19.95 | ISBN: 9780691147208
536 pp. | 6 x 9 | 10 maps | Reviews

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!