Central Asian warrior-heroine Saikal on a Kyrgyz stamp.
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Pale riders: Adrienne Mayor's "The Amazons" shows how a myth developed

A new book on warrior women reveals the true origins of a pervasive popular archetype.

The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World
Adrienne Mayor
Princeton University Press, 536pp, £19.95

The Amazon of classical mythology retains a powerful presence in contemporary culture. As a warrior woman, skilled in archery and equestrianism, who rejects patriarchy and lives free from male control, the Amazonian archetype has inspired and provided a point of comparison with countless powerful or unconventional females, from Elizabeth I and Catherine the Great to Wonder Woman and Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games.

These mythological warrior women were also among the most omnipresent figures in the art and literature of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Scarcely a classical temple did not feature a sculpted scene of battling Amazons, dressed in patterned leggings and felt caps with ear-flaps. Amazons feature in almost every account of ancient war, both mythical and historical, from the plains of Troy to the Athenian Areopagus, from the Trojan Aeneas’s struggle to conquer Italy and found Rome to Alexander the Great’s farthest eastern campaigns.

Ancient historians tell elaborate stories about the Amazons, especially those in Scythia. Sometimes they are presented as living apart from men in matriarchal communities that routinely killed off most baby boys; at other times they were said to fall in love with their neighbours the Scythians, or to have been tamed into submission by hypermasculine Greek heroes. But they were not imagined to be lesbians, and one other prevalent modern notion about the Amazons has little foundation in reliable ancient sources: that they cut off one breast to aid their archery. This idea originated in a false etymology of “Amazon” from a Greek word for breast (mastos or mazos); in fact, the name Amazones originated in a non-Greek ethnic label – perhaps Scythian or Iranian – of great antiquity.

If Adrienne Mayor had merely applied her rigorous scholarship and poetic charm to documenting the shifting image of Amazons in classical, medieval and post-Renaissance European culture, she would have written an important contribution to ancient history. But she has achieved much more. By painstaking research into the literature, folklore and ancient traditions of the myriad peoples between Greece, Russia and China, especially the Kyrgyz, the Azerbaijanis and the Circassians of Caucasia, she has broken down the often impenetrable walls dividing western cultural history from its eastern equivalents. Mounted female heroes, fearless and at arms, feature in the stories of all these cultures, even though only a few, such as the Chinese lyrical heroine Mulan, have ever been introduced to the west. Armed women still ride with their menfolk all over the steppes; in Kazakhstan they engage in dangerous competitive races and games on horseback. Mayor documents the fascinating story of the early-modern travellers who saw such horsewomen and, sensibly enough, deduced that they were descendants of the celebrated Black Sea Amazons, of whom classical authors had so much to say.

In the 19th century, early anthropologists such as J J Bachofen used the Amazon myth as part of their evidence for the hypothesis that world patriarchy had been preceded by an Ur-matriarchy. Engels accepted this hypothesis in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) and it remained popular for some decades. But as Marxism ceded ground to Lévi-Straussian structuralism in the 1960s and 1970s, a new orthodoxy came to prevail in the classical establishment: the Amazons were a fiction, invented by the ancient Greeks in order to help them define aspects of their own culture, which was ruled by men. Indeed, ancient Greek civilisation lay at the misogynist end of the patriarchal spectrum. The Greeks defined marriage in terms of patrilinear succession, the physical transfer of women’s bodies and their attached property between men of different households, and the policing of female sexual activity, motviated by an extreme concern for natal legitimacy.

The Amazon, according to this view (which was happily adopted by most feminist classicists), was an emanation of the Greek male imagination which defined the behaviour of her antitype – the “proper” Greek woman, controlled by her husband, averse to fighting, and definitely not prone to roam open spaces, unsupervised and astride a swift horse. The existence of the story of the Amazons, whom Greek men liked to imagine personally impaling on long spears, or raping, encouraged these men to rein in any wives, sisters or daughters who exhibited Amazonian tendencies.

Yet in the past three decades an extraordinary series of archaeological discoveries has proved incontrovertibly that there were warrior women among the nomads of antiquity. They were indeed archers and they fought alongside their menfolk in battle. In the 5th century BC at Ak-Alakha, high in the Altai Mountains, the Pazyryk people buried, together, a man and a young woman as well as their weapons, horses and trousers. In 1984 at Sampula in north-western China, researchers discovered the skeletons of 133 male and female nomads in a mass grave of the 1st or 2nd century BC. They had been killed in combat and were wearing colourfully patterned trousers. One trouser leg was decorated with a centaur blowing a war trumpet that looks just like those blown by Amazons and Scythians in Greek art. The headgear of these nomads featured ear-flaps resembling those on the caps of classical Amazons. Such material, graphic and plentiful finds made it impossible for anyone ever to claim again that Amazons were a figment of any imagination.

The historical Amazons would have been encountered by the ancient Greeks who travelled and traded around the Black Sea and fought in Alexander’s campaigns in Bactria. The discovery of “real” Amazons’ graves, supplemented by anthropological fieldwork among the remaining nomadic peoples of the Caucasus and Eurasia, suggests that the Greeks were filtering eye­witness accounts through a myth-making lens, just like the bards of the Caucasian Nart sagas and Chinese epic narratives.

Mayor opens up new horizons in world storytelling and feminist iconography. Her implication is that we need more Amazons in our own storytelling. She describes how, in ancient Athens, young girls would be given an Amazon clay doll (there’s a collection in the Louvre); she was brightly painted and wearing a war helmet, and her arms and legs were articulated so she could be dressed and undressed like a feminist Barbie. Another ancient doll, this one ten inches high, was found in eastern Turkey. She is dressed in the Amazon uniform of tunic and studded belt, with long curly hair, and she once held arms and armour. We even know the name of the doll-maker, Maecius, who was proud enough of his work to mark it with his signature. There may not be Amazon dolls in today’s toyshops, but a good substitute would be to read this wonderful book with your children and show them its pictures, especially before sitting down with them to watch The Hunger Games

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Jihadis Among Us

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser