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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Jonn Elledge and the Young Hagrid Audition

I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. Except I didn’t.

I’ve been dining out for years now on the fact I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. It’s one of those funny stories I tell people when a bit drunk, under the no doubt entirely wrong impression that it makes me sound like I’ve lived an interesting life.

Except, when I came to write this thing, I realised that it’s not actually true. I didn’t actually audition for the part of Young Hagrid at all.

Technically, I auditioned to be Voldemort.

Let’s start from the beginning. In November 2001 I was in my last year at Cambridge, where I split my time roughly equally between pissing about on a stage, writing thundering student paper columns about the true meaning of 9/11 as only a 21-year-old can, and having panic attacks that the first two things would cause me to screw up my degree and ruin my life forever. I was, I suppose, harmless enough; but looking back on that time, I am quite glad that nobody had yet invented social media.

I was also – this is relevant – quite substantially overweight. I’m not a slim man now, but I was much heavier then, so much so that I spent much of my later adolescence convinced that my mum’s bathroom scales were broken because my weight was, quite literally, off the scale. I was a big lad.

Anyway. One day my friend Michael, with whom I’d co-written quite a bad Edinburgh fringe show eighteen months earlier, came running up to me grasping a copy of Varsity. “Have you seen this?” he panted; in my memory, at least, he’s so excited by what he’s found that he’s literally run to find me. “You have to do it. It’d be brilliant.”

“This” turned out to be a casting call for actors for the new Harry Potter movie. This wasn’t unusual: Cambridge produces many actors, so production companies would occasionally hold open auditions in the hope of spotting fresh talent. I don’t remember how many minor parts they were trying to cast, or anything else about what it said. I was too busy turning bright red.

Because I could see the shameful words “Young Hagrid”. And I knew that what Michael meant was not, “God, Jonn, you’re a great actor, it’s time the whole world got to bask in your light”. What he meant was, “You’re a dead ringer for Robbie Coltrane”.

I was, remember, 21 years old. This is not what any 21-year-old wants to hear. Not least since I’d always suspected that the main things that made people think I looked like Robbie Coltrane were:

  1. the aforementioned weight issue, and
  2. the long dark trench coat I insisted on wearing in all seasons, under the mistaken impression that it disguised (a).

Most people look back at pictures of their 21-year-old self and marvel at how thin and beautiful they are. I look back and and I wonder why I wasted my youth cosplaying as Cracker.

The only photo of 2001 vintage Jonn I could find on the internet is actually a photo of a photo. For some reason, I really loved that tie. Image: Fiona Gee.

I didn’t want to lean into the Coltrane thing; since childhood I’d had this weird primal terror that dressing up as something meant accepting it as part of your identity, and at fancy dress parties (this is not a joke) I could often be found hiding under tables screaming. And I didn’t want to be Hagrid, young or otherwise. So I told Michael, quite plainly, that I wasn’t going to audition.

But as the days went by, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. This was an audition for a proper, actual movie. I’d always had this idea I must have some kind of talent*, and that Cambridge was where I would find out what it was**. What if this was my big break?*** What if I was being silly?****

So when it turned out that Michael had literally started a petition to get me to change my mind, I acceded to the inevitable. Who was I to resist the public demand for moi?

And so, I graciously alerted the people doing the casting to the fact of my existence. A few days later I got an email back inviting me to go see them in a room at Trinity College, and a few pages of script to read for them.

The first odd thing was that the script did not, in fact, mention Hagrid. The film, I would later learn, does include a flashback to Hagrid’s school days at Hogwarts. By then, though, the filmmakers had decided they didn’t need a young actor to play Young Hagrid: instead that sequence features a rugby player in a darkened corner, with a voiceover courtesy of Coltrane. The section of the script I was holding instead featured a conversation between Harry Potter and a character called Tom Riddle.

I asked my flat mate Beccy, who unlike me had actually read the books, who this person might be. She shuffled, awkwardly. “I think he might be Voldemort...?”

Further complicating things, the stage directions described Riddle as something along the lines of, “16 years old, stick thin and classically handsome, in a boyish way”. As fervently as I may have denied any resemblance between myself and Robbie Coltrane, I was nonetheless clear that I was a good match for precisely none of those adjectives.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I went to the audition. I don’t suppose I expected Chris Columbus to be there, let alone Robbie Coltrane ready to embrace me like a long-lost son.  But I was expecting more than a cupboard containing a video camera of the sort you could buy at Dixons and a blonde woman not much older than me. She introduced herself as “Buffy” which, given that this was 2001, I am not entirely convinced was her real name.

“My friends always tell me I look like Robbie Coltrane,” I told her, pretending I was remotely enthusiastic about this fact. 

“Oh yeah,” said Buffy. “But he’s really... big isn’t he? I mean he’s a huge guy. You’re more sort of...”

Or to put it another way, if they had still been looking for a young Hagrid, they would have wanted someone tall. I’m 6’, but I’m not tall. I was just fat.

If they had been looking for a Young Hagrid. Which, as it turned out, they weren’t.

The section I read for was included in the final film, so with a bit of Googling I found the script online. It was this bit:

TOM RIDDLE Yes. I’m afraid so. But then, she’s been in so much pain, poor Ginny. She’s been writing to me for months, telling me all her pitiful worries and woes. Ginny poured her soul out to me. I grew stronger on a diet of her deepest fears, her darkest secrets. I grew powerful enough to start feeding Ginny a few secrets, to start pouring a bit of my soul back into her...

Riddle, growing less vaporous by the second, grins cruelly.

TOM RIDDLE Yes, Harry, it was Ginny Weasley who opened the Chamber of Secrets.

I mean, you can see the problem, can’t you? I don’t remember this many years on what interpretation I put on my performance. I suspect I went beyond camp and into full on panto villain, and I dread to think what I may have done to communicate the impression of “growing less vaporous”.

But what I do feel confident about is that I was absolutely bloody awful. Five minutes after arriving, I was out, and I never heard from Buffy again.

So – I didn’t become a star. You probably guessed that part already.

In all honesty, I didn’t really realise what a big deal Harry Potter was. I’d seen the first film, and thought it was all right, but I was yet to read the books; three of them hadn’t even been written yet.

I had some vague idea there was an opportunity here. But the idea I was missing a shot at being part of an institution, something that people would be rereading and re-watching and analysing for decades to come – something that, a couple of years later, at roughly the point when Dumbledore shows Harry the Prophecy, and a tear rolls down his cheek, would come to mean quite a lot to me, personally – none of that ever crossed my mind. I’d had an opportunity. It hadn’t worked out. Happened all the time.

I do sometimes like to think, though, about the parallel universe in which that audition was the start of a long and glittering career – and where the bloke who played Tom Riddle in this universe is scratching a living writing silly blogs about trains.

*I don’t.

**I didn’t.

***It wasn’t.

****I was.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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