Historian John Man’s “Searching for the Amazons: The Real Warrior Women of the Ancient World,” started life as a primer on the historical and mythological antecedents for the comic book icon and film phenomenon of last year, “Wonder Woman.”
Having traveled, researched and written authoritative and imminently readable biographies of Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan, Man has produced a fascinating history of the myth of Amazons, warrior princesses living in a matriarchy of their own creation.
From the Scythians of the Steppes, who inspired Greek accounts and led the historian Herodotus, who accepted Amazons as real, to centuries of quests, research and scholarship since, Man details the ebb and flow of belief, debunked belief and the lingering impact of this proto-feminist universe upon culture and the arts.
Tribes in Africa, South America and North America were considered candidates to be the “real” Amazons of myth.
Modern day horse archers have sought to recreate the fighting skills these women were endowed with.
Female warriors from Joan of Arc to the Soviet Air Force’s “Night Witches” — fighting female pilots of World War II, Qadafi’s female bodyguard corps and the Kurdish women doing much of the fighting against Syria and ISIS are given chapters.
As is the Wonder Woman herself. Man goes into greater detail than “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” at showing how this odd duck psychologist and the brilliant, unconventional women he shared his life with led to one of the most popular comic book characters, became a feminist heroine of the liberating ’70s on TV and a princess fighting for peace, justice and equality on the big screen.
Man was writing with an eye toward LAST year’s film phenomenon, but he could very well have shifted his attention to this year’s Big Thing — “Black Panther” — with its army of warriors supporting their king and guarding Wakanda against discovery, invasion and enslavement. Man goes into detail about the “Amazon Army” of the African state of Dahomey, a 19th century force of vital influence upon affairs in that West African state.
Yeah. They looked a bit like this.
Films become culture-shifting events in all sorts of ways — branding, connecting to the political, ethical and moral zeitgeist.
But one important way, as Man’s book illustrates, is tapping into ideas that have always been with us, simmering much of the time, bubbling to the surface at crucial junctures. Amazons may have never truly existed, but plainly women warriors have been around for thousands of years. Graves in the borderlands of Mongolia and the assorted “Stans” of the former Soviet Union prove it.
Timing makes this idea of avenging angels topical again. Who better to turn the tide in the “War on Women” than a woman warrior for justice, equality and truth, arriving just after an electoral eruption of sexism, racism and nativism — not just in America?
Who better to ensure T’Challa gains his people’s rightful place at the table than an Army of Amazons?
John Man, in short, is onto something deep with “Searching for the Amazons.” That he’s able to relate so much of this history in such a breezy, entertaining way, connecting it all to the present day, makes this book (Pegasus Books/W.W. Norton) an edifying delight.