By Adrienne Mayor (Wonders and Marvels contributor)
Were the Amazons, those famous fighting females of Greek myth, giant women? In popular culture we often use the word “Amazon” for exceptionally tall, robust, athletic women. And it is commonly believed that the mythic Amazons were giantesses.
Where does this image originate? In classical antiquity, the Greeks pictured the great heroes and heroines of the glorious days of myth as giants, at least 3 times bigger than ordinary men and women. That means the Greeks imagined Heracles, Achilles, and Atalanta as larger-than-life figures of superhuman strength compared to puny men and women of the present day. And since the celebrated heroes of myth battled fierce Amazons, their equals in physical strength, those formidable women were also assumed to tower over ordinary people.
The idea that heroic mythic figures were larger than life was confirmed by ancient discoveries of enormous fossilized bones of prehistoric animals that the Greeks had never seen alive. Whenever Greeks came across the huge and unfamiliar bones of long-extinct mammals of immense size, turned to stone and weathering out of the ground all around the Aegean, people identified them as the relics of mythic heroes. The fossil femurs and shoulder blades of extinct mammals resembled the limb bones of humans except that they were about 3 times the size! Such impressive remains of heroic dimensions were gathered up and displayed in temples as the bones of mythic characters like Achilles, Theseus, Orestes, and Ajax.
On the island of Samos, the Greeks discovered evidence to prove that the fearsome Amazons were giants too. According to myth, the god Dionysus was attacked by an army of Amazons on Samos. There was a ferocious battle, so bloody that the very earth was stained red. And ever after, people on Samos found colossal bones eroding out of the reddish sediments of the battleground. The huge bones were believed to be those of the Amazons slain by Dionysus.
In the 1970s, German archaeologists excavating the great Temple of Hera on Samos discovered an “Amazon”-sized femur on the altar, among many other items dedicated to the goddess in the sixth century BC. The Amazon’s thigh bone was really that of a prehistoric giant rhinoceros or mastodon, brought to the temple from the abundant fossil deposits of gigantic Miocene mammals that populated the island about 8 million years ago. More than 2,500 years ago someone placed it on the altar as a sacred memento of the Battle between the Amazons and Dionysus.
About the author: A Research Scholar in Classics and History of Science, Stanford University, Adrienne Mayor is the author of “The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World” (2014) and “The Poison King: Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy,” a nonfiction finalist for the 2009 National Book Award.