Band of sisters: the Amazon light cavalry – Book Review
Steven Pressfield. Last of the Amazons. New York: Doubleday, 2002. 396 pp. Map, author’s notes. $24.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-385-50098-X.
I’ve never been an Amazon but Steven Pressfield sure made me feel like one. In Last of the Amazons he schooled me in their ways. He issued me my double-bladed battle-axe. I was handed my bow, my lance, and the reins to my warhorse. Down I rode from the Black Sea steppe to wreak vengeance on the men of Athens. I also felt like a man of Athens. I stood my ground in battle-line. I grasped my shield firmly and held my spear to the front. I waited for the storm of arrows as the female cavalry charged toward me. They screeched their battle cry. The “cry of Amazonia which turns men’s spines to squash.” Pressfield believes in the guidance of the Muse. The Muse believes in him. His opus extended its cloth wings and wrapped itself around me. His narration galloped and charged across the pages. I was engrossed from cover to cover.
Plutarch, in his biographies, says that Theseus’ abduction of Antiope “was the origin of the Amazonian invasion of Athens.” He states that their encampment “is certain, and may be confirmed by the names that the places thereabout yet retain.” He also says that some of the Amazon dead “were buried there in the place that is to this time called Amazoneum.”
In literature, taking possession of a myth and redesigning it is called “mythopoeia.” Using Plutarch’s writings as the basis for his novel Pressfield screams new life into the legend of the Amazons. He portrays a lifestyle as real as the sky. He explains how “Horse” who “speaks in silence” taught the all-female race to communicate. He relates that the women, the “Daughters of the Horse … may not renounce their virginity until they have taken the lives of three foes in battle.” He shows how the young girls are trained at an early age to become warriors. Pressfield creates a believable Amazon nation with savagely realistic and stupendously sublime Amazons.
This novel has the subjects of reason Vs nature, city Vs steppe, love Vs hate, and the battle-royale of man Vs woman. On the surface, its main theme is the freedom that women desire. In a broader sense it is a story of the individual freedom that all humankind desires.
His two previous historical fictions of ancient Hellas are Gates of Fire and Tides of War. The former is about the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae; the latter is about Alcibiades during the Pelopennesian War. Pressfield believes a common character gives the reader an approachable entrance into legendary stories. For this novel his narrator is a grandmother. Her story takes place when she was a little girl. Her name is Bones. Mother Bones.
The book opens in ancient Athens many years after the Amazon invasion. Mother Bones gathers her daughters and granddaughters beneath the crescent moon. It is the eve of the festival honoring the Greek victory over the Amazons. She tells of Selene, the captured Amazon governess who nursed her and her older sister Europa. Selene feared men because “they exuded self dignity” and were soulless. Selene told the two sisters of the day when her lover, Eleuthera, finally killed her third man in battle. She described how Eleuthera raised her lance with the fresh scalps dangling from it. Eleuthera yelled, “Now … I may take a man between my thighs. But I shall not. Never! But make these my children and by them, and all that follow, preserve the free people!” Thus did Selene school the two Athenian sisters in Amazon lore. Thus did the dames of Athens ask Bone’s parents how such a wild creature could teach their daughters womanly roles, “How will they learn to hold seemly silence?” Thus does Mother Bones pass the tale onto her flock.
She tells of the day when Selene escaped by stealing a horse and putting to death the farm hands that tried to stop her. A few nights after the escape Bones, now eleven years old, awakes to find Europa, now fourteen, gone from their bedroom. Bones runs to their grove, her sister is standing naked in the moonlight. A ritual and a natural flow have occurred. Europa’s horse is saddled and ready. She dresses and mounts. Bones wants to join her but her sister convinces her to stay. Europa rides away to follow Selene. Bones is left alone to handle the men.
This woman who steals her master’s horse, kills men and runs away to freedom agitates the men of Athens. That she is followed by a young Athenian girl only adds quake to the tremor. What man can sleep at night when women are running around out of control? This is Athens, the city that gave man marriage “by which the unchaste nature of the female was at last governed.” Fearing a rebellion of women, they call for a posse. Bones’ favorite uncle, Damon, enters the story. He joins the posse and convinces Bones’ father to take Bones along. The chase is on.
The posse’s initial contact with Selene is hellish. Heads roll and are never found. Selene remains unbridled. The men try to recover from the psychological price extracted when encountering “in the female such ferocity and want of mercy.” Europa is found but again escapes. As the chase continues, flashbacks take the reader to the initial contact between the men of Athens and the women of the steppe, to the time when Antiope was abducted and to the subsequent invasion of Athens. The chase eventually has its denouement. Bones and Europa meet again. Europa hands an item to Bones, an item that has a purpose. Bones learns a secret about herself, her sister and Selene. The story of the chase ends and the reader returns to Athens where Mother Bones closes the tale.
Pressfield, having served in the US Marine Corps, likes to add modernized jargon into his novels. Anachronistic phrases like “fields of fire” and “beaten zone” are used when he describes the Athenian preparation for the defense of Athens. When describing the importance of sisterhood amongst the Amazons, he writes that there is no “I” in their language because there is no individuality in such a clan. Pressfield remembers the days in Marine boot camp when drill instructors ensured that recruits referred to themselves as “the private” rather than as “I.” He creates the “triple-bond called trikona,” between the Amazons. This bond of sisterhood reflects the bond of brotherhood within US infantry squads where men are broken down into smaller teams. These modernizations do not at all disturb the story. They can add a bit of nostalgia and intimacy for certain readers.
In his writing about the soldiers of Athens, Pressfield salutes citizen soldiery. He shows how the farmers and tradesmen of Athens slowly become adept at the profession of arms, some heroically. His battle scenes are stupendous, staccato scenarios. He blends glory and the fetid reality of combat. He is able to present both colorful pageantry and visceral horror. His fighting in Athens is a true urban warfare experience, an experience that frustrates the cavalry of Amazonia, but don’t worry, they know the dismounted fight also. The Amazons in battle are not presented as superheroes. They are simply women who have been raised to fight and kill. Their victories in battle do not happen just because the novel’s title holds their name. Their victories occur because of training, ethos and tactics. Do not think of Pressfield’s Amazons as being designed to pamper reader’s egos or expectations, think of them as what they are in his mythopoeia; an ancient and vicious band of sisters. Even the war-horses in the novel become real with their heart-swelling names like “Soup Bones” and “Sneak Biscuit.” When his horses die or are wounded in battle it is just as horrible as human death. Pressfield strategically sprinkles humor throughout his novel as resting points for the reader’s emotions.
In his redesigning of the myth he changes Theseus’ abduction of Antiope into a consensual elopement. In this way a deeper conflict and a different form of symbolism is created for Eleuthera, Antiope and Theseus. Plutarch had no Eleuthera but Pressfield needs her. When the Greek men and Amazon women initially come into contact, attraction comes into play between many of them. Not for Eleuthera, though. “Eleuthera means freedom” and she considers the Greeks a “thing of evil.” She is appalled when Antiope and Theseus slowly become attracted to one another. After all, Antiope and Eleuthera are lovers, virginal of men, “unpossessed by man.” The triangle of Eleuthera, Antiope and Theseus becomes not only a conflict of love and hate but also one of philosophies and beliefs. There is a linear connection and conflict between Selene and Damon which is also interesting.
The message in the book lies within each main character. They all have something to offer. As Eleuthera says to Theseus when she declares they are bonded in hate, “You who have destroyed us, you of all, Theseus, understood us best and loved us most deeply. You are one of us, and have been always.” That dialogue follows a narration that describes Eleuthera’s beauty as “transcending gender’ and her being as embodying an ideal, “that ideal was freedom.” This narration is the skeleton key of the tome’s message. Though costumed in the stage role of a woman, Eleuthera is Pressfield’s symbolic characterization of freedom. Her hatred is the hatred of oppression. Freedom hates oppression. Eleuthera should not be seen with negative connotations. She is a military leader who cares for her soldiers and a stateswoman who cares for her nation. Discard her costuming. See her essence. Nor be fooled to cheapen Pressfield’s Theseus and Antiope. They too have their validity to offer to the reader. See through the fog of this battle-royale.
So, the flashbacks come to a close. The chase ends. The lore is passed on. Night becomes day. Mother Bones tells her seven daughters and their daughters to come forward and kneel. They perform a ritual. The item Europa had handed to Bones, years ago when they met up after the chase, is used in this ritual. They then prepare to attend the festival where the men of Athens honor their victory over the Amazons. They will attend with pride because, as Mother Bones says of the men, “God has bent them to His will no less than ours.” But before they go, she recites a letter she received from Damon long after the chase ended. In the letter he describes his witnessing of the day the Amazons departed Athens. How the cavalry of women lined up in their military splendor, passed-in-review before the men of Athens and rode away into myth. How darkness closed “upon the wake of the free women, effacing in its fall the furrow of their passage.”
I have no nullifying criticisms of this novel. I became too immersed in Pressfield’s mythopoeia to give a damn about any of that. I recommend this book to … everybody.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Minerva Center, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group