In the time before Homer, the legendary Theseus, King of Athens (an actual historical figure), set sail on a journey that brought him into the land of tal Kyrte, the “free people,” a nation of proud female warriors whom the Greeks called “Amazons.” The Amazons, bound to each other as lovers as well as fighters, distrusted the Greeks, with their boastful talk of “civilization.” So when the great war queen Antiope fell in love with Theseus and fled with the Greeks, the mighty Amazon nation rose up in rage.
Last of the Amazons is not merely a masterful tale of war and revenge. If features a cast of extraordinarily vivid characters, from the unforgettable Selene, whose surrender to the Greeks does nothing to tame her; to her lover, Damon, an Athenian warrior who grows to cherish the wild Amazon ways; to the narrator, Bones, a young girl from a noble family who was nursed by Selene from birth and secretly taught the Amazon way; to the great Theseus, the tragic king; and to Antiope, the noble queen who betrayed tal Kyrte for the love of Theseus.
With astounding immediacy and extraordinary attention to military detail, Last of the Amazon transports readers into the heat and terror of war. Equally impressive is his creation of the Amazon nation, its people, its rituals and myths, its greatness and savagery. Last of the Amazons is thrilling on every page, an epic tale of the clash between wildness and civilization, patriotism and love, man and woman.
[Selene (which means “moon”) is our primary narrator. She’s an Amazon who fought in the Great Battle when the horse nations of the steppe north of the Black Sea (Amazons and their male allies of the Scythians, Maeotians, etc.) invaded Greece and laid siege to Athens. In this excerpt, Selene relates her own history and the history and cosmology of her race.]
I was born not in Amazon country but ten days north, among the Black Scythians. These are not black-skinned, as Ethiopians, but black-maned; fierce fighters, women as well as men. My mother was Cymene, daughter of Prothoe, who had dueled Heracles hand-to-hand and been slain by him before the Typhon’s Gate of Themiscyra, capital of Amazonia. She could speak Pelasgian and Aeolian Greek, and wished me to learn for the people’s sake, though among our race speech, and its handmaiden, writing, are considered stages of degeneration, inferior to action and example, which is the language of Ehal, Nature, and of God. Among my people speech is parsed; even infants babble little, rather are schooled to bridle their tongues, making themselves known as horses and hawks, without sound or sign. It has been my disfigurement, for my race’s weal, to have learned letters among civilized society. Thus I read and write. These arts have severed me from God and from the people.
Men say God made the sky. This is mistaken. God is the sky, for creation may not stand apart from Creator, but all that is, is, and is God. First from the sky issued the thunderbolt and the hailstorm; for a hundred times a hundred thousand years these reigned, solitary. Then came eagle, and falcon, and all creatures of the air. These lived a thousand millennia, never touching earth, for she had not yet been made, but dwelt happily upon the air and within it, which itself was all their sustenance, of food and spirit. They were a part of God and were God.
Sky craved love and brought Earth, our mother, into form, charging her with his bolts of fire and cleaving her belly to bear ocean and mountains and inland sea. All these were great and holy and were a part of God and were God.
From Sky came Horse. In the beginning horse flew, more swiftly than the eagle, and in fact was called by God “steppe eagle,” as she is to this day by the free people. Horse was first to form societies. Before horse’s coming each creature dwelt apart and solitary, in communion only with God and Earth. Horse invented language. Her tongue was holy, God’s own idiom, which speaks in silence, without even the cast of an eye or flick of a mane. This language yet endures, but may be heard by humankind only within the stern clash of battle.
Hear, O People, the peal
of God’s sacred tongue, resounding alone
atop Ares’ anvil, hammered into hearing
by the mawl of valor.
When the people came they were weak and puny. Horse took pity on them; she nursed them on mare’s milk and blood, and raised them as her own. Horse led the clans to water when thirst parched the plains and to vales of fruit and forage when famine bore them hard. When swift fire raced across the steppe, wind-driven, horse commanded the people, Leap upon my back; and bore them at the gallop to safety. Horse taught them to hunt the shy hart and the wild ass, the mountain eland and the gazelle. And when grim famine stalked the land, horse instructed the people: Eat of my flesh and live. Without these boons and others numerous as the lamps of heaven, the race of mortals would have perished a thousand times over. Always horse preserved them. And when the free people in thanksgiving sought to make sacrifice to God, they offered up that which they revered and venerated beyond all, their savior and ally, Mother Horse.
Horse taught the people her ways, to ride and raid; she schooled them to bear winter’s hardship and summer’s travail. Her flesh she donated in every part, from the casings of her organs, with which the free people bore water, to her sinew for bowstrings, her gut to stitch wounds. From her mane the people wove rope and winter cloaks. They used her hide and hooves and even her teeth, grinding these for beads and dyeing them into belts for their maidens’ loins. The people were happy. They ranged God’s estate in freedom, wanting nothing which horse and their own hands could not provide. They would have roamed so forever, had not the gods, by their own discord, intervened.
For that race of humankind which knew not the horse dwelt in misery and abjection, scratching its living as swine do, eating acorns and the roots and grubs of the slough. Prometheus the titan felt sympathy for them. He stole fire from heaven, when Zeus of the Thunderbolt expelled the generation of immortals elder to himself. Prometheus gave fire to man.
Horse feared fire. The free people fled from it as well. But those bog-bound of humankind discovered the arts by which it could be made their patron. Meat they roasted, and grain; they tamed the wild rye and barley and made these to grow at their bidding, imprisoned within their walls, and by the close flame to bake these to bread.
With fire came pride, as Prometheus (whose name meant Forethought) well knew, whose object was the overthrow of heaven. And in his pride man tore the flesh of his mother, the earth, rending her with his beaked ploughs, to sow the seed by which he would stoke his arrogance.
Man knew speech now, and collected into towns, stinking filthy kennels abhorred by God, where not even His holy wind may penetrate, but walls and ramparts keep it out. Man lived in hovels, reeking with smoke and sooty with ash. These made his hair smell, and the dirty rags he wore to clothe his nakedness; his hands stank with it and his skin grew ashy and abraded. The free people drew scent of these creatures and fled, as horses do, from his foul and malodorous approach.
Men’s language succeeded the language of birds and horses and the silent tongue of the free people. The stem of his speech was fear, fear of God and God’s Mysteries. He sought by naming things to tie them down, denature them, and deplete them of the terror they held for him. His words were harsh and disharmonious, and as remote from true language as the screech of bats is from the music of the stars. Yet among our captains it was recognized that those encroaching tribes as Pelasgians and Dorians, Aeolians, Hittites and such, who coveted our land and the herds which ranged them with us, made speech with words and employed these as weapons. So some of our race must learn their tongue to resist and confute them. In each generation a number were chosen. I hated and feared this, for God had cursed me with facility for this art, and I hid each time the war queen’s gaze scanned among the people.
I had a friend Eleuthera (such was her name in Greek) and her I loved beyond moon and stars and breath itself. Among my race, any who displays promise as a leader may not grow to womanhood among her own, lest her mates out of their love for her and fear of seeing her elevated apart from them, work mischief to damp her gifts. So she is sent away to allied tribes, where she is tutored in the arts of war and politics, to return three years after her moon’s blood. When she was nine, and I six, Eleuthera was called to this commission. All light left my heart at this hour and when they came to me, the ministers, calling me to learn the languages of men, I resisted no longer.
The word for “new” in our nation’s tongue—neti—is the same as the word for “evil.” The people’s ways stand unchanged since creation; they believe that any new thing, brought to them from outside their universe, is inherently wicked, destabilizing, bearing potential to overturn society. Even if those who introduce this netome (which means both “new thing” and “curse”) do not intend it as evil, it remains evil by virtue of its novelty. Thus when Theseus came he was reviled for bringing netome, most vehemently by Eleuthera who mistrusted his advent at once and feared its evil for the people. What a Greek might call “law,” nomos, the free people call rhyten annae, “the way we do things” or “how it has always been done.” There is no answer for this. As Eleuthera feared the new thing brought later by Theseus, I, departing now, feared to learn Greek. Here is how it was accomplished:
I was taken out, dressed in doeskin with my hair beaded and parafinned, to the trace which runs from the Cave of Boreas to the sea and along which the traders’ trains pass. A war-schooled mare carrying a colt, that offering called in our tongue a yael, was staked out with me. The traders took me to Trapezus and placed me in a proper household, under whose law I became what they call a sinnouse, a sort of companion to the daughters of the house, who is above a slave but beneath a sister. I learned the Byzantine tongue and Greek, both Aeolian and Ionian, to speak and spell. I have read both Alexis and Cleomenes, and learned the love songs of Phyrro and the ordinances of Xantal.
The family was not unkind to me. The father offered no insult and in fact shielded me as if I were a daughter. But he would not let me ride or run, and when I reached once to a xarissa, the crescent saber of the Byzantines, he sprung and took it from my hand. “No, child, this is not for you.”
I dwelt in the women’s quarter of the residence, learning homecraft and music, to spin and to weave, and to wait upon the masters of the house. Days I studied; nights I lay apart and wept. My heart longed for home. For the sky, which was God, and for the wild earth, our mother. I missed the sweet voices of heaven which spoke in birdsong and the chirrup of the prairie squirrel, and the spirits of thunder and the flood and ebb of the sea of stars. When I caught scent of stable and paddock, the horse-smell racked my soul. I ached for the free land, even her pains, for sharp stones beneath my heel, the sting in the nostrils of the frost-bound plain, and her gifts, the warmth of my Eleuthera’s arms about me in the night.
There is no word for “I” in the Amazon tongue. Nor does the term “Amazon” exist. This is a foreign invention. One says “the daughters”—in our tongue tal Kyrte, the Free. Eleuthera, as I said, is a Greek word; my friend’s true name is Kyrte.
Among tal Kyrte, one says not “I,” but “she who speaks” or “she who answers.” To express herself, one says in preface, “This is what my heart tells me” or “I am moved to speak thus.” One of our race does not perceive herself as an individual apart from others, mistress of a private internal world divisible from the internal worlds of others. When one of my people offers speech in counsel, she does not produce this as a Greek might, from his own isolated disseverment from God; rather summons it from that which comtains her; that is, allows it to arise from that ground which has no name in our tongue but is called by the Thracians aedor (in Greek aether) which is the sky, which is God, that which animates all things and inhabits the spaces between things, understaying and undergirding all.
Before she speaks, one of the free people will pause, sometimes for no small interval. This the impatient Greek or Hittite takes for slow-wittedness or stupidity. It is neither; rather a distinct and disparate manner of viewing the world.
Among the free people, this is taught by no one. No mentor sits the child down, proffering instruction in this art. Rather she perceives it directly, with her own heart, as mother and sisters and all before her. The child draws from this source instinctively and without labor. What is it? What else but that which instructs the gazelle when to migrate and the salmon when to spawn, wind to rise and seasons to turn.
In Trapezus when I heard people use the word “I,” I experienced it as a thing of evil, recognizing its wickedness at once. Even after I learned the hang of it, and came to use it myself, I hated it and felt it a bane which would consume me if I kept its usage too long.
The term of my indenturement, called benidal, was defined in this manner. When the mare (whose worth was my tuition, so to say) foaled, and that foal grew to saddle age, I may school it and ride it home. I could not wait for this, however, but stole another horse and weapons. I fled home, believing I could put this “I” behind me. But it had sunk its malign roots into my heart and contaminated me, that I may never truly return to the daughters, not as I had once been at-one with them.
When one of tal Kyrte misses steppe and sky, she longs not just for their beauty but also their cruelty and indifference. For among the free people the presence of one’s own death, and heaven’s indifference to it, is the keenest and most brilliant pleasure, rendering all precious. This is the supreme mystery, the fact of existence itself, before which one may only stand in silence.
The city people hated and feared this mystery. Against it they had founded their walls and battlements; not so much to repel invaders of flesh, as to hold at bay this unknown, to blot it from their hearing and wipe it from their sight.
This is why they hate tal Kyrte, the free people. Our existence recalls to them that before which they have flown in terror. If we can live with it, in fact live in it, then they must be less than we, to have erected such edifices to its exclusion. That is why they hate us and why they came, Heracles first and then Theseus, to destroy us.
Praise for Last of the Amazons
If books were meat, this one would be fresh venison—strong, sinewy, and richly-flavoured, redolent of tradition and leaving you well aware you've eaten . . . Pressfield writes with a quality and style akin to classical legend, not least in his Homeric, muscular prose . . . Amazons is the past depicted so dark and deep that the ceaseless fighting and atrocities shock as they should in novels like this—but rarely do. I've also not read such convincing accounts of classical warfare in years. Moreover, what could easily have been a matriarchy vs patriarchy feminist tirade in lesser hands, is here a powerful elegy to a world that wasn't to be, as well as a profound dialogue between civilisation and 'savagery.' Defeated before Athens, the Amazon horse tribes file away in column, out of history and into legend, leaving womankind ever after mere 'shells of what God intended' and modernity in charge. Where modernity equals, in Pressfield's, opinion: 'anonymity, mass culture, commercialism, shamelessness, indulgence of sensual desires and worship of money.' A joy to read. FOUR STARS."
'Ah, woman! Ah, man! If only we could undo history, and be one again!'"