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Journal of American Folklore 116.460 (2003) 237-238
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Islands of Women and Amazons: Representations and Realities. By Batya Weinbaum. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999. Pp. xxii + 296, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index.)
In Islands of Women and Amazons, Batya Weinbaum intends to show how legends about women living apart from men have served different psychological purposes since antiquity. This promising project is challenging, however, since it treats two different concepts as one—fantasy islands inhabited by peaceful, seductive women, and other islands inhabited by legendary armies of women. Acknowledging their opposition might have clarified the complexities of these two legendary realms and helped to integrate the book.
Part 1 is well researched, with interesting assessments of uses of the ancient Amazon image by feminists, lesbians, male and female novelists, poets, classical scholars, writers such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and theorists such as J. J. Bachofen and Helen Diner. Anti-Amazon quotations from Jack Kerouac and other Beat writers, and from Black Power spokesmen, are especially revealing.
In part 2 Weinbaum's reliance on secondary sources and on opinions by nonclassical scholars in the discussions of Amazons in antiquity leads to errors. For example, the Greek myth of the women of Lemnos cannot be equated with historical legends of Amazons; there was no "Cambridge school of mythic scholarship developing" in the 1980s (pp. 66-67); there was no third-century B.C. Greek historian named Justin (pp. 87, 88); and the myth of Hercules' ninth labor is not a Spartan tale (p. 80). Weinbaum's claim that ancient Amazons had no magical powers (p. 82) is incorrect, and it is not true that they "have no children and shun sexual intercourse with men" (p. 125). The theory that women's lament influenced the Iliad and the Odyssey is already known to classicists and is not original to Weinbaum (p. 105). Moreover, it is unclear how her suggestion that these epics were based on women's antiwar protests relates to Amazons, women who delight in war (chapter 5). The recurrent statement that we know nothing of ancient Amazon lifestyle or childrearing practices is belied by descriptions of Amazon life and parenting in Herodotus and other ancient authors. Ancient art and modern archaeology also contributed to knowledge of Amazon lifestyle. Weinbaum neglects to cite archaeologist Jeannine Davis-Kimball's important discoveries of warrior women buried with weapons, near men buried with household items and infants (for example, Warrior Women of the Eurasian Steppes, Archaeology, 1997:44-48). These Central Asian burials from the time of Herodotus offer powerful evidence of the reality of "Amazons" in antiquity. Josine Blok's 1994 book, The Early Amazons: Modern and Ancient Perspectives on a Persistent Myth (Brill), is another notable omission. [End Page 237]
Chapter 4 is devoted to the debated name "Amazon," often taken to mean that the women cut off one breast. But Weinbaum omits the most logical and likely origin of the name given by an ancient author (Philostratus). Remarkably, she cites classical philologist Mary Bennett's comment on Philostratus' counterexplanation (p. 84), but fails to report what he said. Refuting the false notion that a-mazon meant "without breast," Philostratus clarified that it denoted "not breast-fed," an accurate description of horsewomen whose military lifestyle led them to nourish their babies with mare's milk instead of nursing them. Weinbaum's oversight of this alternative etymology is especially unfortunate, since this significant lifestyle choice by an ancient matriarchy has implications for the author's oft-repeated criticism of the modern patriarchy's devaluation of breastfeeding and her claim that all ancient societies were breast-fed (for example, pp. 84-85).
Part 3 veers into a separate project. Weinbaum conducted fieldwork on a Mexican tourist island that happens to be called Isla Mujeres ("Island of Women"), fieldwork that revolves around her giving birth aided by a Maya midwife. In detailing time spent in a locale with a coincidental name, Weinbaum seeks to "weave in my own personal connection to the archetype," in "an attempt to be holistically integrative" (p. xxii). Yet she...