If history has been written by the victors, it’s also generally come from the believers. To balance the record, Whitmarsh joins the theomachists--“battlers of god”—not to disprove divinity but to question the motives, roles, and rules of religion in the ancient world. Early challengers included Socrates, who defied received ideas to advocate independent thought, and Thucydides, who refused to read meaning into signs from the gods. Whitmarsh’s fascinating chronicle reminds us that in classical Greece philosophy filled spiritual needs, and religion was about ritual, not convictions, mortality, not morals, the gods representing humanity’s wish to live forever. Later, rulers were treated as gods for their superhuman (not supernatural) achievements, the first step to the intertwining of religious and state interests in the Roman Catholic empire.
Adrienne Mayor, the Stanford classicist, historian of science, and author of The Poison King, dispels the myths of The Amazons (Princeton, $29.95) and reveals an even more fascinating reality. You won’t miss the sensational fictions of man-slaying, single-breasted archers who scorned marriage and motherhood, as you follow the true warrior women across the Eurasian steppes, from Bulgaria to Mongolia, in this thorough and richly illustrated ethnography. Until recently, most of what we thought we knew about the Amazons came from the ancient Greeks. But that settled and patriarchal culture misinterpreted the practices of the Scythians and other nomadic tribes, seeing female dominance in what was really gender equality. Both men and women hunted, fought, rode horses, and wore pants; everyone had to contribute to ensure the group’s survival in the harsh desert and mountain landscapes. The extent of the Greeks’ misunderstandings has become clear with archeological excavations and technology. Both find that women were buried like heroes, with sumptuous grave goods including gold, weapons, tools, personal hemp-burning kits, horses, and sometimes children.