In Our Time: The Amazons

The Amazons are a staple of Greek mythology. The In Our Time episode about them talked about the sorts of myths that were told about them, whether there was any factual basis for these myths and how they’ve lasted into the modern day. The experts talking about them were Paul Cartledge (Cambridge University), Chiara Franceschini (University College London and the Warburg Institute) and Caroline Vout (Christ’s College, Cambridge).

The Amazons are mentioned in Homer’s poems in a couple of places, and stories are told about them through into Roman times – so they have about a thousand years of appearing in “current” mythology. The feel was consistent across the centuries, although the details often changed. They were a tribe of warrior women who are always situated somewhere on the periphery of the known world – where exactly depends on what parts of the world are best known. Even down to close to the modern day this is true – the Amazon river is named after this myth because an early European explorer came back with tales of being attacked by warrior women as he travelled down the river.

As well as “the people on the periphery” Amazons are women who live apart from men, and so women fulfil the functions that in “proper” Greek society are filled by men – they are warriors and leaders. Vout made the point that the Amazons are one of the “others” that the ancient Greeks defined themselves against. There are reliefs and art depicting Amazons in the same way and the same places that there are reliefs and art of Centaurs. Centaurs are the barbaric people that the Greeks are not – Cartledge told the myth where the Centaurs attend a human wedding and get drunk & try to rape the female guests, sparking a battle. That’s a display of “how not to behave”, the moral is to be Greek not barbarian. In a similar fashion the Amazons are the feminine against which the Greeks prove their masculinity. All three experts talked about particular myths where a Greek hero goes to visit the Amazons & wins over the Amazons or falls in love & brings home an Amazon Queen. The specific legends they mentioned were Hercules stealing the belt of Hippolyta, Penthesilea and Achilles fighting but falling in love as (or after) Achilles kills her, Theseus bringing Hippolyta back to Athens to marry her.

Franceschini talked about the iconography of the Amazons – they are always shown fully dressed. At first in Greek style clothing, but later in a style of outfit that she described as like a jumpsuit. They carried weapons, normally bows & arrows. They were often (particularly later) shown on horseback.

Herodotus was sure they existed – he places them towards the Black Sea, intermarrying with the Scythians. This is one of the legends as to how they managed to have children, another is that often they are depicted as living on an island where men cannot go and they go out into the world to find a man to become pregnant by. Girls are brought up by the Amazons, boys are killed or returned to their fathers depending on the legend.

Cartledge was keen to say that he thought the myths were complete invention – that the Greeks needed no “kernel of reality” to make up their stories from. But there is archaeological evidence in the area roughly where Herodotus places the Amazons for a culture where 20% of the fighting force were women and Vout (I think it was) said she thought this might be the origins of the initial stories. (And that percentage reminded me of this article about how it shouldn’t be a surprise to find women in fighting forces stretching right through history, yet somehow the stories we tell ignore this.)

The programme ended by very briskly moving us up from Roman times to the modern day, talking about how the myths have changed yet stayed a part of the culture. Franceschini was talking about how Queens were often represented with iconography that recalls that of the Amazons – concealing clothing, weapons, on horseback. She said that the chastity of the Amazons (often one of their virtues in myths) is what was intended to be evoked with this. Right at the end Cartledge name checked Xena: Warrior Princess for a modern representation of Amazons.

I was left at the end wondering about other modern re-workings of the Amazons – there’s a sub-genre of SFF that I tag in my head as “worlds run by women”, that’s feminist science fiction written in the 70s or so. A brief look on wikipedia backs me up that this is actually a thing not my invention. Which is just as well coz I can’t actually remember the names of any specific books I’ve read that precisely fit that category. However, what springs to mind are Sherri S. Tepper’s “The Gate to Women’s Country” and Elizabeth Bear’s “Carnival” which are both more recent than the 70s and more in dialogue with that sub-genre than part of it from what I recall. Anyway, I was left curious what debt that sub-genre owes to the Amazon myth and what is “convergent evolution” so’s to speak.

Henry VII: The Winter King

Gradually catching up with the Tudor Court Season programmes that were recently on the BBC. This weekend we watched the one about Henry VII, which was presented by Thomas Penn. The programme was based on the book Penn has published with the same title – I got it for Christmas 2011 (and read it while I don’t seem to’ve been writing up books).

The programme opened with a brief description of 1485. It’s the tail end of the period now known as the Wars of the Roses & the Yorkist Richard III was on the throne but he’d come to power in a way that had split the York faction. This created an opportunity that the exiled Lancastrian Henry Tudor took advantage of. Henry’s claim to the throne is best described as tenuous – his mother, Margaret Beaufort, was the person through whom his best claim came. She was a direct descendent of Edward III via his son John of Gaunt. However her line wasn’t orginally legitimate – and when John of Gaunt’s children by his mistress were legitimised after he married her it was on the condition that they had no claim to the throne. So that’s not exactly a great claim for Henry Tudor. His father was the son of a man called Owen Tudor and his wife Catherine of Valois (who was the widow of Henry V). Not very useful for claiming the throne either.

But with the Yorkists split and no legitimate Lancastrian candidates for the throne Henry took his chance. He landed at Milton Bay in Pembrokeshire (which is near Milford Haven, so I’ve possibly been near there while on holiday). Penn half-acted out, half-told us about Henry landing his troops and wading ashore then sinking to his knees to pray that God would favour his cause. He didn’t have that many troops with him, and was out numbered by Richard III’s army – his “secret weapon” was his mother’s in-laws (she’d re-married a couple of times since his father died). The Stanleys were powerful and had a relatively large army, but they didn’t completely commit themselves to Henry’s cause at first. When the Battle of Bosworth Field started they held themselves apart from the fight to see which side they wanted to join – eventually they joined in on Henry’s side, tipping the battle to him.

Henry’s reign as Henry VII and the start of the Tudor Dynasty had now begun, but Penn stressed that the way it began was to shape the whole of Henry’s time on the throne. He had usurped the throne on a fairly flimsy pretext, and was therefore paranoid about this happening to him in his turn. The battle had also been turned by nobles choosing which side to join at the very last minute – not an incentive for Henry to trust them or others. Penn highlighted one of Henry’s early official acts, which gives a feel for the sort of man he was and how he intended to rule. After taking the throne Henry proclaimed the start date of his reign as the day before the Battle of Bosworth. This meant that he was declaring that anyone who had fought for Richard III had been committing treason – which he could then forgive them for (or not) and so have a hold over the nobles.

Henry solidified his descendants claim to the throne by marrying Elizabeth of York – the eldest daughter of Edward IV (and niece of Richard III). They very soon had children – an heir (Arthur), a spare (Henry) and a couple of daughters too (Margaret & Mary). The future of the dynasty was secure, and Henry’s main task was to ensure the stability of his own reign so that Arthur would inherit a peaceful & prosperous kingdom (and importantly that he would do so once he was an adult, after Henry had reigned for a long time).

Henry made good use of symbols as propaganda to enhance his reputation. His mother’s symbol, the portcullis of the Beaufort family was used in the decoration of many buildings built during Henry’s reign – a reminder of his claim to royal blood. The familiar Tudor rose was introduced by Henry to combine the white rose of York and the red rose of Lancaster in his new family emblem, a clear statement of “the civil war is over, my family are the true rulers”. He also had gold sovereigns made, the first time these coins had been minted. They were decorated with a stylised picture of Henry on his throne on one side
and a Tudor rose on the other. They weren’t coins that were used in general circulation (too much money) but made a potent symbol of power for Henry to give as gifts to foreign dignitaries & others.

The programme glossed quickly over the several rebellions & internal threats to the stability of Henry’s rule during the first 15 or so years of his reign – I remember the book went into more detail. One that was mentioned was a rebellion Henry put down where a young man named Perkin Warbeck was groomed to impersonate one of the Princes in the Tower (Edward IV’s sons, who were deposed by Richard III and subsequently vanished). The people involved in this conspiracy included William Stanley, who was now Lord Chamberlain & thus a trusted part of Henry’s government. The discovery of such a close advisor’s involvement didn’t help Henry trust his nobles, and the King became more even suspicious of his court.

As Arthur grew towards adulthood Henry managed to negotiate a very advantageous marriage for him – he was married to Catherine of Aragon, an important Spanish princess. After they were married in 1502, the couple went to set up their own household but disaster soon struck. Arthur contracted a virulent illness called the sweating sickness & quickly died. Henry was devastated by this loss, but more was to follow. Elizabeth comforted him with the thought that they were not yet to old to have more children, and soon became pregnant. The baby was born early, and soon died – and Elizabeth herself died shortly afterwards on her 37th birthday in 1503. Henry was incapacitated to the point of illness by this double loss of both heir & wife within a year. He was confined to his bed for 6 weeks, but then recovered and returned to the business of ruling.

However things had changed, and what had already been a paranoid court became full on tyranny. Henry felt that if he wasn’t to be loved by his people, then he would make them fear him. He created a council, called The Council Learned in the Law, who used obscure laws or invented charges against people to levy fines on them. Everyone owed the King money, or had paid to be pardoned of some crime – and the threat was always there that if you displeased the King your payment would no longer be enough. Penn told the story of one family, merchants in London, who were accused of killing a baby and fined an enormous sum of money (£500, which was a lot then). The Council Learned in the Law had no need of proof, and did not try their accused victims in a court of law, so it was pay up or be flung in jail. The man most associated with the abuses of power by this Council was a man called Edmund Dudley, who’d been a commoner who rose to power because Henry promoted him – so he was resented by the nobility even before he was coercing them into paying the King large sums of money.

By the time Henry died in 1509 his regime had become feared & hated, and Henry VIII was looked forward to as the ruler who would put things right. The younger Henry was everything his father wasn’t – good at the outward show of courtly behaviour (like jousting and other knightly activities) and charismatic. He was hailed as the Spring Prince – which is where Penn’s title of “The Winter King” comes from for Henry VII.

A slightly odd experience watching this – I think it’s the first time I’ve watched the programme based on a book after reading the book itself. So I was frequently reminded that the book went into more detail about this or that, but it did convey the central ideas of the book well. Henry VII’s reign is often overlooked when you talk about the Tudors – with both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I being so iconic there’s not often the space in the story for a miserly, paranoid King whose biggest achievement seems to be in not having another succession war at the end of his reign. So it’s interesting to learn more about him and have him held up not just as “Henry VIII’s father” but as a person & ruler with his own significance.

“Nightfall One” Isaac Asimov

The final book by Isaac Asimov on my shelves is another anthology. Nightfall One is the first half of a two volume collection of stories by Asimov, first published in 1969 (as a single volume). There are five stories in the book originally published between 1941 & 1951, with introductions by Asimov. One thing that struck me about these stories are that they have aliens in them, which is relatively unusual for Asimov. They’re also further demonstrations that Asimov is more of an ideas storyteller than a character one. I’d prefer to have both but at his best Asimov’s ideas are good enough to carry the somewhat shallow characters (and it’s not a surprise that the story I think is the weakest in this volume also has the least “Big Idea” to it).


This is (as Asimov points out in his introduction) often regarded as Asimov’s best story – he finds this a bit irritating because he wrote it in 1941 and feels that surely with practice he should’ve improved. The story is set on a planet which orbits one of a cluster of six stars. Every couple of thousand years there’s an eclipse when there’s only one sun in view and the people who have evolved there see darkness & the stars for the first time. Civilisation collapses, the people return to barbarism & the cycle begins again. Technically these are aliens, but it’s more an exploration of what people & society would be like if this was the case than any attempt at creating aliens. It is the best story in this collection, in my opinion. Partly because of the idea itself and the way Asimov plausibly extrapolates what effect never seeing darkness would have on society. And partly because of the little touches that show just how hard it can be to overcome cultural & biological conditioning with your intellect, like the various characters trying to insist that they themselves aren’t affected by darkness. And how even when you think you’re thinking outside the box you can still be blinded by your assumptions – like the scientists who are going to photograph these “stars” they’ve theorised the existence of talking about how there might even be as many as a dozen of them because they have no comprehension of the scale of the universe.

“Green Patches”

Second best story of the collection, for me. They’re actually ordered in publication order, but for me it was almost in order of quality as well. This is a Bradbury-esque tale of a human spaceship that has gone to an another planet and an alien lifeform has stowed away on the return trip with intent to convert Earth life to the gaia-esque existence that the alien life has. The captain of the previous spaceship to investigate this planet had blown up his ship when he realised that the alien lifeforms were converting his crew. Best bits are the segments from the perspective of the alien, which is satisfyingly not-human. It’s disguised as a piece of wire & is having to hold itself back from rescuing these “life fragments” as it thinks of earthlife – it is trying to wait till it reaches Earth.


A future where we have interstellar travel, and have met five alien species. All share several characteristics that humans don’t, and in fact humans are more like diseased aliens (in some specific ways). This is one of those “awful truth” stories – by the end of the story we find out why humans are different & it’s not because we’re wonderful 😉 The protagonist is Rose Smollett, a biologist in her mid-30s, and also central to the story is her husband. She’s only been married a bit under a year, and is still (mostly happily) surprised her husband should’ve wanted to marry her. This personal plot intertwines with the interstellar politics, and by the end of the story we & Rose know the “awful truth” about her marriage, too. Very very 1950s social mores, in a way that dates the story so much that is has to be “alternate history” rather than “set in the future”. But still reasonably good.

“Breeds There a Man … ?”

This is a “what if” story where the universe is not quite the way it seems – makes me think of some of the 1930s stories in Before the Golden Age where the planets are eggs or other such flights of fantasy. This isn’t as extremely fantastical but it’s still in that sort of category. The main character is an atomic physicist but we never get his perspective, instead it’s all told via the various police & mental health professionals he encounters when he has a breakdown. He’s figured out what the world really is, and is driven to suicidal thoughts because of it. I liked it better than “Hostess” – although the “awful truth” here is equally as implausible I thought it was a cooler idea to base a story round.


For me this was the weakest of the stories in the anthology. Several men are on a spaceship when it’s captured by an alien race with whom humanity are at war. They aren’t comrades, but are flung together by circumstance so there is much tension and eventually one of the least likely of the men to do something heroic manages to carry out a daring plan & they rescue themselves. As I said in my intro paragraph to this post wasn’t really a “Big Idea” to this one so all there was to carry it was the characters, but sadly I found them shallow & the story boring.