In large part as a consequence of the feminist movement, historians have focused a great deal of attention in recent years on determining more accurately the status of women in various periods. Although much has been accomplished for the modern period, premodern cultures have proved more difficult: sources are restricted in number, fragmentary, difficult to interpret, and often contradictory. Thus it is not particularly surprising that some earlier scholarship concerning such cultures has so far gone unchallenged. An example is Johann Bachofen’s 1861 treatise on Amazons, women-ruled societies of questionable existence contemporary with ancient Greece.
Starting from the premise that mythology and legend preserve at least a nucleus of historical fact, Bachofen argued that women were dominant in many ancient societies. His work was based on a comprehensive survey of references in the ancient sources to Amazonian and other societies with matrilineal customs—societies in which descent and property rights are traced through the female line. Some support for his theory can be found in evidence such as that drawn from Herodotus, the Greek “historian” of the fifth century B. C., who speaks of an Amazonian society, the Sauromatae, where the women hunted and fought in wars. A woman in this society was not allowed to marry until she had killed a person in battle.
Nonetheless, this assumption that the first recorders of ancient myths have preserved facts is problematic. If one begins by examining why ancients refer to Amazons, it becomes clear that ancient Greek descriptions of such societies were meant not so much to represent observed historical fact—real Amazonian societies—but rather to offer “moral lessons” on the supposed outcome of women’s rule in their own society. The Amazons were often characterized, for example, as the equivalents of giants and centaurs, enemies to be slain by Greek heroes. Their customs were presented not as those of a respectable society, but as the very antitheses of ordinary Greek practices.
Thus, I would argue, the purpose of accounts of the Amazons for their male Greek recorders was didactic, to teach both male and female Greeks that all-female groups, formed by withdrawal from traditional society, are destructive and dangerous. Myths about the Amazons were used as arguments for the male-dominated status quo, in which groups composed exclusively of either sex were not permitted to segregate themselves permanently from society. Bachofen was thus misled in his reliance on myths for information about the status of women. The sources that will probably tell contemporary historians most about women in the ancient world are such social documents as gravestones, wills, and marriage contracts. Studies of such documents have already begun to show how mistaken we are when we try to derive our picture of the ancient world exclusively from literary sources, especially myths.
21. The primary purpose of the passage is to
(A) compare competing new approaches to understanding the role of women in ancient societies
(B) investigate the ramifications of Bachofen’s theory about the dominance of women in ancient societies
(C) explain the burgeoning interest among historians in determining the actual status of women in various societies
(D) analyze the nature of Amazonian society and uncover similarities between it and the Greek world
(E) criticize the value of ancient myths in determining the status of women in ancient societies
22. All of the following are stated by the author as problems connected with the sources for knowledge of premodern cultures EXCEPT:
(A) partial completeness
(B) restricted accessibility
(C) difficulty of interpretation
(D) limited quantity
(E) tendency toward contradiction
23. Which of the following can be inferred from the passage about the myths recorded by the ancient Greeks?
I. They sometimes included portrayals of women holding positions of power.
II. They sometimes contained elaborate explanations of inheritance customs.
III. They comprise almost all of the material available to historians about ancient Greece.
(A) I only
(B) III only
(C) I and III only
(D) II and III only
(E) I, II, and III
24. Which of the following is presented in the passage as evidence supporting the author’s view of the ancient Greeks’ descriptions of the Amazons?
(A) The requirement that Sauromatae women kill in battle before marrying
(B) The failure of historians to verify that women were ever governors of ancient societies
(C) The classing of Amazons with giants and centaurs
(D) The well-established unreliability of Herodotus as a source of information about ancient societies
(E) The recent discovery of ancient societies with matrilineal customs
25. It can be inferred from the passage that the probable reactions of many males in ancient Greece to the idea of a society ruled by women could best characterized as
(A) confused and dismayed
(B) wary and hostile
(C) cynical and disinterested
(D) curious but fearful
(E) excited but anxious
26. The author suggests that the main reason for the persisting influence of Bachofen’s work is that
(A) feminists have shown little interest in ancient societies
(B) Bachofen’s knowledge of Amazonian culture is unparalleled
(C) reliable information about the ancient world is difficult to acquire
(D) ancient societies show the best evidence of women in positions of power
(E) historians have been primarily interested in the modern period
27. The author’s attitude toward Bachofen’s treatise is best described as one of
(A) qualified approval
(B) profound ambivalence
(C) studied neutrality
(D) pointed disagreement
(E) unmitigated hostility