Adrienne Mayor

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Adrienne Mayor
Adrienne Mayor.jpg
Adrienne Mayor in 2014
Born 1946
Benton, IL
Nationality American
Occupation Historian
Employer Stanford University

Adrienne Mayor (born 1946) is a historian of ancient science and a classical folklorist.

Mayor specializes in ancient history and the study of "folk science": how pre-scientific cultures interpreted data about the natural world, and how these interpretations form the basis of many ancient myths, folklore and popular beliefs. Her work in pre-scientific fossil discoveries and traditional interpretations of paleontological remains has opened up a new field within the emerging discipline of geomythology and classical folklore. Mayor's book on the origins of biological and chemical warfare revealed the ancient roots of poison weaponry and tactics.


She was a copy editor, and printmaker 1980-1996.[1]

Since 2006, Mayor has been a research scholar in the Classics Department and the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology Program at Stanford University.[2]

Mayor has published books and articles on Amazons, unconventional warfare, toxic honey, tattoos in antiquity, smallpox blankets in history and legend, assassination by poisoned garments in Mughal India, fossil-related placenames, and other topics in scholarly journals and popular magazines, including the Journal of American Folklore, Archaeology, "Natural History," MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, and Foreign Affairs.

Her books have been translated into 10 languages and have been featured in documentaries on the History and Discovery TV Channels. She has lectured at the American Museum of Natural History, Boston Museum of Fine Art, Smithsonian, Art Institute of Chicago, Getty Museum, among other venues, and has been interviewed on NPR, BBC, and Coast to Coast AM. Her biography of Mithradates VI Eupator, The Poison King, was a nonfiction finalist for the National Book Award 2009.[3]

Mayor is a regular contributor to the history of science website Wonders and Marvels.[4]

From 2009 to 2015, Mayor maintained a Facebook profile under the name Mithradates Eupator, which became an active network for more than 2,500 people, including international scholars, classicists, archaeologists, linguists, ancient historians, authors, novelists, museum curators, and others who engaged in valuable research and educational conversation. This unique crowd-sourcing site was eliminated by Facebook on May 26, 2015. Mayor replaced it with a new Facebook group


The First Fossil Hunters (2000, reissued with new Introduction 2011)[edit]

Mayor's first book investigated discoveries and interpretations of dinosaur and other large vertebrate fossils in classical antiquity, and presented her, now widely accepted, theory that ancient observations of the fossilized remains of dinosaurs and other extinct species influenced belief in some mythic creatures, such as the griffin and the Monster of Troy.[5] This book is the basis for the popular History Channel show "Ancient Monster Hunters" and the BBC show "Dinosaurs, Myths, and Monsters". A National Geographic children's book by Marc Aronson, The Griffin and the Dinosaur (2014) describes Mayor's hypothesis that ancient observations of Protoceratops dinosaur fossils influenced ancient images and tales of Griffins.

Other highlights include:

  • Greek and Roman discoveries of the huge fossils of mammoth, mastodon, woolly rhinoceros, and other extinct megafauna remains were interpreted and displayed as relics of mythic giants, larger-than-life heroes, and monsters in classical times.
  • In Central Asia, exquisitely preserved Protoceratops dinosaur skeletons, discovered by ancient Scythian nomads searching for gold, influenced the ancient image and folklore about the fabulous gold-guarding griffin.

Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs (2003, revised edition with new Introduction 2009)[edit]

Mayor's second book uncovers the earliest examples of biochemical weapons in the ancient world, to demonstrate that the concept and practice of biochemical warfare occurred much earlier than was previously thought. She presents ancient Greek, Roman, Chinese, African, and Indian historical accounts of the practice of biochemical warfare, using animal, bacterial, poison, and chemical weaponry, including the titular Greek fire. This book has become a favorite of ancient war gamers and was featured in the History Channel show "Ancient Greek WMDs."

Other highlights include:

  • The ancient Greek myth of Hercules dipping his arrows in the poisonous venom of the Lernaean Hydra reveals the deep antiquity of the concept of weaponizing toxic natural forces.
  • Unintended consequences and ethical dilemmas have surrounded the use of biochemical weapons since antiquity

Fossil Legends of the First Americans (2005)[edit]

Mayor's third book gathers Native American accounts of discoveries of dinosaur and other fossils and oral traditions about their meaning, from pre-Columbian times to the present. It has been featured in History Channel MonsterQuest videos. Highlights include:

  • Inca and Aztec ideas about mammoth, giant sloth, and other large fossils
  • Traditions from numerous Native American cultures, including Iroquois, Lenape, Sioux, Blackfeet, Pawnee, Navajo, Apache, Zuni, Crow, Cheyenne, and many others, about a wide range of fossils, from stone shells and petrified wood to the skeletons of giant bears, mammoths, dinosaurs, and marine and flying reptiles.

The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy (2009)[edit]

Mayor's fourth book details the story of the life of Mithradates, leader of the ancient Black Sea kingdom of Pontus, who, in the 1st century B.C., did everything he could to overthrow the Roman Empire. Highlights include:

  • The historic massacre of 80,000 Roman and Italian residents of Anatolia and [the] Aegean islands in 88 BC
  • Mithradates' experiments in potions and poisons and his universal antidote

The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World (2014)[edit]

Mayor's fifth book surveys ancient myths, legends, folklore, art, and archaeology related to warlike women known to the classical Greeks as Amazons. This is the first comprehensive account of warrior women in myth and history from the Mediterranean world to China.



  1. ^ Felicia R. Lee (June 12, 2004). "Digging in Folklore, Unearthing Science". New York Times. 
  2. ^ "Adrienne Mayor". Stanford University. 
  3. ^
  4. ^ "Monthly Contributors – Adrienne Mayor". Wonders & Marvels. 
  5. ^ e.g., Brett-Surman et al. The Complete Dinosaur (2012); Lieberman and Kaesler Prehistoric Life: Evolution and the Fossil Record (2010)
  6. ^ Tim Tokaryk (Nov–Dec 2000). "Explaining Giant Bones". American Scientist. Archived from the original on March 13, 2007. The First Fossil Hunters brings together mythology, art, geology and paleontology in a convincing manner. Because of its vast scope and the author's cross-disciplinary approach, the book may encounter resistance from some readers, but archaeologists and paleontologists with open minds will find their vision of the past broadened. 

External links[edit]

External video
Book Discussion on The Amazons, C-SPAN, August 30, 2014