Great Women Warriors in History, Myth, Legend, and Pop Fiction

The 1990's saw a renewed interest in the concept of the female warrior. From the controversy of women in combat roles in the US military to the popularity of television shows like "Xena: Warrior Princess", the concept of women in what has been usually considered a man's role is receiving greater scrutiny than ever before. Ancient mythology has many references to women in combat, and many researchers are suggesting that these may be more than just stories. In this respect the dividing line between what we might call "true" history and myth & legend is becoming increasingly blurred.

If women were once more readily accepted in such positions of leadership, honor, and sacrifice in the past, one wonders why this acceptance seemed to have largely died out and been forgotten.

A recent find in London has sparked further debate on the issue of women in combat. The remains of what may be a gladiatrix (female gladiator) are suggested, but the case is far from proven. For more information, visit The Classics Technology Center .

The only well-documented case of an actual army of female warriors are the "Amazons" of the kingdom of Dahomey.

For additional biographical information on historical figures, see Distinguished Women of Past and Present - Military and Warfare

Tomyris, Queen of the Massagetae, Defeats Cyrus the Great in Battle

"Tomyris, when she found that Cyrus paid no heed to her advice, collected all the forces of her kingdom, and gave him battle. Of all the combats in which the barbarians have engaged among themselves, I reckon this to have been the fiercest. The following, as I understand, was the manner of it:- First, the two armies stood apart and shot their arrows at each other; then, when their quivers were empty, they closed and fought hand-to-hand with lances and daggers; and thus they continued fighting for a length of time, neither choosing to give ground. At length the Massagetae prevailed. The greater part of the army of the Persians was destroyed and Cyrus himself fell, after reigning nine and twenty years. Search was made among the slain by order of the queen for the body of Cyrus, and when it was found she took a skin, and, filling it full of human blood, she dipped the head of Cyrus in the gore, saying, as she thus insulted the corse, "I live and have conquered thee in fight, and yet by thee am I ruined, for thou tookest my son with guile; but thus I make good my threat, and give thee thy fill of blood." Of the many different accounts which are given of the death of Cyrus, this which I have followed appears to me most worthy of credit." Herodotus, The Histories

For more, see The History of Herodotus

Artemisia of Halicarnassus

"Of the other lower officers I shall make no mention, since no necessity is laid on me; but I must speak of a certain leader named Artemisia, whose participation in the attack upon Greece, notwithstanding that she was a woman, moves my special wonder. She had obtained the sovereign power after the death of her husband; and, though she had now a son grown up, yet her brave spirit and manly daring sent her forth to the war, when no need required her to adventure. Her name, as I said, was Artemisia, and she was the daughter of Lygdamis; by race she was on his side a Halicarnassian, though by her mother a Cretan. She ruled over the Halicarnassians, the men of Cos, of Nisyrus, and of Calydna; and the five triremes which she furnished to the Persians were, next to the Sidonian, the most famous ships in the fleet. She likewise gave to Xerxes sounder counsel than any of his other allies. Now the cities over which I have mentioned that she bore sway were one and all Dorian; for the Halicarnassians were colonists from Troezen, while the remainder were from Epidaurus. Thus much concerning the sea-force." - Herodotus, The Histories, describing the naval forces that Xerxes was bringing against the Greeks during the Persian War.

For more, see The History of Herodotus

Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni

"While Suetonius was thus occupied, he learnt of a sudden rebellion in the province. Prasutegus, king of the Iceni, after a life of long and renowned prosperity, had made emperor co-heir with his own two daughters. Prasutegus hoped by this submissiveness to preserve his kingdom and household from attack. But it turned out otherwise. Kingdom and household alike were plundered like prizes of war, the one by Roman officers, the other by Roman slaves. As a beginning, his widow Boudicca was flogged and their daughters raped. The Iceni chiefs were deprived of their hereditary estates as if Romans had been given the entire country. The king's own relatives were treated like slaves." - Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome, XIV, 30 (M. Grant translation)

"Egged on by such mutual encouragements, the whole island rose under the leadership of Boudicca, a lady of royal descent - for Britons make no distinctions of sex in their appointment of commanders. They hunted down the Roman troops in their scattered posts, stormed the forts, and assaulted the colony itself, which they saw as the citadel of servitude..." - Tacitus, The Agricola, 16 (H. Mattingly & S.A. Handford translation)

"Boudicca drove around all the tribes in a chariot with her daughters in front of her. 'We British are used to women commanders in war,' she cried. 'I am descended from mighty men! But now I am not fighting for my kingdom and wealth. I am fighting as an ordinary person for my lost freedom, my bruised body, and my outraged daughters. Nowadays Roman rapacity does not even spare our bodies. Old people are killed, virgins raped. But the gods will grant us the vengeance we deserve! The Roman division which dared to fight is annihilated. The others cower in their camps, or watch for a chance to escape. They will never face even the din and roar of all our thousands, much less the shock of our onslaught. Consider how many of you are fighting - and why. Then you will win this battle, or perish. That is what I, a woman, plan to do! - let the men live in slavery if they will.' - Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome, XIV, 34 (M. Grant translation)

Athena

Then Athena, child of Zeus whose shield is thunder,
letting fall her supple robe at the Father's threshold -
rich brocade, stitched with her own hand's labor-
donned the battle-shirt of the lord of lightning,
buckled her breastplate geared for wrenching war
and over her shoulders slung her shield, all tassels
flaring terror - Panic mounted high in a crown around it,
Hate and Defense across it, Assault to freeze the blood
and right in their midst the Gorgon's monstrous head,
that rippling dragon horror, sign of storming Zeus.
Then over her brows Athena placed her golden helmet
fronted with four knobs and forked with twin horns,
engraved with the fighting men of a hundred towns.
The onto the flaming chariot Pallas set her feet
and seized her spear - weighted, heavy, the massive shaft
she wields to break the battle lines of heroes
the mighty Father's daughter storms against.

Iliad 5: 841-857 (Fagles translation)

 

Goddess of wisdom and battle. While there are more than one account of the birth of Athena, the one that has been most commonly passed down is the one where she springs forth, fully formed, from the forehead of Zeus. Such a creation myth smacks of anti-feminist propaganda, used to justify the existence of a woman with attributes generally reserved for men. The Ministry of Truth would have been proud of this re-write. More sensible is that the original legend was born in a region of Lybia where, according to Herodotus, the virgin-priestesses still fought for the honor of becoming High-priestess though armed combat (sticks and rocks). As part of the ceremony, one priestess was paraded in full armor. Although Herodotus is often unreliable, this "explanation" sure makes a lot more sense than the Zeus drivel.

For more, see The History of Herodotus

Perhaps one can judge the lengths to which this (sexist) rationalization has been taken by looking at the trial of Orestes. In Greek myth, Orestes was tried for the murder of his mother, Clytaemnestra, who had murdered his father (her husband), Agamemnon. (Agamemnon had married her by force, gone off for 9 years to fight in the Trojan War, and had come back with another women, Cassandra). In the following passage, the words inside the braces [ ] are mine, as is the emphasis added through the use of boldface."In due course the trial took place, Apollo appearing as council for the defence, and the eldest of the Erinnyes [Furies, who dealt with matricide and patricide (although in some traditions, they dealt only with the former)] as public prosecutrix. In an elaborate speech, Apollo denied the importance of motherhood, asserting that a woman was no more than the inert furrow in which the husbandman cast his seed; and that Orestes had been abundantly justified in his act, the father being the one parent worthy of the name. When the voting proved equal, Athene confessed herself wholly on the father's side, and gave her casting vote in favor of Orestes. Thus honorably acquitted, he returned in joy to Argolis, swearing to be a faithful ally of Athens so long as he lived. The Erinnyes, however, loudly lamented this subversal of the ancient law by upstart gods; and Erigone [daughter of Clytaemnestra by her new hubby Aegisthus, whom Orestes also killed] hanged herself for mortification." - Robert Graves, The Greek Myths 114.n.

To the credit of Homer and various mythographers, she is at least given a somewhat better treatment than Ares. After she aids Diomedes in defeating Ares in battle at Troy, the sniveling god of war complains to Zeus:

"And we must all battle you -
you brought that senseless daughter into the world,
that murderous curse - forever bent on crimes!
While all the rest of us, every god on Olympus
bows down to you, each of us overpowered.
But that girl -
you never block her way with word or action, never,
you spur her on, since you, you gave her birth
from your own head, that child of devastation!" (Iliad 5: 1011-1018)

"But Zeus who marshals storm clouds lowered at a dark glance
and let loose at Ares: "No more, you lying, two-faced...
no more sidling up to me, whining here before me.
You - I hate you most of all the Olympian gods.
Always dear to your heart,
strife, yes, and battles, the bloody grind of war.
You have your mother's uncontrollable rage - incorrigible,
that Hera - say what you will, I can hardly keep her down.
Hera's urgings, I trust, have made you suffer this." (Iliad 5: 1027-1035)

For more information on the mythology surrounding Athena, see the web site by Carlos Parada.

Pentheseleia, Queen of the Amazons

"The Amazon Queen Pentheseleia, daughter of Otrere and Ares, had sought refuge in Troy from the Erinnyes of her sister Hippolyte (also called Glauce or Melanippe), whom she had accidentally shot, either while out hunting or, according to the Athenians, in the fight which followed Theseus's marriage to Phaedra. Purified by Priam, she greatly distinguished herself in battle, accounting for many Greeks, among them (it is said) Machaon, though the commoner account makes him fall by the hand of Eurypylus, son of Telephus. She drove Achilles from the field on several occasions - some even claim that she killed him and that Zeus, at the plea of Thetis, restored him to life but at last he ran her through, fell in love with her dead body, and committed necrophily on it there and then. When he later called on volunteers to bury Pentheseleia, Thersites, a son of Aetolian Agrius, and the ugliest Greek at Troy, who had gouged out her eyes with his spear as she lay dying, jeeringly accused Achilles of filthy and unnatural lust. Achilles turned and struck Thersites so hard he broke every tooth in his head and sent his ghost scurrying down to Tartarus."

Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, 164.a

This account of Achilles and Pentheseleia is not found in the Iliad, and is taken from a variety of other sources. Graves explains the origin of the story thus (The Greek Myths, 164.1):

"Pentheselieia was on of the Amazons defeated by Theseus and Heracles: that is to say, one of Athene's fighting priestesses, defeated by the Aeolian invaders of Greece (see 100.1 and 131.2). The incident has been staged at Troy because Priam's confederacy is said to have comprised of all the tribes of Asia Minor. Pentheseleia does not appear in the Iliad, but Achilles's outrage of her corpse is characteristically Homeric, and since she is mentioned in so many Classical texts, a passage about her may well have been suppressed by Peisistratus's editors. Dictys Cretensis (iv. 2-3) modernizes the story: he says that she rode up at the head of a large army and, finding Hector dead, would have gone away again, had not Paris bribed her to stay with gold and silver. Achilles speared Pentheseleia in their first encounter, and dragged her from the saddle by the hair. As she lay dying on the ground, the Greek soldiers cried: 'Throw this virago to the dogs as a punishment for exceeding the nature of womankind!' Though Achilles demanded an honorable funeral, Diomedes took the corpse by its feet and dragged it into the Scamander."

The scene of Pentheseleia's death at the hands of Achilles is found on numerous pieces of painted pottery. Especially well-known is the vase done by Exekias, and a drinking cup by an artist known simply as the "Pentheseleia Painter".

Camilla, Queen of the Volscians

"Square in his path, her Volscian squads behind her,
Camilla came, hard-riding warrior queen.
Before the gates she lept down from her mount,
And her whole troop, taking the cue, dismounted
At the same instant slipping to earth."

Aeneid XI, 677-681 (Fitzgerald translation)

"Amid the carnage, like an Amazon,
Camilla rode exultant, one breast bared
For fighting ease, her quiver at her back.
At times she flung slim javelins thick and fast,
At times, tireless, caught up her two-edged axe.
The golden bow, Diana's weapon, rang
Upon her shoulders: yes, when she gave ground,
Forced to retreat, with bow unslung in flight
She turned and aimed her arrows. At her side
Rode chosen comrads, virgins all: Larina,
Tulla, Tarpeia shaking her bronze axe.

Aeneid XI, 881-891 (Fitzgerald translation)

Radigund

The Knight Artegall First Learns of Radigund

Being desirous (as all Knights are woont)
Through hard aduentures deedes of armes to try
And after fame and honour for to hunt,
I heard report that farre abrode did fly,
That a proud Amazon did late defy
All the braue Knights, that hold of Maidenhead,
And vnto them wrought all the villany,
That she could forge in her malicious head,
Which some had put to shame, and many done be dead.

 

The cause, they say, of this her cruell hate,
For the sake of Bellodant the bold,
To whom she bore most feruent loue of late,
And wooed him by all the waies she could;
But when she saw at last, that he ne would
For ought or nought be wonne vnto her will,
She turn'd her loue to hatred manifold
And for his sake vow'd to doe all the ill
Which she could doe unto Knights, which now she doth fulfill.

 

For all those Knights, the which by force or guile
She doth subdue, she fowly doth entreate
For she doth them of warlike armies despoile,
And clothe in womens weedes: And then with threat
Doth them compell to worke, to earne their meat,
To spin, to card, to sew, to wash, to wring;
Ne doth she giue them other things to eat,
But bread and water, or like feeble thing,
Them to disable from reuenge aduenturing.

 

The Faerie Queene, V, iv, 29-31, Edmund Spenser (Roche and O'Donnell Edition)

 


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According to legend, there existed in various parts of the ancient world societies that consisting solely of warrior women. They are mentioned throughout the writings of authors living during the the times of Classical Greece. In some cases they were protrayed as "man-killers", while many others paint a picture of female societies that simply did not wish to be subjected to male domination. In one such story that comes down to us from Herodotus, one band of Amazons even went as far as to marry into a group of male Scythian warriors, provided that they would not be compelled to give up their long-held customs of hunting, riding, and participating in battle. It has been suggested (see, for example, the footnotes by John Marincola to the Selincourt translation) that Herodotus uses this tale to explain the martial skills of the Sauromatian women of his time, who would have been their descendants. Whether the Amazons existed as separate bands or not is less relevant than the fact that warrior women (Amazon or Sauromatian) seem to have existed.

Amazons were sometimes described as having removed one breast, supposedly because it interfered with their use of the bow and arrow. Robert Graves, in The Greek Myths (100.1), offers an explanation on the origin of this belief, the term "Amazon", and of their supposed depiction on classical buildings and artifacts (words enclosed in ‘[ ]’ are my own):

“…‘Amazons’, usually derived from a and mazon, ‘without breasts’, because they were believed to sear away one breast in order to shoot better (but this notion is fantastic), seems to be an Armenian word, meaning ‘moon-women’. Since the priestesses of the Moon-goddess [Artemis, in Greek mythology; Diana in Roman] on the South-eastern shores of the Black Sea bore arms, as they did in the Lybian Gulf of Sirte (see 8.1), it appears that the accounts of them which travelers brought back confused the interpretation of certain ancient Athenian icons depicting women warriors, and gave rise to the Attic fable of an Amazonian invasion of the river Thermadon. These icons, which were extant in Classical times on the footstool of Zeus’s throne at Olympia (Pausanias: v.15.2), at Athens on the central wall of the Painted Colonnade (Pausanias i.15,2), on Athene’s shield, in the sanctuary of Theseus, and elsewhere (Puasanias i.17.1), represented either the fight between the pre-Hellenic priestesses of Athene for the office of High-priestess [see the section above on Athena] or a Hellenic invasion of Attica and the resistance offered by them. There will also have been armed priestesses at Epheseus — a Minoan colony, as the name of the founder Cresus (‘Cretan’) suggests — and in all the cities where Amazon’s graves were shown. Oreithyia — or Hyppolyte, is supposed to have gone several hundred miles out of her way through Scythia; probably because the Cimmerian Bosphorus — the Crimea — was the seat of Artemis’s savage cult, where the priestesses dispatched male victims (see 116.2).”

Brave Women Warriors of Greek Myth: An Amazon Roster

Warrior Women of Eurasia Abstract of an article suggesting that the Amazon warriors of ancient myths may have actually existed.

The legend of Princess Nafanua of Samoa offers a Pacific islander version of a warrior woman.

Native American tribes also have stories of a “Warrior Maiden”. Among these are the Oneida. In the southwest, a different story is told, and commemorated with a Warrior Maiden Kachina.


For more modern versions of this archetype: continue here.


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Last updated June 12, 2006