The world is happy to celebrate powerful women – as long as they are fictional. From the Greeks’ mythical Amazons and the Valkyries of Icelandic sagas, to Wonder Woman striding heroically across our cinema screens, powerful women are the stuff of fantasy, the exception. But women have always been brave, smart, resourceful, strong – it’s the narratives that changed – and new findings are revealing women’s power as fact.
The recent discovery by modern genome research, that a high-status Viking warrior buried with two war horses in Birka, Sweden, was a woman, is welcomed by many. But some scholars are still reluctant to let go the long-held assumption that such a powerful figure must have been a man. This is not an isolated find.
Early in the 1990s, the skeletons of female warriors were excavated at Pokrovka in the southern Urals, in two-thousand-year-old burial mounds of an ancient nomadic people. They were Sarmatians, affiliated to the Scythians – much-feared mounted ‘barbarians’ of the steppes who swept across Central Asia to Persia (Iran) around 400 BC and caused the Greeks a lot of grief.
Celtic women in Gaul also fought in battle and earned a fierce reputation among Roman soldiers according to Ammianus Marcellinus: ‘A whole troop of foreigners would not be able to withstand a single Gaul if he called his wife to his assistance … [and] she begins to strike blows mingled with kicks, as if they were so many missiles sent from the string of a catapult.’
In Irish mythology, the hero Cúchulainn was taught martial arts by a woman, Scáthac nUanaind of Skye, who gave only him the deadliest of all weapons, the gae bolga. In fifth-century Arabia, the expectation that women could master military skills is evident in the stories of Bedouin warrior-poet, ’Antarah ibn Shaddad al-’Absi. In his love story of Khaled and Djaida, both trained in mounted combat, but though Khaled is the champion warrior of his tribe, he never defeats Djaida who wins every tournament while gaining Khaled’s love and respect.
Stories going back 5000 years are rife with bold women and female war deities, their role sometimes combined with that of hunter, protectress, mother or lover. Myths and legends of the Middle East, Mediterranean, Egypt, South-East Asia, Europe and Scandinavia all acclaim powerful warrior-women or goddesses of war. Perhaps such stories are rooted in pre-historical facts yet to be discovered.
African history is rich in powerful women. The ancient Meroitic Kingdom of Kush (present day North Sudan) was ruled during several periods by a succession of warrior queens reigning in their own right, leading armies to defend their territory and at one stage forcing Roman aggressors to negotiate a deal to their advantage; the largest pyramid in Kush was dedicated to a female ruler, Queen Shanakdakheto. The sixteenth-century Muslim state of Zazzau (in north-central Nigeria) was ruled for 34 years by Queen Amina, a Hausa and skilled military leader who led her cavalry to expand the nation her mother had created.
A century later in what is now part of Angola, Nzinga Mbende, Queen of Ndongo and Matamba led her warriors to several victories against Portuguese attacks. The West African Fon nation of Dahomey (modern Benin) deployed an entire regiment of women notoriously ferocious in executing the states expansionist ambitions and, later, proving tough adversaries to French colonial forces. And the great chief Shaka Zulu owed much of his military skill to his mother, Nandi, a warrior in her own right.
With new archaeological finds and such a widespread occurrence of so many myths, legends and historical records extolling the authority of women, it seems reasonable to conclude that, whether in fact or symbol, they reflect a past reality: societies in which the balance of power between men and women was more equal than now. So what happened to convert these images of powerful females into narratives of women as war trophies, victims and the weaker sex? Why is a strong resourceful woman with brains and wit cast as such a rarity she is a ‘Wonder Woman’?
The world’s narratives have emerged from a complex tapestry into which victors wove history in their own favour and the strong subverted the stories of the weak. One significant warp in this tapestry is that ancient cultures have been translated, interpreted, and rewritten by men bred to a different social order. In a later, Islamic adaptation of the Khaled and Djaida story, the heroine is still adept in martial arts, but the hero unseats her with the butt of his spear, winning the tournament and taking her as his bride.
In the pre-Christian Irish epic, The Táin (or The Cattle Raid of Cooley), Queen Medb of Connaught heads her army on a raid against Ulster in pursuit of a prized bull. Such raids were a way of life, a popular means of warriors gaining fame and fortune. Medb was a brave fighter, wielding a sword from her chariot, adjusting her battle plans in action and refusing to retreat until her forces were irretrievably defeated.
However, when Christian missionary scribes reconstructed the story in the eleventh century, they denied Medb’s military skills. They interpreted the motive for the raid as female pride and greed; her war strategy and bravery they recast as a woman’s cunning and stubbornness; Connaught’s defeat they blamed, erroneously, on a woman’s weakness.
Women’s narratives have also been lost by neglect. Past translators of Homer’s Odyssey, who portrayed women as war trophies, whores or powerless wives have all been male and their influence on Western education has been pervasive. Not until last year was this ancient Greek epic translated into English for the first time by a woman, Emily Wilson, who gives Helen of Troy, Penelope and other female characters true feminine voices and motives (the first female translation since the 1716 translation into French by Anne Dacier).
The thousands-strong women’s regiment in Dahomey was chronicled by incredulous European observers in the nineteenth century, but only one full-length work has been published in English since and a man undertook the task: Stanley Alpern, Amazons of Black Sparta: The Women Warriors of Dahomey (2011).
Celebrating women warriors is not to glorify war; it demonstrates, for example, that today, the brave dedication of armed Kurdish Women’s Protection Units in the Middle East is not an aberration but part of a tradition of women playing an equal role in protecting their people, respected by their communities as they strike fear into their enemies. Nor do female ‘warriors’ necessarily need to bear weapons. In South Africa’s Kruger National Park, the Black Mambas, all-female wildlife ranger units recruited from local communities, patrol throughout the park unarmed, yet their presence has significantly reduced the number of rhinos killed by poachers.
One of the delights of re-examining world history and literature to create my recent cultural history of storytelling was finding the hidden her-story. With new scientific tools such as genomics, fresh perspectives that challenge old assumptions and modern publishing opportunities, women can regain the realities of their past and script their own futures. We need more ‘herstory’ from all corners of the world.[Originally published in The Village Square Journal @VillageSquarejo]
You might also like an earlier post: Invisible Women in the History of Literature
Dr Trish Nicholson is the author of A Biography of Story, A Brief History of Humanity