Warrior Women Rising From The Dust of History
Woman Chief. Lozen. Finds Them and Kills Them. Dahteste. Running Eagle. Buffalo Calf Road Woman. Pretty Nose. They are not well-known names like great male warriors often are. But they should be. And, more and more, their names—and those of many other warrior women—are becoming known as their legacies have been uncovered and the truth becomes known.
There were those famous exceptions, female warriors whose achievements simply could not be denied by history:
Boudicea, the Anglo-Saxon queen who fought off the Romans. Joan of Arc. Cleopatra. But so many others have been denied recognition, buried in the dirt of their own graves and the dust of history written almost always by men.
The reality of female warriors around the world, from Native women fighters in North America to warrior women in other areas of the ancient world, has long been denied, even in contemporary times.
The earliest references to fearsome warrior women date back thousands of years, to old Norse, Chinese and Greek mythology. One of the earliest mentions in literature was in Homer’s “The Illiad,” written about 762 B.C., almost 2,800 years ago.
Homer’s account of the Trojan Wars refers to the Amazons as a race of fierce warrior women near the Black Sea who mated with the most formidable of their vanquished male foes and kept the female children. Numerous other Greek writers, including Plato and Herodotus, write of the Amazons, not as mythical creatures, but as flesh and blood.
Even earlier than the ancient Greeks, Chinese writings recorded heroics of many Chinese military leaders and female warriors dating back as early as nearly 4,000 years ago. The famous Terracotta Army of more than 3,000 tomb figures that was unearthed from the Qin Dynasty (221 BC-206 BC) includes both male and female warriors, and many of the female warriors were depicted on horseback. One Chinese text from the 5th century BC states: “not gender, but training, is relevant to the creation of an excellent troop....”
Vaunted warrior women like Tang Sai’erled peasant revolts during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Fu Hao led ten thousand troops into battle during the Shang Dynasty (1300-10BC). Hundreds of years later, in 1936, 200 tortoise shell war shields would be unearthed in Henan Province in China that bore glowing records of her battlefield exploits. Some female military leaders, like Liang Hongyu (around 1129) and Lin Siniang (during the Ming Dynasty 1368-1644) rose from their lowly stations as prostitutes to become mighty warriors who changed the course of Chinese history. And there was Hua Mulan, made famous in the West through the Disney movie, who dressed as a boy and went to war in place of her father, and became one of China’s most honored warriors.
Lore of women warriors in Scandinavia, Britain and throughout Europe, Russia, China, Mongolia, Africa, and North and South America ran like an underground river through historical writings from ancient times to the 20th century. But modern historians, especially in the Victorian era and into the 20th century, dismissed the writings as entertaining tales, mythical narratives the products of quixotic imaginations, decidedly not real.
But, today, we live in an exciting era when research and new discoveries in archeology, anthropology, DNA, scholarly re-examination of historical documents, and oral traditions are revealing new truths that debunk beliefs held for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years.
Just last month, archeologists at the Russian Academy of Sciences announced the discovery of hundreds of graves of female warriors buried with quivers of arrows, battle axes, spears, horse gear and even sacrificed horses. The graves were found in the northern part of the Black Sea, Ukraine, south of Russia. This confirms the writings by the ancient Greeks that this was the heartland of the Amazon warriors they wrote about. One grave contained four warrior women, aged 12 to the mid-50s, all buried with weapons. The oldest skeleton appeared to have a crown, indicating high status, perhaps even a queen, among her troops
Additionally, in the last two years, earth-shattering archeological discoveries have revealed stunning proof that not only did warrior women exist, but that they were common and honored. Burials have been recently uncovered of female Viking warriors, including warrior queens, in England and across all of Scandinavia, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland. Not only that, recent DNA analysis of ancient warrior graves unearthed in the 1800s and always thought to be male, have revealed that many were, indeed, female warriors.
A massive Viking mass grave that was discovered in the 1980s in Derbyshire, England, of nearly 300 warriors had always been believed to be male casualties of the Great Viking Army that attacked early Briton in the 800s A.D. But recent DNA analysis revealed a shocking fact: 20% of the buried Viking warriors were women!
And just last month, archeologists in Russia announced they had uncovered the burial of four warrior women together, ranging in age from 12 to mid-50s, who probably died in battle together. And a grave of a warrior women unearthed in Denmark with a war axe—always thought to be a Viking—has been identified through DNA analysis to be Slavic. She likely came from an area that is now Poland. Likewise, archeologists have found burials of warrior women in Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and parts of Africa that date back thousands of years.
In South America too, the Spanish Conquistadors and priests on the expeditions in the 1500s wrote of the fabled Amazons that were as fierce as the ancient Greek warrior women of yore. A Dominican friar, Gaspar de Carvajal, wrote on the 1541 expedition of Francisco Orellana, of meeting a race of tall warrior women on the Amazon River. “[The women-warriors] came in a small group. It was ten or twelve of them. We saw them. These women have very light skin. Are of tall stature, long hair arranged in braids around the head. They have a strong physique, well trained. They don’t use clothes, living naked and cover only the shames [genitals]. They are skilled with their bows and arrows and one of this women worth ten men.” Carvajal’s account coincides with the writings of many other historic travelers to South America.
More and more, mighty female warrior queens and societies are being discovered in Africa, too, some of them active as recently as the late 1800s, battling European Colonial armies who were overrunning much of the African continent at the time. Such Imperial powers, built on magnificent pomp and circumstance and male warrior worship, were not prone to sing the praises of such black, rebel women.
In fact, female leadership and military expertise dates back to ancient Africa. Of course, there was Cleopatra, who lived from 69-30 BC. And Amanirenas, the black queen of Kush (now Sudan), lived shortly before Christ and ruled for 30 years. She led a five-year war against the Romans and lost an eye. She later negotiated a peace deal that lasted for three centuries. Queen Amina ruled over Zazzau (now present-day Nigeria) and expanded her kingdom during her 34-year reign at the end of the 1500s, in part by introducing metal armor for her forces. The Victorian era in Africa saw several outstanding women military leaders and entire columns of warrior women. Yaa Asantewaa, the Queen mother of mighty Ashanti (present day Ghana) led her forces against the British in 1900. Sarraounia Mangou, the female chieftain of what is now present-day Niger, led her troops against the French in 1899.
The Agoohi of West Africa were a terrifying, all female fight force from the kingdom of Dahomey (now present-day Benin) in the 1800s. Their forces, up to 6,000 strong, went to battle to defend one of the continent’s last independent kingdoms from the French Army. Like their North American Native sisters, they fought against white invaders who threatened their way of life, brought devastating disease, and decimated their people and their cultures.
So, it is not surprising that the names of Native American warrior women are not well known—or known at all—among most Americans. Female valor did not fit the narrative of Manifest Destiny’s fundamental machismo of the 1800s. But modern-day science, new research and closer looks at ancient histories are beginning to give warrior women their due.
The great Chihenne Chiricahua Apache chieftain, Victorio, summed up the might of a female warrior in his praise of his sister and warrior, the famed Lozen: “Lozen is my right hand....strong as a man, braver than most, and cunning in strategy. Lozen is a shield to her people.”
It is not so hard to imagine that, throughout all of history, women serving as warriors was simply a logical extension of being a sister, daughter, wife, mother. Protecting her family. Protecting her people. And, as anyone knows, in the animal kingdom, there is nothing more dangerous than a mother protecting her young.
© 2020 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER