Heroic women in fiction are not ‘wondrous’. Brave, smart, resourceful, strong – these have always been standard female attributes. It’s the stories that changed, or rather, how the narrative is framed.
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 celebrated 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. And 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. Ammianus Marcellinus wrote as if still nursing bruised shins: ‘A whole troop of foreigners would not be able to withstand a single Gaul if he called his wife to his assistance, who is usually very strong, and with blue eyes; especially when, swelling her neck, gnashing her teeth, and brandishing her sallow arms of enormous size, she begins to strike blows mingled with kicks, as if they were so many missiles sent from the string of a catapult.’
Stories going back 5000 years are rife with bold women and female war deities, their role sometimes combined with that of protectress, mother or lover. Mythologies of the Middle East, Mediterranean, Egypt, South-East Asia, Celtic Europe and Scandinavia all acclaim powerful warrior-women or goddesses of war. The Irish hero Cúchulainn was taught martial arts by a woman, Scáthac nUanaind of Skye, who gave only him the deadliest of 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.
With these archaeological finds and such a widespread occurrence of so many myths extolling the authority of women, it seems reasonable to conclude that, whether in fact or symbol, they reflect historical 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’?
Narratives emerge from a complex tapestry into which victors wove history in their own favour and the strong subverted the stories of the weak. One significant motif is that ancient cultures have been translated, interpreted, and rewritten by men party 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.
In Irish mythology, Medb (Maeve) Lethderg of Leinster was a goddess of war, love and sovereignty. She alone legitimised a king’s claim to rule through ritual marriage; Medb ‘married’ at least nine kings of Ireland. Such stories may be misunderstood in later times. Most old Celtic tales survived only because Christian monks gathered fragments of tattered manuscripts and snippets of oral history and rewrote them for a purpose – to teach Christianity by co-opting cultural heroes. They knew the power of stories and they anchored the new doctrine in beloved traditions.
In the Irish epic, The Táin, or Táin Bó Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), Queen Medb of Connaught, accompanied by her husband Ailill, leads her warriors on a raid against Ulster, defended by Cúchulainn; cattle raids were a way of life and this was in pursuit of a prized bull. 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. And she was an independent woman who exercised her right to offer lovers her ‘friendly thighs’.
However, when scribes reconstructed the story in the eleventh century, they denied Medb’s skills as a warrior. They interpreted the raid as female pride and greed to settle a domestic dispute with Ailill; 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. And they probably confused her with Medb Lethderg, goddess of war and sovereignty, because they made much of Queen Medb’s many husbands and lovers, but they called her a whore not a goddess.
A primal fear predating scribal misogyny emerges in The Táin when Morrigan, a deity of the battle field and a temptress, tries to seduce Cúchulainn. He spurns her: “It wasn’t for a woman’s backside I took on this ordeal.” The ambivalence of fighting men towards women as objects of desire potentially dangerous to male virility is ancient. In many cultures, sex is tabooed in times of combat. A precaution emulated by rugby coaches today for the same reason.
Celebrating women warriors is not to glorify war; it demonstrates, for example, that the brave dedication of armed Kurdish Women’s Protection Units 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 in their enemies.
One of the delights of re-examining history as I created A Biography of Story, A Brief History of Humanity was finding the hidden her-story. With new scientific tools such as genomics and through fresh perspectives that challenge old assumptions, women can regain the stories of their past and script their own futures.
Trish Nicholson is a social anthropologist and author of narrative non-fiction and short stories. She lives in New Zealand. For details, follow @TrishaNicholson on Twitter and read her articles at www.trishnicholsonswordsinthetreehouse.com
About the book: A Biography of Story, A Brief History of Humanity is an entertaining cultural history of the power of stories in the comedy and tragedy of human affairs, from prehistory to the digital age, seen through the eyes of storytellers around the world. From Bedouin lovers, Homer, and Aesop, to Celtic bards, Icelandic skalds, and the troubadours, some of the many storytellers featured will be familiar to you, others from Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific may be fresh discoveries.
This is our own human epic, beginning with the oral tales of our foraging ancestors, the emergence of writing, the great migrations, the age of exploration and the invention of printing through to the industrial revolution and the modern era. And what of Story’s future…?
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