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Throughout history, countless women have been robbed of the acknowledgement for the roles they played in many historical events.
Just by reading an average history book, you would think that everything revolves around men and that all battles were won and lost by men. This method of recording and retelling history positions women as bystanders in the great historical evolution of mankind.
In this article, we’ll be looking at some of the greatest warrior women in history and folklore that simply refused to be side characters.
Nefertiti (14th Century B.C.)
The story of Nefertiti begins around 1370 BCE when she became the ruler of the 18th dynasty of Ancient Egypt with her husband Akhenaten. Nefertiti, whose name means ‘The Beautiful Woman Has Come’, created a complete religious turnaround in Egypt together with her husband. They were responsible for developing the monotheistic cult of Aton (or Aten), the worship of the sun disc.
The way that Nefertiti is treated in Egyptian history is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that she appears more prominently than her husband. Her image as well as the mention of her name can be seen everywhere, on sculptures, walls, and pictograms.
Nefertiti was displayed as a loyal supporter of her husband Akhenaten but she has been portrayed separately in various depictions. In some, she’s seen sitting on a throne of her own, surrounded by captured enemies and displayed in a king-like manner.
It’s not entirely clear whether Nefertiti ever became a pharaoh. However, some archaeologists consider that if she did, she potentially camouflaged her femininity and opted to sport a male name instead.
The circumstances around Nefertiti’s death also remain a mystery. Some historians believe she died of natural causes, while others claim that she died of the plague that was at one point decimating the Egyptian population. However, this information has so far not been verified and it seems only time can unravel these mysteries.
Regardless of whether Nefertiti outlived her husband or not, she was a powerful ruler and an authoritarian figure whose name still echoes centuries after her reign.
Hua Mulan (4th – 6th century A.D.)
Hua Mulan is a popular legendary heroine that appears in Chinese folklore whose story is told in many different ballads and musical recordings. Some sources say that she is a historic figure, but it’s possible that Mulan is an entirely fictional character.
According to the legend, Mulan was the only child in her family. When her aged father was asked to serve in the army, Mulan bravely decided to disguise herself as a man and take his place since she knew that her father was not fit to enlist.
Mulan was successful in hiding the truth about who she was from her fellow soldiers. After years of distinguished military service in the army, she was honored by the Chinese emperor who offered her a position of high office under his administration, but she declined his offer. Instead, she chose to return her hometown and reunite with her family.
There are many films about the character of Hua Mulan, but according to these, her identity was revealed before she completed her service in the army. However, some sources say that she was never found out.
Teuta (231 – 228 or 227 B.C.)
Teuta was an Illyrian queen who commenced her reign in 231 BCE. She held lands populated by Illyrian tribes and inherited her crown from her husband Agron. Her name is derived from the Ancient Greek word ‘Teuta’, which translates to ‘mistress of the people’ or ‘queen’.
After the death of her spouse, Teuta went on to expand her reign over the Adriatic area in what we know today as Albania, Montenegro, and Bosnia. She became a serious challenger for the Roman dominion over the region and her pirates interrupted Roman trade in the Adriatic.
The Roman Republic decided to crush Illyrian piracy and curtail its effects on the maritime trade in the Adriatic. Although Teuta was defeated, she was allowed to maintain some of her lands in modern-day Albania.
Legend has it that Teuta finally ended her life by throwing herself form the top of the Orjen mountains in Lipci. It’s said that she committed suicide because she was overcome by grief at having been defeated.
Joan of Arc (1412 – 1431)
Born in 1412, Joan of Arc became one of the most celebrated characters in French history even before she turned 19. She was also known as the ‘Maid of Orléans’, considering her iconic involvement in the war against the English.
Joan was a peasant girl who had strong faith in the divine. Throughout her life, she believed that she was guided by a divine hand. With the help of the ‘Divine Grace’, Joan led the French army against the English in Orléans where she claimed a decisive victory.
However, just one year after the triumphant battle at Orléans, Joan of Arc was captured and burned at the stake by the English, who believed that she was a heretic.
Joan of Arc is one of the rare women that have managed to evade the misogyny of historical interpretation. Today, she’s noted in literature, painting, sculpture, plays, and films. It took the Roman Catholic Church almost 500 years to canonize her and since then Joan of Arc maintains her rightful place as one of the most cherished people in French and European history.
Lagertha (A.C. 795)
Lagertha was a legendary Viking shieldmaiden and a ruler in the areas belonging to modern-day Norway. The first historical accounts of Lagertha and her life come from the 12th-century chronicler Saxo Grammaticus.
Lagertha was a strong, fearless woman whose fame eclipsed that of her husband, Ragnar Lothbrok, the legendary king of the Vikings. According to various sources, she was responsible for ensuring victory for her husband in battle not once, but twice. Some say that she may have been inspired by Thorgerd, the Norse goddess.
Historians still debate whether Lagertha was an actual historical character or just a literal personification of Nordic mythological female characters. Saxo Grammaticus describes her as a faithful wife to Ragnar. However, Ragnar soon found a new love. Even after they divorced, Lagertha still came to Ragnar’s aid with a fleet of 120 ships when Norway was invaded because she still loved her ex-husband.
Grammaticus adds that Lagertha was very much aware of her power and possibly murdered her husband seeing that she could be a fit ruler and that she did not have to share sovereignty with him.
Zenobia (c. 240 – c. 274 AD)
Zenobia ruled in the 3rd century AD and reigned over the Palmyrene Empire that we now know as modern-day Syria. Her husband, the King of Palmyra, managed to increase the power of the Empire and create a supreme power in the Near East region.
Some sources state that Zenobia launched an invasion on Roman possessions in 270 and decided to take many parts of the Roman Empire. She extended the Palmyrene Empire towards Southern Egypt and decided to secede from the Roman Empire in 272.
This decision to secede from the Roman Empire was a dangerous one because Palmyra existed as a Roman client state up until that particular point. Zenobia’s intent to foster her own empire turned sour as the Roman Empire fought back, and she was captured by the emperor Aurelian.
However, the information about Zenobia leading a revolt against Rome has never been verified and remains a mystery to this day. Upon the collapse of her independence campaign, Zenobia was exiled from Palmyra. She never returned and spent her final years in Rome.
Zenobia is remembered by historians as a developer, who stimulated culture, intellectual and scientific work, and hoped to create a prosperous multicultural and multi-ethnic empire. Even though she was ultimately unsuccessful against the Romans, her fight and warrior-like nature continues to inspire us to this day.
The Amazons (5th – 4th century BCE)
The Amazon tribe is a thing of legends and myths. Described as a fearless tribe of powerful warrior women, the Amazons were considered equal if not even more powerful than men of their time. They excelled at fighting and were considered to be the bravest warriors one could confront in a battle.
For centuries it was believed that the Amazons did not exist and were merely a fragment of creative imagination. However, recent archaeological findings indicate that woman-led tribes did exist at the time. These tribes were named “Scythians” and they were nomadic tribes that left traces all over the Mediterranean.
The Scythian women were found in graves adorned with various weapons like arrows, bows, and spears. They rode horses into battle and hunted for food. These Amazons lived alongside men but were considered the leaders of the tribes.
Boudica (30 AD – 61 AD)
One of the fiercest, most dignified, and striking warriors who fought to keep Britain free from foreign control, Queen Boudica is remembered for her struggle against the Romans. Boudica was the queen of the Celtic Iceni tribe who became famous for leading a revolt against the Roman Empire in 60 CE.
Boudica married the King of Iceni, Prasutagas, when she was just 18 years old. When the Romans invaded southern England, nearly all the Celtic tribes were forced to submit to them, but they allowed Prasutagas to remain in power as their ally.
When Prasutagas died, the Romans took over his territories, looting everything on the way and enslaving the people. They flogged Boudica in public and violated her two daughters.
According to Tacitus, Boudica vowed to take her revenge on the Romans. She raised an army of 30,000 soldiers and attacked the invaders, claiming the lives of more than 70,000 Roman soldiers. However, her campaign resulted in failure and Boudica died before she was captured.
The cause of Boudica’s death is not exactly clear, but it is plausible that she committed suicide by poisoning herself or that she died from an illness.
Triệu Thị Trinh
Triệu Thị Trinh was a fearless young warrior who was known for raising an army at the age of 20 to fight back against the Chinese invaders. She lived during the 3rd century and became legendary due to this resistance against the Chinese. She’s also known as ‘Lady Trieu’, but her actual name is unknown.
On battlefields, Triệu is described as a dominant, glorious female figure, adorned with yellow robes and carrying two mighty swords while riding an elephant.
Although Triệu managed to liberate the territories and drive back the Chinese army on many occasions, she was finally defeated and chose to end her life. She was only 23 years old at the time. She is revered not only for her bravery but for her unbreakable adventurous spirit that she saw unfit to be moulded in mere housework.
Harriet Tubman (1822-1913)
Not all warriors carry weapons and fight in battles or have extraordinary talents that set them apart from the average person. Harriet Tubman, born in 1822, is famous for being a fierce abolitionist and a political activist. She was born into slavery and suffered greatly at the hands of her masters as a child. Tubman finally managed to escape in 1849 to Philadelphia, but she decided to return to her hometown Maryland and save her family and relatives.
Her escape and decision to go back marked one of the most glorious moments in American history. After her escape, Tubman worked hard to rescue the enslaved people of the South, developing vast underground networks, and establishing safe houses for these people.
During the American Civil War, Tubman served as a scout and a spy for the Union Army. She was the first woman to lead an expedition during the War and managed to liberate over 700 enslaved people.
Harriet Tubman has gone down in history as a woman who fought for equality and fundamental rights. Sadly, during her life, her efforts were not officially recognized, but today, she remains one of the greatest representatives of freedom, courage, and activism.
Our histories and cultural narratives are filled with stories of brave women that went against all odds to claim their seat at the table. These stories remind us of the unbreakable power of female determination and strength.
While often these qualities are disregarded and side-lined by historians and storytellers who prefer to narrate stories limited to male warriors and leaders, it’s important to remind ourselves that history is not exclusively driven by men. In fact, it can be seen that behind so many major events, brave women steered the wheels of history.