The Female Warrior Returns… well, sort of

The Inquisitive Inkpot is turning 50 weeks old today!

On this blogging milestone, I thought it would be fitting to publish a follow-up to my most popular post, The Female Warrior: A Figment of the Modern Imagination?

Yes, the title of that post is a question.

You see, when I wrote that article, I erred on the side of skepticism. Having encountered multiple conflicting sources on this topic, I was hesitant to conclude one way or the other regarding the likelihood of women actually fighting alongside men in historical societies. Of course, there were some far-fetched sounding “scientific findings” that claimed to prove the existence of female Viking warriors and such, but it all seemed a bit too nebulous to accept with certainty. Until one of my former professors from Hillsdale College showed me what I was missing.

Although the media sure isn’t good at correcting itself, I endeavor to do a better job at that.

When we publish something, only to learn later that new information has been added or that our initial findings were inaccurate, we would do well to acknowledge it and share what we’ve learned since.

In short, female warriors appear to be a historical reality—not just a legend.

In December of 2019 (just months after publishing that post), the Smithsonian came forward with the discovery of a tomb that housed the remains of four Scythian women alongside battle gear used by warriors. In case you aren’t up on your Scythian history (I certainly wasn’t), this group was a nomadic people that inhabited what we now know as Siberia in ancient times. So basically, think Amazons. The takeaway? These women (or some form of them) actually existed in the ancient world. 

But burial with weapons doesn’t necessarily mean that the women themselves were warriors… does it?

According to DNA tests, it does.

The Scythians weren’t the only ones with fighting women—the Vikings had them, too.

In Sweden, the remains of a Viking warrior discovered in the 1880s, revealed female genetics in a DNA test. This type of revelation has subsequently been replicated with numerous similar graves. In fact, modern facial recognition technology has even paved the way for scientists to reconstruct the faces of some of these women.

As with any groundbreaking archaeological discovery, I think there is room for some level of skepticism. I mean, how many “missing links” turned out to be hoaxes? More than most scientists care to admit! But when you consider the longevity and potency of the female warrior concept in human history, it becomes pretty unlikely that all of these archaeological findings have been misinterpreted.

The implications for my novel The Exile are also quite significant. If these women were in fact warriors, it means that someone like Delta (the narrator) may have lived and died, only to have the reality of her life dismissed by subsequent generations as a myth. Or to her have her life grossly exaggerated and glamorized, as most “warrior princess” books are wont to do. In this sense, I am grateful now that I did not attempt to glamorize or gloss over the harsh realities that a woman like Delta likely would have faced– because to do that would have added to the stereotypical, modernized image of female warriors, which can’t help but inspire skepticism.

But this new knowledge also makes me realize that no amount of research, re-creation, or imagination can ever fully capture the realities lived by people of the past.

What’s your perspective on the phenomenon of woman warriors? Do you think it’s modern society’s attempt to rewrite the past?

Also, do you think this wave in discoveries has to do with feminism’s traction in modern society?

Do you think a more chauvinist society would seek to conceal archaeological evidence of female prominence in history? Please do share your thoughts on this one, especially if you’re acquainted with non-American cultures. I’d love to hear your insights!

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6 Comments on “The Female Warrior Returns… well, sort of

  1. I’ve forgotten the details, though I think I’ve got them around somewhere. Still: I believe that there were female samurai in medieval and early modern Japan, right down to the Edo period when neo-Confucianism became dominant. The name, if my memory’s right, is Onna-bugeisha, translated roughly as ‘female fighter.’ I (think I) remember that they *did* sometimes fight alongside their male counterparts. One lesson to learn from this, perhaps, is that different societies have held very different beliefs about whether women belong in battle. Plato also thought that women who are capable of being ‘guardians’ should train and fight beside *their* male counterparts. Since the Greeks trained naked and since all the guardians were to train together, this argues that he thought gender irrelevant to military training and battle.

    • Wow, that is so interesting! I definitely didn’t know about the female Samurai, or Plato’s view on women in the military for that matter. I had always thought that the Greeks attributed comparatively little value to women in society (at least in contrast to the Romans), but it appears either that is incorrect or Plato was an exception… which would seem fitting, since obviously he was an exception in many ways!

  2. The Scythians (and connected, the Sarmations) both had female warriors for sure. Though it was rare outside of those clans, the Vikings did have a mix, but from what I’ve read it appears that they weren’t as common as the Scythian women. Overall, few women historically tended to fight in battles, but it is fascinating to study those who did.

    • Yes, I bet you know all about this topic with your next series in progress!! It seems that women more often acted as archers than hand-to-hand combat warriors (which makes sense)– not unlike the way a higher proportion of women serve in the air force or military intelligence today than on the frontline. Thanks for adding this insight!

  3. I definitely believe they existed. Some more covert than others. They played different roles, too.

    However, the question you ask about feminism is a really thought-provoking one. It always makes me wonder when a study comes out during a “trendy” time. Do we not look for specific things outside of trendy times? Or do we look for specific things during trendy times? Either way, that just proves the bias. Finding supportive evidence is much easier to find when you’re looking for it.

  4. Well said. That was the reason I was so skeptical at first, because trendy social issues have a way of suddenly unearthing “previously overlooked” evidence for one side or the other. While on one hand, opening up a discussion is bound to generate some authentic research, it also opens the floodgates for the pseudo claims and politicization of a topic. Finding objective facts is very challenging these days!

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