The Huk Rebellion: Guerrilla Amazons

Elena Poblete, Huk Commander

Elena Poblete, Huk Commander

Welcome to Amazon Month Week 5! Sorry for missing last week, things got crazy busy. But we’re back, and ready to wrap up Amazon Month! I’d like to give a shout-out to Rejected Princesses; without their coverage of Kumander Liwayway, I would never have known about such a perfect story for Amazon Month!

Though most of these stories have been somewhere from old to ancient, the Huk Amazons are quite recent!

First, a brief history of the Philippines.

Originally, the islands were settled by peoples coming from all over the Asian continent; who blended together with varying degrees of success. In the 16th century, Ferdinand Magellan reached the region as a representative of Spain; and Spanish colonization began several decades later. This was not an easy task; along with the difficulties which usually accompany colonization efforts, Spain also had to fight off other Asian nations who wanted the islands for themselves. However, Spain prevailed, becoming the unquestioned ruler of the Philippines (named after then-prince and eventual King Philip II) in the early 17th century.

Though the Spanish weren’t exactly gentle colonists, a side effect of their activities in the Philippines meant the islands gained a sense of national identity and cultural unity where none had existed before. Of course, this was largely because native Filipinos from various ethnic groups banded together to resist the Spanish. Rebellions flared up with some regularity; and though the Spanish were able to put down most of them, they eventually lost. In 1898, the Philippines declared themselves independent from Spain.

The Philippines in geographic context.

The Philippines in geographic context.

Spain took a unique approach to the problem. They had just lost the Spanish-American War, and as part of the peace treaty, handed the islands over to America. The United States proceeded to thoroughly ignore Philippine claims to independence, dismantled the nascent republic, and fought for three years to assert their ownership of the territory. Eventually, the First Republic of the Philippines folded, and America assumed rule.

However, the Americans were much more moderate than the Spanish. Filipino culture, especially cinema, flourished in the first part of the 20th century. In 1936, the Americans began to grant the Philippines some measure of independence, and planned to eventually bring self-rule to the nation. However, the advent of World War II, and the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, severely disrupted these plans.

And thus began the Hukbalahap Rebellion, often shortened to Huk Rebellion.

Huk Flag; a smaller version of the Russian Communist Flag.

Huk Flag; a smaller version of the Russian Communist Flag.

Communism had spread to the Philippines, and many peasant farmers, tired of being oppressed by landlords and dreaming of owning land themselves, embraced the ideology. And most of the islands’ residents, especially those of fighting age, had grown up under American rule and were largely pro-American (or, at least, had friendlier feelings towards Americans than the Japanese, who were not kind to the islands during occupation).

So when the staunchly imperialist Japanese invaded and proceeded to commit several famous atrocities. the peasant farmers decided to rebel. They formed what was called in Tagalog Hukbong Bayan Laban sa mga Hapon, which means something roughly like ‘National Anti-Japanese Army,’ or ‘People’s Army Against the Japanese.’ A difficult phrase for most English-speakers to get their tongue around, so it’s often shortened to the Hukbalahap or Huk Rebellion.

The army officially formed in 1942, under the command of a four-person military committee – including Felepa Culala, also called Dayang-Dayang.

A Huk woman shows an American GI how it's done.

A Huk woman shows an American GI how it’s done.

Felepa led one of the first armed attacks against the Japanese. She formed her own resistance group before the official founding of the Hukbalahap, and when several of the men under her command were taken prisoner by collaborators, Felepa organized and led a successful mission to rescue them. When the Japanese army tried to retaliate, Felepa was there and ambushed them, driving the Japanese back to their outposts. Felepa led other missions, largely attacks on collaborators and policemen, where she captured weapons and ammunition for her cause. Inspired by Felepa’s example, many women left home to join her.

According to some estimates, approximately 10% of the Huk warriors were women (by way of comparison, approximately 14.5% of the US Armed Forces are women). And these women were fighters. They were not content to stay back and camp and work as nurses – these women hiked into the jungle, stole supplies from downed planes, disrupted supply lines and cut off lines of communication for the Japanese forces. Felepa even rescued some American soldiers from the infamous Bataan Death March!

The local media absolutely loved the Huk women, calling them amazonas. While these women weren’t actively conducting missions into the jungle, they were dedicated to making life better for the average Filipino or Filipina. Women (and men) in Huk camps were taught to read, and land controlled by the Huk army was distributed equally to member farmers.

In addition to Felepa, known amazonas are:

Celia Mariano and husband Bill Pomeroy

Celia Mariano and husband Bill Pomeroy

Celia Mariano

Born into the property-owning class, Celia was moved by compassion when seeing how her family’s tenants lived. She joined the Filipino Communist Party shortly before the war; and successfully convinced her family to donate two of their farms for use as Huk training camps. When the former editor of the Huk newspaper was captured and tortured to death by collaborators, Celia bravely stepped up and ensured the newspaper continued to operate. In 1944, she was elected to the central governing committee of the national Communist Party, and dedicated many of her post-war efforts to improving the lives and status of women in her home country, including establishing trade schools.

Kumander Liwayway

A former beauty queen, Kumander was known to do her makeup and nails before a raid. When challenged over her supposed vanity, Kumander said she was fighting for the right to be herself. And fight she did; leading up to 100 Huk soldiers in guerrilla raids.

Kumander Liwayway

Kumander Liwayway

Filomena Tolentino

Growing up impoverished in Luzon, Filomena had to leave school after the third grade. Under Japanese occupation, she lived under the continual threat of rape by Japanese soldiers. Joining the Huk rebellion not only allowed Filomena to escape this threat, but also to complete her education. Though Filomena did not fight, she nevertheless risked her life by spreading anti-Japanese propaganda. This she did by going from village to village, and using performance to communicate revolutionary ideas to the people living there. Only Japanese ignorance of her native language kept her safe.

Marcosa de la Rosa

The daughter of the ‘Bandit King’, named because he would so often incite peasant farmers to rebel against their landlords, Marcosa grew up with political activism in her blood. As a Huk amazona, Marcosa worked in propaganda. She also became part of the intricate and highly effective courier network, carrying messages between Huk camps (and often traveling through occupied territory to do it).

By Vina A. Lanzona

By Vina A. Lanzona

However, the end of the war did not necessarily mean the end of the Huk rebellion. Though the Philippines gained independence on July 4, 1946, many members of the Huk army strongly disapproved of the new government. The Huks, remember, had a strong Communist foundation, and many rebels saw the new government as simply continuing many of the problems the Huks fought against.

And so the army transitioned, from a group of guerrillas resisting foreign occupation to a group of guerrillas instigating civil rebellion. As one might imagine, this did not endear them at all to the ruling class – but crackdowns only empowered the Huk army.

In the end, it was war weariness which brought an official end to the Huk rebellion. With the war over, few members of the guerrilla army had the heart to keep living and fighting in the jungle – especially because so many of them missed their families. Slowly, Huk fighters moved back to the cities. Some, such as Celia Mariano, were imprisoned (though she was eventually pardoned on the condition she relocate; Celia spent the rest of her life advocating for working-class causes from England).

However, this does not mean they gave up the fight entirely. Surviving Huk women often became political or academic leaders, and many notable Filipina feminists of the 60s, 70s and 80s got their start as rebels (Dayang-Dayang, sadly, was executed by her own people in 1943 for an anti-Communist ideology and accusations she was using the Huk rebellion to enrich herself). Though they did not get the Communist government they wanted, the Huk amazonas did improve life for the Filipino peasant and working classes; especially for women.

Corazon Aquino, 11th President of the Philippines and 1st woman President of an Asian nation.

Corazon Aquino, 11th President of the Philippines and 1st woman President of an Asian nation.

Though life for women in the Philippines is certainly challenging (the Philippines ranks 77 out of 139 on the Global Gender Equality Index), Filipinas do enjoy relatively more independence than their counterparts in other Southeast Asian countries. And while this is partly due to long-standing cultural traditions (placing the family as the center of Philippine culture and the woman as center of her family), some credit must be given to a robust feminist movement which found its voice fighting in the jungle, and has helped inspire subsequent waves of Filipino feminist thought.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find much about the Huk amazonas in pop culture. Not in English language pop culture, anyway – I can only hope that these women show up in the art and culture of the Philippines more often than they appear in American culture!

And with that, Amazon Month concludes! We’ll return to our regularly scheduled roster of amazing women next week – if you have a woman you’d like to see featured, use the Suggestion Box or leave a comment below! Also leave feedback if you like themed months like Amazon Month; I’m considering doing a Women of World War Two month sometime in the summer or fall.


Amazons of the Huk Rebellion: Gender, Sex and Revolution in the Philippines

Celia Mariano Pomeroy Obituary

Felepa Culala

Flight of the Filipina Phoenix: The Rise of Pinay Feminism

Rejected Princesses

Tales of the Amazonas

The Making of the Philippines

Mino: The Dahomey Amazons

A Mino

A Mino


Welcome to Amazon Month, Week 3!

Today, we’re going to talk about a group of women often referred as the ‘Dahomey Amazons.’

As hard as I tried, I could not find the personal history of any of the Dahomey Amazons, and found only one or two names. So I’m going to depart a little bit from the format of this blog, and talk about a group of women rather than an individual woman.

The Fon are an ethnic group of Africans, living mostly in what is now Benin and Nigeria (the coastal region along the southwestern curve of Africa). In or around 1600, a Fon leader founded what would eventually become known as the Kingdom of Dahomey. Being situated on the western coast of Africa, Dahomey was uniquely positioned to deal with European slavers. And this they did, becoming both fabulously wealthy and deeply resented by the neighboring African kingdoms.

To meet the demand for slaves, Dahomey developed both a martial culture and an economy largely based on fighting other nations, kidnapping civilians and then selling them to Portuguese, Dutch or English slavers (The fact that Africans participated in the slave trade should in no way be taken as an excuse for slavery as a whole. There’s no justification for slavery, and readers should keep in mind that, as awesome as the Dahomey Amazons were, their lifestyle was made possible by slavery).

Dahomey, in red

Dahomey, in red

Originally, the Dahomey Amazons were called the gbeto, and were dedicated not to war, but instead to hunting elephants. According to legend, they were complimented by King Agaja after a particularly successful hunt; wherein the commander of the gbeto said she appreciated the compliment, but would much rather hunt the most dangerous game. The king was so impressed by both her talent and her boldness that he agreed.

At first, the gbeto worked as palace guards and the personal protectors of the king. Many places in the royal compound were off-limits to men after nightfall, but the gbeto could come and go as they pleased. Around 1708, as the Dahomey military underwent a general expansion, the gbeto evolved into a woman-only squad of crack fighters.

A Mino with her spear and machete.

A Mino with her spear and machete.

At this point, I have to point out, as I often do on this blog, that much of what we know about the Dahomey doesn’t come from these women themselves, but rather from fascinated European traders and missionaries who wrote about their African travels. The parallels between these women and the classical Amazons were obvious to a 17th century European, and so they are often known as the Dahomey Amazons. However, that’s not what they called themselves. A woman who fought for the King of Dahomey called herself a Mino (a Fon word meaning ‘our mothers’ or ‘my mother’), and so that is the word I’ll use from now on.

Mino fought with a variety of weapons, but the most common were the spear, the musket and the machete. These weren’t the basic machetes you can find in a home and garden store – Mino machetes were reported to be three feet long, razor-sharp and required both hands to wield.

The Mino recruited from all quarters – capable-looking women taken in slave raids could become Mino rather than being sold, and a Dahomey man upset with a headstrong wife or daughter could also send her to the Mino.  Some of these headstrong women probably headed their fathers or husbands off at the pass, and went off to join the Mino of their own accord. For their part, the Mino didn’t really care – if you were a woman, if you were strong and if you were willing to fight to the absolute death, they’d take you.

Part of the joining rite for the Mino was a symbolic wedding to the Dahomey king. As a result, the Mino were forbidden to have children or marry another man (if caught with a lover, both of them were destined for a very quick execution). If we take the words of the European men who wrote about them at face value, the majority of the Mino were virgins, but I personally call shenanigans on that. The Mino weren’t a small squad of hand-picked women; at their height, they were thousands. Doubtless most Mino obeyed the order to not have children, but I can’t believe they weren’t as randy as any other group of soldiers. Get six thousand women in an army together, at least a few of them are going to come up with a few creative ways to enjoy sex without risking pregnancy.

A  Mino with the head of a slain enemy.

A Mino with the head of a slain enemy. Note the lack of shoes.

It should be noted that the actual joining rite for the Mino has since been lost to history; but the symbolic marriage aspect and the vows to which the Mino were beholden was something generally known. As such, I feel safe in assuming that, whatever else happened when a young woman became one of the Mino, a symbolic wedding was part of it. As this tradition developed, the Mino also became known as ahosi, meaning ‘king’s wives’ (though the word ‘ahosi‘ in specific can sometimes mean anyone in direct service to the king).

Mino training was not easy, and started as young as eight years old. The Mino understood they would constantly be judged against their male counterparts, and were absolutely determined to surpass them in every way. The Mino were disciplined, rigorous, and brutal. Part of their training exercises consisted of giving weapons to captured enemies, and then literally hunting them through the jungle. To the bloody death. Barefoot.

One missionary describes watching an exhibition, in which a group of fearless Mino run across thorns (still barefoot) and engage in a mock battle. The winning women were given thorn belts, which they wore proudly and with no outward sign of pain. Other writers describe watching teenage Mino recruits perform executions, an exercise intended to desensitize them to violence and killing.

Though the demands of Mino life were difficult, the benefits often made up for it. Mino women were wealthy, sharing in the spoils of war and receiving payment for their service in gold, tobacco, alcohol and even an allotment of slaves. A Mino could walk proudly down the street and expect everyone to get out of her path. Even touching a Mino was dangerous – if she didn’t kill you herself, you may very well face execution for your temerity.

A group of Mino, having their picture taken during a visit to France.

A group of Mino, having their picture taken during a visit to France.

The Mino motto was Conquer or Die, and they meant it. Only the king himself could order a Mino to retreat from battle; if she ran from the front lines for any other reason, she would be summarily executed by one of her sisters on the spot.

Though some have interpreted the existence of the Mino to indicate that Dahomey culture was markedly gender equitable, other evidence suggests this might not be entirely the case. Dahomey society still had strict gender divisions. Though the Mino enjoyed a high social status, they were forbidden marriage and family life (a rule not imposed on male soldiers). There is some evidence that the Mino did not even consider themselves fully female – often, the Mino would refer to themselves as men. This probably isn’t an indication that the Mino should be considered transmen; but rather that the Mino took a unique approach to gender performativity.


In a nutshell, gender among the Dahomey was progressive in some ways (career options did exist for women) but regressive in others (the career options were limited, women had to choose between career and family). In this way, the Dahomey were much like any other complex society of the time; women had access to some areas but were barred from others.

Mino demonstrating their skills.

Mino demonstrating their skills.

It’s also important to consider the context I mentioned above: Dahomey’s economy relied on slavery. Their practice of conquer-kidnap-sell (which was something all African nations in the region engaged in at the time) meant that not only did the nation of Dahomey constantly need to protect itself from angry neighbors, the entire region dealt with the effects of male depopulation, as millions of men were sold into slavery. These unique pressures created room for the rise of the Mino.

At their height, the Mino were fully half of the Dahomey military strength, and the commander of the Mino directly advised the king on which nation to conquer next.

Unfortunately, though the Mino were unmatched among the other nations of Africa, they could not compete with the military might of 19th century Europe during the Scramble for Africa. In 1890, they tangled with several French settlements. At first, the Mino won several easy victories; as the French soldiers defending the fort were not prepared and had a hard time attacking women. Eventually, however, the French remembered they had Gatling guns and cannonballs, and attacked the Mino from the safety of their gunboats. Despite their overwhelming bravery, the Mino had no hope when it came to such weapons – their military technology was significantly behind Europe’s.

Mino as part of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show

Mino as part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show

However, they made the French work for it. All told, Dahomey and France would fight twenty-four battles for Dahomey territory, and only advanced French technology ensured their victory. Had the Mino and their male counterparts been able to meet their opponents with equal weapons, likely the battles would have gone far differently.

But Dahomey fell to France in 1894, and only 50 Mino, out of nearly 4,000, survived. The French even passed strict laws once they achieved control, banning women from military service or even owning weapons. The majority of those women sailed for America, where they ended up joining Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

As far as we know, the last surviving Mino, a woman named Nawi, died in 1979.

The Mino deserve a unique place in history – for though women have always fought, they’ve often done so while integrated into largely male units. Most female-only military units have been supportive, or last only for the duration of the current conflict. But the Mino existed as a distinct female military tradition of front-line fighters; something which cannot be found anywhere else (The Elk Scraper Society I mentioned in the entry for Buffalo Calf Road Woman is the only thing I’ve found which comes close).

The Mino occassionally show up in pop culture here and there (such as a unit in DLC for the the digital game Empire: Total War), but they have yet to make a significant appearance in fiction, film and TV. However, the rising school of Afro-centrist historical revisionism mentioned last week loves the Mino as much as they love Calafia; so here’s hoping these women get their own property soon!


Amazons of Black Sparta: The Warrior Women of Dahomey

Badass of the Week

From Eve to Dawn: The  Masculine Mystique

Smithsonian Magazine


Wives of the Leopard: Gender, Politics and Culture in the Kingdom of Dahomey

Calafia: Amazon of the Americas

Califia, Disney

Calafia, from the Spirit of California mural at Disney’s California Adventure

Welcome to Amazon Month, Week 2!

Today we’re going to depart a little bit from the nature of this blog, and cover a woman whom we know absolutely did not exist at any point in time. Not even in the vague sense of Mulan probably existing in some real way but then evolving into a literary figure. Her story is 100% fiction, written by a Spanish novelist inspired by the classical Amazons.


The story of Calafia (sometimes also spelled Califia or Khalifia), and what it inspired others to do, is so damn fascinating that it deserves to be told anyway! This entry will be half about Calafia, and half about the story of her story.

Around the year 1500 C.E., a Spanish author by the name of Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo wrote The Adventures of Esplandiána chivalric, historical romance in which the character of Calafia appears.

Her name is probably a derivation of the Arabic word for ruler, ‘khalifa’. However, Calafia was not Muslim – she was pagan. And she ruled over an island nation, populated entirely by women. Montalvo describes her as a tall woman, ‘as black of the ace of clubs‘ and surpassingly beautiful. She is also described as being a very wise ruler, who wanted to do the best for her people and thereby leave her mark on history.

A griffin.

A griffin.

Montalvo does not hold back when he describes Calafia’s kingdom – far beyond the Indies (Montalvo does not specify East or West Indies), full of gold (but no other metals), and well-protected from invaders by tall cliffs and other geographic features.

Oh, and griffins. Lots and lots of griffins, ridden by Queen Calafia’s Amazon warriors and trained to tear apart any many they came across.

And the name of this wondrous place? The island of California.

The rough outline of Calafia as she appears in Montalvo’s work is thus:

Radiaro, a Muslim man, somehow makes it past the man-eating griffins and is granted an audience with Queen Calafia. He requests aid from the pagan queen; his home city of Constantinople is overtaken by Christian invaders and he needs help to fend them off. Queen Calafia, thinking now is as good a time as any for a fight, agrees to help him. She marshals her army of griffin-riding warrior women and they sail from California to Constantinople.

At first, Calafia’s forces are successful, as the griffins gleefully snatch Christian men from the ramparts surrounding the city and destroy them. However, as the Muslim forces move in to take the city, the griffins don’t stop. They can only distinguish between male and female; they can’t tell Christian from Muslim, and keep up the snatch-and-eat until the Muslims are forced to retreat and Calafia calls her griffins back.

Whoopi Goldberg as Calafia

Whoopi Goldberg as Calafia

Calafia’s new strategy is to challenge the Christian king in Constantinople to a duel – single combat, winner-take-all. The King accepts, and brings his entourage out to meet Calafia and her entourage. There’s a bit of love at first sight between Calafia and one of the king’s sons, Esplandián himself. Calafia tries to show off and attract his attention, but Esplandián isn’t interested in a pagan woman who doesn’t know her place.

The next day, Calafia and her buddy Radiaro fight the king and Esplandián. Predictably for a book written by a 16th century Spaniard, the forces of Christianity prevail. Not only is Calafia defeated, but she converts to Christianity, marries a knight named Talanque and returns back to California with the intent of opening up the island to men. The story continues without her, but Calafia had captured the Spanish imagination, as The Adventures of Esplandián became wildly popular in Spain. Most readers sort of ignored Calafia’s end, and kept alive the idea of the pagan Amazon queen.

Among the readers was explorer and conquistador, Hernando Cortez (most famous for hastening the fall of the Aztec Empire and bringing Spanish influence to Mexico and the American West). He does not seem to have understood that The Adventures of Esplandián was fiction. Judging from his behavior, he seemed to think that Montalvo had written about a real place – and he was determined to find this fabled island of black Amazons decked out in gold and pearls.

After breaking apart the Aztecs and declaring himself Governor of Mexico, he funded several Spanish expeditions west, with the intention of finding California. When the leader of this expedition found Baja California, he at first believed he’d found an island. And more out of a sense of hope and optimism than anything else, he named the region ‘California’.

The 'island' of California.

The ‘island’ of California.

The name spread, with Spanish cartographers and explorers believing that the entire West Coast must be an island… because after all, that’s how Montalvo described it! As a result, many old maps often show Baja California and California as a large island. The captain of the expedition, Fortun Ximenez, was convinced he’d found the island of the Amazons, and really, really wanted to find the gold and griffins. He found neither – the griffins didn’t exist, and gold wouldn’t be discovered in California until 1848.

It does seem, however, that Ximenez kept wandering through California, asking the local tribes where all the women were, and was frequently told that a tribe comprised solely of women existed ‘somewhere over there.’ It’s possible the tribes were trying to get him to go away and leave them alone (or at least go mess with their enemies), and Ximenez kept up his ultimately fruitless search for quite awhile.

However, despite utterly failing to find the kingdom (queendom?) of Calafia, the name stuck – Spanish explorers kept labeling the area ‘California’ on their maps, even when cartographers finally realized the land was firmly attached to the rest of the North American continent and had nary a griffin in sight. Spanish settlers kept the name, referring to themselves as ‘Californios.’ And by the time the United States picked a fight with Mexico, the name had become permanently attached to the region, and California became the 31st state in 1850. Because of this, the American state of California, Baja California in Mexico and the surrounding regions have become linked to the mythical California – despite the fact that Montalvo never really described where Calafia’s island was, other than ‘really far away’ (using language meant to imply that you couldn’t get to California, it was a semi-mythical place).

A mural depicting Calafia

A mural depicting Calafia

Since then, Calafia has evolved into a symbol for women of color, especially Hispanic, Latina and black women, living in California and the Southwest. She’s become a favorite subject of folk art, often depicted as a black queen, sometimes surrounded by symbols of Californian identity.

Many Afro-centric historical revisionists wholeheartedly embrace the legend of Calafia, holding her up as a symbol of strong black womanhood and an indication that black people have lived in California for a very long itme. As her legend has evolved in this context, Calafia has been described as a Muurish woman, of direct African ancestry who ruled an empire stretching from Colorado to Mexico to Oregon. These stories usually leave out the griffins, instead focusing on a black African empire ruled by women which existed until the arrival of the Spanish. Again, there’s no archaeological evidence that this empire ever existed in the same land as Hollywood and Napa Valley; this is instead a legendary history.

Visitors to Disney’s California Adventure between 2001 and 2009 could watch Golden Dreams, a film about the history of California, narrated by Whoopi Goldberg as Calafia. In addition, a wide variety of places in California have been named after her. The collection of California university resources on Latin American history and culture is called the Calafia Collection; you can visit Calafia State Park in San Diego County or purchase wine from Calafia Cellars in Napa Valley; and even a Californian chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronism calls itself the Barony of Calafia (though why the barony’s heraldry includes a sea serpent and not a griffin, I couldn’t tell you!).


Atlantic Monthly, 1864

His Level Best: And Other Stories

Ms. Magazine

The New Pacific



Tomyris: Amazon Queen

A woman in light battle armor fights a man in a breast plate. They both have shields and short swords, the Parthenon sits behind them. Arrows fly through the air, and the battlefield is littered with those still fighting, as well as the bodies of the dead.

An Amazon and Greek warrior fight; Artist Unknown

Welcome to Amazon Month, Week 1!

First, let’s talk about the mythical Amazons.

They originally show up in Greek legend as a race of warrior-women who eschewed the company of men except once a year, when they would all visit a nearby town and seduce the men in hopes of conceiving children. Daughters were kept and valued, while sons (depending on the story) were either killed, abandoned or returned to their fathers. Amazon girls grew up learning how to fight; focusing especially on the bow and arrow. As a sign of dedication to her sisters, and to make archery easier, an Amazon woman would burn or cut off her left breast as part of her rite of adulthood. The Amazons mostly kept to themselves, though would sometimes show up at important battles.

Now, there’s no evidence (outside the feverish imaginings of certain Greek authors) that a culture even remotely like the one I described above existed. Indeed, it’s easy to examine the legend and pick up on some sexual anxieties on the part of Greek men – the idea that women could not be warriors without sacrificing their femininity or eschewing marriage and men completely. After all, the idea that a liberated woman has little use for men beyond breeding seems to concern even some modern men anxious about female power.

A cartoon image of an olive-skinned woman with long dark hair. She wears a loose purple chiton and gold circlet. She is looking off screen with a vague expression of concern.

A much cooler Hippolyta

Several Amazons do show up in Greek myth, though either as an obstacle to be overcome or a prize to be won by a man. Hippolyta, an Amazon princess, owned a magic girdle, which Hercules was tasked with obtaining as one of his Twelve Labors. But upon beholding the pillar of manliness which was Hercules, Hippolyta was reduced to a giggling schoolgirl and handed her belt over without a fight. She later died in a hunting accident, from a mis-cast spear thrown by her sister Penthesilea. Penthesilea felt so terrible about what she had done that she almost killed herself; only her culture’s strict prohibition against suicide kept her from the ledge. So instead, she packed up and joined the Trojan War, where she was promptly killed by Achilles. She doesn’t even get a cool battle scene – 15,000 lines in The Illiad, and Penthesilea mostly shows up as a dead body for Achilles to cry over.

But… where did the idea come from? After all, even the most outlandish tale needs some germ of inspiration in order to flourish!

Nowadays, most archaeologists and anthropologists believe that Greek traders encountered the Parthians and Scythians, gender-equitable Persian and Central Asian cultures (or at least, far more gender-equitable than the Greeks, who were actually kind of jerks to women). Gobsmacked by watching women walk around without a man to shepherd them, much less with their own weapons and armor, they took these fantastic tales home with them, and they grew (and were shaped by Greek attitudes) in the telling.

A colored drawing of a Scythian woman. She wears loose leather leggings under another loose, long-sleeved tunic. She carries a bow and quiver, which, along with her clothing, has been intricately painted. She wears a peaked cap, and has long brown hair which falls to her waist in a single braid.

A Scythian Warrior

Parthian and Scythian territories covered much of what we consider the Middle East and Near East, touching Eastern Europe in some places and the western edge of Asia in others. So, just close enough to be trading partners, but far enough away from the main Grecian city-states to still seem exotic.

These were largely nomadic cultures, relying on the horse and bow to fight. And as it turns out, a lot of the gender differences which give men an edge in melee combat tend to disappear when one fights with a bow from horseback. As a result, most archaeologists think women often fought in Parthian and Scythian armies. However, it should be pointed out that most of these women likely didn’t make a career out of it. Graves containing female skeletons alongside weapons and armor have almost always been for woman who died young and without having given birth. Archaeologists assume therefore that warfare was for young women, with the cultural expectation that women who survived the would eventually settle down and become mothers.

These cultures also practiced several other customs which would have been utterly alien to the Greeks, particularly matrilineal descent. Children traced their heritage through their mothers, and men joined their wives’ households upon marriage. There’s some indication that a few sub-cultures (such as the one we’ll be discussing today) also practiced polyandry – the custom of a woman taking more than one husband, though a man generally only has one wife. And while sons were not necessarily ‘given away’, these cultures did practice fosterage, in which some sons were sent to live with neighboring clans in an attempt to strengthen ties and avoid inbreeding (medieval European nobility practiced the same custom).

Now that we have a solid grasp of the Amazons, let’s talk about Queen Tomyris.

Massagetaen Territory

Massagetaen Territory

Tomyris ruled the Massagetae, a sub-culture of the Scythians living in what’s now Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, ascending the throne after the death of her husband in the 6th century B.C.E.

Unfortunately, all we really know about her comes from Herodotus, a classical Greek historian. And so while it’s good to take his writings with a (large) grain of salt, he did generally get the ‘big picture’ correct.

The people of Massagetae lived a semi-nomadic, fairly pastoral life – though they were not a peaceful people. They were vicious fighters, rumored to kill (and possibly eat) their own elderly once they could no longer be productive workers. A huge part of their economy revolved around raiding their neighbors, kidnapping everyone who looked like they could swing a shovel or hold a broom, and selling them all into slavery. Despite being such a martial culture, however, they were A-okay with being ruled by a woman, as no one seemed to object when Queen Tomyris ascended the throne.

And, as luck would have it, another ruler was on the rise concurrent with Tomyris’ rule: Cyrus the Great. Cyrus, a Persian ruler, started conquering early in life and kept it up until he controlled nearly every acre of soil from the Mediterranean to the western edge of India. At the time, his empire was the largest yet formed in human history, and his war machine unmatched.

Until the day he met Queen Tomyris.

As a conqueror is wont to do, he decided the next addition to his Achaemenid Empire would be the lands of the Massagetae.

Tomyris, by Castagno. 15th Century

Tomyris, by Castagno. 15th Century

At first, he tried a peaceful arrangement, and proposed marriage. But Tomyris firmly rejected his offer – she rather liked her life as it was, and didn’t feel that becoming Empress was any step up from, you know, Queen of the Amazons (she had a point).

Cyrus, apparently, was one of those men who doesn’t handle rejection well. He coped by sending his army to the banks of the Syr Darya, the river which marked the edge of Tomyris’ territory. There, he made a big show of building a bridge which would allow him to march over and conquer Massagetae.

Tomyris, ever the gracious Queen, suggested perhaps he would prefer if they fought it out over in yon battlefield? She even sent one-third of her army out to go meet his.

Cyrus accepted, but he pulled a dirty trick. See, the Massagetaens had never really encountered wine before. So when Cyrus moved his army to meet Tomyris, he had his stewards leave behind many of their food stores… including their wine. The Massagetaen army thought they were having a party, courtesy of Cyrus, and proceeded to behave like every college kid on Spring Break who has yet to learn their limits.

Needless to say, this didn’t turn out well for them a few hours later, when Cyrus brought his army back. He did not elect to kill the drunk soldiers, but instead captured as many as he could, including Tomyris’ son Spargapises.

I am at this point reminded of a plaque which hung in my kitchen as a child. It read, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.”

Well, Mama Tomyris was deeply unhappy when she learned of the fate of her son. I will let the Queen speak for herself:

“It was this poison by which you ensnared my child, and so overcame him, not in fair open fight. Now hear what I advise, and be sure I advise you for your good. Restore my son to me and get you from the land unharmed, triumphant over a third part of the host of the Massagetai. Refuse, and I swear by the sun, the sovereign lord of the Massagetai, bloodthirsty as you are, I will give you your fill of blood.”

Tomyris, by Peter Paul Rubens. 19th Century.

Tomyris, by Peter Paul Rubens. 19th Century.

Unfortunately, when Spargapises recovered from his hangover, he was so ashamed at being captured that he killed himself (perhaps an early historical example of Fridge-Stuffing happening to a dude). And Cyrus wasn’t about to cede ground to a woman, either, otherwise he’d look like a chump in front of the other Greeks and Persians he ruled.

A few days later, then, Cyrus and Tomyris met again in battle. Tomyris had rounded up every fighter she could; doubtless a fair number of women made up her army.

They fought, and Tomyris’ army prevailed. Not only did her forces defeat the Persians, Cyrus himself fell in the battle. After the fighting was over, Tomyris had some of her soldiers find Cyrus’ body and bring it to her. She also ordered some other soldiers to bring her a vat, and fill it with blood collected from the battlefield. Once this had been done, she cut Cyrus’ head off and submerged it in the blood-filled vat. By this, the Queen of the Amazons declared, she had kept her promise to give Cyrus his fill of blood. She then cut the top of his skull off, and kept it as a trophy.

And Tomyris didn’t just keep his skull in a trophy case or something. No, Cyrus the Great, builder of the biggest empire humankind had yet seen, ended his days with his skull as Queen Tomyris’ favorite cup. From which she probably drank a lot of wine.

She largely disappears from the historical record after this. And since historians of the day only wrote things down when shit got real, we can assume that Tomyris lived out the rest of her rule in relative peace. The Massagetaens eventually grew into the Huns, famous eight hundred years later for ruining another famous empire.

The death of Cyrus did not damage the empire he’d built; the Achaemenid Empire remained stable for 300 years, falling only to Alexander the Great. At it’s height, the Achaemenids ruled an estimated 44% of the world’s population. Cyrus, it should be mentioned, was no better or worse than most rulers of his day – indeed, given his inclination towards tolerance, he was likely a great deal better. Among the Jewish people, he is revered as the leader who freed their ancestors from captivity in Babylon.

An Asgarda, a modern Amazon.

An Asgarda, a modern Amazon.

For her part, Tomyris has been a subject of fascination by scholars and artists, especially during the Renaissance. Many notable painters of that era used her for inspiration. However, she doesn’t show up in contemporary media, which is a bit of a shame. Take Back Halloween, though, has come through yet again, with another no-sew costume guide to dressing up as Tomyris for Halloween (or whenever you feel like getting your Amazon Queen on!).

The name Tomyris has also become quite popular for baby girls in Central Asia, so perhaps we’ll see the rise of another Tomyris soon (though hopefully without the cannibalism and slave-trading!).

And though Tomyris doesn’t show up herself in contemporary media, the legends of the Amazons persist. Since 1941, Wonder Woman has been inspiring generations of women to live a badass life. And, of course, who can forget Xena, the warrior princess who certainly channeled quite a bit of Amazonian warrior spirit?

Tomyris' Heirs, the female soldiers of Afghanistan

Tomyris’ Heirs, the female soldiers of Afghanistan

However, far more important are the real women living today and assuming the mantle of the Amazons. The Asgarda of the Ukraine claim direct descent from the legendary Amazons (a credible claim – the Scythians did indeed range that far); and live as they believe their foremothers did. This woman-only martial arts collective has dedicated itself to the principles of female strength and sisterhood (with a healthy dose of Ukranian nationalism thrown in for good measure).

I would also like to call back to the fact that Tomyris’ kingdom was in present-day Afghanistan, and the Parthians once inhabited Iran and Iraq. And today, as you read this, women in those nations are taking up arms, joining their country’s militaries, and dedicating themselves to defense of their homeland. They fight ISIS, the Taliban, and any other threat to their homes and their families. Without a doubt, each and every one of these women is Tomyris’ heir, truly and literally a modern Amazon warrior. Though most of the stories about women coming out of the Mideast (rightly) focus on gender barriers, violence against women and cultural obstacles to female empowerment, we should take some time to recognize the incredible strength and bravery which manifests in these women just as soon as it is given a little bit of space to grow.

It is my sincere hope that all women will soon be able to share in this same Amazon spirit, both as it was and as we have imagined it to be.


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Translation of Original Herodotus; Fordham University