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

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.


Badass of the Week

Myth of History

National Geographic

Rejected Princesses

Translation of Original Herodotus; Fordham University