The vision of heavily armed men has become so heavily associated with the art of war that at this point it has become a cliché. So much so that, despite the many evidence throughout history of many female fighters, strategists and leaders, the association between women and war are still mostly seen as somewhat of a novelty even to this day. Stories of ancient female warriors are relegated to legends and folklores with minimal historical accounts attached to their lives, which leads to doubts on whether these women actually existed. Some of them are so fantastical and unrealistic that one would be forgiven to be inclined to immediately dismiss them. The lives and exploits of notable warrior women in history such as Artemisia I of Caria, Boudicca, or Joan of Arc are mostly considered examples of exceptional personal valor instead of reflections of the societies in which they lived.
Chronicles of the ancient wars in Japan, much like those of ancient Greece and Rome, present many different kinds of male warriors such as the tragic hero, the warrior-courtier, the traitor, the coward and many others. On the other hand, women’s roles in these tales are slight and set far from the battlefields. There is the tragic heroine, or the loyal wife, who kills herself at the death of her husband or lover, the grieving mother who grooms her son to avenge his father’s death, the merciful woman who encourages a warrior chieftain to empathize, against his better judgment, and dissuade him from slaughtering his enemy’s children who later grow up to kill him, and the seductress who diverts the warrior from his task with her feminine wiles – all intriguing roles, of course, but they are stereotypes which realistically would apply to only very few women.
Then there are the “ordinary women” who are either slaughtered or taken by the warriors as spoils of war. The fates of these women were rarely, if ever, mentioned. The likelihood of these women being raped and murdered were considered such a matter of course that frequent references to them would only disturb the flow of the story. The rare female warriors were depicted as superheroines. The life of Empress Jingu of Japan (c. 169-269 CE), as with many ancient female warriors, was shrouded in mystery. Aided by a pair of divine jewels which allowed her to control the tides, Empress Jingu led a successful invasion to Korea without shedding a single drop of blood from the Korean or the Japanese. However, the belief that Korea was invaded during this time is widely rejected historically as the historical evidence of Japanese rule in Korea during this time are somewhat debatable. Her legend became more incredible as her son Ojin was born upon her return to Japan in 203 CE. Ojin remained in the Empress’ womb for three years as he was conceived before she went to battle and was born upon her return. Legend has it that Ojin was actually Hachiman, the god of war, and he remained in her womb for three years to give her the time she needed to conquer Korea.
The descriptions of Tomoe Gozen are also unbelievable. Not only was she described as a woman of great beauty, intellect and battle skills, Tomoe Gozen was also a perfect archer, brilliant horse rider, an expert of the sword and a very competent politician – in short, a perfect war machine with the face of an angel. Nevertheless, she proved herself in combat as, leading only 300 samurais, she fought more than 2000 warriors and survived.
Tomoe Gozen is noted as one of Japan’s rare woman warriors who engaged in offensive battles. However, again, this is not completely true as there was, in fact, a whole class of women who were engaged in offensive battles. The excavation of three battlefield head-mounds from the Battle of Senbon Matsubaru between Takeda Katsuyori and Hojo Ujinao in 1580 CE and DNA tests on 105 bodies revealed that 35 of the warriors were female. Two subsequent excavations elsewhere produced similar results. As none of these findings was a siege situation, this leads to the conclusion that women fought in offensive armies even though their involvement was seldom recorded.
The ancient women of Japan were only one of the latest in a long history of society-sanctioned female warriors. Herodotus describes steppe nomads named the Sauromatae, descendants of the Scythians, whose women hunted and fought alongside the men on horseback. This description is confirmed by archeological evidences of female warriors in Scythian cultures. Excavations of 44 Sauromatian and Sarmatian kurgan burial mounds along the Khazakstan-Russia border in the 1990s discovered several skeletons of women buried with daggers and bronze tipped arrows.
As many other female skeletons unearthed at the same site were buried only with more typically feminine goods like beads and earrings. Such women of nomadic steppe cultures appear to have been trained in warfare from childhood and would have been proficient in the Scythian practice of mounted archery. In times of war, these women would have ridden alongside the men into battle, shooting at their foes from horseback and occasionally being shot themselves. The wounds found on a few of the excavated female skeletons confirmed this.
Accounts of the nomadic Cimbri tribe on the European continent by their Roman adversaries provide insight into their martial culture. Plutarch’s record of the life of Roman general Caius Marius during the invasion of the Germanic Cimbri, Teuton, and Ambrone tribes in 103 CE sheds some light on the roles of the Germanic women in combat. Plutarch recorded that Cimbri women accompanied their husbands to the Battle of Vercellae, apparently well trained enough in combat to guard the Cimbri baggages and entrenchments as their men marched onto the field to meet Marius’ army. Upon witnessing the defeat of the Cimbri by the Romans, the women shocked the pursuing Romans by slaying both their fleeing husbands and themselves rather than enduring capture.