Warrior women past and present
My readers know that I write about a variety of subjects, but this time I’m venturing into a really different area – the realm of strong and powerful women. Throughout history, we’ve heard tales of warrior women, sometimes called “Amazons.” Their exploits have captured our imagination and filled us with awe and wonder. They were alleged to be strong and brave, and Greek mythology characterized them as a force to be reckoned with. But did the fierce female Amazon warriors actually exist? And if they didn’t, who or what inspired these powerful tales? Even the name “Amazon” (Amazones in Greek) was a mystery to the ancient Greeks. Some speculated that the name meant “without breasts” (mazos is breast in Greek) or “living together” from the Greek “Ama-zoosai.” The popular “without breasts” version seemed to tie in well with the legend that Amazons either cut off or cauterized their right breasts to better control their bows (what if they were left-handed?).
According to Greek myth, a few ships carrying captured Amazons ran aground on the coast of the Black Sea, close to Scythia (modern day Moldova and Ukraine). The Amazons and the local Scythians were preparing to battle one another when somehow or another, love won out and the two groups intermarried. Their descendants became nomads and created a new race of Scythians called the “Sauromatians.” According to Herodotus, “The women of the Sauromatae have continued from that day to the present to observe their ancient customs, frequently hunting on horseback with their husbands…in war taking the field and wearing the very same dress as the men. Their marriage law lays it down, that no girl shall wed until she has killed a man in battle.” At least that’s how the legend goes. But did female Sycthian warriors exist?
The Scythians were nomads who roamed the Steppes from Ukraine to Xinjiang and may have invented horseback riding. According to accounts from other contemporary cultures (the Scythians had no written language), the Scythians had an egalitarian society that may have featured cross-dressing and perhaps even gender fluidity, according to some researchers. Women were trained warriors and were just as fearsome in battle as men. About one-fifth of all skeletal remains discovered have proven to be female and often display the same battle injuries as males. Even if the legend of the Amazons isn’t real, it could have been based on a culture like the Scythians.
Modern DNA analysis is allowing us to take a new look at the graves of ancient warriors. Scientists knew that many of the warrior graves the Scythians left behind contained women, but thanks to modern DNA analysis, researchers can now determine if every skeleton previously assumed to be male is, in fact, a male. And that led to a surprising finding regarding a 2600-year-old mummy found in 1988 in Central Tuva (south-central Siberia) in 1988. This grave was filled will the sort of possessions and weapons that caused archaeologists to assume the grave was that of a male warrior. It turns out, however, that the grave contained the body of 13-year-old warrior girl. Another popular legend of female warriors is that of Hervor.
Hervor, the Viking shieldmaiden
The legend of Viking shieldmaidens like Hervor has been passed down through the centuries and is so popular that most people don’t realize that historians debate their existence. But recent DNA evidence from a well-known Viking burial site confirmed what centuries of legend have always claimed: this high-ranking Viking warrior was a woman—a shieldmaiden. While modern science is uncovering new information about woman warriors in the distant past, women warriors were not uncommon in more “recent” history.
Other women warriors
History is filled with true accounts of powerful women warriors. Most of you will be familiar with the tales of Joan of Arc and female pirates such as Grace O’Malley, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who looted, murdered and fought with the best of them. But here are a few readers may not be familiar with. Tomoe Gozen: a female warrior from the Japanese nobility who fought alongside the Samurai in the 12th century. It was said that no warrior could match her strength and agility. Boudica: who was the queen of a Celtic tribe that led an uprising against the occupying forces of the Roman Empire in 60 AD. Cheng I Sao: a former Chinese prostitute who, together with her husband, controlled a pirate army consisting of hundreds of ships and some 50,000 men. Zenobia: who was Queen of the Palmyrene Empire from 267-272 AD. She took what she wanted, conquered Roman cities and expanded her empire from modern Syria to Turkey and Egypt. Lozen: Sometimes called the “Apache Joan of Arc.” One of history’s fiercest women warriors, she possessed a sharp mind, excellent fighting skills, and an ability to predict what the enemy would do.
Modern warrior women
When I was in the military, women were still serving as members of the Women’s Army Corp (WAC) and the Navy’s Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVEs). It was much later that they became fully integrated into the mainstream military units. It took several more years for them to be eligible for combat roles. I guess old prejudices die hard. Today, women proudly serve side-by-side with their male counterparts. But it was only recently that they have been eligible to serve in US special operations units. There are two women in particular that have managed to break the special operations glass ceiling, however, with a third who just earned her special forces “tab” to become a US Army Green Beret on July 9, 2020. There may be others in the pipeline that I’m unaware of.
I first heard about Petra Malm when she participated in a British reality show about SAS (Special Air Services). Petra was the first woman to complete training and serve with the spear tip of Swedish special forces – the Special Operations Group (SOG). She competed successfully with the males in her class sometime around 2007-2008 and joined this highly professional and secretive unit. From what I’ve learned through open-source information, Petra operated for a decade under a code name and completed several missions abroad unbeknownst to her family. Unfortunately, I don’t know much more about this remarkable woman except that she has now returned to civilian life. Well done, Petra. Thank you for your service. I know more about the second female warrior, hence the more extended account – Senior Chief Petty Officer Shannon Kent.
Shannon Kent was a naval cryptologic technician, spoke seven languages fluently, was tactically capable and was seemingly fearless, according to Marty Skovlund Jr., who published a brilliant article about her in “Coffee or Die.” Kent was a warrior, a mother, a wife, an athlete, an intellectual, an artist and many other things, who succeeded in a field dominated by men. She completed a month-long course that involved timed ruck marches, advanced training in close-quarters combat, and a variety of other foundational skills that are required to serve alongside Navy SEALs.
Working with SEALs
“Women working with SEAL teams was a new concept at that point, and she ‘set the benchmark’ to bring other women into the program,” according to Skovlund. But she didn’t stop there. “Kent attended the selection course for a special mission’s unit in 2013. But there would be no beret, no trident, no tab, not even a badge for making it into this highly secretive outfit. When a Ranger, SEAL or Green Beret makes it through this selection and into this covert unit, they are rarely heard from again at their old unit. They become the stuff of legend, only spoken about in whispers throughout the special operations community. Nobody knows what these operators really do,” according to Skovlund.
Shannon Kent was killed in action in Iraq on Jan. 16, 2019. Skovlund provides a beautiful account of her funeral. “A thousand people filled the pews at the Naval Academy’s chapel in Annapolis, Maryland, in memory of Senior Chief Petty Officer Shannon Kent. She is the first enlisted sailor in US Navy history to be allowed the honor. In fact, the last person to have their memorial there was the late Senator John McCain. Shannon’s husband, Joe Kent, has taken on the mission of keeping Shannon’s memory alive for his two sons. “If it were me, they’d be saying ‘Until Valhalla, brother’ and talking about how I went out doing what I loved, how I died fighting. But with Shannon, there’s this tendency to see her as a woman and mother first, a warrior second,” Joe said, explaining how he must balance mourning the death of his wife with remembering a fallen warrior. “Shannon was a warrior first, and she’d want to be remembered as such.” You can read the full story and see all the photos at https://coffeeordie.com/shannon-kent/.