Tomoe Gozen: Female Samurai

Tomoe

When we think of the samurai, we invariably think of the brave warriors of Japan’s feudal era. Male warriors. But there was another class of warriors. A class of women. Samurai warriors in their own right.

Perhaps the most famous of these women was Tomoe Gozen. Born around the year 1157 at a time when the samurai ruled Japan. Under the Shogun, the warrior dynasties were Japan’s aristocracy.

Samurai were trained soldiers – highly trained soldiers. They were prepared to die for family and clan.

The wives of the samurai were taught the art of war and could often be found defending the household while their men were away fighting. Others followed their husbands into battle. These women were educated and highly literate. They were instructed not just in the art of war, but in writing, painting, the time-honored tea ceremony, and the managing of estate and servants. They assisted their husband in running the household and in teaching the children. And often, they carried a dagger up their sleeve.

The part these female warriors – known as onna bugeisha – played in society was primarily defensive. Defense of home and family while their husbands were away. They were expected to be able to protect themselves, their homes, and their families in the event of an attack by the enemy.

But Tomoe was different. She played an offensive role as a samurai, not defensive.

Her “master” was Minamoto Yoshinaka – either her husband or the man to which she was an attendant. He sent her into battle as his first captain. Tomoe was strong with a bow and with a sword, fighting with a man’s katana sword and the naginata, a long, curved blade mounted on a pole.

It was also said that she could tame any horse, and was a skilled horsewoman who could ride with ease over any terrain.

She is introduced thusly in The Tale of the Heike: “She was a fearless rider whom neither the fiercest horse nor the roughest ground could dismay, and so dexterously did she handle sword and bow that she was a match for a thousand warriors, and fit to meet either god or devil.”

Image-on-Silk-of-Tomoe-Gozen

Tomoe was especially skilled at gathering intelligence from enemy forces, and was sent on many dangerous scout missions. And she did not fight from behind. Her place was always on the front line, ready to face the enemy first.

The Heike Monogatari says of Tomoe: “Whenever a battle was imminent, Yoshinaka sent her out as his first captain, equipped with strong armor, an oversized sword, and a might bow; and she preformed more deeds of valor than any of his other warriors.”

At the Battle of Awazu, the forces of Yoshinaka faced off against those of Minamoto Yoritomo. The battle did not go well for Yoshinaka. His army of three hundred was reduced to just five surviving warriors. Tomoe was among them.

History becomes cloudy on the topic of what happened to Tomoe next. Her master Yoshinaka had been killed, and some say Tomoe eventually died as well. However, others say she was taken captive and later married a rival warrior named Wada Yoshimori. Others say Tomoe gave up a life of fighting, took a vow of chastity, and became a Buddhist nun.

Interestingly, Tomoe’s story may not be a unique one. DNA testing has been completed recently from bones found at archaeological digs at samurai battlegrounds. In one case, at the site of the Battle of Senbon Matsubaru, there appears to be a large female presence among the warriors. Of the 105 bodies tested, 35 were female. Similar results have been found at other sites in Japan. And since none of these other sites were the location of a siege situation – where women would have been protecting their home and family – the conclusion may be reached that women in feudal Japan fought in armies, although their participation was rarely recorded.

 

Again they galloped through enemy bands- here four or five hundred, there two or three hundred, or a hundred and forty or fifty, or a hundred- until only five of them were left. Even then, Tomoe remained alive.

– from the Heike Monogatari

 

Sources

Samurai Archives

Lady of Legacy: Tomoe Gozen

Ancient Origins

MilitaryHistory.org

 

Telesilla of Argos: Warrior Poet

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What follows may — or may not — be true. But the story is compelling, and I think it deserves to be told.

Telesilla of Argos was a woman known in her day as being a great lyric poet. In fact, she was listed in Antipater’s roll of earthly muses in the 5th century BC.

But she is remembered more for her role as a warrior. Legend says that in either 494 or 493 BC, King Cleomenes I of Sparta came to invade the city of Argos. After luring the male warriors of the city out to a pine grove, he slaughtered them, leaving the city populated only by women, slaves, the very young, and the very old.

Cleomenes marched on the city, and Telesilla took action. She gathered ornamental shields and swords from temples in the city, raided the city armory for whatever equipment was left over, and provided the women of the city with arms.

According to Plutarch in his On the Bravery of Women, “With Telesilla as general, [the women] took up arms and made their defense by manning the walls around the city, and the enemy was amazed.”

King Cleomenes saw that he was facing a tricky situation. He could fight against the women and defeat them, which would bring him dishonor in slaughtering women. Or, if they defeated him, Sparta would have been bested by a group of untrained women, also leading to dishonor.

Pausanius wrote: “The women stood their ground and fought with the greatest determination, until the Spartans, reflecting that the slaughter of an army of women would be an equivocal victory, and defeat at their hands would be dishonor as well as disaster, laid down their arms.”

The Spartan king withdrew, and Argos was saved.

In memory of Telesilla’s achievement, her statue was built in the temple of Aphrodite at Argos. The Greek war-god Ares was worshipped thereafter in Argos as a patron deity of women.

As I said at the start, this story may or may not be true. And modern historians still debate over its authenticity. But as the tale was repeated by many ancient sources, it is considered to be plausible by many scholars.

Clement of Alexandria, who lived from approximately 150 to 215 AD, preserved a poem detailing Telesilla’s heroism. Telesilla’s reputation for courage was such that, almost 700 years after the events in Argos, she continued to be remembered by the people of the ancient world.

 

Sources

Ancient History Encyclopedia

A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology

HellenicaWorld.com

Women’s Life in Greece and Rome

 

Hatshepsut, The King Herself

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Egypt. Land of the pharaohs. Land of kings. But one woman defied tradition and became “The King Herself.”

Hatshepsut. Born at the beginning of the golden age of Egyptian power and influence, the New Kingdom. She was born a princess, daughter of the pharaoh Thutmose I. And in typical ancient Egyptian royal fashion, she was wed to her half-brother Thutmose II, around the age of 12, whereupon she became queen.

When Pharaoh Thutmose II died in 1473 BC, probably while still in his twenties, Queen Hatshepsut became regent for her stepson, the infant Thutmose III, as was tradition. Queens had been acting as regents when male heirs were too young to rule for centuries. It was a time-honored tradition. And in early monuments, young Thutmose III is depicted in the conventional way – as an adult king – with his stepmother as regent, dressed in queenly garb, standing respectfully off to the side.

But within seven years, Hatshepsut appears in monuments and stone carvings dressed fully as a king, complete with flail, crook, and a pharaoh’s false beard. She had taken on the full role and title of king, pharaoh, and “Daughter of Re.” Thutmose III, who by this point may have been old enough to rule, was relegated to something like a vice-pharaoh, and Hatshepsut went on to rule Egypt for 21 years.

Why did she do it? Nineteenth century and early twentieth century Egyptologists frowned upon Hatshepsut, claiming she was a “usurper” and a “deviant” whose ambition drove her to steal her stepson’s throne. But more recently, scholars are of the mind that she may have had political motives. There may have been a threat from another branch of the royal family, they surmise, and Hatshepsut may have been acting in good faith to protect the throne for her stepson.

And it also must be noted that Hatshepsut herself was of true royal blood, a descendent of the pharaoh Ahmose, while her husband (and half-brother) was the child of an adopted king. Her steward referred to her as “the king’s firstborn daughter.”

Firstborn. But also, daughter. As with most ancient civilizations – and indeed, most civilizations of any kind – Egypt was patriarchal. Women did not rule. The kingship was passed down from father to son, not father to daughter, firstborn or otherwise. The religion of Egypt stated explicitly that the role of pharaoh could not be carried out by a woman. The pharaoh was meant to be a god, not a goddess.

How did Hatshepsut resolve this issue of gender? It seems that she “sidestepped” the issue completely by depicting herself as a male king – which gave rise to some of those 19th and 20th century Egyptologists calling her a “deviant.” In monuments and murals she wears the pharaoh’s headdress, shendyt kilt, and false beard. She is portrayed with large muscles and without any female traits at all. This is all thought to be a form of ancient propaganda, as the average Egyptian of the day would rarely actually glimpse the pharaoh, only see his (or her) image on stone carvings and monuments displayed throughout the cities.

And so she ruled. As a woman. And she ruled well.

Chip Brown writes, “She seems to have been more afraid of anonymity than of death. She was one of the greatest builders in one of the greatest Egyptian dynasties.”

She is perhaps most famous for the construction of the Temple of Deir el-Bahri, located in western Thebes, where she was meant to be buried. The temple is considered one of the architectural wonders of the ancient world and is on the itinerary of just about every tourist who visits Egypt today.

Temple of Hatshepsut 1

Hatshepsut also built and renovated shrines and temples and obelisks all over the Egyptian empire, from the Sinai to Nubia.

She was also known for extending the trading networks of an already flourishing Egyptian economy. Perhaps best known is the trading expedition she sent to Punt, a land near modern-day Eritrea. The expedition brought back glorious riches to Egypt – incense, gold, ebony, ivory, and leopard skins. Such an expedition would not only garner great wealth for the empire, but also prestige and cultural pride.

Hatshepsut died in her mid-40s, probably around the year 1458 BC. She was buried along with other pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings in the hills beyond her temple of Deir el-Bahri.

Her stepson Thutmose III ruled for thirty years after her death, proving to be an avid builder like Hatshepsut and also a great military leader. He is also know for his eradication plan; eradication of any traces of his stepmother’s reign. He had images of her as king removed from temples and monuments she had built. Because of this, little was known of Hatshepsut until 1822 when inscriptions on the walls at Deir el-Bahri were decoded and read.

Today, you can find Hatshepsut in one of the two Royal Mummy Rooms at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, where she lies side-by-side with her extended family of other New Kingdom pharaohs.

Plaques in Arabic and English proclaim her to be “Hatshepsut, the King Herself.”

“Now my heart turns this way and that, as I think what the people will say. Those who see my monuments in years to come, and who shall speak of what I have done.”

– Hatshepsut’s inscription, on an obelisk at Karnak

 

Sources

National Geographic Online

History.com

Smithsonian

Gruoch: The Real Lady MacBeth

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Ah, Shakespeare. That wondrous weaver of sonnets and timeless plays. In MacBeth, he wrote: “What’s done cannot be undone.” And perhaps he was right. Perhaps not.

Shakespeare was a genius, this I dare not dispute, but he was also a man who, unfortunately, did some damage with his words – damage to historical figures who would otherwise have been looked upon with greater sympathy by later generations were it not for the Bard taking creative license with their lives.

I speak of MacBeth and of his wife and queen, Gruoch.

Gruoch lived from approximately 1015 to 1060, deep within the medieval period – an era traditionally seen as a time of darkness and shadow in European history, when accuracy is a fleeting, ethereal thing and true facts are sometimes hard to come by.

But some things we do know.

According to the British Peerage, Gruoch mi Boedhe was born sometime around 1015 AD. She was the daughter of Boedhe mac Cinaed. Before marrying Mac Bethad mac Findlaích (MacBeth), she first wed his cousin, Gille Coemgain Macrory, Earl of Moray. After the death of her first husband, she married Macbeth, King of Scotland, son of Findlaech MacRory, Mormaer of Moray and Donalda of Alba, in 1032.

Shakespeare wrote his play sometime between 1603 and 1607. He wrote the play specifically for King James I, the newly reigning king who was a great supporter of the theater. And one can only suppose that then, as now, a story of ambition, betrayal, deceit, and murder would be far more fascinating and entertaining than a tale of a devout Christian king who ruled generally peaceably for seventeen years with his loyal wife at his side.

The historical facts as we know them are that MacBeth killed Duncan in battle — an honorable way to be killed at the time — and a perfectly reasonable way for MacBeth to rise to power as king given the societal norms of the medieval era. This is a far cry from Shakespeare’s version, in which Duncan is murdered ruthlessly in his home, with MacBeth feeling remorse over the killing later.

As for the historical Lady Gruoch, when Macbeth became king after the death of Duncan, he claimed the throne of Scotland in both his and his wife’s name. This was utterly unheard of for the times.  And Lady Gruoch became the first queen ever recorded in Scottish history.

As king, Macbeth brought peace to Scotland during a time of violent upheaval. He was a popular ruler and the first Scottish king recorded to have made a pilgrimage to Rome. During his reign, Macbeth gave to the poor, imposed order, and supported Christianity throughout Scotland. He lasted seventeen years as king, when the average Scottish king of the time barely lasted ten. All the while, Queen Gruoch ruled at his side.

Queen Gruoch is named in charters endowing the Culdee monastery at Loch Leven, the home to an aesthetic group of monks devoted to community and to living in the ways of the Christian faith.

During MacBeth’s reign, Gruoch wielded power and influence alongside him as his queen. Their reign was rich enough that MacBeth was said to have “scattered silver like seeds” to the poor.

A royal princess by birth, Gruoch was already the mother of a son, Lulach, when she married MacBeth, and became the mother of the new king when Lulach ascended the throne of Scotland after MacBeth’s death.

According to Scottish historian, broadcaster, and author of MacBeth: A True Story, Fiona Watson:

“Medieval women may be more or less silent to us, but I believe this doubly royal woman played an active role in both in her marriage and in public life generally. Remember, she made a political match with Macbeth: what she and her son needed was a strong protector. In the circumstances, Macbeth fitted the bill perfectly.”

So rid yourself of the Shakespearean concept that Queen Gruoch was a nagging, manipulative, and guilt-ridden woman driven to suicide by her own scheming. The true Gruoch, the woman we should all remember, was a noble queen who ruled at her husband’s side for seventeen years, raised a son to be a king of Scotland, gave to the poor, and outlived her husband by many years.

In the end, she became innocent fodder for the imagination of one of the world’s greatest writers, and as a result, the world has remembered a nefarious Lady MacBeth through literature for more than four centuries.

Perhaps it is time for history to set things right.

 

Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more.

          – MacBeth, Act V, Scene V

 

Fiona Watson’s non-fiction book on the life of MacBeth, MacBeth: A True Story.

GoodReads      Amazon

Read an interview with Fiona Watson at the scotsman.com.

 

Empress Licinia Eudoxia

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“You can tell the strength of a nation by the women behind its men.”  – Benjamin Disraeli.

You’ve likely never heard of her.  Eudoxia.  Last empress of Rome.  Last, it must be said, because of her own actions.  The woman who, by her own force of will, brought about the sacking of one of the world’s greatest cities.

She was born in Constantinople in 422 AD, the daughter of the Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius II and his Greek consort Aelia Eudocia.  She was betrothed at the age of two to her cousin Valentinian III, the future Western Roman emperor, and married in October of 437 at the age of fifteen.  At seventeen, she was granted the title of Augusta, or empress.

On the 16th of March, 455, the Emperor Valentinian III was assassinated in the Campus Martius in Rome. As Valentinian had no male descedants and had never designated an heir, many candidates were presented as possible emperors. Empress Eudoxia promoted her own candidate, a prominent general named Majorian.

In the end, the wealthy senator Petronius Maximus rose to succession as emperor by buying the loyalties of palace officials and the local military. Eudoxia was forced to marry him or be faced with her own execution.

The marriage of Eudoxia to Maximus took place only days after the death of Valentinian – a death that many attributed to Maximus’s own planning — and writers of the day commented with disapproval that Eudoxia was not given the proper amount of time to grieve for her first husband.

From here, we get the rest of the story from the Byzantine chronicler Malchus.  Eudoxia, he tells us, was miserable in Rome, forcibly married to man who she — probably rightfully — believed took part in the murder of her husband.  History tells us that she summoned Gaiseric, the Vandal king of Africa, to fight against the new Emperor Maximus.  King Gaiseric came to Rome, killed Maximus, and sacked the city.  Mighty Rome fell at the invitation of a woman.

There are varying accounts as to whether Empress Eudoxia voluntarily joined Gaiseric in Carthage or was “carried off,” but in either case, she and her daughters Placidia and Eudocia spent seven years in Carthage after the sack of Rome. It is said in the writings of the time that the three women were held “in great honor” in Carthage.

Summoning the enemy in revenge for an unjust marriage was not a new concept to Eudoxia.  She would have been familiar with the idea, as her own sister-in-law Justa Grata Honoria had summoned Attila the Hun for help in freeing her from an unwanted marriage, as well.

Eudoxia eventually returned to Constantinople after an absence of twenty-five years, her oldest daughter Placidia accompanying her. Her youngest daughter Eudocia stayed in Africa and took the Vandal Huneric as her husband. They became parents to Hilderic, king of the Vandals from 523 to 530.

So beware, ye ancient men, of your arranged marriages.  For such plans may just bring down an emperor, a city, and — perhaps — set in motion the downfall of an entire civilization.

 

Cartimandua: Queen of the Brigantes

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“Women hold up half the sky.”  – Mao Zedong.

Queen Cartimandua. First-century leader of the Brigante tribe of northern Britain. She ruled for nearly a quarter of a century, from approximately 43 AD to 69 AD, and she was a formidable force for her time. Roman historian and writer Tacitus names her as the only native regina, or queen, in Roman Britannia. Not even the great female Celtic Iceni leader Boudica is given this title in his writings.

Cartimandua ruled the Brigantes by inherited right, rather than through marriage. She did eventually marry, but later divorced her husband and ruled alone. Making a treaty with the occupying Romans during a time of great Brigante tribal upheaval, she was defended by the fabled Ninth Legion Hispana – an honor in and of itself that showed her significant importance to the male-dominated hierarchy of Rome.

Things did not end well for Cartimandua – nor, it must be said, for the Brigantes. In 69 AD, a Brigante revolt during a time of Roman political unrest led to the downfall of the queen and to a long period of Brigante rebellion in the north of Britannia. Cartimandua disappears from the record at this point. The Brigantes themselves were eventually defeated by the Romans, and their culture, like most native British tribes, absorbed by the invading Anglo-Saxons following Rome’s departure from the island in the fifth century.

But she was there for twenty-six years, leading her people in a time of occupation, a time of great social and political upheaval in ancient Britain. At a time when the forces of Rome were transforming her island into yet another defeated province of the empire, Cartimandua remained proudly Brigante while balancing a solid peace with the very Romans who had come to bring a change of politics, language, and social fabric. Indeed, the Romans found her so valuable that they defended her from her enemies with one of their greatest legions.

Cartimandua. Queen of the Brigantes. Regina.

Forgotten now, like her people. But remembered, perhaps, for a moment or two, today.

Her life has been fictionalized in Daughters of Fire by Barbara Erskine.

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For a more scholarly read, try Cartimandua: Queen of the Brigantes by Nicki Howarth.

GoodReads      Amazon

“Remember the Ladies”

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“Remember the ladies.” Abigail Adams wrote these words in a letter to her husband John Adams on March 31st, 1776 as he and the other men of the Continental Congress set out to establish a new nation. “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies,” she wrote, “we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.” It took 150 years after Abigail wrote these words for the United States to pass the 19th Amendment allowing women to vote, but we did it, and it all started with her, in a letter to her husband.

Women have long been forgotten in history. And women have long been characterized in the Classics and historical writings as hysterical, weak, and the downfall of men (think Guinevere). As a writer of historical fiction, I seek to represent women as they have always been: strong, tough, integral parts of society — the backbone upon which all of society was built. “Remember the ladies,” for they are the mothers of us all.

Some book recommendations:

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. The life and experiences of Dinah, a minor character in the Old Testament.

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. The Arthurian legend told from the perspective of the women, particularly Morgaine (Morgan Le Fay). A must-read for anyone interested in the tales of King Arthur.

Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund.  Una, a minor character in Melville’s Moby-Dick, is given her own voice and tale in this wonderful novel.  Read a terrific New York Times review here.

May 6th, 2016