Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Butt-Kicking Beauties: Fighting Females in History

When my husband and I go to the movies, his favorite part  is watching the previews before the feature film starts. Me? Not so much. I hate how many thirty-second horror previews I have to close my eyes (and plug my ears) through, and I always groan when I see spots for another action movie with a 110-lb super-chick beating up tough guys three times her size. "This is so unrealistic!" There are many areas in which women are equal to, or even superior to men. Physical strength does not happen to be one of them. "Why, oh why," I wonder, "do today's movie goers want to watch something this ridiculous?"

Well, it turns out that today's movie goers aren't the only ones who appreciate butt-kicking beauties.
Xena, warrior princess, may have made her debut in the twentieth century A. D., but she belongs to an ancient sisterhood of fighting females that go all the way back to the twentieth century B. C.

The Amazons executing their
(male) Greek prisoners 
The Amazons, of course, are the most famous members of this sisterhood, a tribe of women warriors who lived near the Black Sea. Homer mentions them briefly in the Iliad as "those who fight like men." Other Greek writers talk of Penthesilea, the Amazon queen who comes to Troy with the intention of killing Achilles. Fearlessly, Penthesilea slays many of the staunch Achaean warriors and fights a deadlock battle with Telamonian Ajax. But when it comes to Achilles? Well, the great, Greek hero is able to knock her over with one blow and kill her. To his credit, he feels bad about it afterwards.

Penthesilea's sister Hippolyta shows up in a plethora of Greek myths, many of them contradictory, but my favorite version of her story is the one retold by Mary Renault in The Bull from the Sea. Theseus, king of Athens, takes an excursion out to the Black Sea and runs into the fearsome Amazon tribe, led by Hippolyta, a beautiful queen who can ride, hunt, rule, and fight as well as any man. After defeating Hippolyta in single combat, Theseus marries her and brings her home to Athens...although there is not necessarily a happily ever after in store for them.

The Roman poet Virgil, familiar with the fighting female motif, includes the colorful character of Camilla in his epic, the Aeneid. As the princess of the Volsci, one of the neighboring tribes to the Latins, Camilla helps King Turnus fight against Aeneas and his band of invading Trojans. Virgil describes her as a phenomenal runner, though not so keen on the domestic arts:

Last came Camilla, of the Volscians bred,
leading her mail-clad, radiant chivalry;
a warrior-virgin, of Minerva's craft
of web and distaff, fit for woman's toil,
no follower she; but bared her virgin breast
to meet the brunt of battle, and her speed
left even the winds behind; for she would skim
an untouched harvest ere the sickle fell,
nor graze the quivering wheat-tops as she ran;
or o'er the mid-sea billows' swollen surge
so swiftly race, she wet not in the wave
her flying feet.

Camilla acquits herself as well as any Amazon would on the battlefield. But unfortunately, while she is distracted with all her kills, one of the Trojans manages to slay her with a sneak attack.

In the medieval and renaissance eras, this familiar character of the woman warrior was not forgotten. While doing research for my First Crusade trilogy, The Chronicles of Tancred, I ran across an Italian epic from the sixteenth century titled Jerusalem Delivered. The poet, Torquato Tasso, tells a highly fictionalized story of the heroes of the First Crusade, showing no scruples about inventing characters and events to embroider the tale.

Clorinda, the Muslim warrior-maiden, is one such fictional character. The description given her is strikingly like that of Camilla.

She scorned the arts these silly women use,
Another thought her nobler humor fed,
Her lofty hand would of itself refuse
To touch the dainty needle or nice thread,
She hated chambers, closets, secret news,
And in broad fields preserved her maidenhead....
While she was young, she used with tender hand
The foaming steed with froary bit to steer,
To tilt and tourney, wrestle in the sand,
To leave with speed Atlanta swift arear,
Through forests wild, and unfrequented land
To chase the lion, boar, or rugged bear....

Clorinda dies in Tancred's arms
Like the warrior princesses of Greek mythology, Clorinda enjoys a good deal of success against her masculine opponents, attracting the love and respect of Tancred, one of the Crusader lords and the hero of my trilogy. Tragedy, however, is not far off. During a night battle where the brave and beautiful Clorinda sets a Crusader siege tower on fire, she encounters Tancred unrecognized and loses her life to his sword. Tancred's grief over mistakenly killing Clorinda is even more profund than Achilles' sorrow over slaying Penthesilea, since the poet has taken the trouble to provide a pre-existing relationship between the two.

Unrealistic or not, it seems that societies throughout time have enjoyed the motif of the "women who fight like men." There is one marked difference, however, between the warrior women of the old world and the butt-kicking beauties of today's movies. In the ancient and medieval epics, the female fighter--despite her success against many lesser men on the battlefield--can never quite measure up to the prowess of the hero, often dying in her attempt to defeat him. In the modern version of the motif, the Lucy Lawless's, the Angelina Jolie's, and the Yvonne Strahovski's can actually hold their own against all comers, and even prevail.

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