Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Fu Hou! Ahhotep! Jhalkari Bai!

OK, so we know there's no shortage of Axe-Bearing Warrior Women in fantasy comics and on anime image boards. But how about reality? Were there any real-life warrior women with axes, kicking asses and taking names?

Sadly, it seems most of the actual factual female warriors that we know of preferred to fight with sword or spear. There were however at least two who did favour an axe. And these were no common soldiers either.

Fu Hao (d. 1200 BC) was China's first female general, commanding an army some 13,000 strong. In addition to this, she was also consort to the King, a high priestess, and a mother on top of that. Long thought to be just a legend, her tomb was discovered in 1976 and became open to the public about ten years ago.

In China, as in so many other cultures, the axe is symbolic of power and prestige. Fu Hou was "the most powerful military leader of her time", and had many huge battle-axes buried with her. These were not purely symbolic however, but very likely the weapons she led her troops to battle with. A statue of Fu Hou outside her tomb bears one of these great axes with casual nonchalance.

As if being a military leader was not enough, she served as a high priestess and oracle caster as well. These are very unusual roles for a woman to play at that time because the King held complete sway over ritual matters. Sacrifices and rituals were the most important political activities of the time. There is evidence, though, in oracle bone inscriptions, that King Wu Ding often asked Fu Hao to conduct special rituals and offer sacrifices to the ancestors. This proved not only that Fu Hao was highly respected, but also that she obviously had the king's confidence.


Just a few hundred years earlier, Ancient Egypt had its own Warrior Queen - Ahhotep I (c. 1560- 1530 BC) - and she too favoured an axe when it came to splitting heads. Like Fu Hou, Ahhotep led her troops into battle and was considered an exceptional warrior, her tomb (discovered in 1859) supplying testament to this in the form of many fly medals, as well as a fine fighting axe with a picture of her killing someone on it.

Not content to just spend her time smiting Hyksos from the Earth and saving Upper Egypt from rebellion, Ahhotep also found time to have children - including, some scholars believe, not one but two future Pharaohs. She was also the first Egyptian Queen to receive the title "God's wife".

From an inscription in her honour:

She is the one who has accomplished the rites and taken care of Egypt... She has looked after her soldiers, she has guarded her, she has brought back her fugitives and collected together her deserters, she has pacified Upper Egypt and expelled her rebels.


Finally, I'd like to mention Jhalkari Bai, a brave Indian warrior who sometimes led the Durga Dal (Women's Army) against British colonial forces (c. 19th century), admittedly because of her uncanny resemblance to the forces' leader Rani Laxmibai.

When captured by the British and asked what should be done with her, Jhalkari was said to have replied simply, "hang me". This apparently impressed a British general so much he set her free.

And what could be more impressive than that? How about the time Jhalkari, still a young girl, went looking for firewood and wound up killing a tiger with just her axe?

For a long time, Bai was relatively unknown, even in India. This is beginning to change now, and she has recently had a stamp made in her honour and a statue is currently under construction. Will it depict Jhalkari Bai with an axe, maybe even killing that tiger?

We can only hope.

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