My Favorite Books

The Walking Drum
Ender's Game
Dune
Jhereg
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
The Curse of Chalion
The Name of the Wind
Chronicles of the Black Company
The Faded Sun Trilogy
The Tar-Aiym Krang

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Review: Women and Warfare in the Ancient World: Virgins, Viragos and Amazons

Women and Warfare in the Ancient World: Virgins, Viragos and Amazons Women and Warfare in the Ancient World: Virgins, Viragos and Amazons by Karlene Jones-Bley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There is an interesting presumption about the participation of women in warfare, which is arguably an activity largely restricted to men; so I was very much interested in the potential for this book, especially given the fairly recent news of DNA results reclassifying some “warrior” burials (bodies interred with weapons) as female instead of their original classification of male. This had given me the impression that the historical record might be incorrectly over looking the contribution of woman warriors. Unfortunately, this book does very little to change what is arguably a consensus that actually taking up arms and fighting in the rank and file is a predominantly male activity. The focus here appears to be more on myth (gods and legends) and power (queens and commanders) which are more an exception to the rule than anything else and are not really anything new.

That is not to say I didn’t enjoy reading about these famous and powerful women, I did … but I was looking for something different here … evidence about what the “average” woman did in war … and as might be expected (although only hinted at here) is that this was primarily restricted to a defense of home and hearth (under or alongside the husband unless they were away) … with the potential exception of Scythian horse archers, the presumed inspiration for the amazon legends (which absolutely makes sense). In fact, the focus on female deities does not IMHO do anything to support the concept of human women in war (especially given the prevalence of such deities within societies that had near complete prohibitions of such). In addition, the area of investigation was restricted to what is largely considered to be the western world (and immediate influence such as Persia). So while the information was interesting, it remains a disappointedly incomplete treatment of the subject.

The chapters and sections in this work are

Chapter 1. In the Beginning: Mythological Figures
Chapter 2. Indo-European Goddesses Affiliated with War
Chapter 3. Legendary Figures - Mortal and Supernatural
Chapter 4. Archaeological Evidence
Chapter 5. Historical Women Through the Roman Period
Chapter 6. Historical Women from the Roman Period to 1492

Some of the other points that really got my attention are:

The military women we will examine in this work possess at least three characteristics in common. They are recurrently thought of, or described as, virgins, are characterised as viragos and very often labelled as amazons.

Although we have a fair amount of evidence for women working outside the home in antiquity (see Stol 2018: 339–90), for much of human history a woman’s place was thought to be in the home, bearing children and taking care of the needs of her family.

Although we might think that the archaeological evidence would clarify the question of what defines women warriors–she who has weapons is, she who lacks them isn’t–it does not. In fact, the archaeologists’ conclusions often lead to further questions. Some scholars take the presence of weapons as proof of ‘warriorhood’, but others do not. Weapons alone do not confirm military activities.

The weapons represented with the goddesses are, usually, less tangible and more generic, serving more as identifiers of their warrior aspects than weapons to be used in combat. The intangible weapons used by a number of the goddesses fall primarily into three categories: magic, interference or in a number of cases–particularly the Irish–sex.

Furthermore, other Semitic cognates of btlt render the term more as a ‘nubile girl, adolescent’, and not precisely ‘virgin’ in the modern English sense. The nubile designation also comports with the general depiction of her as ‘young and nubile, with small breasts and a thin body’ (ibid., 83), leading Walls to use the term ‘maiden’.

The term ‘virgin’ did not always refer to a physical state, one which implied chastity … [T]he term may well have been a figurative one which pertained to age, not necessarily chronologically, but qualitatively. A virgin was in the youth of her powers, in the process of storing them, and, as such, her ‘batteries’ were ‘fully charged’. Indeed, virgins not only stored untapped energy for men, but they were also able to transmit their powers to them in a nonsexual manner, without diminishing those powers.

There may be a memory also of the priestesses of the god of war, women who officiated at the sacrificial rites when captives were put to death after battle. The name Valkyrie means, literally, ‘chooser of the slain’, and in the eleventh century an Anglo-Saxon bishop, Wulfstan, included ‘choosers of the slain’ in a black list of sinners, witches, and evil-doers in his famous Sermo Lupi.

To the Greeks, the thought of Amazons brought fear of chaos. Amazons were a symbol of female aggression and this was no way for a woman to behave.

The shieldmaidens (skjaldm√¶r) appear in Scandinavian mythology and folklore as young women who choose to fight as warriors. A shieldmaiden is said to keep men at spear’s length, approaching them only when she is armed with a spear or axe. These shieldmaidens are females (it is not completely clear if they were maidens in the chaste sense) who chose to go into battle.

The results concluded that the skeleton of the Birka warrior in grave Bj.581 was, indeed, that of a female, establishing her as ‘the first confirmed female high-ranking Viking warrior’, and that she also has a genetic affinity to the population of what we can consider the Viking world (ibid., 5).

The earliest reference to women engaging in this activity comes from a senatorial edict of ad 11 that bars women from the arena and a later, ad 19, edict that ‘banned the descendants of senators and equestrians (as well as the wives of the latter) from fighting in the arena as gladiators’ (ibid., 956).

This extraordinary woman was never directly involved in the military, but she lived through war and revolution. Her Book of Deeds gives diverse advice on how to select a campground, what was good camp food, how to attack a stronghold, how to defend a castle and what was required for a general’s bed.

I was given this free advance reader copy (ARC) ebook at my request and have voluntarily left this review.

#WomenAndWarefareInTheAncientWorld #NetGalley

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My Ratings Explained ...

  • [ ***** ] Amazing Read - Perfect story, exciting, engrossing, well developed complex characters, solid plot with few to no holes, descriptive environments and place settings, great mystery elements, realistic dialogue, believable reactions and behaviors; a favorite that I can re-read many times.
  • [ **** ] Great Read - Highly entertaining and enjoyable, exciting storyline, well developed characters and settings, a few discrepancies but nothing that can’t be overlooked. Some aspect of the story was new/refreshing to me and/or intriguing. Recommended for everyone.
  • [ *** ] Good Read - Solid story with a 'good' ending, or has some other redeeming feature. Limited character development and/or over reliance on tropes. Noticeable discrepancies in world building and/or dialog/behavior that were distracting. I connected enough with the characters/world to read the entire series. Most of the books I read for fun are here. Recommended for fans of the genre.
  • [ ** ] Okay Read - Suitable for a brief, afternoon escape … flat or shallow characters with little to no development. Over the top character dialog and/or behavior. Poor world building with significant issues and/or mistakes indicating poor research. Excessive use of trivial detail, info dumps and/or pontification. Any issues with the story/characters are offset by some other aspect that I enjoyed. Not very memorable. May only appeal to a niche group of readers. Recommended for some (YMMV).
  • [ * ] Bad Read - Awkward and/or confusing writing style. Poor world building and/or unbelievable (or unlikeable) characters. Victimization, gaslighting, blatant abuse, unnecessary violence, child endangerment, or any other highly objectionable behaviors by Main characters. I didn't connect with the story at all; significant aspects of this story irritated me enough that I struggled to finished it. Series was abandoned. Not recommended.