Most cultures have some legends about female warriors, but a few of these bold women have permeated pop culture, with their stories morphing into inspirational books and movies that hold audiences captive. Take a look at some of the most famous warrior women of history. How much do we really know about them?
Joan of Arc
Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc in French), the Maid of Orleans, remains one of the most well-known warrior women in Western history. The basics of her story are as follows: A teenage peasant girl claimed to have received holy visions instructing her to wrest France from English control and reestablish Charles VII as the rightful king; she rode out to battle against the English at the head of a massive French army; the English eventually captured and burned her at the stake on charges of heresy; she was eventually cleared of these charges and canonized as a martyr.
Unlike some legendary warriors whose existence may or may not be fabricated, it seems clear that Joan was a real person according to surviving historical records. However, parts of her alleged history are up for debate. Did she truly receive visions from God, or was she a con artist or a sufferer of mental illness?
Regardless, Joan continues to be revered as one of history’s most intriguing and inspiring heroes, perhaps mostly owing to the unlikelihood of her achievements. After all, she lived in a time when few opportunities were open to women, especially those of low birth—and Joan was “just” a teenage peasant girl throughout her entire career. Author Polly Schoyer writes in her book Beyond the Myth: The Story of Joan of Arc:
“Her desire and her will to believe gave her the courage to try what seemed impossible, especially for a peasant girl of no standing and of no education… Joan herself is not so easy to explain. She is more of a miracle than the many miracles attributed to her.”
Years after her brutal death at the hands of her English captors, her “case” was officially reopened due to the urging of her mother, Isabelle Romée. The results cast Joan not as a heretic, but as a martyr. Criticism fell on the bishop who had condemned her, who it was believed had manipulated canon law in order to get rid of her for secular reasons. There is a surprising amount of surviving contemporary testimony regarding Joan’s case. She was finally canonized in 1920—and is now the patron saint of France and of soldiers as well.
Many in the Western world are familiar with the story of Hua Mulan as presented in the 1998 Disney animated movie and the 2020 live-action remake. However, this depiction only contains the broad strokes of the original legend’s brush. The story was first told as a Chinese folk ballad dating somewhere between the fourth and sixth centuries (during the Northern Wei era). The tale centers around a young woman who disguises herself as a man to take the place of her aging father in the emperor’s army. She becomes a great soldier but declines high honors and returns to her family.
The Ballad of Mulan is quite short and, as seen in Haiwang Yuan’s translation, spends little time on the segment that most modern adaptations focus on: Mulan’s time disguised as a man. While the adaptations put heavy emphasis on her risk of being “outed” in the army, the ballad refers to her decade-long military career in a mere three lines.
Was Mulan, in fact, a real person?
The answer remains unknown. She may have been an actual folk hero whose story was passed on and turned into a legend, or she may have been a legend from the start.
You’ve probably heard of the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan along with his grandfather, Genghis Khan—but you might not know about Khutulun, the warrior woman of the family. Marco Polo wrote of her:
“Sometimes she would quit her father’s side, and make a dash at the host of the enemy, and seize some man thereout, as deftly as a hawk pounces on a bird, and carry him to her father; and this she did many a time.”
As described in Jason Porath’s Rejected Princesses, the biggest legend surrounding her—most likely a true one—revolves around her suitors. According to the legend, Khutulun said that she would only marry a man who could beat her in wrestling. However, she remained undefeated, winning a huge number of horses from the men who lost to her. While she did eventually marry, sources differ as to whom she chose.
According to some sources, Khutulun was her dying father’s preferred heir, having served as his most trusted advisor. However, her male relatives prevented her ascension upon his death, and her life faded into obscurity from there on out. In Western pop culture, her real story was eventually clouded and rewritten as the Turandot story, which shifted the focus from her achievements as a warrior and leader to her “arrogance” in refusing suitors not deemed good enough. In this retelling, she eventually gives in to the demands of love.
Also known as Boadicea, Boudica was a Celtic queen of the Iceni people who became a British folk hero after leading a rebellion against Rome in the first century A.D. She started out as the wife of a king who had allied with Rome in exchange for some degree of independence. However, she became an enemy of Rome after her husband’s death. He had willed the kingdom to her and her daughters, but unsurprisingly, Rome failed to honor his wishes. They annexed the kingdom and heaped abuse upon his widow and daughters.
It was the Roman historian Tacitus who most famously relayed the story of Boudica. According to his version of events, the queen was chosen to head a group of Celtic and Druid rebels around 60 or 61 A.D., and delivered a rousing address to her army:
“She was avenging, not, as a queen of glorious ancestry, her ravished realm and power, but, as a woman of the people. Such was the settled purpose of a woman—the men might live and be slaves!”
Boudica’s armies destroyed the Roman-held cities of Camulodunum and Londinium, which fell largely due to the element of surprise and the rebels’ sheer number. However, the queen was ultimately defeated. Existing records differ as to how exactly she died—although it was most likely due to illness or suicide that Boudica met her end.