Sunday, April 22, 2018

Whence Fantasy Female Warriors? You can't imagine who was the first one of modern times

The death of Camilla, the Italic warrioress described by Virgil in his "Aeneid". This image shows the interest in female warriors that started in mid 20th century and also one of its typical features: these warrior women had to be punished for daring to take a role traditionally reserved to males. But who exactly started the trend of inerest in female warriors during the 20th century? You probably can't imagine it.  Read on!

Those of us who are interested in long-term trends find endless delight in perusing Google "Ngrams" viewer. This time, I propose to you the evolution of the concept of "woman fighter" or "female soldier". There are several variations on the theme, but the result is always the same: a great rise of interest started during the past 50 years or so. The interest in warrioresses is a modern phenomenon, but what do we know about this matter?

The recent discovery of the tomb of a female Viking warrior generated a lot of interest, But, apart from this and other Viking warrioresses, the archeological evidence of female fighters is practically non-existent in the West. How about fictional warrioresses? In the Western Epic tradition we have the Amazons, often mentioned, but rarely described in detail in ancient literature. They are supposed to have fought at the siege of Troy, but they are never mentioned in Homer's Iliad, where we read only of male warrriors. The Romans may have fantasized about female warriors, since it is reported that female gladiators would fight in the arenas. Virgil gave to us the figure of Camilla, the Latin warrioress who fought against Aeneas and the Trojans. As it often happens, her destiny was to die - just like the Amazons, overwhelmed by more powerful male warriors and punished for having dared to challenge them.

Modern fictional female warriors are clearly different. Usually, they are strong, they are confident, they are brave. Xena, the warrior princess, is possibly the most typical example. Xena is often shown slaying male warriors. Often she wears full body armor, but sometimes she indulges in the habit of wearing the typical armor of fantasy warrioresses, leaving the belly naked for the enemies' lances or swords to hit. Silly, but that doesn't prevent Xena and her sisters from being good fighters.

So, where do we find the origin of this modern phenomenon? Well, I can't say for sure, but perhaps the earliest example of a fantasy female warrior goes back to 1905 and - guess who she was? None less than Mata Hari, the stripper, the dancer, the pretended priestess, the spy who wasn't.

She was aggressive besides being transgressive and the pictures we have of her early dances show her yielding a spear. Here she is, a young Mata Hari in a "Danse Guerrière".

Also in the pictures we have of her very first performance at the Musée Guimet, in Paris in 1905, she was yielding something that looks like a spear.

In later times, Mata Hari mellowed quite a bit and we don't see anymore lances or spears in her hands - she seems to have preferred to engage in languid strip-teases. Still, she was perhaps the first fantasy female warrior in Western culture. Another facet of her always surprising personality.

Like Camilla, the Italic princess, Mata Hari was eventually punished for her assertive role. But she left a long lasting imprint and, as a good warrior should do, she faced her death without fear

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