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Slavic Amazons – myth or truth?

Ancient woman warrior group that is still a mystery

Photo: Šárka and Ctirad, Painted by Věnceslav Černý / WIKIMEDIA

We don’t know when and where Slavs appeared, and what defined the mentality of our ancestors which influenced their culture and history. But we know some facts and in this article we will consider the gender matter. Actually all Slavs are matriarchal except Serbs and Montenegrins. Why is that? Maybe the reason is Slavs have been always agricultural people and worshipped Earth Mother who was the common Indo-European goddess. Maybe neurobiological aspects are the reason. Once that mentality even led to a real gender war which happened in Czechia.

Unfortunately, we have only small pieces from the Slavic early medieval folklore, although some of them are very precious like a Baltic Slavs’ song of 10th century AD. Most of Slavic tribal legends were never recorded, or maybe the manuscripts were lost or destroyed. We can only imagine what treasure we have lost because any tribe had its epic tales. At the same time we should be thankful to Czechs who could keep thrilling and dramatic tales about the early medieval times. Among them is a story about Dívčí válka (Girls War). The legend says once Czechs were ruled by wise Libuse, the daughter of mighty Krok. Many men were not happy to be ruled by a woman. After she died some girls didn’t want to obey men, so they build a fortress named Děvín (Girls’ Fort). Their leader was Vlasta, previously one of Libuse’s confidants. Men’s castle was Vyšehrad and their leader was knyaz’ Přemysl, Libuse’s husband. At first men didn’t take girls seriously, but after a lost battle they started to concern about it. Men were killed in their beds by wives who then fled to Vlasta. Also women from Vyšehrad shared information about men’s plans and actions.

Photo: Ctirad a Šárka – J. V. Myslbeka, Vyšehrad

Mostly women used cunning tricks as they were weaker than men. Women would trap men and then kill like in that story about Ctirad. He was a warlord who went with his troops in a forest and saw a young beautiful Šárka tied to a tree. There were a jar full of hydromel (mead) and a hunting horn near her. Untied, she told her savior that wild girls seized her to force her to become an amazon too, but when Šárka refused they tied her to the tree and left the jar and the horn to make her suffer. The items were so close, but she couldn’t drink or call for help. Of course Slavs drank all mead and soon fell asleep – it’s a usual story for Slavic warriors repeated a countless number of times in different countries.

Also we can see how many people were in the early medieval times – all the band of men could get drunken taking only one jar. Or maybe hydromel was much stronger those times. So, drunken Ctirad wanted to test the horn and gave a blast. Immediately a lot of amazons jumped out of the bushes and killed all men. Ctirad was tortured to death. It was a last drop. Now men were really angry. (As we know Slavs are slow thinkers.) A lot of men went to the battle with girls and when Vlasta was killed her sisters-in-arms were shocked and lost the battle. Men killed all of them and since that time men were the bosses (at least on a surface).

There is another variant of this legend. In ancient times girls also learned how to ride and fight and hunt. They could choose a husband themselves and wore men’s clothes as well. Eventually girls build the fortress Děvín on a rock in a wild forest. Young guys didn’t like that and built another fort Vyšehrad not far from that (now Vyšehrad is the part of Prague).

Girls were more cunning; guys were braver, so war and peace would change each other very often. Once they made a peace and arranged a common 3 days feast where weapons would be prohibited. When they were all drunk one guy took a horn and gave a blast. It was a sign, so every man seized a girl. In the next morning guys took girls away from the Děvín which was abandoned then. Since that time women were under the power of men.

A beautiful fairy tale, ah? There are similar epic tales about warrior maidens in the Russian culture. But what about the reality? First, there is a well-known Devin Castle located at the confluence of Danube and Morava rivers, although some scientists believe the name comes from the old Indo-European/Proto-Slavic stem deiv- with apophony doiv- related to light and visual perception. Devín, Divín, Devinka, Divino, Dzivín and similar Slavic names can be interpreted as watchtowers or observation points.

Then there are some records in manuscripts. Famous Byzantine historian Leo the Deacon wrote that there were women in men’s clothes among knyaz’ Sviatoslav’s warriors. In the Battle of Bråvalla occurred at the Baltic Sea, Slavic warriors were led by some female named Visna (Vesna?). There were other female leaders in that battle, one of them leading 300 shieldmaidens, but the manuscript describes them as “men in women’s bodies”, so they were not normal women. In the end enemy’s champion Starkad cut off Visna’s arm holding a Danish banner.

Ok, chronicles are chronicles. They were written by humans and err is human. Even Cosmas of Prague is not considered to be an absolutely true chronicler. He made some mistakes and was wrong sometimes. Scientists believe he, educated man, could use ancient Greek patterns for his manuscript, including amazons’ topic… But what about archaeological artifacts? There are some early medieval Slavic burials of women with swords. A sword couldn’t be put to a grave by mistake. It is proven then, right? Maybe. It could be enough for a court case, but not enough for a history argument. So far we don’t possess a time machine to check it.

And still this is a strange thing for me, as a martial arts expert. Of course, if we put a female wrestler 2 meters tall, weighing 100 kilos against a male violin player 1.70 m tall and weighing 65 kilos she would win. But if we put an experienced wrestler against her she will lose. Even nowadays men and women compete separately. Men are designed for battles by nature itself. Men have stronger bones and better hormone producing system for fights which was proved by the experiment in the Israel army. Now girls are prohibited to serve in tank forces there. There were other experiments in the Special Forces which showed worse performance of mixed (men-women) squads. In the Russian VDV (Airborne Forces) girls were allowed to join the program, but none of them could finish it. So, it’s still a mystery.

References: 

  • A.L. Toporkov, Earth, Slavic Mythology. Encyclopedic Dictionary.
  • Publius Cornelius Tacitus, Germania
  • Alois Jirásek, Staré pověsti české
  • Cosmas of Prague. The chronicle of the Czechs (Kosmova kronika česká (lat. orig. Chronica Boemorum))
  • Kronika tak řečeného Dalimila
  • Under the editorship of D. Ushakov, Warrior maiden, Defining Dictionary of the Russian language in 4 volumes
  • Š. Ondruš, Odtajnené trezory slov I.
  • Leo the Deacon, History
  • Saxo the Grammarian (Saxo Grammaticus), Deeds of the Danes (lat. orig. Gesta Danorum)
  • L. Lapteva, The Chronicle by Cosmas by Prague and its use in the late medieval Czech historiography
  • G. Sanchuk, Foreword to Czech Chronicle.
  •  V. Regel, On Chronicle of Cosmas of Prague
  • IDF rules that tanks are still no place for a woman – www.haaretz.com
  • The last two statements are based on oral sources in the Russian army.

What do you think?

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