Three little known warrior women from history

Artemisia I of Caria
Artemisia I of Caria commanded five of her own ships during the battle of Salamis fighting on the Persian side | The Battle of Salamis by Wilhelm von Kaulbach, 1868 | Public Domain

It’s no secret that warfare has always been a masculine affair, but throughout history women warriors have stood side by side with men on the battlefield and led their armies to victory. From strategists to fighters - women in the arena of war have often gone toe to toe with their male counterparts. From Joan of Arc who was burned at the stake for wearing armour, to female resistance fighters of WW2: women have engaged in warfare throughout history. In celebration of International Women’s Day and Women’s History month, here are three kickass women that you probably didn’t learn about in school.

Artemisia I of Caria (born 520 BC)

Depicted by Eva Green in “300: Rise of an Empire” (2014), Artemisia I of Caria was queen of the ancient city-state of Halicarnassas. During the war between Persia and Greece, Artemisia was the only female general of King Xerxes' army and fought at the battle of Salamis commanding five of her own ships.

At some point during the fight, Artemisia realised that an Athenian ship was bearing down on her own flagship and that there was no chance of escape. Determined to survive the naval showdown, Artemisia demanded that her ships colours aligning her with Persia be removed, and turned her ship towards the Persian line.

Confused about what was happening, the Athenians believed that the ship was deserting Persia and joining the Athenian side. As they gave up chase, Artemisia rammed through the friendly Persian ship blocking her escape, sinking it and all hands on deck. Artemisia was later credited with influencing King Xerxes to end his invasion of Greece following their failure at Salamis.

Freydís Eiríksdóttir (born 970)

Thanks to a vibrant history of myth and legend, the story of shield maidens storming into battle has been passed down through history as Viking lore. From the Valkyries who watched over battles choosing who would be whisked away to Valhalla and turning the tides of the battle, to Lagertha, famed shield maiden and ruler of Norway: Viking legend is filled with women whose ferocity and skill on the battlefield rival that of the men.

While stories passed from generation to generation celebrate these warrior women, history has long contested their existence. Indeed it wasn’t until 2017 that scientific proof confirmed that the body of a Viking warrior unearthed nearly a century ago was in fact female, and not male as once originally thought. But what about accounts of real Viking women?

Freydís Eiríksdóttir, daughter of infamous and vicious ruler Erik the Red and sister/half-sister (depending on which saga you read) to Leif Ericcson, is affiliated with Norse exploration of Vinland (now north America). Following stories of her brother Leif’s successes in Vinland, Freydís herself wanted in on the action.

When in Vinland, Freydís and her men are attacked by the indiginous people with weaponry not seen by Vikings before (thought to be slings or catapults). As the men around her fled in confusion, Freydís was said to have shouted 'Why run you away from such worthless creatures, stout men that ye are, when, as seems to me likely, you might slaughter them like so many cattle? Let me but have a weapon, I know I could fight better than any of you.' Freydís then picked up a sword, adjusted her clothing to bare one of her breasts, and screamed a battle cry whilst beating the hilt against her chest. At the sight of this, the natives retreated to their ships and fled. Better still? Freydís was eight months pregnant at the time.

Grace O’Malley (born 1530)

Grace O’Malley was the fierce warrior matriarch of the Ó Máille dynasty that dominated the coasts of west Ireland in the 16th century. Born of a time where both her sex and her culture were being crushed under the weight of oppression, Grace O’Malley succeeded her father to become the Queen of Umaill, and leader to the O’Malley clan as well as inheriting his ‘shipping and trading’ business.

Stories and legends of Grace vary greatly. From giving birth at sea only to fend off enemy pirates who boarded her ship just an hour later, to shaving her head and wearing boys clothing so that she could sail like her father (earning her the nickname bald Grace): stories of Grace’s ferocity, leadership, and unapologetic sense of self have been passed down for centuries.

Perhaps her most notable stand came when she was a guest within the court of Queen Elizabeth I. Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, had been declared King of Ireland by the Irish government. However, this title was something that was greatly contested by the clans of Ireland. Upon their first meeting, Grace was said to have refused to bow to Elizabeth as she herself was a queen, and wasn’t a subject of the Queen of England. The two came to an agreement that saw Grace’s son’s freed from imprisonment on the understanding that Grace would end her piracy against English ships.

Ruthless pirate, fighter of oppression, wife and mother: Grace gained many supporters in her lifetime and is still celebrated as a feminist icon centuries later.

Written by:

Jo Rowan