Kickass Women in History: Khutulun

Khutulun was the most famous of the many Mongol women who fought and led armies. She’s come down in legend as “the wrestling princess,” but she was much more than a champion wrestler.

watercolor of a Mongol queen on a horse
Mongol Queen on horseback – artist unknown

Khutulun was the daughter of Qaidu Khan, leader of a Mongol group called the Ogedeids. Qaidu Khan was the nephew and rival of Kublai Khan. Khutulun was born sometime in 1260 and was a favorite of her father’s.

He granted her a symbol called a gergee, which meant that she was granted certain powers by the Khan. Queens more often used a seal called a tamghas. Khutulun is the only woman known to have owned her own gergee, a symbol usually given to men.

tamga, seal used by the House of Qaidu.  Looks like an upside down, backwards "S" with a horizontal line through the middle
This is the tamgha (seal) used by the house of Qaidu

She helped her father in matters of both civil and military administration, both on and off the field. In combat, Marco Polo described her as picking off enemies one by one:

“[She would] make a dash at the host of the enemy, and seize a some man thereout, as deftly as a hawk punches on a bird, and carry him to her father; and this she did many a time.”

 

Khutulun was an expert wrestler and, since it was common to bet horses on matches, she soon amassed a huge herd. Numerous sources refer to her military expertise and her ability to defeat any man in a wrestling match.

According to the not-always-super-reliable Marco Polo, Khutulun refused to marry any man who could not beat her in a match. Eventually she did marry a man named Abtakul. He doesn’t seem to have wrestled her, but one rumor stated that he showed up at court to try to assassinate Khutulun’s father. When he was captured, his mother offered herself to be punished in Abtakul’s instead, and Abtakul refused this exchange. Qaidu was so touched by all this family devotion that he not only pardoned Abtakul but also made him an army officer. Khutulun met him after he had been wounded in battle, and, according to the rumor, fell in love with him, and chose him as a husband.

A medieval miniature showing Khutulun wrestling, from c. 1410  Khutulun is wresting in a courtyard, watched by European royalty and horses.
A medieval miniature showing Khutulun wrestling, from c. 1410

Khutulun continued fighting after her marriage. Her father was eventually wounded. Stories about Khutulun come from a wide variety of written and oral stories.  According to some, her father tried to name Khutulun as Khan, but she preferred to remain in charge of the military. She died in 1306, five years after the death of her father. Some sources said she fell in battle and other said that she was assassinated.

In the fascinating book, The Secret History of the Mongol Queens ( A | BN | K | G | AB | Au ), author Jack Weatherspoon talks in detail about women in combat in Mongol society. I hope you’ll indulge me as I include a very long excerpt – I find this absolutely fascinating and if I thought I could get away with it I’d quote the entire chapter!

 

Although never commonplace, through the centuries, stories about women warriors appeared regularly enough in Asian and European steppe history not to be considered as novelty. Their deeds were usually explained as arising from dire circumstances or in some cases from exceptional aptitude. The ability of women to fight successfully in steppe society when they failed to do so in most civilizations derived, however, from the unique confluence of the horse with the bow and arrow. In armies that relied on infantry and heavy weapons such as swords, lances, pikes, or clubs, men enjoyed major physical advantages over women.

Mongoloian women being way more kickass that Katniss on the archery field
2005 Naadam archery competition

Mounted on a horse and armed with a bow and arrows, a trained an experienced woman warrior could hold her own against men. Women fared better in combat based on firepower than in hand-to-hand combat. Although archery requires strength, muscular training and discipline prove to be more important than brute force. An archer, no matter how strong, can never substitute mere might for skill in shooting. By contrast good swordsmanship requires training and practice, but a sufficiently strong person wielding a sword can inflict lethal damage without prior experience.

Because archery depended so much on training, the ability of women to use arrows effectively in war depended upon their developing their skills as young girls. In the pastoral tribes, all children learned to use the bow and arrow, primarily for hunting and for protecting their herd from predators. Both boys and girls needed this exercise. In a family with an adequate number of both sexes, the boys would take the larger animals, such as camels and cows, farther away to graze, while girls stayed closer to home with the sheep and the goats. Since wolves would be more likely to attack a sheep or a goat than a camel or a cow, girls had to be able to defend their animals.

Muslim and Christian sources repeatedly described women warriors among the Mongols.

Actress Claudia Kim wearing some awesome armor as Khutulun in "Marco Polo
Khutulun as played by Claudia Kim in “Marco Polo”

Mongolian wresting remains an important part of Mongolian culture.   According to The Secret History of the Mongol Queens, and many, many other web pages on Mongolian wrestling, the wrestlers wear an open vest called a zodog.  In tribute to Khutulun, this vest is worn open, exposing the chest, so that the wrestlers know they are not wrestling a woman in disguise.  Every year, a festival called Nadaam is held that celebrates horse racing, archery, and wrestling.  Today, women are forbidden to wrestle, but they compete in racing and archery.

Two Mongoloian wrestlers checking each other out.
Nope, I’m not a girl – you?

 

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Vasha says:

    Women fared better in combat based on firepower than in hand-to-hand combat.

    Women are finally being fully integrated into combat in this day and age when we’ve developed a lot of weapons that you don’t have to be a brawny giant to use, and most fighting isn’t hand-to-hand.

    But that point of view, where it regards Khutulun specifically, is contradicted by the fact that she was a champion at wrestling, of all things, where size counts no matter how clever and skilled you are. Even if she had techniques similar to jiujitsu or whatever, that really depends on not grappling. But maybe Mongolian wrestling can be more like jiujitsu?

  2. 2
    Pamala says:

    Thanks for this post! I’m always on the lookout for books about women’s role in battle/combat throughout history. I also love Claudia Kim’s portrayal of Khutulun on Marco Polo. Off to go make a purchase 🙂 Happy Saturday!

  3. 3
    CarrieS says:

    Just to clarify, I believe the author is saying that women fare better in combat with ranged weapons than in hand to hand combat against men in general, not absolutely, as evidenced by Khutulun being a champion at hand-to-hand combat as well as archery. There have been women, either openly or covertly, serving in virtually every armed force in history. However, the Mongol women had not only ranged weapons on their side but also a culture that encouraged them to learn to use them at a young age.

  4. 4
    Vasha says:

    So while googling for more on Khutulun, I found a site called Rejected Princesses, written by Jason Porath, and it’s fantastic. (Maybe been mentioned here before?) There are a whole lot of entries about fascinating real and legendary women. Porath is an animator and illustrates many of the entries in the style of Disney movie posters, because Disney as the main pop-culture purveyor of legends to girls, should be awesomer than it is.

    However the picture for Khutulun really illustrates the limitations imposed by the Disney style he’s trying to subvert — he says that sources described her as broad and muscular, but he only drew her a little broader than the usual twiglike princess form. Really serious lack of body diversity in Disney. And though he wanted to depict her wrestling accomplishments, he drew her in a demure pose sitting next to a fallen opponent — it’s pointing out the limits of the style rather than subverting it really. Anyhow, very fine site.

  5. 5

    […] Head over to Smart Bitches to find out more about this amazing woman!  For more warrior women, I highly recommend the book Secret History of the Mongol Queens, by Jack Weatherford.  You can read my full-length review of the book here. […]

  6. 6

    […] of related: Found this link on an agent’s #MSWL. Kick-ass women in history: Khutulun on Smart Bitches/Trashy Books. She wants a book based on the life of a Mongol […]

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