I met a lady, she was playing with her soldiers in the dark,
oh one by one she had to tell them
that her name was Joan of Arc.
Wars, rebellions, revolutions, piracy – violent occupations carried out predominantly by men. Traditionally considered gentle and caring, if not just weaker, Western women did not generally engage in warfare. When they did, they sparked the imagination of writers and artists. Pagan queen or saint, resplendent in her armour, elegant on horseback, she is beautiful, but above all she is fearless. She could be Joanne d’Arc, Boudica or Bouboulina. Courage is alluring.
The horse whisperers
An inspiration to feminists everywhere, the Amazons were a tribe of women who lived without men. According to Greek mythology, they only raised their female offspring, conceived through annual encounters of convenience with a neighbouring tribe. Otrera, the first Amazon queen, was the daughter of the nymph Harmonia and Ares, the god of war and courage. Amazons are often portrayed as embodying their parents’ attributes.
Many images of Amazons are of them in battle: on vases dating from around 500 BC, the armed Amazon is holding a sword and a shield, while Penthesilia (another notable Queen and Hippolyta’s sister) is shown fighting Achilles with an axe. They were skilled horse whisperers and proficient riders, so are often depicted on horseback.
The Amazons appear in the context of the Trojan War, Homer and Plutarch mentioned them in the myths of Theseus and Heracles (retrieval of Hippolyta’s belt was the ninth labour of Heracles). They were also involved in the Attic War, battles with Centaurs, and other real or imaginary wars. Ancient representations were of individual women, modeled on the goddess Athena or Artemis, but later painters preferred the complexity of crowded scenes of battle, like Rubens and van Dyck’s The Battle of the Amazons (1615).
Franz von Stuck returned to the more poignant theme of a single suffering Amazon. In his 1904 painting, the nude woman is holding a large scarlet shield which proved of limited effect, while her other hand is pressing on a wound under her breast. Another Amazon and a Centaur are pointing arrows at each other in the background, and the swirling curves of the composition lead the eye to rest on the right, on the pale face of a fallen Amazon.
In De Mulieribus Claris, the first collection of biographies of famous women dating from 1362, Giovanni Boccaccio praises the skills and strength of Penthiselia; he credits her accomplishments (and these of her tribe) to practice and experience. Another familiar literary appearance is by Hippolyta at the start of A Midsummer Night's Dream. She and Theseus are engaged and discussing their imminent wedding under the new moon.
After centuries of negative connotations, popular culture has changed its view on the qualities of Amazons, who inspired many films, TV shows, and games.
When the Iceni king Prasutagus, Boudica’s husband, died in 59 AD his wealth was left to his daughters and to emperor Nero, hoping to gain protection for his family. Ungratefully, Nero annexed the Iceni kingdom (Norfolk) and his troupes carried out their customary plundering. That enraged Boudica even more than having been left out of the will. She took advantage of the Roman governor’s absence to organise and lead a revolt of the Iceni and neighbouring tribes. The rebels occupied and destroyed three important cities including London. Although ultimately defeated, Boudicca is remembered for her ability to unite previously warring tribes against a common oppressor. She became a symbol of female and maternal strength and courage.
The images and statues of Boudica were created much later. Best known among them, John Opie Boudicca Haranguing the Britons features the Queen dressed and coiffed as 18th-century painters imagined her. The film Boadicea was produced in 1927 and a more recent one was Boudica (in US Warrior Queen) in 2003.
Maybe no other heroine has been so widely represented in high and popular culture as Joan of Arc. From 15th-century epic poems to a play by Schiller (The Maid of Orleans, 1801) that inspired 82 further dramatic works; from single songs to hundreds of operatic adaptations; dozens of films, and hundreds of paintings.
Joan was only 19 years old in 1431 when she was burned at the stake for blasphemy, heresy, and cross-dressing. The verdict was overturned on appeal 25 years later; she became a martyr and, after the French Revolution, the national symbol of France. Of the many ways of representing her over the centuries – in prayer, in battle, at the burning stake – it is easy to prefer the image of the maiden covered in her specially commissioned plate armour, carrying the banner she designed herself. As a combined symbol of freedom, independence, virginity, and haute couture Joan of Arc at the Coronation of Charles VII by Ingres is remarkable in its splendid light, rich detail (her shoes!), and a rare self-portrait of the artist. The Art Nouveau style engraving by Albert Lynch, published in the Figaro Illustré magazine may be the closest likeness to the real Joanne, with her direct gaze and dark hair cut in a fashionable (in 1903) short bob.
The sea was forbidden territory for women; they were not allowed on ships, for fear of bringing bad luck and angering the sea gods, thus causing storms. More likely, they were considered a distraction among the sailors. The doors to seafaring careers were closed to women until recently, although we know of at least one woman admiral in the 19th century, Laskarina Bouboulina, the subject of many statues and street names in Greece.
So if a girl wanted to travel the seven seas, one option was to cut her hair and change her name, as well as learning the ropes before setting sail. Or they could paint the ship black and join the risky but profitable business of piracy.
They didn’t sit for portraits by famous and fashionable painters, preferring to keep a low profile, so images of pirates, especially women pirates are few. Accounts are limited, based on myth as well as facts. But we can imagine them, swashbuckling, rallying the crew against the enemy vessel, a sword in one hand, the other arm holding the baby. Jeanne de Clisson (The Lioness of Brittany), Anne Bonny and Mary Read, Grace O’Malley, Ching Shih, Jacquotte Delahaye (Back From The Dead Red). In search of freedom and fortune, then like now, women fought for themselves and their family, for the sisterhood.