Marianna Mayer (writer) and Julek Heller (illustrator), Women Warriors: Myths and Legends of Heroic Women (Morrow Junior Books, 1999)

There was once a warrior maiden who was told that her actions were like those of a man. "If I do these things, then they must be the ways of a woman," she replied, "since that is what I know myself to be."

Morrigan. Boadicea. Devi. Do you recognize these names? Probably. How about Scathach, Yakami, or Aliquipiso? Less likely. And what do they have in common? If you hadn't read the title at the top of this review, would you know?

This is the sort of book I wish I'd had available when I was a child. It's a short (eighty page), large (nine by twelve inches) picture-and-story book. The writing is accessible to anyone from nine to twelve, the notes claim, but I think it could be read aloud to a much younger child, and enjoyed by people of any age.

Included are stories of twelve women who fought, and sometimes died. Some of them fought for their people, but some of them, like the Morrigan, fought for themselves. Scathach trained young male warriors, keeping her own fighting skills hidden from the world. Yakami fought a terrible monster, but Mella fought to protect a creature that other people thought was a monster. Some were queens; some were young village girls. Some came from traditions of women warriors, while others had to overturn or break cultural taboos against women engaging in battle. Their stories come from all over the world, including Japan, Africa, India and the Sioux nations.

All of the stories are short, no longer than a few pages at most. Marianna Mayer writes in simple, clear prose, seeming almost consciously to steer away from artistic, flowery, poetic language. Although I often prefer the latter, I thought that in this case the choice was right. Not just because the book is intended for younger readers, but because the stark words and plain sentence structure show the stories to their best advantage. These are women bared to their essence, without any extraneous ornament. The accounts of their actions strike deep into the heart, with no literary armour to slow their entry.

Julek Heller both enhances and compliments the stories with his art work. Full of color and movement, the pictures are nonetheless as bare of superfluous or sentimental ornament as the words. The women Heller portrays are real women. They are not necessarily "beautiful," except as people engaged in action with the whole of their being are always beautiful. Heller shows some of the women with faces carved in lines of rage, or straining with effort. They wear the clothing of their people, and they are dressed for the work at hand. No long, curling locks floating on artificial breezes, no impossible chain mail bikinis. The crones look like crones, and the maidens look like young girls.

In addition to the stories, the book includes a map, drawn by Ian Schoenherr, showing places around the world that have legends or accounts of women warriors; a pronunciation guide to all the names; a concise but useful bibliography; and a delightful annotated index (which you should not even look at unless you want to be tempted to explore any number of tantalizing story threads).

[Grey Walker]


Mr. Black, Managing Editor extraordinaire, pulled the following related sites out of the Web:

More on Aliquipiso -- and also here.

An "experimental archeology" of women warriors is here.

A history of women warriors is here.

See monuments to women warriors here.

And here are some interesting facts on mediaeval orders of female knights...