Tuesday, March 8, 2022

10 folktales about women in war

 It is International Women's Day. The sun is shining, flowers are blooming, and thousands of women and girls (as well as men) are crossing the borders of Ukraine, fleeing from war. They fear for their fathers, sons, husbands, friends; they are carrying their children, seeking shelter and hope as the unimaginable happens around them. On the other side of the border, women (and men) are waiting with supplies, cars, open doors, open hearts. And then there are the women who don't flee - because they can't, or because they have decided to take up arms and defend their homes. And yes, there are women on the other side too: women fearing for their loved ones, and protesting the war.

I have been struggling to put stories to this whole situation. I have looked at folktales and legends about peace, but they alt felt hollow and insensitive. But I always post folktale selections for International Women's Day, and this time, the topic felt like a given. I want to share old stories about women who live through war. They fight, they heal, they make peace, they survive, they sacrifice, they do heroic things.

Folktales hold memories, hope, and values; they have important messages for the future. 

Let's listen to them. And let's help, any way we can, so the current stories in the making can have better endings.

The king who trusted his kingdom to his daughters (Jewish folktale)

I have blogged about this one before. A princess who is kind and caring receives a magic box that turns her teardrops into diamonds. Using the diamonds, she travels her cruel father's kingdom, helping people any way she can. When the neighboring ruler attacks the country, no one is willing to fight for the cruel king - but when the princess sets out to meet the army, people are willing to follow her. The enemy is surprised by their numbers. Instead of fighting, she starts negotiations. War is avoided, and she falls in love with the neighboring prince.

The wall of pastries (Indian folktale)

A greedy king is very fond of pastries, but refuses to share any of his wealth with anyone. His clever cook, however, keeps stealing small amounts of pastry, and feeding them to the poor. When an enemy attacks the kingdom, suddenly an impenetrable wall of pastries appears, blocking their soldiers. The cook tells the king about her secret activities, and how small kindnesses saved the kingdom. The king learns generosity, repents for his greediness, and rules wiser than before.

The women of Weinsberg (German legend)

King Conrad III besieges the city of Weinsberg. The women trapped inside the walls negotiate for their freedom; eventually, the king agrees to let them walk away from the city, with as much as they can carry on their shoulders. With this promise, the women all pick up their husbands or sons, and they walk out of Weinsberg. The king keeps his word, and lets them go.

Airmed, the healer (Irish legend)

Airmed is one of the Tuatha De Danann, the daughter of Dian Cecht the famous healer. She takes part in the Second Battle of Mag Turied against the Fomorians, caring for the wounded and the dying. When her jealous father kills her brother, she cries so much that 365 kinds of healing herbs grow on his grave, watered by her tears. She collects and catalogs them, but Dian Cecht grows angry and scatters them again. Airmed's knowledge is lost, but the herbs remain to help people.

The nine daughters of Khan Afrat (Uyghur legend)

Khan Afrat goes to war with his sons and they all perish. His nine daughters take over the kingdom, dividing the duties of ruling, keeping the peace, and caring for their people. When an enemy attacks them, thinking them weak, they resist the attack, and - with the help of the Queen of Deserts - manage to defend their kingdom.

Teapots over the door (Hui legend)

In times of a rebellion a poor woman, defending an orphan girl, earns the respect of the enemy general. He promises not to hurt her, and tells her to mark her door by hanging a turnip above it. She runs home, and tells everyone in the village to hang turnips above their doors. When the enemy arrives, however, she realizes that her neighbor has no turnip. She lends them her own, and replaces it with a teapot. This way, she gives her life for her people - and in her memory, Hui people have been hanging teapots, or teapot pictures, above their doors.

Mulan (Chinese ballad)

The story well known from the Disney movie goes all the way back to a 6th century Chinese ballad. Mulan goes to war instead of her father, and serves in the army for ten years, dressed as a man. No one figures out her secret. When she returns, she puts on a woman's dress, and reveals her identity to her stunned fellow soldiers.

Puskás Klári (Hungarian legend)

The men of Gyergyószárhegy (Transylvania) are sent to war, leaving their home village behind. The Turkish sultan sends the Tatars, thinking the village to be easy pickings. Puskás Klári, however, organizes the defense of her home with the women, children, and old men left behind. They dig pots into the ground, throw beehives at the attackers, and Klári herself kills seven soldiers with various household objects. And then she walks home, lays down, and gives birth to triplets. By the way.

(Women fighting the Tatar invasion is a very common theme in Hungarian folklore. I blogged about them in Hungarian here.)

Flower Mountain (Hungarian legend)

There is a place called Virághegy (Flower Mountain) near Nagybánya. It was named after a legend: in the time of a Tatar invasion, people fled to a wise woman who lived on the mountain. She led the refugees to a valley, and transformed them all into flowers, to hide them from the enemy.

Lady Béla (Hungarian legend)

A very famous Hungarian historical legend. A girl inherits her father's castle and lands, and she lives a double life, pretending to be two sisters: one brave and strong, and one kind and friendly. When the Tatars come, she organizes the defense of her castle, and resists the siege, until - with the help of a neighboring knight - she breaks the attack and defeats the enemy.


  1. Great compilation, Csenge. Just the stories we need to hear right now.

  2. These are lovely -- perfect reading for the current times. Thank you.