Tomyris, the sixth-century warrior-queen of the Massegetae, was a kick-ass chick who didn't go out looking for trouble, but knew how to end shit when people came around her corner of the earth trying to start shit with her. She was tough, wise, and fierce, and more than happy to respond to incursions on her territory by punching the offenders in the dick and then violating them with their own lopped-off appendages. Despite the fact that we know very little about this hardcore woman's life outside of a single military engagement, among the ancient Greeks she was highly respected as one of the most ferocious warriors to ever live, and a dauntless fighter who somehow managed to stand up to the mighty Persian Empire.
I touched on Emperor Cyrus the Great of Persia in my article on Darius a few months ago, but the short version here is that he was totally awesome. This guy was a seriously-badass conqueror who smashed more balls than Barry Bonds in the height of his steroid-augmented half-cyborg MVP days, and he made quite a name for himself in the good old days by going out, putting together the largest and most technologically-advanced armies the world had ever seen, and subjugating the most ginormous empire that had ever been assembled. He was a genius at the fine art of beating the hell out of his enemies and breaking all of their toys, and by 550 BC nobody had really done a very good job of not gettin kicked in the groin repeatedly by Cyrus and passing out from a swollen pair of matching ruptured testicles.
Tomyris and the Massegetae, by comparison, were what the famous racist Robert E. Howard would have referred to as "noble savages". These nomadic Scythian-esque people from present day Iran or Afghanistan were basically an entire race of Conan the Barbarians, and they weren't exactly too keen on submitting to the will of Cyrus the Great – no matter how great Cyrus and his followers seemed to think he was. So when CtG rolled into town in 550 BC and started talking about how sweet it would be if the Massegetae became Persian subjects, nobody was buying it.
Cyrus first asked for Tomyris' hand in marriage. Tomyris, who had assumed total rule of her people after the death of her first husband, wasn't really interested in handing over her power and marrying some guy she didn't really even know that well, so she told him to take that ring and shove it. Cyrus, undeterred by this rejection, resolved instead to take on the Massegetae tribe, annex their land, and pulverize their brains until they were the consistency of mashed potatoes and gravy. He ordered his men to advance to the Araxes River, the border between Persia and Massegetaeialand, and started building a huge bridge so they could cross over and start whipping asses.
Tomyris, being the fearless leader she was, wasn't afraid of taking on Cyrus and the most powerful army in the entire world, even though they had a well-deserved reputation for traveling to every corner of the known world and head-butting their enemies into fleshy pulp. She was, however, getting really bored of sitting around waiting for Cyrus to build this bridge so that they could finally get together and fight each other, so she sent out a message to Cyrus that was basically like, "ok whatever, chill dude... let's just pick a side of the river and meet up there to kick each other's asses." Cyrus was pretty cool with this, because it saved him a lot of time and energy, so he accepted the generous offer. He decided, being the good classical-age cheauv that he was, that it would be a serious dishonor to give even one foot of ground to a woman, and instead opted to cross the river and fight on the Massegetae side of the waterway. Tomyris, being the honorable woman she was, pulled her armies back, let Cyrus cross the river, and then prepared for an epic battle. This who process ended up saving everyone a lot of time and hassle, which is something I can really appreciate.
Well Cyrus developed a devious plan to fight the Massegatae – he had his men set up a huge banquet, filled with wine and food and other awesome stuff, and then he abandoned his camp to move his armies around in the battlefield. He marched forward, leaving the banquet tables guarded by just a few men, and just as he suspected, one-third of the Massegetae army swung around, attacked the undefended camp, killed the guards, and started eating all the food themselves. Unfortunately for Tomyris, Cyrus knew that the Massegetae were total lightweights who couldn't drink their weight in stiff wine like real Persian men, and once the Massegetae were all more trashed than Uncle Fubar at Christmas dinner, the Persians returned, assaulted the drunk Massegetae, and killed or captured a third of Tomyris' army. Dumbasses.
Unfortunately for our heroine, among the captured in this battle was her own son. Cyrus was pretty pumped that this turn of events, and sent a messenger to Tomyris telling her that he'd release her son if she would just hand over all of her lands, possessions, freedom, and money, and also marry him so they could get busy. She responded by saying:
"Now listen to me and I will advise you for your good: give me back my son and get out of my country with your forces intact, and be content with your triumph over one-third of the Massagetae. If you refuse, I swear by the sun our master to give you more blood than you can drink, for all your gluttony."
Cyrus ignored this threat, but when Tomyris' son escaped his bonds in captivity and killed himself in shame, the Queen of the Massegetae decided it was time to stop fucking around with this bullshit and kick some Persian ass. Seething with rage, Tomyris assembled her armies and personally charged balls-out towards the Persian lines, throwing every available warrior into the fray against Cyrus' battle-hardened troops. There was no trickery, no clever maneuvering, and no diplomacy – just full-on blood vengeance. The Greek historian Herodotus claims that, "The battle which followed I judge to have been more violent than any other fought between foreign nations", which is saying something considering that this guy is the primary source for pretty much everything from Marathon to Leonidas. In the insanity that followed people were kicking asses with arrows, spears, daggers, cattle prods, bazookas, flamethrowers, and god knows what else. Cyrus and his men go the worst of it, were backed up against the Araxes River, and without a quick avenue of escape (i.e. a sturdy, well-constructed bridge or something) their entire army was completely slaughtered by the Massegetae. The warrior-queen had defeated the most powerful man on earth.
After the battle, Tomyris found Cyrus' body, beheaded it, and dunked the severed head into a bowl of blood to prove to Cyrus that she was going to give him his fill of blood. Then, just in case there were a possibility that she hadn't desecrated his corpse enough, she scooped out his brain pan, and turned his empty skull into a wine bowl, which she kept on her dinner table for the rest of her life. I'm told that as a centerpiece it was quite a conversation-starter.
Gera, Deborah Levine. Warrior Women. BRILL, 1997.
Herodotus. Histories. Trans. Aubrey de Silincourt. Penguin, 2002.
Jackson-Laufer, Guida Myrl. Women Rulers Throughout the Ages. ABC-CLIO, 1999.
Leon, Vicki. Uppity Women of Ancient Times. Conari, 1995
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