Five Extraordinary Women of World Mythology and What They Can Teach Us

Corrine Corcoran
Oct 18 · 6 min read
Photo by Tamara Jeremic on Unsplash

You don’t have to look very far to find tales of heroes, knights, and gods saving their fair ladies, countries and even the world with acts of strength and valor. Growing up, the role models for girls like myself were all the beautiful princesses, waiting patiently for their knight in shining armor to save the day. We have turned a corner over the past ten years or so where I see more of the princesses play an active role in their rescue, but there are not many heroine tales in the modern Western tradition.

As an anthropology student, I loved studying the folklore and mythology of cultures all around the world. One of the things I learned is that as cultures were Christianized, the traditional stories and myths were often changed to reflect a more patriarchal theme. Since many of the original stories were passed down via oral tradition, only the new, masculine versions were written down.

Many of the original folktales did survive through oral tradition and over the last few centuries have been recorded in written collections. Here are some of my favorite heroine tales that show us that girls don’t always need to be saved.

Billkis

This Princess saved her Prince

Billkis is a Uighur legend of a Princess looking for her soulmate. The girl embroidered her wedding veil in the finest and most colorful silks and claimed her perfect man would be able to interpret the images on the veil. Nobleman after nobleman failed to correctly read the meanings of the veil. Then one day a poor man entered the palace and saw in the veil a witch on a mountain, holding a beautiful bird prisoner. Billkis was pleased but told the man before she would marry him, he had to find the real mountain and free the bird from the witch. To assist him she gave him one of her pearl earrings.

The man journeyed to the cave and threw the pearl earring into the air, the light of which blinded the witch. This allowed the man to rush in and free the bird, which he brought back to the palace. Billkis was delighted, but her father was not. He did not want her to marry a pauper. The King set about assigning impossible task after impossible task for the man to complete, which he was always able to complete with the assistance of Billkis.

Eventually, the pair grew tired of cooperating with the King’s increasingly ridiculous requests and ran away. They rode for many miles before the King and his men caught up. To resist capture Billkis transformed the bird and the couple flew away to happiness.

This is the ultimate princess tale. Not only does Billkis have an opinion and preference on who she will marry, but the man she chooses requires her to help him throughout the entire story. The story does not end with any act of strength or valor by the suitor, but with Billkis defying her father and saving her beloved. Billkis inspires us to be active partners in our relationships and know we can take care of ourselves and others.

Kaahu-pahua

The fierce shark queen who protects humans

From Hawaiian mythology, Kaahu-pahua was the enormous shark-queen of the ocean. Born a red-headed human, Kaahu-pahua and her brother were transformed into sharks by a mysterious deity. Despite becoming a shark, Kaahu-pahua always remained loyal to humans. She guarded the entrance to Pearl Harbor with her family, traveling about everywhere, ever vigilant and providing protection.

The shark goddess protected the people of the island from man-eating sharks and protected all sea life. Early in the 20th century, the US Navy built a series of docks to better access the bay. One of the docks was over the entrance to the cave that was thought to be Kaahu-pahua’s home. The cave mysteriously collapsed with no reason found.

Kaahu-pahua is a great tale of strength and loyalty. While certainly not a princess this story teaches us that women can be tough, whatever their shape.

Riina

The warrior woman who could defeat ghosts

This tale is from the mythology of the Solomon Islands and starts with a pair of cannibal ghosts kidnapping two women from a village. The ghosts did not eat the women, but kept them as pets, feeding them fish since they refused to eat human flesh. The men of the village, and surrounding villages attempted time and again to rescue the women, but all failed with many of the men dying.

Finally, the warrior woman Riina set out to rescue the women, approaching the island of the cannibals with her warriors. As they approached the island Riina’s warrior crouched so Riina looked as if it were only her rowing towards the island. One of the cannibal ghosts swooped down, hoping to eat Riina, she grabbed him by the hair while her warrior women lept up and beat him into submission. The women then found the other ghost hiding in a cave with the bones of his many victims. Riina used her boomerang to kill the second ghost and free the kidnapped women.

Riina came in to save the day after many of her male counterparts failed. She used her strength and cunning to defeat the ghosts. Riina teaches us that we can depend on ourselves when the going gets tough and should depend on each other as women.

Eachtach

The vengeance-seeking daughter

This tragic tale comes from Irish legend. Eachtach was the daughter of Diarmait and Grainne. Grainne had originally been promised to wed Fionn mac Cumhail, but decided, instead, to elope with Diarmait. Fionn chased them for many years before eventually leaving the couple in peace. Many years later, Diarmuid and Fionn were on a boar hunt together where Diarmuid was fatally wounded.

Eachtach was by her father’s side and begged Fionn to save her father, for water drunk from Fionn’s hands had the power to heal. Fionn filled his hands with water and then let it drain out next to Diarmait, instead of allowing him to drink it. Eachtach gathers her brothers to fight and avenge her father’s death. They harassed Fionn for four years with constant battles. Though Eachtach did not manage to kill Fionn, she had him at near death many times.

Even though Eachtach wasn’t successful in killing Fionn she showed great perseverance. In a male-dominated culture, she took matters into her own hands to avenge her father’s death, by leading her brothers into battles, not the other way around. Fionn was one of the fiercest fighters in Irish legends, the fact that she almost beat him is pretty astounding. Eachtach teaches us to strive for our goals, even the ones that seem impossible. Even when you don’t reach your ultimate goal, you have still accomplished something worthy.

Scathach

Mistress of battle

Scathach comes from the Scottish folklore tradition. Scathach lives on the Isle of Skye where she was the head of a martial arts academy, turning warriors into heroes. She taught her students many secret battle techniques such as the hero’s call, the thunder feat and even how to use the magical barbed spear named Gae Bolga. The school was hidden and only students who could leap across the great Bridge of the Cliff gorge could enter training.

One of Scathach’s most famous students was Cuchulainn. When Scathach refused to tell his fortune or succeed her island to him they fought for days. Finally, during a break from fighting the two sat together and ate the hazelnuts of wisdom. After eating these Cuchulainn realized he would never beat Scathach.

This tale is amazing, of all the great fighters from Celtic legend, it was a woman who trained them. Scathach shows us that, even if we are building a career in a male-dominated profession, a woman can still be an expert in the field. I’m thinking of all the female engineers I know who are intimated by their all-male work environments, channel your inner Scathach and show everyone you are on top of your game!

These amazing women of legend can inspire anyone looking for some girl-power motivation. There are many more heroines, goddesses, and queens from stories across the world that we can learn from. Who is your favorite heroine?

Further reading:

Grimshaw, Patricia. “The Epic Female Warrior Who Trained the Heroes of Irish Mythology.” The Vintage News, 10 Nov. 2018, www.thevintagenews.com/2018/11/10/scathach/.

Monaghan, Patricia. Encyclopedia of Goddesses & Heroines. New World Library, 2014.

Philip, Neil, and Liyi He. The Spring of Butterflies: and Other Folktales of China’s Minority Peoples. Collins, 1985

Corrine Corcoran

Written by

I’m an anthropologist and story teller at heart. I am also an HR professional who loves gardening, fishing and spending time with my husband and children.

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