Today I wanted to spotlight a really awesome (yet, forgotten) woman from history. She was the great-great granddaughter of Genghis Khan, one of the most famous conquerors in history. Her father was Kaidu Khan and was descended from the third son of Genghis. She was born in 1260 and had fourteen male siblings. Her name was Khutulun meaning light of the moon.
Khutulun was a unique woman in the scope of world history. Her father raised her alongside her brothers where she became an expert horsewoman, learned the art of battle, and became a proficient wrestler. Mongol women in general lead a different lifestyle than Western woman. Mongol women were taught from a young age how to ride a horse proficiently (very important in a nomadic society) and taught to fight with a bow and arrow. The main weapon in a Mongol army was the bow and often women did fight alongside their men as cavalry archers. Most importantly, their fighting ability would be able to protect their homestead. Being a society where the men were constantly at war it was up to the women to be the administers of their lands. This was a pretty powerful role as these women would have direct influence in the economics of their community. Women could also receive property from their husbands and could use these lands and her ownership to become involved in politics. Khutulun was still unique as she was more involved in the military and had more freedoms than the average Mongol woman, but it was also not unusual for women in this culture to learn these trades.
What Khutulun is most famous for is her prowess on the wrestling circuit. Mongolian style wrestling was extremely popular during this time and is still practiced today. In this period of time there were no weight or size restrictions to wrestling and the wrestlers were not paired under these terms either. The opponents would grab each others arms or waist attempting to force each other to touch the ground. In this type of wrestling if any body part touched the ground (even for just a mere second) you would lose. Khutulun was undefeated. When she joined the public competitions she would defeat every man that came to face her and she would play for horses. Her parents were concerned because she was continuing to grow up, but did not have a husband (even in Mongol society women were expected to have a husband at a certain age). Yet, Khutulun would only marry a man who would defeat her in a wrestling match and, let me tell you, many tried. Instead of gaining a husband, Khutulun would gain a large team of horses.
According the Marco Polo, a very desirable suitor came to challenge Khutulun. Her father begged her to throw the fight, so she could marry this very influential prince. The prince wager 1,000 horses that he would win. Originally, Khutulun agreed to throw the match to please her parents, but her competitive spirit took over. Apparently, this prince was one of the tougher challenges Khutulun had faced in a while and thus grew her determination to win. After a drawn out match, Khutulun threw the prince to the ground, humiliated him, and gained 1,000 horses. Lets just say her parents were less than pleased because she threw away her last shot at a worthy husband.
Unfortunately, because she remained unmarried for so long malicious rumors began to spread about her father. This was hurting his reputation and support for his war against Kublai Khan. Eventually, Khutulun choose a husband from one of her father’s followers. Though she had to submit to marrying, she won because she was able to marry a man of her choice and remain undefeated on the wrestling circuit.
Khutulun was living in a very tumultuous time of Mongolian history. A Civil War broke out between her father, Kaidu, and his cousin Kublai Khan which would continue for almost 30 years. Kaidu was fighting to take the rule of the empire from his cousin because he did not believe in the changes Kublai was making. Kaidu Khan wanted the traditional way of living to remain in tact as Genghis would have wanted. The traditional way would have been the way of the nomad and conqueror. Meanwhile, Kublai was creating a more centralized government, welcoming foreigners (such as Marco Polo), and encouraging peace within the empire. To Kaidu, and many others who supported him, this was despicable.
Despite having fourteen brothers, it was actually Khutulun that Kaidu Khan looked to for advice and command on the battlefield. She was obviously the favorite child. With her standing next to her father on the battlefield and the athletic reputation she had, it boosted the morale of the troops they commanded. During the Civil War, the father and daughter would keep Kublai from moving further into the Western Mongolian territory. Marco Polo writes of the way Khutulun created fear on the battlefield: “Not a knight in all his train played such feats of arms as she did. Sometimes she would quit her father’s side and make a dash at the army of the enemy, and seize some man thereout, as deftly as a hawk pounces on a bird, and carry him to her father.” It would be frightening to wonder if you would be the next warrior that Khutulun would swoop up!
With the obvious favoritism from Kaidu and the multiple times Khutulun had showed up her brothers in battle/in wrestling it is only natural that they felt some resentment towards their sister. They tried to bring their own advice to the table, but their father wanted to hear it from Khutulun. Kaidu, it is said, attempted to make her his heir on his deathbed. If he did really say this it did not matter as the brothers would take what they felt was owed anyway; something we have seen many times throughout history. In 1301 Kaidu Khan died. Khutulun did give into her brothers (and it is theorized she really did not want to rule anyway) and for giving her political support to one she was named military commander in turn. Yet, in 1306 Khutulun died at the age of 45 under mysterious circumstances. I would not put it past her siblings, who were jealous of the power she held, to get rid of her, but nothing can be proven at this point.
Khutulun is really an admirable woman who lived her life on her own terms. She may have been a forgotten hero worldwide, but she is a revered figure in Mongolian tradition. They remember her as a inspiring athlete and warrior and revere her through their tradition of wrestling. When a wrestler dresses for a match he wears an open vest (showing his sex) and performs the victory dance of the warrior. This is to honor the greatest female wrestler in their history.
Food for Thought:
Western tradition portrays Khutulun as a wild woman conquered by love, yet the Mongols revere her athletic achievements. Why do you think that is?
What other women in history have we forgotten?
Stuff you Missed in History Podcast, Khutulun episode
The Women and the Economy of the Mongol Empire by Bruno de Nicola
Photos from google images and Netflix’s Marco Polo