Persian History: Female Warrior and Persian Chief Naval Commander, Artemis

Original Painting: Artemis Goes to War, by Shakiba

Not long after my visit to Iran, I noticed that almost every other Iranian boy or girl has one particular poster on their wall: A fictional painting of an ancient crowned king walking side by side a beautiful woman–I assumed his queen.

One day a distant cousin asked me in a proud tone if I knew who the people in the painting were…Of course, King Xerxes and his admiral Artemis, were the last names I would have answered.

My cousin said that Artemis was the namesake of  a 1960s Iranian Navy Vessel. (Not surprisingly, the vessel’s name has been changed over time as a result of the 1979 revolution.)I had simply assumed that Artemis’s popularity–in the form of some art medium, like flawless paintings on many-a-wall in Iranian homes–was due to the fact that her existence as the first (and only) female Persian Daryaa Saalaar (Persian: Naval Commander), made a rather political statement to the current government. (Artistic expression is a common form of global communication amongst Iranians in Iran.)

The thought of her special place in human history fled my mind after some time. Yet, it wasn’t long until Artemis’s name came up again….

I was at a gathering, where a retired high school teacher said to me and a group of young Iranian women to “investigate into [your] own culture for early traces of feminism and the presence of women in public affairs.”

My interest was sparked. And the research began: Artemis, it is said, was from a noble family and joined the Persian Navy as a young woman. In her most renowned and recorded battle, the Battle of Salamis (480 BC), she fought against the Greeks for King Xerxes (Kha-shaa-yaar).

And although the battle was not a success for the Persian forces (more than 400 ships were sunken), Artemis stayed in control and led her five massive navy units with adroitness, even managing to save some of the ships and sail them back to Persia. Upon her return, she was praised and promoted as an Admiral by the King himself.

For reasons beyond my power to fix, her story is not widely mentioned in history books in Iran, but some that have mentioned Artemis, have claimed that she desired to marry the king; there are also tales of their passionate love affair which was ended by the Xerxes’s marriage to Esther (the Jewish-born maiden Hadassah Abihail, the inspiration behind the celebration of Purim in Jewish tradition.)

I found two different narrations about Artemis’s origin and realm of duties: According to one, the Persian Artemis who was solely  a naval commander, should not be mistaken with Artemisia, the governor of Persian-controlled Caria (southwestern Turkey) between 353 and 351 BC. The other narration attributes the governing of Caria to her and also believes that she was a native of Halicarnassus, Anatolia which was then considered Lydia (modern day Turkey).

Nonetheless, fact and fiction together, it is obvious that history does note her as a powerful woman of the Persian Empire who was ahead of her time; Greek historians generally describe and praise Artemis for her beauty and decency.

I was further fascinated to find out that even Pravin Etesami, an Iranian poet known for her monazerat or debate poems, mentions Artemis in her work and praises Artemis’s wit and skill in matters of warfare.

The fact that she was a woman could very well have played a role in the apparent lack of mentions about her origin and accomplishments as well as the full story of her life before and after the battle of Salamis. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time in history that an influential woman is not favorably looked upon.

The good news, however, is that she is not the only female warrior in Persian history. Artemis is merely just one in a long line of ancient Persian women in power: Pantea, for example, was a commander of the Immortal Guards of the Achaemenid Dynasty. There are also many historical accounts from Roman and Greek periods, referencing Iranian women warriors. In one account Zonaras XII reports: “…amongst those who fell in the Persian army and were being stripped of their arms there are said to have been found women also, dressed and armed like men, and that such a women were also taken alive by the Romans.

Since the reign of Pourandokht and Azarmidokht, two sisters who ruled Iran consecutively in the Sassanid Era, the old Persian custom of having Persian women leaders and rulers has not been a consistent practice amongst Iran’s myriad of rulers over the years, but the admiration for this particular Banu (Persian: Lady)-admiral, shows how her inspiring life story has persevered and lived on, as it is still widely sought out, told and retold today.

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