What do you get if you cross Mulan with Merida and plop the result into 13th-century Mongolia? The answer: Khutulun, the warrior princess who reputedly turned down more than 1,000 suitors after beating them all in displays of strength and athletic ability.
Born around the year 1260 to a cousin of Kublai Khan – the grandson of Genghis, who founded the Yuan Dynasty of China and ruled over an empire that stretched from the Pacific Ocean in the East to the edge of Europe in the West – Khutulun was infamous for her military prowess even outside of her homeland. She was, the Italian explorer Marco Polo recorded, “very beautiful, but also so strong and brave that in all her father's realm there was no man who could outdo her in feats of strength,” while the Persian chronicler Rashid al-Din wrote that her father loved her “most of all his children […] frequently taking part in campaigns and performing acts of heroism. She was held in high esteem by her father and was of great service to him.”
She was renowned for her ability on the battlefield: she would ride out with her father to meet the opposing forces, then, Polo recounted, she would “make a dash at the host of the enemy, and seize some man thereout, as deftly as a hawk pounces on a bird, and carry him to her father; and this she did many a time.” She was, in essence, acting as her father’s own personal sniper cell, wreaking an extra dose of psychological terror on the enemy in the heat of the battle.
Her greatest claim to fame, though, lay not in warfare, but in the sports arena. Even today, the national sports of Mongolia are wrestling, horse riding, and archery – back in Khutulun’s time, however, those talents were not only pastimes but crucial survival skills for life on the Eurasian Steppe.
“You’re pretty much out on the steppe by yourself,” explained Timothy May, a Mongol military historian at the University of North Georgia, in Atlas Obscura in last year. “Without your horse, you were dead.”
That’s why training started early for Mongolian rugrats, with toddlers being taught to ride horses almost before they could walk on their own. Khutulun would have been far from the only girl experiencing this training: as Columbia University PhD candidate Sally Greenland told Atlas Obscura, “you’re looking at a seven-year-old soldier. It doesn’t matter what gender that child is.”
To keep their skills honed, Mongolians showed off their military training in Nadaam, or “games”, in which competitors vied to become the champion of the three great national sports. It was here that Khutulun set up her challenge for any potential husband: best her in wrestling, and you could have her hand in marriage.
Despite numerous challenges, it's said that nobody managed to defeat her – in fact, she was so unbeatable that by about the year 1280, her parents were basically begging her to take a dive just so she could marry somebody. When a particularly strong and desirable prince put himself forward for the challenge, wagering a staggering 1,000 horses that he would be the one to out-wrestle Khutulun, she agreed to let him win – but in the midst of the competition, her resolve failed, and she once again sent the cocky challenger packing.
Although she lived a life unusually rambunctious and free for a medieval woman, Khutulun was still confined by contemporary attitudes towards her gender. Without a husband, her father’s political enemies spread rumors that he was maintaining an incestuous relationship with her, and eventually, she did marry – though she didn’t force her chosen husband to wrestle her beforehand.
Despite being her father’s most favored advisor and political supporter – as well as the realm’s champion wrestler and battlefield commando – she was still held back from the top job. According to some accounts, her father attempted to name her the next Khan after his death in 1301 – but, with 14 brothers, the nomination of a woman was rejected.
After that, Khutulun actually threw her support behind her brother Orus’s claim for the khanate instead – and in return, the plan was for her to become commander of the military. So maybe we shouldn’t feel too bad that she never got the crown – it seems like she only ever really wanted a war helm in any case.