09 May 2009

Uppity Women: Mongolian-Style

Some days I just love my job.

I’m currently writing the text for a how-to art book featuring the wonderful art of Rafi Adrian Zulkarnain. The process is a little different than I’ve used before. Instead of writing the text all at once, like I did for Illumina: The Art of J.P. Targete, the editor feeds me a batch of roughly thirty paintings at a time. This time, she also asked me to come up with names for four characters: two armored knights on horseback, a Persian horse soldier and a Mongolian horsewoman.

Naming the knights was pretty straightforward. Every fantasy writer whose ever lived has a “McAncient McEurope” Tolkien rip-off buried in the basement somewhere. This was the perfect opportunity to squeeze something useful out of mine before consigning it to the recycle pile.

The Persian horseman was a little more challenging, but taking one name from the Wikipedia list of usual suffixes and another from a linked list of common Farsi names did the trick. History International’s Ancient Discoveries program on Persia added enough back story for an interesting commentary, and voila, another completed caption.

Then I came to the Mongolian horsewoman. I thought I knew where this was going. One of the short stories I’m working on involves a young Mongolian woman, a dragon and a very bad man (who’s not bad in a good way) in Genghis Khan’s Mongolia. Seemed like a perfect way to snag a little free advertising. But Setseg, the name I’d chosen for my heroine, wasn’t enough. It would’ve been like stopping at Firouz for the Persian horseman. The horsewoman needed a family name.

So back to Wikipedia I went in search of Mongolian women’s names. The names of the modern Mongolian women listed were either too distinctive or borrowed from their non-Mongolian spouses.

Then, somehow, I landed on a page discussing the female relations of Genghis Khan. It seems his niece Khutulun was such a great warrior, she could “ride into enemy ranks and snatch a captive as easily as a hawk snatches a chicken”. She amassed a personal fortune of over ten thousand horses by challenging all prospective suitors to a wrestling match. The loser had to pay the winner a hundred of their finest horses. She never lost. She never married either, though throwing a match wouldn’t have been hard if she’d had a mind to.

Not only had I'd found the right name for Rafi's painting, I'd found an inspiration. If ever there was a woman tailor-made for a butt-kicking chick, Khutulun is it. What endears her to me even more is I suspect she’s the reason Mongolian wrestling matches are conducted in the semi-nude. In a National Geographic special on Mongolia I saw in January, anthropologist Wade Davis noted the custom of men displaying their muscles in shirtless bolero-style jackets and wrestling bare to the waist originated in the 12th century, when a woman snuck onto the lists undetected. Yep, it’s the right time period, and knowing Khutulun, I suspect she whupped their butts.

But this isn’t enough. I have to know more. With any luck, at least part of what I discover will make its way into a story. But even if it doesn’t, what other profession would spring for the initial research?

Like I said, some days I just love my job.
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