Khutulun: Warrior Princess of the Moon

The content below is from Episode 100 of the Who’d a Thunk It? Podcast


  • This is my 100th episode of Who’d a Thunk It! To celebrate this milestone I will be releasing a video recording of me reading this week’s episode. Be sure to check it out!


  • This week I recommend you play a board game called Settlers of Catan!
    • I’ve been playing Catan for years now and it is one of the most engaging board games I’ve ever played.
    • There is a fine line between too simple where you lose interest in a game and too complex that you give up trying to figure it out. Catan walks that line well.
    • You can say it is like monopoly, but that usually confuses people because it looks nothing like monopoly. However, the games are similar in that you collect resources and try to conquer the entire board.
    • The great thing about Catan is the trading aspect where you negotiate with other players even though they are your competition. You can even form temporary alliances.
      • But don’t worry, the game is simple enough that you can hold casual conversations and maybe even have a few beers while you play without being lost.


This week’s episode is about a warrior princess named Khutulun.

  • In order to tell Khutulun’s story we must first start with Ghengis Khan.
  • Now that is enough about Ghengis Khan. The man deserves his own Thunk It episode. I had to mention him because he is the ancestor to who I’m really going to be talking about: Khutulun Warrior Princess.
  • The way Ghengis raised his children and the culture/empire he created directly affected how Khutulun became her own person.
    • After Ghengis died in 1227AD, his empire continued to expand and conquer, but that didn’t last forever.
    • Similar to Alexander the Great and Atilla the Hun’s empire, Ghengis’s Mongol empire burned bright, but not for long.
      • All those testosterone fuled alpha male characters started chomping at each other to grab their own slice of grandDaddy’s empire.
  • Khutulun is known by several names: Khutulun, Aiyurug, or Aijaruc, all referring to moonlight.
    • Khutulun, Warrior Princess or Princess of Ten Thousand Horses, was Ghengis’s great-great-granddaughter. But have no fear, this badass b-word has a compelling story all her own.
      • What we know about Khutulun today is mainly because of 2 historians: Marco Polo carried her story to Europe and Rashid al-Din Hamadani spread her story in Persia.
Rashid al-Din Hamadani - Wikipedia
  • By the time Khutulun was born in 1260, her great-great-grandfather’s empire was already on shaky ground. The writing was on the wall that civil war was coming.
    • To summarize the inner fighting of the Mongol empire at the time:
      • : some of the Khans like Khutulun’s father Kaidu liked to do things the old-school mongol way like bashing skulls, raping, pillaging, riding horses, wrestling, and the usual nomad life of a G.
      • However, there was an older wiser Khan named Kublai Khan who was more interested in ruling in the long term. He wanted to use politics and establishing a successful empire within.
      • Most sources say Kublai was Kaidu’s cousin, but some say Kublai was Kaidu’s Uncle. Regardless.. they were related, yet rivals.
    • Kaidu and the Old-School Khans started a 30-year-long war with Kublai and his people.
      • During this war Kaidu had an ace of a warrior that he kept in his backpocket for the toughest battles. It wasn’t any of this 14 sons, it was his ultra-badass daughter Khutulun
    • Khutulun was like Kaidu’s heat seeking missile on the battlefield. Here is how Marco Polo described Khutulun’s most notable skill:

“Sometimes she would quit her father’s side, and 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.”

Marco Polo
  • She would just leave the protection of the Khan’s side, charge right in to battle, and capture a high priority target on the enemy side and bring him back to her own side to interrogate or whatever.
    • The greatest strategic benefit this had on the battlefield was to boost morale of her allies and terrify her enemies. It also cemented her formidable reputation.
    • To get a better idea of Mongolian culture it is import to point out that Khutulun’s abilities was unusual, but not unique.
      • Mongol women rode horses as skillfully as men, often carried a bow and wore a quiver, and they repeatedly appeared in early reports as fighting alongside men. The ability of women to fight successfully in steppe society when they failed to do so in most of the other sedentary civilizations came from the difference in how Mongols used horses with the bow and arrow.
      • In armies that relied on infantry and heavy weapons such as swords, lances, pikes, or clubs, men enjoyed major physical advantages over women.
      • But the Mongol army was all about being on horseback, being mobile and in that, women were more than qualified. While they typically had less strength than their male counterparts, they were able to ride faster and shoot a bow&arrow just as well.
    • Jack Weatherford at describes it well:
      • “Mounted on a horse and armed with a bow and arrows, a trained woman could hold her own against men in battle. Women fared better in combat based on firepower than in hand-to-hand combat. Although archery requires strength, muscular training and discipline prove to be more important than brute force. An archer, no matter how strong, can never substitute mere might for skill in shooting. By contrast, good swordsmanship requires training and practice, but a sufficiently strong person wielding a sword can inflict lethal damage without prior experience. Mongols, like their relatives the Huns and Turks, relied almost exclusively on the bow and arrow in warfare.”
    • Our warrior princess assisted her father in many battles, particularly against the Yuan Dynasty of her cousin the Great Khan – Kublai (r. 1260–1294).
  • Khutulun’s ability on the battlefield impressed more than just Marco Polo.  Her father was “most pleased by her abilities” (not a man of words that Kaidu). But perhaps even more impressive than her ability in battle was her physical ability to wrestle.
    • Among the Mongols, athletic victory carried a strongly sacred essence, and the champion was considered to be blessed by the spirits. So Khutulun’s athletic triumphs made her the ideal companion for her father in battle. Her presence, mounted next to him on the battlefield, extended her reputation for past athletic victories into an implied guarantee of dominance on the battlefield. Throughout their lives the two constantly defied the efforts of Khubilai Khan to rule over the tribes of the steppes of western Mongolia and Kazakhstan and over the mountainous regions of western China and Kyrgyzstan. They resisted every army sent against them and kept their homeland permanent free of rule by his Yuan Dynasty.
    • Mongols loved to wrestle each other, place bets on the outcome, and get loaded on alcohol while they did so. Wrestling was a major part of their culture and celebrations.
  • Unlike the emperor Kublai Khan who enjoyed the luxury of the Chinese court, Khutulun rejected the temptations of sedentary civilization and sought to maintain the hardy Mongol way of life.
    • She was a large and powerfully built woman, and she used her size and strength in the three Mongol sports of horsemanship, archery, and wrestling, as well as in the primary Mongol vocation of warfare.
    • In this time period and in this culture, there were no weight classes or any kind of division of gender. Anyone could wrestle anyone.
      • On top of that there was no boundary or fight clock. The match went where it went and lasted as long as it took.
      •  The two opponents grabbed the other’s arms or waist until one forced the other to the ground. If any part of the body touched the ground, no matter how briefly, that contestant lost. Smaller or less skilled wrestlers might be thrown in a few seconds, but evenly matched wrestlers sometimes locked their arms around each other and pushed other back and forth like two bull elephants for as long as necessary until one competitor dropped.
    • This is the environment Khutulun was competing in. She went up against warriors from the largest empire at the time, known for their brutality. The opponents she faced were of all shapes and sizes… and she was undefeated.
The Undefeated Khutulun – Travel Through Time
  • “Now, okay, back up. How can we be sure of that? Well, according to Marco Polo (and this is corroborated by other historians of the time, including Rashid al-Din), papa Kaidu desperately wanted to see his daughter Khutulun married, but she refused to do so unless her potential suitor was able to beat her in wrestling. So she set up a standing offer, available to all comers: beat her and she’d marry you. Lose, and you give her 100 horses. – She ended up with 10,000 horses and no husband.”
    • From author Jason Porath over at one of my favorite blogs
  • Jason also pointed out that 10,000 wasn’t exactly 10,000. Back then it was a good number to say when you wanted to hyperbolize a point. So instead of 10,000 we might say “like a million” today. When the number 10,000 is said here it is meant as “so many I couldn’t count.”
    • But apparently the amount of horses she had was comparable to the herds of the emporers. So it was a butt-load of horses.
  • There was an occasion where a dude wanted to marry Khutulun so bad that he bet 1,000 horses instead of the required 100.
    • An excited crowd gathered for the match. In the desire to please her parents Khutulun agreed to let the prince win. In the rush of competitive excitement as she stepped forward to face her rival, however, her filial resolve to please her parents melted. She grabbed her opponent by the arms, and found him to be more formidable than her usual challengers. He struggled against her, and they pushed this way and that, but she could not submit and allow herself to be thrown. The match continued for an agonizing long time with neither able to dominate. Finally, in a great surge of energy Khutlun threw him to the ground. She not only defeated but humiliated him, and he disappeared, leaving behind the additional thousand horses for her herd but having shattered her parents’ hopes of marrying her to a worthy suitor.
  • It wasn’t until her un-marrying ways started to bring rumors and shame upon her family that she agreed to get hitched.
    • Khutulun’s not-so-typical public life without a husband stirred up a lot of gossip not only in her father’s kingdom, but also among the neighboring Muslim territories. Her political and military enemies who had not been able to defeat her on the battlefield spread a rumor that she maintained an incestuous relationship with her father and that was why she wouldn’t take any other man while he lived. 
    • Khutulun agreed to get married to stop the rumors and the negative affect they had on her father’s reputation. Who she married is lost to history.
    • Sources vary about her husband’s identity. Some chronicles say her husband was a handsome man who failed to assassinate her father and was taken prisoner; others refer to him as Kaidu’s companion from the Choros clan. Rashid al-Din wrote that Khutulun fell in love with Ghazan, Mongol ruler in Persia.
    • We do know that she never lost to him in a wrestling match lol.
Khutulun: Descendant Of Genghis Khan & Asia's Fiercest Female Badass
  • Khutulun’s dad Kaidu had known for some time that he wanted to choose his daughter to be his successor, but that didn’t happen.
    • Of all Kaidu’s children, Khutulun was the favorite, and the one from whom he most sought advice and political support.
    • A lot of other mongols wouldn’t accept Khutulun as their leader.
      • Unclear if this is because she was a woman or not.
    • But the main reason Khutulun didn’t get to become Khan was her 14 brothers. They, just like their fathers and grandfathers, had realized they claim some of their father’s power for themselves and got greedy.
      • This is really sad considering it goes against one of the things that made Ghengis’s empire so great and powerful. When Ghengis Khan was alive he made sure promotion within his military ranks and other facets of this empire was NOT based on nepotism. He rewarded his subjects with power and prestige SOLELY based on merit. Then his descendants mucked everything up with their petty claims to power based on birthright.
    • In the end, none of Kaidu’s sons became Khan. The title of Great Khan was given to a member of a rival clan named Duwa.
  • Unfotunately this is where Khutulun’s story slides in to the dark pit of historical obscurity.
    • We know she died 5 years after her father Kaidu Khan at the age of 46.
    • When Kaidu died in 1301, Khutulun guarded his tomb with the assistance of her brother Orus. She was challenged by her other brothers including Chapar and relative Duwa because she resisted their succession. The year of her death was 1306
    • How she died is unkown.
    • It wasn’t long after that the nomadic clans of the mongol empire begane to separate and lose all semblance of a cohesive power.
A cool woman more people should know about: Khutulun. (Context below,  illustration by me) : r/TwoXChromosomes
  • When Khutulun died and the great empire she once belonged to started to whither, history nearly forgot about her all together.
    • But the power of storytelling kept her legend alive.
    • In 1710 a French orientalist by the name Francois Petis de La Croix wrote a story titled Turandot (“Turkish Daughter”). It was loosely based on Khutulun’s life, but details were changed to fit what a European man’s image of a strong woman might be.
    • Instead of challenging suitors to wrestling matches, Turandot gave them riddles and if they failed to solve her riddles they were executed.
      • Sounds like a cool story, but you see how Turandot was very different from Khutulun.
    • Then in the 20th century Francois Petis de La Croix’x story was adapted into an Italian opera. However, this opera was warped even farther from Khutulun’s actual history. In the opera Turandot was a no-nonsense kind of princess who finally gave in to love and things ended happily ever after…
  • But while the West may have totally rewritten history with its recasting of Khutulun into Turandot, Mongolia continues to honor Khutulun’s actual story to this day.
    • When Mongolian men wrestle in the Naadam games held annually since Genghis Khan founded the nation in 1206, they wear a particular vest with long sleeves but no shoulder covering and a completely open front exposing the whole of the chest, thereby allowing each wrestler to be certain that his opponent is male.
    • At the end of each match, the winner stretches out his arms to display his chest again, and he slowly waves his arms in the air like a bird, turning for all to see. For the winner it is a victory dance, but it is also a tribute to the greatest female athlete in Mongolian history, a wrestling princess whom no man ever defeated. Ever since she reigned as the wrestling champion of the Mongols in the thirteenth century, however, male wrestlers have only wrestled men.
    • That last detail seems a bit sad at first. But then I chose to see it as: Khutulun whooped so much ass that mongolian men refuse to go up against women anymore lol.
  • Cheers to you Khutulun! In a time when women REALLY had it rough you forged a reputation that has spanned the better part of a millenia.