The Asgarda is an all-female enclave in Ukraine’s Carpathian Mountains. The group is shrouded in secrecy. No men are permitted to join. Few photographs of the members exist.
In 2009, French photographer Guillaume Herbaut lit up the internet with photos he claimed were of an isolated tribe of female warriors in Ukraine’s Carpathian Mountains that called themselves the Asgarda. The photos were so exotic and there was so little information available that many on the internet began to question whether the Asgarda were a hoax, like the solo motorcycle tour of Chernobyl.
The Asgarda, from all appearances, is real. The group formed in an effort to empower and educate young Ukrainian ladies. The Asgarda runs year-round programs and intensive summer camps where girls are taught skills that range from martial arts, weapons training, and public speaking to traditional Ukrainian customs like folk dance and embroidery. The fighting techniques that the women of the Asgarda are taught include Bojovyj Hopak, which incorporates Ukrainian modern dance.
The Asgarda was formed and is led by 36-year-old Katerina Tarnouska. The blonde, fit Ukrainian lady says that she created Asgarda to build national pride in Ukrainian girls. The movement was founded in 2004. Tarnouska was inspired by the heady optimism of the Orange Revolution Days, when a youth-led rebellion led to a pro-Western president and the ascendance of Ukraine’s first female Prime Minister. Tarnouska considers the Asgarda the cultural heirs of both the legendary Amazons and Ukraine’s Cossacks, warriors who ruled the region for four hundred years. The Asgarda also harkens back to the days when Ukrainian women were among the most educated in Europe; many high-born Ukrainians were fully literate and well-educated in medicine, history and other realms. For instance, Anna Yaroslavna, who became Queen of France, had more education than her royal husband, and advised him and ruled at his side.
About 200 women live with the Asgarda full-time. Others make brief visits for training. The community is all female. The only man referred to in stories about the Asgarda is martial arts instructor Volodymyr Stepanovytch, who visits to run the camp’s weapons and combat training. The women of Asgarda say that the program builds confidence. One member said, “I joined the Asgarda because I wanted to protect myself. Then I saw that I was developing in confidence, and becoming a strong woman, and I don't think I understood how much I'd been holding myself back.” The Asgarda recruits through demonstrations at festivals in Lviv and Kiev.
Life with the Asgarda begins early each morning with a swim in the bracing, cold waters of the nearby Dniester River. The ladies strip down to bikinis before their dip in the cold water, swim a bit, and then dress for the day. Education programs include self-defense, health, fitness, and cultural pride and identity. The philosophy of Asgarda involves the complex development of a harmonious system for women.
Most women of the Asgarda wear loose, martial arts inspired uniforms, but some others prefer fantasy warrior clothing like leather wrist bands and skirts. The girls wear their hair back in tightly plaited styles, or shaven as part of a ritual initiation.
History of Women in Martial Arts
Women’s participation in martial arts was always controversial, because it conflicted with the image of women as submissive and weak. However, there is significant historical backing for the Asgarda movement. As far back as the age of the samurai, a handful of women learned martial arts skills. Training in the use of daggers, for instance, was considered a female endeavour.
High-born women in samurai culture also trained with the naginata, a long pole with a sharp, curved balde at the end. These Japanese female warriors, the Onna Bushi, were skilled in arm to arm combat to defend their homes and families when their husbands were away at war.
Jigoro Kana, the creator of judo, taught all-female classes to women to help them achieve optimum strength and health for bearing children, and give them the skills to raise warrior sons. Katsuko Osaki became the first female to get a black belt in 1931.
In the 1960s and 70s, women became more active in the martial arts. Now, women excel everywhere in the martial arts. On November 9, 2012, it was announced that judo and MMA champion Ronda Rousey will join the newly formed women’s division of the UFC. And, the Russian women's Olympic Judo team has their eyes on 2016 gold.
Asgarda’s Inspiration: The Amazons
The all-female Asgarda takes their inspiration from the Amazons of Greek mythology. The Amazons were a fierce nation of all-female warriors. The tribe’s location depended on who was writing about them. Many located the fierce culture in Asia Minor or Minoan Crete. Others put them in Sythia, where Ukraine is now. However, always, the warrior women were from somewhere far beyond the places that Greeks would know. The exploits of the Amazons were mentioned in both the Iliad and the stories of Alexander the Great.
Amazons, in most stories, did not allow men in their villages. In some tales, they kept a small stable of male slaves who were utilized a once or twice a year for mating purposes. In others, they ravaged villages and used the captured males to keep up the race before dispatching them. Male infants that resulted from these couplings were put into the forest to fend for themselves.
Later references to the Amazons stated that the women cut or burned the right breast off infant girls so that the energy would go into growing arm strength instead; however, early writing and art depicts Amazons with both breasts. In early art, the right breast is usually covered, the left bare.
What’s Going On With The Asgarda Now?
Just as quickly as they gained notoriety, the Asgarda has faded from the world’s eye. The group’s site is gone from the web. Archived snapshots of the site show tantalizing shreds of the group’s history: events, sign-up pages for schooling with the group and pages on philosophy before a takeover by a spam site selling performance bikes sometime in 2010. It’s possible the group has disbanded, but we like to think that the women of Asgarda continue to kick ass in their Carpathian Mountain lair.