Asgarda. Mountain-dwelling, scythe-wielding Amazonian cult? Paramilitary defenders of Our Dark Lady of the Orange Revolution? Exactly 37 new Asgarda fan clubs will pop up in Japan by the time I finish writing this post, and we still won’t be any closer to knowing who they really are.
Recently, a photo essay on Asgarda by Guillaume Herbaut in Planet Magazine captured imaginations all over the blogosphere. Coverage has ranged from cautious (Xeni: “sounds too awesome to be true in this cold, cruel world”) to shamelessly sensationalistic (English Russia: “A French explorer has found a group of amazons hiding in the woods”). Like most, I want there to be a legendary tribe of ass-kicking warrior princesses living in the mountains of Ukraine. I’m just surprised at how little fact-checking has gone into this tale, across the board. It’s worse than usual. For example, in their original article, Planet Mag writes, “in the Ukraine, a country where females are victims of sexual trafficking and gender oppression, a new tribe of empowered women is emerging.” Over at The Frisky, this statement quickly transforms to: “the women have seceded from society because sexual trafficking is rampant in Eastern European countries.” My old journalism professor would’ve pulled out fingernails for that one. On the other hand, there’s been a steady chorus of people calling “fake,” saying that this is a PR stunt for some movie, or that they’re just a bunch of Pennsylvanian LARPers who’ve taken it one step too far. This post is for them, too. Don’t be afraid to believe! Below, my humble attempts to separate the facts from the fiction about this all-female purported warrior tribe.
The photos are real. Herbaut is a gifted photographer who has captured enduring images from Chernobyl, Ciudad Juarez (harrowing & NSFW), the city of Auschwitz as it is today, and Hiroshima. He’s done fashion potraits of “trendy Mollahs” from Iran for Elle, and documented the victims of family vendettas is Albania. His objectivity as a photojournalist when it comes to Asgarda may be up for debate, but the man knows how to tell a story. Sixteen captioned images of Asgarda can be found on his page, under the title “Return of the Amazons.” More photos by Herbaut of Asgarda appear in the series Ukraine’s Cossacks.
The presentation of the photos is not entirely objective. From what I’ve been able to piece together from their Ukranian Wikipedia page, Asgarda was founded by Katerina Tarnouska with her teacher, Vladimir Pylat, in 2002. Pylat’s also credited as co-creator of Asgarda in Herbaut’s Cossacks photo essay – though curiously omitted as a named co-founder in the Amazons essay – and contributes text to the English version of Asgarda’s page. A Ukranian karate master, Pylat was responsible for the revival of a Cossack martial arts style called Combat Hopak in the 1980s. A kind of Ukranian capoeira, Hopak is said to be a lost art dating back to the 15th century that combines dancing and fighting. Asgarda seems to be the female school of this martial art. The Planet article describes a “tribe” seeking “complete autonomy from men,” and while the Wikipedia page cites an Asgarda seminar in the Carpathian mountains, there’s no mention of any sort of permanent settlement. The captions on Herbaut’s site confirm this by indicating that the majority of the Asgarda women he chose to photograph individually are enrolled in universities. The leather-clad girl from the Planet spread turns out to be be a student of economics at Lviv University at the time that the photo was taken; the one wielding the double scythes studies at the polytechnical institute; the girl with the axes studies English and Japanese. How can they live in the mountains and study in school? If I were to guess, the Carpathian excursion was some sort of extended summer retreat, and the lack of specification on this point was just an attempt to spin a good story.
My intent here is not to diminish the authenticity of the Asgarda in any way, but simply to study how quickly facts can spin into myth, and reflect on how much we all want to believe that such a thing can exist. One thing’s for sure: they do exist, and they will kick your ass if you mess with them, as demonstrated by the clip at the top of this post. The video was found on YouTube; there’s no date or description, other than “Asgarda, the Ukrainian women martial art”. But I’m pretty sure it’s them – dressed in power suits and ready to strike! Let the discovery of this video be our own contribution to the glorious collection of Asgarda Internet lore.
It was just too easy to do!