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Thursday, February 14, 2013

Thoughts on Boudicca and Hero-cults

"When the going gets tough, the tough channel Boudicca" - T-shirt wisdom
  If you ask me who my favorite historic person is, or which one person in history I'd like to meet, I would answer Boudicca. Ever since I first heard her story I have had a strong affinity for Queen Boudicca and I have adopted the above motto, which I first saw on a t-shirt, as my own approach to difficult times. For those who are unfamiliar with her, Boudicca (alernately Boudica or Boadicea) was the Queen of the Iceni tribe in Britain until 61 CE. Described as a noblewoman, tall, with reddish brown hair and keen inteligence; she was said to wear a multicolored tunic and a golden torc. Her husband, King Prasutagus, had allied with the occupying Romans and had written a will that left his kingdom to his two daughters and the Roman emperor, jointly. He had hoped by doing this to keep his people nominally independent of Rome and to maintain the status quo that existed during his life, however Rome did not acknowledge a woman's right to rule and after his death his will was ignored. The Roman forces took over the Iceni; Boudicca was publicly flogged and her two young daughters were raped. In response to this double outrage Boudicca rallied the Iceni and several neighboring tribes and rebelled against Rome. Boudicca was said to be devoted to the goddess Andraste and as a form of divination before battle she released a hare and watched the way it ran. She succeeded in driving the Romans into retreat and burned several major cities to the ground - including what is now Colchester and London - pursuing the Romans south. Despite these early successes the Romans eventually rallied and met the much larger force of the rebelling Britons.
   Before the final battle Tacitus tells us that Boudicca addressed her gathered forces, saying:
    "This is not the first time that the Britons have been led to battle by a woman. But now she did not come to boast the pride of a long line of ancestry, nor even to recover her kingdom and the plundered wealth of her family. She took the field, like the meanest among them, to assert the cause of public liberty, and to seek revenge for her body seamed with ignominious stripes, and her two daughters infamously ravished. From the pride and arrogance of the Romans nothing is sacred; all are subject to violation; the old endure the scourge, and the virgins are deflowered. But the vindictive gods are now at hand. A Roman legion dared to face the warlike Britons: with their lives they paid for their rashness; those who survived the carnage of that day, lie poorly hid behind their entrenchments, meditating nothing but how to save themselves by an ignominious flight. From the din of preparation, and the shouts of the British army, the Romans, even now, shrink back with terror. What will be their case when the assault begins? Look round, and view your numbers. Behold the proud display of warlike spirits, and consider the motives for which we draw the avenging sword. On this spot we must either conquer, or die with glory. There is no alternative. Though a woman, my resolution is fixed: the men, if they please, may survive with infamy, and live in bondage." - Tacitus, The Annals Book XIV
   Now whether Boudicca actually said any of that or whether it is purely Tacitus's creative idea of what she said, I do not know, but the words certainly resonate and seem to sum up her story, and the Celtic spirit itself. Unfortunately for Boudicca and her people the Romans emerged victorious from the battle and the rebellion was put down. Boudicca herself died shortly after the fight, either from illness or suicide. Her daughters are lost to history, but it is most likely, I think, that they died after the battle.
   It is her fighting spirit that draws me and her willingness to fight for her family and people against the odds. I respect her for being a leader when it would have been easier back down. To me Boudicca is an example of a female historic figure who fought for freedom and for justice and who embodies strength of will. And, of course, I love that she almost drove the Romans from Briton.
   For a little while now - perhaps the last year - I have felt called to honor Boudicca more actively. This feeling has had me contemplating the Greek and Roman idea of the Hero-cult, that is the honoring of historic or mythic heroes as Powers above humans but beneath the Gods. This idea grew out of the older ancestor worship of these cultures and marked a shift from honoring relatives within a family to honoring heroes within a community. I have been thinking about it since I first heard of some people who are celebrating March 17th in honor of Cu Chulainn, after the fashion of a modern hero-cult. The idea of taking a Celtic approach to Greek hero-cults appeals to me very much, but I have no strong draw to Cu Chulainn; on the other hand the idea is perfect as a way to honor Boudicca. 
   Now I admit my understanding of the concept of hero-cults is fairly basic, and so my take on the Celtic version of a hero-cult to Boudicca is as much guess and adaptation as anything resembling historic practice. For one thing, as I understand it, hero-cults usually centered on sites associated with the hero or on relics from the hero, neither of which are options for me since I don't live near Norfolk (England) or have anything directly associated with Boudicca herself. The best I can manage is an artist's rendering of Boudicca, which is itself someone's best guess based on descriptions of what she looked like. I created a small hero shrine to her on my ancestor altar, nonetheless, by placing a candle in front of a ceramic bowl filled with earth from different sacred sites, her image, a goddess-figure representing Andraste, and several branches of a pussy-willow tree (representing - to me - hope and survival). Several times a week I sit before the little shrine and burn the candle, offering some incense, and contemplate the qualities of Boudicca that I respect and how to nurture those same qualities within myself. 
  I have only just started on the tentative path of honoring Boudicca, and I still have several details that are unresolved. I would like to have a special day to honor her, rather as modern Heathens do for several historic Heathens of special note such as Sigrid "the Haughty" or Ragnar Lodbrok, but I haven't decided which day is best yet. Another aspect of the traditional hero-cult that I have not yet worked out in my own practice is the idea of the hero communicating with devotees using signs and omens at the site of their shrine; obviously my little shrine isn't easily adapted for this. I would like to include the use of hares or rabbits for divination/communication perhaps by working up my own system using bones or perhaps by adapting an existing system. Even though there are still details left to deal with, I feel very positive about beginning to honor Queen Boudicca and am confident that I am slowly moving in the right direction.


Hero shrine to Queen Boudicca
further reading on Hero-cults: http://bmcr.brynmawr.edu/2000/2000-12-17.html
http://chs.harvard.edu/wa/pageR?tn=ArticleWrapper&bdc=12&mn=4348

7 comments:

  1. Practicing hero-cultus for Boudicca seems like a great idea to me. What date do you think would be best associated with her? June 1st was apparently the date of her defeat in the Battle of Watling Street, but I don't know if that would necessarily be appropriate.

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    1. I'm leaning towards something in spring, my best guess as to the rough timing of the start of the rebellion. Perhaps in April? I'm still researching and trying to find the date that makes the most sense for her.

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    2. I look forward to seeing what you come up with. Sometime in April does seem likely to be approximately the beginning of the revolt, assuming the June 1st date proves out.

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  2. Memorial Day weekend perhaps, as a Feast of Heroes Fallen for a Greater Good?

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    1. that's a good idea, but it would place the celebration very close to the date of her defeat. Of course that might work in its own way since that is also likely when she died.

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  3. Stephanie Woodfield pointed your post out to me. I am totally on board for building a hero-cult to Boudicca! I venerate her as well, mainly as an inspirational figure, but have also been contemplating doing ritual work to call on her spirit. She seems like a potent and helpful ally in our times.

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    1. Any time you want to share your experiences or innovations with her I'd love to hear them. I'm still slowly feeling my way along so its great to know other people also feel called to honor her. She is definitely a great example of an "ordinary" woman who became a hero during difficult times.

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