Authors: Antonia Fraser
Tags: #History, #General, #Social History, #World
Boadicea is selected as the pivot of this book partly for the fascinating combination of fame and ambiguity which her career provides, partly because so many of the themes which recur in the treatment of other Warrior Queens are raised in her story and its subsequent treatment. Stories of these other historic Warrior Queens are brought forward where relevant not only to supplement hers but also to illustrate the universality of the subject. But it is Boadicea who is a convenient starting-point, and Boadicea who is the engrossing exemplar.
Nevertheless the first task, before turning to the true story of Boudica in her own time, in so far as it can be established, must be to look back into the depths of time and culture. Is there something primitive in the human heart which can be held accountable for the mingled awe, horror, and ecstasy which so often attends the manifestation of a Warrior Queen in our midst? Is it the deep-rooted allegiance which we owe to the idea of woman-as-goddess which makes her fleshy apparition before us, fully armed, in the guise of the Warrior Queen so thrillingly traumatic?
Let us begin with the Celtic goddess and see how far chariot-driving Boadicea descends from her: for it is to her, if anyone, that Boudica must have been related in the perception of her British contemporaries, those who teemed after her.
The date of Boadicea’s rebellion –
60 or 61 – is another matter in dispute. As to how Boudica is or was to be pronounced, one can only observe that an expedition of archaeological enquiry by the author to East Anglia in 1985 produced three separate pronunciations from the first three experts encountered: i.e. B
dica, Boudīca and Boudicā.
Where is the antique glory now become
That whilom wont in women to appear?
, The Faerie Queene
oddesses stalk the land in the Celtic mythology, ride their chargers, drive their chariots, fight their battles, are vanquished – sometimes – and more often than not emerge victorious. Nor was the sexuality of these deities ignored, as was appropriate in goddesses who were connected with birth (and the fertility of the earth and crops) as well as with war and its companion death. The concept of the Celtic Great Mother, overlording the other lesser tribal deities, may or may not have been universally known (although it was certainly known); what is evident is the rampant and rich nature of the female deities who paraded through the Celtic world. The precise relationship of goddess to goddess may also be impossible to determine – these were after all deities of a non-literate society, whose tales were finally written down hundreds of years after they had first been sung, chanted and spoken to Celtic audiences. What is evident is that a series of female ‘High Ones’ were celebrated in the epics.
Furthermore, in the Celtic world, again and again it is the magic intervention in the course of battle of a female, goddess, queen or a combination of the two, which provides the focus or climax of the story. Such a female may be a hag or a beauty (or one disguised as the other). She may be as Rhiannon, the horse goddess of the Welsh
, ‘a woman dressed in shining gold brocade and riding a great pale horse’ or in the nine sorceresses of Gloucester encountered in the same sequence of tales
who laid waste the country in their helmets and headpieces before the champion Peredur finally smote them.
The name of the Welsh Rhiannon connects to the Celtic Rigantona, great queen or ‘Queen of the Demons’; she in turn links to the Morrigan, sometimes merely a sinister (and sexually active) raven-goddess of war and sometimes used as a composite name to denote a trio, Badbh, Nemain and Macha, all with strong connections to both fertility and battle.
Above all there is the character of Queen Medb (or Maeve) who is to the great Celtic cycle of
what the Greek goddesses are to
, the physique and appetites of a woman, the magic powers of a goddess.
It can indeed be argued that Queen Medb is the true heroine of
; for although the champion Cúchulainn, the Hound of Ulster, is unarguably its hero, Medb, his adversary, is the female protagonist, a vivid character in her own right, both glamorous and ferocious, and it is her ardent desire to secure the Brown Bull of Ulster which sets the whole cycle in train. Like the
Mabinogion, The Tain
first emerges in written form long after its stories must first have been current, in the case of
Christianized by monks in the eighth century
(as it was later to be bowdlerized by Lady Gregory). But the society which
actually reflects is thought to be placed around the time of the birth of Christ – that is to say some sixty years before the Boudican revolt.
At the start of
, Medb is having ‘pillow talk’ with her husband Ailill, her theme being her superior state before she got married – not an unusual theme for such conversations, perhaps, but Medb is able to back her claim by pointing out that she was the daughter of the High King of Ireland, the ‘last and haughtiest’ of his six daughters: ‘I outdid them in grace and giving and battle and warlike combat’, she boasts; moreover she controlled fifteen hundred soldiers and as many freeborn native men.
Ailill responds that he too is a king, by descent from his mother (a queen). It is however as they wrangle on the subject of possessions, the pair matching bull for bull, that Medb has to admit that one of Ailill’s bulls is finer than all of hers, since her
own star animal, Finnbennach, has deserted to the King’s herd, after refusing to be led by a woman. Since the finest bull in all Ulster is known to be the Donn Cuailnge – the Brown Bull of Ulster – Medb determines to secure him with her Connaughtian army, and vanquish her husband’s claims. In this fashion begins the long epic of
, glorious and bloodstained, the most magnificent cattle raid in literature, with Medb leading the attack and Cúchulainn as the champion of Ulster attempting to defend the Brown Bull from her rapacity.
Where Medb’s character is concerned, she is certainly both cunning and imperious as well as lustful (her behaviour in that respect certainly forms part of the Voracity Syndrome). It is also noticeable that when she does suggest breaking the rules of fair fight, this deviousness is ascribed to her sex. On one occasion Medb suggests, from the vantage point of her chariot, that certain people, currently friendly but potentially hostile, be killed as a safeguard. Ailill condemns this as ‘a woman’s thinking’ – and wicked. When Medb sleeps with the warrior Fergus in order to seduce him to her side, Ailill forgives Fergus with the consoling words: ‘I know all about queens and women, I lay first fault straight at women’s own sweet swellings and loving lust’.
Cúchulainn is the persistent target of the Queen’s attempted treachery. Medb first suggests a truce and then secretly sends six soldiers against the champion, all of royal blood (fortunately Cúchulainn is able to slay all six). Medb then suggests a private meeting between Cúchulainn and herself, promising to be attended only by her unarmed women. Cúchulainn’s own charioteer warns him against such a dangerous rendezvous: ‘Medb is a forceful woman. I’d watch out for her hand at my back.’ So Cúchulainn does at least take along his sword – which is just as well, because he finds the rendezvous has actually turned into an encounter with fourteen armed warriors. (Fortunately Cúchulainn is able once again to despatch the whole lot.)
Queen Medb, with the magical birds or squirrels on her shoulders, is not the only strong goddess–woman in the Celtic legends. Part of Cúchulainn’s training as a fighter consists of his
encounter with Aife, ‘the hardest woman warrior in the world’, while Cúchulainn himself is being trained in arms by another woman named Scathach. But it is the physical description of Queen Medb which seems to sum up the type of the Celtic goddess-cum-warrior. This is the fighting Queen Medb, as described to Cúchulainn by his fellow warrior Cethern, grievously wounded by an unknown assailant. ‘A tall, fair, long-faced woman with soft features came at me … She had a head of yellow hair and two gold birds on her shoulders. She wore a purple cloak folded about her, with five hands’ breadth of gold on her back. She carried a light, stinging, sharp-edged lance in her hand, and she held an iron sword with a woman’s grip over her head – a massive figure. It was she who came against me first.’
‘Then I’m sorry for you,’ is Cúchulainn’s comment. ‘That was Medb of Cruachan.’
The connection between the insubstantial if vigorous goddess and the historic figure of the Warrior Queen remains for all this an elusive if fascinating one. If we take a character like Semiramis, the ninth-century
Queen of Babylon who did exist but whose legend far outstrips her historical reality, it is clear that her identification with the goddess Astarte formed a valuable part of that legend in the mind of posterity. Eight centuries later we find the Hellenistic Queen Cleopatra deliberately donning the mantle of the goddess Isis for sound political reasons. The reporting of Boudica by Dio Cassius, which will be discussed later, suggests that she was herself conforming to some kind of stereotype of the Celtic warrior–woman; this in turn derived from the infinitely powerful character of the Celtic mother-cum-war-goddess, like Medb.
Such attempts on the part of the ancient Warrior Queens to assume the mystical authority of the War Goddess were obviously linked with the prevalence of these martial goddess figures. Let us suppose that together they constitute proof that there is something deep in the human spirit which finds in the image of the strong and armed woman a figure of awe. If that be
so, then the next step is to consider whether such awe springs not so much from the human subconscious as from some real state of society in the remote past. Is it possible that the aggressive goddess, far from being a surprising figure, in terms of the patriarchal attitudes which have generally prevailed, is actually a reflection of the preceding
age when women as a whole were the dominant sex? Thus the Warrior Queen herself might appear as a kind of vestigial relic of that distant epoch: hence her encouraging or terrifying aspect according to the contemporary view taken of women’s rightful role in society.
It is certainly tempting to regard the chariot-driving Warrior Queen as owing her authority to deep memories of a matriarchal society where women either held the reins of the chariot or gave the men the orders which enabled them to do so. Matriarchy has always been an attractive concept (to some). On the one hand a nostalgic conviction that there was a golden age when women enjoyed a now vanished prestige is comforting to the oppressed. This is the age whose passing Spenser mourned in
The Faerie Queene
Where is the antique glory now become
That whilom wont in women to appear?
On the other hand, more vigorously, a remedy for the future is suggested by this nostalgia, to restore what was evidently Nature’s intended ordering.
Interest in the notion of matriarchy, keen in our own day as an obvious development of the rise of feminism, is nevertheless not exclusive to it. In particular, the influential work of J. S. Bachofen, first published in 1861, supposed the existence of ‘mother right’, a pre-Classical and pre-Biblical culture of the Bronze Age. Ending around 1200
this was a culture in which the male role in procreation was ignored, and descent was traced only in the female line. Bachofen found examples of such matriarchal societies in places as diverse as Lycia, Athens, Crete, Lemnos, Egypt, Tibet, Central Asia and India.