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Imbolc 2004, Vol 3-2
MatriFocus, a Cross-Quarterly Web Magazine for Goddess Women Near & Far
Queen Guenevere (detail from William Morris, 1858, oil on canvas)
detail, Queen Guenevere
Oil on canvas, William Morris (1858), courtesy of CGFA
Rebellion of the Queen

Female rebellion against the patriarchy has ancient roots. The pre-Celtic Goddess represented sovereignty and power. She had the right to choose her own consort, not in order to share sovereignty, but to convey her strength, allowing him to work in her service. As the earthly representative of the Goddess, the Queen selected a consort who would then be King. Her choice may not be permanent, as she was free to replace the King whenever she wished. Her children would succeed her on the throne, regardless of who was their father.

With the rise of patriarchal authority in the Celtic world, the role of the Goddess was suppressed. Over time, the Queen became subject to the laws of the fatherland. She was forced to marry for political or economic reasons, ceding her power to the King and losing her autonomy. Yet the Goddess did not accept this yoke submissively; she rebelled against the established order, seeking her former power. Her rebellion could take the form of adultery in response to a forced marriage, as well as actual insurgence. Her defiance could be aimed at the father, the husband, the sovereign, or the social order.

Stories of female rebellion are preserved in mythology and folklore, such as the tale of the flower maiden, Blodeuwedd, who took a lover, then tried to kill the husband for whom she had been created.(1) Historical accounts of the rebellion of queens informed the myths.

Patriarchal leaders feared women, especially when they demanded the return of their stolen power. Constantly on guard, the male leaders (Church and state) would move quickly to quash any rebellions of the Queen and to punish her. The myths about female rebellion ended with dire consequences, warning against future attempts to overthrow the social order.

Stories about the Celtic Queen, Cartimundua, suggest elements of the pre-Celtic society. Cartimundua, or "sleek pony", was Queen of the Brigantia tribes in northern England in the first century CE, at the time of the Roman invasions. A representative of the Goddess known as Brigantia, she had chosen Venutius as her consort. He ruled at her pleasure. Later, she replaced Venutius with a younger consort, his arms bearer, Vellocatus. However, the society had changed sufficiently that Venutius felt emboldened to oppose this change and lead a rebellion against her. The Romans came to her aid and saved her, but Venutius assumed her role as leader of the Brigantia for a time.

Cartimundua is significant because she may have been the prototype for Queen Guinevere of the Arthurian legends.(2) Historians criticize Cartimundua because she made a pact with the Romans, unlike her contemporary, Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni tribe in southeastern England, who led an army of over one hundred thousand against the Romans. This labeling of Cartimundua as a traitor does not take into account the unquestionable right of the Queen as Goddess to choose her destiny. As a matter of history, neither Boudicca's taking up arms or Cartimundua's pacts prevented the Romans from conquering the Britons.

the seal of Eleanor of Aquitaine, with an image of her and the fleur de lys and a bird
Seal-Eleanor of Aquitaine
sketch © 2004 Sage Starwalker, after Aliénor
Another historical example of the rebellion of the Queen is Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122?-1204). Wife of two kings, Louis VII of France, then Henry II of England, she was a capable ruler of her duchy of Aquitaine, as well as regent for her son, Richard the Lion-Hearted. Eleanor led a mythic life, rebelling against the rigid rules of her time to seek her own independence. Her father ordered her first marriage for political reasons to the man who became Louis VII. Unhappy with this marriage, she took a lover, her uncle Prince Raymond. Following Raymond's death, she selected her next husband, Henry, because his strength in battle would protect her from being kidnapped and would support her control of Aquitaine. But he, too, tried to control her.

When her sons revolted against their father, Henry, in 1173, she was held responsible. She was concerned that the King was not handing over royal power to her sons, and that he might be considering favoring the sons of his consorts. Although her role in the rebellion is not clear, Eleanor certainly received most of the punishment. When the rebellion failed, she was imprisoned for 16 years until Henry's death. Her sons were left at liberty. Historians condemned her as a whore, a monster and a demon for being a woman who challenged the subordinate female role and demanded her rights as a Queen.

Elements of Eleanor's life were reflected into the fairy tale about the Serpent Goddess in the form of Melusine (Medieval France, 1394). This myth begins with the story of Melusine's fairy mother, Pressyne. Pressyne forbade her husband, Elynas, the King of Albany, from entering her chamber while she was giving birth to triplets. When he violated this taboo, Pressyne left the kingdom, together with her three daughters, and traveled to the lost Isle of Avalon. Elynas's son by his first marriage succeeded his father as king.

The three girls, Melusine, Melior, and Palatyne grew up in Avalon. On their fifteenth birthday, Melusine, the eldest, asked why they had been taken to Avalon. Upon hearing of their father's broken promise, Melusine sought revenge. She and her sisters captured Elynas and locked him, with his riches, in a mountain. Pressyne became enraged when she learned what the girls had done, and punished them for their disrespect to their father. Melusine was condemned to take the form of a serpent from the waist down every Saturday; Melior was confined in a castle in Armenia; and Palatyne was imprisoned with her father's treasure on a mountaintop in Arragon. Pressyne and her three daughters are vestiges of the Goddess in various forms. Pressyne chose her husband, as was the right of goddess, but he disobeyed her, seeking the secret of her mysteries, which was, in this case, the act of creation. In Melusine's rebellion against her father, she was attacking the loss of her right to the throne, which had been replaced by patrilineal descent. However, as the society had changed, her rebellion was punished, and that punishment was dealt by her mother, now supporting the laws of male succession.

The message that these stories contain for us are about the importance of women fighting for their independence. The fight may be literal, for freedom from a controlling partner, the confines of a job, or the rules of society, or it may be psychological, for freedom from an inner dependence. In mythological terms, the quest is to free the feminine divine from the dark cave where the ancient sun goddess has been imprisoned, and rejoice in her true nature. This message is especially profound at Imbolc, when the power of the sun is growing and the Goddess begins to express the creative phase of her nature.

1. Patricia Monaghan discussed the myth of Iseult and Tristan in Haunted by Legend, in Matrifocus's Samhain 2003, Volume 3-1. Iseult exercised the right of the Goddess to choose her consort, a young lover to replace an aging king. By the time the myth was recorded, Iseult, like Guinevere, had become an image of passivity.
2. For more information on Cartimandua and Guinevere, see Ziegler, Michelle. Brigantia, Cartimandua and Gwenhwyfar. The Heroic Age, Issue 1, Spring/Summer, 1999.

+ D'Arras, Jean. Melusine. Edited by A.K. Donald. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Tribner & Co., 1895. Published for the Early English Text Society, Extra Series 68. New York: Kraus Reprint Co., 1975.
+ Markale, Jean. Women of the Celts. Translated by A. Mygind, C. Hauch, and P. Henry. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions. 1986.
+ Meade, Marion. Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Biography. New York: Hawthorn Book, Inc., 1977.

Graphics Credits
+ detail, Queen Guenevere, oil on canvas, William Morris (1858), courtesy of CGFA.
+ Seal-Eleanor of Aquitaine
, sketch © 2004 Sage Starwalker, after Aliénor. All rights reserved.

Contributors retain the copyright to their work; please do not take art or words without permission. All other graphics and reference materials are used and attributed as per the Fair Use Provision of The Copyright Act and individual terms of use.
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