23.5 Degrees: The Tale of Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins
You are a flower that the winter of the serpent's breath can never destroy
By Stella Maris
October 24, 2009
There seems to be something about this time of year, as the darkness closes in, that inspires us to contemplate our mortality. And although this cross-quarter coordinate, midway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, was formerly honored with a festival of the dead known as Samhain by Celtic cultures, this practice was later adopted into the Christian tradition as All Saints Day and All Souls Day preceded by All Hallows Eve, or Hallowe’en.
Therefore it's no great surprize that the Christian saints who are honored in the run-up to this solar alignment are bestowed with appropriately gruesome stories of their demise.
One example is a patron saint of France, Saint Denis, also known as Dionysus, whose feast day is October 9th. After being gloriously beheaded on the hill of Montmartre (hence the Mount of the Martyr) in Paris, Denis deftly picked up his own severed head and marched it to the site where he chose to be buried. This site was conveniently located near one of the most revered Druid sacred centers in Gaul, in the vicinity north of Paris later known as the Lendit plain.
It was here that Dagobert I founded what eventually became the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Denis, which not only evolved into the "royal necropolis of France" where nearly all the kings and queens of France from the 10th to the 18th century are buried, but also served as a useful temporary storage facility for a variety of ceremonial icons rumored to range from the Emperor Constantine's Labarum to Joan of Arc's armor.
But my favorite legend is the tale of Saint Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins, whose feast was celebrated just this past week, on the 21st October.
According to the tenth century chronicle, Ursula was the daughter of a British Christian king, whose hand was promised in marriage to a pagan prince. In an attempt to postpone this abhorrent event, Ursula embarked on a pilgrimage to Rome with ten ladies in waiting, attended by a thousand maidens each, totalling eleven thousand in all.
On their way back to Britain, all eleven thousand of them were massacred by the Huns at Cologne, when Ursula refused to marry their chieftain.
In the twelfth century, Saint Ursula was venerated in a cult of the Divine Feminine similar to today's Mary Magdelene myth. Honored in a cycle of chants composed by the maverick mystic abbess, Hildegard von Bingen, Ursula was regarded as the epiphany of the feminine: the archetypal manifestation of the union with God--the daughter of Sion, Bride and Beloved of Solomon, and of Christ.
In reality, Ursula--whose name denotes Little Female Bear--probably didn't even exist. The bones that were later discovered in Cologne were most likely exhumed from a Roman graveyard which was moved to make way for a more lucrative development, in the same way that the human remains in the Cemetery of the Innocents were dug up to facilitate the ambitious expansion of Paris.
Today the alleged bones of Saint Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins adorn the walls of The Golden Chamber, a 17th century chapel attached to the Basilica of Saint Ursula in Cologne, which you can see in a video here, accompanied by Hildegard von Bingen's Ursuline chant, O Rubor Sanguinis (Oh Ruby Blood).
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