In AD 68-69 the Roman empire was in turmoil after the suicide of Nero. The power vacuum gave rise to a civil war period in which three emperors rose and fell before the fourth, Vespasian managed to bring back order. This period of Roman history, known as “The year of the four Emperors” had implications empire wide, the most dangerous of which from Rome’s perspective was the Batavian revolt.
Tha Batavi were a small but powerful tribe, highly skilled in the art of war. They lived on large islands in the Dutch river delta, formed by the confluence of the Rhine and the Meuse. Their proficiency in horsemanship and eagerness in war made them ideal recruitment material for Rome. In spite of their relative small size the Batavi supplied the Empire with one elite cavalry unit (Alae), and a total of eight cohorts (each around 600 men). Not only this but such was their natural ability in all things martial, that out of all the Germanic tribes they had the largest representation in the “Numerus Batavorum” an Elite Germanic bodyguard unit, that was entrusted with the personal protection emperors.
In the chaos that ensued after Neros death, this battle-hardened tribe of warriors, not content with being used as political pawns in the power struggle of pretenders, decided to take their fate into their own hands. Instrumental in this audacious act was the powerful and enigmatic Lady of fate, Velleda.
From her tower on the river Lippe, Velleda would often be asked to settle disputes, and the great respect in which she was held made her judgments final. To add to her mystical nature, her prophetic and wise council was not given in person, but ferried from the tower by relatives of hers to the eager ears of those concerned. Such was her power and influence she was considered a divinity among the living.
The only real direct evidence we have for this powerful seer, is via Tacitus in relation to the Batavian rebellion. She is said to of predicted at least the early successes of the Batavi over Rome. The Batavian noble, Gaius Julius Civilis, who was made a Roman citizen hence the name, easily gained support for his revolt with such a powerful priestess backing his success. The Batavi were not only supported by their kinsmen in the Roman army, but also the Bructeri, the tribe from which Velleda is said to of originated, and many of the Gaulish Tribes to the north. As with many such rebellion, even after immense early successes, and a divine prophetess on their side, it was put down after internal tribal conflicts lay waste to its lofty plans. Velleda herself either by force or wish, it is unknown ends up in the hands of the Romans, where it appears she is received with at least some dignity.
Apart from the writings of Tacitus there is a small tablet that was found that makes mention of her, albeit in a slightly mocking manner and which adds little to her story. Luckily for us though, this is not where the story has to end. As many will know who follow my work, words themselves have a certain magic, and the title by which we know this lady of fate, Velleda, is one most telling.
Many etymologists put the origin of her name in the Proto Indo-European Wel-, which is said to simply mean “to see”. There is an aspect to this though that extends to other senses, as in the Breton descendent “Gwelet” which also gets the added meaning of “to hear”. This more sensory extension is also shared in the old Irish and Scots Gaelic descendants of Wel- in words for “is” or “that which is”. The word Velleda is said to come from the Germanic descendant “Wiltana” meaning “prophet or seer” which is akin to the Celtic, “weless”. There are other Germanic words sharing the root “wel-” that allure to the prestige attached to such extra sensory abilities, such as the Old English Wuldor, meaning, “Glory, Radiance, Splendour”
A slightly different, but practically identical Proto Indo-European word “wel-” this time meaning to “coil, twist, turn (upward)” gives us yet another interesting connection. It is the root of the Proto Germanic “waluz” meaning “staff or Stick”. From this heritage we get the old Norse “vǫlr” again meaning “staff” and directly leads us to the Norse word for “seer, prophetess, shaman”, vǫlva. This not only leads us back to “seer” but also gives us the added attachment of a staff, which is the archetypal instrument of a practitioner of the “magical” and mystical.
This same word, “wel-” , “to coil, Twist (upward)” leads us again to another interesting little interconnection, as it is the origin of the word “well” meaning natural spring. This relationship not only connects us to ancient well worship, magical healing and the Norns, but also to Cauldrons. Given as it is also the root of words like the Old English “wellan” meaning “to boil up, simmer”, again linking us to archetypal images of female mystical practitioners, both of mythology and more modern literary culture.
If we veer from the most accepted origin of the word “Velleda” and have a look at the equally valid option, the Proto Germanic “Waldana”, we can find yet even more intriguing relationships. “Waldana” means “to (wield) power, Authority” and is were we get the word “wield” itself. This word gives us in its descendants, words such as, the Slavic volděti (To Rule) and the Old Norse “Valda”, (To rule, to Cause). It is also the root of the Latin “Valeo” which links us to health and well-being, as its has several given definitions, “to be, strong, healthy, self worth”. This word allures to the divine authority which Tacitus describes these women possessing over their folk.
If we take yet another route in trying to understand this enigmatic word Valleda, that of the Proto Indo-European “weh₂t-” we find even more interesting entanglements. This Proto Indo-European word meaning “(to cause) excitement, inspiration or rage” is the root of the Latin “Vates” akin to the English “ovate” both of which literally mean “seer, Prophetess”. Again, although from totally separate roots, we get the same end result as the Germanic “Wiltana”. Another Proto Germanic descendant of “weh₂t-” is “Wodanaz”, the most accepted root word of the mighty Woden. As many of you will know Woden himself is linked to the divine feminine powers via his use of the feminine “magic” Seiðr. We could also take a look at the Old Irish word “faith”, again sharing the same root, and meaning “soothsayer, Prophetess” and again, if we had the time, jump down a few more rabbit holes.
Even without digging deeper into words such as the roots of “wail” as in “to cry out” something that is often attested to by Roman writers to be heavily associated with female priestesses, both Celtic (Anglesea) and Germanic (Cimbrian). Or the other “well” words like that of the descendants of the Proto Germanic “wiljana” meaning “to, choose, pick, desire”, being just a few, we have, I think already made more than enough connections for this piece
We see a Powerful and radiant Female seer who wielding her magical staff commands divine authority. Using Ancient sacred springs and magical cauldrons she predicts and changes the fate of men, be it by physical healing or Divine inspiration. Using her Poetic and prophetic oratory skills, she gives sound council. On the battlefield her ominous wails and chants possess the minds of men inspiring them into valor and battlefield fury. This divine soothsayer steers a course through the wyrd that not only seeks the well being, but also the glory of her folk.
From the apparent simple title “Velleda” a divine archetype is invoked, simplified it becomes the archetypal “mother figure”. If we had spent even more time following the dance of the words down their many paths we would find even more intriguing connections. Although all of these traits are not explicit in the limited writings we have of Velleda, they are all there in the written history of our people. From Volva, to “witch” to Goddess, these traits are implicitly linked to the mystical feminine powers.
Even though I skipped over many words, I understand that there is still quite a lot in here for one small article, and a small book would of probably been more appropriate. I will though in time explore some of these aspects in much finer detail, as in these times much like the sacred masculine, the divine feminine is under attack from all sides. On the one side you have the feminine aspects eroded via masculinisation, which forces the woman to abandon her femininity completely and puts her in competition with the masculine. On the other, you have the feminine role reduced to an inactive subservient position, which if our ancestors wisdom is to be considered is equally destructive for the folk.
I will leave this piece with a quote from Tacitus (Histories)
“for by ancient usage the Germans attributed to many of their women prophetic powers and, as the superstition grew in strength, even actual divinity.”