Godiva’s Ancient History: Pagan goddess or Christian saint?
This blog post comes to us from Eliza Redgold, author, academic and unashamed romantic. Her new novel Naked: A Novel of Lady Godiva was released by St Martin’s Press in July.
After dinner, the gleeman took up his usual place in front of the fire. For the first time since the festival of Easter we had supped on hare stew. Many of my people, Aine included, still celebrated the Christian feast as well as honoring Eostre, our goddess of Spring. Since hares were sacred to Eostre they would not eat them until after her feast day.
Quote from NAKED: A Novel of Lady Godiva
How old is the legend of Lady Godiva? The tale of her famous naked ride is over a thousand years old. So the story goes, Godiva of Coventry begged her husband Lord Leofric of Mercia to lift a high tax on her people, who would starve if forced to pay. He demanded a forfeit: that Godiva ride naked on horseback through the town.
Lady Godiva (or Countess Godgyfu, in the Anglo-Saxon version of her name) was a real person who lived in 11th century Anglo-Saxon England. Yet her myth goes even further back in time.
There are many ancient stories linked to Godiva. Her tale is connected to Greek and Celtic myths and sacred, semi-clad female processions. The Teutonic goddess Hertha made a procession through the woods after her ritual bath, while in Greek legend there is the secret woodland bathing of the goddess of the hunt, Diana. Godiva’s ride may well have descended from one of these rites.
In another version, Godiva’s ride is not a procession, but a love-chase. In this story, Leofric sets his wife a riddle to test her. She must come to him neither being clothed or unclothed, without a foot touching the ground. Cleverly, Godiva rides rather than walks and covers her naked body with a golden net of her hair. In some tellings of this love chase, Godiva is accompanied by a hare – connecting her to the Celtic goddess of Spirng, Eostre. She also strongly resembles another spring goddess who took a woodland May-Day procession to summon the new season. Her name? The goddess Goda.
Like many pagan myths, such stories were absorbed into Christianity. In the Middle Ages Goda’s tale became connected with the real and genuinely philanthropic Countess Godgyfu and the old pagan love-chase became a Christian procession celebrating her piety. Godiva’s story has also been Biblically linked to that of Mary Magdalene, twisted with her long hair and the idea of a ride made in repentance of sin. Even more powerfully are threads of Godiva’s ride interwoven with the tale of third century martyr, St Agnes. The beautiful Agnes was forced to walk naked through the town as a punishment for refusing to give up her faith. Agnes’s hair miraculously grew long enough to cover her, and such a bright angelic light surrounded her that no man could see her.
Godiva’s story has come down to us through the ages in a mix of fact, folk-lore and legend. Some call her a goddess, some call her a saint. All we know for certain is that her extraordinary story continues to catch us in the net of her long, golden hair.
About the book, Naked: a Novel of Lady Godiva
Publication Date: July 14, 2015
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Formats: Ebook, Paperback
Genre: Historical Fiction
We know her name. We know of her naked ride. We don’t know her true story.
We all know the legend of Lady Godiva, who famously rode naked through the streets of Coventry, covered only by her long, flowing hair. So the story goes, she begged her husband Lord Leofric of Mercia to lift a high tax on her people, who would starve if forced to pay. Lord Leofric demanded a forfeit: that Godiva ride naked on horseback through the town. There are various endings to Godiva’s ride, that all the people of Coventry closed their doors and refused to look upon their liege lady (except for ‘peeping Tom’) and that her husband, in remorse, lifted the tax.
Naked is an original version of Godiva’s tale with a twist that may be closer to the truth: by the end of his life Leofric had fallen deeply in love with Lady Godiva. A tale of legendary courage and extraordinary passion, Naked brings an epic story new voice.
Buy, read, and discuss Naked: a Novel of Lady Godiva
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About the author, Eliza Redgold
ELIZA REDGOLD is based upon the old, Gaelic meaning of her name, Dr Elizabeth Reid Boyd. English folklore has it that if you help a fairy, you will be rewarded with red gold. She has presented academic papers on women and romance and is a contributor to the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Romance Fiction. As a non-fiction author she is co-author of Body Talk: a Power Guide for Girls and Stay-at-Home Mothers: Dialogues and Debates. She was born in Irvine, Scotland on Marymass Day and currently lives in Australia.
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