The Catholic church designated October 21st as the feast day of a young girl named after a goddess and a bear and who was surrounded by a legend of no small proportions.
A teenage Cornwall princess betrothed to a guy in Brittany, she begged not to be married until she’d traveled Europe. Ursula convinced her father to let her travel with her friends for three years. So she picked up, not her backpack and a Eurail Pass, but 11,000 of her girlfriends--her handmaidens--and took off. Eleven Thousand??? That’s four big cruise ships full. In the fourth century? Come on!
As the story goes, a storm blew her into the Rhine River and down to Cologne (filled with bad guys called Huns). She refused to marry their chief, was shot with a bow, and all her virgin army were beheaded. A bloody mess, but not the first or, unfortunately, the last time a woman dies trying to get away from a man wielding a weapon over "lost love."
Like most legends, this one may have been founded on a scrap of historical truth. Thousands of women were, at one time, sent from England to Brittany to help populate their newly conquered territory. But Ursula's story took more of its shape from the Moon Goddess surrounded by thousands of her stars.
Someone posted her story on the blog of that day--a wall inscription on a church in Cologne where some young girls had been killed. Two. Five. Eight. Eleven. The number varies. Like most urban legends and internet stories, the inscription was interpreted in many ways. One account says the girl was named Ursula and she was eleven years old. Another called her Undecimilla. You know how confusing those Roman numerals can be. A monk later translated that as 11,000.
But the exact details don't really matter. The point was women were killed and the goddess Artemis whose temple that had been when people called her Ursel, was replaced by a cathedral hosting thousands of bone relics--dug up from a local burial ground. The little bear rounded the bend.
In Thom Hartmann's new book, Threshold, he points out four of our big mistakes. One of them is "the belief that men should run the world and women are their property."
Ursula's story continues to be played out. She is raped in Darfur. Burned in rural India where it's less trouble than divorce. Murdered if she "dishonors" the male members of family. Beaten, stabbed, shot by men she trusts.
The mystic Elisabeth of Schönau saw Ursula and the girls in a vision she wrote about in Revelations Concerning the Sacred Army of Virgins of Cologne. It was followed by another 13th century collection called The Golden Legend, and then in the 15th century, my favorite: Legends of Hooly Wummen.
Various sailors, no doubt heated by the thought of all those lonely virgins, named far-away places after them. Christopher Columbus happened upon a lot of islands in the Caribbean and called them The Virgin Islands. Ferdinand Magellan, sailing through "his strait" on October 21, 1521, named the cape, Cape Virgenes.
And, of course, in the 12th century, Hildegard of Bingen who kept many of Her stories alive, wrote The Symphonia--a liturgical cycle of 77 poems with monophonic music for her nuns to sing. Unlike Elisabeth who got her visions in dreams, Hildegard claimed she was wide awake. "The words in this vision are not like words uttered by the mouth of man, but like a shimmering flame, or a cloud floating in a clear sky."
A dripping honeycomb was the virgin Ursula, who longed to embrace the lamb of God, milk and honey under her tongue; because like a fruit-laden garden and splendor of flowers, she gathered a throng of virgins about her...
And...Blood's crimson Flowing from a height Touched by God.You are a blossom which the winter of the serpent's breath did not harm.
I like to think Hildegard’s songs for Ursula are for all young women everywhere, from every time, who are abused, beaten, bruised, killed, or who die from unwanted pregnancies in childbirth—just because they are female.
In 1506 a brave women named Angela Merici gathered 28
women around her (for those of us intrigued by numbers, that’s the number of
the moon—days of a woman’s cycle) and said: "Let’s teach young girls." It took forty years for the church
fathers to sanction what they were doing, but finally The Ursalines became the
teaching nuns. Those She-Bears
made and still make a difference.
More and more people are catching on to the fact that when young girls are educated, families become empowered. And whole nations benefit.