Dark Moons, like wombs, stir creation.
She was a singer, a dancer, an ex-patriot American, a member of the French Resistance, a Civil Rights activist, a four time divorcee and the mother of twelve adopted children. Her performances on the stages of New York and Paris were legendary. Today we celebrate the life of the fabulous Josephine Baker!
Her birth name was Freda Josephine McDonald. She was born on June 3, 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri.
Her mother, Carrie McDonald, once had dreams of becoming a dancer, but gave them up and earned her living as a laundress. Her father is listed as Eddie Carson, a vaudeville drummer. (Her father’s identity, however, has been challenged by many, including Josephine’s son, who did extensive research on the topic.) If indeed Eddie was her father, he abandoned her so quickly that Josephine never met him.
Carrie McDonald eventually married a man named Arthur Martin, with whom she had several more children. The family were poor — so poor that Josephine was sent out to work as a maid when she was just eight years old. But housekeeping did not suit Josephine, and she was abused by her employers. Soon she was living on the streets of St. Louis, dancing on corners for money, and dumpster diving for her dinner. Reportedly, she and her mother had a strained relationship and Josephine preferred to live away from Carrie.
At the tender age of thirteen, Josephine met a man named Willie Wells and married him. The marriage only lasted a few months. Josephine left Willie but continued dancing and had some success as a member of a troupe called The Jones Family. In 1921, at age fifteen she met another Willie — Baker this time — and married him. That marriage was also short lived. Later that year, when Josephine was given a chance to perform in New York City, she ditched Willie # 2. Josephine would legally divorce him in 1925, but she decided to keep his name for her professional career.
Angel of Harlem
The Harlem Renaissance was in full bloom. Josephine had success as a chorus girl on Broadway. She starred in a revue called “Shuffle Along” and in another called “Chocolate Dandies”. (Yes, you read that right.)
Despite those rather exploitative names, Josephine became the highest paid chorus girl in vaudeville. But she was unhappy. The claws of racism were always around her. Of her time in the Big Apple, Josephine said:
“I didn’t get my first break on Broadway. I was only in the chorus in ‘Shuffle Along’ and ‘Chocolate Dandies’. I became famous first in France in the twenties. I just couldn’t stand America and I was one of the first colored Americans to move to Paris.”
Viva La France
In 1925, when she was just nineteen years old, Josephine was given the opportunity to travel to France and she jumped at it. In Paris she opened in a show called “La Revue Nègre”. (Yes you read that right.)
Josephine was an overnight sensation. Her dancing was erotic and exotic. She famously wore a skirt made only of bananas. She wore little else on stage, often appearing semi nude.
As Josephine’s success grew, she eventually purchased a pet cheetah, which she brought to the shows! She named her big cat “Chiquita” and clothed him in a diamond collar. Chiquita was known to hang out in the orchestra pit and terrorize the musicians.
Although “Chiquita Bananas” do not admit to it, I am pretty sure they got their logo from Josephine. The Chiquita logo was not created until 1944, supposedly the brainchild of comic strip artist Dik Brown. But take a look. The logo has Josephine all over it.
Josephine quickly became the darling of the “Lost Generation”, hobnobbing with the likes of Ernest Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds. Hemingway called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.” She was a favorite of Pablo Picasso, who sketched her, and director Jean Cocteau helped her get started in the movie business. She starred in Siren of the Tropics (1927), Zouzou (1934) Princesse Tam Tam (1935) and Fausse Alerte (1940).
In 1937, at age thirty-one, Josephine married the French industrialist Jean Lion, and became a French citizen. This marriage would last three years.
Ah, Paris in the thirties! It was all so idyllic and romantic! Then the Nazis came.
“All the Boys Think She’s a Spy…”
France declared war on Germany in 1939, after the Nazi occupation of Poland. Josephine was then recruited by the military intelligence agency known as the Deuxième Bureau. Her job was to socialize at parties, which were held in embassies and government ministries, all the while gleaning information about German troop locations. Apparently, her charm, wit and “je ne sais quoi” were perfect elements that enabled her to rub elbows with high ranking officials. She would then report back her findings.
This whole scenario begs the question, why Josephine? It seems a little odd. Can you picture undercover agents at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, recruiting a half naked banana girl? But this was years later. Josephine had matured. America had not yet joined the war. Maybe the French military intelligence figured a black American ex-patriot could sneak around, without raising suspicion. Plus, Josephine had acquired a lot of street smarts from her hard scrabble days in St Louis. She was, no doubt, able to bluff the best of them. She also had to be super smart, and a master of disguise,
Josephine performed her services well. When the Germans invaded France, she left Paris and went to her home in the south of France. There, she housed people who were helping the exiled French government, and supplied them with visas. As an entertainer, she had an excuse for moving around Europe. She secured and transmitted information about airfields, harbors, and German troop concentrations in the West of France. She kept her notes written in invisible ink on her sheet music!
How’s that for some cloak and dagger genius?
After the war, Josephine received several medals of honor for her service. She was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur (the highest order of military merit) by General Charles de Gaulle.
Know Your Rights
In 1947 Josephine married the French conductor Jo Bouillon.
This marriage would last fourteen years. Jo happened to be white (as was her other husband Jean Lion.)
Throughout her life Josephine had been a victim of racism and was an advocate for human rights. In the 1950’s, although still living in France, she was an important part of the American Civil Rights Movement. When she and Jo traveled to New York they were refused accommodations at 36 hotels because of racial discrimination. (Inter-racial marriage was then illegal in the US.)
Josephine began to write articles about segregation in the United States. She gave a talk at Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee, on “France, North Africa And The Equality Of The Races In France”.
Throughout her career, Josephine had refused to perform for segregated audiences. In the US, she refused a $10,000 offer to perform at a segregated club in Miami. (Roughly about $150,000 in today’s money.) The club eventually succumbed to Josephine’s wishes, allowing people of all races to enter.
Josephine spoke alongside Dr. Martin Luther King in the 1964 March on Washington for Civil Rights. Josephine, along with Rosa Parks, was one of the few female speakers. It is a powerful speech, and one that is seldom mentioned. Josephine states:
“I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad. And when I get mad, you know that I open my big mouth. And then look out, ’cause when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world.”
Listen to the whole speech here. (About 3 minutes.)
She’s A Rainbow
Josephine had suffered several miscarriages in her life, finally undergoing a hysterectomy in 1941. While married to Jo Bouillon, adoption became her passion. Josephine wanted to create a family of children based on how she thought the world was supposed to be. This meant people of all races, religions and nationalities living peacefully side by side. She set about creating this family, adopting children from all corners of the planet. She called her children “The Rainbow Tribe”.
Josephine took the children on trips all over the world, but mostly they lived at her home in the south of France, the Château des Milandes.
Josephine actually opened the chateau to tourists so people could come in and see kids of all races playing and interacting. She even deliberately raised the children in different religions.
The children were: French-born Marianne, Moroccan-born Stellina, Korean-born Jeannot, Japanese-born Akio, Colombian-born Luis, Finnish-born Jari, French-born Jean-Claude and Noël, Israeli-born Moïse, Algerian-born Brahim, Ivorian-born Koffi, and Venezuelan-born Mara.
Wow! And you thought Angelina Jolie was eccentric?
Unfortunately, all these adoptions took a toll on her husband Jo. They separated in 1957, after Josephine took in her eleventh child. They officially divorced in 1961.
The Show Must Go On
Josephine began performing again in 1968 at age sixty-two. She still wowed audiences, touring throughout Europe. Her last performance was on April 8, 1975. She was starring in a retrospective revue at the Bobino in Paris, celebrating her 50 years in show business.
The show received rave reviews. As usual, Josephine attracted top celebrities. Members of her audience included Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross, and Liza Minnelli.
Sadly, the review was cut short. On April 12, Josephine suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and went into a coma. She was taken to Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, where she died, at age 68.
Happy Birthday Josephine! You will never be forgotten.
April 20 through May 20 marks the astrological sun sign of Taurus.
I have always loved Taurus. Represented by the bull, individuals born under this sign bring in the best of both worlds. They have a powerful (and stubborn!) earth sign ruled by the beautiful and feminine planet Venus. These people are go-getters, manifesters, and serious goal setters. But they do it all with such a lovely artistic flair you will scarcely notice how driven they actually are.
Prone to sensual pleasures, they are experts in culinary delights. Some of the best chefs are Taureans. They are great artists, animal lovers and fashion trend setters. They often have musical ability. Taureans are great with designs, decorating and fabrics.
They are also sexy! Although Scorpio (the polar opposite, or inverted Taurus) usually gets credit for being the “most sexual” of all the signs, it is the horned men and women who really stand out in compelling ways. The bull is a spellbinding presence, full of quiet charisma and unusual traits.
If you don’t believe me, take a look at a few famous Taureans.
Michelle Pfeiffer, born April 29, 1958.
She was Madame Marie de Tourvel of Dangerous Liaisons. Also Catwoman, among other things. She claimed playing the cat was natural for her, as she was very athletic.
Film Critic Roger Ebert said of her: “She is not just a beautiful woman, but an actress with the ability to make you care about her, to make you feel what she feels.”
In her film The Fabulous Baker Boys, Michelle performed the song “Makin’ Whoopie” while strewn on top of a piano. Ebert said of it: “Whatever she’s doing while she performs that song isn’t merely singing; it’s whatever Rita Hayworth did in Gilda and Marilyn Monroe did in Some Like It Hot, and I didn’t want her to stop.”
Audrey Hepburn, born May 4, 1929.
Audiences fell in love with her sweet, unassuming presence and her sense of style. To this day she is a fashion icon. She is best known for her performance as the street wise but vulnerable Holly Golighty in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
She sang and played a ukulele too!
Jessica Lange, born April 29, 1949.
This Minnesota native has been wowing audiences ever since King Kong swept her off her feet in 1976. She received two Academy Awards and several Emmys. Her roles include Frances Farmer, Blanche DuBois and Joan Crawford. Most recently she played several notorious femme fatales on the series American Horror Story, including a psychotic nun, a freak show emcee and a New Orleans witch.
Elusive and wispy, yet strong, Jessica seems forever young.
Henry Cavill, born May 5, 1983.
He was the Man of Steel, the Man From U.N.C.L.E, and King Henry VIII’s bestie, Charles Brandon. Entertainment Weekly named him the “Most Dashing Duke” and praised his work on The Tudors for displaying “charm, depth and a killer bod”. In December 2013, Cavill was named “World’s Sexiest Man” by British Glamour magazine. The same year, Empire magazine placed him third on their list of “The 100 Sexiest Movie Stars 2013”.
I can see why.
Jack Nicholson, born April 22, 1937.
He played a werewolf, a Joker, a madman, a serial killer and a concert pianist. No one can deny the sinister power of Jack “you can’t handle the truth” Nicholson. He is the recipient of several awards including Academy, Grammy and Golden Globe. He has had one marriage, several affairs, and five children.
Film critic David Thompson said of him: “Nicholson is the Hollywood celebrity who is almost like a character in some ongoing novel of our times. He is also the most beloved of stars—not even his huge wealth, his reckless aging, and the public disasters of his private life can detract from this … For he is still a touchstone, someone we value for the way he helps us see ourselves.”
But remember when he asked the waitress to hold the chicken? And he clarified, “I want you to hold it between your knees.” She threw him out of the restaurant.
Cher, born May 20, 1946.
She was once half of Sonny and Cher, but she quickly surpassed Sonny and carved a solo career for herself. She is a singer, an Academy Award winning actress and of course — a fashion icon! Cher is quick witted, multidimensional, and a beautiful chameleon.
And don’t forget, she basically put dress designer Bob Mackie on the map.
James MacAvoy, born April 21, 1979.
This Scottish lad first captured hearts as the faun known as Mr. Tumnus, in The Chronicles of Narnia. Before fame and fortune came his way, he considered becoming a priest and worked in a Glasgow bakery. With a brogue to die for and his intense blue eyes, he quickly caught the attention of critics. James starred in several movies including The Last King of Scotland, Atonement and Macbeth. He has won several prestigious awards including a Golden Globe.
But I like James best as Mr. Tumnus. The horns are a natural.
William Shakespeare, born April 23, 1564.
In addition to being a great writer, the Bard must have been a pretty great lover as well. At the tender age of 17 he impregnated 26 year old Anne Hathaway. He married her and fathered two more children before making his way to London where he wrote and acted in plays.
Some historians believe he had numerous affairs with numerous people, including the elusive “dark lady” and “fair youth” of his sonnets. The Dark Lady (who may or may not have been Venetian poet Emilia Bassano) is portrayed as an older and temperamental woman.
The Fair Youth (who may or may not have been Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton) is portrayed as a handsome younger man.
No one will ever know the truth. But the Bard had an intimate knowledge of human relationships, a penchant for crossdressers, and a real knack for tales of forbidden love.
Fred Astaire, born May 10, 1899.
He was possibly the most influential dancer in history. Astaire had a career in Broadway, television and the Silver Screen that spanned over 70 years. Michael Jackson claimed to emulate him and copied several of his dance steps, including the flexibility that led to the “Moon Walk”. He is best known for his partnership with fellow dancer Ginger Rogers and movies they made in the 1930’s and 40’s.
What is sexier than knowing all the right moves? And Fred could really pull off a top hat!
Bettie Page, born April 22, 1923.
A native of Nashville, Tennessee, Bettie was an actress, model and Playboy centerfold. She gained a significant profile in the 1950s for her pin-up photos which often portrayed BDSM. (Bettie claimed she had to pose for at least one hour of BDSM or the photographer would not pay her.) Paradoxically, she was also an evangelical Christian, and worked for the Reverend Billy Graham.
Historians say she was best known for her bangs and vivid blue eyes. (I suspect folks were looking at other things as well…)
Apparently, Bettie played the ukulele too!
Tonight, April 22, at approximately 10 pm Eastern Standard Time, the new moon will enter Taurus. Any new moon is a good time to set intentions, but this particular new moon is rife with meaning.
In the northern hemisphere we are celebrating spring and it is a great time for planting. In the southern hemisphere they are celebrating the autumn harvest. Whether we are planting or harvesting, it is a day closely related to the Earth. April 22nd is also International Earth Day. With Taurus as an Earth sign, we should set intentions for manifesting things to benefit the Earth.
The past few weeks have been stressful for all of us. The Covid virus has brought our planet to her knees. We have been locked up, hospitalized, laid off from our jobs, quarantined and kept from our loved ones. Many have suffered illness and even death. It is an unprecedented tragedy in human history.
But somethings gotta give. And soon.
Regardless of where anyone stands politically on the matters, we can all agree on one thing. We want the Earth and her people to be happy, healthy and prosperous.
Let’s set that intention today! Imagine how powerful it will be if we all do it.
Have a blessed New Moon Day. And Happy Birthday to Taureans everywhere!
Though times of isolation may be hard
While shut indoors with loneliness and grief
Let’s take this time to look into our hearts
For life itself is fleeting and so brief.
Please contemplate the blessings that you have
Think Love, dream Love, for all humanity
The glass is full, not empty at its half
We bless our health and our prosperity.
Our love alone will make this virus still
So keep your vision positive and sure
Let’s minimize its damage and its kill
And soon we will reclaim our earth as pure.
She was an author, a philosopher, a makeshift psychoanalyst, a flamenco dancer, an actress and an international woman of mystery. Her love affairs were legendary, and her tell-all erotica is hailed by critics as the finest ever written.
Born To Be Wild
Anais Nin, birth name “Angela Anaïs Juana Antolina Rosa Edelmira Nin y Culmell” (you can see why she shortened it!) was born on this day, February 21, 1903 in Nueilly, France. Her father, Joaquín Nin, was Cuban pianist of Spanish descent, and her mother Rosa Culmell, was a Cuban singer of French and Danish descent. Even at birth she seemed destined for an artistic life which would lead her across continents.
Sadly, her parents separated when Anais was only two years old. Rosa then took Anais and her brothers to Barcelona and later New York City. Anais began high school but dropped out at age sixteen. She then worked as an artists model.
In 1923, she found herself living in Havana, Cuba. It was there she met and married her first husband, Hugh Parker Guiler.
The couple moved to Paris. Hugh was a banker and sometime artist who dabbled in film making. During this time Anais began to pursue her interest in writing. She kept volumes of scandalous diaries which would later be published as part of her erotic collections. Her first published work, however, was a critical evaluation of author D. H. Lawrence called D. H. Lawrence: An Unprofessional Study.
She also studied Flamenco dancing.
The Psyche and The Pen
Anais became interested in psychoanalysis. With the onset of new research and practices, the human mind was now Freud’s territory, ripe for childhood trauma and sexual symbolism. Anais studied with prominent doctors René Allendy and Otto Rank. Both men eventually became her lovers. It was a somewhat “sophisticated” kind of hanky panky, bordering on mentorship (at least according to Nin.) She said of Otto Rank:
“As he talked, I thought of my difficulties with writing, my struggles to articulate feelings not easily expressed. Of my struggles to find a language for intuition, feeling, instincts which are, in themselves, elusive, subtle, and wordless.”
Nin eventually found her voice, later publishing several novels, journals and short stories including Winter of Artifice, A Café in Space, The Anaïs Nin Literary Journal, Delta of Venus, Little Birds and Under a Glass Bell.
“If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it.”
During her years in Paris, Anais led an unconventional lifestyle which was almost systematically removed from her husband Hugh. (Reportedly, Hugh requested that he never be mentioned in any of her published diaries.)
Anais slid into a literary circle which included Henry Miller, John Steinbeck, Antonin Artaud, Gore Vidal, James Agee, and Lawrence Durrell. She had love affairs with some of them. Even steadfast homosexual Gore Vidal was known to write her romantic letters. Most famously, Nin was involved with Henry Miller. She also seems to have fallen in love with Henry’s wife June, an irresistible, cunning and beautiful femme fatale. Their relationship is one of much speculation, and was examined in the 1990 film Henry and June.
Anais was obsessed with June, often using her as an archetype in her fiction. In her diary Henry and June Anais wrote poetically and reverently of her infatuation, even stating, “I have become June.” Although Anais denied having an affair with June, she continuously gave her money, jewelry and clothing, even to the point of leaving her own self broke for June’s benefit.
In the summer of 1939, with the Nazis closing in and the threat of war, Anais and Hugh left Paris and relocated to New York City. There Anais continued her sexual escapades. She reunited with her old psychoanalyst, Otto Rank, and moved into his apartment. (The relationship between Anais and Hugh is unclear at this point. Maybe he realized he simply could not control her, or maybe he no longer cared.)
While living with Otto, Anais actually began to act as a psychoanalyst herself. She “counseled” patients in the room next to Rank’s, and also had sex with them on the psychoanalytic couch!
After several months, even the voracious wildcat Anais could not keep up the pace. She quit, stating: “I found that I wasn’t good because I wasn’t objective. I was haunted by my patients. I wanted to intercede.”
In 1947, while still living in America and still married to Hugh, Anais met the actor Rupert Pole. After a chance encounter in a Manhattan elevator, the two ended up dating and traveled to California together.
Anais was sixteen years older than Pole. On March 17, 1955, even though she was still married to Hugh, Anais married Pole in Quartzsite, Arizona! She then lived with him in Los Angeles.
What was Hugh doing all this time? Well, he either was clueless, or he pretended to be clueless. Biographer Deirdre Bair alleges that Hugh knew everything, but “chose not to know”. Anais referred to her simultaneous marriages as her “bicoastal trapeze”. She wove a wild web around it.
According to Deidre Bair: “Anais would set up these elaborate façades in Los Angeles and in New York, but it became so complicated that she had to create something she called the ‘lie box’. She had this absolutely enormous purse and in the purse she had two sets of checkbooks. One said ‘Anais Guiler’ for New York and another said ‘Anais Pole’ for Los Angeles. She had prescription bottles from California doctors and New York doctors with the two different names. And she had a collection of file cards. And she said, ‘I tell so many lies I have to write them down and keep them in the lie box so I can keep them straight.'”
In 1966, Nin had her marriage with Pole annulled, due to the legal issues arising from both Guiler and Pole trying to claim her as a dependent on their federal tax returns. (Yep. The IRS will get you ever time! 🙂 )
However, Anais continued to live with Pole until her death in 1977.
Believe it or not, love was not lost between Anais and Hugh. Prior to her death, Anais wrote to Hugh asking for his forgiveness. He wrote back that his life had been “more meaningful” because of her.
A Jill of All Trades
In addition to her writing, Anais’ artistic endeavors also included work as an actress. In 1946 she appeared in the Maya Deren film Ritual in Transfigured Time. In 1952 she starred in Bells of Atlantis, a film directed by her husband Hugh under the name “Ian Hugo”. In 1954 she had a role in the Kenneth Anger film Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome.
When the Feminist Movement exploded in the 1960’s, Nin’s writing was examined under a new lens. She became something of a feminist icon. She was a popular lecturer and spoke at various universities. Anais herself, however, refused to be politically active and disassociated herself from Feminism. In 1973 she received an honorary doctorate from the Philadelphia College of Art. She was elected to the United States National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1974, and in 1976 was presented with a Los Angeles Times Woman of the Year award.
She even had a perfume named after her, Anais Anais by Cacherel!
Sadly, Anais was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1974. She died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles on January 14, 1977.
Her body was cremated, and her ashes were scattered over Santa Monica Bay in Mermaid Cove. This brings me to my favorite Nin quote:
Happy Birthday Anais! You were one of a kind.
Ah those Medieval queens! They really had it rough — often serving as pawns in games of marriage, forced to breed like cattle, and fighting endless battles in their quests for a bit of recognition.
Consider Empress Matilda of England. Born on this day, February 7, 1102, Matilda led a chaotic life. But no one could call her irresponsible.
Matilda was part of a powerful blood line, daughter of Henry I of England and granddaughter of William of Normandy — aka “William the Conqueror”.
Almost as soon as she was out of the cradle, Matilda became a vehicle for marriage. She was betrothed at age 8 to Henry V, King of the Romans. Her father considered this an advantageous marriage, as Matilda would be uniting with a prestigious family line. She traveled to Germany where she was put under the custody of Bruno, Archbishop of Trier. Matilda was then educated in German language and customs, and declared Queen of the Romans. At the tender age of 12 she was married.
To make matters even more shocking, Henry was sixteen years older than her. So yes, we are talking about a 12 year old girl married to a 28 year old man.
Apparently, that sort of thing was normal in those days.
By age 14, Matilda was already running her own royal household, dealing with political conflict in Europe, sponsoring royal grants, conducting ceremonies and staking her claim as Empress of the Holy Roman Empire.
Things did not go well for Henry and Matilda. It seems Henry was a bit of a tyrant, constantly jailing his chancellors and subjects. This led to rebellions. Eventually, Pope Paschal II excommunicated Henry from the church of Rome. Henry and Matilda, however, were not so willing to take their punishment. They countered Paschal by marching over the Alps and arriving in Italy with their armies. Paschal ran away. His envoy, Antipope Gregory VIII, now under military pressure, agreed to crown Henry and Matilda at Saint Peter’s Basilica.
Weirdly, although Henry and Matilda were married for eleven years until he died in 1125, they never produced any children. This barren status was bad for Matilda. She was now a widow at age 23. With no offspring, she could never exercise a role as an imperial regent. This left her with two choices; either marry again or become a nun.
Meanwhile, back in England, trouble was brewing.
Matilda’s father Henry I, King of England, had only two legitimate children; Matilda and her brother William. (Ironically, Henry actually fathered 22 illegitimate children! But only William and Matilda had a claim to the throne.)
In 1120, William died in a shipwreck. This left Matilda as the only heir to the crown.
King Henry I still had hopes of bearing another legitimate son. His first wife had died, but he remarried. His plan failed and he sired no more children. Of course, the big dilemma now was finding another husband for Matilda.
Her father decided the best match for her would be Geoffrey of Anjou. This alliance would strengthen relations between England and Normandy. However, there were a few problems. Geoffrey was only 13 years old. Perhaps Matilda, having been exploited herself, was not keen on taking a child husband.
She had little choice in the matter. The couple were married on June 17, 1128. The newlyweds reportedly did not like each other very much. Matilda tried to get out of the union, leaving Normandy a several times. But Geoffrey always managed to force her back. Eventually, despite the fact that they were mismatched, they did have children. Their first son, Henry (yes another Henry!) was born in 1133.
King Henry I reportedly was delighted with his grandson Henry. King Henry I died in 1135. This brought about the precarious question of who would take the throne. Although Matilda should have been the legitimate heir, a man known as Stephen of Blois, Matilda’s cousin, and one of old Henry’s favorite nephews, staked his claim. Henry’s subjects had previously pledged themselves to Matilda, but many reneged on their pledge and followed Stephen. A woman had never ruled England before, and people did not take kindly to the idea. They apparently preferred a British male king to a female ruler with a foreign husband.
Matilda, however, was not willing to give up. She had supporters — including Robert of Gloucester and King David I of Scotland. They attempted to overthrow Stephen with armies from Normandy. So began the 19-year civil war known as The Anarchy.
Between 1138 and 1141, feuds between Matilda and Stephen put the country in chaos. In 1141, Matilda captured and imprisoned her cousin. She then began to make arrangements for her own coronation. However, it seems she still was unpopular with the people. Reportedly, Matilda imposed several taxes and placed sanctions upon her would-be subjects. The people revolted. Growing animosity weakened Matilda’s claims. Then, Stephen’s wife (ironically, also named Matilda!) counter attacked with her own army.
Side note: Yes, I am wondering why they insisted upon naming everyone Matilda and Henry.
To be fair, I assume it had something to do with beliefs in the influence of names. The name Henry actually means “power” or “ruler”. Matilda means “mighty in battle.” Appropriate! 🙂
Queen Matilda (Stephen’s wife) eventually defeated Empress Matilda. Empress Matilda was forced to release her cousin from prison. Stephen was officially crowned King of England in 1141.
Although Empress Matilda attempted more war strategies, setting up forces at Devizes Castle and attempting to oust Stephen for several more years, she was ultimately unsuccessful. She returned to Normandy in 1148. Her husband Geoffrey died in 1151. After Geoffrey’s death, Matilda ruled Anjou. She also set about trying to establish her son Henry as King of England.
Young Henry brought his armies to England with the intention of overthrowing Stephen.
Ironically, Henry somehow became Stephen’s “adopted son” and successor! When Stephen died in 1154, Henry took the throne as King Henry II. Henry married Eleanor of Aquitaine, another powerful Medieval Queen.
Empress Matilda lived to the ripe old age of 65, probably a record for women of her day. She died on September 11, 1167. In yet another sad, ironic twist, her tomb stone only identifies her as “Daughter of King Henry, wife of King Henry and mother of King Henry.” (I guess they leave us to figure it out — Henry I of England, Henry V of Rome and Henry II of England, respectively.)
At any rate, Matilda remains a significant historical figure. Her battle with Stephen had a profound effect on politics of the time. Perhaps Matilda even paved the way for the many powerful queens that were eventually to rule England — Mary, Elizabeth I, Victoria and Elizabeth II.
Happy Birthday Empress Matilda! You put up a good fight.
And so. Another Yuletide ends. But not so fast! Before we take down the mistletoe and finish off the sugar plums, there is one more celebration which should be recognized. This is the legend of Frau Perchta, Witch of Twelfth Night.
Perhaps you have never heard of this obscure character. But if you happened to be living in Bavaria or Austria during the Middle Ages, you might have been quite troubled as the Christmas season came to an end. During this time Frau Perchta would be on the loose, doling out punishments and rewards for the naughty and nice, respectively.
The “official end” of Yuletide in many traditions is January 6th, also known as Twelfth Night or Feast of the Epiphany. It was on this night that Frau Perchta would drop in for a visit. If you had been good over the past year, you would be rewarded with a piece of silver. But if you had been bad – watch out! Frau Perchta was a stern distributor of justice. In fact, she was also called “the belly slitter” because punishment for bad behavior consisted of Frau Perchta cutting open the offender’s stomach, removing the inner organs, and replacing them with straw and pebbles. Ouch!
In Christian traditions, January 6th is Feast of the Epiphany. It commemorates the visit of the Magi to the manger where Christ was born. According to the Bible, three mages from Persia, following a bright star, made their way to Bethlehem to greet and bestow gifts upon the baby Jesus. Webster defines “epiphany” as “an appearance or manifestation especially of a divine being.”
The Twelfth Night is a time of great wonder and revelation. So why all the terror and judgement associated with Perchta? I wondered how Frau Perchta got such a bad rap.
The True Goddess
I did some sleuthing and found out that Perchta has a very interesting story. She wasn’t always an evil witch. In fact, she was at one time a greatly loved Germanic goddess. She is also called Berchta or Bertha. The name Bertha literally means “bright” or “shining one”. In ancient, pre-Christian times, Berchta was a powerful figure, worshiped by both Celtic and Germanic tribes. It was her job to protect babies, women and children. She was associated with birch trees (in Old High German birch is birka which also means “bright”.) She was a protector of forests and wildlife. She was also a “psychopomp” – that is, a spirit who guides the dead into the Afterlife.
Pretty impressive stuff.
Berchta was associated with the cycle of life, death and rebirth. She was depicted as a beautiful woman with long hair. She wore a white gown and was often called the White Woman or the Lady in White. She was considered a triple goddess (perhaps because of her association with life’s cycles) and was able to take on forms of the maiden, mother and crone.
As a guide into the Afterlife, Berchta was a tender and caring figure that helped souls in their transition. There is one tale in which a grieving mother sees an apparition of her recently deceased little son. He is with a group of children along a hillside. The children are following a woman in a white gown. The little boy breaks away to speak to his sorrowful mother. The boy tells his mother not to weep, for he is safe and under the watch of the White Lady.
Berchta also had shapeshifting abilities. She was described as sometimes having the feet of a goose, and she also took on the form of a swan. As the protector of animals, she was called “Guardian of Beasts”.
A Tainted Image
In the later, scary tales of Perchta, she is represented exclusively as a crone – more specifically, a scary old hag. She wears a disheveled dress, has a face made of iron and a nose like a beak.
She carries a knife beneath her cloak (in case she needs to slice open someone’s belly!) And of course, she has those strange looking goose feet.
So how did Berchta become Perchta? How did this benevolent goddess get demonized and transformed into an evil witch? Three words: The Medieval Church.
Christianity became powerful in Bavaria in around the 6th century. The Pagan cults that had evolved around Berchta were pretty strong and set in their ways. Worshippers of Berchta refused to be absorbed into the new Christian traditions. And so, for conversion purposes, the Church resorted to fear.
Her name was changed, among other things. The word “perchten” means scary monsters, so Berchta became “Perchta, leader of the Perchten.” Berchta, the wise white lady, was thereafter known as Perchta, a crooked-nosed, belly-stabbing hag.
As centuries went on, the worshippers of Berchta proved a stubborn lot. They were not willing to give up their goddess. The Church took further action. According to a religious document known as the Thesaurus Pauperum, the cult of Berchta was outlawed in 1468. This document specifically condemned the practice of leaving food and drink offerings for Berchta during the Christmas season.
You might be wondering, as I did, what the heck is a Thesaurus Paupernaum?
Well, it had nothing to do with a thesaurus as we know it. Rather, it was a collection of recipes and natural medicinal cures, presumably for the benefit of poor people (paupers/ paupernaum) who could not afford expensive doctors. Interestingly, this document is cited as containing such information as: medicinal values of precious stones, herbal medicines for childbirth, astrological charts and a table for the uses of precious metals.
Hmmm. Magical crystals, herbal medicines and astrology. Sounds kinda Pagany to me…
The Thesaurus Paupernaum was written by prominent church officials such as Pope John XXI and Saint Albertus Magnus, with contributions from mineralogist George Frederick Kunz. Its recordings span a period of about seven centuries, and it is included in the Library of Congress Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts Collection.
So, for Medieval folks it was a big deal. Something they had to pay attention to.
Yuletide was her special time and Frau Perchta became a figure akin to Krampus, the evil counterpart of Saint Nicholas.
Propaganda and the Burning Times
There were tales of Frau Perchta capturing children and eating them. There were tales of Frau Perchta as the Christmas hag, who would stuff the bad kids into her giant sack. She would visit on Twelfth Night expecting food as an offering, but if she was displeased with what someone left, she would slit the person’s belly open and stuff him or her with garbage. She was also a stickler for clean homes, and the completion of spinning. So if women had neglected their housework or their flax, they could expect the belly slitting as well.
The repression of Berchta and subsequent scary tales of Perchta took place during an interesting period. In Europe, the years between 1450 and 1700 are known as The Burning Times. During these years, Protestant Reformations began, splitting the Christian Church into various factions. Instability caused even more paranoia. It is estimated that around 100,000 men and women were put to death for witchcraft, many of them burned at the stake.
Germany, a major proponent of the Reformations, was one of the worst offenders. Historians report that entire populations of women in towns and villages were sometimes eliminated.
Keeping Berchta Alive
Despite the church’s attempts to get rid of Berchta, she lives on. A Halloween like celebration in which children would dress as demons (Perchten) during Yuletide was observed in some parts of Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries. Some families would prepare a porridge called “Perchtenmilch.” Part of the porridge would be consumed by the family, with a portion set aside as an offering for Perchta and her Perchten.
In the 19th century, even the Brothers Grimm had their say about Perchta. According to Jacob Grimm, who translated texts from Old High German, she was spoken of as Frau Berchta, a white-robed goddess who oversaw spinning and weaving and was sometimes the leader of the Wild Hunt.
By honoring her as a scary witch, we keep the name of Perchta alive. She, along with Krampus and other monsters have enjoyed a rejuvenation in recent years. Some folks prefer a bit of horror in their Christmas.
The goddess Berchta will never be forgotten. Her bright beauty is evident in Yule’s return of the sun, in the new fallen snow, in white swans and in the magnificence of the Alpine Mountains she hails from.
This Twelfth Night, you may want to take some time out to honor Berchta/ Perchta. An altar could include white candles, birch branches, or white feathers. You can meditate on loved ones who have crossed over and ask Berchta for a safe passage. You may want to leave her an offering of cake or porridge. And – it might be wise to keep the house clean – just in case!
Expecting Gatsby, bathtub gin and flappers.
Imagination alone saves us from turmoil.