“The word ladleda seems to be a title: it has been assumed that it is a Latin rendering of the Celtic word Veleta, “prophetess”, but there is a problem – she was not living in a region where Celtic languages were spoken. Perhaps West-Germanic waldon, “to have power”, is a better parallel.”
Perhaps. Or perhaps not.
On Veleda – In Summary
Who is this Veleda, the Germanic prophetess?
In the first century of our era, Veleda of the Bructeri tribe lived in a tower near the Lupia (Lippe) River. She was a sort of a witch perhaps or at least a well-known and respected local. She was supposed to have been a virgin.
Her first mention is when she is described as a mediator between the Tencteri tribe and the local Roman colony. In this role apparently, no one was allowed in her presence.
The parties showed up and handed her messages to her through an interpreter at which point (presumably after some deliberations) she made her decisions.
Later in life about A.D. 69/70, she was somehow involved in the Batavian rebellion against the Romans. This rebellion was later joined by the Treviri. The rebels did quite well initially and even captured a Roman garrison commander (Munius Lupercus) who was sent to Veleda as a prize (though was, apparently, disposed off on the way there). The rebels also captured a Roman boat (a trireme) which was promptly sent as a present to Veleda (here we may remember the mention of boats in the alleged cult of Isis as relayed by Tacitus in Germania; or it may be that the girl simply took a liking to boats).
However, all good things come to an end when it comes to the early Roman Empire and the Batavian revolt was over as quickly as it began.
It seems that the sorceress Veleda initially unharmed and lived for a number of years in her tower. Later, however, she was captured or perhaps taken as a hostage by the Romans (by Rutilius Gallicus) in A.D. 77 (this we know from Statius – see below). Her powers are mocked in an inscription found south of Rome where she may have passed the remainder of her life.
Here is a list of sources for her existence – the name appears in Tacitus variously as either veleda or velaeda [!]. For simplicity we go with Veleda in the below.
Statius who appears to have been a descendant of one of the Greek colonies in Italy also writes (when in Greek) οὐλήδαν or βελήδαν. In Latin he writes Veledae. An inscription in Ardeantes uses βεληδαν.
Others writing in Latin use Veleda.
So here we go. We list the source in order that they present the information and not in the chronological order but the time ordering should be straightforward.
“More than this, they believe that there resides in women something holy and prophetic, and so do not scorn their advice or disregard their replies. In the reign of the deified Vespasian we saw [vidimus, as in despite her hiding – see below] Veleda, long honoured by many as a divinity, whilst even earlier they showed a similar reverence for Aurinia and others, a reverence untouched by flattery or any pretense of turning women into goddesses. [but see below]”
Book IV 61
“When Civilis first took up arms against Rome he made a vow, such as is common with barbarians, to let his ruddled hair grow wild; now that he had at last accomplished the destruction of the legions he had it cut. It is said also that he put up some of the prisoners for his little son to shoot in sport with javelins and arrows. However that may be, he did not himself swear allegiance to all Gaul, nor did he force any of the Batavi to do so. He felt that he could rely on the strength of the Germans, and that if any quarrel arose with the Gauls about the empire, his fame would give him an advantage. Munius Lupercus, one of the Roman commanding-officers, was sent among other presents to Veleda, a virgin of the Bructeran tribe who wielded a wide-spread authority. It is an ancient custom in Germany to credit a number of women with prophetic powers, and with the growth of superstition these develop into goddesses. At this moment Veleda’s influence was at its height, for she had prophesied the success of the Germans and the destruction of the Roman army. However, Lupercus was killed on the journey. A few of the centurions and officers who had been born in Gaul were detained as a security for good faith. The winter camps of the legions and of the auxiliary infantry and cavalry were all dismantled and burnt, with the sole exception of those at Mainz and Vindonissa.”
Book IV 65
(this is about the Tencteri arbitration which came before the Batavian uprising)
“The townspeople took time to consider these proposals, and, feeling that their apprehensions for the future forbade them to assent, while their present circumstances forbade them to return a plain negative, they answered as follows: ‘We have seized our first opportunity of freedom with more haste than prudence, because we wanted to join hands with you and all our other German kinsmen. As for our town-walls, seeing that the Roman armies are massing at this moment, it would be safer for us to heighten them than to pull them down. All the foreigners from Italy or the provinces who lived on our soil have either perished in the war or fled to their own homes. As for the original settlers, who are united to us by ties of marriage, they and their offspring regard this as their home, and we do not think you are so unreasonable as to ask us to kill our parents and brothers and children. All taxes and commercial restrictions we remit. We grant you free entry without supervision, but you must come in daylight and unarmed, while these ties which are still strange and new are growing into a long-established custom. As arbitrators we will appoint Civilis and Veleda, and we will ratify our compact in their presence.”
“Thus the Tencteri were pacified. A deputation was sent with presents to Civilis and Veleda, and obtained all that the people of Cologne desired. They were not, however, allowed to approach and speak to Veleda or even to see her, but were kept at a distance to inspire in them the greater awe. She herself lived at the top of a high tower, and one of her relatives was appointed to carry all the questions and answers like a mediator between God and man.”
Book V 22
“Awakened by their wounds the Romans hunted for weapons and rushed along the streets, some few in uniform, most of them with their clothes wrapped round their arms and a drawn sword in their hand. The general, who was half-asleep and almost naked, was only saved by the enemy’s mistake. His flag-ship being easily distinguishable, they carried it off, thinking he was there. But Cerialis had been spending the night elsewhere; as most people believed, carrying on an intrigue with a Ubian woman named Claudia Sacrata. The sentries sheltered their guilt under the general’s disgrace, pretending that they had orders to keep quiet and not disturb him: so they had dispensed with the bugle-call and the challenge on rounds, and dropped off to sleep themselves. In full daylight the enemy sailed off with their captive vessels and towed the flag-ship up the Luppia [Lippe] as an offering to Veleda.”
Book V 24
“Civilis afterwards claimed that at this point the Germans could have crushed the Roman legions and wanted to do so, but that he had cunningly dissuaded them. Nor does this seem far from true, since his surrender followed in a few days’ time. Cerialis had been sending secret messages, promising the Batavians peace and Civilis pardon, urging Veleda and her relatives to change the fortune of a war that had only brought disaster after disaster, by doing a timely service to Rome. ‘The Treviri,’ he reminded them, ‘had been slaughtered; the allegiance of the Ubii recovered; the Batavians robbed of their home. By supporting Civilis they had gained nothing but bloodshed, banishment, and bereavement. He was a fugitive exile, a burden to those who harboured him. Besides, they had earned blame enough by crossing the Rhine so often: if they took any further steps,—from the one side they might expect insult and injury, from the other vengeance and the wrath of heaven.”
Cassius Dio History of Rome
Book V (67,5,3)
“In Moesia, the Lygians [Lugi], who had been at war with some of the Suebi, sent envoys, asking Domitian for an alliance. They obtained one that was strong, not in numbers, but in dignity: in other words, they were granted only a hundred knights. The Suebi, indignant at this, added to their contingent the Iazygae and began to prepare well in advance to cross the Ister.”
“Masyus, king of the Semnones, and Ganna, a virgin (she was priestess in Celtica after Veleda), came to Domitian and having been honored by him returned.”
Publius Papinius Statius
Silvae Book I, Chapter 4, line 90
IV. SOTERIA RVTILII GALLICI
(To Rutilius Gallicus on his recovery from illness)
“non vacat Arctoas acies Rhenumque rebellem
captivaeque preces Veledae et, quae maxima nuper
gloria, depositam Dacis pereuntibus Vrbem
pandere, cum tanti lectus rectoris habenas,
Gallice, Fortuna non admirante subisti.”
“Time’s too short to tell of armies in the north, of rebel Rhine, Veleda’s prayers, and greatest and most recent Of glories, Rome placed in Gallicus’s care as Dacians Died, he being chosen, no stranger to good Fortune”
Second Century Inscription [in Greek]
From the town of Ardea south of Rome
“Βεληδαν … μακρῆς περὶ παρθέν […] ἣν οἳ Ῥηνοπόται σέβουσιν”
“Veleda … of/about the long-time [or tall/arrogant?] virgin (…), who is worshipped by those who drink the Rhine’s waters”
The name Veleda is supposed to have been derived from Gallic *veled– or Irish fillid (seer, i.e., to see > seer; and the latter perhaps a poet/singer). The “Old Celtic” root *wid meaning “to know, see,” has also been brought to bear on the topic.
One might point out that today’s, e.g. Irish has a fheiceáil for “to see” whereas Slavic has videt (see, no pun intended, Svante-vit) (see also Latin, videre but Italian vedere) but hey who cares about such details.
We should note that before even the recent (rather sensationalistic or, if you will, nonsensical) “A Most Dangerous Book” bashing Tacitus’ Germania, Leo Wiener already in the days prior to World War II tried to deflate the Teutonic spirit by arguing that Germania was a forgery. We will not get into that discussion which is (probably) meritless (but his book is fascinating!) but will note that he derived Veleda from the Arabic “Validah” meaning a “young woman.”
Why Arabic? Because Wiener thought that the writer basically stole the story from the Bible with the Biblical Deborah as his model.
[West] Germanic Veleda
As noted above, the West-Germanic waldon, “to have power”, has also been proposed. That may make some sense.
Or not. It would make less sense if something much closer could be brought to bear on these questions.
- Would her name, perhaps, be explained (just as easily as the Germanic Wald) with the Slavic Vlada/Vuada (as in “ruler”), e.g., as in Vuadi-suava (or, if you will, vwah-di-SWAH-vah), that is, as per the correct spelling, Władislawa? (and don’t get us started on compound names – but see Ermengo-Suaba…)
But isn’t the name more Celtic? What other Slavic names sound this way?
- Well, there were the Veleti who, as per Masudi, were the “original” Slavs? Were they perhaps the people of Veleda (if not this one then some other one)? After all, isn’t it strange that the Veltae appear on the coast of the Baltic (where the Slavic Veleti are in historic times) in the Geography of Ptolemy at least 350 years before any Slavs are thought to have lived in the area?
“Back from the Ocean, near the Venedicus bay, the Veltae dwell, above whom are the Ossi” (Ptolemy)
“They were once united under a king named Makha, who was from a group of them called Walitaba.” (Ibrahim ibn Ya’qub al-Israili)
“Among the different peoples who make up this pagan race, there is one that in ancient times held sovereign power. Their king was called Majik and they themselves were known as Walitaba” (Masudi)
- Did we mention that Veleda’s tower stood over some river? Yes, yes we did (see above). What river was that? Oh, yes, the Lippe, of course. We have something about that here.
- And what about the Polish (but also maybe Czech and other Slavic) Goddess Lada? See here on references to the Goddess Lada: part I, part II and part III? Ok but Veleda was not a goddess, she was a seer perhaps but not a goddess. What’s that you say Cornelius Tacitus?
“In the reign of the deified Vespasian we saw Veleda, long honoured by many as a divinity, whilst even earlier they showed a similar reverence for Aurinia and others, a reverence untouched by flattery or any pretense of turning women into goddesses.“
- After all, didn’t the Suevi worship Isis as per Tacitus? Would that have made Ve-lada into a gardzyna of Ysaya/Yesse?
- And what of these boats that Velada was so fond of? What does Tacitus say again?
“Some of the Suebi sacrifice also to Isis. I cannot determine the reason and origin of this foreign cult, but her emblem, fashioned in the form of a Liburnian ship, proves that her worship came in from abroad.“
- Does Masyus King of Semnones sound like Makha or Majik? Maybe not…
- And then, of course, there is the Polish Wanda – but that really is a story for another day.