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Godiva: the first superheroine

By Elizabeth Reid Boyd - posted Friday, 8 September 2017


Secret Super-Powers

So the Powers, who wait
on noble deeds …

~ Tennyson: Godiva (1842)

It was in the Middle Ages, during the time of courtly love, romance and chivalry, that Godiva's story became legend. The romancing of the Godiva story was part of what Robert Graves referred to as the medieval Godiva 'cult'. According to Graves, Godiva reflected more than a woman or a saint – she was a medieval manifestation of the pagan Goddess, re – or rather, unclad.

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Here is Godiva's secret super-connection. Do you remember where Wonder Woman came from? In the TV series and comic books, she hails from Paradise Island. Located in an unspecified time and place, the all-woman Paradise Island is inhabited by ageless Amazons, who are as strong and powerful as they are beautiful. The Princess Diana, heiress to the Queen Hippolyta of the Amazons, wins the island 'Olympic Games' to have the chance to visit earth and become Diana Prince. When danger or injustice threatens, Diana releases her super powers. In a swirl she becomes Wonder Woman, with magical skills of strength, protection and insight, provided by her golden belt, bullet-deflecting bracelets and golden lasso. In the original TV transformation sequence, the camera focuses on Diana Prince's hair falling loose as she transitions to Wonder Woman.

Similar mythology swirls around Godiva. Godiva's 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 it was at a man's peril to witness the woodland bathing of the goddess of the hunt, Diana. Godiva's ride may well have descended from one of these parades, and Tom's punishment for peeping at her too.

 

In another old 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 nor 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 renditions of this love chase Godiva is accompanied by a hare – connecting her to the Celtic goddess of Spring, Eostre. She also closely resembles another spring goddess who took a May-Day procession to summon the new season. Her name? The goddess Goda.

Like many pagan myths, such stories were absorbed into Christianity. Just like superheroes Wonder Woman (Diana Prince), Superman (Clark Kent) and Batman (Bruce Wayne) Godiva's true identity acquired an earthly counterpart. As her story gained vogue in the Middle Ages Goda's tale became intertwined with the real and genuinely philanthropic Countess Godgyfu and the old pagan love-chase became a Christian procession celebrating her piety.

Godiva's story also became linked to St Agnes, the third century virgin martyr. In The Golden Legend compiled by Jacobus de Voragine in the 13th century, 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. The story of St Agnes and Godiva are clearly of the same supernatural family.

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In the DC comics, Godiva (pictured above) is portrayed as "the premiere heroine from England". With the pseudonym Dora/Dorcas Leigh, she is "a stunningly beautiful woman who has meta-human hair capable of changing its shape to become wings so she can fly or become transparent to conceal herself" (source Comic Vine).

Caped Crusader

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Dr Elizabeth Reid Boyd is an academic in the School of Arts and Humanities at Edith Cowan University. In her academic work she has researched Lady Godiva in popular culture. She writes historical fiction and romances as Eliza Redgold, based upon the Gaelic meaning of her name. Eliza Redgold's NAKED: A Novel of Lady Godiva was published in 2015 by St Martin's Press, New York.



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About the Author

Dr Elizabeth Reid Boyd is a writer and academic based in the School of Psychology and Social Science at Edith Cowan University. She teaches in Western Australia and Singapore. She is co-author of Body Talk: A Power Guide for Girls and writes for a range of newspapers, magazines and journals.

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