Godiva: pagan goddess, fashion icon

Supermodel Gisele Bundchen was immortalized in Vanity Fair, in 2000, when she appeared as a naked Lady Godiva, riding a white horse. The fashion shoot is one of many that have been inspired by the English legend. But, this year, Giselle once again stars in another Lady Godiva-esque photo shoot, this time for upscale jewelry designer David Yurman’s 2012 Autumn/Winter collection.

Gisele Bundchen for David Yurman, 2012.

Gisele Bundchen for David Yurman, 2012.

Scantily clad, but with wrists stacked with chunky bracelets, hair flowing, posing alongside a black horse, the image of Gidelle is more than a representation of a late medieval legend. She is, in every respect, portrayed as a Germanic, Cimbri (which were of either Celtic or Germanic origin), or Amazonian warrior. Celtic and Cimbri women are known to have fought as warriors — although men of the tribe went first into battle. They fought against the Romans, and won a reputation for fierceness.

Yet, there is a mysterious quality to the ancient female warriors of Europe, as there is to contemporary fashion shoots inspired by Godiva, with her horse. There is something mythic about them. There is an undercurrent of the esoteric. They are part warrior, part priestess. Part goddess, even.

The most widely known version of the Lady Godiva story is little more than a simple moral tale: Lady Godiva urges her husband, Leofric, to lower the taxes for the townspeople of Coventry. After persistent pleading, the heartless medieval capitalist that thinks more of cash than he does of his marriage, tells Godiva that if she rides naked from one end of the town to the other, he will do as she asks. At which point, Godiva altruistically gets naked, mounts her horse, and rides into town.

The heroine of the story is believed to be based on a woman named Godifu, who lived in Coventry during the eleventh century. However, no one believes that much more than her name is owed to the historic person, and the naked ride is itself not believed to have actually taken place. But, don’t be disappointed. This is where things take a turn into the more esoteric.

Far from originating with a localized, nude, anti-capitalist protest by a kind of proto-Femen founder, Godiva’s ride is probably based on ancient pagan mythology.

Belle Sharmler’s Godiva-inspired ad, Vogue, 1956.

Mythology has long inspired fashion, and so it’s perhaps not surprising that, even in its watered down, anti-capitalist expression, the Godiva myth has also inspired fashion shoots for DesertLiving, ID Magazine, and a Belle-Sharmer Hosiery stockings ad that appeared Vogue in 1956, among other things.

According to British History Online, The Godiva myth may represent the “life and death fertility goddess, perhaps called Cofa, or Freyja or Frija (the Lady) or Goda (the good).” The online encyclopedia suggests that, “A male consort was probably associated with her in myth and ritual and horses and possibly swine sacrificed to her. The cult, which was probably a northern one, basically AngloSaxon but strengthened by a fresh infusion of late paganism at the Danish invasion, probably survived the foundation of St. Osburg’s nunnery in the 10th century and of the Benedictine abbey in 1043, in the form of a spring procession with accompanying orgiastic and sacrificial rites.”

The abbey was probably responsible for transforming the goddess in to Godiva, early descriptions of which describe the latter as being devoted to the “mother of God,” the Virgin Mary — a suitable, Christian equivalent.

Interestingly, during the seventeenth century, the figure of “peeping Tom” appears for the first time, as part of the Godiva legend. In one version, the townspeople were ordered to shut themselves inside, and to refrain from looking upon Godiva as she rode through town. All did so, except for Tom. British History Online tells us:

Model Aline Weber in Godiva fashion shoot for ID Magazine, 2008.

Model Aline Weber in Godiva fashion shoot for ID Magazine, 2008.

Elements in the Godiva legend and other traditions relating to Coventry provide clues as to the nature of the original cult although any reconstruction must, in the absence of positive proof, remain conjectural. The naked woman with long hair, riding in a springtime procession, is the one constant factor in all variations of the legend and represents a goddess of fertility. The tabu element of the Peeping Tom story may be a genuine part of the original myth, recalling similar penalties for those who intruded on the forbidden rites of other fertility goddesses – Artemis in Greece, the Bona Dea in Rome, Nerthus or Hertha in Germany and rainmaking ceremonies in India.

Model Marie Cuttenden in Godiva photo shoot for Desert Living Today.

Model Marie Cuttenden in Godiva photo shoot for Desert Living Today.

It’s interesting to note, though, that in Freemasonry (a semi-mystical society whose ritual and imagery can be traced back to, and even beyond this era) makes much in its symbolism of not allowing “cowans” — i.e., non-Freemasons — of seeing any of its Mysteries or Ritual. The cowan would be called a “Peeping Tom” in the vernacular. If we assume the original was attempting to view an esoteric ritual, which invoked a goddess such as Nerthus, the similarity is striking.

Regardless, whichever deity may have given birth to Lady Godiva, from pagan goddess, to pious English woman, to fashion icon, a strange journey. But — if we regard the contemporary fashion imagery as a representation of the powerful woman, mysterious, and beyond convention — it’s one that seems to have come almost full circle. Archetypal. And, yet, with naked protests for women’s rights by Femen and similar groups, it is an image that is as contemporary as ever.

Angel_headshot_smallAngel Millar is an author, blogger, and the editor of People of Shambhala.

See Also:
Militant feminine: vanguards of style.
Cheekbones: A brief history.
Fashion, Islam, and the politics of identity.